An Interview with Sean Yseult of White Zombie

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Sean Yseult’s multi-media assault on both music and design has been a journey of inspiring creativity expressed through inventive originality.

After moving from Raleigh, NC, to NYC, Yseult immersed herself, cutting her teeth amongst bustling design and punk rock scenes. But it was after attending early shows featuring Joan Jett and the Cramps that a teenage Yseult’s fate via music was sealed.

As a resident of NYC’s East Village, Yseult ingratiated herself by joining the punk group Life. It was here where Yseult would meet Ivan de Prume (drums) and Ena Kostabi (guitar), stoking the young bassist’s early musical flame.

Soon, fellow college classmate Robert Cummings (Rob Zombie) would round out the initial lineup of what would become White Zombie. As the ’80s progressed, White Zombie featured a rotating cast of guitarists before Chicago scene veteran Jay Yuenger entered the fold, thus forging the group’s classic lineup.

The ’80s were a series of steppingstones for White Zombie, but the ’90s were truly theirs as originators of the groove metal genre; White Zombie would kiss the sky and soar through the heavens above redefining and then dominating a shifting rock scene weary of tired tropes.

Success would prove demanding for White Zombie, particularly for Yseult, who battled various physical ailments as the group jet-setted around the globe in support of a massive duo of records in La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One (1992) and Astro-Creep: 2000 (1995).

Still, Yseult remained devoted to the cause, but sadly, the band’s de facto leader, the now renamed Rob Zombie, did not share the same faithfulness. The result was one of the decade’s most visionary outfits disbanding at the height of their powers.

While retrospect often breeds lament, for Yseult, her story doesn’t end there.

In the ensuing years, the ever-resilient Yseult pushed on, forming surf rock act The Famous Monsters, before backtracking to her initial focus: photography and design, a field Yseult continues to pursue to this day.

White Zombie’s bassist and founding member Sean Yseult recently took the time with me to recount the band’s ascent and her second act as a designer and beyond.

Andrew:
With both of your parents being English teachers, how much of an effect did they have on your pursuit of the arts? Was that encouraged?

Sean:
Yes, to the extreme. I was in ballet and piano classes by the age of four and was reading music before first grade. They were involved with the local theater, Theater In The Park in Raleigh, NC, and my sister and I would be dropped off there for evening rehearsals. Shakespeare and free babysitting! I had abstract coloring books and other crazy coloring books from the Museum of Art. They completely immersed us in everything creative, ASAP! 

Andrew:
What sort of music scene were you exposed to early on?

Sean:
The first band I ever saw was Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. I was 16 and had a fake I.D. That show changed my life. I was already a huge Ramones fan, and Joan seemed like a female Ramone. A student and friend of my parents gave me a big bag of cassettes when I graduated high school, and there was everything in there from the Cramps to VOM. It was a great summer education before moving to the Lower East Side in NYC. On my first day there, the Cramps played CBGB, and I was there!

Andrew:
You were playing organ in a band called LIFE early on, right? Give us the backstory.

Sean:
In my second year in NYC, at Parsons School of Design, I brought up an old Farfisa I had found. Someone on the punk scene found out I had it, and I was asked to play with Life, a peace punk band in the East Village. I only played two shows with them, but that is where I got White Zombie’s first drummer, Ivan [de Prume], and guitarist, Ena Kostabi; they were both in Life!

Andrew:
How did you ultimately meet Rob Zombie?

Sean:
We met at Parsons during my second year there. He was in the Illustration department. We were both in the cafeteria, and he had his friend come over and ask him if I wanted to hang out. After we met that day, we stayed at each other’s apartments every night until we finally got our own place.

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult

Andrew:
Having not been a bassist originally, when did the instrument come into play for you? Did your time as an organist affect your bass work?

Sean:
I had a guitar when we met but only knew a few chords. When I was 12, I played the violin and was in the Raleigh Youth Orchestra; we actually toured out of town sometimes. So bass was not a stretch to learn, having played a few stringed instruments. I was taught to read music but also play by ear, and that translates to any instrument.

Andrew:
From there, how did White Zombie come together leading into the recording of Gods on Voodoo Moon and Pig Heaven?

Sean:
White Zombie had rotating guitarists for a number of years, but Ivan, whom I mentioned earlier, was White Zombie’s drummer for many years and all of the records except one. Rob asked his roommates, but they didn’t want to be in the band, so I asked the musicians I knew; Ivan and Ena Kostabi, who played guitar in Life. Rob and I looked in a phone book to find a recording studio: we found one called The Batcave. We called them and booked it when we got the rate: $15 an hour. We could afford $30 to make Gods on Voodoo Moon, and two hours was plenty of time for us!

