Brian Sherwin interview with photographer, graphic artist, and musician Sean Yseult (formerly of White Zombie)
Sean Yseult is a photographer, graphic artist, and musician. She has played in several bands-- but is best known as having been the bassist for the heavy metal band White Zombie. Yseult was a member of White Zombie for over a decade-- and is preparing to launch a book, titled “I’m in the Band”, that details her experiences touring with White Zombie as well as offering insight from others who are involved with White Zombie. The book will contain a history of the band that fans have been denied for years.
Yseult has been involved with bands such as Rock City Morgue and Famous Monsters-- and of course, White Zombie. She has performed with many musicians-- including, Rob Zombie, Jay Yuenger, John Tempesta, Tim Jeffs, Tom Guay, Ivan de Prume, Katie Lynn Campbell, and various others. However, before becoming one of the greatest bassist’s in rock history Sean Yseult had an interest in photography and graphic design. In recent years Yseult has been focusing on aspects of visual art rather than music.
Brian Sherwin: Sean, you were one of the founding members of the band White Zombie-- and played bass in the band for over decade. Needless to say, White Zombie was very successful. I understand that you plan to release a book, titled “I’m in the Band”, that contains tour diaries, a collection of photos, and other information that details your years as a member of White Zombie. Can you tell us about the book and your motivation for writing it? For example, is part of the motivation to give credit where credit is due as far as the band lineup is concerned?
Sean-Yseult: That is a huge part of the book - I actually reconnected with almost all of the past members of White Zombie and asked them to write a piece to go in the book. Whether that was their first impression of White Zombie, their experience within the band, or a few funny tour stories, it was entirely up to them.
I not only want to give credit where it is due to all of the band members who contributed in one way or another, but also to all of the people who helped us along the way - I have pages written by our first record producer, Daniel Rey, our first guy that booked us in the East Village, Steven Blush, our a&r guy who signed us to Geffen, the list goes on.
Part of my motivation in creating this book was hearing from our fans once our box-set came out - they were very upset upon opening it up to find not one liner note or note of reference about the band at all. When we broke up we disappeared, there was no farewell or fanfare, no chance to connect with our fans one last time. The box-set should have been our final word to the fans, but it said nothing.
When I started looking through all of the boxes of White Zombie things I had saved - photo albums, tour diaries, back stage passes, etc., so many memories came back and I felt like I had quite a story to tell, with quite a lot of visuals on hand to illustrate it. Having started off as a photo major in art school, I almost always had a camera around, so I have photos of us from day one until the very end!
BS: Speaking of White Zombie, I understand that when the band started to reach mainstream success you made the decision-- or at least brought it up to Rob Zombie and the other members of the band-- that it was vital to move from New York to Los Angeles. If my sources are correct it appears that said move was the best move for the band financially at the time and also secured the band from being dropped from GEFFEN-- which may have put the band back at square one, so to speak. Thus, one could say that if you had not had the intuition to instigate that professional leap the band known as White Zombie may have not been as known as it is today. It was a pivotal decision. That said, how deeply involved were you with the direction of the band both creatively and professionally?
SY: We were all deeply involved in the direction of the band creatively and professionally at the time, it was all four of us living together, living, eating, breathing and sleeping White Zombie. Rob and I made all of the decisions creatively and business-wise, but we were really a band, especially when we wrote music. This was up until and during La Sexorcisto being released.
While we were touring that record for two and a half years-- Rob and I broke up. At that point he started making decisions without consulting me or J., as in getting a hired hand to write techno tracks, then having me and J. try to riff over them - not the most inspiring way to write! This went down for a couple of soundtrack songs, and was a drag. With the next full album "Astro-Creep" some of these extra techno tracks are there but more artfully worked into our songs, and I don't mind it as much.
BS: Not to dwell on your years in White Zombie-- but I must ask the following. As a fan of the band I must say that I was kind of thrown off when remix albums were released. The trendy dance tracks did not really mesh well with the underground grit that one expects from a band like White Zombie-- it kind of took away from the visual and musical feel of the group in general. It left me thinking, “Where the hell did that come from?“. I won‘t deny that the cd I had was donated to Goodwill. Please don’t take offense-- but did you have any direct involvement with that choice at all? Considering what you have already said-- what did you think of that direction in general?
