Shelves rise up to the ceiling packed with figurines, those synthetic-polymer ghosts of Halloweens past. Aside from their class-portrait formation — tall in back, vertically challenged in front — the brigade of Toys ‘R’ Us backstock is as artlessly jammed against the wall as a spinster’s thimble collection, treasured but neglected. The variety of rare Draculae qualifies the site for national protection as a vampire sanctuary: smiley wind-up arms-akimbo Hug Me Dracula, coffin-dwelling spare-change-sucking Tip Me Dracula, face-looks-strangely-familiar Failed Motion Picture Tie-in Dracula. One wall of the small square room supports the weight of a dragon head, life-size if there were such a thing. A worn couch, upholstered with the hides of the equally mythical Nauga, sits in the dragon’s attentive glare, its end tables topped with candlesticks and peculiar lamps, more plastic trinkets, 8-track tapes. A dying TV the shape of an astronaut’s helmet beams a random procession of staticky broadcast signals: cartoon high jinks, commercials for staple foods, the infinite loop of bare-bellied spokesmodels. A spare drum set and a pair of amplifiers sit mute amid the furniture. Somewhere far beyond these walls a lonely Webster’s lexicographer is honing the definition of the word "detritus."
This is White Zombie’s rehearsal space. This is not White Zombie’s rehearsal space. This is a Merchant and Ivory production of White Zombie’s rehearsal space. This is a studio somewhere in Hollywood on the set of the video shoot of "More Human Than Human," one of two initial singles off the band’s new album on Geffen Records, titled in full, for the first and last time in this article, Astro-Creep: 2000 — Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head. The other single, "Super-Charger Heaven," is on a trajectory toward specialist "metal" radio, without the benefit of visual aid.
It is just after 10 a.m. on a Saturday this past March, exactly a month in advance of Astro-Creep‘s official release date. Rob Zombie, leader of his namesake band, sidles up and gestures toward one of the silent, anonymous production assistants purposefully wandering the studio set. "See that guy?" Rob asks. "He was in The Bad News Bears. Third baseman or something."
"I think he’s a grip or something."
Rob summons another P.A. and sends him on an errand: one dozen small American flags and a large sandwich board on which he should paint the words "More Human Than Human."
"Big block letters?" the P.A. asks.
"Like a sign in a deli window — lunch special," Rob says. "And put ‘The End Is Near’ on the other side."
The P.A. gives a Boy Scout salute and begins his quest.
Rob is directing the video. He got to know much of the crew the previous evening when they were up past midnight constructing the studio-set rendering of White Zombie’s rehearsal room. Despite his faith in this particular P.A.’s shopping and lettering skills, it soon becomes apparent that as a leader Rob Zombie is not a great delegator. He got to know Geffen’s art staff fairly well when he chose to fully illustrate all 16 panels of the full-color, double-sided, fold-out booklet that accompanies the Astro-Creep CD (Rob will later explain that Geffen pays for four panels per CD for any of its bands; White Zombie ate the rest of the printing cost). He is just beginning to get to know the company that is producing the band’s upcoming tour, because he is designing the stage set. He already knows White Zombie’s merchandisers, since it has been Rob’s habit from the band’s start a full decade ago to design its T-shirts, stickers, patches, posters, you-name-it. And yes, he designed his many tattoos, and probably would have engraved them as well, had God made his arms long enough for the task.
"We wanted to use our real space," Rob says, a bit distracted, "but it was too small to get the cameras in." Then he walks off to consult with the cinematographer, who is busy arranging the first shot of the day. Today’s filming will consist solely of the four members of White Zombie miming the "More Human Than Human" album track for a checklist of hyphenated music-video visual formats: slo-mo, fish-eye, close-up, strobe-lit. Tomorrow morning Rob and a guerrilla crew will hit L.A.’s streets in a van to film a variety of segments — "Ugly Clown Vignette," "Ugly Texan Vignette," "Shriner Vignette" — on cheap stock, material that will miscegenate with today’s footage in an editing room and give birth to an MTV-ready video.
