Fu Manchu Stay Cool In Music's Current Clime

Orange County, Calif., band continues to mine '70s culture with sixth disc.

Talking too much about Fu Manchu's King of the Road is like having to explain a joke. Either you get the group's affinity for carpet-decked, '70s make-out vans or you don't.

"From the title of the record to the artwork to the songs, we don't need to [explain] anything," singer and guitarist Scott Hill said. "It's a straight-ahead rock record — a lot of car references, vans, motorcycles, skateboarding."

Hill approaches his band's music with the eagerness of an older brother excited to teach the youngsters about comic books or building model cars. He's happy to reach out to fans who think King is Fu Manchu's first album or who missed them on previous outings.

King of the Road (RealAudio excerpt of title track), released in February, is actually the Orange County band's sixth album. The 11-song disc puts Fu Manchu front and center in the current crop of stoner-rock bands that also includes Monster Magnet and Queens of the Stone Age.

The band — Hill, Brad Davis (bass), Bob Balch (lead guitar) and Brand Bjork (drums) — refined its artistic sensibilities in a time when cell phones were just a dream and CB radios were a symbol of the cutting edge.

"I just thank God for the time when I grew up," Hill, 32, said. "Just compare cars then to nowadays. ... They were much better, bigger cars — more metal."

"You have to keep an open mind toward new things," said Bjork, 27, former drummer for Queens of the Stone Age precursors Kyuss. "When you define something as cool, back in the day — our definition of cool hasn't changed."

That's clear from King of the Road's lead track. "Hell on Wheels" (RealAudio excerpt) fades in with chunky fuzz guitar reminiscent of Black Sabbath before cresting and tumbling down into an homage to the open road. The song is virtually nothing but bottom-end bass and kick drum, chugging like a Camaro cruising the strip on Friday night.

Small wonder the band likes to stomp through Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla" in concert.

Retro-themed cuts such as "Boogie Van" (RealAudio excerpt), "Weird Beard" and "Hotdoggin' " also help flesh out the image of a California sunshine era gone by.

Fu Manchu's lineup has been in place for four years, and King of the Road reflects a new cohesiveness, Hill said. This time out, the whole band took a role in production, and everyone contributed to songwriting.

When Hill talks about putting the disc together, he's laid-back, like someone frozen in time during his high school buddy days.

"We all get along good," he said. "Everyone's into the same stuff. You know, it was cool."

Today's high school kids have a much broader definition of musical "cool" than in Hill's day — one that includes not only metal, but also hip-hop acts such as Dr. Dre and hybrid acts such as Kid Rock and Rage Against the Machine.

You might think they would reject the vintage aesthetic of a band like Fu Manchu, but their open-mindedness deems retro rock cool, too, Bjork said, as the band saw firsthand on a recent tour with modern metal outfit Sevendust.

"We get a chance to do 35 minutes of our taste of rock, and after the show, we've got kids coming up to us going, 'Man, you guys are cool,' " Bjork said. "I get some vibes from kids that they're ashamed they were into Korn at one time and they want to get into us. That's cool. It doesn't matter, you can be into whatever you want to be into."