J. Yuenger Talks 25th Anniversary of White Zombie’s ‘La Sexorcisto:Devil Music Volume.1’: guitarist recalls recording and touring behind band’s breakout album.
March 31st marked the 25th anniversary of White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto:Devil Music Volume.1. It was the album that broke them into the mainstream–a combination of groove metal, industrial and alternative rock saturated with B-movie film quotes and cinematic overtones.
The album is best remembered for its breakout single Thunderkiss 65, a chugging anthem that hasn’t dulled with age. And the album’s legacy has only grown with time–Rolling Stone included it in their recent list of the best metal albums of all time,
While vocalist and band founder Rob Zombie gained the lion share of media exposure, White Zombie wouldn’t have had their major label success without the sharp, hook-laden riffs from guitarist J. Yuenger, who joined the group in 1989 and fleshed out their skeletal sound.
After recording a successful follow-up (1995’s Astro-Creep: 2000), White Zombie called it a day in 1998–Rob Zombie would go onto a solo career, while Yuenger pursued other ventures, including production and engineering and his passion for photography,
I recently had a chance to speak to Yuenger to discuss his memories of La Sexorcisto, his recent activities with his photo blog and his remastering work with Waxwork Records. Enjoy the Q&A that follows.
Prior to recording La Sexorcisto, White Zombie was lumped into the NYC Noise Rock scene. But the band’s sound changed quite a bit when you joined, bridging a lot of metal sub-genres that also appealed to alt-rock listeners. Did the sound just organically change when you joined, or did you get the gig specifically because you had a sound they gravitated towards?
Well, I’m me, that’s one of the reasons the sound of the group changed. I was the fifth guitarist to join the band; number four was John Ricci, who had an odd sort of nimble, nit-picky style, and Tom Five, number three, had, polar opposite to Ricci, a bludgeoning, out-of-control way of playing (a thought just formed in my head about Ricci as a pointillist and Five as Jackson Pollock). I’m…something else.
The change in sound and attitude began well before I joined. When I met them, they were adamant about becoming a “real” metal band. They didn’t want to become more normal, but they did want to be more accessible, to play to a wider audience. They were friends with some of the Noise Rock people and they played with some of those bands, but my impression of the Lower East Side’s view of White Zombie was as a curiosity, not as scene-mates or kindred spirits.
On my joining, we didn’t play any material from before Make Them Die Slowly, and then those songs got replaced by new ones pretty quickly, because we started writing right away.
I think I ultimately got the gig because they’d just had John Ricci leave them flat, with an album coming out in a few weeks. He and Sean had never gotten along, and he was never an enthusiastic member of the band. I was, on the other hand, genuinely excited to be there, and that’s what got me in the door.
What are the memories that come to mind when you were recording La Sexorcisto? Did the band have the songs ready to go, or was there some in-studio writing as well? And who generally led the writing process? I always wondered how the band dynamic worked.
Some songs were ready to go. For example, Thunderkiss, I think, stayed almost exactly the same from the time it was written, and the demo version* is pretty similar to the album version. Others existed for a week or two and then got torn down and rebuilt, or discarded altogether, but we were big fans of never wasting anything and any riff that we liked would be saved until it could be made to fit somewhere.
For the entire period between my joining the band and recording La Sexorcisto, we were constantly pushing to write better songs, and that went on right up until just before we went into the studio. We did a week’s pre-production with Andy Wallace, where we played the songs on a stage in a rehearsal place and he took notes and made suggestions, little things like “Do you think that this song stays in E for too long?”, or “Would doubling the chorus work here?” It was very beneficial to be somewhere outside our Brooklyn dungeon, having someone with a different ears and a lot of song-arranging experience helping us out. I remember that Spider-Baby came together during that time, from a bunch of leftover riffs.
It’s a blur. I don’t remember doing any in-studio writing. Starface, perhaps, came together in the studio.
Writing was very, very difficult, and whatever way we could develop an idea, we’d do that. Sean and I would bring in our own riffs, or we’d jam, or Rob would tap out a rhythm and hum, or Ivan might play a beat that we’d get an idea for. All four of us were very different from each other, and, especially, Sean and I had completely different ways of hearing music; this led to a lot of difficulty and, quite often, tension, but it was the reason we didn’t sound like anybody else.
Rob generally refused to sing while we were writing, which meant that I had no vocal cues to guide me and I used to have to make elaborate charts of the songs to follow. When we played live, he never sang anything the same way twice, and I used to purposely not get vocals in my monitor because it just made things more confusing.
* One thing we’ve never released is the 4-song demo that led to us getting signed to Geffen. It was produced by JG Thirlwell (known by his “Foetus” alter ego, and quite a few others) and it’s a pretty interesting document. I hope we can put it out at some point.