Over the course of the next 12 hours, "More Human Than Human" will be played at least 30 times. Multiply that by another 40 — which is how often Rob sings "human" in the song — and you’ll have a sense of the toll that the work takes on all present. The wear provides a premonition of MTV overplay, a subject very much on the band’s mind. White Zombie’s previous Geffen album, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1, has sold more than one million copies, primarily on the strength of its "Thunderkiss ’65" single and the accompanying video, a send-up of Russ Meyer’s audacious films. Sexorcisto brought a new sound to radio, a potent mix of machine-drum regimentation; a barrage of samples, each a pop-culture reference teasing the listener’s memory; and a return to simple, rich guitar parts more concerned with color than flash. Expectations for Astro-Creep are high. Best prediction: repeat. Worst prediction: Making a small fortune at the turn of the century, when One-Hit Wonders of the ’90s compilations begin to appear.
(Much as every Brad Pitt profile has to mention his pectoral splendor in Thelma and Louise and every Uma Thurman profile her similar career-making exposure in Dangerous Liaisons, White Zombie chroniclers must pause before the altar of Beavis and Butt-head and mention the benevolent cartoon MTV VJs’ role in promoting "Thunderbird ’65." Done.)
Astro-Creep is a worthy successor to La Sexorcisto‘s artful pop bombast. Like the video shoot set, the song "More Human Than Human" is just dense with stuff: a woman’s coital moan, far-off church bells, plucked zither, finger snaps, eldritch horror soundtrack tones, not to mention the layers of keyboards and guitar. There isn’t a guitar solo so much as a space that opens up in which one can temporarily concentrate on the ever-rising slide. And over the whole mess Rob spews his auctioneer spew, dropping the album’s title in his first breathful of verbiage. "I am a jigsaw man," he sings at one point, quite aware that White Zombie’s music is jumble music: a fantastic aural conglomeration of cultural and purely sonic material.
As the Jigsaw Man and the cinematographer huddle in preparation for the first shot of the day, the rest of White Zombie awaits direction. Sean Yseult, bass, is tailoring her outfit, a generic black slip, by attaching its strap to her bra with a sticky ribbon of duct tape. J. — yes, simply J., guitar — is talking effects boxes with a reporter from a guitar magazine, who dutifully photographs the floor array. John Tempesta, drums, sits quietly. Later, while J.’s doing close-ups, Tempesta is asked what the video’s about. "I don’t really know," he says, his shoulders rising with his voice. "A lot of that is up to Rob. You just gotta trust him."
Tempesta, Yseult and J. will each make the same joke at least once today: that the image of the three of them wailing away "playing" the song is sort of silly since so much of the song is "other" than them playing their instruments. That "other" is the patina of musical slop that makes White Zombie special. That "other" is, more specifically, Rob Zombie, the band’s lead singer, who not only lip-syncs his part in each take as his fellow Zombies air their instruments, but twitches madly, each limb — each segment — contorting to a different element in the music. It’s a choreography only he understands.
One half of the band’s two-manager team, a short, pudgy character named Andy Gould, arrives just prior to lunch. His British accent primarily serves to cement his resemblance to Phil Collins. He spends much of the afternoon dispensing stories about his days managing Kool and the Gang — come 1995 he manages the careers of Pantera and Prong, bands as deeply involved as White Zombie in redefining the genre "metal" — and skimming his reportedly deep catalog of dirty jokes. He returns now and again to the production of White Zombie’s new album. "Ask Rob about the samples," he suggests animatedly. "They made them all themselves this time, mostly him and John in the studio." Gould is talking around legal troubles that delayed the release of La Sexorcisto for, by some accounts, close to a year when Robert De Niro, among others, denied the band the right to make use of sampled materials long since stitched into the album’s fabric. After a time-consuming re-edit, La Sexorcisto was finally ready for release.
According to Gould today, the members of White Zombie took the precaution of "inventing" samples this time around, of contriving their own archive of source material to then be introduced into Astro-Creep‘s musical mix. As for the video, Gould hasn’t much better an idea of what’s going on than does Tempesta. As we will learn, this isn’t the only area where he is being kept in the dark.
