Homeless Gospel Choir keeps pop-punk alive in Pittsburgh

Written By Kylie Thomas, For The Globe

Derek Zanetti gets up onto The Club stage at Stage AE in front of a cramped crowd in the small space. He has an acoustic guitar around his neck. It’s actually a Frank Iero and the Patience show, yet as Frank Iero brings Zanetti onto the stage, he has captured every person in that room. The chords fall from his guitar and the words from his mouth, as everyone catches on and sings along, as one, that, “you’re never gonna be normal, ‘cause you’re a punk.”

Zanetti is described as a writer, a musician, an author, a creative mind and a friend but most importantly, a revolutionist through his band, The Homeless Gospel Choir. The band is a punk-rock band right here in Pittsburgh.

Zanetti originally created the band to get a group of friends together and play music, but the band has turned into so much more. Through the band, Zanetti has made a safe space for those who need to feel good and find a place to be included. The band has become a platform for the community of those who have immersed themselves into punk-rock.

According to Zanetti, he grew up in a very Christian household filled with music. Whether it was his grandfather listening to The Rat Pack or his family going to church and immersing in the gospel music, music was everywhere. He says that this is what first got him into music along with the first album he had ever gotten, “Christmas with the Chipmunks.” From there on out, he started exploring music himself, even if he wasn’t supposed to.

“In 1994, a little band called Green Day put out a record called ‘Dookie’ that changed the face of the world and changed punk-rock forever,” Zanetti said. “That was the first time I had found something on my own and realized that there are other weirdos here and other misfit kids who feel left out and bullied. Even though I wasn’t allowed to have the album, due to my parents’ religion, I still knew that it was out there and that it was good.”

That’s what kick-started most things for Zanetti; his parents’ religion. Growing up in an oppressive Christian household, he grew up in an environment that he says was rooted in fear and in which he was simulated into being like everyone else.

“Religion is just a symptom in our desire to colonize one another,” Zanetti said. “That statement is evident in all my singing, which is evident in the politics of my singing, which is evident in the protest that is music that we’re making.”

But besides the politics of strict religions, there are two main points to Zanetti’s band. The first is to make “protest songs.” With everything being so political, he says that it’s impossible to watch the news or see anything going on with our world and not have an opinion about it. There are things that just need to be talked about, that need to be released, and that resistance is a real thing. That’s the whole point of a “protest song,” to show that protest is possible.

“What does it mean to write a protest song?” Zanetti said. “It’s looking at the inherent racism, sexism and homophobia that are engraved into the DNA of our culture that we have to protest against. It’s the little things like that I believe I owe a bit of my time to raising awareness of things that I think are wrong that I see every day.”

The second main point of The Homeless Gospel Choir is community. Zanetti plans to create that place for people who have never had a place. People come from all kinds of different places, terrible places even, and he wants to create a welcoming environment for them.

That’s part of why he wrote his song “Normal,” a song of how people come from everywhere. There is a place for those who aren’t normal where they can be in unity.

“We have people who have found hope, family, and belonging in punk-rock,” Zanetti said. “Hopefully punk-rock is a radical place for people to radically become the best person they can be. And that’s what my song “Normal” is about. Creating this kind and thoughtful place for every broken person out there or who haven’t been given fair treatment.”

To Zanetti, it’s about the people he plays music with and those who listen to his music.

“The only reason you get into anything, whether it be punk-rock, religion, a member of The Elks Lodge or whatever, is because everyone is looking for friendship and knowing and belonging,” Zanetti said. “For someone to touch your arm and say, ‘I know you, we’re friends.’”

“That’s one of the remarkable things about touring, I have all these friends everywhere that I can hang out with and have a buddy. I have friends like Frank Iero, Anti-Flag and Frank Turner who treat me so nice and fancy, but then I also have tours on my own where we just go and sleep on our friend’s floor and all of it so great. It’s all aspects of it, all aspects of being together.”

From small shows to big shows, Zanetti is beginning to expand The Homeless Gospel Choir further this year. He has added in an entire band for the band’s newest album.

“It’s the best material I’ve ever written and the best band I could’ve ever put together,” Zanetti said. “It’ll be out in spring of next year, and I’m so excited for it.”

There’s a lot of new stuff going on for this local band, including new tours that are coming up, and a show in Pittsburgh for all ages. Nov. 2, at the Smiling Moose will be the group’ second show together as a full band in Pittsburgh.

The Homeless Gospel Choir bring back punk’s roots while also creating a new stepping stone for the punk-rock genre. Supporting local bands can be exciting and enjoyable, while also helping out the folks in the community.

“Don’t feel rushed and don’t be motivated by money,” Zanetti said, as a message for students. “Follow the thing that you really love and  not because of the money. Sometimes you don’t find it in college, but just find what really gets you going and devote yourself to it. Don’t be afraid to make sacrifices because that’s what makes things great. Find what you want to do and dive completely into it.”