Fu Manchu Interview with Scott Hill: Evolution Machine Never Stops

Long-running SoCal fuzz rockers Fu Manchu have embarked on a cross-country US tour (dates here) to herald the arrival this week of their first new studio album in five years, Gigantoid. Of course, the San Clemente-based four-piece have hardly been idle since 2009′s Signs of Infinite Power, acquiring much of their back catalog and reissuing and touring classic albums like 1997′s The Action is Go and 1996′s In Search Of through their own At the Dojo Records imprint over the last couple years, up to putting out vinyl of a collection of demos for 2001′s California Crossing and pressing their 1994 debut, No One Rides for Free (review here), in limited numbers earlier this year. They’ve never been still for too long, but it was definitely time for a new record.

And Gigantoid delivers in a big way what longtime fans crave from Fu Manchu. The zero-pretense fuzz from guitarists Scott Hill (also vocals) and Bob Balch is dead on and bassist Brad Davis and drummer Scott Reeder hold down fluid grooves whether it’s a punkish rush like “No Warning” or the steady roll of “The Last Question,” the extended sleepy jam that closes out. With production by Moab guitarist/vocalist Andrew Giacumakis (interview here), and partially inspired by their revisiting old material, Fu Manchu present a rawer sound than they have in some time, giving the material a natural feel that highlights the quality of songwriting in cuts like “Anxiety Reducer,” “Invaders on My Back” and “Radio Source Sagittarius” and just what it is about their patterns that makes these pieces so characteristic of the band’s work.

Fu Manchu are not an outfit prone to experimentation, but they’ve consistently grown their style from album to album, and Giacumakis makes a solid match for the production on Gigantoid in conveying the band’s ties to ’80s-era Californian punk and hardcore. Where Signs of Infinite Power and its 2007 predecessor, We Must Obey, seemed to be going for a larger, more encompassing feel, Gigantoid pushes back on that impulse toward largesse and shows a precision strike can have just as much impact on the listener. They are in their element throughout, and what’s more, they sound like they’re having a good time working on their own terms.

That’s the impression Hill gives in conversation as well, and while he hardly complains about working with Century Media the last couple times out, there’s a bit of relief in his voice when discussing being able to set his own timeline for a release and handle the practical ends of making an album available to the public, as much work as it is. They’ve gotten there now. Gigantoid is available and the band is just beginning its touring cycle — a whole different kind of work supporting the album. In the interview that follows, Hill discusses these processes as well as writing these songs, recording them with Giacumakis, handling their own release and their (tentative) plans for future tours and At the Dojo releases and reissues.

Please find the complete Q&A after the jump, and enjoy:

Fu Manchu and Moab had done the Scion show and the split together. How did recording with Andrew come together?

Last year, I think we were going to do our The Action is Go tour, his band Moab was gonna open for us. I’d never heard them before and I finally checked out their record and I was like, “Man, this thing sounds great.” They for whatever reason couldn’t do the tour, but I remember talking to Andrew, who’s the singer/guitar player who recorded their record, and I said, “Hey, your record sounds great, where’d you do it at?” and he said, “I did it myself at my studio here,” and I was like, “Oh, boy, it sounds awesome, man. What do you think about us maybe getting in the studio when we get done with this? Maybe do a couple songs, see how it sounds?” and he was like, “Yeah, sounds cool,” and we went up there to do the Scion split 7” thing, set up, did it in a day, and he recorded and mixed and we were like, “Man, that sounds awesome.” So we were like, “We’re getting ready to record a new record, would you do it here?” and he was like, “Yeah.” That’s it.

Was there something particular about the sounds that he got that stood out to you?

I think he captured I think the rawness of what we were looking for with this record. Every time before we do a record, we record everything on a cassette four-track. I think we did the “Robotic Invasion” with him and it sounded the closest that we did to those recordings. Those are pretty lo-fi and raw. When we did the “Robotic Invasion” song with him, it was just, “Man, that sounds exactly like it does when we’re all together in the practice room,” and that’s exactly what we were looking for. Maybe being a guitar player and singer himself and being in a heavy band, he knows how to get these sounds. He’s known of us for a while and our records and stuff. I don’t know. It was just like, “Whoa, that sounds awesome,” whatever he got. Even when we did “Robotic Invasion” we were like, “Whoa, that sounds awesome.” I don’t know what it was. His studio’s like a little garage. We just all four set up in there, played. Whatever he did, we just liked the sound of it, and we were like, “Yeah, we’re gonna do the record here.”

