The Homeless Gospel Choir: Finding Salvation Through Punk Rock
Derek Zanetti’s father used to be a drug dealer who was addicted to crack. A bipolar personality who was handy with his fists, he would also dole out beatings to both his wife and their son.
“My dad was very abusive,” says Derek, who today trades under the name The Homeless Gospel Choir. “My dad was very heavy-handed. He was a very hard man. He was difficult to please and he was difficult to be around… The swing between extremes was regular for him. He and I didn’t have a very good relationship; and even until he passed away a few years ago, things were always strained between us.”
One night in the family’s Pittsburgh home, the patriarch found himself bathed in the tubal light of a television evangelist. With a smile packed with perfect teeth, the preacher promised him eternal salvation and a safe passage into heaven through the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“Very quickly, dad went from being someone who dealt drugs and was addicted to crack to someone who was a born-again Christian,” says Derek.
In other words, he swapped one addiction for another. Led by a man of extremes, the Zanetti family became parishioners at a church the singer today describes as “a very conservative Christian cult-like experience”. Declining to name the organisation on-the-record – and, anyway, the church now trades under a different name following some unpleasantness involving certain members of the flock – Derek recalls its disavowal of rock’n’roll music, mainstream cinema, primetime television, and much else. As a five-year-old, he remembers an “extremely traumatic” incident in which his bedroom was cleared of toys that were believed to harbour evil spirits. He remembers a sermon titled Dismantling & Destroying The Feminist Agenda.
“What they were interested in was reaffirming and reestablishing a very conservative, very patriarchal structure,” he says. “The man worked. The man is the head of the household. The man calls the shots. The man is in charge. The man tells you what to do. A woman’s role is to be subservient, to be an accessory to the man’s vision; her role is to bear his children and to help him expand his empire.”
The church was also – and here you may be ahead of us – deeply homophobic. Derek Zanetti says that “I do find myself to be queer and I have always found my leanings to be that of queer nature.” Today he is married to “someone who identifies as a woman”; the couple live together in Pittsburgh in a home they share with a puppy. As he speaks to Kerrang!, the dog happily barks at delivery drivers making the rounds on the busy street outside.
“I think the reason why conservatism and evangelical Christianity married so well was their disdain toward the LGBTQ homosexual population and their desire to eliminate a woman’s choice over her own body,” he says. “More than anything else, I think there was a desire to control a situation, a desire to control the way that other people lived. I think there was something very appealing to them about that.”
Age 20, in 2003 Derek Zanetti divorced himself from the church and has remained outside of its grasp ever since. His mother is also no longer a parishioner, although this “sweetest woman in the world” remains a both a Christian and a conservative. Today her son declines to believe in the afterlife, or in a heaven of any kind, particularly one policed by a God who forbids entry to members of the LGBTQ community. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that his state of being after death will be precisely the same as it was before he was born. In other words, he’s comfortably jettisoned the kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo with which he was raised.
“In the back of my mind there’s still this nagging little scratch, with teeth and with nails, that’s always reminding me of my past and always reminding me of hell and the devil and all of that stuff,” he says. “I’m still very much gripped by it. Whenever you look into my songs there’s still very much a religious element in there because I’m always referencing it. It’s still very much a part of who it is that I am, even though it’s something I’ve given up a long time ago.”
This week sees the release of This Land Is Your Landfill, the sixth album from The Homeless Gospel Choir. Under a title re-fashioned from Woody Guthrie – the folk singer from which all modern protest music stems – it is a collection of rousing campfire punk rock songs about people who “know for sure that [they] don’t want a boss no more” from a songwriter who has “Stockholm syndrome” and who’s been “thinking too much about going back to church.” Compelling and liberating, it is one of the best releases of the season.
“I hope that the album gives comfort to anyone who’s looking for comfort, and gives resistance to anyone who’s depriving someone of comfort,” says its author. “I hope that these songs offer companionship to people who feel like they’re alone. But I also hope they let people know that it’s okay to say, ‘Fuck you, I’m not going to be bullied or picked on anymore. I’m not going to let you go ahead and run all over me.’ Hopefully it will let them know that punk rock isn’t about being some waif of a coward that lets other people take advantage of you.”
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Punk rock came to the rescue of the young Derek Zanetti when a school friend handed him a cassette copy of Dookie. His bedroom housed a clock radio that also featured a tape player of which his parents were unaware. When the house was asleep, the 11-year old would listen to Green Day’s third album, and also to the music played on 104.7 The Revolution, the Steel City’s alternative radio station. It was from this outlet that he discovered bands such as Metallica, REM, and The Smiths.
It took Derek a while to begin making music of his own. Despite loving punk rock, he worked “a corporate restaurant job” that paid decent enough. But age 26, he was gifted an Ovation acoustic guitar by a friend; the instrument “sounded like shit” but on it he learned how to play songs by Johnny Cash and the Ramones. He quickly realised that the piece of wood he held in his hands could be the vessel he needed for thoughts he wished to express.
“I wasn’t doing any of the things that I wanted to do,” he says. “I was just doing the things that I needed to do to pay my bills. It was only when I had some time off that I had the chance to do something that I actually wanted. And I thought, ‘This is no way to live.’ I could die tomorrow working hard to make somebody else’s dream come true. But I wasn’t working hard to make my own dreams come true. I wanted to see other parts of the country, and I wanted to see the world, and I figured that this might be a way to do that.”
And so it proved. The Homeless Gospel Choir have toured Europe no fewer than five times. They have played shows with My Chemical Romance, Frank Iero, Frank Turner, The Arkells, and with fellow Pittsburghers Anti-Flag. Derek Zanetti also counts the members of Anti-Flag as his friends. When not on tour, the two parties convene to watch ice hockey games featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins, and throw popcorn at the screen whenever a goal is scored.
Derek quickly figured out that if he worked as hard at music as he did in a job for which he didn’t really care, progress would be made. His modus operandi was to say ‘yes’ to everything. He would drive to Ohio to play for a hundred bucks, on the promise of more money next time round; for sixty dollars he would take the opening slot at an open-mic night and throw in his services as its compere for free; he would play for nix at large events simply as a means of gaining exposure. Night after night, mile after mile, The Homeless Gospel Choir gained an audience.
“I kept saying yes, I kept being kind, and I kept showing up to play,” he says. “People liked what I had to say and they liked my songs, so they asked me to come back. I’m not the world’s best guitar player and I don’t always sing in key; but I think people want to help me because they know that I’m trying my best to be honest. They know that I want to show them something that means something to me. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”
As Derek Zanetti’s puppy barks at yet another delivery driver passing by the door, Kerrang! has time for just one more question. Has anyone ever attended a concert by The Homeless Gospel Choir believing they were going to watch a performance by a troupe of disenfranchised choristers?
“Never,” says Derek. “We have the internet now so people check it out beforehand. They know it’s a punk rock show. But do you wanna know something?”
“If that ever were to happen, I would definitely give them their money back.”
The Homeless Gospel Choir’s new album This Land Is Your Landfill is out now via Hassle.
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