SY: Take offense? Are you kidding? I was disgusted by that, and have never even listened to it. Super Sexy Swinging Bullshit! I had nothing to do with that. I don't even remember being informed of it to be honest. Management probably thought it was a good idea to cash in, but had to have had Rob's approval at the very least. Rob seemed to like dance and techno, he kept trying to take us in that direction and went full on when he did his own solo record-- I think this is pretty obvious upon listening.
BS: It is not uncommon for me to hear horror stories about sexism or other related gender issues-- and the differences between how males and females are treated in specific industries-- when I interview musicians or visual artists who happen to be female. It is not uncommon for artists of any type to be stamped with their gender if they happen to be female.
For example, ‘female artist’, “female bassist’, and other gender-specific descriptions that are never used when describing male artists. For example, you never read an article about an artist starting with so-and-so is a “male artist from…”. The same can be said as far as race is concerned. Can you add your thoughts to this? Do you agree that it is time for critics and the media in general to drop descriptions based on gender that have nothing to do with the art or music itself?
SY: Definitely. That was one of my main goals as a female musician - never to be classified as a female musician. I'm happy to say I achieved that goal. Twice I was nominated in metal magazines as best bass player of the year - not best female bassist, but best bassist! There was a lot of great competition back then so I really take this as a high honor.
It makes no sense to mention gender or race, etc when it comes to musicians and artists. I think it's funny that the one field where it does make a little sense, acting, a huge stink was made about it and made people call all male and female actors just that, not actors and actresses. I find it a bit silly because the roles they play are gender specific and they, as a man or a woman, are what we are viewing. But art and music are not; why even mention it?
BS: Before your fame in White Zombie you had earned a degree in graphic design at Parsons The New School for Design in New York. It appears you have long had an interest in visual art and graphic design. Can you discuss your interest in visual art and graphic design? What excites you about introducing viewers to your visual work?
SY: I grew up filling pages with abstract graphics much like the ones I do today. I'm not sure where this came from, but it is something I've always had inside me and needed to get out. I should credit my parents for surrounding us with the arts and artists, who were constantly streaming in and out of the house. Trips to the museum and Peter Max and M.C. Escher coloring books were the norm - I suppose I just started creating my own coloring books at some point!
The main difference between my graphics now and then is the use of color is more sophisticated, my hand is a bit more trained and there is more depth of field. In high school I was introduced to photography, and acquired an old Polaroid land camera from the thrift store. I fell in love with the quality of these photos, instantly looking as though they were from a distant era. I love showing these pieces and hearing reactions - I actually overheard one octogenarian bragging that the beautiful young girl in the photo (a friend of mine) was HER, taken many decades ago. I live for moments like that.
Lost in Audobon by Sean Yseult
BS: As a photographer I understand that you are influenced-- or should I say inspired-- by Joel-Peter Witkin. Witkin, as you know, is known for his edgy photographs that tap into viewers macabre interests while at the same time being intellectually stimulating. Can you discuss that influence as well as any other influences that come to mind?
SY: I was instantly drawn to Joel Peter Witkins the minute I saw his work - but at that point my apartment looked like something out of one of his books, so you could say I felt a kindred spirit in him. Since I was a child I would collect animal bones, skeletons, and later taxidermy. This is just something you either take an interest in (or not) growing up in the woods of North Carolina. Bird skeletons on the railroad tracks, rabbit skeletons on the beach reserve . . . My father was into this collecting as well, and continued gifting me with animal skulls and snake vertebrae he would find in his land of retirement, Sante Fe, until his untimely death.
My father always had a very morbid sense of humor and I suppose I inherited that. More of an influence on me is Bellocq, who photographed all of the working girls of Storyville in New Orleans until it was destroyed in 1915. These photos are so lovely and haunting. They have such a twisted look at times, especially when the eyes are scratched out of the negative. I find them completely compelling.
BS: With your designs there seems to be a switch in your mode of thinking. One would expect a former member of White Zombie to create images focused on horror or to have an underlining sense of dark humor or brutality. Instead, these works-- at least the ones I’ve seen-- are bright and full of life. Can you discuss this departure from what one might expect you to do?
SY: As I said before, these graphics are something I've done since childhood and I really don't know where they come from. They are done very quickly; pen on paper; no corrections. Those are my rules. If it sucks it doesn't see the light of day. If I like it later, I color it in. I don't really draw imagery so I don't see the likelihood of a skull or vampire working it's way into my drawings. I wish there were some way to marry my graphics to my other creative endeavors, which are much darker, but it is what it is.
