When you hear the name Sean Yseult, the first thing that typically comes to mind is the badass female bassist of the 90s platinum selling metal group White Zombie. But if you peel back the layers of this multi-talented artist, you’ll find much more than an accomplished musician. Sean Yseult spent most of her formative years studying everything from violin and ballet to photography and design. Yseult was granted a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in NYC, where she met Rob Zombie, eventually forming White Zombie and putting her photography and design aspirations temporarily on hold. When the band broke up in 1998, Sean returned to her early artistic dreams. Sean found a love for the Big Easy, which ultimately became the place she converted into home. Now she is enjoying the best of both the music and arts world by showing galleries around the country for her photography while playing shows with her two bands Star & Dagger and Rock City Morgue. I had the privilege of sitting down for lunch with Sean at Salu on Magazine Street to talk about her early career as a rock star and how her love for New Orleans has inspired her reimmersion into art.
JENN DEVEREAUX: What was it like being bassist and co-founder of White Zombie, one of the most influential metal bands of the 90s?
SEAN YSEULT: It was amazing. <laughs> I gotta say, you know, we were in for quite a ride, and I had no idea. We started off literally playing in basements and living in basements with rats. Our big show was playing CBGB, and over 11 years we kind of climbed our way up the ladder until we were headlining arenas. It was incredible. As far as being a female, we came from Lower East Side/East Village in NYC, where all the bands had girls, usually bass players oddly enough. But once we started getting bigger and playing with big metal bands and rock bands, I was definitely an anomaly. It was odd, but people treated me very cool. I was treated like an equal, and I didn’t feel anything weird from anyone.
JD: Legend has it that Beavis and Butthead had a hand in White Zombie’s musical success. Is there any truth to that?
SY: Thats very true. Yeah, thanks to Mike Judge for putting us in heavy rotation on MTV with Beavis and Butthead, which was instantly popular. You know, a lot of people thought it was absurd, but those two characters, they liked Iggy Pop, the Butthole Surfers, the Cycle Sluts from Hell. They hated Winger and things I didn’t like and liked the things I did like, so I felt like we were keeping good company with having those two give us the thumbs up.
JD: How did your art career start, and was it always photography centered?
SY: It has been always photography centered. In high school at the North Carolina School for the Arts, I was actually there for ballet from the time I was 12 years old, but I broke my foot and switched to Visual Arts, so I started studying under Michael Avedon, who is Richard Avedon’s brother. I did really well and actually won some photo competitions, and I got a scholarship to go to Parsons. So I went up to NYC for photography and graphics because I was heavily into graphics, so that was definitely what I wanted to do, but also kind of got sidelined with being in a band for a while.
JD: How is your creative process different for making music as opposed to photography or design?
SY: It’s very different. When I write music, a lot of times I hear something in my head. I could be on an airplane, and I’ll write it down. Like, I’ll draw out all the music stuff, and I’ll write down the music and that will be a song later. It’s a lot more instantaneous, whereas with the photo shows — especially if it’s a solo show, and I want to come up with a whole new scene and everything — I’ll spend a good six months or so trying to figure everything out, what the show is going to be. Then I spend a long time trying to figure out who I’m going to put in these photos, how I’m going to stage them and where I’m going to stage them. There’s a lot of steps. And then I will sketch out the whole photo, how I want to see it done. I have to make sure to get a couple of people to help me, you know, with lighting and somebody with makeup and hair. So it’s involved, but I enjoy it.
JD: When you plan out your shots, do you see them as color or black and white in your mind, or do you change it up in post depending on how it looks?
SY: No, I definitely have it pre-planned if it’s color or black and white. I normally shoot black and white, but my last show was color because I was trying to do photo-realism, which is ironic with doing photos, but it was kind of Dutch Masters. Each print was 4 feet by 6 feet, and they were framed in these huge gilded frames like they were out of the Louvre.
JD: How would you describe your style of photography?
SY: I like it to be slightly haunting. Out of the past, like, anyone who has ever seen my work thinks it looks like a different era usually. It’s hard to say which era exactly. I’m not trying to be a specific era, but I’ve had stuff up before and heard little old ladies point at something and say, “Oh! That was me in the St. Louis Cemetery,” and who am I to deny her? <laughs>
JD: What kind of research did you do for the Soiree D’Evolution?
