With a long awaited tour to Australia quickly rising just over our autumn horizon, Bob Balch has spent the last week or so teaching guitar online, surfing the pacific swells and drinking copious amounts of Coors Light (a very tasty Southern Californian alcoholic beverage). Balch joined groove fuzz rockers Fu Manchu in his late teens, was thrust into the limelight just after finishing high school and has ridden the Fu Manchu wave around the world ever since.
Balch spoke to Tonedeaf from his home in San Diego, and I started by asking how he discovered the instrument that would take him on his life’s journey so far, and how at such a young age he entered the Fu Manchu fold.
“When I was about 12 or 13 my brother got sent to kinda like a rehab, but not as like you know… he’s pretty mellow.“ Balch pauses as if in disbelief his brother even had to go. “He moved out and all of his shit got left behind, all of his records and his guitars and stuff. I just took over all his stuff, he had old Sabbath records and Deep Purple and Iron Maiden.”
“I still have the guitar he left behind and I still play it to this day,” Bob says. “He lives on the East Coast now and I don’t think he knows I still have his guitar. I picked up random stuff and started playing along to his records with his guitar, and I realised I could almost pick up stuff by ear so I started rockin’ out from there.”
“It was pretty boring,” he continues, about growing up in the woods of California. “Until you get your license there wasn’t really much to do, you know, so we got into a lot of mischief in wooded areas. It was cool because the main thing to do was just play music with other people.”
From there, reminisces Balch, “I played in shitty bands in eighth grade in our garage and kids from school would come over and watch us play, but the first Fu Manchu gig I played, I was 19 in San Francisco. That was pretty memorable because we were recording The Action Is Go and took a break from recording to go up North and play a show. It was the first one for me and for Brant [Bjork] which was pretty cool… I was super young and popped my cherry so to speak.” He lets out a smooth Californian laugh, and I can tell he was just stoked to be there.
“I was a fan of Fu Manchu before I joined. There was this guy at my school in my music theory class who I still talk to today who gave me No One Rides For Free and a Charles Bukowski book on the same day and said, ‘Dude check out this stuff”. He was the pusher of literature and music at school, and he ended up being the dude who let Fu Manchu rehearse in his garage when they were making In Search Of… so he was a mutual friend of all of ours. When I joined he was like ‘Ah that’s a no-brainer, I should’ve asked you to join earlier,’ but it was too late I was already in. That was in 1997 so something happened, because that’s a long time.”
With Fu Manchu re-releasing older material on vinyl I couldn’t help but ask if there is a new album in the makings. “Yeah, I mean with new technology and shit you can go on Protools or Garageband and record stuff and send it back and forth. So we’ve been tossing around a few ideas.” Balch quickly switches to talking about the upcoming tour to Australia, a tour that Fu Manchu-heads all over the country are drooling in their beards over.
“We haven’t been down there in years,” he spouts, “So we’re going to get a set list together of all kinds of shit. We figure since it takes a long time to get down there we’re going to get a giant set list together of all kinds of stuff. Starting in September we’re going to re-release The Action Is Go and we’re going to tour and play that record from start to finish in Europe. Then probably the States after that, so if we can make it back down there (Australia) and do The Action Is Gothen that would be awesome.”
Balch has been a keen guitar teacher since his early days and runs an amazing teaching based website called playthisriff.com, a website that offers guitar lessons from members of Black Flag and Circle Jerks to members of Animals As Leaders and Trivium. Balch now even offers guitar lessons over Skype, so I had to ask him what it is about teaching that he loves so much, and how the website came about.
“I like to cherry pick licks from stuff,” he says without hesitation. “I mean people come to me and ask, ‘Hey what’s this Fu Manchu thing?’ but just as many ask me about other stuff like Hendrix solos so I get to figure stuff out and then I can cherry pick ideas all day long. I’ll be like ‘I have to save that one’, and it could be the weirdest thing ever that you wouldn’t expect to be anywhere near a Fu Manchu song. It’s a cool way to get a bunch of ideas for riffs.”
“I was totally afraid of computers and then I got a Mac and I once I got it I was like, ‘Oh my God it’s so easy!’ I just started recording lesson videos for the Fu Manchu stuff and I was going to put a few lessons up on Youtube or iTunes. One day I saw Exodus was coming to town and I thought I’d see if they wanted to do it just so I could have another band involved, to maybe have more interest from people. They emailed me back immediately and they were into doing it, so I realised how cool it was to reach out to people I grew up listening to.”
“I started drunk dialling people on the internet pretty much. Old punk bands and metal bands I grew up listening to. I’d get up in the morning and realise holy shit I sent about 30 emails and I got about 10 back. I’ve been able to meet some of my idols and sometimes they play songs I grew up listening too. Most of it’s done at their houses so it’s fun. I dig it a lot.”