BS: I understand that you have been involved in collaborative projects with artist Louis St. Lewis-- can you discuss that collaboration?
SY: Louis and I met at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He was forever in trouble - the artistic genius thumbing his nose at all - and was ultimately kicked out. His work was always beautiful though, and inspiring. We developed a great friendship, stayed in touch over the years, and began working together. One of Louis' main forms of artwork is collage, and he loves using faces and photography. That is where I came in, so he would have original photography to work with. Since then it has gone in many directions, with him recently adding collaged images and gold leafing on top of 5 feet tall photo-canvases of mine.
BS: How is it different collaborating on visual art projects compared to music? Is there a difference? Do you collaborate with the same mentality with one as you would with the other, so to speak? I know with music there is the unfortunate clash of egos-- often instigated by one member over the others in the group-- that can occur. What are your thoughts on this?
SY: It is really the same, it just depends on the personalities of the collaborators. Even though Louis and I have been friends forever, he will do something to one of my photos sometimes that I find shocking, or irreverent. And then I remember, that is why I love his work! But it's hard to see your work sometimes cut up and reassembled. I got over it! I have been known to become precious over my riffs as well. But J. and I worked really well together in White Zombie, and the guitarist I play with now, Johnny Brashear and I work really well together also - no egos clashing at all, more a trading of riffs until the song is built.
BS: In preparation for this interview you mentioned that you have been exhibiting your photography in galleries for the last 10 years. Exhibiting art is very different than performing music in that with visual art you kind of have to sit back while viewers absorb your images. It is not as head-on as standing up in front of an audience-- you are at the mercy of the finished project in that there is no room for improvisation once the artwork is put on display. Has that difference in how an audience takes in your work been difficult for you?
SY: I never thought about it before, but now that you mention it, yes! Ha ha! Live performance is such a direct and shared experience between you and the audience; instant gratification in both directions. Someone taking in your artwork on a wall is a very private, insular thing for that person alone. I almost feel odd being at the openings, but the galleries insist on it. It is awkward though, people probably feeling like they have to make some type of commentary, and the artist feeling unnecessary - what can you really say or add to what you are showing? It should speak for itself, and each viewer should take from it what they want.
BS: Having been involved in both music and art have you-- at any time-- felt as if one passion had suffered for the other? Or would you say that you have kept a balance between the two? Furthermore, do you have any regrets as far as that is concerned?
SY: Always. One has to take a backseat to the other, depending on what I am focused on. I hate it, but it is the only way I can work. I feel guilty, neglecting one for the other. But then I switch and there is a balance down the road, from going back and forth. But I never feel regret.
BS: As far as music goes it often seems that musicians-- no matter what type of music they focus on-- make a greater impact if they are in some way classically trained. I understand that you are a classically trained pianist and I know that others involved in widely successful bands-- Megadeth and Iron Maiden for example-- also have some form of classical training. Have you noticed that link yourself?
SY: Definitely. It just makes sense that once someone is well-versed in a topic, or more accurately, a language, they will be able to create with more impact and directness. If I want to write something to evoke a certain mood, I know what mode to write in, what meter, even what key and time signature. I also know without having to look at an instrument where that song (note or chord-wise) could logically go, or if you want to be jarring, where the interval is that would be illogical to create dissonance or an upheaval.
Not to sound like a total nerd, but music is math and I enjoy the problem solving in the creative process. The same goes with graphics and use of color.
BS: Do you have any advice for emerging artists or musicians-- any insight or warnings to heed? For example, the road to success is often gradual-- people tend to forget that. We live in a world where creative people often want to be an instant success and lose hope when things don’t exactly work out right. It all boils down to how one defines success. What are your thoughts?
SY: A truly creative person creates because he has to - it's not for success or money, although those two things are fantastic results when they happen. In this age of lightning quick access and availability of everything, I would hope kids today would be able to focus on what might be a 10 or 20 year climb towards something, perhaps even a lifetime! (At best a lifetime of always evolving creativity!) And although a cliche, the truth is that between being at point A and wanting to get to point B, it is the journey that you enjoy, not the arrival. I promise you this.
BS: In closing, do you have anything else you would like to say to your fans or the creative community in general?
SY: Do your thing!
You can learn more about Sean Yseault by visiting her website-- http://www.seanyseult.com/ Fans of White Zombie and Sean Yseult on Facebook will want to search for the fan page White Zombie/Sean Yseult on Facebook.
Take care, Stay true,