10 Questions with Sean Yseult of White Zombie

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by Ryan Meehan

New Orleans resident and musician Sean Yseult is probably best known for her tenure in the industrial metal outfit White Zombie, but there’s a lot more to the artist than the band which made her famous. In December of 2010 Yseult released “I’m in the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie”, a collection of tour diaries and personal photos chronicling the life and times of the group that skyrocketed to the top of the metal world in the mid-nineties. Since then she’s kept busy by doing a ton of photography work, as well as a brief stint as bassist of The Cramps, and currently plays with two bands: Rock City Morgue and Star & Dagger. I am very excited to have Sean Yseult as my guest today in 10 questions.

RM: What was the first bass that you ever owned? Do you still have that instrument; and was there any specific moment in your formative years of playing where you knew that the bass guitar was definitely going to be your area of expertise?

SY: It was a Global. I bought it for 50 bucks off the bass player of the Stillborn Christians, a punk band from my hometown of Raleigh NC. Playing the bass was never a dream of mine; it was more the desire to be in a punk band, and most bands needed a bass player. I always say, bass players are the most accommodating member of the band! It’s funny but I think it’s true: a lot of kids grow up wanting to be a lead singer or a lead guitarist, and get all the glory, or even a badass drummer – but most bass players are guitarists who are happy to just make things work and do what is needed. That was me: I had an old Teisco guitar with a whammy bar so I could sound like The Cramps, but my friends in NYC needed a bass player.

RM: Many music fans don’t even realize that before White Zombie’s first major label release, the band had been around for several years playing rock clubs and scraping together enough recordings for indie releases…How would you best describe the period from 1985 up until 1992 when La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One came out? How did the band’s musical direction shift during that period; and when did you first come to the realization that you had become a professional touring musician?

SY: Oh man, that’s a lot to answer in one blow. Short version:  We started off as punk/heavy driven band with tribal drums and heavy-riffed bass lines, letting the guitarist du jour add noise or melody on top, depending on the guitarist . . . it was chaotic because we kept switching members. We didn’t know at first what we wanted to be, we just knew what we DIDN’T want to be. We knew we wanted to be heavy, and Rob always had a great sense of rhythm and would create beats and say yes or no to our riffs until we had something . . . It was crazy. If you listen to all of our early vinyl in chronological order, it lays out exactly our growth and shift towards metal but keeping our groove and oddness – especially on the first version of Make Them Die Slowly, which will be available soon for the first time!

RM: Back in 2008 the “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” boxed set was released, and from everything I’ve read neither yourself or Jay Yuenger had anything to do with it…How often did you feel left out of certain decisions involving creative control when WZ was still together? Was that something which intensified as the band’s success grew, or did the imbalance of the weight of everyone other than Rob’s input remain pretty consistent until you guys broke up?

SY: Every decision was me and Rob, we were a team until we (as a couple, not a band) broke up. I suppose I brought that on, so it was my fault. But from then on, about ‘93 or so, Rob did everything without running it past any of us. It was a real drag to be left out of the artwork and other decisions, and no matter how much we voiced this to our manager he went with Rob and seemingly conspired to keep everything secret from the rest of us. This was especially lame since I considered our manager a great friend and my favorite drinking buddy, and he still pretended that we were. But then I would have to hear through the grapevine that we were nominated for a Grammy, or going to be on a huge soundtrack – it really took the fun out of our ever growing success at the time. The box set was such a stab in the back for me and Jay, so many years later. They forgot they legally had to run it past us and have us sign off on it – they had already started printing them! Credits were wrong, no liner notes, it was awful. This was our manager’s fault, Andy Gould. Our business manager and lawyer made us fire him on the spot. I’m guessing this was to cover everyone’s ass. Just such shitty Hollywood bullshit. Then we were told if we didn’t sign off on it as is, that Rob would never let one come out. Who knows if that was true, since he wouldn’t speak to me or Jay. But we signed the damn thing, just so the early members would see a little money and recognition. Now Jay and I are correcting that with a badass vinyl boxset of the early stuff, some never before heard, and very detailed liner notes. It will be out next year on the label Numero Group, who are known for their high quality music and packaging they do with vinyl.

