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By Amanda Savage
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White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult speaks in the whiskey-and-cigarettes drawl of a heavy-metal road warrior, a title she's earned after nearly four years of constant touring in support of her band's 1992 major-label debut, La Sexorcisto, and last year's follow-up, Astro-Creep: 2000. Over that time, Yseult says she's learned a lot about relationships, and even a little about biological processes. Like decomposition.
"I have lots of creepy things," she admits, ticking off a macabre litany that includes a coffin and a collection of human bones. "The creepiest things I had to get rid of, though, because they got a little too creepy. I had a bat and a rattlesnake that were taxidermied, but I don't think [the taxidermist] did such a good job. I went to move them one day and they stuck to the table. Turns out they were filled with maggots."
The same can be said of White Zombie songs: At their core is always something chewy and disgusting, served belly up on a gut-shuddering guitar riff. Zombie harnesses the occult preoccupation of contemporary death-metal and Black Sabbath--which the diabolically darling Yseult says influenced her "more than any band on the planet"--and the garish theatrics of Kiss. Odd snippets from B-grade horror flicks give the band's crossover riffing an industrial sheen, and what White Zombie occasionally lacks in the Memorable Lick department, it compensates for with clever effects and a (forked) tongue-in-cheek attitude toward all things gory. If the subject involves Satan or a grisly death, chances are White Zombie has written a song about it.
The metal foursome's 1992 Geffen Records debut thematically brimmed with crucifixions, cemeteries and orgies of slaughter, lending authenticity to its subtitle: Devil Music Vol. 1. Tailor-made fodder for the Religious Right, La Sexorcisto went platinum and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance. The band's latest (and finest) release, Astro-Creep: 2000 (Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head), has made an even stronger showing on the charts, approaching double-platinum sales thanks in large part to heavy MTV and rock-radio rotation of the single "More Human Than Human."
"Everything Satanic is fun, you know?" says Yseult when asked to explain White Zombie's appeal. "And it's not so much pro-Satanism as it is anti-Christianity. A lot of this stuff is just to piss people off. I mean, I'm into Satanism on a certain level, but we don't perform rituals."
That's not what the Humane Society heard. Last month, Yseult says, an alarmed representative from that organization paid the band a visit. "They heard we were gonna sacrifice an animal onstage. We would never do anything like that. Personally, I think animals are worth a lot more than humans."
That warm and cuddly vibe doesn't translate to White Zombie's lyrics, as penned and sung by Yseult's ex-boyfriend Rob Zombie--a mass of leather, dreadlocks and tattoos withaHarley-Davidson exhaust pipe for a throat. When he sings, Zombie sounds like Iggy Pop sputtering junk-crazy premonitions from a William S. Burroughs novel. On Sexorcisto's "Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)," for instance, he's all worked up after seeing "the spider jukebox paranoid insider ... in a reptile rhythm voodoo journey to the tide." Zombie's lyrics often convey a visceral dread, even if he's the only person who really understands what he's growling about.
"We're obsessed with trash culture," Yseult says, articulating the Zombie theme. "We're into horror, sci-fi, Russ Meyer: everything great about America. All the death and destruction in our songs is stuff everyone's obsessed with. Well, maybe not everyone in normal life, but everyone I know."
Ten years ago, when Yseult was still Shauna Reynolds and Rob was Rob Straker, the two art majors met in the graphics department of a small-time New York porno magazine where they landed work. "Yeah, I'm a girl," says Yseult, "but I really had no problem with designing the layouts. I mean, you're talking about life in New York City, and trying to get jobs there is not the easiest thing, especially when you got purple hair with knots in it. I was glad somebody was willing to hire me. I wasn't gonna get too picky about it."
Likewise, after stints as a bike messenger and a production assistant on Pee-wee's Playhouse, Rob Zombie welcomed the opportunity to illustrate his perversions for public consumption.
Working in the porno industry certainly beat all the "normal shitty jobs" Yseult had waded through, but it wasn't until Rob shoved a bass into her hands that she ever considered music as a job option. Zombie himself didn't take up music until relatively late in life. The singer spent his adolescence collecting comics, records and other assorted pop flotsam regularly mailed to him by The Six Million Dollar Man fan club, of which he was an enthusiastic member. Zombie's love of old horror films prompted him to name his band after a 1932 movie starring Bela Lugosi as a Haitian plantation owner who turns people into undead slaves.
White Zombie's first release was a tepid EP on Silent Explosion Records called Psycho Head Blowout in 1987, followed later that year by the slightly more inspired Soul-Crusher. It wasn't until 1989's Make Them Die Slowly on Caroline Records that the band started generating a buzz. Still, no one predicted the success of Sexorcisto, whose sales soared after "Thunder Kiss '65" was featured on a 1993 episode of Beavis and Butt-head. Since then, White Zombie's music has been featured on several film soundtracks. The band also contributed a cover of "Children of the Grave" for the 1995 Sabbath tribute compilation Nativity in Black.
While he hasn't refused to cash any checks, Rob Zombie remains characteristically dour about his band's triumphs. "Commercial success was never the motivation," he claims. "Escaping reality and the daily grind of living was the prime motive."
Life on the road, though, has also proved grinding. Gigging six nights a week and being crammed together in a tour bus for months at a time has taken its toll on the four band members--including, aside fromYseult and Zombie, guitarist J. (Jay Yeunger) and drummer John Tempesta.
"We're past the point of hating each other," says Yseult. "We get along on a certain level, but it goes through phases. Sometimes it's all a drag, sometimes it's a lot of fun."
Yseult's romantic relationship with Rob Zombie was an early casualty of the road war. "The situation hasn't been ..." Yseult pauses to measure her words. "Hmmm. I want to be diplomatic about this. It hasn't been a major problem, but it's not the easiest situation. I'm not gonna lie about that."
Recently, White Zombie almost had an unexpected reprieve from the rigors of its current U.S. tour when a religious group staged an anti-Zombie rally in--surprise!--Jackson City, Tennessee. "Two thousand so-called Christians showed up and sent in three bomb threats," grumbles Yseult, still bitter about the ordeal (the band eventually got to play). "I just think that's a contradiction in what they're supposed to be about. I mean, I'm not hurting anybody."
When your meal ticket's named Beelzebub, though, you should expect to catch some flak from the churchgoing crowd. Still, by Yseult's count, the band has more friends than enemies. "The weirdest thing," she says, "is no matter where we go now, we get recognized by somebody who's so unlike a Zombie fan. The waitress at the truck stop or the hotel bellhop."
In fact, the band's increasing popularity raises suspicions about a pact with the horned, red-caped guy.
"We already made it," laughs Yseult. "How do you think we got where we are now?"
White Zombie is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 6, at Compton Terrace in Chandler, with Filter. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.