SY: Oh, a ton! Well, you know, one thing would lead to another. I started researching this banner I have from the 1840’s, and it’s French, and I wanted to use it in one of my photos. It’s in the second photo in Soirée D’Evolution, which is The Wild Girl of Champagne. When I researched this banner, “The Wild Girl of Champagne” kept popping up. I’m like, “What the hell is that?” and that led me to every story of every feral child ever. This girl was found at the age of 18, and she had been roaming the woods for 10 years. She was an American girl, part Native American. I was like, I’ve got to get her in this photo. Each photo evolves from maybe one element sometimes. For the Absinthe Drinkers, I researched all of these different bottles of Absinthe, and I researched secret societies, and this whole ritual called “The Killing of the King,” and I don’t think I should say anymore. <laughs>
JD: Do you prefer film or digital, and why?
SY: Well, I prefer film, but I was denied film long ago when Polaroid stopped making film for my old Land Camera. It just broke my heart, and I went digital after that. Somebody was like, “Oh, they’re making Polaroids again!” and I’m like, “It’s not the same.” That film won’t go in my camera, and I don’t want to buy a whole new camera. That defeats the purpose. I think back to previous photographers in the whole 20th century. Would they have used the digital camera if they had the option? I think yes. It’s a huge advantage to be able to see the shot or delete the shot.
JD: It’s apparent that New Orleans courses through the veins of your work, but I like that it’s not the obvious themes that most people visualize when they think of this city. Do you gravitate towards the more underground scene?
SY: Yeah, not the typical underground scene, which I’ve actually helped contribute to by creating The Saint. I don’t know, I kind of feel like part of me has definitely lived in the past or something because it’s more of like a demimonde, which is like a French turn of the century underground thing. I definitely love the history of this town and the whole decadent culture. It’s always been really unlike anywhere else in America as far as that goes. I mean, they had Storyville. I spent my whole first year here just studying about Storyville and the birth of Jazz. There were all of these amazing… the professors, the piano players and the brothels. Everything was just amazing. I love Bellocq, the photographer that photographed a lot of the prostitutes, and they are just like these jaw dropping, beautiful black and white photos. There’s this crazy history here. It isn’t like the rest of America because a lot of the French and Europeans all moved into this port, so it’s a different vibe totally.
JD: What was it about New Orleans that led you to move here?
SY: I guess the same thing that brings every artist here. It’s such an amazing spiritual and creative place that draws all artists, musicians and writers here. It’s hard to put into words. I feel like there is this ancient spirituality in certain points in America and the world, and it’s always the places that draws the artists and freaks. I use “freak” in the highest regard for a person. <laughs>
JD: If someone were to come visit New Orleans, where would they find you?
SY: Oh, let’s see. There’s a lot of cool restaurants and bars we’ve been hanging at. Cavan is one. It’s like an old haunted house, and those owners also own a great bar called Barrel Proof. In the Quarter, we would go to The Chart Room or Harry’s Corner Bar. Those are kind of down and dirty, like, late night cool places with cheap cocktails. One Eyed Jacks has great shows, and I did the logo for them. It looks incredible in there, like an old bordello or something.
JD: If you could go back twenty years, what advice would you give yourself?
SY: Don’t let the assholes get you down.
JD: What’s next for you?
SY: Well, I’m actually going to be in a group show called B-Sides I’m helping curate in September that is all photographers, who are also musicians, and I’ve got a really eclectic roster. So I’m very excited about that. I just started on it a month ago, and it’s actually more of an art space, but it’s very large in this new gallery in San Francisco called Heron Arts. I’m co-curating the show with one of the directors, Noah Antieau, and he made a few suggestions here and there, so I did some research, and I knew a few people like Dave Catching from Eagles of Death Metal, Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs, and Pat Sansone from Wilco. These are all friends who take great photos and they’re still touring and stuff. And then the gallery was like, “What about Chris Coleman from Kings of Leon?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’ll look him up,” and I looked it up and he had great work, so I called him and he was super excited about it. And then we got Henry Butler, the blind blues piano player from [New Orleans] that HBO included in a documentary on blind photographers [Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photography]. He takes amazing photos, and not only is he going to be in the show with his photography, but he’s also going to perform. I also got Moby, and I’m glad I got him because he’s the only other photographer with 4 feet by 6 feet prints. I also got Mike Watt, who is a very big figure in punk history with The Minutemen and Firehose. He does some great work. Locally I got Louviere + Vanessa, which is an art duo, and they do amazing photo shows, and they have a show right now where they photograph music. I’ve also got a small solo show opening on October 27th called 6 6 & 6 at Art on A Gallery in Manhattan where I’ll be showing some new work.
