Sean Yseult was the very first female musician I ever met. It was a huge deal for me. We first met when I was around 15 years-old – I cut school to go meet White Zombie when they toured Australia back in the 90s. I found her super inspiring… she played bass with such confidence and style—I was in awe! Over a decade later I find her even more inspiring! These days she’s living in New Orleans with husband Chris Lee of band Supagroup; is a designer with her own line of scarves and homewares that are stocked in US department store Barney’s; plays in two bands Rock City Morgue and Star & Dagger; takes photos; makes art; and is about to release the second pressing of her book, I’m In the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie. I caught up with Sean after she spent a super busy weekend attending two art openings for her work. She talks about her latest music projects, White Zombie, her art, growing up with dreams of becoming a ballerina, New Orleans, being a female musician in a male-dominated world, Riot Grrrl, Hurricane Katrina and much more… enjoy!
SEAN YSEULT: My day has been pretty good. I’ve actually been writing a lot of music today. I have to do a soundtrack for a vampire kind of game, it’s going to be on iPhones and iPads.
That’s exciting! You’ve always had a fascination with vampires, monsters and horror themed things right?
SY: Yeah pretty much [laughs]. They definitely came to the right person!
On the weekend you had a couple of art openings for your work…
SY: Yes, yes I did. I had a photography opening and an opening with my art. The photography opening was a group exhibition on burlesque [Burlesque Exposed]. I photographed some of the burlesque dancers here in New Orleans in a turn of the century Bellocq kind of style. The art opening was a show I did collaboratively with a friend. The photos are mine and then he takes them and collages on them on canvases and various mediums (pictured below).
That’s Louis St. Lewis?
SY: Yeah it is.
You guys have had art shows and collaborated together before, can you tell me a little about your creative partnership?
SY: Yes, we actually met back at the North Carolina School of Arts which has become very famous lately, it was still pretty small though when I was there. It had a small art department, I met Louis there – he was kind of the bad boy of the art department [laughs] he kind of got kicked out. We stayed friends though and we’ve always had the same kind of fascination with history, Warhol and Salvador Dali – he really combines that in all of his collage work. It’s fun for me to give him imagery and see what he comes up with.
Looking at his work it seems to me that he’s inspired by the Dada artists.
SY: Oh definitely, I was always a huge fan too of Marcel Duchamp and the Dada artists. I’ve gotten to see a few great art shows when I’ve been over in Spain on tour. I actually got to go to the Salvador Dali museum up in the mountains an hour or two north of Barcelona. It was just incredible! It looked like a flying saucer had landed [laughs]. I think he designed everything.
You also met John Waters [writer/director of films like Crybaby and Hairspray] on the weekend! (pictured below)
SY: Oh my gosh! That was like Saturday afternoon. That was at his gallery. He did an intimate walk through with a few people and discussed all of his artwork that was getting ready to open that night. I couldn’t be there though because I had my own opening [laughs]. It was great he did that in the day time though. He’s just a huge hero to me ‘The King of the Underground’!
As far as your art, design and photography work goes, what project has been the biggest challenge for you so far?
SY: I’m not sure what project is a big challenge but my biggest challenge is always technology [laughs]. Even back to photography in the darkroom days it was always like ‘ugh’ I hated the technical side of things. Even with music, I love to write music and to play music but I dread having to go into the studio and do all the technical things. I just love the creating. I’m always challenged with technical details of getting the artwork made and of everything being proper.
In terms of your creativity would you say you’re more a ‘thinker’ or a ‘feeler’?
SY: More of a ‘feeler’ I think. I’ll just be struck with something. With my design work it’s more a stream of consciousness, I’m not thinking at all, it’s just flowing out—it’s like the same drawing I did when I was little but now my hand is a little more trained [laughs]. I hold the pen steady. It just comes out without too much thought or predetermined ideas.
You grew up in a creative household, your father was a writer?
SY: Yeah my parents were both English professors. My dad was a Hemmingway scholar and my mother was a scholar; he was also a poet and writer, he ended up writing five different books on Hemmingway and was president of the Hemmingway Society before he died. His last couple decades were pretty much entrenched in the world of Hemmingway. My mum had a huge record collection and my dad had a huge rock n roll collection of the 60s – The Beatles, The ’Stones stuff like that. It was definitely a house full of music. Their friends were all artists and they collected all of their art, paintings, weavings, pottery [laughs] there was all kinds of stuff all over the house—definitely creative!
I know you played violin and piano when you were younger, how did you make the transition from violin and piano to discovering punk rock?
