"It just fell apart," Durant says from a friend's house in his adopted hometown San Francisco. "They made us disassemble the stage and take it out to the Dumpster. They were kind of mad because George Thorogood had played on that stage. I think they saved a piece of it for him to sign later."
Thorogood-related memorabilia is plentiful in Zen Guerilla's state of birth, Delaware, as the "Bad to the Bone" guitarist is one of its best-known musical exports. Durant's group takes a much dirtier, noisier path than Thorogood, blending blues chords with early-grunge feedback, punk-rock velocity, and a disarming dose of genuine soul. On Trance States in Tongues, its latest release on the resurgent rock and roll mecca Sub Pop Records, the band moves from the scorching speed of "Preacher's Promise" to the moody "Magpie" to the Zeppelin-style big-guitar-and-drums bravado of "Mod Riot." Each member of the quintet gets plenty of chances to shine, and guitarist Rich Millman's other-worldly remake of David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" provides the album's most dazzling moment, but Durant's distinctive Otis-Redding-drowned-in-distortion yowl is the power generator.
When speaking, however, Durant's voice is more reminiscent of deadpan comedian Steven Wright, a likeness reinforced by his dry sense of humor. When asked how the band's live set has changed over its 10-year existence, he offers, "We play different songs." Describing his group's mature following, he quips, "Most of our fans range from 55 to 70. We should play on cruise ships." And when asked how he would spend his money if Zen Guerilla became the next big thing, he says, without pause, "Pay off my college loans, or fix my mom's roof."
Yet Durant takes his live shows quite seriously. In order to ensure that Zen Guerilla surrenders itself to the spontaneous spirit of the music, the group never writes a set list. Occasionally, the group will break into impromptu tunes that might eventually become album tracks, or might remain one-time-only creative bursts.
"Rich will come up with some sort of structure in his head, and we'll just pull it off live, or sometimes we don't pull it off," Durant says. "But I think just by playing it, we're pulling it off."
Due to this philosophy, fans never know what to expect from a Zen Guerilla show, but some have been more surprised than others at what they heard. When the group was signed to punk icon Jello Biafra's label Alternative Tentacles, which released two of its albums, at least a portion of each night's crowd was composed of spiky-haired scenesters familiar with the label who had never heard the band but were expecting something along the lines of the Dead Kennedys.
"That's a cool twist, though, to expect something and get something completely different," Durant says. "That works to our advantage, or it might work against us. But maybe some punk rock kid went out and bought an Al Green record because of us."
As a kid, Durant's own record collection was a mixed bag, with The Ohio Players and The Kinks side by side on his shelf. His musical tastes were further established by two diverse concerts he attended at a tender age.
"I was really into Iron Maiden," says Durant, who was part of a short-lived cover band named Iron Eddie. "I can remember when I first laid eyes on the great three-story-high Iron Eddie puppet. It was pretty impressive, especially when you're on cheap scotch, cheap weed, and No Doz. I also saw The Stylistics when I was a kid. I thought that was amazing -- and that was just leisure suits and shiny shoes -- so I guess both kinds of shows have a place in the world."
While his band won't be incorporating a puppet into its stage show, Durant, who will be releasing a book containing his posters and other graphic designs this spring, plans to add a visually stimulating element to the band's performances. "I've started working on a 3-D movie, and I'm just trying to figure out how to pull it off live," he says. "We used films five years ago, and they would always break, so I'm going to need video projectors as well as 3-D glasses. We would do a soundtrack for the movie, with completely new songs. It'll probably be like a cheesy '60s motorcycle movie, with people running lost gems from Mexico to San Diego or something. I haven't really worked out the story line."
In the meantime, the visual element of Zen Guerilla's shows still consists of Durant pacing the stage and occasionally ravaging a guitar or harmonica between impassioned shouts. It's a grueling physical workout, but Durant says he avoids dehydration and other health problems by fueling up on fluids before the show and eating well, though nutritionists might debate the latter point.
"We work together with our booking agent to route our tours around Petro's truck stops where they have The Iron Skillet," Durant says. "After a few big-size plates of trucker food, we're ready for the show."
On his way to Zen Guerilla's stop in Lawrence, the band might fill up on Mexican food instead of the usual trucker fare, as Durant, a Sin City Disciples fan, says he'd like to catch up with Sancho's chef, fellow blues-harp player Ernie Locke, and maybe even try to arrange an onstage harmonica duet. Seeing Durant and Locke pool their sizable talents might provide one of the year's biggest thrills for local blues aficionados, and, once the mountainous pair starts moving to the music, one of the biggest strains of the year on The Bottleneck stage. However, it's safe to assume that this venue had the foresight to reinforce its stage, so Durant can feel free to engage in what he calls his "best Rick James impression" throughout the night without fear of early morning disassembling duty.
Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zen Guerillawith NebulaMonday, March 13at The Bottleneck