Zen Guerrilla by Tanya Richardson & Lisa LeeKing Five years ago Jello Biafra signed a rock 'n' roll group from south of the Mason-Dixon Line whom he described as "hardcore Motown." We've searched for a better way to characterize Zen Guerrilla's distinctly hick, always distorted and permanently hopped-up sound ever since. Then last Friday night, with their Sub Pop debut, Trance States in Tongues, blaring in the background and broken glass covering the carpet, we found it. Catching our friend Jesse's eye across the smoky expanse of the kitchen table, we mumbled, "Goin' to the roadhouse, man."
How to describe our conversation with lead singer Marcus Durant is a bigger problem. Zen Guerrilla's 245-pound, 6-foot-7 frontman "challenged" our tag-team approach to interviewing, forcing us to touch on issues not necessarily outside of, but certainly peripheral to, rock 'n' roll?such as midgets, Waffle House and Captain Fiddlesticks. In other words he's a lot like the album cover.
Tanya Richardson: So your dad was a preacher?
Lisa LeeKing: But that's where you get your hair from, right?
My father. Yeah, from his genetic makeup.
LL: Tanya and I are really into big hair.
LL: If you and I had children, our kids would look like one of the guys from the MC5.
TR: Rob Tyner. Bobby Harlow [lead singer of the Go] told me that onstage you're a cross between Rob Tyner and Joe Cocker. We saw a still of you at a show, and you were like five feet up in the air. Do you jump off the amps?
No, that's definitely a ground jump. That's from playing basketball.
LL: I notice that your music is very soul-driven.
I have been singing rhythm and blues since I was a kid, so that's just a natural progression.
LL: What kind of blues and soul did you grow up on?
Lightning Joe Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke...
LL: Is that why you cover Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"?
I heard that song through Otis [Redding]'s rendition. I sorta copied him, because the Sam Cooke version is a little different.
TR: I love that you have the slide guitar on some songs, but it's a distorted guitar, and then your voice is distorted.
We're trying to like turn back the hands of time a little bit and use some primitive technology to capture a different sound. I run my vocals through an old movie projector speaker that I found on the side of the road, and I play a lot of the slide guitar on a beat-up Epiphone with just a couple of strings to give it sort of an archaic feel.
TR: I really think that rock is coming back. What do you think? Are the crowds getting bigger?
Yeah, there is enthusiasm for rock 'n' roll. The crowds have gone up and down. We've been playing for almost 10 years, and I think that rock 'n' roll is here to stay. It's never going to disappear. As long as there's guitars and young 13-year-old kids who enjoy music, rock will always exist.
LL: Who makes up your crowd?
Oh wow, all walks of life. We've played old folks' homes.
TR: Bobby Harlow wears sunglasses all the time, and you wear sunglasses sometimes too. I was really drunk and I tried to go out the other night with mine on and I lost them within an hour, which I took as a sign that I wasn't meant to be a rock star. Or do rock stars just buy cheap sunglasses?
Usually they are given to me. And I wear a harness to keep them on my head.
TR: Like in the fourth grade!
Yeah. Like Horace Grant.
TR: Oh, right.
You know who Horace Grant is?
TR: No. I just said, "Oh right."
He's a basketball player.
TR: Like Kareem!
Exactly. Like Kareem.
LL: What else do you guys do when you're not playing music?
Ah... Rich [guitar] mows grass. And Andy [drums], he's a birdwatcher.
TR: Is that professional birdwatching, or strictly leisure?
Strictly leisure. And Carl [bass] fixes car stereos.
TR: Cool. What do you do?
Eat Pop Tarts and draw. Listen to records. I do graphic design. I did a Matchbox car.
TR: I love your version of "Moonage Daydream." It's the best cover since Guns 'N Roses did "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which I think is better than Dylan's. I prefer yours to Bowie's, and I was thinking that line in it, "Don't fake it baby/Lay the real thing on me," should have been written by you guys.
Well, that's your opinion. I appreciate that assessment. But [Bowie's] song is amazing. Especially the live version. Ours is more of a tribute to Mick Ronson. An amazing guitar player.
LL: What are you guys' future plans?
I told my mom I was going to work on her roof, so my brother and I are going to work on her roof, and then take some time off and go fishing. I guess there's a summer festival in Europe...
LL: What keeps you guys going on the road? Is it the drugs, the alcohol or the sex?
It's cherry cobbler.
TR: Which can be incorporated into all of those I suppose.
We get it at truck stops.
LL: Already packaged?
Ah no, fresh. Fresh from the stainless steel bins. We like to hit the Iron Skillets all over the country, too.
TR: Ever go to Huddle House?
We went to a Waffle House. There's this one Waffle House we visited just outside of Lawrence, KS, and it's run by dwarves. A family of dwarves.
TR: Wow. Tell us about it.
Ah...well it's just a Waffle House and it's run by dwarves.
LL: I'm kind a terrified of midgets. My old roommate always threatened to hire midgets for my birthday and have them strip. And I told him I would jump out the window.
Oh well, they're good people. Rich is related to some ah...
TR: Smaller people?
LL: That's what they like to be called, smaller people?
