Bob Balch talks pedals, upcoming tour plans, and Rush
with Jay Rollins
Fu Manchu are engrained in stoner rock mythos having evolved under the tutelage of Monster Magnet, White Zombie, Clutch, and Corrosion of Conformity, who’ve all taken Fu Manchu’s notable performance on tour. After some early line-up inconsistencies, circa ‘97 Bob Balch joins founder Scott Hill and long-time bassist Brad Davis, adding his own psychedelic classic rock driven riffs, which some people attribute to the band’s sound becoming more accessible. Balch’s first Fu Manchu effort The Action is Go exuberates an energy often void in the stoner realm and became a defining characteristic of the band thereafter. This past winter marked the release of Clone of the Universe. As many other self-driven bands have done, their latest studio album is out via their own At the Dojo Records, with New Damage Records handling Canadian distribution. Showing no signs of reproach, the album culminates into an 18-minute sonic saga featuring an unexpected cameo from Rush’s Alex Lifeson
Bob (Balch) First off, thank you for taking time to speak with Metalheads Forever.
No worries dude.
From my understanding back in 1997, yourself and a former member of Fu Manchu were working in a music shop together when you basically asked to join the band. Now 20 years later you are touring in support of the twelfth full length release. Back when you first approached Fu Manchu did you think to yourself here is my chance to play with a professional band long term?
No not really, I mean I was just taking it day by day, I didn’t think we’d be definitely playing this long, ya know. But I’m stoked to still do it with those guys, it’s rad. I feel like with each record we hit like a different groove.
Absolutely and it’s always great when you hear stories of artists who follow bands and then they get the opportunity to play with a band that they genuinely love anyway.
Yeah, I was a fan in high school. I had No One Rides for Free and Daredevil, so I was super stoked to join. I was nineteen years old and in Sweden playing festivals, then I turned twenty-one at CBGB’s, that was unbelievable, but even then, I was like “don’t get too stoked cause these things are short lived, you know bands come and go.” Now we’re going on our thirtieth anniversary in two years.
Wow. It’s been four years since Gigantoid but Clone of the Universe picks up our cosmic road trip where we last left, except there’s new vigor in this leg of the journey. What was the atmosphere like during the writing process for Clone of the Universe?
Um it was the usual same kinda thing, we just get together about once a week for a few hours just to exchange riffs and try to piece together stuff. We knew going in that we wanted to do like an eighteen-minute song that took up all of side two. So, piecing that together was fun. I documented the whole thing, I’ve got demos of every day [recording], from the very beginning when it was like a fifty second riff until the end. It was cool watching that take shape. I live like an hour from the guys so I would always record it and on the drive home listen to it and think this is actually starting to be really cool. I knew it would be, I still listen to it ha ha, we just got done with three months of touring and I still throw it on every now and then.
It’s hard to put together a song that long and have it engaging for the full time, I think you guys accomplished that with the four distinct modes, if you will, but they still all come together to tell one story.
Yeah they gel nicely, all the stuff that’s there was separate ideas. The last section, I’ve been sittin’ on since I joined them for King of the Road, I wrote a lot of those riffs at the end. I gave them to Reeder, our drummer, and said to him “here’s fifty riffs before writing this record (Clone of the Universe), just see what you wanna play on.” He’s like, “what’s this one?” and I told him “well I’ve had that one since like 1999, I’ve just never really brought it up.” It’s funny that’s the riff that’s been floating around in my head, kinda haunting me for all those years. It was like “no dude, do something with this riff.” It’s the testament to a good riff, it haunts you and it doesn’t leave your head.
Yeah speaking of Clone of the Universe’s final track “Il Mostro Atomico” is a lengthy piece featuring Alex Lifeson. Where did Lifeson make his impact on the song?
There’s a middle section where it’s basically just him, the drums, and the bass. It’s not the fuzzed out guitar at all, you can hear the tone, it’s a guitar tone that we’ve never really used in Fu Manchu. Then when we break there’s a bunch of effects and that’s him too, doing all the feedback and stuff like that. He gave us a lot of stuff. When he sent over the tracks we opened them and it was like ten tracks. I played ‘em all at once thinking “oh cool, here’s what he did.” Then I was like, this is insane, I can’t even tell what the hell’s goin’ on, until I realized oh he did ten different things for us to choose from.
Yeah, he did a lot of stuff which was really cool. It was stacked up and we took the feedback section and we sorta just dragged it over. We’re like this is too cool to just have it be a secondary part, we wanna have that part just carry on. I think that was our bass player’s [Brad Davis] idea. That sequence isn’t really as [Lifeson] intended but he sent a bunch of stuff and said, “do whatever you want with it.”
What was it like having him interact with and contribute to your music so intimately, to be like here is not only one option but here’s multiple options and feel free to just alter my music as need be?
