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I Talked With a Zombie

White Zombie's frontman on Disney World, KISS and Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Of course Rob Zombie's surly; you'd expect him to be, wouldn't you? But on this mid-July evening, he's somewhat less glum than usual, and for a very good reason. The singer and conceptualist behind young America's favorite band, White Zombie, just spent the previous 72 hours visiting the Happiest Place on Earth.

"Three days in Disney World, yeah," he grumbles distractedly. "It was jam-packed."

What are your favorite rides there, Rob?
"I like everything. But after a while, all I did was Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. Usually those lines are really long, but it was so hot that everybody was waiting for Splash Mountain."

Zombie adds that even though he eschewed a Michael Jackson-style disguise during his theme-park marathon, he went unrecognized. That's rather unexpected, given the distinctiveness of his typical look (scraggly beard, greasy hair, shades, cowboy hat, skanky clothing) and the age range of a great many Zombie devotees. These days, it seems that the instant boys sprout their first pubic hair, they are overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to purchase the acknowledged high point of White Zombie's catalogue, 1995's Astro-Creep: 2000 (subtitled Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head). Predictably, Zombie chooses to downplay this demographic fact. When it's suggested to him that were the voting age in this country lowered to fourteen, he'd be a shoo-in to become the next president, he replies, "Probably not. If it was that low, they'd probably vote in that guy from Bush or something."

If, however, you somehow managed to defeat Gavin Rossdale (who's not a U.S. citizen anyhow), what would be your first official act?

"Oh, Jesus, I don't know. I'm not really into the idea of setting guidelines for other people to follow." Suddenly, a brainstorm strikes. "So my first act would be that there would be no more acts."

In that case, Zombie would be destroying his career, because if nothing else, White Zombie (also featuring guitarist J., bassist Sean Yseult and drummer John Tempesta) is quite an act--arguably the Alice Cooper of the Nineties. Zombie (born Rob Cummings) grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, but escaped from the community as soon as he was able. Immediately following his high school graduation, he headed for New York City and made ends meet by toiling as a bike messenger, a grunt in the art department of a porn magazine (Yseult, aka Shauna Reynolds, was a co-worker there) and a production assistant for one of the most innovative television programs of the Eighties, the oddball kiddie show Pee-wee's Playhouse. Zombie is vague on this last memory, but upon being asked for dirt about the relationship between Pee-wee and Tito the pool boy, a well-sculpted character who padded through the first season of shows wearing nothing but skintight swim trunks, he manages a snicker.

"Actually, it's funny, but a friend of mine tried out for the pool boy part and didn't get it," he remembers. "I guess he wasn't buffed enough for Pee-wee."

When Paul "Pee-wee" Reubens moved production of Playhouse to the West Coast, Rob stayed behind and formed a band with Yseult (then his paramour), guitarist Tom Guay and drummer Ivan de Prume. For a name, Zombie, an aficionado of horror and science-fiction films, borrowed the title from White Zombie, a 1932 low-budgeter in which Bela Lugosi terrorizes a newly married couple in Haiti. To this day, Zombie sprinkles his lyrics with movie references; for example, "More Human Than Human" (on Astro-Creep: 2000) makes several nods to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. In Zombie's view, these allusions give listeners more value for their money.

"With this band, I try to do everything I can to put a lot in there, so you can really get into it," he says. "I know when I was younger, I always wanted there to be a lot of things in there to find."

It took fans quite a while to find White Zombie; the band labored in relative obscurity for several years. The quartet issued 300 copies of Gods on Voodoo Moon, a four-song EP, in 1985, and rumor has it that Zombie still has 200 of them stored in a box. Two more self-released EPs (1986's Pig Heaven and 1987's Silent Explosion) made only a little more impact and are widely unavailable today. But a 1987 full-length, Soul-Crusher, was deemed worthy by the Caroline imprint, which reissued it a year later; the company also put out 1989's Make Them Die Slowly. But the good times had not yet begun to roll. Guitarist Guay eventually quit the band, as did his replacement, John Ricci. Zombie found current ax slinger J. (nee Jay Noel Yuenger) working as a clerk in a comic-book store.

