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Standing six-foot-seven and sporting a dark, frizzy coif straight out of the Handsome Dick Manitoba playbook, Zen Guerrilla vocalist Marcus Durant looks more like a refugee from the White Panthers than a budding soul sensation. Yet Durant insists that within his lanky, bohemian frame beats the heart of an honest-to-God rhythm-and-blues singer.
"I'm from a mixed family," he says. "My dad is black and my mom is white. So my dad brought a lot of his musical influences into the house. I was raised on people like Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, the Dramatics, the Stylistics. That was the backdrop of my childhood. Plus my dad was heavily involved in the Baptist church, and we used to really cut loose on Sundays. My relatives used to get a kick out of watching me sing gospel tunes. They called me 'Redbone.' But they always encouraged me."
Today the 29-year-old singer continues to testify--but those searching for the next Al Green should look elsewhere. Indeed, Durant's soulful shriek owes more to Robert Plant than to the man behind "Let's Stay Together," and the songs he plays with his mates (guitarist Rich Millman, bassist Carl Horne and drummer Andy Duvall) won't be covered by a choir anytime soon. The foursome blends the classic hard-rock choogle of the MC5 and the Spahn Ranch-inspired psychedelia of the Butthole Surfers into a perverted, bombastic brew that evokes dusty roadhouses and greasy truck stops. Some might even describe it as the devil's music--and if that's true, sinfulness never sounded so good.
The band got its start when Durant and Millman met at a heavy-metal battle of the bands in their home state of Delaware, a place known more for its puritanism than for its music scene. "It was 1984," Durant notes, "and all these pagans from around the area would set up this huge outdoor festival each year and show off their best licks. Rich was in this Iron Maiden band called Iron Eddie, and I remember being quite impressed with his guitar playing."
The two hooked up again while attending classes at the University of Delaware. Millman, who was already jamming with Horne and Duvall, asked Durant to sit in with the band and sing Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" at an outdoor event sponsored by the college. Durant accepted the invitation, and while the gig wasn't exactly one for the history books ("I only knew the first verse," says the singer, "so I got up there and sang it three times"), the four were pleased enough with the results to forge ahead.
Upon graduation, the combo left Delaware and set up shop in a warehouse on the north side of Philadelphia--a section of town Durant describes as "the ghetto. It was scary up there at times, but the rent was only $25 a month. Plus, it gave me a better perspective on things.
"Philadelphia is a great music town," he continues. "The scene is more integrated there. The black and white communities are a little bit more fused in Philly--at least they were from my perspective, being in a rock band. It wasn't uncommon for hip-hop guys to get up on stage with us, or for Rich to get up and play guitar with an R&B band. There's just a different spirit there. I mean, it's the City of Brotherly Love. It had a big influence on our music, and I think we had a big influence on theirs."
This brand of musical cross-pollination is exemplified by the connection between Zen Guerrilla and Scott Herzog, a producer best known for working with preeminent soul acts such as Curtis Mayfield. Herzog produced a pair of EPs for the Guerrillas--Invisible "Liftee" Pad and Gap-Tooth Clown, both made for their own Insect Records imprint--but only after coming to grips with their eccentric approach to the blues. "At first he was kind of like, 'What the fuck?'" Durant recalls. "He didn't understand us wanting to set up in the middle of the room, with all this bleed and noise. And he didn't understand distortion. For him, I think it was all a confused mess." Adding to the chaos were Durant's sardonic vocals, which he filtered through a heap of jury-rigged gadgetry, including a speaker from an old movie projector that had been discarded. "It looks cooler than it actually is," Durant admits. "Basically I just slid the amp out of an old projector I found on Fifth Street and ran it through some old effects that have been dropped one too many times. It's essentially just a piece of shit that I like the sound of."
Boulder native Jello Biafra, who made his name fronting the Dead Kennedys, was impressed by this racket as well: He reissued the EPs on his San Francisco-based label, Alternative Tentacles, around the same time that the Guerrillas packed their gear and their loved ones and migrated to the Bay Area. Durant insists that restlessness, rather than the deal with Biafra, motivated the shift in locales. "We didn't come here with any sort of band expectations," he says. "We just wanted a better climate."
As it turned out, the marriage between the Guerrillas and Alternative Tentacles wasn't built to last: After putting out just one disc for Biafra's company (the entertainingly nightmarish Positronic Raygun), the band split on what Durant says were amicable terms. "We actually sat down with Biafra and talked it out, and he thought it was a good idea, too. I've known Jello since I used to write letters to him back in college, and the label has been really, really good to us. We just thought it was time to move on and try something different."