"I want to strip the whole thing back to basics a little," Rob will say a few days later, describing his plans for the video. "I want to explain where the band came from, in a way. I have these old Super 8 movies my mom sent me — from, like, the ’60s — and I’m gonna cut into footage of that with the new Super 8 we filmed for the video, just blur them together where it goes from me and my brother running around in Halloween costumes to this robot on the street today. It’s like nothing has changed, ya know? It’s the exact same world in my head as when I was a kid."
As with the Bad News Bears veteran on the production staff, who is haunted good-naturedly and routinely in regards to his pre-teen acting stint, the facts of Rob Zombie’s childhood — lost in the suburban dreamland of comic books and horror movies and, inevitably, heavy metal — continue to surface in his adult life.
Shelves line the walls, packed with cartoon figurines, those highly collectable ghosts of childhood past and present. It’s like an Ultraman convention, there proliferate so many variations on the immortal Japanese hero. There are Ultraman key chains, an Ultraman table-top action-figure — an Ultraman salt-and-pepper set? The largest Ultraman present, ceiling-high, guards the room’s one window; a coin slot near his loins suggests a previous tour of duty as a gumball dispenser. Three blinking, bleeping pinball machines command one whole wall; the shiny Star Trek one, that awkward contemporary hybrid of chrome balls and computer graphics, makes the nearby Centipede video-arcade relic look like a hat rack, poised as it is by the front door.
This is not the set of a White Zombie video shoot. This is Rob Zombie’s living room. His house is nestled, as they say, on a residential street in a lower tier of the Hollywood hills, just a few miles from the studios of Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera, whose animated productions pervaded Rob’s Massachusetts childhood and today keep his real estate at a premium. The house is humble, not what one might expect from the leader of a band whose last album is on the double-platinum verge. A few days have passed since the "More Human Than Human" video shoot; in less than a month, Astro-Creep: 2000 will ship 500,000 copies. Somewhere in an adjacent ZIP code David Geffen is eating well.
A layer of memorabilia fully obscures all the interior walls of the house. Platinum and gold records for La Sexorcisto (one million and one-half million sold, respectively) are simply lost among the concert posters, magazine covers and photographs. Especially photographs. The most recent one shows Rob on stage with his friend Glenn Danzig’s band, Danzig, a few months earlier. Elsewhere hang photos of what seems to be the entire cast of the Batman TV show, each separately signed (most are inscribed, "To Rob") and framed.
"I always consider myself, like, Superfan," says Rob, who is frequently greeted by Zombie fans on his ventures to comic book conventions and other events appealing to acquisitive connoisseurs of pop culture. Coasting in docent mode down a stairwell, he mentions seeing Martin Landau recently at a newsstand and hurriedly searching for a magazine with an Ed Wood article for the actor to sign.
"I get so star struck," he says as he enters the basement, which reveals a greater assortment of kid stuff bought on an adult budget: a wealth of videos (including a bunch of KISS bootlegs), a portion of Rob’s comic book collection ("Most of them are back at my mom’s"), monster masks, movie posters. Against one wall sits Rob’s drawing board, above which hangs an isometric three-dimensional computer printout of the bare bones stage set for the upcoming tour.
"I can’t believe you’re showing him this mess," a female voice calls from upstairs. "It’s so stuffy down there." For a second you think it’s Rob’s mom admonishing us to get back to our homework. But it’s his girlfriend, with whom he shares the house. After one more game of Centipede, she’s off for a facial.
Rob presents some pencilled roughs of a White Zombie comic book series proposed by Marvel Comics — another sign of childhood obsession turned adult profession. Marvel’s chosen illustrator must not know much about the band. Sure, the drummer drawn here is from two lineups back, but what best exposes the illustrator’s ignorance of things Zombie is how straightforward the art is. The Marvel drafts aren’t quite Superman-photo-realistic, but there’s none of the camp horrorshow that coats White Zombie CDs, T-shirts and assorted paraphernalia, all drawn by Rob.