I mean I grew up playing in bands and trying to cover Rush songs, like at parties, and just butchering em, high school shit. I’m a huge fan so it was cool. I didn’t get to meet him or anything but I had to email him and go like “hey here’s a demo.” It was one of the ones I recorded at the rehearsal space, “here’s a demo can you solo in the key of E at two minutes, and solo here.” I was trying to tell Lifeson what to do, and beforehand I’m like “I just gotta preface this by saying I feel like an asshole telling you what to do but that being said, could you do this?” I sorta wanted to have it set up so we could have a guitar battle, I just thought that would be the coolest, and he didn’t do that. He was like, ah fuck that shit I’m just gonna do this, ha ha. Which was fine, but he didn’t say anything, so when he sent the stuff I was like “where’s the battle?” Then I heard what he did and that’s cooler than what I expected anyway.
Cool, considering the time lapse between the two albums, can we expect a new release anytime soon? I heard there’s a bit of a build up.
Well, I mean this one, it seems like it just came out. We just ended the cycle of doing Europe and the States, that was about three months total, and we’re trying to do a Canadian run on Clone of the Universe cause it’s still doing really well. So, we’re gonna try and play as many markets as possible. We got Canada maybe in September, west coast run in November, Australia beginning of next year. Shortly after that we’ve got our thirtieth anniversary coming up, so we’re probably going to re-release a bunch of stuff like extra tracks. I mean I’m always writing, but we haven’t really gotten into a groove yet to be like “let’s start writing the new record” because we’ve only been home for like four weeks.
Speaking of the anniversary coming up you’ve bought up your own back catalogue have you not? So that way you have a bit more freedom and full control over the anniversary releases and such?
We do vinyl, some of the stuff we have digital, but also do vinyl for most of it. We’ve been doing that for a while but I think we’re gonna do some special edition type things. Go to these markets that we usually play at and do two nights. The band’s history is pretty extensive, so we can afford to do the first section of the band’s history and then the next night do the second part. Instead of going out for three months we would probably go out for a month but just hit these major markets and stay there to really celebrate the history of the band in one spot.
Awesome. Enslaved from Norway, for their twenty fifth anniversary, they did a very similar thing where they did two nights in a few select locations and it was night one we’re celebrating the first half of the catalogue and the second half the next night.
Like I said man, when I joined I was nineteen I was told myself “ya know, see where this goes. I’m not gonna get my hopes up or anything.” I’m forty now. Everyday I enjoy it, so I appreciate where we’re at and how much time we put into Fu Manchu, just the situation we’re in.
Bob you’re heavily involved with passing along your guitar playing knowledge through PlayThisRiff.com where people can learn some of their favorite songs from the artists that wrote the music. Can you tell us more about the service and how you decided to start it?
Back in 2007 I finally got around to buying a Mac and I was like “oh this is pretty cool, I can actually video myself playing these songs.” I was thinking I was just gonna sell the videos on iTunes or something. Then I realized with file sharing that’s probably not the best option because people can just share them, so I bought the site thinking it would just be for Fu Manchu. But I figured I should get some help promoting, so the first band I reached out to was Exodus, because they were coming to town. I didn’t even know those guys, and their manager wrote me back within hours and replied, “I’m a huge Fu Manchu fan, so is the singer of Exodus, we’ll totally make this happen.” I was like “oh shit, this might be a thing.” Then I became obsessed with just reaching out to bands that I grew up listening to, bands that I dig currently, to get them involved with the site. It’s been cool, I was editing, everyone knows how to play this, but I was editing “Kick out the Jams” by MC5. I have my own footage of Wayne Kramer talking about “Kick out the Jams” and I can just sit there and edit it.
The thing is a lot of seasoned guitar players would know how to play it but there’s always gonna be beginners and you’re exposing MC5 to beginners and a new generation in some cases.
Yeah, yeah and that was kinda the thing too. There’s always guitar magazines and stuff putting the shredders on a pedestal, which is cool but that’s like, “hey you, learn the secrets of this guy,” and as a kid growing up I was like fuck I can’t even really do ‘Back in Black’ yet, ha ha. That’s why I got other bands on there so that it doesn’t cater to just the shredders. Circle Jerks are on there, Adolescents, rest in peace Steve Soto. A bunch of stuff that’s not really that difficult to play but when you sit down and watch the guys do it they do it with such style that it makes it kinda difficult to play. I mean don’t get me wrong, there’s shredders on PlayThisRiff.com, there’s dudes from Megadeth on there. Tabbing out that stuff was a real eye opener for me, it’s basically like I’m taking a lesson from Chris Poland, three months just sitting there dissecting. He plays so fast I slow it down and just slowly tab it out on the computer, but then I can steal those ideas and kind of carry them over into Fu Manchu. There’s quite a bit of stuff that I’ve used in Fu Manchu, and this other band Sun and Sail Club that I play in, where I’ll interview a band and then go that was bad ass, what that guy did I could do that a different way and tweak it.
Being a novice musician myself I was looking through the site and found it very intriguing, I’m going to break out my guitar later to check out a video. I know Chewy of Voivod is great, but I think watching closely as he went through something like “We are Connected” would blow my mind.
