Welcome to “Humor of the Beast,” a recurring series where we interview the funniest people about their favorite band, as well as the impact heavy music has had on their lives and in comedy. In this article, we talk with Joe DeRosa.
“When it comes to art and expression, people that walk the walk are the ones that have longevity,” Joe DeRosa said during our chat about one of his favorite bands Fu Manchu. In a way, that statement could aptly describe both the stoner rock legends currently celebrating their 30th anniversary and DeRosa – whose brutal honesty has made him one of the most beloved comedians, podcasters, TV actors and authors of the past two decades.
Read highlights from our conversation with DeRosa to learn why he considers Fu Manchu to be the perfect stoner rock band, as well as how their authenticity and work ethic inspires him as a comedian.
When did you first discover Fu Manchu?
I remember my best friend in high school Jim playing [the Fu Manchu album] In Search Of… for me [and a few other friends] and saying, “These guys are the future man!” [laughs] They got really into them and Kyuss. I remember hearing that album and at first not being super into it. Then a couple of years later, I was with Jim in his car, we were stoned and he was like, “Remember that band Fu Manchu? They have this new record out called The Action is Go. I want to play you three songs off it.” I was like, “I guess so… I don’t know if I’ll be into it…” He went, “No no, just trust me!”
He played me “Evil Eye,” “Guardrail” and “Laserbl’ast!” [in that order]. It was like the elevator in Willy Wonka going out through the ceiling – each one of those songs felt like another level of ceiling it was blasting through and then when “Laserbl’ast!” finally kicked in, it felt like the elevator bursting into the atmosphere. I was like, “Holy shit!” Then it just all made perfect sense to me.
What was it specifically about the band that clicked and made you go “Ok, I get it now!”?
One of the reasons they’re one of my favorite bands is when it comes to rock, they incorporate everything I look for [in music]. The progressions and riffs can get evil [sounding], but “righteously” evil – it can get dark but still soulful… Kyle Kinane once said to me, “Fu Manchu is the band that makes you want to nod your head with a smile on your face!” And that’s exactly what it is. They’re just checking every box of what I’m looking for. I guess they fall into the categories of “stoner rock” and “desert rock.” I like a lot of that stuff, but NOBODY captures it the way Fu Manchu does. To me they sound like if you took all those Desert Sessions bands, blended them together and got the best parts of each band. To me [their music] comes out perfectly.
They have a perfect understanding of what their sound is and how to utilize and exploit it to the fullest extent. Every guitar solo in every song is always perfect! Every drum beat behind every guitar riff is always perfect! Scott Hill’s lyrics and vocals always perfectly sit over the music going on behind them. The bass and drums are always perfectly locked. They just get it! There’s never a moment on a Fu Manchu record where you go, “I don’t know what they were trying to do there, that didn’t make sense!” And you get that moment with a lot of bands – most bands at least have one record where you have to go, “Don’t buy this one!” [laughs] Fu Manchu doesn’t have that record. Every record front to back is fantastic!
The other thing I love about them so much is that they’re a true working band. As a comic, I relate to their approach so much – everything [they do] is DIY! I just ordered their new 7-inch [Fu30, Pt.1], and Scott Hill sent me a fucking email personally saying, “Sorry your order is late, it goes out on Monday” [since production has been delayed due to COVID-19]. I mean, that’s crazy… They’ve been growing through this slow build over the decades as a band, and to watch [them] never lose sight of the prize pay off is really inspiring to me. It’s something I have to go through as a comic, it’s what I watch my comedian friends do. There’s something really true about that, and it’s reflective in the music…
It’s pretty special when you see [a band] onstage, that it’s identical to what you picture the music representing. There’s no flash. There’s that George Carlin joke where he makes fun of the motorcyclists who have their bikes shipped into Sturgis then ride in as if they just came off the road, and how phony that is. It’s pretty cool that when you hear the Fu Manchu sound, you expect it to be the genuine article, and then when you see them, you realize, “Oh my God, they really are!” None of it is manufactured at all.
I love hearing you talk about how authentic Fu Manchu is. Do you feel in order to be good at what you do, whether you’re a comic or a musician, there has to be a level of authenticity?
I think you can be effective without it. It’s possible to manufacture something that represents a thing not you and still be effective in some ways. Eventually though it will falter, and I think the best stuff is genuine and authentic. When it comes to art and expression, people that walk the walk are the ones that have longevity. And the ones that don’t might have success in the moment and might walk away with a lot more money at the end of the day, but the mark [left behind] won’t be the same. And you can see it when you look back throughout history.
