Band Interview: The Homeless Gospel Choir on punk, politics and playing shows

I was lucky enough to meet The Homeless Gospel Choir, aka Derek Zanetti, at an anti-fascist protest in Nottingham the night before his show at Rescue Rooms with Anti-Flag, Red City Radio and Trophy Eyes. He also played an in-store, and got the crowd immediately on side through just one song. We spoke afterwards about an interview we’d done in the past, and he invited me to come back down the next day for another chat.

From watching his set, it’s immediately clear what he’s all about. Obvious references to political issues are scattered everywhere through his song, and he quite quickly, and easily, creates a great rapport with the crowd. But, this isn’t a first for him, after fronting bands for many years, putting on shows and just generally being on tour.

We spoke (for quite a long time) about issues facing the DIY scene today, political parallels between the US and the UK, and playing shows: whether they be at your local DIY venue or at the biggest venue in your city.

How was your first night in Nottingham, and the anti-fascist protest you attended?

They were both great. We went to the protest first, and there were a bunch of human rights activists who were out that day. It was awesome to participate in a demonstration – a peaceful demonstration – where people were able to voice their concerns and opinions to a group of hateful people. I actually was able to go around the square to where the demonstrators were, and I grabbed one of their leaflets. They said that “we don’t want any Muslims, we want to make burkas illegal, and if you aren’t of the right make and model, you should get out of our country.” Some of them don’t wanna be painted as a Nazi. But that’s what they are, and there’s no two ways about it. They’re like “oh, we’re not that, we’re not murdering Jewish people.” They were hiding behind the guise of “we don’t have housing for our veterans, why should we house refugees.” But it’s such a bullshit argument. There’s enough to go around for everyone. These people are being ran out by their own government and their own people and are being abandoned. Children are being left to starve, and you’re going to sit there and tell these children that they have nowhere to go? That bums me out.

But it was great, that there were these peaceful people. They had a chant that said “hear us loud, hear us clear, refugees are welcome here.” They were saying that our doors are open, and if you need help, we’re here to help. We were only there for half an hour maybe, but just to stand there and say the chants, and just show support, it was an awesome experience for me.

Has there been much talk about the refugee situation back home?

We see it on the news. The child that got washed up on the shore – that was a big thing in the media. It was something that got talked about a lot. For being a melting pot, America, where at one point in time we said “bring us your poor, bring us your sick and bring us your huddled masses – and we wanna take care of those who are being abused by other governments.” There’s a huge regime which is positioning itself to take over, with Donald Trump and the rest of those guys, and they’re honestly talking about building a wall, like The Great Wall of China, to separate Mexican people from infiltrating US borders… It’s blatant racism. There’s no two ways about it. It’s a bunch of entitled, rich, white, land-owning males, who feel that their numbers are being infringed upon, and they want to push people out.

And they’re doing it in the name of Christianity, they’re doing it in the name of God. I’m a faithful person, but I’m not a religious person. I’ve read their book, I’ve read the Bible before to know how Jesus Christ says how you are supposed to treat your neighbours, and even more so how you’re supposed to treat your enemies. You’re not supposed to kill them, you’re not supposed to starve children. They’re willing to open up their borders, for rich people, but the poor people who actually need the help – they call them rapists and drug dealers and murderers and ask them to go back to where they are from.

So do you think that nationalistic view in America comes from a more religious point of view?

I think it can, I think it has. In my opinion, the US church has sat by and watched grave injustices happen, while people perpetuated a culture of rape and theft and murder. It wasn’t too long ago in our country that black people weren’t allowed to pee in the same toilet as a white person and in n Birmingham, Alabama where they released dogs and fire hoses on black kids who wanted to go to school with white kids. Martin Luther King is an exception to that for the Christian faith, and Malcolm X is an exception for the Muslim faith, where they went ahead and reached their hand out and offered support and offered help.

The KKK were all church members – like faithful, God-fearing, religious Christians, who were just born into hatred and perpetuated a hateful culture and then bred that into their children. They taught people that black people, women, Jewish people and Mexican people are less valuable than they are. And these are the people who are applying for political power. It blows me mind that whenever you say marriage equality for all, or that veterans should receive healthcare, or that mothers should be able to take time to be with their children when they are born, and that we should have a fair childcare system so that both parents who need to work can go to work… They just call you a socialist, and they wanna throw you out.

Do you see any hope in political candidates? People like Bernie Sanders?

I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter. My wife and I donate to his campaign, and I like him a lot. I really value his position. We support him not only financially, but we post about whenever he has debates  coming up. I’ve never endorsed a political candidate in my whole life, but this particular guy is different to me. I hope I’m not proven wrong. I’ve voted for people in the past where I’ve been ashamed afterwards. I’ve voted for hope and change and didn’t get the hope and change that I want, or what I was even promised. Or even a piece of what was promised. But this Bernie Sanders guy seems very different. We’re very, very hopeful that he’s actually going to advocate for the things that he’s talking about.

It’s interesting to see the similarities between Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yeah. Well you guys just voted in this very conservative government which is trying to do away your healthcare and making it difficult for immigration. It’s a hateful regime, just as bad as Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Very conservative, very hateful people. Five more years right?

