THE ART OF ZEN LUNATICS

ALL THIS BAND WANTS TO DO IS ENTERTAIN YOU. IS THAT SO WRONG?

It's 10 a.m. and Terry Garvin of Zen Lunatics is cuckoo. For the munchy, crunchy, chocolatey taste of Cocoa Puffs, that is. It's an addiction that has reared its sugary head only in recent years.

"I didn't eat breakfast cereals for the longest time because they would depress me. I always associated consuming them with immediately having to go to school afterwards," the blond, lanky and bespectacled singer reflects. "I would occasionally snack some out of the box, but the whole ritual of pouring it into a bowl, then adding milk and having to go grab a spoon, was something I staunchly avoided.

"Because once you add the milk," he pauses with a sigh, "your time is up."
Now it's 10 p.m. and Chris Hansenorf, Garvin's partner in Zen lunacy, has taken it upon himself to feed the masses congregated at Nita's Hideaway for the group's Fourth of July set.

"We've got a Stuckey's Pecan Roll," Hansenorf promises. "I'll take the first bite and pass it around. You fellas down front are next to take a bite out of this thing."

It's an obscenely large pecan roll, at least ten inches long. Despite perplexed looks from some pool-table patrons unaccustomed to getting complimentary snacks with their game, the sticky sucker gets dutifully masticated before getting sent back to the stage, a few mouthfuls short of a memory.

If these two front men seem a little quirkier than the usual Tempe bar-band fare, consider the group's Latin rhythm section which plays nothing more ethnic than Merseybeat rhythms. Drummer Frank Camacho and bassist Gilbert Padilla maintain the time-honored low profiles their support instruments dictate. Yet grumpy Gil takes the stoic-bass-player role a step further.

Frankly, he always looks like someone who's being forced to perform 1,000 hours of community service in this fun, happy-go-lucky pop combo. Even Garvin's attempts to egg some rock star moves out of him meet with stony indifference.

Rarely registering a blip of emotion beyond raising his right eyebrow, Padilla is a blank canvas on which Chris and Terry project their fantasies of a renegade bassman ruled by his fists and unwilling to listen to reason. Years ago, Terry began feeding audiences stories that quiet Padilla was once a pro welterweight and Norman Fell's bodyguard during The Ropers years. That led to fanciful tales that Gil once pummeled a crazed female fan that was stalking Fell. Tonight, Chris keeps announcing that pyrotechnic-crazed Gil will rig and detonate his Fender Jazz bass with an M80 upon completion of this Independence Day show.

That never happens. Nor does Gil ever honor the anguished requests that he sing Elvis' "Burning Love," something he's apparently done a total of once.

If this doesn't sound like four well-adjusted males in their late 20s, chances are you're not yet a card-carrying member of the Zen Lunatics Fun Club. Despite an abortive breakup in 1994 that lasted only five months, the Lunatics have persevered. In the process, the boys, er, men, have accrued some glowing press notices and a cultish following in Tempe.

Unlike most of the solemn, surly local bands that came about as a by-product of grunge, this outfit lives not to pontificate or coagulate, but to amuse.

Somewhere along the way, the words "entertain" and "youth culture" became mutually exclusive, a situation the Zens exist to rectify with songs like "Mack Truck Tracy" ("I like to breath in her exhaust") and "She Don't Shake Me Up" ("She knocks down buildings, ruins freeways, but she ain't ruining me").

"Zen Lunatics are meant to be basic, fun pop songs," Hansenorf clarifies, trying to conceal his beer from 1:01 a.m. confiscation in Nita's parking lot. "I couldn't hate anything worse than somebody singing about their drug habit or trying to change the world," Garvin agrees. "You want people to enjoy themselves. It's stupid to form a band so you can go play Long Wong's and when you get there, you act too serious and cool for the whole place. That's why I don't go to see bands. If bands were friendly and warm, I'd go see them."

Except for Camacho, who joined last year, the other three Lunatics have been together in various friendly and warm bands for almost 15 years. Garvin managed to keep in touch with his mates even after he was traumatically uprooted from Phoenix in his teens and enrolled in an upscale, snobbish high school in Orange County, California.

"That really does a number on you," he quietly snickers. "The whole social aspect of [school] was too creepy to wanna deal with."

Being part of a weird pop band in a local music scene must be equally creepy for Garvin to deal with. What could be more like an extended version of high school than watching freshman acts schmoozing to get in good with more senior groups, everybody competing in a great, big rock popularity contest?

Garvin, who doesn't have the stomach for breakfast cereals because they remind him of school, similarly eschewed Tempe nightlife because it "got to be too cliquish and competitive. And it's not even competitiveness about something worth being competitive about. It's nit-picky stuff like who goes on before who." These days, upon completion of another Zen Lunatics show, Garvin simply packs up his guitars and heads on home.

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