Interview: Sean Yseult (White Zombie)
Sean Yseult was the first female metal musician I ever saw. I'm sure that's the case for many other kids who grew up in the '90s. I had seen other ladies of rock - D'Arcy of The Smashing Pumpkins, the Deals of the Breeders, Shonen Knife. But I didn't see any woman playing metal live until February 18, 1996, when White Zombie played The Summit in Houston. Admittedly, Yseult was far away. I didn't really notice that she was a she. But that was just it - she held her own in the company of men.
Now Yseult is a successful designer living in New Orleans. Barneys and Design Within Reach have featured her work. Recently she put out a book, I'm in the Band. (The title is a play on Pamela Des Barres' groupie memoir I'm with the Band.) It's a visual recollection of her time in White Zombie, featuring photos, journal entries, and anecdotes. I talked to Yseult on the phone and finally learned how to say her name.
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First of all, how do you pronounce your last name?
ee-SULT. It's kind of like an E.
Now I know after 15 years.
(Laughs) That's everybody's first question, to be honest. It's an odd one. It's Irish.
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Yseult on how to say her name
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How's your design company going?
It's going really well. I actually just got into home decor the past year, and I got into Barneys. So I'm happy with that.
Evidently the company started with scarves.
I did these drawings, and I thought they'd look good on silk. The simple solution was printing them on silk and having scarves made. I went on to do some purses and other small accessories - billfolds and things like that. Now I'm going into home decor with tiles and pillows and other things, and it's going well.
How does that work? Do you generate designs and send them somewhere to be manufactured?
I don't do the manufacturing. I find independent people that make [the items] for me. It's a bit costly. I do everything in really limited editions. I can't really do things in mass quantities - I don't want to. Everything's two dozen or 50, at the most, of a piece.
Is it weird to move from New York's Lower East Side in the '80s to dealing with Design Within Reach and Barneys?
Yeah, it's definitely a little strange. I definitely wouldn't have imagined I'd be dealing with people in these places. I wouldn't even have dared to walk in the stores back in the '80s. (Laughs) It's nice, though. I did go to design school, and these are top design places.
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Aesthetically, your scarves carry no trace of your past in heavy music. Were bright colors and abstract designs always a part of you?
I guess so. I did drawings like this a lot when I was five or six years old. They haven't really changed too much, to be honest. I was definitely influenced as a little kid by Peter Max. There's a lot of stars and nebulous-looking, outer space-ish things that remind me of David Bowie. Some of the stuff is maybe a little more glam rock-looking than metal. (Laughs) There are bright colors, but I use a lot of black in my scarves, too.
White Zombie - we were a pretty colorful crew. We had a lot of patched-up, crazy stuff and dyed our own clothes and stitched things together. We definitely weren't goth and all in black.
Was this a rejection of the stereotypical all-black metal ensemble?
It wasn't conscious at all. It was very organic - literally needing to patch up our clothes and finding different fabrics and things to do that. We were scraping by back then on the Lower East Side .
Let's talk about your book. When you were in White Zombie, how often did you feel like a minority as a woman?
Once we started playing with metal bands - all the time. There were no women at all. All the bands we played with - Slayer, Megadeth, Pantera, Anthrax, Danzig, you name it - there was not one chick to be found in the band, the road crew, the management, the backstage crew. I was really the only woman back there.
There's some overstatement in the press release saying that I was the only woman in metal, which is ridiculous. I didn't say that. It's definitely not true. Of course, there was Lita Ford, Doro Pesch, and other women in metal. But I don't think those women ever played with Pantera or Megadeth. [Ed. note: Actually, Doro's band Warlock opened for Megadeth on a US tour in the late '80s. See here.] It was more a thrash metal, super-heavy scene. That was the world we were in. I would have loved to have crossed paths with some other women in metal, but I really didn't.
In the early days, we played with bands in the East Village, and almost every one of those bands had one girl in the band at least. Then, later, after we got big enough to do what we wanted, we took Babes in Toyland on tour. We'd play big festivals, and I'd run into Melissa Auf der Maur and Hole. I'd see some females here and there. But in the world of metal that White Zombie was in, there were no other women. It's no exaggeration.
Why do you think that was?
I'm not sure. I grew up without very many female role models, as far as musicians [went]. It just wasn't something that little girls grew up wanting to do, I guess. My role models were pretty much Joan Jett and [Poison] Ivy from The Cramps. That was about it. My other role models were Lemmy from Motörhead and Angus [Young] from AC/DC. There's just not a lot of women out there. I mean, there are now, but there wasn't when I was trying to do this.
I've had a lot of women come up to me and say that they got in a band because of me, and that they started picking up bass or guitar because of me. And that's really nice.
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What was your goal with I'm in the Band?
It was just to make a cool coffee table book and get all of my stuff that was in about 10 or 20 boxes together in one place that I could look at. I discovered all this stuff in storage recently, and was really overwhelmed by it all. I felt like it needed to get condensed into one area. It kind of started off for myself. The more I talked to people about it, they were, like, "You need to make a book out of this and get it out there".
Do you look back fondly on your time in White Zombie?
100%. It was amazing. What a journey! We started off living in rat-infested basements with no heat in New York City and ended up headlining arenas.
Do you keep up with your White Zombie bandmates?
We're all in touch with each other, except Rob. When he went solo, he kind of did the lead singer thing of not talking to any of us. We're all friends otherwise. Every member of the band I've been in touch with, especially in the past couple years while working on the book.