SY: I quit violin and piano when I was twelve, at the point I started going to the School of the Arts – I was actually there fulltime for ballet [laughs]. In my last year before high school I broke my foot when I was seventeen and I had to switch departments. I switched to visual arts, it was something that I was just interested in but I hadn’t really delved into before. When I switched departments all the visual arts people were really into music, unusual music. People at the North Carolina School of Arts were from all over the world so I was meeting not only people from France and Asia but kids from big cities like L.A. and N.Y. that were turned on to punk music and hardcore music. That’s how I got exposed to that kind of music, believe me in North Carolina nobody was playing that kind of music [laughs] and those bands weren’t really coming through town much. So that’s how I got turned on to punk and to bands that I’ve had a lifelong obsession with now like The Cramps and The Ramones – I heard it all through high school. When I moved to New York to go to art school I knew that I wanted to be in a band like that. As soon as I could I got a bass for $50 and tried to get in a band. It was definitely an about turn, that one year of my life, everything kind of changed.
That would have been such a life changing moment, going from being a ballet dancer and breaking your foot to then deciding to pursue visual art…
SY: Yeah it was, if I hadn’t broke my foot I would have probably stayed in ballet—it was my life goal up until that point! At the age of seventeen I was going to move to New York and try to get into one of the big dance schools, everyone’s goal that does ballet is to pretty much move up to New York and get into one of the ballet troops. That was always the plan. When I broke my foot got into punk I wanted to move to New York and get in a band and be like Joan Jett or The Ramones or The Cramps [laughs]. It definitely was a huge change.
When you did go to New York and were studying design did you ever dream of one day you might end up making home décor like you are now?
SY: You know I guess I didn’t have a definite vision where I was going with the design. I just knew that I like creating logos and graphics. Believe me I didn’t have any clue that I’d end up doing what I’m doing now. It’s just been a crazy winding path that’s always been unexpected day-to-day. I’m pleasantly surprised [laughs].
You have some many projects on the go and you had the bar The Saint, what’s been your biggest challenge as a business woman?
SY: My biggest challenge like you were saying is focusing on one thing. I really do turn myself in at times as far as playing different bands, my design, my photography, my artwork so it’s a lot of different areas I’m working on and it’s hard to tend to each area and give it enough time and energy [laughs] to keep it moving along. My husband – he’s in a band also Supagroup – we sold the bar a couple of years ago so we could focus on our creative endeavors, so that helped!
I was looking at your art online and I adore your fan artworks, especially the Double Fantasy one (pictured above), it’s amazing!
SY: Thank you! Those were fun! They were collaborative with Louis.
Where did you get the idea from to do the fans?
SY: That was actually Louis idea. We did printouts of my photography on these large canvases that I had made to shape and then we found the large fans and disassembled them then reassembled them to our canvas, it was very involved. I was really happy with how they turned out.
When I came across a lot of your recent art I was really surprised at how colourful everything was! I know from the White Zombie days you were always colourful with your hair and patches all over your clothes but for some reason I thought your art would be a little darker.
SY: [Laughs] I’ve always loved Warhol and pop art. When I was little I was just obsessed with psychedelic and optical illusion art M.C. Escher stuff like that. Playing with colour too all that pop art stuff that was going on in the 70s made a big impact on me. I’ve always just loved playing with outrageous colour combinations, that’s fun for me.
Your photography (pictured below), especially this most recent exhibition Burlesque Exposed, you were saying it was inspired by Bellocq I was wondering if there is anything you’re looking for when you take your photos or is there a particular aesthetic you’re going for?
SY: Yeah, it’s funny because my photography is a whole different sensibility to my design and artwork – it’s much more subdued. I love photography where you just can’t place the time or the era where the photo is taken, that’s what I aim for. I try to photograph models that have that look, sometimes people will look too modern for my photos. I need to find people with faces that could have been around 100 years ago or 200 years ago. That’s something I definitely keep in mind. I also like things to look like they’re in a dreamlike state. I love black and white photography. I love tying that in with agelessness. One of my photos of a girl sitting in front of a crypt in St Louis cemetery here in New Orleans is in a restaurant here and friends of mine that worked there overheard an old lady swearing up and down to her dining companions that that was a photo of her as a girl [laughs]. It’s just funny when people think the photos are really old, I like that.
That’s a big compliment.
SY: [Laughs] Yeah, bless her soul she probably really thinks it is her. I definitely end up going with a certain vibe and feel for my photography.
You mentioned you like to create a dreamlike state with your photos and you know what? Looking at your other art you could say that a dreamlike state runs throughout – your fans, your scarves, your home tiles… that kind of ties it altogether.
SY: Oh thank you, I’m glad you think something ties it altogether because I’ve never really figured it out [laughs]. Sometimes I feel like I have multiple personalities or something. That’s a good tie in though I’m going to use that [laughs].
We were talking about how you have so much on the go all the time, do they all inspire each other?
SY: I definitely bounce back and forth from one to the other but when I’m doing something to do it well I really have to focus like we were talking about earlier. August I spent a lot of time recording and in the studio, throughout a lot of the summer too. I was mixing and recording with two different bands. I spent September really getting these art shows together and now I’ve been working on the soundtrack for the last couple of days. I do have to really delve into one area at a time.