What I love about the album above all else are your riffs. When I think of White Zombie its your guitar playing that I gravitate to the most. Did you have any specific influences that inspired that record, and did you have a litmus test for what riffs had the most impact? For instance Thunderkiss 65–did you kinda know that had hit potential?
Well, there was Slayer, of course, and I was listening to the various thrash metal bands who were popular at the time, and Prong made a huge impression on me – their early records, Primitive Origins and Force Fed. Their cover of Chrome’s Third From The Sun was a favorite of mine, and I was a big fan of Killing Joke, who were an important influence on Prong. You can hear the affinity I had for Tommy Victor’s guitar playing all over La Sexorcisto. It’s a little embarrassing in places.
On the other hand, there were influences that most people in metal bands at that time probably would not have had. I spent the first half of the 80s going to hardcore shows in the midwest, and I saw Hüsker Dü numerous times; Bob Mould’s way of playing partial chords and letting open strings ring out was a big influence, along with, for the same reason, Geordie’s playing on Killing Joke’s Revelations, Keith Levene on Public Image’s Metal Box, John McGeoch in Siouxsie and the Banshees – weird chords, open notes.
People always said my playing had a bluesy aspect to it. I’ve never been very interested in that kind of music but I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the shadow of the Checkerboard Lounge, so, make of that what you will.
Rob and I were very into hip hop – even if we hadn’t been, it was all around us all the time in early 90s New York – and we’d try to write riffs that had that same movement and percussive quality. I used to play guitar along to rap music a lot, trying to conjure up something different. Because of our very limited equipment or maybe because we were coming at it from weird angles, this produced some unique-sounding riffs.
Later, around the time we were making Astro-Creep and after, Rob started to really hate anything with any kind of melody in it – he was always saying, “Can’t you just go ‘chunka chunka’ there?”, and I’d say, “This isn’t a drum, it’s a GUITAR, it’s got NOTES” He’d want to use techno loops for everything, cut all the music out of it, and that was a situation which went from difficult to impossible.
Here’s the story of Thunderkiss. We’d have writing sessions long into the night in Rob and Sean’s apartment on 10th street, drinking pots of Café Bustelo, which is like Puerto Rican rocket fuel. During one of these, I came up with the main riff, and Rob came up with the little “neener neener” thing that resolves it.
We had that on a cassette, took it into the practice space, and we were totally stuck for something to go with it, chorus, B-part, whatever. It was frustrating because we really liked that riff, but we couldn’t think of a thing to follow it. Finally, I started playing something I’d been messing with, which I’d considered unsuitable for White Zombie because of the loose, jammy nature of it and because one of the chords was a very bluesy one, E7(#9), which is commonly referred to as the “Hendrix Chord”.
To my surprise, everyone was like, “Cool, good, let’s do that, that’s the chorus” We started playing the verse and chorus back and forth and I wasn’t sure what I thought of any of it because it was so different. Just then, Gregg, our roadie (he was the kid who played Gene Simmons on the cover of the God Of Thunder EP), who lived in a basement room behind where we were, came bursting in, and he was frantic : “THAT’S IT! THAT’S IT!!” Over the next couple of days, Gregg told me repeatedly that the song was our hit single, our golden ticket – and he turned out to be right. Sean wrote the middle eight, and I think we all wrote the middle section together.
From your image, to the band’s videos, to the use of soundbites, there was such a cinematic quality to your sound. I recall reading in a guitar magazine how you tried to approximate automotive sounds on the intro to Black Sunshine. I also always dug that moody, middle-eastern intro to I Am Legend. Did you always approach your guitar work to have that filmic quality?
I was trying to do the maximum with the minimum. I had a cheap guitar – well, a decent guitar, but on the cheap end of the pointy-headstock heavy metal guitar spectrum, I had a Marshall stack, and I had a couple of pedals. I wanted what I played to have a visual quality, and at the same time, if I didn’t constantly strive to make the guitar parts interesting, a lot of the music would have a flat, same-y feel to it.
After we got signed, nobody ever said, “Here ya go, kid – take this money and get yourself a killer axe and some expensive sound-making thingies”. That’s why there’s so much guitar on the album – I had very basic tools and I was attempting to make something that was cinematic, and exciting, and expressive.
It took about a year before the album started gaining attention after you appeared on Beavis and Butthead. Did it feel weird that a cartoon helped launch your band to greater success, or is that story exaggerated? What did it feel like when you knew you’d ‘made it’ for lack of a better term?