Pig Heaven was done in a similar fashion; we knew nothing of mastering; we just sent the recording to Macola Records in California, which was a tip from Ena, who had been in punk bands and knew about them. After getting the records in plain white sleeves, we got some plastic bags, and I color-xeroxed all of the covers at a graphics place where I worked after school. We were both in art school, so I did the photography on Gods on Voodoo Moon with a timer and infrared film, Rob did the covers of Pig Heaven, and my dear friend Scott Smith shot the photo of us on the back. 

Andrew:
Can you recount White Zombie’s first gig at CBGB?

Sean:
Yes. Monday night audition night; a classic rite of passage. We passed! The room was empty, but we got to play more and more gigs there, with bigger and bigger crowds which was great. In NYC, you’re proving yourself every time you play, whether it’s CBGB, 8BC, or The Pyramid; everyone in the East Village just stands there with their arms crossed, checking out the other bands with an air of judgment and disgust. It’s pretty funny in hindsight, but it was rough at the time. You just had to hunker down and put on a show!

Andrew:
Initially, White Zombie was more of a noise rock band. What brought about the gradual shift in sound we began to see on Psycho-Head Blowout?

Sean:
That’s funny; I think of Psycho-Head Blowout still as noise rock and Soul-Crusher too. But we all loved heavy bands, my favorite since high school was Black Sabbath, and I remember Rob being into ACϟDC and getting into that. But when we got Ivan in the band, he was a 100% metalhead from Brooklyn and, instead of CBGB, he grew up at L’Amours. So, he was listening to all metal all of the time. He was listening to Metallica, and that’s when we started to get into that; it was unlike anything we had ever heard; so awesome!

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult

Andrew:
Peel back on the onion on the creative process behind Soul Crusher and Make Them Die Slowly.

Sean:
Soul Crusher was done in our usual way, just as fast as possible, to save money in the studio. So fast that we played side A all in a row and side B all in a row. So, when we handed some out to college radio stations, there was no groove in the record to find the beginning of the songs! Our one addition to this record, after all four of us playing together non-stop, was to have Tom Five play an entire pass of “noise” for both sides, which we incorporated throughout.

With Make Them Die Slowly, that was the transitional record that really turned out awful after the third time trying. We were on Caroline Records by this point – they had signed us and re-issued Soul-Crusher – and we kept getting more people interested in producing us. The third producer was Bill Laswell, who made us sound like we were playing inside a tin can. 

Andrew:
Was there major label interest by this point?

Sean:
At this point, we were friends with producer and 5th Ramone, Daniel Rey. He told his friend and A&R guy Michael Alago about us, and he became a good friend and cheerleader for us, coming to all of our shows and talking us up. He had recently signed Metallica to a major label and was at Geffen at the time. It took a while, but he convinced Geffen to let him sign us.

Andrew:
How big of an effect did adding
Jay Yuenger on guitar have on White Zombie’s sound moving forward?

Sean:
J was great because he could play really heavy but came from the hardcore scene in Chicago. Rob and I kind of tricked him into being in the band, as he told us he was only a rhythm guitarist. We said, “No problem,” but then never got a second guitarist for solos. [Laughs]. We knew he could do it! It was nice because we finally felt solid; we were finally a band. 

Andrew:
God of Thunder saw the band move to full-on groove metal. Pantera is often cited as the originator of the genre, but I feel White Zombie was pivotal.

Sean:
God of Thunder came out in 1989, and Cowboys From Hell came out in 1990, which is the first time we heard them. Very often, there are zeitgeists that just happen, and I think that must be true for that time period. As soon as we heard that record, though, we couldn’t get enough. Then we got to see them at L’Amours, and they were just amazing. We ended up on the same management, so we got to tour with them a lot down the road!

Andrew:
What went into the band’s choice to cover KISS’ “God of Thunder?” What memories do you have of the session? Was KISS a significant influence?

Sean:
Rob was always a big KISS fan. Growing up with KISS as a kid, how could you not like them? So many classic hits burned into the brain, y’ know? We all liked them, but Rob really was a fan, and he picked the song to cover. My memories of that recording are that we got to record with Daniel Rey at Chung King Studios, and Run DMC came in; I flipped out! I got their autographs; it was so cool to get to meet them. Daniel was a good friend and a wonderful producer; everything was easy, and no hassle with him at the board.

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult

Andrew:
What is your memory of the infamous Pyramid Club show that attracted the interest of Geffen Records?

