Q&A: White Zombie's Sean Yseult On The Band's Early Lower East Side Days: "It Was The '80s, And We Hated Everything"
White Zombie had rules. One: no solo albums under their own names. So Sean Yseult -- the bassist in the NYC punk-metal monolith, led by growling frontman Rob Zombie, that slowly evolved from mid-'80s CBGBs punks to the '90s alterna-metal titans of "Thunder Kiss '65" and "More Human Than Human" -- had recorded anonymously as a member of the garage band Famous Monsters. But through whispers and rumors, she learned that Zombie was planning a full, credited solo project. "For some reason he kept it a secret from the rest of the band until the last minute," she writes in I'm in the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie (Soft Skull Press). Since the recording of the band's last album, 1995's Astro-Creep 2000, had largely required an intermediary between Zombie and the band, Yseult knew the end was coming, but she didn't know when. "One can only guess that the plan was to break up White Zombie before its release."
Yseult's relationship with Rob, professional and personal (they dated for years), is actually a small part of I'm in the Band. Instead, the book is exactly what the subtitle promises: her stories, memories, and photos documenting a group that was so green at first that it's amazing they ever got anywhere. It was only at Geffen Records' request that White Zombie got a manager and a booking agent; before that, they'd done everything themselves. ("They told us to get some people," she recalls.) But somehow, the band transformed from LES art-school brats to Beavis and Butt-Head-era heroes, breaking up somewhat messily in 1998 so Zombie, whose romantic liaison with Yseult had already ended, could pursue that solo and film career.
As for Yseult, she's now in two bands: the New Orleans-based Rock City Morgue and a new group, Star and Dagger, that apparently sounds like "Anita Pallenberg meets Black Sabbath" and features Donna She Wolf from Cycle Sluts from Hell. She also runs Yseult Designs, a home-decor company; part of her line is being sold at Barney's. Her voice really comes through in the book. She's obviously a fan of rock 'n' roll -- particularly the Ramones and the Cramps -- and she tells stories the way we'd like to think we'd tell them if we were in her shoes: cool enough not to lose her shit in a "I just met Phil Anselmo!" moment, but real enough to be excited that she just met Phil Anselmo. She recently spoke with us from her home in New Orleans' Garden District about White Zombie's early New York days.
How did the band start?
Rob and I met at Parsons (School of Design). We had seen each other at CGBG hardcore matinees on Sunday afternoons, but we met at Parsons in the cafeteria. Pretty much from that day on, we were together 24/7. He moved in with me down on the Lower East Side, and within a month we had a band together. The next month, we had recorded our first seven-inch. We were both pretty determined to be in a band, so we tried to make it happen fast.
Were there other Parsons bands?
Not that I know of. There were a lot of people with interesting hairdos who looked like they'd like to be in bands (laughs).
How did traveling in art circles affect things early on?
Rob and I were pretty much outcasts at Parsons. We weren't friends with anyone else there, so I don't feel like we really tied in to the art world. But we lived on the Lower East Side and we played with bands that were called "art bands," such as Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, Honeymoon Killers -- there were a number of bands that were arty Lower East Side, East Village bands. I don't know if any of those bands were in art school. Maybe SVA, but not Parsons.
Why were you an outcast at Parsons?
It was probably self-inflicted (laughs). Rob wasn't the friendliest guy, and I didn't reach out to make any friends there, either. We were into hardcore punk, and nobody there was. We were being young and single-minded.
What year was this?
1985. It was our second year there.
Tell me about living on the Lower East Side.
I was in an apartment with my best friend Tracy and our friend Leon. It was a really nasty apartment at Delancey and Clinton. We were on the fourth floor where, if you opened your window, there was the bridge about three feet away, cars rolling right past. It was a one-bedroom with no heat, no kitchen, and the tiniest bathroom you'd ever seen in your life. Because of our friend Leon, there was a constant parade of local street kids and punks who'd climb up the fire escape late at night and crash on our floor. I mostly remember freezing to death and going downstairs to the bodega to make phone calls.