When did you start writing for Gigantoid?

I think we got really into it maybe December 2013. We did the In Search Of tour two years ago where we did that whole album live. We did like a year tour in that, and then after that, we were gonna come home and start writing a record, and then our manager’s like, “Hey, the 15th anniversary for The Action is Go, let’s do the same thing!” and we were like, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” So we did that for that next year, and we’re like, “Alright, that’s it, we’re writing a new record.” I think once we got done with that tour, summer of last year or something, we’re like, “Alright, we’re gonna start writing a new one,” but I didn’t want to start writing too early, because then you get burnt out on the songs, and not having a record out for five years, we just had a bunch of stuff. I think we had like 19 songs around December, and we’re like, “Alright, let’s whittle it down to about nine or 10 that we really like.” I think January of this year, we had nine that we really liked, fit together well, and we were like, “That’s it. We’re keeping these. Recording these. Work on these.” The other ones… Our original plan was, we’re gonna do this record now as part one, and have the other songs come out as part two in November, but for whatever reason – us being idiots, probably – it just didn’t happen that way. So we just stuck to the nine. I would say January of this year, we really got into the nine or 10 we really liked, and then worked on them, arranging them, playing them over and over, recording them, listening to them and rearranging them. We wanted to keep it really fresh when we went in the studio, like in February/March. So this record is kind of like exactly where we were at in January, these nine songs. Those were like, “Alright, that’s it. These sound awesome together.” That was it. Pretty much I would say December of last year is when we got into it.

That seems really quick to be where you are now, with the release and about to hit the road. Is streamlining that process part of doing it yourself?

Yeah. We started this band in like 1990 and we’ve always been on a record label and I think this time we were like, “We want to give it a shot. We want to do it ourselves. We know it’ll be a lot of work, but we want to give it a shot.” I think doing it yourselves, you can set your own timeline, record when you want, release it when you want. Like I said, this is our first record in five years since our last one. I don’t like writing for years and then recording. I like to keep it kind of new. But you know, doing it yourselves, it seems pretty quick, but from what we’re used to dealing with labels and stuff, but doing it yourselves, you can set your own timeline and do whatever you want whenever you want.

Did you know when you were writing that you were going to go for a rawer sound in the recording?

Nah. Maybe it was touring on the In Search Of record and the Action is Go record. Maybe that played into some of the newer stuff. It was kind of slower, sludgier, and that stuff’s pretty raw, pretty fuzzy, fuzzed-out guitars. Maybe that’s kind of worked its way back in. I guess you gotta go backwards to go forwards a little bit. Maybe that’s worked its way in subconsciously. But I think with the songs and doing it ourselves – no one’s ever really told us what to do on a label, so that’s been a good thing – but I think just with the songs and recording them in our practice space and having them on a four-track, those recordings sounded really good and raw, the guitars were really buzzy. Balch even played through two fuzz pedals at the same time to get some really gnarly tone. I don’t know what it was. We always try to go for a raw sound, but this one we really wanted to keep raw.

At this point, you know what you want Fu Manchu to sound like, right?

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. No one wants to get a Fu Manchu record that sounds like a reggae record. Trust me, I know. I think if it’s a Fu Manchu record, you know it’s gonna be heavy and fuzzy, some slow parts in there and a couple fast. I’m probably the most narrow-minded guy in the band when it comes to music. I love old, burly hardcore punk rock stuff, and just raw ‘70s rock. That’s it. That’s all I listen to. All the other guys listen to a million things, that’s all I listen to. So I think you kind of know what you’re getting into with a Fu Manchu record. You either like it or you don’t. With this record, I’m not sure there’s gonna be a huge surprise at the sound. Maybe the tones are a little bit different, but I just like playing the stuff. My favorite thing is just to stack up my amps, crank it, fuzz guitar loud – that’s my favorite thing. I love going to practice, turning everything up. I love it. Same thing since I started the band in like ’85. Like I said, I’m the most narrow-minded when it comes to music. I just love a loud guitar sound. We have some quiet stuff, some quiet in there, but for the most part, I think you know what you’re gonna get.