RM: How long did it take you to organize the material that would eventually become the book? What was the most difficult portion of that entire process for you; and looking back a half of a decade later, is there anything significant you might have either missed or regretted not putting in there?

SY: It took about two years. I don’t really have any regrets on things I left out, but I did take the high road and left out some doozies that were hilarious examples of Rob’s girlfriend trying to fuck with me – there were enough witnesses and I never wanted it to reflect poorly on Rob so I left all of that out. Occasionally I remember some crazy story, like partying with Joan Jett when I was 16 in North Carolina and what ensued; almost getting arrested for trying to scale the back of the old Ritz to sneak into a Ramones show . . . maybe I’ll tell those stories one day!

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RM: Could you give us an example of an artist that we might be surprised to find out you’re a huge fan of? What is so special about their approach to the art form that draws you to their music; and which particular song really sucked you in and made you want to explore the remainder of their catalog?

SY: I love Serge Gainsbourg. Mark Lanegan. Nick Cave – probably no surprise there. I listen to a lot of classical piano, having grown up playing and composing. Chopin is my favorite; I love how he slips in and out of keys with many augmented or diminished notes, not done in classical music at the time. I love Henry Mancini, genius. Mark Lanegan I have followed since “Whiskey for the Holy Ghost,” and I love what he did for the soundtrack on “Lawless”. Okay, this one might be a surprise: Harry Nillson. My dad used to play his records all of the time, and it is really nostalgic for me. Such a voice, and amazing songwriter. “Nillson Schmillson” is in regular rotation in my house.  It was never one song with any of these that roped me in, always an entire album – for Serge, “Comic Strip”. Mancini, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Nick, Birthday Party, “Junkyard.”

RM: The Star & Dagger track “In My Blood” sounds very stoner rock/doom, and almost has a Kyuss feel to it given the key it’s in…What are some of the influences that you, Donna, and Von Hessling all have in common that led you to get together and start writing songs; and who is currently playing drums for S&D at the moment?

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Photo by Leslie VanStelten

SY: I LOVE Kyuss, so thank you! Dava and I love Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, MC5 – we were going for that kind of vibe as it is basically the riffs we write. She likes a lot of more obscure stuff that I enjoy being turned on too – we recently did a cover of “Suicide” by Dust at her suggestion – what a cool band, and Marky Ramone was in it! Vons tastes are a little broader but she loves what we write and her vocals are amazing – they add a little sheen to our grit!

RM: I read in a Glide Magazine interview from 2011 where you said that were infatuated with “cities that were decaying and falling to pieces”, so it’s no surprise that you ended up in NOLA given its rich history and dated architecture…What are some of the advantages and drawbacks of living in that city, and how does it inspire your work both as a photographer and a musician?

SY: There used to be a lot of disadvantages to living here:  Everything was slow; as far as business and friends in NYC or LA it was as though I had crawled under a rock; even FedEx didn’t show up on time. But I loved it despite being the City That Care Forget. Now, since the amazing rebuilding post-Katrina and the film industry boom here, this city is more happening than NY or LA. People and companies from both cities are moving here in droves, and every day a new great restaurant, bar or shop opens. It’s really exciting, especially for those of us that stuck it out through Katrina. Funny story:  We got a second home in NYC after Katrina, as we had evacuated three times that summer and things just seemed to be getting worse. What happens next? Sandy! My husband is on a shoot up there, having to walk up seven flights of stairs in the dark to get home and wait for the one payphone left in downtown! So the hurricane thing isn’t really an issue or disadvantage anymore, as far as Nola goes.