How does living in New Orleans inspire your art?
SY: Oh god New Orleans is inspiring at all times! Always! It’s hard to explain to people if you haven’t been here before, it’s everything—the city, the architecture, the smells, the air – when you get off the airplane and out at the airport the air is thick, you can feel it, it has a certain smell. There’s all these amazing 200 year-old trees and houses to look at, people boiling crawfish and great things that smell great all of the time. It’s just this amazing city, it definitely has a soul of its own. It either envelops and embraces people or chews them up and spits them out [laughs]. It’s got its own personality… luckily it embraced me [laughs].
How did Hurricane Katrina affect you? You guys were one of the only houses that had electricity right after right?
SY: Yeah it’s crazy! We weren’t here, we evacuated two day s before it hit. We kind of had a feeling that it was going to be bad and took off. We didn’t come back home for a couple of months, we sub-letted in New York because it sounded like it was total chaos down here and I didn’t know if the air was safe to breathe, I know the water wasn’t safe to drink or bathe in.
A lot of our friends came back right away like a day or two later because they’d left some pets or had to check on their businesses. They snuck in past the guards and they saw our lights still on, our house was still lit up. I have no explanation for it, everyone else’s power was pretty much out. The only thing I can think of is that we’re on a really big power grid that led to – I don’t know if you saw any of the videos but there was this Wal-Mart where all the looting was going on, they kept showing that footage over and over [laughs] and I think we were on the big power grid like they were. Long story short I probably think we were one of the only people that we know of that didn’t have to throw their refrigerator out, everybody’s refrigerators were horror stories! There were all these taped up refrigerators laying on the side of the road for months. We were extremely lucky, we had keys made for everyone so people were constantly passing through here using our house.
I’ve heard that when you and J. (Yuenger – White Zombie guitarist) went on tour you’d scour thrift, junk and secondhand stores looking for interesting items every time you got the chance…
SY: Oh yeah there was so much good stuff!
What’s one of your favourite finds?
SY: I’d have to say this old masonic banner I found. It’s got this ancient metallic hundred-year-old fringe, it seems like it’s made out of cooper. It’s got this amazing skull and coffin painted on it. It’s a faded metallic print on silk kind of. I love all of the secret order, masonic temple stuff. I haven’t really read any books about it or gotten into but I really love the imagery. I love finding the old knickknacks.
I’m interested in secret societies, the occult, ancient knowledge and things like that too. On the weekend I went to the Masonic Grand Lodge where I live. They had an open day. It was amazing! There was a painting that had the imagery that you mention from the banner you found and I overheard one of the masons telling another visitor to there about its meaning. Apparently it has to do with death and resurrection – he said beyond that he couldn’t really say any more about it.
SY: I know that they’re involved in some kinds of rituals. I’ve seen coffins that were supposed to be involved in some kind of ritual they were coffins from a masonic temple or something. J and I definitely got intrigued by all of the masonic stuff early on because one of our first shows – I think we played to like 5 people – was in a huge old abandoned masonic lodge, there was a throne or two, pyramids, eyes and different symbols all over the place [laughs] it was just insane! When we went thrifting it was always something we kept an eye out for. J actually has an enormous fez collection. He had a special shelf built around an entire room in his house for them, there’s like a hundred fez lining the entire room. He found them all in thrift stores.
Tell me about your new band Star & Dagger (pictured below), you mentioned you recorded recently, you went out to Joshua Tree to record with Dave Catching (pictured above)?
SY: Yeah that was great. We did that in May, this past summer, we flew back out in July to mix it with him. We also worked with a friend of ours Ethan Allen who is a great engineer, he is recording with The Cult right now; he used to live here in New Orleans. He engineered and Dave produced. It was a lot of fun, we just love being in Joshua Tree it’s a city like New Orleans, it’s just got its own spirit and soul. It’s so completely different: New Orleans is so wet and Joshua Tree is so dry; everything here is so old and everything there is new except for the land – the landscape is like you’re on another planet. We also just recorded in August with J as well here in New Orleans ’cause we’re going to have an EP come out before the record comes out. It’ll be $15 there’s only going to be 500 of them, each one has these crazy posters and will be clear vinyl with red blood dripping on it. The artwork is by Lindsay Kuhn this great artist. There is also going to be this crazy colourful foil embossing on the cover as well. It’s very elaborate packing. Just the fact that the price is so good, with shipping and it’s a 12 inch vinyl is so cool.
Dave Catching has been playing live with us, it looks like he may be playing live with us more in the future. He’s going to come down here and play this month with us in New Orleans actually, a gig we have coming up opening for Helmet. He’s like ‘As long as I’m free I’ll come play guitar for you.’ It’s nice to beef it up and get a little extra guitar in there for the live show.
