The Metal Minute Awarded 2009 Best Personal Blog By Metal Hammer Magazine

Friday, January 02, 2009

Take 5 With Sean Yseult of White Zombie

Like a hefty portion of heavy metal and punk fans, I had a major obsession with the horror genre, a passion which has continued to such lengths I have enjoyed the privilege of interviewing actors such as Bruce Campbell and Betsy Palmer and directors Mick Garris, Don Coscarelli, Stuart Gordon, Adam Green and of course, former lead singer of White Zombie-turned solo rock and horror icon Rob Zombie.

I've visited the camp where the original Friday the 13th was filmed on assignment for Metal Maniacs and I once took a trip to Monroeville, Pennsylvania on the outskirts of Pittsburgh just to the see the mall where the original Dawn of the Dead was filmed. I loved The Misfits and Samhain in my teens and still get a thrill by horror-themed rock, punk and psychobilly skulking around today's underground.

Prior to publishing this interview, I was watching the Vincent Price cult classic The Abominable Dr. Phibes. The point to this extensive monologue is that I am just as excited about horror as I am metal, punk and rock and it's carried far back from an early childhood spent around Kiss records, Scooby Doo and the Universal monster films (as well as repeat showings of The Tingler) shown on our local Ghost Host Theater each Saturday night.

As White Zombie rose to prominence in the early nineties following a decline in American heavy metal appreciation, I took pleasure that a Bela Lugosi flick had inspired a dirt-kickin' rock band that boasted a cool blend of sludge and bounce. I was also thrilled to pieces this band recorded an album named after one of the goriest bits of celluloid ever put down, Make Them Die Slowly (aka Cannibal Ferox). The fact White Zombie shared the same passion for horror as I did spoke loudly to me and the band's breakout album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 became as much an addiction as Lucio Fulci splatter flicks.

White Zombie at the height of their game boasted a wicked-tight rhythm section with Ivan DePrume and later John Tempesta on drums with Sean Yseult on bass. Guitarist J. (Jay Noel Yuenger) fueled the riff attacks in White Zombie's later output, propelling a former sonic-scorched shock band into an airtight hard rock group with Rob Zombie providing center stage lunacy which would soon make him a megastar.

Things happen for a reason, as they say, since Rob Zombie has gone on to release multiple best-selling solo albums and has become a red-hot direction commodity of the horror genre, his best film being The Devil's Rejects, in this writer's opinion. The remnants of White Zombie scattered around the underground as John Tempesta has resided in other bands of notoriety such as Exodus and The Cult. Meanwhile, Sean Yseult has done quite alright for herself in her offshoot camp band Famous Monsters which has a propensity for sixties' surf and shlock including the 1999 album Around the World in 80 Bikinis (shades of the goofy mod-beach flick How to Stuff a Wild Bikini).

Yseult has also been in Rock City Morgue and has trudged through the goo goo muck with The Cramps. Still, most people affiliate the golden-locked bassist with White Zombie, which is releasing a comprehensive box set featuring all of the band's EPs and LPs, as well as a DVD featuring live footage and promotional videos, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. This showcase set shouldn't be an indicator that White Zombie is planning on reunification, however, it's a full-on examination of how horror films breathed life into a chunky distortion band that grew into a hard rock phenomenon.

The Metal Minute is pleased to bring you a Take 5 session with Sean Yseult...

The Metal Minute: Let’s begin with you originally meeting Rob Zombie since you were originally dating when White Zombie was on its way to being assembled. You were playing Farfisa keys in a band called Life before learning to play bass. I’m not looking for dirt, but I want to get a feel for what you, Rob and original White Zombie guitarist Ena Kostabi were like as people to get better insight into the genesis of the band. Suffice it to say, when you put all of the band’s work in succession as has been done on the Let Sleeping Corpses Lie box set, White Zombie was hardly a conventional group!