RM: I was really impressed by the series of images on your website entitled “Mississippi Mermaids”, and I noticed virtually every one of those were done with an aquamarine/turquoise theme…Did you experiment with any other color schemes for that project? Was the decision not to stray too far away from that color in any way based on the fact that even though you were dealing with a fictional figure you still wanted to have the scheme itself represent the authenticity associated with a body of water? How often do you think about things like that in the context of your work; and does it generally happen while you are taking the shots themselves or during the editing process?

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SY: Up until that show, I had only shown black and white works. While I was studying photography at Parsons, I was obsessed with doing chemical processes in the darkroom to make black and white prints blue-toned, cyanotypes, or sepia-toned. With the Mississippi Mermaids, the water theme just made sense to go back to the cyanotype look – they are also printed on metallic silver paper, so it accentuates the look of water. These decisions are usually in my head before I start shooting – I have a vision, I make sketches, then I shoot. Of course I am open to lucky accidents and changes along the way for the better, but for the most part, I end up with exactly what I originally envisioned.

RM: When did you first meet Louis St. Lewis? What was so unique about his work that convinced you he’d be a good artist to collaborate with?

SY: I met Louis my last year of high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I used to work jobs on campus to help cover my tuition, so I got to see the roster before the new students arrived, Even though Louis was in college, we all saw that name: Louis Lewis! We knew we had trouble on our hands, and boy did we! I love Louis; he is Andy Warhol from King Louis XIVth’s court. Insane and one of a kind. I collaborated with him because he asked me to; that simple. I admire his work and his insane brain wracked with historical detail and hallucinogenic creativity!

RM: In a world where technology allows anyone the capability to customize any piece of artwork the way they want, how do you go about creating differentiation in what you do as opposed to other artists in your peer group?

SY: Man, I can’t think about that. I just have to do what comes out of my head – if one of my peers already did it, or someone did it centuries ago and I’m reinventing the wheel, then so be it. My take on it will probably be a little bit different, hopefully. But we do see a lot of variations on the theme these days, and not many new themes. I was lucky enough to be in design school before computers were prevalent: everything was about the idea, not tweaking someone else’s. I was invited to be in Henry Wolf’s master class as a senior – talk about ideas, he was the original Madman, as in Madmen!

RM: What is the best way to textually summarize the worlds that you are hoping to create with your visual art? Does the answer to that question change from project to project, or do you feel like there is a common goal which stretches across all of your pieces?

SY: Beauty, decay, decadence, death . . . I feel like my work does have a common thread (not necessarily goal) that runs through it, involving these themes. I’m drawn to the dark and the sordid but find beauty in it, like an old favorite childhood movie, “Harold and Maude”, or like the catacombs built by the Capuchin monks.

RM: Is there any genre of music you would really like to get the chance to explore in greater detail, but just haven’t had the chance to get around to it because you have so many other things going on at the moment?

SY: I love certain atmospheric soundtracks, everything from Bride of Frankenstein to ones that Air have composed. I’ve being trying to delve into that world ever since I moved to New Orleans but only now am finding the time. I’ve been playing around in Logic and have been made a few offers, so we’ll see.

RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?

SY: Yes! I have been given my first solo show in NYC this November! It will include my recent show in New Orleans “Soirée D’Evolution”, along with pieces from Mississippi Mermaids, and other black and white works including some early lightboxes. I am really excited! The opening will be November 7th at Sacred Gallery. I also hope to record a new album with Star and Dagger early this Fall, we’re just trying to coordinate schedules. Last, I have appearances scheduled for a few horror conventions – I feel like it’s time to share some of the amazing White Zombie items that have been in my vault, going all the way back to our first 7”s from 1985 – still in mint condition! There is one at the end of this month, Monstermania, July 31-August 2nd in Cherry Hill NJ – and Jay and Johnny Tempesta will both be there! I have confirmed one more in Chicago Nov 20-22nd, Days of the Dead. So all of that should keep me busy until January!

Official Website: http://seanyseult.com/

Sean on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/White-ZombieSean-Yseult/37554284789

Sean on Twitter: https://twitter.com/seanyseultwz

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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