White Zombie crawled out NYC’s Lower East Side as an enigma and outcast, surprising themselves and others at the heights they reached. Formed in 1985 by Rob Zombie and Sean Yseult, the two met at Parsons School of Design. Sean arrived there via the high school program at the North Carolina School of the Arts, with a background in classical and blues piano and composition, classical violin, ballet and visual arts. She began performing blues improv in nightclubs at age eight. Rob came from Haverhill MA, with a strong obsession for the Misfits, Alice Cooper, and Kiss, and an even stronger obsession with movies.
Sharing a love of horror films, heavy metal and underground music they started White Zombie. Rob came up with the name and wrote lyrics, Sean wrote riffs. They recruited fellow Parsons’ student Peter Landau to play drums and guitarist Ena Kostabi to make their first 7″, “Gods on Voodoo Moon”. The record was recorded in 2 hours for $30 at a studio found in the phonebook, Batcave, picked for its name and low price. The minimum vinyl was pressed – 300 – and covers were made for “free” on a color xerox machine at Sean’s work. The band proceeded on in this manner, living in apartments with rats, no heat, no kitchen, and sometimes no electricity. They walked all over Manhattan, trying to sell vinyl to the local record stores like Bleecker Bob’s, Midnight Records and Free Being. They spent the rest of their time cutting cardboard up to package records off to college radio, making flyers, mixing up wheat paste in buckets and trudging all over the East Village, Soho and LES at 2am trying to paste them up while dodging policemen. And gigging. CBGB’s was home, other venues were 8BC, the Pyramid, NoSeNo, and the Love Club at Lismar Lounge. Bands they played with at this time were their neighbors in the East Village/LES: Pussy Galore, Honeymoon Killers, Live Skull, Raging Slab, Blind Idiot God.
Switching guitarists and drummers with alacrity, Rob and Sean settled on Ivan de Prume, who Sean had played with previously in a punk band. Still in high school, Ivan was a true Brooklyn metal head – the first time he met Sean and Rob to discuss playing together, he showed up in Washington Square wearing a cropped Ramones t-shirt with a jam box on his shoulder, blasting Metallica. Ivan played on the 2nd 7″, “Pig Heaven” and continued on the next 5 records through La Sexorcisto. Guitarist Tom Five was also in the band for a couple of years, playing on the third and fourth releases that gave White Zombie it’s underground notoriety. Rob and Sean found Tom at Parsons, through a flier they put up in the school cafeteria saying influences were “the Doors, Black Sabbath and Butthole Surfers.” Tom delivered on this description perfectly, playing organized chaos on his guitar. Kurt Cobain lauded “Psycho-Head Blowout”, Iggy Pop spoke highly of “Soul -Crusher”, Kim Thayil wore one of 12 hand -screened WZ t-shirts on a Soundgarden poster. The band toured the US, sleeping on floors of Babes in Toyland, SubPop, the Dwarves and L7 to name a few.
Their live shows were always an explosion, looking and sounding like tattered street urchins trying to put on a Kiss show. The image garnered quite a bit of interest: dreads, tattoos, every square inch of clothing dyed, ragged, patched and studded. It was a new look and a new sound.
The touring, self-released records and dedication was recognized by Caroline Records, who signed the band in 1988. They re-released “Soul -Crusher” and went on to put out the lp “Make Them Die Slowly” (89) and the “God of Thunder”(90) e.p.
Feeling growing pains and the influence of metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer, another personnel change was made and J. became the WZ guitarist with “God of Thunder”. J. moved to NYC from Chicago and had played in the punk band “Rights of the Accused” at the age of 14. Finally able to hone their sound and direction, Rob set out to change things drastically by collaging horror and cult film samples into the music. This was done at first by holding up a microphone attached to a cassette recorder to a television playing a VHS cassette. Already drawing attention for his unique vocals, lyrics, and illustrations, this was groundbreaking for the world of rock, heavy metal, and underground music.
The band left CBGB’s and started playing bigger venues: the Ritz, the Cat Club, L’Amours. After years of playing with art bands who mostly scratched their head at WZ, the metalheads at L’Amours embraced them. Things began to click: producer Daniel Rey took notice of the band, introducing them to A&R man Michael Alago. Alago had signed Metallica; now he signed WZ to Geffen records. La Sexorcisto was released in 1992, and after two years of dogged touring and a little help from Beavis and Butthead, White Zombie became a household name. Headlining stadiums with phantasmic lights, pyro, and film, the band was finally able to give the fans the show they had always wanted to.
Two more drummer changes lead to Johnny Tempesta, who performed with the band on Astro-Creep and all subsequent touring. After a year and a half long tour, the band decided to call it quits while at the top of their game. Nothing was worse to the members than to watch a band flog a dead corpse; it seemed the perfect time to put the Zombie to rest.
There has never before or since been a band to combine such heavy music with sheer insanity, creativity and incredible live performances. The band members now live happily with heat, electricity, kitchens, and only the occasional rat.