What were White Zombie's first gigs?
Our very first gig was "audition night" Monday night at CBGB. One of the guys from Prong was running the soundboard, and they decided that we passed the audition, so we got to come back and play CBGB many more times. Our second might have been at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. We played a lot of the East Village underground places like the ABC, which was on 8th between B and C, No Say No, which was on the Lower East Side -- places like that.
What was audition night like?
Empty (laughs). But I saw some great shows on audition nights. I saw the Butthole Surfers on a Monday night, their first show in New York City. After that, I followed them around like they were the Grateful Dead.
What do you remember about your audition?
Being nervous. Trying to keep moving and headbanging constantly. It's not something anybody else on the Lower East Side was doing, but we thought it was important to keep moving around and entertain the crowd, or the crowd-to-be. We probably played a song called "88." Yet another Parsons student, Tim Jeffs, was playing with us at the moment and recorded a second seven-inch with us, so there's a song called "Pig Heaven." We didn't have a lot of songs at the time, maybe five or six.
Did you do any covers?
No. Actually, we started doing covers later. Live, we'd always do a Kiss cover. "War Machine," "Dr. Love." We did "Rocket Ride" for a while. We'd pass out Gene Simmons masks we'd made on Xerox machines and make the audience wear them to entertain ourselves. That was another odd thing for an East Village band to do.
What was your attitude toward Kiss covers when you were doing them?
There was some irony, but Rob really loved Kiss, and I liked them, too. Back then, it was a novel thing to still be digging Kiss in the '80s. And we really did.
One thing I found interesting in the book is how excited you were to record the early singles and how quickly you were over them.
Rob always hated whatever we had just recorded. As soon as it was recorded, he'd be like, "Oh, this is horrible. We can't listen to it. Let's move on." He just wanted to shove them in a box and hide them. We pressed 300 of the first seven-inch. We walked 100 of them all over Manhattan, to Midnight Records, Bleeker Bob's, all the record stores. We'd drop off five or so, and after we got rid of 100 of them, we had 200 of them left, so we divided them up and put them away. We did that with the next two seven-inches, and Psycho-Head Blowout and Soulcrusher. I think he had a vision of us sounding much slicker than we did.
Were they that mediocre?
I wouldn't call them mediocre. I think for what they are, they're great, but they're definitely noisy as hell. They're hard to listen to, but we were listening to Einsturzende Neubauten at the time, Jim Thirwell and Scraping Foetus off the Wheel, all that stuff. It wasn't a total accident that we sounded that way. I grew up reading and writing music; we knew what we were doing. When we got Tom (Five) in the band, we told him to make noise over the track.
But we didn't know what a producer was or what mastering was. When we recorded our first 12-inch, Psycho-Head Blowout, we rehearsed every night, playing side one of the record, then we'd stop, then play the other side of the record. That way, when we went in the studio, it would take us exactly that long to record it. Twenty minutes on one side, 20 minutes on the next. Live, all four of us playing at once. We didn't know what mixing was, so it was barely mixed. When we sent it off to radio stations, they were like, "There are no grooves on this record. We can't find the tracks." Because we played straight through (laughs). So we learned we were supposed to stop between songs.
We were going into studios that were $15 an hour and figured, "We've got $40; let's try to record it, and whatever fiddling they do to make it a record, let's hope we're done in two hours." We found a studio in the phone book called Batcave. We liked the name. We called them up and they were $15 an hour, so that's where we recorded our first record.
Who was the audience at this point?
We played a lot with Pussy Galore, Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, so they'd show up and their fans would show up. Gerard Cosloy was a big fan and friend of ours back then. He got into our band right away and gave us great write-ups, so that helped us get attention. We started getting write-ups in the Village Voice, so people started showing up, but they were coming to check out the freak show more than rocking out to a band. But none of the bands in the East Village were trying to rock; they were trying to do something new and different. We knew what we didn't like. We didn't really know where we were going, but we wanted to create something new, because we disliked everything.