Yep. And seeing how they can get back into power after things like tripling university tuition fees, which affect a massive amount of people…

You guys call college the end of high school, and we call university college, in the US. But for someone to go to state college, people will graduate $150,000 to $200,000 in debt. Once you live there, if you have a meal plan, or a transportation plan. If you can do it in four years, great, but some people can’t because they need to work. Our economy is such a fractured shadow of what it used to be, for you to graduate $200,000 and for you to expect to get a level entry job that’s going to pay your tuition back, even if you worked for ten years and half of your income went solely to pay back your college… It blows my mind. The math doesn’t work. It’s great for lawyers and doctors and diplomats and senators. But for regular, blue collar, working class people, it’s unsustainable. And then God forbid you get hurt and you don’t have healthcare and you have to miss school which you’ve already paid for. I guess you guys are on the verge of private healthcare too, though. There are literally families in the US when their kids get sick, they have to think whether they are gonna eat next month or buy medicine. That blows my mind.

Interview continues below…


With these kind of issues happening all around us, do you feel an escape from the hatred and such in the DIY punk scene? Or do you see things like that seep through?

Certainly not freed from it. Just like you guys have Nazis who show up to rallies, and I’m sure you still have Nazis who show up to punk shows in England, we still have bands in the US who think it’s okay to be sexist or racist or homophobic in the their lyrics or the way they conduct themselves. Not to say that I’m the PC police, because I believe in the ultimate freedom that you able to say and do whatever it is you do, as long as you’re not infringing on somebody else’s freedom. My responsibility to that is to try to be a voice for people who don’t have one. I try to reflect that in the songs that I write. Not every kid who gets bullied for being queer, for example, has the platform to stand up and speak out against it. I feel that bands if talk about it in a fair and equitable way when they’re able to point the finger at the things that are wrong, and they could say “we’re here and let’s talk about it,” not just “get out.” That doesn’t solve anything. Those people who get kicked out start their own little clubs and their own little coos and then perpetuate a racist or sexist or homophobic culture. So I want to be able to have the conversation and facilitate it and say “what’s the deal here? And what can we do to get past it?” If you’re a band today and you’re using hateful slurs… What are you doing? Why do you think that’s acceptable? Whenever you’re referring to a woman in a hateful way or making rape jokes… How can you honestly think it’s okay? To do it through art and express yourself in that way? I have no time for it. It doesn’t really happen in the world that I live in because I try to surround myself with likeminded people who are more progressive in that way, but it still exists.

There are still promoters around who will book openly racist or openly homophobic bands and I don’t understand it. The old, skinhead, anti-racist guys, will stand outside and say to people “we won’t tell you not to go inside… But if you do, you should understand what your money is going to.”

You mentioned to me before that you have a new record coming out soon?

I do. Knock on wood, it’ll be prepared by next summer. I’m just in the middle of writing it now. It’s a very political record, it’s a very dark record. I still try to make a positive spin on everything and offer a glimmer of hope, but this record deals a lot with mental illness and how we have people in my country who have to deal with the demons inside their heads with very little help offered to them. So many bad things could be prevented if there was more support available. It talks a little about that. But it mostly talks with my own struggle, my own inferiority complex, and my own desire to still be associated with punk music – but not knowing where I fit in anymore.

I was going to ask actually how different it is playing shows with musicians like Frank Iero compared to being on tour with Anti-Flag and compared to playing DIY shows?

I make an effort to play every show the same. I’m not a musician. I can play the guitar well enough to hum a tune. My goal is to be an information commercial. I’m gonna give you a 25-minute commercial of what’s going on in the world and how we can be an advocate for systemic change. So, if I could go ahead and not bring my guitar on stage and talk to kids about leftist politics… I would rather do that.

I’ve written two books, but I would much rather just draw a crowd and talk to kids about going out and being an effective change. I can play the guitar, and I’m okay at it… But it’s a pain to carry around. The message is of utmost importance – so whether I’m playing a show with Frank or with Anti-Flag, I don’t see it as a punk show or an emo show, or anything like that. It’s just: I’m there, I’ve got thirty minutes, I’ve got a crowd of 150 or 650 or 1000 people, and my goal is to say things to them in a way that they’ve never heard before, and to try to empower them to leave the venue and make a positive change.

What have you got coming up soon?

The new record which is almost finished. Me and Chris #2 [of Anti-Flag] are gonna get together in December and demo out the record. We’ve asked Frank Iero to be a part of it and he gladly accepted, so he’s gonna be part of the production team and curating the songs a bit. We’re gonna make a punk record. We’re gonna make a sad, acoustic record, and a loud, aggressive punk record in the same thing. That’s our goal. It’s to make something which is pleasing to your ears and something which moves your heart, and forces you into action to stand up for those who are being oppressed and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. And, to especially, give courage to kids who struggle with mental health issues, and deal with self-esteem issues, and deal with depression – to let them know that they’re not alone, and that the punk rock scene is a great place for you to belong, where you are welcome and where can create safe places.

I had a conversation with a girl at a house show the other night – the first house show I’ve played in a long time – and she said “some punk scenes aren’t all-inclusive. Some punk scenes are violent towards queer kids or towards kids of different racial backgrounds, and things like that.” And I said “you know what, you’re right.” But what I want to do is encourage people that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that we can create a safe space for everybody to participate in. It’s not perfect, it’s never gonna be perfect. Some kids are straight edge and only wanna drink Coke, but some kids wanna get drunk on beer, and some kids wanna snort stuff in the bathroom. Punk is this massive spectrum where everybody wants to be involved, and I think that can be okay. But the core of it should be an accepting place for people who are outcasts, for people who are weirdos, for people who have been left… All this stuff. For them to have a safe place to be. That’s what punk rock should be, and we should be working towards that. And it won’t be perfect, but my goal is with this record and my music is to cultivate a culture where that is alive.

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Max Qayyum

Max Qayyum

Seeing Your Scene / DIY promoter / Cutting Room / Taco Hell

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