"I like a lot of that stuff," Hill admits of his '70s leanings. "But I'm more influenced by '80 to '86 punk rock. I know there's not a big cue from that in our sound, but that's pretty much all I listen to. I don't even listen to old rock that much anymore."
Hill might be telling the truth. Punchy rather than sludgy, the just-released California Crossing finds the band (Hill, guitarist Bob Balch, bassist Brad Davis and former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork) undergoing a makeover of sorts. The sonic Stonehenge of the group's early output has been tossed in favor of dewy urgent overkill that's heavy on melody and light on six-string histrionics. Partially, this decision was born of slackerdom: Hill's beloved Crown distortion pedal was stolen last year during a gig, and he never bothered to replace it.
"The biggest difference between this record and the other stuff is probably the guitar tones, and that had to do with someone ripping off my fuzz pedal," Hill says, laughing. "But we wanted to try to do some stuff that we obviously didn't do before, which was adding backing vocals and a little more harmony in there and some melody and shit."
To craft California, the band holed up with Matt Hyde -- a producer best known for his work with Slayer, Monster Magnet and Porno for Pyros -- in a cramped rehearsal space, dissecting and perfecting a song a day for two weeks. By the time the group hit the studio, the revamped 'Chu was in full effect.
Fu Manchu cut its teeth on the Southern California music scene, sharing stages with the few truly heavy bands that were touring the region. While most peer acts jumped on whatever trends were the vogue, the 'Chu kept it real, sticking doggedly to a sound that took punk rock's energy and attitude and slowed them to a sluggish crawl.
"When we started the band, the only heavy stuff that was going on in our area was Kyuss, the Obsessed and Melvins," Hill recalls. Fu Manchu added its name to that roster in 1994 when it released its critically touted debut, No One Rides for Free.
The group toured incessantly during the latter half of the '90s, pausing only to issue brain-bending efforts such as Daredevil and 1997's Action Is Go, the first album to feature Balch and Bjork. Politely received in the states but proverbially huge in Europe, the band spent the better part of the decade opening for notables such as White Zombie and Marilyn Manson. While the 'Chu's Cheech and Chong lifestyle and Pet Rock rhythms fit perfectly alongside those hard-living acts, the unlikely experience of gigging with Christian rock-rappers P.O.D. and Southern speed demons Sevendust made a lasting impression on Hill.
"Both of those bands sound nothing like us, and we thought we'd get killed every night and the crowds would just hate us," he says. "But there'd be, like, 1,000, 2,000 kids every show just digging it. We were very surprised. We were really, really shocked that they actually liked us."
Last week, Hill and company embarked on a headlining tour that will take the band across the country for what must seem like the millionth time. Fortunately, Fu Manchu's members aren't put off by a life of constant travel, sleepless nights and dismal food. "We've been home for a year and a half," Hill says. "So we're really itching to go out and start playing."
Not so for Brant Bjork, apparently, who departed the group a few months ago in a split deemed amicable on all sides. Hill, who says that he "just talked to Brant a couple of days ago," phoned longtime pal Scott Reeder, slid out the drum throne for him and told the skinpounder to prepare for a tour-long trial by fire.
Though Fu Manchu is unlikely ever to adorn its walls with platinum discs, the band has been successful enough to enjoy the spoils of its underground following: credibility, a devoted fanbase and -- perhaps most important -- a tour bus.
"We've done plenty of van tours across the states," Hill says. "It's good, but I'll prefer to take a bus over that any day. It's cool with a van, because everyone's hanging out and you can just pull over whenever the hell you want. But I do not miss getting into a van after a show at two in the morning and then driving for, like, five hours."