What didn't you want to do?
It was an endless list, particularly with Rob. He didn't want anything to sound catchy or poppy. Anything going on that the time. It was the '80s, and we hated everything. We liked some of the hardcore bands. We both liked Void. I loved Flipper. We both loved Black Flag, he liked the Misfits. We didn't know what we wanted to do, but we wanted to do something different.
Was the element of theater there from the beginning?
Yeah. We were both pretty visual. I dyed all my own clothing and drew spider webs on my shirts. I had a bird-bone necklace I made from bones I found on a railroad track. He had Misfits stencil that he made and did on the back of his leather jacket. We had dyed black hair -- a little goth-y, but we also thought goth was a little silly, too.
The visual element was really important to both of us. We really loved the Cramps and how the music was half of it; the other half was the lifestyle. They created this whole world for you to enter. You don't just listen to the records. It's a way to dress, a way to live. Stay up late, watch bad television, don't go out in the sun. That's what we wanted to do with White Zombie.
How did that visual element affect your relationships with other bands?
It was definitely a novelty. We were always painting banners, and Rob was making these big 2-D monsters out of foam that would be decorating the stage, or we'd steal lights from construction sites and have them blinking on stage. Or we'd have homemade pyro in CBGB -- nobody was doing anything like that. I love Alice Cooper, as does Rob, and we wanted to bring a sense of that back, even if it was this low-rent, ramshackle production.
Was that theatricality looked down as being too showbiz?
I think people thought we were making fun of it since it was on a ridiculous level, but it wasn't wholly appreciated. It wasn't until we started playing for metal audiences that everything clicked.
How did you become more metal?
Our drummer, Ivan de Prume, was still in high school, and was a Brooklyn metalhead. He came to meet us in the city and had no idea what Washington Square was or how to get around. He had a cut-off Ramones shirt and a boombox blasting Slayer, and he ended up being a great influence on the band. We were just listening to hardcore and punk, and he was listening to Slayer and Megadeth and Metallica. It slowly seeped into our consciousness.
What was happening at the same time -- this is probably '88, '89 -- was hardcore bands like the Cro-Mags and Biohazard in New York and Corrosion of Conformity in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I'm from, were crossing over into metal. Biohazard and the Cro-Mags had seen us at CBGB and invited us to open for them at this metal club in Brooklyn called L'Amours, and that was our big break. We did the same show we did at CBGB in front of these metalheads, and instead of a bunch of hipsters looking down at their shoes or making snide remarks, we had a huge mosh pit going. We'd found our people.
L'Amours was probably six times the size of CBGB, at least. Our third or fourth show there was opening for Pantera on their first "Cowboys from Hell" tour, and there was a huge crowd. It was the most people who'd ever seen us. Then we got asked to play some other clubs around the size of L'Amours on the East Coast opening for Slayer. That was a trial by fire. That's the hardest band to open for, but by our second song, we had a mosh pit.
When you first started playing for metal audiences, did you find some of the East Village bands were condescending toward them?
Certainly. There were many bands like Pussy Galore -- I think -- who were like, "We don't want those kind of fans." I thought that was a weird attitude. Whoever likes you, likes you. We were just happy to have an audience.
One of the things I found interesting in the book is how you talk about meeting Rob, but then your relationship doesn't factor into the book until you separate. Was that intentional?
No. I didn't realize I'd done it, but there's a reason for it. Our relationship was 24/7 White Zombie from the day we met. As soon as we got Ivan and J. in the band, it was the four of us. It was like this family. It's not like we went out on dates. We went to work every day; we went to practice every night. Sometimes we toured, but it was always the four of us. It wasn't a relationship between just two people. I think I have one page in there about when Rob and I met before the band took over our lives. We'd go to Coney Island, we'd go to Times Square to watch horror movies. That first month or two.
Sean Yseult will be doing a book signing at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble (97 Warren St.) Wednesday, January 5 at 7 p.m.