Sean Yseult: When Rob and I met, our relationship was pretty much based on wanting to start a band. It was all we did. We were very obsessive about it – Rob dropped out of school shortly after we started the band and got a messenger job. I was working three jobs, going to design school and working on the band every night. I grew up playing stringed instruments (violin, dulcimer, banjo) so the bass was easy to pick up right away. I also was trained in music theory, composition and improv at the age of 6 and had been writing full works ever since then, so writing rock/punk/metal riffs and songs was not that difficult either. I was really into Black Sabbath, but also the Birthday Party, the Cramps and the Butthole Surfers at the time. Rob was really into the Misfits and Alice Cooper. We both loved Black Flag so it all just kind of meshed together. As for our personalities, I was always pretty outgoing while Rob was pretty introverted. His main obsession more than music, was movies, which of course paid off! He would watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead over and over, a million times.

Rob and I didn’t ever know Ena very well. He was just the first guitarist we hired in a row of many, so I really can’t give you much background on him. He was in our band for only a few months. I met him and Ivan in the punk band Life that you refer to. That was our small pool of musicians we knew. I showed him the songs and gave him an idea of what we wanted. We recorded, then we reformed with a new drummer and guitarist all in a matter of three or four months. When Rob and I started the band, we were living in my first apartment at Delancey and Clinton (LES) and then got our own place on Ludlow Street. It was pretty rough, but not as rough as Ena’s apartment a block down, which got broken into so many times. They just smashed a hole in the wall instead of messing with the door and locks!

MM: (laughs) Talk about your humble beginnings! In the Let Sleeping Corpses Lie set, we get the resurrection of White Zombie’s original EP Gods On Voodoo Moon (along with the Pig Heaven, God of Thunder and Psycho-Head Blowout EPs), though minus “Black Friday” and “Dead Or Alive.” Legend has it 300 copies of Voodoo Moon were originally pressed and there are still roughly 200 copies lurking around in storage with speculation as to who has what in whose possession. If it’s alright, I wanted to make this a multi-pronged question: One, can you take us back to the days when White Zombie recorded the earlier EPs (which I’ve thought as of Sonic Youth meets the Cramps and Flipper) and what was rolling through your minds since White Zombie evolved into something wholly different, naturally. Second, why were “Black Friday” and “Dead Or Alive” missing from Gods On Voodoo Moon, and thirdly, would I assume rightly that the existing copies with those songs are being held for White Zombie artifact purposes?

SY: We recorded the six songs in the exact length of time it took us to play them, which was once. Then we made a 7” and could only fit four songs, so those two were just never released. We pressed 300 because it was the minimum and all we could afford. Rob and I walked them all over NYC to every record store, dropping off two to five records at a time. After getting rid of 100, we were sick of it and trying to move on. Rob and I split them up as well as all of the other vinyl. I still have all of it sitting in a closet! I suppose I should try to sell them all one day. I just haven’t had the time.

Going back to what was in our heads at the time, your assessment is pretty good. Although we were not Sonic Youth fans, they were certainly prevalent in the East Village and probably influential whether that was intentional or not. I always loved Flipper, also. As I said earlier, we liked Black Flag, who were going into a weird direction at the time, especially Gregg Ginn’s crazy solos. When we got Tom (Five) on guitar, that was something we actually mentioned to him. I would write bass riffs that were very driving and tribal with Ivan’s drums, very Birthday Party and Butthole Surfers-influenced. Then sometimes we would just tell Tom to go nuts and make some noise! Although Rob didn’t write music he was there in the rehearsal studio the whole time, saying, “yes,” “no,” “that sucks,” kind of like some crazy maestro who knew what he didn’t want. He would never add lyrics and vocals until the very end, sometimes not until we were in the studio! It’s crazy that we never worked with one single vocal hook or line. It was all riffs, always. We would practice in Ivan’s basement every night for hours. It was grueling, but as I said, we were obsessed. When a band plays and writes every day like that for years, they are bound to evolve.

