The Sunshine Boys

With all due respect to Bo Diddley, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Take the cover art of California Crossing, the latest CD from stoner-rock stalwarts Fu Manchu, which depicts a cherried-out Chevy El Camino parked on a beach, surrounded by bikini babes and bathed in late-afternoon sunshine. It‘s a scene that perfectly sets the tone for the tuneage within, the amped-up sounds of four asphalt-tearin’, Vans-wearin‘ dudes engrossed in their perpetual search for the perfect wave and the perfect riff. The music of Fu Manchu may be loud and unruly enough to send your average pop geek ducking for cover behind a stack of Emitt Rhodes LPs, but it’s also as purely Californian as anything Brian Wilson ever recorded.

“A lot of stuff that we come up with, whether it‘s artwork, song titles or whatever, it’s all kind of related to growing up near the beach in Orange County,” says singer-guitarist Scott Hill, who founded the band nearly a decade ago. “All of us were into surfing, skateboarding, all of that. I remember seeing an El Camino with a surfboard in it down at the beach when I was really young. I thought, ‘Boy, I’d love to have one of those when I get older!‘ And now I have one, so there you go.”

“Downtown in Dogtown,” one of the standout tracks from California Crossing, salutes the legendary Venice “Dogtown” skateboarding scene of the 1970s -- “Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, all those guys we looked up to when we were growing up,” says Hill. Appropriately enough, the band (which also includes lead guitarist Bob Balch, bassist Brad Davis and new drummer Scott Reeder -- longtime skinsman Brant Bjork amicably left in November 2001) were invited to last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where they played a premiere party for the new skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys.

“It was probably the coolest thing we‘ve ever done,” says Hill. “We just wanted to go out there to see the movie! They were like, ’Okay, but you‘ve gotta play.’ We were like, ‘Fine, just as long as we can see the movie!’ And it‘s such a good movie, too -- if you’re into skateboarding and all that ‘70s stuff, you’ll definitely go ape-shit over it.”

Longtime Fu Manchu fans will go equally ape-shit over California Crossing, which features the band‘s heaviest riffs and tastiest playing to date. It also includes their first-ever instrumental, a Sabbath-worthy bruiser called “The Wasteoid,” which conjures up images of the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica gulping whippets on the outer edge of the universe. But California Crossing should also significantly widen the Fu Manchu fan base, given that it’s easily the band‘s most accessible record to date, with far more abundant hooks and melodies than previous outings. Even Hill, who’s always had what can be charitably described as an “agreeably limited” vocal range, seems to be putting more of an effort into his singing, though he gives producer Matt Hyde much of the credit for his improved performance.

“I always liked what Matt did with Monster Magnet, and the new stuff he did with Slayer was awesome, so I gave him a call,” he says. “We worked with him on every song before we even started recording -- threw out parts, made up parts, switched things around. He was really involved in a lot of the arrangements, and he helped me a lot with the melodies on the vocals.”

Added vocal support came from Circle Jerks lead singer Keith Morris, who appears on the track “Bultaco.” “The Circle Jerks were the first band I ever saw live,” Hill says proudly. “It was like ‘80 or ’81, at this place out in Riverside called the Ritz. I‘d heard the Circle Jerks’ stuff off the Decline of Western Civilization soundtrack, and I was just blown away by that. It just sort of snowballed from there; I tried to find every punk record I could. We were very happy to have him on the record, because if the Circle Jerks weren‘t around, I doubt that we’d be around, either.”

But despite the band‘s punk roots, and the current uncertain state of world affairs, Hill insists that his lyrical outlook will always remain resolutely apolitical. “We’re not too big on any heavy meanings,” he laughs. “I mean, I‘m living by the beach, driving an El Camino, playing music, and I got to quit my day job about three years ago. I don’t have a damn thing to complain about, you know?”

Fu Manchu appear at the Troubadour on Tuesday, January 29.

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