Musicians from Joni Mitchell to Tony Bennett have painted, and acts from Frank Zappa to KISS have relied on specific visual manifestations of their music, but few could claim the kind of essential — and, most importantly, self-produced — visual/musical affinity that Rob has achieved with White Zombie. The band’s growing legion of fans thrill to the garish, horny, cartoon images that coalesce into a splendiferous, toxic-green visual aura around each White Zombie single, album and tour. And all of that is Rob’s creation, not the work of some record company art-department employee.
Whining during the monotonous "More Human" video shoot this past weekend, just about everyone present disparaged, at one time or another, the hand that feeds the Zombie, MTV. The four members of White Zombie are all in their late 20s; they’re all of the last high-school class or so that can remember a time when a band could hit the top 10 before everyone in the U.S.A. knew what the lead singer looked like. But the fact remains: No band playing songs for the masses these days is as all-consumingly visual as White Zombie.
Rob puts aside the rejected Marvel portfolio and shrugs. Danzig recently started his own comic book company, Verotik. Perhaps White Zombie must follow suit.
Back upstairs, as the tape recorder begins to roll, Rob pulls the plugs on the pinball games, whose unsynchronized sound-effect loops threaten to filibuster the interview. "I’ve got to have some work done on the Star Trek one," he says on the way back to the couch. "The transporter’s down."
The transporter isn’t the only thing that’s down. Preparations for Astro-Creep‘s release have been intense. Rain threatened Sunday’s al fresco shoot. The video is yet to be edited into a whole. After months of recording, the album’s completed, but who knows if it will sell? (The evening of its release, Rob will call the L.A. record store where White Zombie is planning to sign copies for fans who show up at midnight. He is concerned no one will come. Needless to say, the band will end up staying at the store until 4:30 in the morning autographing copies. Astro-Creep will debut on the Billboard 200 chart at number six.)
"There does come a point where it’s not much fun because it’s turned into so much work," says Rob, still weeks away from the album’s release date. "My phone rings all day, and it’s always something, from lighting rigs, to what kind of buses, to the T-shirts that aren’t going to be done on time for the tour — we gotta get the CDs out for the Australian remixes. It’s like that all day long. But how else is it gonna get done? I’m just gonna tell somebody else, ‘Here, you do it’? If other people started handling everything, it would just be like any old band."
White Zombie’s motto isn’t so much "do it yourself" as "don’t let anybody else do it." The video for "More Human" is a case in point.
"Maybe by doing our videos ourselves they aren’t as slick as other bands’, but I don’t care, because it’s more real. We write the songs, make the record, make the video — and it’s all one big deal. Whereas to hire the hot video guy of the month to make some big slick thing seems so — like, I’ve been watching MTV, and this Matt Mahurin, I mean his videos are awesome" — Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car" and Metallica’s "Enter Sandman" among them — "but you could just interchange the bands because to me each video doesn’t seem particularly special to that band’s personality.
"I pretty much codirected the early videos," says Rob, who wasn’t credited for doing so. "But after a while with Geffen I realized that if you don’t stand up and go, ‘Hey, me!’ everyone just ignores you. I hate getting written off as, ‘Oh that’s just a band; that’s all they know how to do.’ It’s a constant battle against that. But when this band started it was in New York in like ’85, where everything was like Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, all those bands, and it was very much like like an art project. Everyone was involved in every little aspect of everything. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh, we write songs and see what happens.’"
Rob’s thoughts are still on the failed Marvel Comics project, an optimum example of something essentially secondary to the band’s music but which can’t be farmed out to freelancers. Rob’s art is paramount in White Zombie’s appeal; it’s a highly original blend of E.C.’s genre-defining horror-comics imagery, Jamie (Tankgirl) Hewlitt’s feral sexual buffoonery and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth’s suicycle mania. A legion of Rob’s syphilitic neon gremlins smile from the back of White Zombie T-shirts at the band’s concerts. He may very well be America’s foremost illustrator of clowns since John Wayne Gacy. Clowns are everywhere in Rob’s work. In the video he directed for the band’s contribution to the movie Airheads‘ soundtrack he personally hired an alcoholic guttersnipe from the film Shakes the Clown. Two clowns are featured prominently on the Astro-Creep CD booklet, one with a happy-face T-shirt emblazoned "live fast, kill slow." "Clowns," Rob sings in a song off the new album, "they scare the children."