Is there something, when you put a song like “Radio Source Sagittarious” and “Anxiety Reducer” together, that clicks for you and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s it.”

Most of our songs, it’ll start with bringing a song to practice and having our drummer play to it. He can tell right away. He’s got like eight million beats in his head. If something’s gonna sound good, you know in that first five minutes it’s gonna be happening. Putting songs together in order, we’ll sleep with them a lot, drive around in the car and listen to it for a week, come back to practice. We’ll try to play the whole record at practice, see if that flows together first, put them together on a CD or tape and listen to them. That’s what we’ve always done. And if it flows together for us – I guess we’ve gotta please ourselves first and then hopefully everyone gets it. You’ve gotta know. I think for me, as soon as we start practicing, you can tell if we’ll get it or not.

And what was it about these nine songs that stood them out?

I don’t know. I think we had a total of 18 that we really liked, just “Love ‘em, these are all cool,” and these just stuck out. I don’t know why. The other ones were great as well. I don’t know. I really don’t know. All four of us, we all picked these, so maybe these are… I don’t know (laughs). I couldn’t answer that one. Each dude has different reasons for picking songs, but it’s always all four of us, and I think after we had the 18 songs or whatever, we taped on four-track and listened to them, and it was these nine that were always, “Alright, let’s work on these nine.” We didn’t want to do a real long record. I think this one’s like 34 minutes or something. We thought these would hit the hardest, get in and out, and these we’re all gonna love playing love. Hopefully people will dig it. We like it, hopefully people will like it.

The last couple Fu Manchu records have hit under the 40-minute mark. I looked it up because it seemed kind of lean, with the rawer sound and stuff too. This one particularly though sounds perfect for vinyl.

Trust me, I’m a huge vinyl guy. I’ve been buying vinyl since I can remember. Buying KISSHotter than Hell is the first thing I can remember buying on vinyl. I bought that record twice because I wanted the sticker. I think I stuck the sticker on my closet door and I was like, “Ah crap, what did I do that for?” and I had to buy another one and put it on my skateboard or whatever. I think this one, again, we wanted a real raw, a rawer sound than we’ve had on the past two records, and we decided, “Yeah, it’s short enough where it’s gonna sound great on vinyl,” which I think the test pressings should be getting to my house today, and yeah. Vinyl’s always the first thing for us. “Is that gonna sound good on vinyl? Which tracks are gonna go on side one? Which track’s gonna start side two?” That’s always in the back of our mind when we’re getting stuff ready, getting stuff together?

Where’s that split on this one, side one and side two?

Side two starts with…

Is it “Mutant” or “No Warning?”

“Mutant” ends side one and “No Warning” starts side two.

“No Warning” is a kick in the ass. That’s a good song.

You know what about that song? I think that was the last song that we mixed, and [Andrew Giacumakis] just put everything up, we listened to it, and we’re like “Done.” We didn’t even mix it. That’s how he had it. He was like, “What?!” He put it up, I think maybe he raised the vocal or lowered the vocal, but the guitars, bass and drums, he just put it up and was like, “Okay, listen to ‘No Warning,’ I’ll just put it up and we’ll go from there.” And we listened to it and we were like, “Hold on a minute. Burn that to a CD, let’s go listen out in the car,” and we listened out in the car, came back and were like, “It’s done.” “What?” “It’s done. Listen to it. Raw, short. It should be twisted.” I think it sounds fine. He’s like, “No, really?” and that was it. He lowered the vocal or whatever he did a little bit, and it’s done. It took maybe three minutes. We’ve never done that before. That’s the first time that’s happened. We were wondering if people would like that one. He did a good job on that one.

It’s always something when your punk side comes out. The last couple records sounded so big, and this one being more stripped down sound-wise, a song like “No Warning” really comes across and you can hear the punk and hardcore in there.

Again, I grew up, my main, ’80-’87, that’s all I listened to, was hardcore punk rock stuff. I still listen to that, pretty much. I listened to Negative Approach on the way to surfing this morning. That’s my main deal. If we’re writing a record, I usually try not to listen to anything rock, just stick to hardcore stuff. So maybe some of that shows up. But yeah, that song definitely I think is our ode to SST or maybe Bl’ast or Black Flag or something.

