Derek Zanetti is walking the streets of Los Angeles hours before a show at the Roxy. His project, The Homeless Gospel Choir, seems engineered to be at odds with the gig headliner, ‘68, at face value — his folk-punk would be followed by frenetic, meaty rock n’ roll. Like most artists faced with mixed bills, he’s unfazed, and actually tells me he functions better in these unpredictable support slots. “People hear the name The Homeless Gospel Choir and it’s difficult for some people to visualize what that might actually happen to look like, and it’s just one person with an acoustic guitar. I have all the free range in the world to win someone over to my side,” he would explain.
If one were to venture to The Homeless Gospel Choir’s side, the Pittsburgh songwriter’s discography would immediately strike as deep and devotional, reaching back as far as 2010 with the decidedly lo-fi Some people never go anywhere, each subsequent release building a steady catalog of protest narratives. In 2014, Zanetti teamed up with A-F Records — a label founded by seminal soapboxers Anti-Flag — to release I Used to Be So Young, a meditation on aging (he is now 34), the state of domestic affairs (a haunting song about Black Friday stampedes damns commercialism with a sparse kiss-off), and most importantly the self in midst of all these external crises.
A record that features these themes and opens with “Armageddon,” a loose recasting of the apocalypse in current times, carries with it a transparent, nervous anxiety. Consider having “Untitled” in its running order, a folk-punk romp that carries the line, “I don’t sing about politics anymore,” before Derek quickly retracts that statement a few stammered chords later. The rest of the record is as unapologetic as it is linked through these heady subject choices, as well as by the staticky noise of paid programming and commercial snippets. Zanetti would explain: “My mind, when I perceive information or go anywhere, is under fire by this cultural coercion. Everything is a marketing scheme, a diet pill, a pyramid scheme. My decision-making process as a 34-year old, even though I’d like to say that I’m far removed from that control, is still very much part of that. In between all these static and noise of these commercials, I get to have these little moments of clarity in between this menagerie of bullshit.” These moments of clarity — produced in part by Anti-Flag’s Chris No. 2 — whether frantic in the case of “Untitled,” or somber as on “Black Friday,” are raw and humanistic portraits.
Derek and I talked ahead of the release of Normal, a two-track 7” issued via A-F this past week. Although also produced by Chris No. 2, its title track sports a more plugged-in demeanor than the musician’s entire back catalog, complete with raucous gang vocals and a rhythm section brimming with zeal. Keeping with the inclusive nature of his live sets, “Normal” set out to open a different dialogue for those not potentially privy to the Homeless Gospel Choir’s platform. “I wanted to make my idealism a little more inviting here. We’re not talking about Donald Trump or sex trafficking in this song, but if this song gets your attention, I can start to have this conversation congruently with the audience.” And for those hungry for Zanetti’s rallying cries updated for 2017, one proudly returns on the B-side “Why?,” recorded alongside close friends to resemble a powerful, intimate live performance.
“Normal,” however, pushes Zanetti’s upbringing to the forefront, with the refrain “you’re never gonna be normal because you’re punk” coursing through the song’s central nervous system. “I was raised in a very evangelical, right-wing church and wasn’t allowed to listen to mainstream music,” he said. “It was forbidden in many ways. I can remember when I was in middle school, they would take away my Metallica CDs and say that the devil was in it. I remember a minister came to my house and told my parents to get rid of their non-Christian music, because Michael Jackson was of the devil, Queen was of the devil.” Despite this, the song shrieks of redemption in the form of a Green Day cassette in 1994, a tangible vessel of hope.
As the loudest gateway to the Homeless Gospel Choir’s inner chambers, the track sets off on a new, non-denominational mission: to dissolve fear for a new generation — one perhaps bred to be fearful of a different looming force. “Even as a grown adult, I have to ask myself the question: ‘Am I doing this because I like it, or am I doing it because I’m afraid?’ My goal is to create an atmosphere where everyone can ask the question ‘why do I feel this way?’ My music is a response to that thought process, and I don’t want it to come off as some old punk, but offer an alternative to that worry of eternal damnation.” Whether entrapped by religion, a broken political climate, or any post-millennial disaster, Zanetti remains firm in his own escape route, hoping his calls out of the dark create the new normal: an unwavering commitment to a brash, honest truth.
“Normal” is available now on 7” vinyl via A-F Records. A baby blue variant is still on sale.