In the early 1990s White Zombie helped define where heavy metal might be heading after the death of “hair bands” in the late 80s. White Zombie exploded onto the MTV scene via cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head, as the crude teenage tastemakers plugged White Zombie’s 1993 “Thunder Kiss ’65” video habitually on their show. But White Zombie’s success is primarily due to their own hard work and almost constant touring.
The band formed in 1985 in New York City when Rob Zombie (born Cummings) and his then girlfriend Sean Yseult signed on drummer Ivan dePrume and a changing line of guitarists in order to make music. Zombie, the leader and spokesperson for the band, was born in Massachusetts to relatively indulgent parents. “They weren’t really liberal with me, like, ‘Oh sure, listen to this stuff, watch these movies!’” he told the Detroit Free Press’s Brian McCollum. “They were more like, ‘Well he’s upstairs in his bedroom, let him do whatever he wants.’” They never restricted Zombie’s activities or exposure to horror movies, controversial music, and the underbelly of pop culture.
Members include: J. (born Jay Yuenger; joined band 1989), guitar; John Tempesta (joined band 1994), drums; Sean Yseult (born in Raleigh, NC), bass; Rob Zombie (born Robert Cummings in MA), vocals. Former members: Ivan dePrume, drums from 1985-c. 1992; Phil Buerstatte, drums, 1994.
Band formed in New York, NY, 1985; released first EP, Psycho-Head Blowout, 1986; signed with Geffen Records, c. 1991; La Sexorcisto, major label debut released, 1992; plugged heavily on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead Show, 1993.
Addresses: Record Company-Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
Zombie, who spent some time as an art student at Manhattan’s prestigious Parsons Institute of Design, aspired to be a film director. “My main influence in starting to make music,” he told Elysa Gardner in the Los Angeles Times, “was the fact that I was going to a lot of awful shows, paying money to see bands that were incredibly horrible…. I wasn’t hating everything I saw, but I wanted to make music that I would really enjoy.” Zombie worked briefly as a bike messenger, as the band was developing, then with Yseult—whom he’d met during his stint at art school—at a pornographic magazine Celebrity Sleuth. Later, he was a production assistant for several years on the off-beat kid’s show Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Meanwhile, White Zombie did the New York scene, playing “fright music” for post-punk crowds at clubs like CBGB’s, and across the country with fledgling hard-edged bands like Mudhoney, Urge Overkill, and Dinosaur, (pre Jr). “Eventually,” Zombie told Ian Christe in Alternative Press, “we burned out on the New York scene. Everyone had broken up, everyone was dead, and it was all tenth-generation bands milking what people had done ten years ago.” When White Zombie started playing with metal bands, everybody called them metal, even though they were playing the same music, only now it was with bands like Biohazard and Suicidal Tendencies.
It is hard to pigeonhole their sample-laden frenetic rock. The New York Time’s Jon Pareles offered this: “Like a trash compactor, White Zombie compresses a slew of debris into dense, manageable chunks. Fast heavy metal riffs, sometimes bolstered by the pounding beat of industrial rock, support Rob Zombie’s ranted, rapped and howled lyrics. The songs roam a B movie universe of supernatural ghouls, psychotic killers, satanic possession and other ominous thrills.”
The band built up a strong fan base with its early independent releases and were eventually signed by Geffen Records in the early 90s. By then they were ready to relocate from New York to Los Angeles. At the same time they acquired a manager to whom they made one request: keep the band on tour. In March of 1992 Geffen released White Zombie’s major label debut, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume I. For two and a half years the band toured constantly, playing 350 shows worldwide. Their album sold three times what any of their indies had sold, and they made eight guest appearances on MTV’s Headbanger’s ball. They were even nominated for a Grammy in 1993 for “Best Hard Rock Performance.” Although many had credited their success to the plugs their video for “Thunder Kiss ’65” got on the Beavis and Butthead Show, they had already made a lot of headway from touring. It was requests from Beavis and Butthead fans that put the video into heavy rotation on MTV, however, and that’s when White Zombie’s popularity exploded.
Despite sudden support from their label, the band experienced difficulties preparing for their next album. Line up changes included drummer dePrume being asked to leave just a few months into the La Sexorcisto tour. Then came fill-in drummer Phil Buerstatte who was jettisoned after the tour, but was quickly replaced by John Tempesta—formerly of Testament. The band returned to the studio just three weeks after the tour’s end. The result was 1995’s Astro-Creep: 2000, Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. The band had to invent most of their own samples for this record, as many charges had been made against the previous album. Not only did fans obsessively trace the roots of each sample, but some supposed originators of the material threatened suit. Zombie was also busy directing videos and fashioning the band’s artistic presentation; he is in charge of all designs, including their extensive CD pamphlets.
Rob Zombie’s future relies heavily on his artistic talents. Interested in multimedia design, he plans epic live shows, creative on-line Web sites and other electronic developments involving the band. A big fan of comic books and an obsessive collector of various oddities, Zombie is working on a comic book as well as distant plans to direct films. But for now the band remains interested in developing their music and entertaining their fans.
Psycho-Head Blowout (EP), Silent Explosion, 1986.
Soul-Crusher (EP), Silent Explosion, 1987.
Make Them Die Slowly, Caroline, 1989.
