A Conversation with Derek Zanetti of The Homeless Gospel Choir

By Molly Lubbers

9 Nov, 2019

Currently, (folk) punk band The Homeless Gospel Choir is touring with Harley Poe; the group played Beat Kitchen on Nov. 9. My review of that show can be found here.

It was past midnight once everything was packed up for THGC; after he was done, frontman Derek Zanetti and I chatted outside the venue. I first saw THGC in 2015, back when I was in middle school, as an opener for frnkiero andthe cellabration. At that time, he was a one-man band; this year marks the first time he’s touring with other band members. During our conversation, we talked about the punk community and this tour.

The following is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Derek Zanetti.

You talk in [your song] “Normal” about your journey into punk. When was the first time you felt a part of that community?

Well, that comes in many different ways. My parents were part of a very conservative like evangelical right-wing church for a long time, so in 1994, somebody handed me Green Day’s “Dookie” on cassette tape, and that was my first entrance to punk rock, and I was 11. And I can remember hearing it and feeling the feelings that I felt when I heard people yell, and say that they were mad about something, and me being forced to believe things I didn’t necessarily know to be true made me angry in many ways. Punk rock was an outlet for me. Even though it was not something I was able to completely participate in because of the religion of my parents — they were very controlling and I wasn’t allowed to listen to this type of music — I knew that it existed, so I was kind of like a closet punk for a really really long time. And it was something that I thought that I would grow out of or I thought that I would leave, and there were even points in time in my life where I did leave it and I did grow out of it, but it is something that I’ve since 2005 come back to and something I regard as very important to my life and the ethic of what I believe in, and hopefully that trend continues.

So what was your first punk concert?

I saw MxPx at Club Laga in Pittsburgh in like the late 90s, and I think that was the first time, because they were a Christian-type punk band, and my parents kind of let me go. So that was my first real punk show.

Before the show started, you talked to a couple people in the front. You also went down into the crowd. [Here, I’m referencing how Zanetti approached some audience members to joke about the mosh pit before Billy Liar opened the show; then, about him singing and moshing with the crowd during one of THGC’s final songs.] Why is it important that you interact with your fans so deeply?

I think that punk rock should be a communal activity. It shouldn’t just be something that we buy or purchase or watch or witness, I think it’s something that should be a participatory journey — that the people who make the music are equally as important as the people who are watching the show and are mixing the sound and providing meals for people and making flyers and putting out zines and tattooing people. And like, the punk rock community is something that everybody gets to participate in. Hopefully together, you and I, and everybody in that room, works together to create an egalitarian state that’s free of sexism and free of racism and free of homophobia, where everybody gets to feel like they’re participating, and everybody gets to feel like they belong. I don’t believe in having fans, but I believe in having friendship, and hopefully we’re able to, as a band, endorse that type of relationship with the people who come to see our shows. If it’s just a commodity, if it’s just something that you’re purchasing, that doesn’t seem as interesting to me, as if you’re like, these people who come to Chicago know me, and they want to hang out, and I want to hang out too, because it’s like a cool big huge party that I get to have in a town that I don’t even fucking live in. It’s kind of cool.

Up until this year, you toured as a one-man band. How has that transition been into having other band members?

It’s the best feeling that I could ever express to you. To have people that you trust and that you know and that know you and trust you back and be able to make art and express yourselves in a positive way and create a positive environment and atmosphere for people to engage with, is unbelievably exciting to me. And it’s a new feeling, it’s a new noise, and it’s very fresh and it’s really amazing that I get to play a small part in what happened in that room tonight. 

And how did that come about?

Well, my father passed away last year while I was on tour with my friend Frank Turner and I was just having a bunch of sadness and I couldn’t figure out how to write songs and I was really struggling with being able to get my information in a fair way. I started to hear these different punk songs, and started to hear songs differently, loud with different noises, and with static and feedback and drums, and I put that vision out to Matt, who plays guitar in the band — he was in one of my favorite bands of all time, called Endless Mike and the Beagle Club — and we started to write these songs together, and we started to put this new album together. And it needs to be shared as a full band because of the energy that goes into the songs. I think it would be cheap if I didn’t show it as a full band accompaniment. 

You also make other forms of art. How does changing mediums change your artistic process, and what stays the same?

The visual art that I make is roundly abstract art, and it’s a way to unplug my mental process and create something out of instinct and out of first reaction. It takes me a long time to write songs and get my ideas together, and for me, the immediacy of having a blank sheet of paper and then having something on that is very fulfilling. It’s just a different expression of the art.  And I’m like a very nervous person, I’m a very jittery person at times and making that very repetitive, mirrored art is a great coping mechanism for me to find a measure of mental piece. 

You also sing about a lot of personal things and a lot of political things. How do those mix together or interact? 

That’s a wonderful question, thank you for asking it. I think as a person of privilege, I owe a duty and a responsibility to people who have been marginalized and oppressed, to use my platform to speak about issues that matter to more than just white dudes, and there’s plenty of people who wish to participate in punk rock that long to be heard, that long to be advocated for. And if I’m going to sit up there for 45 minutes and just talk about how hot I am or how great I look or how cool my shit is, that’s a giant waste of time to me — that’s a colossal waste of time — and I think that’s a disrespect to the audience of people. You have a whole harvest of hearts that are ripe to be filled with something. Fill it with some education, fill it with some information, and laugh about it all too; it doesn’t have to be all politics and all serious. But take your time and be wise with it, and like that’s something that’s super important to me. And it is personal to me. And punk rock, specifically, I believe should be political, but any time a person of privilege has a platform, they should totally be using that platform to advocate for those who don’t have the same platform. And I think it’s important for my band and I to practice that. 

You said that you don’t have to be serious all the time. How do you maintain that balance between protesting and also staying positive?

I think the protesting of it is a positive expression; that I’m not doing it just because I hate what’s happening, but because I wish for something more to happen. And if we speak into the atmosphere the things that we want to see happen, those things will be accomplished, but if I keep them bottled up and don’t talk about it, then I never get a chance to vocalize that and never get a chance to make that spark with you or with anybody else. But if I vocalize those things and talk about them, then we can manifest those things in our life. 

More about The Homeless Gospel Choir can be found at the band’s website.