The Astro-Creep CD booklet is colorful eyecandy, a richly intricate companion to the album’s music. (A limited-edition LP version comes in translucent mohawk-blue vinyl, but none of Rob’s CD song art is included.) Appropriate to the band’s densely layered music, the ruling visual theme is collage. Rob illustrated a full panel of art for each of the album’s 11 songs. "I, Zombie" gets a ransom-note treatment, "Electric Head Pt. 1 (The Agony)" an imitation of generic ambient-rave computer graphics, "Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy)" an assemblage of back-of-the-tabloid sex ads. Two songs, "More Human" and "Blood, Milk and Sky," get simple pen-and-ink treatment, the words framed by, or framing, spindly human torsos. Until the clowns remind you of the humor at the band’s core, these particular panels bring to mind the work of another apocalyptic visionary, and perhaps our first comic book illustrator, poet William Blake.
Rob worries that all this creative insularity may breed contempt in the music industry. As Astro-Creep‘s release date approaches, he is especially concerned that his workaholism might hurt the band, which has few professional friends outside its immediate support system (label, management, production). "If our record is a hit, well, not that many people benefit from it," he says. "When you look at a Whitney Houston record and there are 27 producers and 12 songwriters, you wonder how can’t this be a hit record? It’s programmed by, like, a team of NASA technicians. It’s almost genetically engineered to be a hit record."
White Zombie is indeed a small family, but as its fortunes grow, the band is attracting a growing network of family friends. The band’s managers, Andy Gould and Walter O’Brien, are associates at Concrete Management, the primary artist-management company for metal bands. Concrete hosts the annual Concrete Foundation Forum, the most important convention in the metal industry. Foundation, as it’s called, is open to the public, and one should attend simply to take in the array of Medusa-haired, concert-T-shirt-clad would-be moguls carrying briefcases. Bob Chiappardi, of Concrete Marketing, oversaw the recent Black Sabbath tribute record, Nativity in Black (Concrete/ Columbia), for which White Zombie covered Sabbath’s "Children of the Grave." (Curiously, White Zombie was not invited to contribute to the recent KISS-curated KISS tribute album, though White Zombie is clearly one of today’s most popular bands to be influenced by KISS’ theatrics. Perhaps the lawyers at Simmons & Stanley were upset by KISS samples on early Zombie records.) More data for would-be conspiracy theorists: Andy Gould’s girlfriend owns the video production company that produced the "More Human Than Human" video. And Terry Date, who produced Astro-Creep with the band, also produced the most recent album from the band Prong, another Gould/O’Brien client.
An accomplished, detail-oriented producer, Date — who also shares album credits for engineering and mixing — was an excellent choice for music as dense as White Zombie’s. "It’s just so thick," Rob says of the 72-track production, "that I was kind of worried when we were recording it. It was going to be a fucking pain in the ass to mix, because there were so many sounds — just to tweak every sound so it popped and didn’t eat up every other sound. Every little guitar hit has 10 guitar hits and 10 drums and just noise! There’s so much shit layered on there where it’s the type of thing that depending on what type of stereo you listen to, if it’s more bassy, more trebly, whatever "
There was one aspect of Astro-Creep‘s production that Rob and the band couldn’t control. La Sexorcisto was no overnight hit, and the production of a follow-up was repeatedly delayed as Sexorcisto slowly built a following. The record was released in late ’92 but close to a year passed before MTV and, especially, Beavis and Butt-head helped bring the band into every American kid’s living room. By that time, White Zombie had been toiling on the road, eventually making that all-important leap from opening arena shows for other bands to headlining a tour of its own.
