Posted on by Oran

White Zombie bassist, songwriter, co-founder, turned designer, and photographer Sean Yseult, spoke exclusively to Overdrive.ie about her incredible career, both past, and present…

There’s no question that White Zombie will forever be regarded as monolithic icons of the ’90s Atl/Metal scene.

If you were lucky enough to have been emersed in the Golden era of said scene, chances are you’ll remember a smiling/headbanging, blond-haired [somtimes green] bassist holding her own, on stages across the globe while frequenting MTV’s Headbangers Ball, like it was no big thing.

Battling against the rise of Grunge with their unique brand of thrift-store, road warrior-meets-Horror, B-Movie, the NY-Based crossover junkies not only stood tall during the shift in popular culture during the ’90s…they also opened the door to an incalculable amount of bands who, still to this day, reference their legacy with high regard.

As an integral part of the most influential and sorely-missed bands of the ’90s, Yseult truly is a creative force to be reckoned with.

Overdrive caught up with Sean to find out what’s been happening as well as delving into the rollercoaster ride that was White Zombie

OD – Let’s start with your most recent design/photography projects. Has the impact of the lockdowns and the pandemic, inspired you for any new themes, or concepts, as it’s been a truly weird, and, at times, worrying experience for the creative industry in general?

SEAN -Now that you mention it, yes. Funny that I didn’t realize how much it did affect my creativity until being asked this question!

During the pandemic, I created a new design line during the first six months or so, then shot a new photo show in the second half of covid lockdown, and just showed it outdoors on May 1st.

The design series is titled Black and White Superstars, and it is a huge departure from all of my other designs in the singular fact that it has no color – only black and white. All of my other shows are bursting with outrageous color combinations and very saturated colors.

With my photography, I normally have a concept, and then create what I want to shoot. This time I went on a lark. The collection is titled Dorveille, which is a creative time between sleep and wakefulness; that is dream-like.

Due to Covid, I got up very early to shoot, around 6 am, and wandered around town while no people or cars are out and about. In the first shoot, I stumbled upon a heavy blanket of fog draped over the levee and pouring out across the Mississippi in an area called River Bend. I was so thrilled with the photos that I went to two more areas on the levee after reading of a heavy fog advisory the night before.

The photos turned out beautiful and haunting, from a normally joyful calliope steamboat looking like a haunted ghost ship to blackbirds in flight, 100-year live oaks, and swamp entanglements emerging from the fog.

OD – There is no question that you’re a profoundly creative person from your career as a musician, to your art/designs and photography. Do you find that you’re satisfying your creative desire to fulfillment, or do you have a yearning to push yourself even further with your projects, and if so, what is your dream project?

SEAN – I wouldn’t say I have a dream project, but I do have a list going for future design series and photography series. I write them down and hope to get to them all! I’m very happy with what I have done so far, but I do still have so much more I want to create.

And eventually, I would like to get back to my earliest creative outlet, composing on the piano. I did wake up with a song during covid that was in my head, and went downstairs to my piano and figured it out. I now have it in sheet music form, it’s a ragtime piece called ‘The Pandemic Rag’. It takes a few dark twists and turns, and I thought it might be in bad taste to debut it during so much pain and loss.

Now that we are getting past Covid (one hopes!) I might try to do a YouTube performance of it or something like that.

OD – You have such a broad style when it comes to both your designs and also your photography, capturing a fine balance between beauty, horror, gloom, and expressionism. If you could describe the true essence of your style and what you look for when in creative mode, what would it be?

SEAN – I really don’t look for anything and am not conscious of going into “creative mode” – that is pretty much how my brain is wired 24/7, for better or worse.

These ideas just pop into my head, I don’t really go seeking them out of looking for inspiration. Believe me, it can be a curse as well – I have had people look at me with astonishment when I interpret what I hear, or see as something outrageously different [Laughing].

It all began in kindergarten: our teacher asked the class of 25 children to color in an outline of a gray mouse.

When the parents came to see them up on display, they saw 24 gray mice. Then they saw one that was exploding with color and psychedelic patterns: that was my idea of a gray mouse, apparently. Check out Sean’s photography, here and her design work, here.