God of Thunder (EP), Caroline, 1989.
La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume I, Geffen, 1992.
Astro-Creep: 2000, Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head, Geffen, 1995.
Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds, Geffen, 1996.
Alternative Press, April 1995.
Detroit Free Press, November 17, 1995.
Guitar School, May 1995.
Hits, May 22, 1995
Hypno Magazine, June 1995.
Live Wire, Vol. 5, No. 5.
Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1995; July 1, 1995.
The Music Paper, June 1995.
New York Times, June 3, 1995.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 1995.
Pulse!, June 1995.
Rip, October 1995.
Rolling Stone, August 24, 1995.
USA Today, June 28, 1995
Additional information for this profile was provided by Geffen Records press materials, 1995.
Members: Robert "Rob Zombie" Cummings, vocals (born Haverhill, Massachusetts, 13 January 1966); Jay "J." Yuenger, guitar (born Chicago, Illinois, 26 December 1967); Sean Yseult, bass (born Shauna Reynolds; Raleigh, North Carolina, 6 June 1966); John Tempesta, drums.
Best-selling album since 1990: Astro Creep: 2000—Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "Thunder Kiss '65," "Black Sunshine," "More Human Than Human"
In a decade that ushered in no-frills, acoustic-framed alt-rock, White Zombie took the theatrical, colorful road-less-traveled. Spending lots of time watching TV and reading comic books, Rob Cummings (who later renamed himself Rob Zombie) was something of a social outcast growing up in small-town New England. In his late teens he moved to New York City, where he found fellow travelers who shared his love for the tacky and vulgar side of Americana, and he formed a band that began to play locally. He also started a romantic relationship with a female bassist, Yseult, but their professional relationship proved more enduring.
White Zombie released the EP Psycho Head Blowout (1987) independently and followed that with debut album Soul Crusher (1988). Zombie was still going by the slightly cheesy pseudonym Rob Straker. The band got the attention of the legendary New York bassist/producer Bill Laswell, who signed them to his Caroline Records and released Make Them Die Slowly (1989). After five years of slogging it out in the tough New York scene, the band was deemed ready for prime time by Geffen Records.
Their debut on Geffen, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (1992), was produced by Andy Wallace, who went on to become one of the most in-demand mixing engineers of the decade. He helped the band combine its monster-truck metal riffs with a rollicking groove. However, the album received little notice until the "Thunder Kiss '65" video got a "cool" recommendation from MTV's Beavis and Butt-head cartoon show. Zombie's dreadlocks, twangy rap singing, and fusion of metal with up-tempo R&B grooves set the band in stark contrast to the grunge movement. The lyrics evoke decadence and devil worship, though in a cheekier way than such metal predecessors as Black Sabbath and Dio.
White Zombie reached its high point with Astro Creep: 2000—Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head (1995). On the album, the band hones its amalgam of hard rock, industrial rock, and hip-hop. Their first single, "More Human Than Human," starts with stuttering synthesizers and Zombie's rabble-rousing "yeeeah" shout and subsequently explodes into a rafter-rattling blast of crunching guitars and hip-shaking beats. "Super-Charger Heaven" sustains the group's penchant for tongue-in-cheek Satanism and rolls along like a revved-up version of Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream." Acknowledging their dance-music influences, White Zombie released a remix album, Supersexy Swingin' Sounds (1996), and covered KC and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" for The Crow: City of Angels (1996) soundtrack.
The band found themselves in a situation resembling the plot of the film Footloose in 1996 when the Johnson City, Tennessee, city council denied the band permission to perform at a city-owned venue. Some cried censorship, while others questioned whether lyrics like "Cupid brought a gun, he gonna blow the f**ker" (from "Electric Head Pt. 2") conformed to community standards in a small southern city.
Zombie went solo in 1998, claiming the other members were not into his trashy concept anymore. His former band mates vigorously denied the accusation, saying Zombie simply bailed out on them. Regardless, Zombie does indulge his macabre side more on his solo debut, Hellbilly Deluxe. He sings, "dig through the ditches / burn through the witches" on his first single, "Dragula," which conforms to his trademark template of electric beats and chainsaw guitars. "Living Dead Girl" uses a Nine Inch Nails–inspired industrial rhythm and comes with a video that pays homage to silent horror films. In fact, NIN members Charlie Clouser and Chris Vrenna did production work on American Made Music to Strip By (1999), another remix set.
White Zombie's concerts resembled carnival sideshows, with their ghoulish makeup, pyrotechnics, and images from old horror movies. Old-timers saw shades of Alice Cooper. For The Sinister Urge (2001), Zombie makes a few minor adjustments, aiming for pop accessibility on "Never Gonna Stop" and cooling down the tempo on "Land of 1000 Corpses." The single "Dead Girl Superstar" uses scratches and samples. But mainly he sticks to the cyber-groove-metal formula that has pleased his fans.
White Zombie and Rob Zombie brought rhythm, irony, and decadent fun to hard rock. Not ones to make stylistic leaps or reinvent themselves, they found a niche market of like-minded fans and gave them plenty of good, dirty fun.
La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (Geffen, 1992); Astro Creep: 2000—Songs of Love, Destruction, and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head (Geffen, 1995); Hellbilly Deluxe (Geffen, 1998); The Sinister Urge (Universal, 2001).