JD: And you met Rob [Zombie] at Parsons?
SY: Yeah, we met at Parsons. We also had seen each other at CBGB hardcore shows. So, yeah, we got caught up in that. It took me on a detour for 11 years. But when [White Zombie] broke up, I moved here to New Orleans, and I’ve been showing in galleries for over 10 years now. First in group shows, then in 2012 I got my first solo show. It’s great to see your whole work in an entire gallery.
JD: Were you here for Hurricane Katrina?
SY: Yes, yes I was. My husband and I opened up a bar 3 years before Katrina called The Saint. It’s kind of a notorious, late night rock ’n’ roll dive bar — or was. It’s still a late night bar but not rock ’n’ roll. It’s more of, I don’t know, whatever millennials are listening to. <laughs> We didn’t even know about [Hurricane Katrina] until 2 a.m. the night before. We had stopped in the bar, and my husband’s brother was bartending, who now owns the bar, and he was like “What are you guys doing for the hurricane?” and we were like, “What hurricane?” And then he had it on the TVs and was like “Look at that!” and it was just a swirl filling the entire gulf. It was horrifying. So my husband was like, “Tomorrow morning, if that is still sitting there, you get the dog and pack, and I’ll go board up the bar, and we’ve got to get out of here.” So we did. We drove out the next morning, and we were the first people to evacuate. It was Saturday, and nobody was evacuating or taking it seriously. I moved up to New York for a few months afterwards, and Alice Cooper called my husband, who is in a band called Supagroup, and said “Hey, are you guys ok?” and my husband was like “No, not really,” so he was like, “You want to come on tour?” So he took him on tour which is so sweet — Alice Cooper is the best — so I got a sublet in NYC and moved back there for a while.
JD: Did you have any photo equipment or memorabilia damaged?
SY: No, thank goodness. My house is three stories, and there was a hole in my roof with water dripping through the second and third floor. But that water, where it was falling on the third floor, just dodged my storage space that had all my memorabilia, all my photos, everything. That’s part of why I made my book called I’m In the Band, which had all my photos from the White Zombie days, because I thought “Wow! I could lose all of this so easily.” So I just started scanning it all and putting it together. I was really doing it for myself and people saw what I was doing and were like, “You need to make this available for fans.” I got an agent, she got me a book deal, and that’s how that happened.
JD: So with this book you made, it’s like a scrapbook of cool photos, mementos and stories from your time with White Zombie, but as a photographer do you have a preference for documenting moments like you did in the book, or do you prefer creating art with your photography?
SY: I prefer creating art. Like, if you look in that book, it’s just photos I snapped backstage and on tour. It’s fun for me because it’s my friends and my life, and it’s fun for fans that maybe want to see photos of Pantera or The Cramps. But when I do a photo show, I like to create an image. I don’t like to capture an image, although I have captured some images I love, but most of my work is very set up — like I get people to dress a certain way. Even for my last show I built sets, and it took me a month to build each set. I even hand sewed a big, huge black backdrop because I wanted it to look like Dutch Masters paintings. I get really into it.
JD: You’ve had gallery exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and North Carolina, which are all places you have called home for parts of your life. Do you feel proud to be able to showcase your work in these cities?
SY: You know, it’s really funny, but I’ve never realized that all of the places I’ve shown have been homes. You’re right. Yeah, I am proud, and I’m looking forward to showing in some new territories.
JD: Do you have a preference on which galleries you use based on your style?
SY: It’s been just very serendipitous. Either they’ve come to me, or it’s kind of been through friends and connections so far. I don’t feel like I’ve shown enough to have a preference yet. I’m just happy when somebody calls and wants me to show.
For more on Sean Yseult Photography, head to seanyseult.com. If you’re in the Big Apple, don’t miss Sean’s show at Art on A Gallery in NYC opening on October 27 and running through the month of November.