A lot of the members - J. [Yuenger], Johnny Tempesta, Ivan [de Prume], Tom Five - all made written contributions to the book. I went to old members of the band and also people that were key in White Zombie's career, like our A&R guy, the guy that first booked us in the East Village, people like that. I said, "Write whatever you want to write, whether it's good or bad, funny or awful - anything you feel like about your memory of White Zombie". And I got some great stories. So those are scattered throughout the book also.
What was the hardest part about being in White Zombie?
I'd get injured a lot. I actually had to get a couple surgeries while we were on tour. That kind of sucked. I felt like I wasn't able to give the audience 100% because I'd have my entire leg in a brace after knee surgery. I didn't have a microphone to explain what was going on, and Rob would never tell the crowd. So that was kind of a drag, whenever I'd have some kind of injury.
Things would just come flying up on stage. Once a bottle came flying up and hit me in the wrist. It was the first song of a show, and my entire hand turned into spaghetti, and I could not fret notes at all. The show was just over. Times like that were hard. You feel bad, because everyone's let down.
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How did you end up in New Orleans?
The first time White Zombie did a van tour, we came through New Orleans, and we played Tipitina's opening up for Soul Asylum. That's a pretty small club for White Zombie and Soul Asylum - this was back in '88, maybe. Soul Asylum were well enough known to headline a club, but we were completely unknown. I'll never forget that day we entered New Orleans. We were driving down these beautiful, huge streets lined with 200 year-old oak trees and mansions. I just fell in love with it right away.
The more we came through here, the more I fell in love with it - the culture, the graveyards, the food, the history. I just knew I had to be here one day. As soon as White Zombie broke up, I actually packed up a suitcase and grabbed my guitar, and I just came here with nothing else. I decided to move here for a year to see how I liked it - and I decided to stay.
Your book has a part about touring with Pantera. Now that you live in New Orleans, do you keep up with Phil Anselmo?
We actually just reconnected a week ago. And he's the most amazing, funniest person. It's so good to be back in touch with him. He moved outside of New Orleans for the past 10 years or so, ever since I've been here. And we just never were in touch. But we just reconnected, and it's just totally like the silly Pantera days with him and [Dimebag] Darrell. They're both so hilarious and always goofing off. He's back to his old self, and it's so great to see him again.
Are you plugged in with the rest of the NOLA metal scene?
Yeah, I know all those guys. I'm good friends with the guys in Eyehategod. I got White Zombie to take them out early on. We toured with them again with White Zombie/Pantera, with Eyehategod opening. I just love those guys. [Eyehategod is] one of my favorite bands.
Do you have any desire to play heavy music again?
As a matter of fact, I really have lately. I started a new band called Star & Dagger. It's kind of stoner rock, Sabbath-influenced. I've got this girl singing - it's almost like having Anita Pallenberg fronting some heavy band. She's got this amazing voice and look. I'm really excited about it. My friend Donna She Wolf is the guitarist. She used to be in the Cycle Sluts from Hell from New York City.
I remember them!
Yeah, yeah! We're great friends, and we love writing riffs together. We try to out-heavy each other, and it's really fun. We went to Joshua Tree this past summer and recorded five songs. And we're getting ready to do a few more soon.
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I'm sure you saw a lot of self-destruction in your time with White Zombie. But here you are, happily married, with a successful business. What kept you on the straight and narrow?
We were never a typical band. Rob and I met at Parsons, at art school. Three of the original members of the band were from Parsons. Then we met J. He's from an arty background. His mother was a musician; his dad was a writer. We didn't really have that rock 'n' roll mentality of getting big and doing a bunch of drugs and getting hookers. We were New York East Village art student kids. We never really thought we were going to get as big as we did. We just liked what we were doing and worked hard at it.
So when [the band] took off, we still stayed in cheap hotels, and we still flew economy [class]. We never lived like rock stars. Occasionally they'd send you a limo to go to the Grammys or something like that. But mostly we lived pretty modestly. And we still pretty much do. I'm very good friends with J. He works hard. He drinks a lot of coffee. He records bands. He's very much on the straight and narrow, too. And Rob's always been an obsessive hard worker. It wasn't in our blood to be a bunch of fuck-ups.
Do you get recognized in the street?
I do. I guess I pretty much look the same. For a year or two after [Hurricane] Katrina, I dyed my hair dark, and I didn't get recognized. It was kind of fun being incognito. But then I felt like I didn't know who I was. (Laughs) I didn't recognize myself. So my hair's back to blonde, and I'm getting recognized again.
What are you listening to these days?
There's a lot of local music here that I love. I go out to clubs and support bands. There's R. Scully and the Rough 7. Their new record just blows me away. The Happy Talk Band is fantastic. Dax Riggs, who's from this area, is great.
If White Zombie had come up, say, two years ago, do you think things would have turned out differently?
I'm sure things would be different. There's not the struggle that there used to be. You can just record something on your computer and punch a button, and it's on iTunes, and a ton of people can hear it if they care to. The way we did our band was the way you had to a band back then. You had to press your own vinyl and get in a van and make flyers and stay up all night wheat-pasting them to poles. It was a struggle back then having a band, but it was fun. You had to really want it to do that. Now you could put 10% of your energy into having a band today and get more listeners than we ever got back in the early days. So I can't even imagine what White Zombie [would be] today, if we were just starting. The music world's changed so much.
On one hand, we had to struggle and work harder. But on the other hand, we ended up getting signed to Geffen Records, which hardly even exists anymore. We were lucky enough to be around when there were still majors, and there were people that gave you tour support and tour buses and made videos for you. And MTV doesn't even play videos anymore. I don't know. It's a strange new world, and I'm thankful that we were around when we were.
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SEAN YSEULT @ NAMM
Yseult will be at NAMM on Saturday, January 15 at the Schecter booth. See details here.
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SEAN YSEULT LINKS
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