Sean Yseult was the bassist for pioneering eighties and nineties metal band White Zombie, a group whose penchant for horror and psychotronic imagery and ultra-heavy, driving grooves made them superstars in the days when MTV actually played music videos. The band broke up in 1998 with lead singer Rob Zombie’s decision to pursue a solo career, but Yseult never stopped playing the music she loves, bringing her bass playing skills and artistic vision to several notable bands, including Famous Monsters, Rock City Morgue and The Cramps. This fall publisher Soft Skull released I’m in the Band: Backstage Notes From the Chick in White Zombie, a collection of rare photos, notes and more curated by Yseult from her own private archives. These days Yseult stays busy. In addition to her ongoing work as one of metal’s great bassists, she manages a multitude of business endeavors, including designing a line of popular scarves that can be found in high end retailers around the country. I was lucky enough to catch this rocking “chick” during one of her very infrequent moments of down time to discuss her life with White Zombie and her career beyond.
What was it like putting together the book? Was it hard choosing what to include and what not to?
It was crazy – organizing chaos, once again. It took a couple of years. At first I was just trying to match up photos, tour diaries, flyers and backstage passes to the same date and time. As soon as that got together, I started writing, making commentary on what you are looking at. It’s almost as though I’m looking at it with you for the first time, because I am! Memories and stories would pop in my head as I saw these photos and ticket stubs that have been sitting in storage for almost fifteen years. It was difficult editing things down – I’ve got two huge photo albums filled entirely of our tours just with Pantera: Phil and Dimebag goofing off and mugging for the camera constantly, on and off stage. That could have been a book on it’s own. I’m happy with what made it in the book though, it seems to cover just about everything!
A visual arts background, or at least a strong appreciation for the visual arts, seems to be a common denominator for many of the members of White Zombie, and I seem to recall an interview with you guys a long time ago where (perhaps Rob?) said that whether members of the group liked the same comic books was just as important as their musical ability. So how did a bunch of art school students go on to be one of heavy metal’s most legendary super-groups? How did you manage to balance finishing your education with being in a band?
First question: It was a slow and gradual transition, going from being an art school/noise band in the Lower East Side to a headlining metal arena act. Even in the beginning when we were dubbed “psycho/noise/damage music and playing CBGB’s, we were heavy – and we loved Kiss and Sabbath and Alice Cooper. Those elements came through and appealed to our drummer Ivan dePrume, who was a Brooklyn metalhead, still in high school. We also appealed to some of the hardcore bands that were crossing over to metal, like the Cro-Mags and Biohazard. These bands invited us to open for them at the infamous metal club in Brooklyn, L’Amours, and their fans liked us. We were starting to organize the chaos of our sound, and we liked that we were playing to an audience that responded to us. Before, we were headbanging and running around like nuts, to an audience of hipsters just staring at us, or at their feet. Ivan was constantly blasting Metallica and Slayer in the van and at his house where we practiced – after a while it just seeped into our brains and all made sense. The next thing you know, we were opening in small clubs for Pantera, then Slayer, and the rest is history.
Second: Balancing my education with the band was not easy, especially since we practiced every night and I worked three jobs to stay afloat! Everyone else dropped out, but somehow I managed to get my BFA from Parsons, even graduating with honors. As far as our touring schedule, I was lucky because Ivan was still in high school so we would only tour on vacation breaks back then.
What do you recall about the recording of Make Them Die Slowly? How did the Sean of those days differ from the Sean who would record Astro Creep: 2000?
Ugh. I’ve tried to erase that out of my mind. We made it once, it sounded good, Rob hated it. We made it again, the songs getting more and more uptight and overwritten, and got interrupted halfway through – Bill Laswell now wanted to make the record and start from scratch. We made it a third time, and it was the worst version of all three! I hate the way this record sounds, not to mention my memories of Laswell sitting me down and making me play in a chair, having me hit the strings ever so lightly so I wouldn’t “clip” the note – what a pile of bullshit! I hit hard – did anyone ever tell DeeDee or Lemmy to lay off the bass and play like a wuss? He really fucked with my performance and the whole sound was NOT White Zombie – it sounds like a tin can to me, with a muffled non-existent bass.
How did I differ from then to future recordings? I never deferred to a producer trying to tell me how to play or what my bass should sound like again, and never had to. Andy Wallace and Terry Date were fantastic to work with, and never complained about me hitting hard or having a big full sound.
For me, at least, it seemed like White Zombie was partially responsible for introducing me to an entirely new world of cinema sleaze and horror. I doubt that I would have ever been exposed to things like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Spiderbaby without you guys. Movies always seemed to be a part of the White Zombie aesthetic, and I was curious how you guys got turned on to some of the same strange stuff. Could you talk about that?
Growing up, I was obsessed with the classic and kitschy horror movies, and would get up at 6am to see Sunrise Theater – I think a wolfman was the host. This is from age 5 or 6. I especially loved the Toho films, the old Universal stuff and the Harryhausen ones. Later in high school I went to visit friends in Atlanta and they had Elvira hosting horror movies, what a treat! We’d watch whatever bad movie she was showing and loved it. Before I met Rob at Parsons, I was already living in the Lower East Side and hanging out with a bunch of freaks – they would turn me on to bars showing Blood Sucking Freaks, messed up Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, John Waters, etc. It was just part of the underground and punk culture. When I met Rob, he was completely obsessed with horror movies, more than anyone I’ve ever met. He turned me onto a lot more gore, and classics. I remember us going to Times Square to see Cannibal Holocaust, and then peeling off a 4 foot tall poster for the movie off of the side of a building (because it was raining and loosened the wheatpaste) and decorating our apartment with it. He was really more into the gore than me; I was more into haunting and atmospheric stuff, or monsters and vampires. I knew about Russ Meyers from the Cramps, who I’d loved since high school and through their music had been turned on to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. When I met Rob he was really obsessed with all of Myers movies though – what straight guy wouldn’t be?!!