TR: I think they would definitely object to wee ones. Or half pint. Don't call 'em half pint.
Exactly. But we were actually turned on to this Waffle House from them [the smaller people]. They were in lower Delaware and came out to a couple of our shows and told us once a year they make a pilgrimage to a convention in Florida for the small people. They said, "Yeah, stop into the Waffle House outside Lawrence, KS, and they'll take care of you." So we've been going there for the last 10 years.
LL: I know about the festival in Florida. I was down there once and they're very serious.
LL: But then they also have midget tossing! So, pfft! That kinda contradicts everything.
I thought that was outlawed.
LL: Nope. Not that I know of.
TR: Nothing's outlawed in the South, except for oral sex.
Is oral sex outlawed?
LL: Yes sir.
TR: It's outlawed in a lot of places. My friend Cathryn grew up in North Carolina and she actually knows someone who got arrested for giving oral sex.
Wow. That's harsh.
TR: Did you ever drop in on William S. Burroughs while you were in Lawrence?
No, I hear he lives out there.
TR: Well he's dead now.
I never met him. I didn't know him.
LL: Most of us didn't.
I met Roald Dahl though. Met him when I was a kid. Wrote in his little gypsy caravan.
LL: You rode in a gypsy caravan with him?
No, he wrote all his books in a gypsy caravan in his backyard. I guess it's in Upper Hayford, England? We took a class trip there and he gave us a little tour of the caravan. I was living in England at the time. My mother is British.
TR: I like British women because British women can get real wild and crazy, but the men are very uptight.
LL: And dirty.
TR: What's your mom like?
She's pretty wild. She's loose. She likes to have a good time.
TR: Did she make you drink a lot of tea?
Ah no, she doesn't even drink tea. She drinks coffee. She loves black men. Loves rock 'n' roll. Loves her garden.
TR: Was she the one putting on these records you heard when you were little?
Well, and my dad. He was like a huge Ohio Players fan. And the Stylistics. That was like the first show I ever saw, the Stylistics.
LL: So have your parents seen Zen Guerrilla play?
Oh yeah. It makes sense to them. It's sorta like me at age two. I'm just forming syllables now.
TR: Led Zeppelin is mentioned a lot with you guys. Are you a big Led Zep fan?
I loved them as a kid. You couldn't be a redneck kid and not like Led Zeppelin.
TR: I'm from Texas and I think I watched Song Remains the Same about 500 times. I cried every time they got on the plane at the end.
The local motorcycle gang in lower Delaware used to put on the June Jam every year, and they would sink kegs of beer into the mud in the pond. At that time Rich and I were in an Iron Maiden cover band, but anyway they would show Song Remains the Same on a back wall.
TR: Have you ever read Hammer of the Gods?
I own it, but I just looked at the pictures.
LL: Do you have any entertaining road stories you'd like to share?
There's a guy I'd like to plug who's really entertaining. This guy Captain Fiddlesticks.
TR: Okay...plug away.
He's a fiddler, he's missing both of his arms and he plays the fiddle with his feet. We were in New Orleans, I guess it was six years ago, and we heard the sound of this fiddle. So Rich and I went to go investigate. Turns out it was this guy who calls himself Captain Fiddlesticks and he was playing the fiddle on his boat. He invited us in and he had different Polaroids of all the people who have come to visit him. He has always beckoned his friends through his music, so we were added to the wall. If you are ever in New Orleans and you hear a distant fiddle, go and visit Captain Fiddlesticks.
TR: Does he have any fire in his stage show?
I mean playing fiddle with your feet is a spectacle in itself. Needs no fire.
TR: Do you ever break things when you're on the road, or you know, just smash them?
I've gone through some stages...
TR: You mean you've been through some phases where you broke things?
LL: Or you've actually fallen through the stages?
Yeah. I've gone right through 'em. Cause like I'm 6-feet-7 and I weigh about 245 pounds.
LL: Did they make you pay for that?
Naw, they just made us carry it all to the dumpster. It was a place called Deer Park at the University of Delaware. It was the stage that George Thorogood got started on. I went through it and then they kept a piece of the stage and then the next time George was there, he signed it, and the rest of it went to the dumpster. But I've gone through other stages.
TR: Have you heard of this new band at Sub Pop called the Yo-Yo's? Steve Manning at Sub Pop was telling me that the lead singer projectile-vomits onstage.
I just saw the Yo-Yo's last night. I didn't see any vomit. I actually met these two brothers. They played in this band called Cumdumpster about eight years ago and they would set themselves on fire and they would both puke at the same time. I guess they had it worked out?to vomit on thought.
LL: What can we expect at the show at CBGB in a couple weeks?
It's in a couple weeks?
LL: Three weeks from Saturday.
Man, I didn't even look at the tour routing yet. Man, two weeks!
LL: Three weeks.
Oh. That's cool.
TR: What would happen if you ever made it? Would you play stadiums?
I'd rather play 10 shows at CBGB than play a stadium. Although I don't think that will ever happen. I'm not a little skinny kid anymore and I think my marketability is like out the window. I'm blessed to be playing these little bars for the rest of my life.
Zen Guerrilla, Nebula and the Go play CBGB this Sat., March 25.