Cro-Mags, CBGBs, and Cockroaches: White Zombie’s Sean Yseult Remembers NYC Metal's Lawless Past
"Cro-Mags and Biohazard invited us out to play L’Amours. We thought we were going to get our ass kicked, and instead we started a mosh pit."
Metal is a lot like the map of an adventurer—the more of it that gets explored, the smaller the world seems. Today, metal comprises a massive network of subgenres and influences, but that means any new band is immediately shoved into a series of narrow niches to see if they can be easily classified. But in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when glam metal was choking on its own dick, and thrash was figuring out how to put on its social consciousness pants, and grunge was just beginning to peek out of the shadows, metal had room to move. It could be something strange and different and wonderful. And no band did strange and different quite like White Zombie.
Starting off as a spunky noise rock band squatting in New York’s Lower East Side, White Zombie merged their love of monster movies, biker psychedelia, and driving riffs into an unusual heavy metal mutant that quickly became one of only bands to survive the dreaded metal purge of the 90s. Now, five years after the tawdry CD retrospective Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, the band has put out It Came From NYC, a boxed set and book documenting the band’s early history, including crisp remastered editions of the records that came before the band’s move to LA and the release of their breakthrough album La Sexercisto: Devil Music Volume One.
Other than “YEAH”-obsessed singer Rob Zombie, bassist Sean Yseult was the only founding member of White Zombie present for the band’s entire career. When I call her at her home in New Orleans, Yseult laughs a lot, refers to Let Sleeping Corpses Lie as “an atrocity”, and talks nostalgically about the days when New York City was a festering shithole brimming with possibility.
Noisey: Tell me about New York during the late 80s and early 90s. Was it as grimy and bizarre as it was rumored to be?
Sean Yseult: Absolutely! There were guys coming up behind my back with knives on the subway. Everybody was drinking on the street. My first apartment was at Delancey and Clinton, and it was pretty creepy. I had a car follow me home one night. Rob and I would go a lot of times to Times Square, and though it was riddled with porn theaters, there was always that one theater that showed a triple horror feature for five bucks. But inside, there would be a dude blasting his boombox, someone with their baby screaming. The apartment was full of rats and cockroaches…you name it.
It sounds nostalgic in retrospect, but I’m sure it was brutal at the time.
Well, I remember when we moved to 13th between 1st and 2nd Avenues. And I’m sure it sounds like we were moving on up at the time, getting out of the Lower East Side, but it was a horrible block back then. It was a block where they filmed the Jodie Foster scene in Taxi Driver. Its specialty was transexual [sex workers]. So that was our block.
It’s interesting to hear that—White Zombie always had the metal and horror movie influence, but they definitely had that gritty, sleazy vibe too!
Totally! We were art school kids—he was an illustrator, and I was focused on graphics and photography—so we were influenced by everything around us. We also knew each other from CBGBs hardcore shows. We’d be there every Sunday, seeing every matinee they had, but we were also seeing noise bands, like Swans, Honeymoon Killers, and Pussy Galore, bands we ended up playing with. Meanwhile, when I met Rob, he loved Van Halen, he loved KISS, he loved AC/DC. I loved Black Sabbath, but otherwise I was more into punk, goth, the Cramps. We bottled this all together. It took a little while, but that’s what we were trying to do.
Was there anything that you didn’t want to do with the band?
Rob said that about everything! He hated everything, and I mean everything. Even though he liked elements of certain things, he hated it all. So I think we decided we had to come up with something new. One thing we hated that was very popular at the time was that these grunge bands were coming out, and they were shoegazing. We thought, ‘No way. You come to a show to see a show.’ We weren’t going to look at our fingers while we played, we were going to rock out. We ran around onstage like chickens with our heads cut off. We decided that we were going to entertain people. And Rob liked KISS, so the minute we had extra money we’d buy a strobe light, or a smoke machine, or steal a streetlight! Everyone thought we were very strange. We were definitely the anomaly of the Lower East Side.
Did you guys ever receive backlash from bands you played with or their audiences?
All the time, until we started playing metal shows in Brooklyn. On the Lower East Side, we were playing with all these arty noise bands. We did have a noise element to us, but we didn’t fit in. We were trying to put on a rock show. People treated us like the Manson gang. All the bands we played with and their fans would stand there with their arms crossed. But that’s typical New York. That happened almost every show, until ’89, when we started playing with metal bands. And that’s only because those bands approached us, like the Cro-Mags and Biohazard, who invited us out to play L’Amours. We thought we were going to get our ass kicked, and instead we started a mosh pit.
It’s crazy to hear that the metal scene, which is always considered kind of close-minded, was the most interested.
Harley from the Cro-Mags walked up to us at two in the morning on St. Mark’s. Rob and I were out flyering, and we saw Harley coming towards us. Normally, we’d just get out of the way, because we assumed he was coming to kick our asses for having long hair, but we were flyering so we couldn’t move. And he comes up and says, ‘Hey, I really dig you guys! You wanna play with us?’ And then we played with them, and it was amazing. We realized that there were people into what we were doing, we were just in the wrong neighborhood!
Were there any show line-ups that just made no sense to you?
It was always crazy when we played with bands we loved, bands like Kyuss and the Melvins. That was so cool. Once we took the Toadies out, and I never understood that. That was kind of strange. They were cool, and that song was good, but that was kind of strange. And later on, we’d sometimes do radio shows with people like Alanis Morisette.
Was there a specific point you decided to shy away from the punk or noise sound and go for that biker muscle rock?
We were already going in that direction. At the time, there was all this new metal, like Slayer and Metallica, which was sort of punk. I grew up in North Carolina with the Corrosion of Conformity guys, who really created that crossover sound. So we always wanted that chugging sound, but with a bit of a groove. Biohazard were doing that, and Pantera, too, later.
Obviously, Pantera is the other band that really defined groove metal. How in a vacuum were you guys? Were you aware that you were part of this changing movement?
We were completely living in a vacuum. We didn’t know about Pantera or anybody else doing that. We actually opened up for them early on at L’Amours, and they were just on fire. That was actually the first CD I ever bought—I went to Sounds Records on St. Mark’s and bought a used copy of a Pantera CD! Another band in New York we thought were cool were Prong. We ended up playing a lot of shows with them, and they had that heavy chugging groove thing.
That sound changed metal entirely. It was so different from that Sunset Strip hair metal sound.
Oh, man, we fucking hated that shit. You mentioned what we didn’t want to do—that was one thing. It was so hilarious the day we packed up the van and moved to LA. The manager we ended up with wanted to take us to the Rainbow, and it was everything we hated about the metal scene. Every girl’s walking by in a pleather bustier and fake tits, guys with huge hair, everyone piled with make-up…we could not believe it. Horrific.
'It Came From NYC' is out now on Numero Group.
Chris Krovatin is astro-creeping on Twitter.