Sheer persistence, along with a live-performance schedule that rivaled Sherman's march to the sea, eventually won White Zombie a following large enough to attract the attention of Geffen Records. The label put out La Sexorcisto in 1992, and while the disc's commercial breakthrough has been ascribed to the frequent airing of White Zombie videos on Beavis and Butt-head, a simple look at the CD reveals plenty of other reasons it was so irresistible to hellions-in-training. Satanic innuendos abound--the platter, allegedly recorded in "Satanophonic" sound, is subtitled Devil Music, Volume One and features a highway-sign graphic that reads "Route 666"--but these nods to nastiness are presented in such a goofy way that they're all but impossible to take seriously. (Unsurprisingly, that hasn't stopped watchdog groups from doing just that.) Moreover, the disc's jacket sports cartoony illustrations of monsters and ghouls, as well as lyrics like these from "Spiderbaby" (named for 1964's Spider Baby, a delightfully cheesy flick starring Lon Chaney Jr.): "Shadow make a move and it goes right through me/Gun styl'n planet--Do me!!" In short, MTV couldn't have stopped the recording from being a smash--and another epic tour only solidified White Zombie's reputation among members of the illegal-drinkers set.

In some ways, Astro-Creep: 2000 is more of the same; it starts with creaky Phantom of the Opera sound effects and features songs such as "Electric Head" and "El Phantasmo and the Chicken-Run Blast-O-Rama." But from a sonic perspective, the package is more substantial than its predecessors. The driving rhythms and processed drums (played by Tempesta, the third Zombie skinsman) at times recall Ministry, but the sound is put at the service of much more accessible material. "Super-Charger Heaven" (remembered for the chanted hook "Devil-man! Devil-man!") is teen exploitation of a most enjoyable type; it makes a listener feel as if he's just been overwhelmed by a fresh infusion of hormones no matter what his age.

This accomplishment is not one prized by most critics, who largely dismiss White Zombie out of hand. Which is fine by Rob. "They'll probably never pay attention to us," he mutters, "and by the time they ever do, it'll be all over, anyway."

Maybe not. Few would have predicted two decades ago that the biggest concert tour of 1996 would star the reunited members of KISS. This development puzzles even Zombie, a rabid Gene Simmons fancier in his wasted youth. "It's a weird thing," he concedes. "I went to see them somewhere in Kentucky, and it was just weird. It was like going back in time or something to stand there twenty years later and watch exactly what I remember from when I was in fifth grade. It was just really bizarre."

It'll be sometime during the first quarter of the next century that we'll learn if White Zombie achieves a similar comeback. In the meantime, Zombie is finally comfortable enough with the sales of Astro-Creep: 2000 (two million copies and counting) to take some time off, beginning in September. Among the projects on his agenda are the writing down of numerous ideas for movies that have been floating around in his brain cavity since the Seventies. Zombie won't spill any of them right now--"I hate talking about stuff in advance unless it's a surefire thing"--but you can be sure it won't have anything in common with the summer megahit Independence Day. "I'm not really excited to see it," he grouses, "because I know exactly what it's going to be. Some brainless piece of crap where you're supposed to go 'Wow' every five minutes.

"I hate most movies these days," continues Zombie, who's contributed to the soundtracks of such cinematic milestones as Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, Brainscan, Judge Dredd and the upcoming sequel to The Crow, "because I know they're all crap. They're all just big-budget pieces of dog shit. Anything I do would be better than that."

Is Zombie at all worried that by taking an extended hiatus, his audience will outgrow him? If he is, he's not admitting it. "We were never really a part of a wave of music, like that whole Metallica-Megadeth scene," he says. "So when people come and go, it doesn't really seem to matter to us. I'm not sure why, but it doesn't."

Still, he recognizes that times have changed since White Zombie first walked the earth. "In general, we get audiences that are more straight-looking these days. That's the average look for kids: short hair and baseball hats. Back then, if you went to a rock concert, every single person had long hair, and it looked really different. Now it's hard to even guess what concert you're at by looking at the crowd." He pauses. "It looks the same as Disney World."

Pantera, with White Zombie and Eyehategod. 8 p.m. Monday, July 29, and Tuesday, July 30, Red Rocks, $22.75, 830-TIXS. (Second show sold out.)

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