That was a big one for me, I’m a huge Voivod fan so to sit down and look at that stuff was big. I teach guitar for a living on Skype and if somebody asked me to learn Voivod I’d be like, o shit, alright hopefully we can pull this off. Just because that stuff is the weirdest, but when [Chewy] does it, it starts to make sense a little bit to me. What amazes me with a dude like Chewy is that he comes in and learns all that music, then he sells the tabs at the merch booth with drums and bass. He tabs everything and sells a full-on book for Voivod records. I’m like dude that’s insane how do you figure all that out? Some stuff the band doesn’t even know what time signature it is in, he had to figure it out. Yeah, that was a big one, the Voivod stuff is crazy.
Fu Manchu – Clone of the Universe Lyric Video:
Out of all the guitar players on your site who would you like to see make a guest appearance on the next Fu Manchu record?
Well, I was trying to get Wayne Kramer, I guess he was busy. He was a sweet heart though interviewing him was cool. Him and his wife were awesome to me, all hugs when I was leaving, I was like damn I just met you guys that’s cool. Greg Hetson from Circle Jerks, MC5 would be pretty badass, I’d be interested to see what Matt Pike would do, Chewy, Mike Scheidt from Yob, I think his guitar playing is amazing. There are over 70 bands on there so I’m just trying to think of a few, Woody from [Corrosion of Conformity], anyone on Play This Riff really would be great to work with honestly.
Guitar gearheads, at least my buddies that are into the fuzz, always salivate over Fu Manchu’s equipment and dissect what comprises the overall tone. You are still rocking the Reverend Bob Balch signature guitar but what is strapped to the pedal board for current tours?
Our bass player makes fuzz pedals, his company is called Creepy Fingers, and in my opinion, not just because I’m in a band with him, and I’m really good friends with him, he is the best in the business, he kills it. Judging by the people who play his
stuff, Billy Gibbons, Steely Dan was playing [Creepy Fingers], it just goes all over the place. I was using two Creepy Fingers, one’s called the Regulus VII and the other one’s called the Buzzaround. I would choose between the two depending on the size of the venue because each venue’s different and some venues eat up a lot of bass frequencies. They both kinda do the same thing, they’re just extremely fuzzy and they have a noise gain built into it. Then I have a noise suppressor after that just in case there’s motorized lights at the club because when you use a lot of fuzz and there’s motorized lights sometimes you can hear weird pops and shit in your amp when the lights start moving. So, I use the noise suppressor and then just your standard Crybaby Wah, a tuner, Zvex Sonar which is like kind of a quick on and off, like on the “Il Monstro” middle section. Also, a Keeley Super Mod workstation, which is like fifteen pedals in one but I use it for its flanger and the phaser. Over in Europe I was using a Memory Man with Hazarai by Electro-Harmonix, it’s like a tap tempo, and then here in the States I was using the Belle Epoch by Catalinbread, that’s like an analog delay. That’s about it though, I think there’s like seven pedals or something, not too complicated.
Is there anything in particular about the way the pedals are arranged that creates your tone?
A little bit, it’s not too much of a secret but you put your fuzz before anything, and then you run your Wah after that, it makes the Wah pedal sound insane. The sweep is much bigger, it seems louder, and I always have people asking me “what kinda Wah is that?” It’s just an $80 Crybaby standard kinda thing but it depends on the fuzz you’re running it after. But it’s like when you buy a Fuzzface at Guitar Center and you open the box and know here’s Hendrix’s thing he put the Wah after. So, everyone kinda knows to do that, but that’s really the only chain thing that would make a difference. Everything else I just put after. Fuzz first, even before the tuner, sometimes tuners can mess up some frequency-specific fuzz pedals.
The first half of 2018 brought you touring all over the USA and Europe showcasing Clone of the Universe. I’ve heard murmurs of a possible Canadian tour in September. How has the band’s relationship been with Canada and can you fill us in on what’s to come for your northern brethren?
We’re trying to do a September run and just figuring out a lucrative way to get up there. We haven’t done a full Canada run since like 2005 or 2006. Whether we fly and rent gear or we just haul ass up there and start in Vancouver and make our way across. The shows are always really good and I know that the song “Clone of the Universe” was on some kind of rock charts up there. Our management’s been sending us texts saying “dude you guys are number two!” I’m like, “I don’t know what that means, number two of what?” The shows are always insane and if we go up to Canada it’ll give us an excuse to bother Mr. Lifeson, be like “hey man, you know we’re here if you wanna come out and have a beer, maybe jump on stage with us.” That would be the ultimate, I don’t even think I’d be able to, I’d have to just turn around and watch it like an audience member.
It’d be cool to see a Fu Manchu and Voivod show or something in Montreal, get a hold to Chewy again.
Oh yeah! I would play with those guys, before them for sure, but I would play with those guys any day, I would love that.
That would be nuts. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Metalheads Forever, and I hope to speak with you again soon. Best of luck on everything Fu Manchu!
Right on dude thank you very much.
MHF Magazine/Jay Rollins