OD – Would it be a correct assumption to suggest that New York had a huge and lasting impact on you as a creative person, as you experienced a truly explosive and wonderfully exciting [and dangerous] time when the city was a melting pot of new musical genres, fashion, art, the bustling East Village, etc.?

SEAN – Oh god yes. I was living in the East Village from ’82-’91 and it was amazing. I was also going to art school, so it was a great dichotomy to get the formal education on the Westside, and then the DIY education on the Eastside [Laughing].

It was also insanely dangerous, which did keep you on your toes. I had a friend attacked in Tompkins Square Park by a gang using chains as weapons, and witnessed Rastafarians having a brick fight in Washington Square!

Another time, I was in the middle of a skinhead and bum fight on the Bowery, and one bum returned with a gun!

We were outside of ‘Great Gildersleeves’ because The Misfits were playing that night. Those of us outside could not afford the $7 price of admission.

When we began banging on the door to escape the gunfire, we got to see the last half of The Misfits show for free, which was amazing. Just to make things more interesting, I will confess I was doing acid upon occasion at this time – probably the last thing I needed, but it was fun. And I live to speak of all this today! [Laughing]

Elvira & Sean

A lot of people told me back then that Stephen Sprouse’s first line was inspired by seeing Rob and I in the East Village.

We were both art students at Parsons, and while he was creating stencils to spray paint his leather jacket, I was tie-dying shirts dark gray, blue, black, and green, then drawing spiderweb patterns on them with a sharpie and also silkscreening my own designs.

There were only blue jeans back then, and ill-fitting. I would dye my jeans black and peg them by hand, and sew patches on everything.

OD – When looking back to those NY days…the venues, the thrift stores, music, art, the characters you met along the way, etc., do you feel that the city itself was a huge part of the music you began writing when White Zombie started out in ’85?

SEAN – Yes definitely. As artistic people, you are very much influenced by your surroundings. There was cool stencil art all over the sidewalks and buildings, Keith Haring art kept popping up on buildings overnight, as well as cool band flyers, it was an explosion of creativity.

The thrift stores were great and there were all kinds of weird industrial stores and art supply shops down on Canal Street where we would get prism sticker paper to stick on our guitars.

When we first hit the scene, we were dubbed a “noise” band. We were definitely creating dissonance and were surrounded by other East Village bands making creative noise – The Swans, Rat at Rat R, Sonic Youth, The Honeymoon Killers to name a few. I was also spending my formative years at the Sunday CBGB’s hardcore shows, which were fairly noisy as well.

OD -When White Zombie came to an end and you moved to New Orleans in ’96, did you have a clear idea about your intentions to further your career as a photographer/designer, or were there any periods where you felt creatively lost?

SEAN – I had it all planned out, and was excited to get back to design and photography. I recently found my notebook/diary from the 80’s back when we started White Zombie, and it eerily predicts my future.

I was at a crossroads of my life, with the band demanding more and more time, and my design and photography work falling to the wayside. I found this entry and it kind of blew my mind. I wrote to myself: “Well, I can always do my photography and my design work when I’m older, but I can only be in a band NOW!

Thank goodness I gave myself that advice and stuck to the band while I was young – touring and rocking out daily with a heavy instrument around your neck is not easy!

When we stopped touring after ‘Astro Creep...’ to “take a year off”, I moved right away to New Orleans, bought a Mac computer, and took crash courses in photoshop and design programs. I was more than ready to get back to my plan.

OD – There is no doubt that White Zombie’s impact on alternative, cross-over Metal was [and still is] a defining landmark in the history of metal. When ‘Astro Creep…’ blew up and that rigorous touring schedule was underway, did you know at that time that the album was going to leave such a ground-breaking and long-lasting impression on the genre as a whole?

SEAN – We had a good idea it would be received well since ‘La Sexorcisto…‘ had done so well, but no – we could not have fathomed that ‘Astro…‘ would make the lasting mark that it did.

OD – With the band dissolving at the very height of success, looking back now, do you feel that it was the right thing to do, or do you ever wonder: “What if we had just worked through it and kept going”?

SEAN – No, we were burnt out and for various reasons, and with other people involved besides band members, one in particular, Rob was in no way going to do White Zombie any further. J and I had both agreed to do one more.

OD – When you got involved with ‘It Came From NYC’ with J and you took that stroll down memory lane. Did it bring up a lot of old buried memories [both good and bad] and also did you get any kind of closure from working on that project?