It’s true that Beavis and Butthead gave us huge exposure, and we became a really big band after that. What people never seem to remember, though, is that we’d been doing well – we were playing big clubs and theaters, and we’d sold a quarter of a million albums, which, back then, was considered “pretty good”, and enough to be given the go-ahead to make another record, which we had started writing. But we owe a huge debt to Mike Judge. MTV was so powerful, and it was on everywhere, all the time, and once people saw us during the daytime (people who didn’t watch the specialty shows like Headbangers Ball or 120 minutes), we sold millions of records.
It’s not like being associated with Beavis and Butthead was objectionable – it was a funny show, and everybody I knew liked it. Also, I think we were absolutely the only band they didn’t make fun of.
The album was very heavy on samples–did you guys have a list of film quotes you definitely wanted to use and did you build any songs around them, or were they just added after the fact? And did clearing those samples delay the release?
The samples were Rob’s department, and while we didn’t write with samples in mind or build tracks around them (nor on Astro-Creep, although it sometimes sounds like we did – the songs were there first, and samples and loops were laid in later, which is a counterintuitive way of working, but is one reason why that record doesn’t sound like anyone else’s), You’d have to ask him about it, but I think he started planning what to sample while we were writing.
Clearing the samples was a nightmare, and it held up the album’s release for months.
We got signed to Geffen in New York, which was like a little satellite office of the L.A. label’s. We asked about sampling, and they were like, “Sure, knock yourself out”. At that time, this was very new technology, and we were really in love with it, and I don’t think anybody expected us to go nuts like we did. We moved to Los Angeles, and we turned the album in. Besides the general reaction of the people we were going to be working with (A few of them got what we were doing right away and were quite enthusiastic, but there were others who were quite condescending and didn’t want to have anything to do with us).
A very dispiriting thing was that the label had just dealt with a situation where a Geffen-signed band had sampled the Rolling Stones without clearance, had gotten caught doing it, and this had apparently been very costly (the situation pre-dating by some 5 or 6 years the similar, famous case involving The Verve sampling an old Stones orchestral record on their big hit Bitter Sweet Symphony) – so we showed up with this weird, sample-heavy record at the exact time when the prevailing attitude was SAMPLING IS FORBIDDEN.
During this period, I slept on the floor of our apartment off of Sunset Blvd., starved, pretty much, played guitar endlessly, and waited for something to happen. Rob and Sean told me horror stories about aggressive lawyers demanding the origin of every sound on the record : bits of atmosphere from thrift-store albums, little things taped off TV, stuff from the radio. Ultimately, most of the samples cleared. A cool White Zombie artifact is the advance cassette of the album, which contains some samples which aren’t on the actual release. I have a few of them, but I don’t know how many were sent out.
I know the band toured extensively over that time–what are some of your favorite memories during those days?
I did two tours with the band before we got signed, America in the Summer of 1989, and Europe in the Winter of 1989-1990, and it really feels like those were tours on another planet. None of the new technology was in place yet; nobody had a cell phone, there was no internet, ATMs weren’t widespread yet. Back then, if I was on tour, unless I pulled over at a truck stop and called you, I was just gone, completely vanished. I miss that, that’s something I’ll probably never experience again.
In the U.S., we were traveling in a van with no A.C., we were too poor to get a motel room, ever, even a crummy one, getting by on what food we could afford, which was basically french fries at Denny’s. The whole thing should have been a nightmare, but I have really good memories of it. There was quite a bit of camaraderie among us, and there was a lot of interest in the band, so we were mostly playing to decent crowds. I was meeting quite a few people (and sleeping on their floors), and I was traveling around the country for the first time. Lots of firsts for me : first time in Texas, first time eating grits, first time seeing the Grand Canyon, first time in a trailer park, first time playing a generator party in the desert.
That was old America, big, relatively empty, hardly any gentrification yet. Thrift stores full of cool junk. Later, after we got signed and La Sexorcisto had come out, we got to rent a nice van, got a tour manager, started playing more suburban hair-metal clubs than old punk clubs in cities. We got a tech, then more techs, then a budget tour bus, then a nice tour bus – I think, each time we took one of those little steps up the ladder, I looked out the window a little less. When your band gets big, touring becomes much more comfortable but quite a bit less interesting. Really, for me, the mid-90s is a beige-colored blur of pretty nice hotels and sports-arena parking lots.
White Zombie never really got the hang of Europe, and besides a few countries, I don’t think Europe ever got us, either. Our first tour of Europe WAS a nightmare. Beside the obvious fact that January is maybe not a good time to go traveling around Germany and Holland, we were, I think, completely unprepared for European culture (now that I’ve lived in Europe for a while, I can really see this with new clarity), and we were put in a lot of ridiculous situations which would have broken a weaker band.
