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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."
Zen Guerrilla started finding its feet musically in the early '90s, so it created the indie label Insect to release its records, putting out a couple of singles, several EPs, and one LP between 1991 and 1995. Initially, the band's tours consisted of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and begging for burgers at fast-food joints, but, over time, Zen Guerrilla gained a reputation and high-profile tour partners like the Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard, Babes in Toyland, Hole, and Neurosis.
When Zen Guerrilla's members moved to San Francisco in 1995, Durant looked up Alternative Tentacles owner and punk icon Jello Biafra, who'd been giving Durant advice about running a small label since 1989. Biafra's label rereleased two Guerrilla EPs in 1997 and the album Positronic Raygunin 1998; Sub Pop picked up the act for 1999's Trance Stage in Tongues.
Trancewas a solid mix of sludged-out psychedelic riffage and soulful vocals, featuring an acid-soaked cover of Bowie's "Moonage Daydream." In order to support the album, the band toured all over the world, including a memorable stop at Spain's SerieB festival last September, when Zen Guerrilla filled in for headliners Limp Bizkit. "All the promoters were freaking out because they thought there was gonna be a riot," says Durant. "There were 20,000 people there and there wasn't proper security. We get onstage, and these people are throwing bottles of urine and yelling, "Where's our Bizkit?' We were in heaven, laughing our asses off, and everyone on the side stage was solemn. By the third song the crowd was enthusiastic. All of a sudden we made 20,000 [new] fans."
Zen Guerrilla's latest Sub Pop record, Shadows on the Sun, should make the group even more fans. From the amped-up back-porch jam of "Evening Sun" to the soul ballad "Fingers" to the acid rock instrumental "Subway Transmission," Shadows is the band's best album yet, fusing the blues and gospel fevers of Durant's youth with layers of heavy rock riffs like those of proto-metal acts Blue Cheer and the MC5.
As the band readies for another big tour, Durant discusses his recently shot Super 8 documentary Plasmic Tears and the Invisible City, which focuses on the plight of low-income and homeless men in the Tenderloin. "I can't help but look into the eyes of these guys and see my dad," Durant says. "San Francisco, for all its liberalism, definitely has its segregation neatly worked out. As rich as this city is, there's still people living on the streets."
For a moment, Durant sounds like one of the concerned preachers he listened to as a child. Then he switches over to talking about his true faith -- performing with Zen Guerrilla. "I get really caught up in the energy and the feedback of the crowd. It's really honest and it puts me in my own world. I try to give 100 percent [live] because I know the next day I won't be able to thank everybody for giving me that positive experience. It's a truly blissful, honest black magic that I'm very thankful for."
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