Zen Guerrilla – Shadows on the Sun – Interview

Zen Guerrilla

Shadows on the Sun (Sub Pop)
An interview with vocalist Marcus Durant
by Brian Varney

Interviewing vocalist Marcus Durant was one of the stranger experiences of my life. Having experienced the full force of the Zen Guerrilla live experience, I was expecting to talk to someone who halfway resembled the bug-eyed screaming maniac I’d seen onstage. Removed from the stage, however, Durant is about as far from his onstage persona as possible. Laid-back and reticent, he answered my questions slowly and carefully in his deep, drowsy radio announcer’s voice.

Who designs your album covers?
I do all of the design work and the layout.

Do you do that sort of thing for a living?
I freelance. When I’m not playing music, that’s what I do.

Since you’re the one responsible for the artwork and because of your stage look, I’ve gotta assume you’re a horror/sci-fi fan.
Oh yeah, definitely. I’m a huge Lon Cheney fan, and Boris Karloff, and Peter Crushing. I like those old actors from the silent days into the cheesy ’60s horror and vampire movies. And as far as sci-fi goes… First Men to Venus, Invasion of the Mushroom People… I could go on and on. I collect movie posters. Doctor Who, which is something I grew up with in England, and The Tomorrow People, which no one ever saw here.

Were you born in England?
No, I was born in Turkey, but I lived in England for a good portion of my life.

You met the other guys in the band in Delaware, right?
Yeah, we all went to college at the University of Delaware.

When was that?
That was approximately 1990 or ’91.

Wow, I didn’t realize you’d been around that long. How did you guys hook up?
It was quite an accident. I was walking through a soccer field on campus where there was a little festival going on and I knew this three-piece instrumental band was playing, which was Andy (Duvall, drums), Rich (Millman, guitar), and Carl (Horne, bass), and I pulled Rich aside and said, “Hey, can I sit in with you guys?” He said, “What do you know?” I said, “Uh, I dunno,” and he said, “Do you know ‘Voodoo Child’?” I only knew the first verse, so he wrote down all the lyrics for me, and that’s how it started.

I have an earlier Zen Guerrilla album called Creature Double Feature… was that your first?
I think we put that out in 1995. Our first full-length was in 1993, and we did two 7″s before that.

That album’s sound is more… I don’t want to say “sedate,” but it doesn’t seem as frantic or as deeply rooted in the R&B sound.

There’s an evolution in any kind of creative process with people working together. It wasn’t a conscious decision for us to play one type of music. We draw from different roots and the journey goes on. We’re about to put out this soundtrack thing which is completely different from anything we’ve ever done.

A movie soundtrack? What movie?
Plasmic Tears in the Invisible City. It’s a short film by an independent filmmaker.

Is Sub Pop putting it out?
No, I am.

On Insect (Durant’s label, the imprint responsible for the early Zen Guerrilla releases)?

Has Insect ever released anything besides the Zen Guerrilla stuff?
No. I’ve never been in a financial situation to be able to do that. Now I’m in a better situation, so I’m starting to do stuff again. This will be the first Insect release in a long time. I’m starting to think about putting out other bands now that the resources are there and I understand the business a little more.

Been meaning to ask, what’s that thing you sing through?
It’s an old movie projector speaker. I bought it on the streets of North Philadelphia when I lived there for $5. I pulled the tube amp out of the projector and dropped a tube amp in the back. It was the only thing we had for me to sing through back then, and we just continued to use it.

You’ve also got an effects rack of some sort.
Yeah, it’s just two analogue delays.

Do you actually know how to play the guitar? I know you have that beat-up one that you shake around and stuff during live shows, but can you actually play it?
Well, that is playing it… Just talk to Link Wray. Do you mean do I know chords and what have you?