SEAN – Yes and no . . . and yes and no. As you mentioned, it was mostly J and I and past members. Rob edited a lot of it out, and we let him out of respect. Some of it I understood, some I did not. In the end, I think there was enough new information and imagery in there for it to be something exciting for our fans.

OD – If the opportunity came to be, say for Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or something like that, would you be open to performing with Rob, J, and John again?

SEAN – I would.

OD’I’m in The Band’ is now 11-years old, would you consider releasing another book, or perhaps a documentary of your life, or do you feel that you included everything you wanted to express/share with the book?

SEAN – I have never been asked this, but now that you mention it, I had a pretty unusual childhood and have thought about perhaps writing a book about my days at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

It was an amazing school I attended for ballet from age 12-18. The school was mostly all college students, but had two small dormitories for young ballet students, and also musicians and artists but mostly it was dancers trying to get “a leg up” early so to speak.

The things that went on there . . . people would get arrested if I wrote about it! But maybe most of them are old enough (yes, I am talking about some of the teachers) that they have passed on. I think I heard two of them did end up in court, if not in jail!

There were lesser scandals and amazing times, don’t get me wrong – but perhaps it is a story that needs to be told.

OD – With regards to all the music that you have created in the past are there any recordings that have never been released and if so, can you give a brief understanding as to why?

SEAN – No. White Zombie was not one of those bands with millions of songs – the songwriting process was a bit of a tug of war, slow and painstaking so we never had “extra” songs – always just enough!

There are some early versions of ‘Make Them Die Slowly’ that are each entirely different, with different producers and different songs, even a different guitarist! – that are so much better than the version we released, it’s a shame we can’t release them for the fans.

OD – Your time in the industry was truly a golden era for Metal with the rise of alternative/crossover bands, MTV’s Headbangers Ball, legendary festival slots, and some epic tours with Pantera, Ozzy, The Damned, Deftones, etc. When you look back to these times, do you feel that you were part of something that was truly special?

SEAN – Yes. One day we would be touring with Pantera, the next month Soundgarden. Megadeth; then Reverend Horton Heat. We straddled the genres much like Soundgarden did – we were heavy but arty and weird.

It was fantastic to get to play with Metallica and huge heavy metal bands and have their audience go nuts for us, and then have The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and The Cramps open for us and have our audience dig it. Music was at a magical moment when we got to the top; I loved it.

SEAN – Looking at your online posts, you have been showing off some rare and archived pieces of White Zombie memorabilia, but what is one of your most prized possessions?

SEAN – That’s easy: my “elephant” guitar Dimebag Darrell give me when we were on tour with them in Japan. Darrell and I had a special friendship and I miss him every day. When he got me this tiny battery-operated guitar, he decorated it with all of his euphemisms  – “3”, “reset” etc – you’d have to spend a lot of time around him to speak his language and I knew it well.

It makes me happy every day to see that guitar and his smile in my mind. Ever since his life was stolen, when I look at the clock in the afternoon it is 3:33. “Three” was a Darrell thing. I can’t go into it because it is so silly, but he would yell it all of the time. I know he is still around, being a prankster when I see the damn clock every day! [Laughing]

Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell live at Castle Donington Monsters of Rock, United Kingdom, 1994. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

OD – Do you ever see yourself playing music again or is that part of your life behind you?

SEAN – I mentioned earlier a piano piece I wrote during Covid – the piano is my original instrument, and I was composing and improvising since the age of six. I would like to get back to writing on the piano, I just have to make the time.

OD – Of all your achievements over the 36-years, what are you most proud of?

SEAN – Co-creating a band that made enough money to get my parents out of debt and buy them a new car, and help buy a house.

And seeing them with their crazy artist friends out in the White Zombie audience being VIP in the sound booth, enjoying the racket and the light show, immensely’… while smoking weed [laughing]

They’ve been gone for quite a while, but I can see it like yesterday. My parents raised me on Hendrix, Stones, and The Beatles, so, they are to blame for the racket!

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For interest in White Zombie memorabilia, stories, and loads more. Please visit this link.

Please visit here for Sean Yseult’s photography and here for Sean’s designs.

Oran O’Beirne

www.overdrive.ie 2021