Bl’ast are back together.

I know! We’re friends with those guys. I’ve seen them. They’re insane. And they just got Joey [Castillo] from Queens of the Stone Age drumming for them, and it’s insane. They’re insane. I remember seeing them in ’85 and that’s just as I started a hardcore band. We were gonna be real fast like Jerry’s Kids, early Gang Green, D.R.I., fast. And then we went and saw Bl’ast, and they had all these slow, weird tweaked parts, and I remember seeing that and they had these big amps, and I was like, “Oh, I guess we’re gonna slow down now.” I was blown away. It was huge. It was like the loudest thing I’d ever seen. I got to see Black Flag in ’83, and this was insane. I was just like, “Oh, boy, that’s gonna change my songwriting right there,” and to this day, that’s a top 10 record, that first record. Easily top 10 for me. Huge. And yeah, they’re playing around now. They’re insane. They’re just as insane. It’s awesome.

You mentioned before reissuing the older albums and touring the older stuff how that played into the sound. Do you think doing that also gave you more confidence in terms of releasing the album yourself?

I don’t know if that really did. I think we were just to a point… We did two records with Century Media, and they wanted to sign us for one more, but I think we were like, “You know what? I think we want to give it a shot ourselves.” We came to a point where we were like, “Let’s just give it a shot. If we screw it up, we screw it up. We know it’s gonna be a lot of work, going to the post office and mailing records, coming up with and fronting the money,” but so far, it’s just been worth it. I think maybe doing those old records maybe influenced us to add some more slower, sludgy stuff, but as for releasing ourselves, I think we just got a point where, “You know, man? It’s been 20 years. Let’s give it a shot.”

How did the jam at the end of “Last Question” come about?

That song, I think I had the whole heavy part done, and we got to the end of the chorus part, and we were like, “Okay, cool.” And we taped it, kept it, and Brad just started playing some other part of a practice. He started playing the bassline, and we’re like, “Keep playing that,” and then Reeder starts drumming to it, and I quickly hit record on the four-track cassette. So we had that, and then we’re like, “Ah, that’s cool, a cool mellower-ish jam.” For some reason, we just had the “Last Question” done, all the heavy stuff, and then we’re like, “We should think of some cool way to end this song,” and we just put that mellow thing that we had and added it to it, and that’s pretty much it. Then we bolted those nuts with the effects and we wanted to end it. We figured the record was so – there’s a lot of raw, heavy guitar – end it mellow. I think it came out good, with Balch doing all his weird effects and guitar stuff. If I wasn’t in the studio when Balch was doing all his stuff, I know I would like it. That’s how awesome he does all that effects and all that stuff. But yeah, the mellow part, we just added it on to the heavy stuff and we were like, “There’s the ending right there.” Again, that’s usually how most of our stuff works, record and, “Hey, that part’ll fit with this part. Lose that part and let’s add the other,” and you know.

You guys obviously have a lot of stuff you have to play at this point, but staring down the barrel of this tour, how much new stuff will you play?

We’ll probably do three or four of the new ones a night. With this record, we kind of told ourselves we wanted to put the songs on the record that we know we can pull off live and that we’re gonna want to play live, so with these nine, we’re like, “Yeah, we’d love to play any of these nine live any night.” I think we’ll put in about three, maybe four, a night. We’ll see. If enough people hear it and there’s a certain one we want to hear, maybe we’ll start playing that one. But yeah, with this record, we’re just like, “Any of these nine, we want to play live.” There’s been other records I think where we’ve done songs and we were like, “Oh man, this is gonna be a nightmare to do live, but it sounds cool in the studio,” but with this one, we’re just like, “Nah, any of these nine, we want to do live in the set.” Maybe three, maybe four. Two of the songs are like 1:10 each, so we’ll see. The first show’s in San Francisco on Wednesday, and I think we’re working on a set that there’s three new ones in there. We’ll see. There’s some stuff, you know, you don’t play “King of the Road” and people want to kill us. Certain songs you gotta play.

One other thing I wanted to ask about was the cover art. I didn’t see who did it and wanted to ask how it came together.