Yeah, that’s what I meant. It’s kinda hard to tell in the live setting if you’re hitting notes or if you’re just making noise with it.
I’m definitely hitting notes and I’m definitely making noise with it. Rich handles the traditional guitar playing quite well and I use my guitar more as a big noise machine. It’s more of a free-form approach, like Tim Kerr or Link Wray.

Was Rich in a metal band at one time or something? I’m just wondering because he can really shred.
Yeah, he’s got some deep roots in that. I actually met him years ago, when he was 14 or 15, and he was playing in a band called Iron Eddie and I was playing in a band called Flight of Icarus, both Iron Maiden tribute bands.

That explains your cover of “The Trooper.”
Oh yeah. We’re huge Iron Maiden fans. That was pretty much the backdrop of my adolescence.

That’s good to hear. A lot of people in bands are too cool to admit to that.
Everyone’s trying to be cool. We’re just nerds and geeks and pretty honest about our roots, and Iron Maiden was a very important part of our youths, as were many, many bands.

When did you hook into the R&B thing?
I’ve been doing that my whole life. I come from a mixed family. My father’s a black man and my mother’s white, so he brought in a lot of his influences and his love for music, as did my mother.

What did she listen to?
She’s an English woman, so she was into British stuff – Cliff Richard, a lot of the teddy boy music, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Merseybeat thing, and jazz, which both parents liked. That was the alternative music for youngsters in the late ’50s and early ’60s. JJ Johnson, Coltrane, Miles, Bird…

Are you into that stuff, too?
Yeah, very much so. I inherited all the records, so I have a deep appreciation for a lot of jazz.

How’s the scene in San Francisco?
There’re lots of bands. It’s like every city. You always have your pockets of different bands here and there.

Well, Columbus is like a desert. There’s nothing here.
There’re no bands there?

Well, there are, but it’s all indie rock since Columbus is a college town.
Yeah. It’s the same here. There’s indie rock, there’s a little punk rock, a little rock and roll. This is a major city, so there’s going to be more diversity than in a smaller city like yours, but it’s all pretty much the same.

I’ve never lived in a major city, so is it tough to get shows there? I’m sure there are lots of places to play.
It all depends. Luckily, because of our longevity, we can get gigs if we want to play. We had a sort of support group here before we moved, college friends and people we knew. And it’s like anything, you make the most out of whatever little show you can get, and it builds from there.

You knew Jello Biafra before you moved there, right?
We were writing buddies, and then we became friends when we moved here. [The band was on Jello’s label, Alternative Tentacles, between ’97-’98 and released an EP combo of the Invisible Liftee Pad and Gap Tooth Clown EPs, a 7″ for “Trouble Shake,” and the full-length Positronic Raygun.]

That probably didn’t hurt, either.
No, not at all. He’s a good man.

How did you guys get hooked up with Sub Pop?
This guy Dana, who worked for Sub Pop, was down in Austin, getting a cup of coffee, and heard us playing Iron Maiden. He’s an old metalhead, so he ran into the club. He came out to a few shows and was into the band, and that’s how it happened.

Ah, the power of Maiden to join kindred souls. That sort of thing would never happen in Columbus. “Metal” is almost a dirty word around here.
That’s American culture. What are we gonna do, ostracize people and split them into little groups because they like different music? There’s a campy, cheesy element to metal, but if you understand the humor behind it, it’s quite enjoyable.

Were you into Judas Priest too?
Not really. I like Dio a lot. I thought Holy Diver was a great record. Motörhead, AC/DC, you know, the classics. Early Rush. And then there’s Bad Brains, who I considered a punk/metal band. And early Rollins Band. That first Rollins album is total metal. It doesn’t get any cheesier than Rollins.

What are some current bands that you like?
I like the Bell-Rays, Mooney Suzuki, Delta ’72… God, you’ve got me on the spot. Unfortunately, the older you get, the more out of the loop you get… I like the White Stripes, the new Dirtbombs. It’s thin times for rock right now, but it still thrives in little pockets. No one’s getting rich, but it’s around.
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