It’s a lesson I learned from listening to Frank Zappa when he’d make fun of someone like Peter Frampton. To me, Frampton was always just the “Baby I Love Your Way” guy – I could take it or leave it, I didn’t grow up with it, it was just a song I heard. Then when I would hear Zappa on these concert recordings in the 70s make jokes about Frampton, suddenly I was like, “Oh, Peter Frampton was their Britney Spears at the time!” [laughs] Well, God Bless her, let her do her thing, but overtime you just look back [on what they did] with a different appreciation. I can look back on Peter Frampton and go, “Hey man, it is what it is, just pop music for the times.” But then when you look back at Zappa, you go, “Holy Shit! This catalog is something to explore! I’m learning about other music from this!” And I feel like that’s what Fu Manchu is, and I feel the same about [other favorite bands of mine like] Motorhead and Faith No More…
When some kid 30 years from now goes, “I want to go back and hear what kind of rock was going on in the late 90s / early 2000s,” and they stumble upon Fu Manchu, it’s not like discovering Jet and going, “Oh yeah, they had those couple songs, those were cool.” Rather, you unearthed something and go, “Oh my God! Look at this catalogue!” And they progress throughout the albums – the sound evolves and progresses, but at its heart is always a formula that works. A lot of the music I love did that. I’m a huge hip hop fan. Gang Starr is one of my favorite rap groups, and before he passed Guru said, “DJ Premier and I have a formula that we do, but we just update it.” I think the best artists do that.
You mentioned how you can relate so much to Fu Manchu’s work ethic. Has the way Fu Manchu goes about creating music – how every aspect of their song serves a purpose – also influenced the way you approach writing comedy?
It’s one of those things where you realize how your approach reflects the approach of people you admire. I wouldn’t say it’s modeled that way… I remember something Henry Rollins once said while singing for Black Flag, “Why don’t we try to not outsmart our listeners for once?” or something like that. He was talking about how the Black Flag records he’s on sound so drastically different, and [he acknowledged] maybe we don’t have to do that. And those records are amazing! Sometimes when a band does that, like in Black Flag’s case, it works great! And sometimes it doesn’t work great, and you go, “What the fuck is this?!”
For me personally, the thing I took away was, “There’s nothing wrong with consistency, nothing wrong with bringing a certain brand to your audience!” You can still evolve and get better at it! Again, it’s updating the formula. It’s like, you can spot a DJ Premier beat from two miles away. That’s not a bad thing – he’s the greatest hip hop producer, and one of the greatest music producers, that’s ever lived! It doesn’t mean they all sound the same, it doesn’t mean they trudge out the same old stuff every time, but there’s elements there that are very distinct, and I think Fu Manchu does that.
It’s what made the Beastie Boys so great… Those Beastie Boys records obviously evolved, each one is a little bit different than the last, but it’s always the Beastie Boys! If you made a mixtape of them, from Licensed to Ill all the way up to Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, you wouldn’t go, “These are two different groups!” You just hear the progression, and that’s how Fu Manchu is. Even when you go back to the early stuff when Scott’s not even the singer, it still sounds like them. It’s a little bit different, a little more raw, but [the elements] are still there.
Let’s imagine a scenario where you’re onstage and in the middle of a set, suddenly you see Fu Manchu just sitting in the audience watching. What would be going through your mind? What would you do in that moment?
[Laughs] I don’t know man… I’d try to just keep having a good set. I’ve been in similar situations. I was onstage recently… well, back when there was a society… I went down to The Stand [in NYC] to watch Andrew Dice Clay, and met him very briefly after the show. Then I was onstage a show after his, and when I looked over I saw him watching. It does kind of throw you for a second – like, there’s one of my heroes over there! Then you just have to go, “Alright, stay in it! You’re doing well, keep doing well!” [laughs]
A nightmare scenario happened when I was new to comedy in New York – I was onstage not having a good set and Inspectah Deck from the Wu Tang Clan was in the audience. Inspectah Deck is my favorite Wu Tang member, and I believe he left during or right after my set [laughs].
If you were to name your next standup special after a Fu Manchu song, which would it be?
That’s a good question… “Laserbl’ast!” would be a good title for a special [laughs]. We Must Obey is such a great title for a record, and the title track is such a cool song. Maybe something like that – the title and the idea – could fit with the type of shit I say onstage.