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By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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Recent major-label signings of several Valley acts, coupled with the explosion of the Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets on a national level, has sent most bands in Tempe scurrying like desperate donkeys toward that ever-dangling carrot known as major-label validation. Compared to these pressed-for-success outfits, the four Zenmen-Äand the speed with which they've pursued their goals these past four years--seem downright unambitious.
"We've never done a massive demo-tape mailing," confesses Garvin, whose last rejection letter from a major label dates back to the late Eighties. And that was for Fourth Generation Rain, an earlier, folk-psychedelic incarnation of Zen Lunatics.
It hardly bodes well for the band's major-label hopes that Garvin, the most business-minded of the Lunatics, claims he doesn't even set foot in record stores since he got burned by a lackluster Robyn Hitchcock album in 1988. "I don't know what record labels still exist," he admits.
Garvin reserves far greater interest in creating the group's trademark fliers, which usually sport glossy pix of nauseating TV celebrities like Michael Landon and Bea Arthur and subliminally humorous ad copy like "The Zen Lunatics invite you to the Zen Lunatics show."
Garvin fashioned these after concert posters from the Fifties which featured hopelessly overblown hyperbole like "Live and In Person." After seeing the Refreshments were being labeled "Arizona's Number One Band," Garvin took matters into his own hands, boasting on recent posters that Zen Lunatics were "America's Number One Band."
Last May, the band briefly dispensed with its usual celebrity-studded flier for an angry-looking live shot of bassist Gil for their short-lived "America's Meanest Band" campaign.
Regardless of disposition, this group is probably one of the few within spitting distance that is still infatuated with the craft of pop songwriting. You'll find a lot of bands claiming to be pop simply by virtue that they're not playing ELP or heavy metal.
The distinction doesn't escape Garvin, who attaches a greater source of pride at sharing the same birthday as Lawrence Welk than sharing a stage with some of these alleged pop outfits.
"There's still a lot of boring, four-chord bands out there. And they're not even four really good chords; it's always really obvious minor chords," he says, shaking his head in disgust.
"Turning up the amps, blasting it out and pretending you're a punk--that's not pop. Pop's all very well-planned out. If you arrange a song for a reason, it has a purpose and intention when you piece it together. You have to at least believe in something beyond verse and chorus."
Yet the random approach is exactly what Chris and Terry employ in their alter-ego side project, the Dead Brains. "When I was 19, I drew a cartoon of this fictitious rock group that had a whole history to them," Chris explains. "Then we actually wrote songs for them that were all metaphorically sexual."
These early attempts included a reactionary frat-boy pastiche called "Fucked Up at a Tupperware Party" and the poignant ballad "Hemorrhoids Are a Pain in the Ass." The Dead Brains modus operandi is for Chris and Terry to get together with the intent of writing and recording ten songs in a five-hour period, pretending to be someone else.
"It's basically an excuse for us to act stupid and make a lot of fart jokes," says Terry. "And do something creative real fast without trying to second-guess it."
The last homemade Dead Brains tape distributed to friends and fans was 1992's 18 Songs Across Texas, a deliciously sprawling affair said to have been accumulated during the phony band's winter tour of Texas. According to Chris, "The Brains stunned audiences across the state, playing impromptu gigs at shopping centers, truck stops and anyplace they could find an electrical outlet."
"In our minds, they're a four-piece band," notes Terry. "Singer Igor Love is Chris' alter ego. Their drummer is Lou Tall. He's eight-foot-four and looks enormous sitting behind his kit. I don't have a current Guinness Book of Records, but I'd have to guess he's the tallest man alive."
Although the Zen Lunatics haven't yet seen the wisdom of adding instrumentals like "Toilet Pressure" and spoken-word pieces like "An Open Letter to Nancy Reagan" and "The Degradation of the Arts by Businessmen" into its live set, several other Dead Brains gems have managed to creep in.
"We do a song called 'Molly' which Igor wrote for Molly Ringwald because, for a while, he and she were the hot couple in Hollywood. Once they both decided to go into Jack in the Box topless," Garvin marvels. Yet the song sidesteps this alleged controversy and merely repeats her five-letter name over and over. The Zens also close their current live set with "Mack Truck Tracy," traditionally the Dead Brains' big-finish number.
One could see these strictly-for-laughs home recordings taking off with the music underground and Dead Brains following bands like Ween and Jack Logan into the realm of oddball critical faves. Could fiction overtake the Zens' reality?
"We've never thought about doing a Dead Brains live set for real until the other night when Frank didn't show up for practice and I got behind the drums," says Garvin. "We should get an opening gig doing this stuff."