MM: When I think of Make Them Die Slowly, I of course think of the carnage fest in Cannibal Ferox as I’m sure most people in the underground did when White Zombie put out that album after the distortion fest of Soul-Crusher. As White Zombie is noted to have changed focus with each album, I’d say there’s more of a punk (and the beginnings of metal) focus that drives Make Them Die Slowly with just enough shock value to it. The first half of “Acid Flesh” always gave me thoughts of Motorhead’s “The Claw,” but I’m trying to picture you guys watching the castration, breast hooking and disembowelments in Cannibal Ferox, aka Make Them Die Slowly (perhaps only outdone by Cannibal Holocaust, I’m sure you’d agree) and thinking “Holy shit, now there’s something to fuel our fires musically!”

SY: Yes, I agree with what you are saying. If you’d like me to comment about this record, I can tell you that we hated it and I never listened to it, due to the tinny production. We had already fully recorded that record once, which sounded a lot more like Soul-Crusher Part 2, and then again, because we were unhappy with that, and then Laswell stepped in and wanted to make it from scratch for a third time. Usually the third time is a charm, right? I’d have to say in this case, bad things come in threes! I suppose for people who don’t mind Laswell’s production of Motorhead, they might not mind listening to this record, but to me it sounds like the music got castrated.

MM: That's perfectly honest and I hear where you're coming from. When examining the path of White Zombie musically and how you guys suddenly became overnight sensations (there wasn’t a week I can remember in 1992 when you guys weren’t on the original Headbangers Ball) with La Sexorcisto and then Astro Creep: 2000, it’s fascinating how much groove White Zombie discovered along the way. Certainly the bounciness of the videos on the DVD of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie carries a different vibe than the live footage on that DVD, and I wonder sometimes if the sudden ascension to popularity was a shocker to you guys or if Geffen knew what White Zombie’s potential was and pushed you guys as hard as they could considering you guys were touring La Sexorcisto for more than two years, I believe? When looking back upon it, are you surprised by the way it all turned out and given the ultimate decision for Rob to go out on his own, do you think the cost for White Zombie’s fame was too great?

SY: We, as a band, toured because we loved playing live. Our audiences were the best and we put on the craziest audio/visual show we could to entertain them. Believe me, Geffen had no idea of our potential; all of the pushing and hard drive of the band came from us, not them! Although our fame might have seemed sudden to some, it was not a surprise to us because it actually came very slowly and gradually. We watched our audience grow from tour to tour, from small clubs to theaters, to halls, to 500 seaters, then finally selling out arenas! Nothing happened quickly. However, because there was this continual fanning of the flame, it was fun and exciting and we didn’t want to stop. We did tour La Sexorcisto for two and a half years, and then Astro Creep for a year and a half. Rob’s decision to go solo has nothing to do with the cost of fame being too great; we decided to break up before he decided to go on his own.

MM: You’ve been a part of The Cramps, who have always had the same sort of campy horror twitch as White Zombie and you’ve been in other horror-themed groups like Famous Monsters and Rock City Morgue. What is it about these fifties, sixties and seventies’ horror shlock eras that draws you into these types of acts? Somehow, I think that groovy ghoulie Farfisa had a hand in it...

SY: I only played with the Cramps for one tour, but I was always a fan and it was a huge honor to be asked. I’ve always loved creepy music, theme bands and of course the Farfisa. The Sonics have always been one of my longtime favorites as well. You can’t get much better than “She’s My Witch!”

Copyright 2009 Ray Van Horn, Jr. / The Metal Minute


Tom said...

killer! Great interview, amazing insight to the madness, especially the early years.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thank you mucho, Tom. I was grateful to Sean agreeing to do this and she didn't disappoint. Don't be a stranger!

Groove Devil said...

Sean is my favorite bassist ever. She has very good skills and a lot of musical knowledge. She is a very intelligant songwriter. The whole band was awesome and I wish I could listen to her play more new stuff.