White Zombie’s Sean Yseult Talks Ballet, ‘It Came From N.Y.C.’ Box Set and ‘God of Thunder’
White Zombie have just released a gorgeous new box set, It Came From N.Y.C., which documents what they call "the band's wonderfully ugly birth" by collecting every single, EP and album the group released before hitting it big with 1992's La Sexorcisto. To celebrate, we interviewed bassist Sean Yseult, who talked about the band's early days, the groups that influenced her, risking lawsuits to cover a Kiss classic and her childhood days as a ballet and classical music prodigy.
This is a great looking box set ...
It’s pretty amazing, right? I’m very impressed with the job that Numero Group did. I’ve seen other things they’ve done that are great, but this just takes the cake.
Were you involved with the design? I know you have an arts background.
I do, but no. I was very involved with contributing photos and T-shirts and vinyl and images for them to use. But no, we had nothing to do with it They take great pride in their packaging and do great work. It was kind of cool to just sit back and let someone else do it and see what they came up with. Between them and our manager, they’re the real reason this came out. There wasn’t anybody in the band pushing for this, but Numero Group was so enthusiastic about it that it got us excited too.
It must be nice to shed some more light on the early years of the band, right? There must still be a lot of people who think things started with “Thunder Kiss '65"
Yeah, I think you’re right, and it is good to get this out there. It’s a special package, with all these different colored vinyls and the booklet and everything. I wouldn’t even call it a booklet; it’s a hardbound covered book, and pretty large! I’m happy with it for sure.
It’s a good reminder of how well you blended visuals and music right from the start. Was that something you sat down and planned during your early days, or is just what happened?
It just happened. When Rob [Zombie] and I started the band, we were in art school, so I think it’s only natural that the visuals went hand in hand with the music, and were equally important for us, really. When we met we were into a lot of different music -- punk, metal, hardcore, goth. I loved the Cramps, Rob loved the Misfits. The thing about those two bands that we loved was that they were very visual. Not just visual and not just the sound of their music, but they also created this lifestyle for their fans. We were very much committed to creating a band like that.
Right from the start, White Zombie’s music always had a great groove. Obviously as the bassist you were a big part of that. I’ve heard you talk about the influence of the Cramps, Black Flag and Butthole Surfers on your playing, but was there something you drew from on the funk or R&B side as well?
Not at all! Not at all. I love ‘70s stuff, like Black Sabbath. But there were a bunch of bands we were checking out at the time, like Butthole Surfers, the Birthday Party, that had this cool groove with tribal drums and bass lines going. It was kind of like the guitar was just a bit of decoration on top, or making some jarring noises here and there. As a singer and a bass player, that seemed like a good way to go, to get started at least. I love writing riffs, and having a groove to them on the bass, of course. Rob is really great with rhythm too, and he’d often tell the drummer, “try this.” He wasn’t a drummer, but he’d come up with rhythms. I would credit him quite a bit for some of that.
Was punk rock how you were introduced to rock?
Well, personally, I grew up in a household where my parents were blasting the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, everything, constantly. So I grew up with rock 'n' roll, but then when I went to high school at this performing arts school and I met kids from all over the country and got introduced to hardcore and punk. That was pretty cool, because growing up in North Carolina, it was hard to get exposed to all of those things. We didn’t really have a club for people like that to play. As a matter of fact, my senior year in high school I drove from Raleigh all the way to Washington, D.C., just to see the Exploited, and then another to see the Cramps. It was five hours each way, to the nearest club to see that kind of music. So I got exposed to that at the end of high school, and then when I moved to New York, I started going to the hardcore matinees every Sunday at CBGBs. Partly because it was the only thing I could afford, it was $3, but it was also a good way to see a lot of great bands.
The biography on your website talks about your childhood interest in ballet and classic music. Were you surprised with how your life turned out? As in, were you ever on stage and thinking that playing piano and dancing led you to White Zombie?
I didn’t really talk about that back in the White Zombie days, but yeah, I grew up playing piano and violin and performing, ever since I was very little. I didn’t really get exposed to punk music until my senior year in high school, which is right at the point a broke my foot after 11 years of ballet. So I switched to visual arts, at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. When you switch to visual arts, you tend to meet a lot of bizarre and interesting people, which didn’t happen in ballet so much. Everyone in ballet’s kind of more like an athlete, really obsessed with their physical being. Once i switched, I met a lot of cool freaks that turned me onto interesting punk and hardcore music.
We’re a classic rock site, so of course we have to ask about your cover of “God of Thunder.” Were you a big Kiss fan?
I liked Kiss, but I only remembered the hits as a child. When I met Rob, though, he was a huge Kiss fan. So from day one in White Zombie, we always learned a Kiss song, every time we played at CBGBs or wherever on the lower east side. All the people would just look at us like we were crazy: "Why are they doing this?" He loved Kiss. We used to play War Machine and Rocket Ride. That was a big influence for us, but it started with Rob
Did Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley ever give you any feedback about your version?
Yeah, it was really cool we got to go see them do a big stadium show, when were were being courted by Geffen. They took us backstage to meet them. We were afraid they wanted to sue us, that was the rumor. And there were Gene and Paul towering two feet over us, wearing their platform boots. And they were so nice, they were super cool, had no problem. I think Gene liked having a little extra attention from whatever weird world we were coming from. He was very kind about it, no slack at all.
White Zombie helped bring theatricality back to rock music. Is it cool to see younger bands reflecting that influence with their own shows?
That is really cool, to be honest. That was one of our main goals, to combine this whole sonic and lifestyle thing, we really wanted to entertain people. We hated what was coming out at the time – we didn’t hate the grunge scene or the music, but the boring live shows, we called them the shoe gazers. It was definitely our mission to put on a crazy show, as crazy as possible.
You’ve been very busy with your photography, but what’s going on with you musically lately? Is Star and Dagger still active?
Yeah, but we haven’t gotten together in a while. Our guitarist is up in New York. I’m up there occasionally, but she’s been busy with other stuff, and I’ve been busy with my photography, so we’re kind of waiting for the right timing. We haven’t had time. We have 15 more songs right now, we just haven’t had time to get together and record them. So Star and Dagger still live, it’s just on a hiatus until there’s time to record.
White Zombie 'It Came From N.Y.C.' Box Set Photo Gallery