Meanwhile, however, Rob and company couldn’t construct new songs. "These aren’t like three-chord rock songs someone could play in his hotel room," Rob says. "We would try to write on the road. We would try at sound checks, but it was, ya know " his voice trails off.
Ya know that White Zombie "songs" are to a great extent studio experiments. Countless musicians have experimented with combining standard musical instrumentation with "found sounds," from the ground-breaking early tape-loop experiments of composer James Tenney to ’90s metal band Biohazard lamely splicing a spare bit of Reservoir Dogs dialogue into a song. Somewhere along the way, Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad, defined this art form with its essentially "music"-less music, heavy funkified layers of opulent samples that forged potent hip-hop out of everyday sounds — the music of human memory.
In hip-hop’s wake, many rock bands have experimented with samples. Today a few such bands, especially Big Audio Dynamite and Soul Coughing, write songs in which sonic effects are as essential as traditional musicianship to content and structure. B.A.D.’s upcoming album, F-Punk (Radioactive), is rife with the brilliantly tinny, brittle sonic play of canned drums and amusical soundbites; the album exemplifies a new kind of musical creativity and self-consciousness, in which studio craft is concomitant with songcraft.
White Zombie, however, is no polite student of rap’s lessons. White Zombie is Public Enemy’s direct descendant. Its music isn’t simply built, elegantly, from the sounds of old pop tunes and everyday life; Astro-Creep, like Public Enemy’s watershed It Takes a Nation of Millions, is so thoroughly full of sound that it invites the noise of everyday life into the mix. Conversations and sirens passing by, fans and footsteps knocking overhead, babies and kitchen appliances calling from the next room — nothing can distract you from White Zombie’s art. This is anti-chamber music.
Rob latches onto the Public Enemy comparison. "When I first heard Public Enemy, just that dense layering of stuff, it didn’t sound like anything else, just this rhythmic, raging noise. And I love Tom Waits’ records, how he’s just like, ‘I’m gonna sing through a tin can.’" There are no tin cans on Astro-Creep, but Rob does proudly report having sung "Real Solution #9" through a $10 pair of Mighty Morphin Power Ranger walkie talkies. "Every song has its own thing," he says of Waits’ recent albums. "You know the music is organic when you think you hear the junk just rattling on the floor in the room."
Astro-Creep is vastly more sample-heavy than La Sexorcisto. In contrast with many bands of anything nearly resembling an "industrial" — or production-intensive — mind-set, White Zombie still writes songs — verbiage-heavy verses alternating with catch-phrase choruses. But the extramusical stuff is less self-evident on Astro-Creep, more internalized, less draped over the song, more buried in the mix. Rob explains what and, more interestingly, how he learned from the band’s first Geffen album. "A remix is almost like a cover," he says. "You can get people you think are cool to fuck with your songs." A 1992 CD "maxi single" called Nightcrawlers collected variations on "Thunderkiss ’65" and another Sexorcisto song, "Black Sunshine," remixed by the industrial band KMFDM. Three remixes of "More Human" by Charlie Clouser — the Nine Inch Nails member who played keyboards on and programmed Astro-Creep — were shipped to DJs to coincide with the new album’s release.
"It’s not like they’re covering your song," he says. "It’s like: ‘Here’s how I thought your song should have sounded but with you still singing it.’ Remixes actually helped with some of the writing on this album because from the remixes on the last album, you heard your own music taken apart and put back together again. It made you think, ‘Hmm, that’s pretty cool. I didn’t hear that the first time around.’ This time, we sort of started remixing our music before it was ever finished."
A lot of the album’s improvement has to do with the band’s musicianship. J., for one, hadn’t played long with White Zombie before the Sexorcisto sessions, most of the guitar parts had already been determined by his predecessor, a much better player, and the year-plus Sexorcisto tour had vastly improved his skills. Tempesta is simply a more diversely abled player than previous Zombie drummers. And as Rob puts it simply, Tempesta doesn’t think pounding out a 4/4 is below him.
