By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
For those who think rock 'n' roll is heaven, Marcus Durant is a musical high priest, spreading the Zen Guerrilla gospel from his San Francisco church. During live shows, the Afroed frontman shakes like Frankenstein clipped to a car battery, throwing feverish hands to the heavens, sinking to the floorboards, and conjuring the kind of raw rhythms for which Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Durant is a mad mix of Elvis Presley and Otis Redding, a preacher intent on twisting early rock and soul into calls to the Almighty. Between songs, Durant constantly mumbles to the crowd, saying, "Thank you, thank you very much, fantabulous," as if he were a saved man. Meanwhile, the other members of Zen Guerrilla -- guitarist Rich Millman, bassist Carl Horne, and drummer Andy Duvall -- swarm around Durant like an angry hive, spastically conjuring a perfect blend of Motor City aggression, Seattle sludge, and Hendrix-y blues.
You only have to witness Zen Guerrilla once to become a believer in the band's gospel. "The records are great too, but you have to see them live," testifies Jack Endino, the esteemed Seattle producer who worked on the last two Zen Guerrilla albums as well as a big chunk of the "grunge catalog." Endino originally signed on to produce the band after confirming that its live show is truly a spectacle. Since then he's joined Zen Guerrilla onstage once for a cover of Iron Maiden's "The Trooper." "That was one of the highlights of my career," he laughs.
It's usually hard to get this kind of fanaticism outside of Pat Robertson's 700 Club, but Zen Guerrilla deserves it, having perfected its sound over the last 11 years. For his part, Durant has been developing his evangelical style even longer.
"I guess my earliest memory is of going to Coney Island to see my great-grandmother," says Durant, sipping coffee with Duvall at the Atlas Cafe in the Mission District. "I was probably 5, and we were at a gospel church. To this day I still remember seeing my dad flipping out and dropping to his knees. I realized the power of the music and what it did to my family, and I wanted to try my hand at that kind of black magic.
"My dad was a singer, and he really cut loose. When your dad does something, you're just like, "That's the coolest thing in the world.' You want to do it better. So I started trying to outdo my dad and fit in with the congregation."
Durant was born to a black American father and white British mother in Turkey in the late '60s. He moved to Greece and England before heading to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware with his mother and younger brother when his father left for Vietnam in 1969. The next eight years were a blur, as the family moved to London, Kansas, New York, and Oklahoma before settling back in Delaware again. By this time, Durant was technically a fourth-grader, but all the school shuffling had left him behind his classmates. "I flunked fourth grade so I had to do home summer school, and my dad took it pretty seriously," says Durant. "I had to read one entire edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. To beat the monotony, I would memorize all the words from a stack of 45s from Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, and the Byrds. I had this whole repertoire that I would sing for my mom."
Luckily for Durant, his parents were avid music fans. His father spent several years in London in the early '60s, listening to Motown and jazz and rubbing shoulders with famous musicians. "He was an American black man in London, which was pretty rare at the time, so he hung out with the musicians that were also black and American -- like Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. It was a cultural bonding," says Durant. His mother, who also lived in London, brought her love for British bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, all of which got their hooks into Durant. "From those big influences it was pretty natural for me to start some kind of music endeavor," he says.
When he was 13 Durant began singing for a short-lived Iron Maiden cover band called Flight of Icarus, eventually hooking up with an ex-hippie to diversify his musical experience. "This guy Lee played guitar really well -- and also had a serious connection on the weed -- so I would go to his place a lot. I spent probably every weekend there, jamming with him and learning improv skills. I also started getting into the blues, and my uncle had given me a harmonica, so I played that and guitar."
After playing in various groups, Durant met up with the other members of Zen Guerrilla in the summer of 1990 at the University of Delaware in Newark. "We had fun, and there was the right levity and positive energy going into the music, so I got more and more serious about it," he says. Much of the early songs were what Durant calls "long grooves and psychedelic moments" -- experiments in sound that drew from Throbbing Gristle, My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and new wave. But Durant always had a primal urge to work in the music from his childhood. "The blues got me through so much when I was a kid," he says. "My mom is white and my dad is black, so we were not treated like your average family. There was a lot of racism and prejudice. My dad couldn't find work, and I watched him getting treated like a dog, so those early memories funnel into the music."