Sean:
We were very happy to be signed to Geffen. Infamous Pyramid show? Tell me; I remember playing there but don’t remember anything special to make for an infamous gig! We played there a number of times; I love that place. I remember Alago coming to see us at the 428 Club on Lafayette; he was rabid for us! I’m pretty sure that is the first time he saw us and wanted to sign us. 

Andrew:
La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One launched White Zombie into the mainstream. Can you recollect the inception of “Thunder Kiss ’65” and “Black Sunshine?

Sean:
Riffs and riffs and riffs. A ton of hard work in Ivan’s basement non-stop. We recorded it with Andy Wallace. Suffice it to say, after many years, we had honed our sound and ideas. With “Thunderkiss ’65,” J. was over at me and Rob’s apartment, playing the opening rhythm over and over, then after a while, adding those classic descending thirds… it was an “aha!” moment. As for “Black Sunshine,” I wrote the main verse and chorus riffs. I wrote it in 6/8 time, but Ivan didn’t understand what I was asking for and just bashed through it in 4/4. Ultimately, it made the song much more complex and interesting, as the different measures meet up after a while. J Started doing the whammy bar dives over the verses, and that was it!

Andrew:
What are your greatest memories during the two-plus year tour, featuring droves of accolades and publicity?

Sean:
The tours, the bands, and the people we got to meet. Getting to go to the Grammy’s and parties like the Interview With a Vampire premiere. Touring all over Europe and Japan, opening for Page/Plant at Rock in Rio, and receiving multiple gold and platinum record awards. It was really amazing.

Andrew;
What challenges did the band face, and at what point did burnout become a factor?

Sean:
Burn out? I had to do the entire Astro Creep tour – about a year and a half – in a leg brace due to falling through a hole in the stage in the pitch-dark wings minutes before we had to play. It twisted and tore cartilage in my knee and was insanely painful. I never got a chance to take care of it due to our slammed schedule, so it just got worse and more painful. So, that sucked. And you know, in rock ‘n’ roll, when the show must go on, the rock docs show up, “Here, take this.” Luckily, the strongest thing they were handing out back then was Vicodin. It kills me to think about all of the great musicians who, more recently, have overdosed on heavier drugs that were given to them to keep the show going. I was in that position, and being the weakest person in the band and having to carry on in so much pain, it really sucked. 

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult

Andrew:
What ultimately led to the demise of White Zombie at what was seemingly its commercial and creative peak? 

Sean:
That is a question for Rob. J and I were ready to make another record.

Andrew:
How did you ultimately end up forming The Famous Monsters after that? Have you always had an affinity for surf rock?

Sean:
Yes! I love surf music, and I loved Estrus Records and all of the surf/trash craziness they were releasing. I made a demo cassette specifically to get them to put out the record, sent it to them without telling them who I was, and got signed. We did the record anonymously, with masks and wigs, and it was a lot of fun, and people were guessing for a year or more who the band members were!  

Andrew;
What led to the decision to pursue design and photography thereafter?

Sean:
That was always my plan. I even found this plan in a notebook from the mid-80s when Rob and I started White Zombie. I wrote to my future self, “I can always get back to my photography and design when I’m older, but I can only tour and do the band thing NOW.” I had a plan, and I followed through!

Andrew:
How does that allow you to stretch out creatively in ways that music doesn’t? 

Sean:
Well, obviously, in a visual way, but there is a lot involved with both realms that make you think differently; photography involves some storytelling. Sometimes there are technicalities to work out. For me, the graphics involve a balance of color combinations, shapes, patterns, what it’s being used for, and surprise. 

Andrew:
In the present day, as an active artist, where does your passion lie? Do you identify as a musician, artist, or photographer?

Sean:
All three, but I’d rather say designer than artist. 

Andrew:
How do you quantify the band’s influence and legacy when you look back on White Zombie, having defiantly straddled noise rock, groove metal, and industrial metal?

Sean:
Well, I certainly did, and still do notice the influence of our band on heavy rock, but it was definitely a zeitgeist, and there were many bands all influencing each other; Soundgarden was one of the heaviest bands, to me. Ministry stands out to me as far as bringing industrial music to the masses, and the entire East Village in the ’80s was making noise rock. We were around at a good time!

Andrew:
As I understand it, not all members are in contact or on the best terms. Given what you created together, do you wish things were different? 

Sean:
Definitely! I like keeping in touch with all of my friends from the past, not to mention my bandmates. I’m good friends with J, Ivan, and Tempesta. They are all family to me.

Andrew:
What would move the needle toward White Zombie performing again, and what’s next for you in all lanes?

Hmmm, I wonder! [Laughs]. As for what’s next, more photo shows, more designs, more travels to places we never got to tour!

All images courtesy of Sean Yseult

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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