"This band was never four incredibly talented people who could play whatever they wanted," says Rob. "That’s almost a hindrance, anyway. We kind of knew what we liked and what we hated and you have a certain level of playing and you kind of, well, do your best to get it out. Over the years, as people got better it got easier. With this record I could totally imagine a sound and totally, 100 percent, it would exist. On the other records, it was about 70 percent of what I was thinking, and before that, 20 percent. You know?"
Interviewed during the "More Human" video shoot and by phone later in the week, Tempesta made a correlation between the video shot and the recording of Astro-Creep: A lot of the time, he was just doing what he was told to do, and didn’t plan on understanding it until Rob completed the work.
"That’s what everyone said," Rob says. "There are certain things there’s no way to express, because I can just hear it. I can hear where the vocals are gonna fit. I can hear where all the pieces are going to go. A lot of times, what the band is playing seems to them really lame. They’re like, ‘This sucks, man.’ But it just comes together. It’s a real building process.
"It made writing this record very difficult. ‘More Human Than Human’ seemed like one note over and over, and it made no sense [to anyone else] until you started layering in all the vocals and the slide guitar and stuff. Then people were like, ‘Wow, you know, this really makes sense.’"
One risks neglecting the input of J., Tempesta and especially Yseult, who founded the band with Rob in ’85, but close to two hours of interviews with the three reveals little insight into the nature of the band’s music. Rob (originally from Massachusetts), Yseult (North Carolina) and J. (Chicago) moved to L.A. from the band’s mutual long-term base in New York when Geffen signed White Zombie. Tempesta (a Bronx native) signed on after the end of the last tour.
By all accounts the songs are very much collective compositions. Most of the major riffs, aside from J.’s leads, are attributed to Yseult. J.’s progress as a guitarist is evident everywhere. Rob routinely attests to how much Tempesta’s drumming freed him to experiment more. Nonetheless, rock’n’roll is art by committee, and Rob clearly holds White Zombie’s gavel.
"It’s really hard sometimes," he says of managing the various egos, including his own. "It’s not like everyone can be on the same wavelength. This is a band. It is not 100 percent what I’d want to do. But I guess the reason there have been a lot of member changes is that you have to find people who are on board with where you’re going. Anyone who wasn’t we had to get rid of. It gets to the point where the rest of the band has to trust me that what I’m doing is going to make sense — maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. When it comes to writing songs, it’s a total band effort. It’s not like I come in: Here are my ideas, do them. But what pulls it together is the sounds in my head, the way the vocals and all the crazy shit are going to make it into a White Zombie thing."
One of Rob Zombie’s neighbors caused some controversy earlier this year. Hanna-Barbera, home to Fred Flintstone, warned novelist Salman Rushdie that he would be sued if he included the lyrics to "Meet the Flintstones" in the U.S. edition of his recent short-story collection, East, West. Rather than face a fatwa from the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo, the man with a price on his head courtesy of the Ayatollah bowed to the Grand Poobah’s will.
Perhaps Fred and Rob will meet up at a neighborhood watch program. They certainly have a lot in common. When Rob Zombie talks about "the sounds in my head," he isn’t just talking about notes on a scale, or obscure musical voicings calling out for peculiar instrumental permutations. He is talking whole bits of other songs, movie dialogue, commercial jingles, sirens, sound effects — sound stuff jumbled with the music in our heads, much as it is in White Zombie’s music.
So what about these made-up samples? The band’s manager, Andy Gould, went on and on during the video shoot about Rob and Tempesta spending a week in the studio recording spools of fake blaxploitation dialogue, faux phaser effects and other imitation samples, and fending off copyright litigation.
"As far as he knows, we have," says Rob.
White Zombie’s leader is unrepentant, if not unphilosophical. "I don’t even know if it is stealing anymore if you take a sound and you slow it down and you run it backwards and distort it. It’s a totally different sound. It’s not one thing. I hate when sounds are too obvious. Those are no more samples than — like, J. strums his guitar and by the time he feeds it through 400 effects it doesn’t sound like anything else."