For a long time heavy metal has been a male-dominated medium. I look at early heavy metal/hard rock artists like Lita Ford and Doro Pesch and it seems like if women are allowed into the club they are expected to trade on their sex appeal as much or even more than their talent. In recent years, it seems like things have been getting better, but I was wondering if there has been a difference between how much of that kind of double standard you experienced during your years with White Zombie and how much you experience with your current musical projects, and if so, do you feel like your own career has helped promote women in metal?
I experience none at all now. Back in WZ days, it was very unusual for me to be up there playing in a heavy band of guys, and not being a sexy front woman singer. To be honest I think I was the only one doing that at the time we were touring, and people were confused to say the least. I had girls coming backstage to meet me thinking I was a dude. I had metalhead dudes thinking I was a dude, and then instead of being sexist, later saying I was their favorite bassist along with Cliff Burton – there is no higher, non-sexist praise from a metahead dude than that, so I consider myself very lucky. Occasionally the local crew or stagehands would treat me like shit and try to throw me out of my own backstage, assuming I didn’t belong since I was a girl. But the fans and the bands we played with always accepted me as one of the guys, which I loved.
The title of your book, I’m in the Band, would seem to be a nod to Pamela Des Barres infamous groupie memoir I’m with the Band, but it also refers to your own experiences of constantly having to convince people that you were actually in White Zombie. Did people assume that you were a groupie, girlfriend or hanger-on, and how did you handle this? It must have been extremely difficult to be in a very popular band yet suffer this kind of indignity on a daily basis. How did the press treat you?
The press were always nice to me, and like the fans and bands, treated me as an equal. Not once but twice did a big Metal magazine vote me best bass player of the year – not best female bassist, note. That is as equal as it gets.
You’ve been very busy since the White Zombie days, playing with a number of bands, including Famous Monsters and Rock City Morgue. Did you learn any lessons from your time with White Zombie that you’ve been able to successfully apply to the rest of your musical career?
Not really! I brought a rigorous practice schedule to the table for White Zombie, because I had grown up that way with piano and violin lessons. Classes twice a week, practice at least two hours a day. Writing, practicing and playing live are things you have to do constantly to be good at them and get better, and I was brought up doing all three since I was six years old. I have another band now that is getting back to the metal, called Star and Dagger. It’s blues rock, but heavy and tuned down. The members are split between NY and N.O., so it takes longer to write and record but I love what we’re coming up with. We like to think of it as Anita Pallenberg fronting Sabbath!
Having lost Lux Interior just last year, I was wondering if you had any personal anecdotes or stories, or maybe just some thoughts about what it was like to play with The Cramps. If so, could you share them?
God playing with The Cramps was like a wonderful dream. Lux and Ivy are both such amazing, intelligent, interesting people with a wealth of knowledge and experience. My favorite memories are sitting around backstage after a show, drinking red wine and hearing their stories, or learning about some serial killer or where Man Ray lived – I found out they loved the Dada movement as much as I did, which shouldn’t have been surprising. (”Naked Lady Falling Down the Stairs”? An homage to the Duchamp painting of course!) Once we hopped a fence in New Orleans to a graveyard that I wanted to show them, and we got busted. Just got bitched out and a slap on the wrist though, along with some great photos!
What I’ve found very interesting about your career is that you’ve always kept a foot in both the visual arts and music. It seems to me that people who have a wide range of talents like you sometimes have trouble being taken seriously in their respective fields. Has your musical fame been a help or hindrance in your work as a designer?
I always feel like it is a hindrance, to be honest. I used to get mad at myself for trying to do too many things – better to focus on one thing and really excel, I thought. But creating is creating, who cares how you feel you need to express yourself as long as it is something you honestly want to do?
I know you spend a lot of time in New Orleans. How has the city been doing since Katrina? What impact will the disaster have on the long-term musical heritage of the city?
New Orleans is back better than ever. The first year or two was tough, but now with the Obama administration that money is finally seeing it’s way down here, and there are new restaurants, bars, shops and businesses every day – I think it’s the only city not hit hard by the recession! I don’t see the hurricane stopping music or musicians here. Walk down any street; you’ll hear music!
A couple of personal questions: you keep incredibly busy, obviously, but what’s a day off like for you? What do you like to do? What’s the most “heavy metal” thing about you? What’s the least?
I don’t know the meaning of a day off! In some ways, all my days are days off, but I do as much as I can every day, even on a weekend I will do an interview or two and write some riffs or design a poster for someone. People who do creative things for a living are blessed and cursed at the same time – you do what you love for a living, but you live it, 24 hours a day. You don’t stamp the clock at 5pm and forget about it. My husband even works in his sleep – he will wake up with an entire song or movie outline in his head, that he has to get up at 5am and write it down for the next two hours! But these are the things we like to do, as well. If we have time we will go see other bands, go to the movies, go out to eat at all of the great restaurants either here or New York, where we have a lot of friends who are chefs. We go bar hopping, the usual stuff!
The most heavy metal thing about me? I still think a lot of music is weak and like to drive around listening to Sleep or Black Sabbath. The least? The only radio station I can stomach is the classical station – actually that is a cliché for metalheads, isn’t it?
Finally, will you be touring to support your book?
Yes, I already have done North Carolina, New Orleans and Los Angeles. I will be heading to NYC to do an instore January 5th at 7pm at the Tribeca Barnes and Noble, and guest DJing at Home Sweet Home on January 7th doing a late night free White Zombie raffle! I just did one of these in LA and it was a huge success!