There was quite a bit of anti-U.S. sentiment at that point, and that was directed at us by journalists, kids at gigs, and our own tour manager – which was a little bewildering, because people our age in America hardly ever talked about politics. I started to feel more and more hostile, to the point where I wanted to grab people by their collars and yell, “This band is about devils and race cars, why the fuck are you talking to me about Ronald Reagan?”
We could probably write a book about that tour. We played a couple of shows in Communist Yugoslavia, and we were in Berlin at the precise moment they started knocking holes in the wall and the GDR was ceasing to exist. We slept in a chalet in the Swiss Alps, we slept in a squat in an old slaughterhouse, hooks and blood-gutters still in it. We crossed the English Channel during the worst storm of the year, in an elderly ferry that felt like it was going to break apart.
When you look back at the album, what songs are you proudest of? And given Astro-Creep 2000 had such a different sound, do you have a favorite?
Planet Motherfucker is one, because we used to start shows with it and it really reminds me of a roomful of people, uh, exploding into action, I guess. The intro part where I’m sweeping through frequencies with a wah wah pedal, that’s a good example of me trying to make very simple tools do something interesting. Thunderkiss, obviously. I’ve had so many weird experiences with that song – seeing people cover it, hearing it coming from passing cars, on jukeboxes. Sometimes, playing really big shows, I would start the song, watch thousands of people go nuts, and think back to writing it in a Lower East Side tenement. Spider-Baby, because there are some fun riffs in that one.
I don’t have a favorite album.
La Sexorcisto is a record which was made in New York City in the early 1990s, but I don’t think you’d be able to guess where or when it’s from just by listening to it. We didn’t know what we were doing, much, and we managed to make an album which is like a journey to some different planets, and a unique one. We managed to make something out of nothing, in a way.
Astro-Creep, on the other hand, has a lot of sounds and loops on it that don’t date particularly well at this point in time, but it’s an amazing-sounding record by a group who were in a completely different zone from the band on La Sexorcisto. Myself, I had the time and resources to make the guitars exactly how I wanted them, and it was quite a bit of work, but I still get compliments for it all the time.
I wanted to ask about your current ventures–first your blog, which I read often and really enjoy–what made you decide to start one, and to have such strong focus on your photographs?
What I intended to do was make a simple website that said, “I’m still alive, here’s what I’m doing, you can contact me”, but at that time, the late aughts, Tumblr was becoming popular, and I was quite influenced by Tumblr to post images, either collected from the internet or by me in the real world. I had fun pulling together things I thought were interesting : graphics, guitars, travel, history, weird music, record collecting. I started writing, answering questions about gear, addressing what at the time felt like WZ’s virtual erasure from popular culture, about my life, at that time, in New Orléans.
I’ve always liked taking pictures, even though for many years it was an expensive hobby and you’d just file the results away in an album or a shoebox. It was cool to have a place to put photos where people could see them. Obviously, Instagram changes this equation.
And getting back to cinematic music, I know you’ve done some remastering for Waxworks records deluxe soundtrack reissues–how did you happen upon that gig and what do you enjoy about that process?
In the early teens, I rented a decrepit insurance office in a weird part of town, set up some gear, and did a lot of recording there. A couple of things happened simultaneously : I started to get really burnt-out on recording and studios, the compact disc finally, irrevocably died, and a lot of my friends who I’d been working with wanted to release vinyl. I recorded a couple of tracks for a 12” by Star & Dagger, Sean Yseult’s new band, and they didn’t want to just send the material off and hope for the best, so they asked me if I could master everything as well. I understood the process and I had some equipment that’s very good for that sort of work, so I said I would, and it turned out pretty good.
Before he started Waxwork, Kevin Bergeron had a band, She’s Still Dead, and I recorded their album – I went on tour with them for a little bit, too. After the band broke up and he’d started the label, he needed somebody he could trust and work with closely, so he asked me to do all the audio work. The Waxwork stuff has been especially fun because each record is different – sometimes I want to stay as true as possible to a work which is being reissued, and sometimes it’s music which has never been released, and I have a very high degree of artistic control. I’ve gotten to work on soundtracks from some of the greatest films ever made; Taxi Driver, Rosemary’s Baby .. not too shabby.
When I spoke to Sean a few years back she mentioned that you had a new manager that tends to the White Zombie property, even though you’re defunct. Is there any 25th anniversary reissue or promotional plans for La Sexorcisto?
I would certainly like to do something cool with that.
Thanks to J. Yuenger for taking time out for this interview. You can keep track of all his recent activity via his blog by clicking here.