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Bob Balch’s signature Reverend guitar is based on the company’s Sensei model and has beveled edges, satin finish, a tone chamber under the pickguard, and Railhammer Bob Balch Signature pickups. Photo by Jerry Miller.
Borne out of the same sunbaked SoCal soil that spawned stoner rock and doom metal mainstays like Kyuss and Goatsnake, Fu Manchu has been fighting the good fight for crushing riffs and Sabbath-esque grooves since before it was hip. On Gigantoid, the band’s first studio effort since 2009’s Signs of Infinite Power, singer/guitarist Scott Hill, guitarist Bob Balch, bassist Brad Davis, and drummer Scott Reeder prove that the fire burns as bright as it ever did in the band’s proto-grunge adolescence. Balch’s cascading fuzz effects form the perfect foil for Hill and Davis’ “plug in, turn up, rock out” ethos. On a short break between North American and European tour dates, they took time to talk to us about how they craft their larger-than-life tones.
How did the songs come together for Gigantoid?
Scott Hill: Kinda like how we’ve been doing it for the last 25 years: show up to practice, play a riff, show our drummer. Usually we record everything we do on a 4-track cassette machine. We’ll put one microphone in the middle of all of us—pointing down. That seems to capture everything really well. We’ve been doing that for 20 years on the same recorder.
Bob Balch: We’ll work on arrangements and add little twists and breaks. We won’t really hear the lyrics until we go in to record. We might each have some ideas, but usually Scott has it down. He’s been doing it for so long, and we all trust each other.
This is the first new album in a number of years, but you guys stayed busy on the road.
Hill: After we did Signs of Infinite Power, our manager said, “Hey, next year is the 15th anniversary of In Search Of…. The record label will reissue it on vinyl if you want to do that.” We did a tour where we played the whole record live—we’d never done that before. The next year was the 15th anniversary of The Action Is Go, so we toured and played that one, as well. Last year we finally decided to write a new record.
When you revisited those two albums for the tours, did you rediscover any deep cuts that shed light on what you did in your earlier years?
Hill: On In Search Of… there’s a song called “The Bargain” that we’d never played live. It wasn’t one of my favorite songs on that record, so I was like, “Oh crap, I better learn how it goes!” It was like a new song to me, and I came to like it. There were maybe two songs from The Action Is Go that we’d never played live. And they were fun to play—I don’t know why we’d never played them in the past 15 years.
How do you two work together to find complementary guitar tones?
Hill: I’ve pretty much had the same guitar tone since ’93 or ’94. I use a Univox Super Fuzz and Crown W-Fuzz pedals, and those are basically the same tone. Usually our fuzz tones are so over-the-top and noisy that they just fit together. Mine has a little more high end, and his is more full-bodied.
What’s the biggest challenge for you guys in the studio?
Balch: For me, it’s tripping out on guitar tones, trying to get sounds that we dig. We made an effort on this record to make it as fuzzy as possible. Usually I go into the studio, plug in, and go, “Sure, that sounds good.” But it’s been since 2009 since we had a new record out, so this time, I really wanted to dig in. I wanted people to go, “Whoa, that’s insanely fuzzy,” because that’s what our fans dig. I used two fuzz pedals at once. One has an external bias control, so I would crank that one, and use the second fuzz pedal as a noise gate.
How does that work?
Balch: Brad has a pedal company, Creepy Fingers, and he makes a pedal called the Creepy Face, which is loosely based on a ’60s Fuzz Face. That one has an internal bias control you can access through the back panel, but on the one he made me, that control is on the top. When you crank it all the way, it completely squashes the signal and it sounds kind of farty. But if you turn it the other way, it opens up and lets the sound through. If you have a lot of fuzz going, you can use the bias control to quiet it down. The first pedal in my signal chain is a Creepy Fingers Pink Elephant, which acts like an old Tone Bender. I crank the shit out of that, but then there’s a lot of noise. I crank the fuzz on the Creepy Face, but then can quiet it down with the bias control. If you run two fuzz pedals at once, you get a ton of hiss, even when you’re not playing. I was just messing around at home and found those two pedals to be a really cool combination. But it only works with a few particular Marshalls—some heads are like, “No, this is ridiculous,” while others are like, “Sounds good—let’s do this!” I can’t really explain why or how—it was trial-and-error. I definitely have the fuzziest tone I’ve ever gotten on this record.
Despite all the fuzz, there’s a lot of low-end body in your sound.
Balch: Since the Creepy Fingers were designed as bass pedals, they retain a lot of the low end. Also, Reverend made a signature guitar for me recently that uses Railhammer pickups, which use pole pieces for the high strings and rail magnets for the lower strings. I really dig the pickups, but their low end was battling with the low end from the pedals. So when we worked on the signature model, I wanted the pickups to emphasize more midrange so it could cut through the fuzz.
Were there any other special things you wanted out of your signature guitar?
Balch: I run a website called playthisriff.com, where I interview musicians teaching their own songs. When I interviewed Frank Agnew from the Adolescents, I took notice of his Les Paul. It originally had three pickups, but the middle one was gone, leaving an empty chamber. The guitar sound was unique—it sounded like a Les Paul, but with a different harmonic structure up top. It definitely didn’t sound like any other Les Paul I had heard. Scott’s old Fender Jaguar has the same deal—he yanked the middle pickup and left the chamber empty. So when the guys at Reverend suggested having a routed-out chamber in the body underneath the pickguard, I was like, “hell yeah!” I don’t know exactly why—I don’t build guitars—but it just adds a lot more sustain.
The first guitar they gave me was a Reverend Daredevil. They showed up at a show in Detroit and offered it to me. At first I said “no, that’s okay”—I’d been playing Gibson SGs for years. But my SG at the time had just been given a terrible re-fret job, so I tried the Daredevil. When I plugged it in, I loved how the notes sustained and bloomed. We started talking about a signature model, and I told them I’d want the midrange to poke through, and I asked for it to look more like their Sensei model.
Had you ever tried playing hollow or semi-hollow guitars with Fu Manchu before that?
Balch: Before I joined the band I was deep into jazz, so I had hollowbody guitars, but no, not really. In the studio it might be cool, just to add some texture for some leads or clean guitar up top. But live, it might be a little strange. For the most part, Fu Manchu needs to be as fuzzy as possible and have as much low end as possible.