That’s Kieran. He did some artwork for The Company Band, which is Brad’s band with Neil from Clutch and them. He did their last one and I was like, “That’s really cool,” and Brad was like, “Yeah, get ahold of the guy. He does totally awesome stuff,” and we got ahold of him. He’s in the UK, and I was like, “Hey man, this is Scott from Fu Manchu, would you be into doing some artwork for us?” He was like, “Oh yeah, totally.” He had some rough stuff and we gave him some ideas, and it’s just awesome because he’s got layers and layers and layers, cut stuff out, it’s all custom done. We told him the name of the record and he kept coming up with all this gnarly – he showed us stuff that was even more tweaked and we were like, “Oh man, that’s awesome” – but we kind of all four settled for this one, and we were like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” Some beach stuff, some weird sci-fi stuff. We just thought it looked great and fit with the name of the record. He did a really good job. He did all the artwork for the record, the back, the center. In the CD, he did that, the center spread thing. It was awesome. Once we got the final thing we were just like, “Yep, that’s it.” He’s like, “I can add more,” and we’re like, “I bet you could and it would look even gnarlier, but you gotta stop at some point!” It came out really good and we’re really happy with it. I think it’s great. I would suggest for anyone into gnarly stuff, the guy’s so easy to work with. He’d show us stuff and we’d go, “What about this little part?” He’d take it out and send it back. He’s awesome. He didn’t charge us a lot. We’re just like, “What the hell?” Very lucky that he agreed to do it, and he’s got a million things. If you’re looking for anything, he’s got so much stuff it’s crazy. It’s crazy.

Do you know what you’re doing after this tour?

Let’s see. This tour, we end June 1. I think we’re doing an in-store when we get back, in Long Beach, kind of by our house. I think we’re going to play the whole record straight through. Then we’re gonna do L.A., San Diego, locally. Then I think we might try to do The Action is Go again, up the West Coast, because we never did it up to Vancouver. So hit Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, San Jose, and we get a lot of requests like people wanting us to come up and play that one. We might do that the middle of summer, then we’re going to go to Europe for August/September for this record, and that’s about as far – I know we’re gonna go to Australia and Japan at some point. I think next year we’re gonna try to do – ah, I won’t say what. Idiot. I’ll say we’re gonna do it then we won’t do it and people will be all –

Ah come on!

(Laughs).

You could say “tentative plans,” “maybe.”

Alright. Tentative plans. Next year’s our 25th anniversary. So next year, I think we might do – we had another 10 songs we really like – so maybe when we get done with this tour, maybe towards the end of this year or so, maybe we’ll try to record and we might do a 7” every month for the year. New song, side A, and we might record these upcoming tours and put a live song on side B, and do a new one every month for next year, and try to keep them limited to like 1,000. Just do that for next year, and then I think King of the Road’s gonna be reissued next year on vinyl, and possibly we might play that whole one live, but I don’t know. Again, there you go, but if it doesn’t happen, well, you can still call me an idiot if you want, but those are the “tentative plans,” but we should release a bunch of cool stuff next year, because it is our 25th anniversary, and I never thought I’d be sitting here still playing when I started this band. So we’ll be trying to do a bunch of cool stuff, giving stuff away, some limited reissue stuff. I think we’re gonna reissue the first 7” that we put out in 1990 that’s never been reissued, that’s been out of print forever. There’s some extra songs we recorded at that session that’s never been released either. There’ll be a bunch of crap going on. Again, tentative. It’s one of those things, if it doesn’t work out, don’t kill me. Give you something to look forward to if you like the band, for next year and later this year as well. We will reissue Daredevil next year on vinyl as well.

Fu Manchu, Selections from Gigantoid (2014)

Fu Manchu on Thee Facebooks

Gigantoid at Fu Manchu’s Bandcamp

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5 Responses to “Fu Manchu Interview with Scott Hill: Evolution Machine Never Stops”

  1. costah says:

    awesome,… nice interview… no ego´s, it´s all about the fuzz.. the vibration..

  2. Dan says:

    Awesome interview! Love the band, the man, and the sound. Stoked to hear they have no plans to slow down!

  3. Duncan says:

    Can’t wait to see you guys back down under in Australia! CherryRock was killer last time you were out.

  4. Ryan says:

    Tried to look up Kieran. But couldn’t find him. Does anyone know how?

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