THE ART OF ZEN LUNATICS
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.
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."
In the meantime, you can catch Zen Lunatics doing its stuff, which includes originals and cheesy covers like "Right Back Where We Started From" by Maxine Nightingale, Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In," the theme from Maude and Lennon's "Imagine" performed as if it were the Beatles' cover of "Act Naturally."
But that's only pulled out when Chris breaks a string. The group also plans a self-released CD for the fall, but given Chris' admission, "We're pretty lazy," it might take longer.
Any band entering its fifth year faces a make-or-break point where outside pressures demand it progress to the next level. Zen Lunatics' endearing inability or unwillingness to meet those demands will have to be addressed at that point when Terry or Chris or (God forbid) Gil will have to do some mandatory schmoozing.
Terry Garvin grudgingly vows he will, but presently is uncertain of whom to schmooze. And why it's even worth it if he's enjoying himself fully now.
So the men from Zen will continue to celebrate the cult of banal TV personalities on their fliers, the funny familiar faces that represent that horror Medusa head known as fame. Possibly, it's their way of saying, "Look, we can't even begin to come near the sphere of influence that a Landon or a Hasselhoff wields, so we're just going to keep doing what makes us happy and steer clear of talking cars and bearded angels, thank you."
"I don't know if I'd want to get in over my head with something like a major-label deal," Garvin says, grimacing. "Just hearing the horror stories from people I know who've gotten signed, it makes it sound really . . . " he pauses to find the exact word.
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