You recently sat in and played keys with Masters of Reality?
SY: Yeah that was amazing! Actually me and Dave Catching almost share a birthday, I’m June 6th and he’s June 7th. They came down to ’Orleans one of his favourite cities. He used to live here for a while. He came down here with Eagles of Death Metal and Masters of Reality, both bands played and Masters need a keyboard player and I was eager to do it. I love that band. I was very influenced by that band back in the 90s. They didn’t have to show me those songs they’re in my head [laughs] and in my heart. There were a couple of new ones I had to learn but I could play the old ones with a blindfold on!
I wanted to ask you about your book, I’m In the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie – it’s going back for its second pressing?
SY: Yeah it sold out in six months which was really surprising. It’s been a drag because I haven’t had any now and people keep asking for them. It went to print a month or so ago and hopefully it’ll be out before Christmas.
It was originally released November 1st 2010, it’s been almost a year on, how do you feel about the book now?
SY: I’m really pleased with it. I don’t feel like I left much out. I’m not like, oh damn I wish I had gotten another chapter in there. I feel like it’s through without being boring, it touches on everything it need to. I’ve gotten a great response from it so I can’t complain.
In a previous interview you were talking about playing in White Zombie and you commented that besides being entertaining you wanted to just play with such confidence and competence that you’d be considered an equal to the guys…
SY: Yeah I know it’s kind of lame that you have to try and prove yourself as a girl… but I feel like there is always that challenge. The guys in my band kind of made that clear like ‘oh don’t hold your bass like that, most girls drop their arms down and kind of hold it like a baby—don’t do that!’ [laughs]. I’d be like, oh god! This is how guys think?! [laughs]. One of the first shows I’ve saw was actually Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. It was this little club – I got this fake ID, I was sixteen – I got to see her on her ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ tour. It was just amazing. It was $2 at this tiny club in North Carolina, it was one of the only shows I saw in North Carolina before I moved to New York. She was just a huge influence, she played like Johnny Ramone. There wasn’t any issue like is there a girl playing, there was just a guitarist up there. I just wanted to be another musician and not be like a fucking girl musician.
When I saw you play on your Australia tour, I was blown away. You seemed so incredibly confident! Have you always been a confident person?
SY: I wouldn’t say so [laughs]. It’s something that definitely builds up. If you’re on stage you better be confident, right? You don’t have a choice, you just have to bite the bullet and do it. White Zombie practiced every day for hours at one point. You do get a bit of confidence once you know that you could play the songs blindfolded hanging upside down [laughs]. It just becomes a non-issue. It’s just about entertaining the crowd and having a good time.
In the early years of White Zombie you did a lot of the booking of the band and the business side of things?
SY: Yeah, it was funny. I would pretend I wasn’t in the band and I would do that [laughs]. It was tough. People don’t really want to take your phone calls when they don’t know who you are. It was back in the day when there were no cell phones and not everyone even had an answering machine. We managed though and we got to do some pretty fully booked tours doing three to five days in a row.
You’ve been nominated and have won the title Best Metal Bassist in various music magazines over the years, what did that mean to you?
SY: Oh that was really amazing because it never said Best Female Metal Bassist. To be in the same league as guys from Anthrax and Metallica was really incredible. It meant a lot for sure.
I read an interview once that asked you about the whole Riot Grrrl scene in the 90s which was around when White Zombie were touring a lot – you said that you were never really angry but you were just doing what you wanted to do and that you felt like you were making a feminist stance on your own by infiltrating the system rather than rebelling against it…
SY: That kind of came up a little bit after us. Like I said I didn’t want to make an issue out of being a girl, I just wanted to be a musician. I have kind of always liked the androgyny side of things. To make an issue of it didn’t really appeal to me. I’ve rather not be labeled male or female.
In our correspondence you’ve told me that when White Zombie came to Australia it was a really special time for you guys.
SY: Oh gosh! That was just amazing! Australia is just so far away, it’s just so hard to get there [laughs] not everyone gets to go to Australia. We got to go because we were on tour with Pantera – we did Australia and Japan together. I wish we could have gone back. The people were so lovely, the cities were amazing. I’ll never forget the girls at Geffen our record label were so cool, they took me out on a wild tour of partying and drinking [laughs]. They were more rock n roll and crazy than anyone else I met in Australia.
What projects are next for you?
SY: I’m going to finish this soundtrack I’m working on. It’s called ‘So You’re Dating A Vampire’ [laughs]. It’s geared towards girls that are into vampires I guess. I didn’t create it, I just got asked to do the music. It’s a lot of fun. There’s the Star & Dagger record. My band Rock City Morgue just recorded an EP too that will come out on vinyl. So I’ve got a lot to focus on now, we’ll see where I’m at in a couple of months!
Sean talking about her art collection: