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Heritage Hump Day: Zen Lunatics - "Media Sensation"

Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that walked the scorched earth of Arizona before the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have only seven days to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.

Those who were around in the '90s may have forgotten how fun it was to have a band like Zen Lunatics in our local scene. But, thanks to the copious notes I took, it will all came back to you if you reread my July 13, 1995 feature, "The Art of Zen Lunatics," which starts off with the Zens playing a Nita's Hideaway Fourth of July gig where Zen frontmen Terry Garvin and Chris Hansenorf passed around a Stuckey's Pecan Roll for the audience to enjoy:

"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."

At a time when bands were so sullen and serious thanks to grunge and its casualties, Zen Lunatics were serious about nothing, including their musical careers. Back to the 1995 text:

"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."

As a result, their own recordings are extremely hard-to-find souvenirs of this halcyon time but thanks to the archivist efforts of singer Cait Brennan, who has played with the Lunatics a great deal over the years, there exists a complete set of Zen Lunatics recordings which some of the band members didn't even manage.

And that's where we plucked this week's Heritage Hump single, a Chris Hansenorf composition called "Media Sensation."

"I remember writing 'Media Sensation' in my shitty downtown Phoenix apartment right after Chris Farley died in 1997," remembers Chris. "This was before TMZ and Perez Hilton, but the mainstream media was making a big deal out of the bad behavior of Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr., and there were some other actors in the press, too. River Phoenix had died a few years before. I felt bad about Farley and I thought the media was kind of stoking this bad behavior in Hollywood by reporting on it and giving it all this attention when these dudes had serious drug problems and such.

"So I wrote "Media Sensation' from the point of view of a parting wannabe Hollywood dude and I got the first lines 'You can toast me with a champagne glass/ never been in an acting class/ but I got a nice ass' and it went from there. I remember Ethan Hawke was writing his first novel so I called that out too, getting press for working on a novel because he was an actor -- never mind if it was going to be any good or not -- so it was 'get down before me and grovel/ 'cause I'm working on my first novel." I remember me and Terry demoed it at his house on New Year's Eve of 97/98 and then we recorded it with Ric and Gilbert for one of those CDs we put out later."

"We kind of got a kick out of 'Media Sensation' -- just ham-fisted barred chords and a snotty attitude -- not our normal melodic power pop we focused on writing at the time -- and it was in our sets from then on."

The Zen Lunatics' long run may have ended permanently with an appearance at the 2011 International Pop Overthrow. Even the Rock Karaoke night they originated at the Sail Inn and ran for many years goes on without their involvement. For a while, they were contenders for Arizona's Longest Running Band, with maybe only the Glass Heroes posing a serious threat. I prefer to remember them as they billed themselves on a poster in 1995 after seeing The Refreshments being billed as "Arizona's Number One Band."

That's when Terry Garvin took matters into his own hands and made his posters say that Zen Lunatics were "America's Number One Band."

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic