J. from White Zombie Speaks!
Advice on When You First get Into a Band
How He joined White Zombie
Homelessness and Hard Times
Getting Signed to Geffen
Touring Europe the First time
Setting Up Their US Tours
Image in Music
Concerns for When Your Band Starts to Take Off
Maintaining Creative Control
Merchandising Pros and Cons
Up from the gutter and into your living room comes White Zombie, the 90’s band with the kickingest stage show since Kiss graced a stage during their heyday in the 70’s. The band’s unique blend of metallic, sample-laden, groove-a-holic songs; b-movie, sci-fi, horror show laced imagery; and a remarkably high fun factor, has put the band on the map amongst those who value a large dose of tongue in cheek with their headbanging.
However, it would be terribly unfair to just label White Zombie a metal band, or a fun band, or an industrial band, or a "whatever" band. They are all these and then some.
It was 1985 when the first incarnation of White Zombie took shape. Initially the brainchild of vocalist Rob and bassist Sean, White Zombie got its start playing in the New York noise rock scene with the likes of Sonic Youth and Foetus. White Zombie started as an almost entirely do-it-yourself phenomenon. From the band’s earliest days, they made their own merchandise (t-shirts, stickers, patches, posters, etc.), booked their own tours, put out their own newsletter (the Zombie-Zine), and released their own records. Early independent efforts like "Gods on Voodoo Moon," "Psycho Head Blowout," and "Soul Crusher," while artistically interesting are pretty much impossible to find, while 1989’s compelling "Make Them Die Slowly" on Caroline records remains relatively easy to find, though largely unheralded. 1990’s "God of Thunder" EP, also on Caroline, stands as a watershed release for the band. Showing the band in transition from a noise rock band (imagine Foetus on steroids with a bit of the groove thing going on) toward the approach seen in 1993’s "La Sexorcisto," the "God of Thunder" EP has the near legendary cover of the Kiss opus of the same name. At one point erroneously rumored to have sparked the threat of a lawsuit from the legal machine of Simmons and Stanley, the EP is now out of print.
White Zombie followed up the "God of Thunder" EP with "La Sexorcisto," which yielded several spotlight tracks including "Thunder Kiss ‘65," a tune that MTV talking heads Beavis and Butthead decided to give the thumbs up to on their show. While "La Sexorcisto" had been out for about a year at that point, the appearance of the video on Beavis and Butthead gave the band what it never had before on MTV: a chance to have their video played. Until the video’s appearance on the cartoon-heads’ show, MTV had initially deemed the vid too metal for alternative audiences and too un-metal like for the metal crowd. After "Thunder Kiss ‘65" appeared on B+B, the video found its way onto time slots that were more regular in nature and helped further expand the band’s already growing audience base. Always being a band that only needs one chance to show what it can do before a crowd either catches on or becomes incredibly incensed, White Zombie instantly won a few converts from the exposure, while causing others to scoff all the more. While nonbelievers were quick to try to credit the band’s subsequent success to Beavis and Butthead, those who knew better could recall the fact that the band had been gigging relentlessly for years before "La Sexorcisto."
"La Sexorcisto" was a multiplatinum success. Success is always a sweet thing, and is arguably sweeter for folks like White Zombie who have always made a big point of making sure that almost everything pertaining to their band is handled themselves. Full artistic control in all aspects always was, and still is, a big thing to the band. The good fortune of "La Sexorcisto" gave White Zombie more clout, meaning that the band had even more artistic control than before. Among other things, it allowing Rob to take the reigns as director for the band’s videos. His first directorial effort, the video for "More Human than Human" was a study in hyperkinesis. Dark and claustrophobic, it consists of scenes of the band playing in a rec room like practice space interspersed with shots from Rob’s childhood and grainy images shot on cheap film stock of ugly clowns, shriners, and rednecks.
This style of video direction effectively complemented White Zombie’s multi-layered musical approach. A White Zombie song is less a song than an intricately layered collage of sounds and sonic imagery, tied together by a strong groove oriented beat that is assembled into a solid conglomerate which, by the way, happens to kick major ass. If someone listens closely, they’ll hear all kinds of things going on: b-movie dialogue, sampled moans layered into the other sounds in the song, and various sounds that you can’t quite put a finger on what they are. Then of course, there’s Rob Zombie’s vocals, which seem to waver in the realm between discernable and somewhat cryptic. In the hands of a less imaginative practitioner and band, Rob’s growl would be just another rumble on the sonic landscape. Instead, his vocals become another piece of the puzzle, another part of the collage, another tool in the band’s sonic pallette. Backing up Rob are Sean on bass, J. on guitar and John Tempesta on drums, who team up to create the musical basis for Zombie’s aural vista. Just as importantly they create that groove; the groove that propels Zombie’s music beyond that of more mundane rockers. While others are obsessed with how they rock, Zombie doesn’t forget to roll.
In the midst of this sonic melange, axe-man J. supplies the band’s crunch and twang. I had a chance to chat on the phone with White Zombie’s J. a while back during the Blizzard of ‘96 that paralyzed much of America. Difficult as it is to admit, I wasn’t one of the Americans paralyzed by the Blizzard. I was stranded in Hawaii tending to family matters. The Blizzard was so bad that I wasn’t able to get back home to DC on schedule, so my stay in Hawaii was extended unexpectedly by about a week. Yeah, it’s a crappy job but somebody has to do it. Anyway, talking with J. during my Hawaiian exile allowed me to catch up with what he’d been up to since I’d last seen him. It also made me feel like I was getting some work done in the middle of the pacific.
K: I’m going to let you start this thing off. In your opinion, what is the first thing that someone should be keeping in mind when they find themselves in a band situation?
J: Well, I kind of think grim determination is the key. If you think about the number of steps you have to take, the obstacles you have to overcome, you probably wouldn’t even do it. You get a band, you actually find other people to play with, you actually write songs, you actually get equipment that works, you actually learn how to play, and then you’re a band in a basement. Then you have to have to get somebody to let you play at their club, and then you have to get shows locally. Then you have to figure out how you’re going to get a van, and you have to figure out how you’re going to go on tour. It just keeps going on and on and on and whatever level you’re on there’s thirty things you have to do. A lot of people can’t handle it; it’s a lot harder than having a regular day job. I think the Thomas Edison quote is really true, "99% perspiration, 1% inspiration." It really is. (Laughs)
K: White Zombie isn’t your first band is it?
J: I tried to form a band a million times, it never worked out, and then I finally skirted the whole question by joining a band that was already together.
K: So how did you hookup with them?
J: It’s not a very interesting story. It's just kind of dumb blind luck. I moved to New York to be in a band with a guy I went to high school with. We gave it a go for a while, played like one show and then called it quits. I was just there working and the guy I was in the band with, he used to work at Forbidden Planet, the comic book store, and Rob was in there. He says to Rob, "How’s it going?" and Rob said "Oh jeez, our guitar player just quit. We need to find somebody really fast." The guy gave Rob my number. It was pretty amazing. When Rob called me up I couldn’t even believe it, because I’d been a big fan of there’s. I used to go see them a lot.
K: Now at this point, when he’s hooking up with you, this was right after "Make Them Die Slowly" came out, right?
J: No, it was right before.
K: But you weren’t on that record, right?
J: No. It was a really weird set of circumstances. They had Tom Five, and then he left the band, and then they got John Ricci, who was only in the band for about six months. He recorded that album with them. They actually recorded the album twice. They recorded it once with Wharton Tiers at Baby Monster studios. Then Bill Laswell calls up and goes "Yeah, I’d really like to make a record with White Zombie." So Caroline records said "Oh my god, great."
K: That's such a weird combo. Bill Laswell and you guys I always thought was a bizarre match up. I liked that record, but never could figure out how that came to be. So he called you?
J: I wasn’t there either so I’m not 100% sure. He was just a big name, so Caroline was like "Oh you guys ought to do this," and he kind of took control of the whole thing and made it sound as weird as it did. John Ricci only played something like one show with them. The record was getting ready to come out and he left the band because he had carpal tunnel syndrome. They really had to scramble to find somebody. It was literally like the week it came out, I joined the band and then two weeks later I played my first show with them. I sold a bunch of my other stuff, I had a bass and stuff, and I sold it to buy a Marshall head the day we played our first show. (laughs) So it was pretty hit and run at that point. It was very lucky for me cuz I wasn’t very good, but I had a really good attitude cause I loved the band and I knew it was my shot at maybe ever doing anything cool. So I just worked really hard, I did whatever they told me to and I practiced my ass off and I think that’s why they let me be in the band rather than being able to play, cause I wasn’t really...
K: Now wait. You say that when you hooked up with them that you weren’t very good. The first record you were on was that "God of Thunder EP," right?
K: What makes you think that you weren’t all that good and how long had you been playing at that point?
J: I guess comparatively speaking, but at the time I joined the band...Let’s see, "God of Thunder" came out about a year after I joined the band, but that whole time I never really got super serious about trying to be a better player until I joined the band. That’s when I started practicing about five hours a day.
K: What about White Zombie made you want to do that?
J: Because I’d been in the audience, and after I’d seen them I’d go home and think about them. You know when you’re a kid and you fantasize about rock bands and you’re like "Oh man they’re so cool, I wonder what it’d be like to talk to them. I wonder what’d it be like to see where they practice, I wonder what their apartment looks like," you know stupid shit like that. They really affected me. In fact, I bought their record the day after I came into New York. I was in CB’s record canteen. Some friends of mine were showing me around. I bought "Soul Crusher" purely on the basis of how it looked. I’d never heard of them before.
K: That's a cool looking cover too.
J: Yeah, it’s amazing.
J: I took it home and it was this frightening blast of noise. Then I went to see them. After that I used to listen to that record all the time. So when Rob called me up, "Make Them Die Slowly" wasn’t out yet, which was a whole new direction for them. He asked me to try out for White Zombie and I knew "Soul Crusher" and by that point I think I had "Psycho Head Blowout" too and I was like "Oh geez I don’t know! (laughs) I don’t know if I can play like that!"
K: I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy! (laughs)
J: I mean, Tom Five sounded like 5 guitar players at once. That guy was amazing. An amazing noise player. But Rob told me they were going in this new, more together direction, so I thought I’d check it out. I just mean when I say I wasn’t very good is that I really had to work hard. I got the audition tape and I practiced along with that thing for a long time. I’d just come home from work and play along with it all night trying to learn it. It was really hard for me. John Ricci could play leads, which I couldn’t at that point.
K: Wait. When you first joined you couldn’t play leads?
J: Well, there’s not very many solos on "La Sexorcisto" ether.
K: Yeah, but they’re there.
J: Well, yeah simple ones. I’m just saying it was very hard for me to imitate his style cause he was very nimble.
K: Yeah, I could see that. OK, sort of taking this thing of having to practice your ass off, I seem to recall from conversations with you and also from reading articles about you guys that when you first went to New York you were homeless for a while.
J: That was actually after I joined the band.
K: That was after you joined the band?
J: I was actually doing pretty well. I had a decent job and I had some disposable income. After I joined the band I moved out of where I was living and went on tour with them. This was REALLY soon after I joined. This was something like a couple months later. We did a US tour. We came back and I didn’t really have any place to go, and I couldn’t get a job because we were playing all the time. Then we went to Europe, and after I got back from that I was just IN THE SHIT. January in New York, all my shit was in a box in the corner of the practice space, so I just slept on Ivan’s drum riser for a couple of months cuz I had no place else to go.
K: Oh my god.
J: It was funny. I went to Europe with literally a dollar in my pocket and we got three dollars a day. That's three dollars in Europe, which doesn’t mean three dollars American, it means a lot less. The thing is, when you’re touring over there they feed you and they put you in hotels, so I could at least survive. I’d eat the free breakfast at the hotel and put a couple of rolls in my pockets. When we’d get to the next gig, I’d just load up on food there and wait until the next morning. After I came back, that’s when things got really bad. We made God of Thunder because we wanted to have something new to go to Europe on. Not that it did, because the distribution was pretty shoddy over there. Then when I came back I was really in deep shit for a long time. (laughs)
K: So in other words, when you first joined the band it wasn’t like you were practicing your scales on the steps of City Hall because you had nowhere else to go.
J: Not when I joined the band, but after I was in the band for a while I just lived in the rehearsal room. The worst thing about poverty isn’t not having money or not having food. The worst thing about poverty I think is the boredom. So I would just play guitar all day. That's when I started to get a little better and that was the period before we got signed to Geffen.
K: How did getting signed to Geffen actually come about? At that point the way you’re describing it is that you guys were basically just eating dirt. I remember seeing you during this period so I know that you definitely were by no means living poshly. (laughs)
J: (laughs) Yeah right! That was some of my only income at the time was when we would come to DC and play the 930 Club. They would pay really well. We would split the money and I would get something like $100 bucks which was like a friggin’ fortune at the time. We got signed by Michael Alago who is most famous for signing Metallica to Elektra. We made the God of Thunder 12" with Daniel Rey producing and Michael was a friend of his and heard it from Daniel and got interested. We met him and kind of proved we weren’t obnoxious and I guess it went from there. But it was funny because before we went to Europe nobody cared and it was really hard, and when we came back it was really strange. We went away for six weeks and when we came back two things happened. One was the CD revolution seemed to have kicked in while we were gone. All of a sudden we came back, and this was like 1989/90 and when we came back records were gone and people were getting into CDs. The other thing was that the "major label revolution" had started and all of a sudden all of these companies were calling us up, which was very strange.
K: How did you guys feel at that point when the majors started calling you up?
J: It was really cool. It was like the most you could aspire to. We were interested in signing to a major so that we could have some source of income and one of the biggest reasons, bands always say this and it really is true, is just to get the distribution. To know that your records are in stores. You’d be amazed at the number of times we’d go into a town and people would go "Well, I came to see you ’cause you’re from New York City, but I never heard one of your records. I can’t find ’em." That was especially true in Europe. There were whole countries like that. We’d play Yugoslavia and the kids only came because they knew we were this metal type band from New York City. The shows were really cool. They were appreciative, but it was still kind of wierd.
K: How’d you set up this European tour?
J: We did it through a really low budget agency from Holland called Paper Clip. There's a lot of touring agencies over there, really low level ones where bands just go over there. You rent a van, you travel around Europe on a really minuscule budget and hopefully you break even. The bands always do that the first time. It was a trip. We played squats and I remember one time there was this show in Rome that was canceled. So we ended up playing in Florence in the Socialist Workers Squat, which was a giant airplane factory in the 1940’s. This was in December/January and all the windows were busted out. It was freezing and there were bonfires; all these fucking kids came and it was really fun. We were freezing in the kitchen eating the macrobiotic squat stew.
K: Macrobiotic squat stew? Man, that just SOUNDS scary.
J: Well, when you’re hungry anything tastes good. Shauna used to set up the shows. I’m not sure how she got in touch with Paper Clip. I think it might have been through Caroline records. They had distribution in Europe.
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