Gould, Rob clarifies, isn’t wholly mistaken. "We tried to make contact with a lot of people," says Rob of Astro-Creep‘s preproduction; Iggy Pop hired on for La Sexorcisto to contribute the hard-boiled voice-over on the song "Black Sunshine."
"They wouldn’t have been ‘real’ samples," Rob says, "but we tried to get Christopher Lee, William Shatner, Roddy McDowell." No one replied. "This record, when people ask, ‘Where is that sample from?’ — I’m just like, I don’t know. I’m not telling anyone because I don’t want to be in court in a year being sued by fucking Leonard Nimoy."
These sampling issues were mirrored in the current video. "I wanted to pack the room just like my house, like my room from when I was a little kid, like my whole life has always been, but I couldn’t, because I couldn’t put anything that was recognizable in there. Everything had to be obscure. Which was exactly not the point. Literally, I could not put the Ultraman statue in the video. It got weird after a while. It almost got to where the whole point was defeated."
He taps on a set of round tin film canisters sitting on an end table: "In this old Super 8 footage I have from the ’60s that I wanted to use in the video, there’s actually a scene of me and my brother when we were little kids going to meet Ronald McDonald. And it’s really creepy the way it’s filmed, the old footage. I wanted to use it because it’s very scary. But guess what? I can’t. I can’t use Ronald, even thought it’s, you know, my memory." Ronald McDonald, little Rob’s first clown.
Rob Zombie’s brain — like those of his bandmates, peers and fans, all of us — is stuffed with data he is not allowed to access; he’s learned the same lesson as Rushdie and every rap group since De La Soul was sued by the Turtles. The cultural ramifications bring to mind William Gibson’s currently vogue short story, "Johnny Mnemonic," about a data courier who transports information in a special chip in his brain, to which he has no access. Rob’s living room, like his memory — like White Zombie’s music — is crowded with cultural objects, treasured pop artifacts that, in his words, "spring the memory."
"I love playing Tempest," Rob says of one such childhood relic, a video game in this case. "But I won’t play Mortal Kombat. That’s some other kid’s childhood memory, not mine. I mean, some kid is gonna hear that fighting noise when he’s 30 and get all sentimental: ‘Destroy him! Ha ha ha ha.’ Good old days. Like with Star Trek. When I was a kid, it was on three times a day. I remember kids would come over and be like, ‘Ya wanna come out and kick some ball?’ And I was like, ‘No, man, I got two more hours of Star Trek left.’ But today’s show is about as exciting to me as watching General Hospital."
As for today’s TV heroes, Beavis and Butt-head, and their role in breaking White Zombie, Rob can only say, "Hey, it’s gotta be mentioned in every article." His tone of semi-resignation registers as he cites sales figures to show the level of the band’s success prior to Beavis and Butt-head’s largesse (rock’n’roll’s greatest backhanded compliment).
But it is thoroughly appropriate that White Zombie should have to extricate itself from the Nintendo grip of a pair of televised MTV cartoon characters. So much of the band’s music is tied up with the sonic residue of its own cartoon-drenched childhoods.
So much of White Zombie’s lawyers’ time is spent worrying about what music the band has appropriated and buried deep in the mix. And so much of their fans’ time is spent tracking down the sonic references. "One kid wrote a letter," says Rob, "in which he had the source for every sample on La Sexorcisto. That’s crazy."
Out on the Internet, such sample lists proliferate on newsgroups like alt.music.beastie-boys and alt.rock-n-roll.metal, where research-minded fans innocently annotate their favorite songs. Enterprising lawyers for ASCAP and BMI are likely stalking these lists — copyright holders being only a phone call away. Meanwhile, Rob Zombie and crew are heading out on tour again, where they’ll pump their data-dense sonics into arenas at deafening volumes, stake a claim to their memories and exercise the ghosts of their collective childhoods.
Note: Thanks to the folks at this URL for having posted and archived my article, because for reasons beyond me it disappeared from Disquiet.com for awhile: gac.edu/~dkuster.