How did the alternative rock-era stars develop their sound? A new box set, "It Came From N.Y.C." tells the story in music and pictures.

white zombie photo
White Zombie

When did White Zombie become White Zombie? The simplest answer is right away. When Shawna Reynolds and Rob Cummings—Sean Yseult and Rob Straker/Zombie—met at Parsons School of Design in 1985 and decided to form a band, their core sensibility was in place from the start. They loved hardcore punk, The Butthole Surfers, and the Blacks—Flag and Sabbath. Those interests and their affection for psychedelic horror movies were evident on Gods on Voodoo Moon, their debut seven-inch release.

On the other hand, Yseult says that the band’s sonic identity slowly evolved from a punk/noise one to a heavier, more metallic one with the release of 1989’s God of Thunder EP.

“The minute J.”—Jay Yeunger—“joined our band, our sound really solidified,” she says. “We had a committed guitarist for the first time, and he was a fan, so he got us. He understood what we were trying to do and where we were going with it.”

Last week, the Numero Group released It Came From N.Y.C., a handsome box set that documents White Zombie’s pre-Geffen years, and it tells the story in music, photos, and a book how the band’s evolved into the alternative rock-era stars. Considering the band’s art school origins, it’s appropriate that the package is beautiful with each EP and album in slipcover reproductions of the original cover art—for the vinyl release, complete with the original inner sleeve art—and a hard-backed book on pristine white paper and carefully reproduced images from the band’s history. Not surprisingly, the photos’ juvenile delinquent Manson Family vibe did as much work at the band’s sound at establishing the idea of White Zombie. Rob Straker (then) sneers condescendingly in every picture, and Yseult’s self-possessed blankness appears to find nothing worth her time or attention. They and the other members that rotated through the group—guitarists Ena Kostabi, Tim Jeffs, and Tom “5” Guay, and drummer Ivan De Prume—brought an air of unpredictable menace to every photograph.

The image wasn’t entirely an invention. As the punks at Parsons, they did feel disaffected, and their New York City adventure was a rough and tumble one. Their apartments in Jersey City and Manhattan’s Lower East Side represented the worst of what the city had to offer at the time. Junkies, crime and violence surrounded them, and Yseult always had roommates, so they never entirely got away from the crowding that accompanied their urban environment. Music didn’t offer any escape because the underground music scene at the time tended to be competitive. 

Visually, White Zombie was inspired by The Misfits and The Cramps. “Those two bands had such an image and such graphics,” Yseult says. “But it’s more than that. They create a lifestyle.” Musically, It Came From N.Y.C. documents how the band trying to create the sound to go with that lifestyle. Part of that process was natural for any band, but White Zombie in particular needed time to evolve because it started with a bassist and a singer, neither of whom had much experience playing bass or singing. Guitarists and drummers played a big role in shaping the sound.

Gods on Voodoo Moon presents White Zombie as a garage punk band without a lot to distinguish it. The band learned its six songs so that it could get in the studio and bang out error-free versions in roughly an hour, quickly enough to fit their $30 recording budget. That self-consciousness made the band tight in the wrong ways, so the tracks lack the wildness that makes for good garage rock. When Straker and Yseult heard it, they emotionally moved on to the next project, only distributing 100 of the 300 copies that they pressed.

“I think he had a vision of us sounding much slicker than we did,” Yseult says.

Noise becomes more and more of the band’s sound with each release, just as it was part of their scene. White Zombie were contemporaries with Pussy Galore, Live Skull, Honeymoon Killers, and Rat at Rat R, so noise and alienation were central to their vibe and sound. The latter sounds impressively organic as the band goes on, but White Zombie’s self-contained, DIY aesthetic was so insular that when the band recorded 1987 Psycho-Head Blowout, it played each song straight through without breaks. Because of that, the EP came out with each side as a continuous groove, accidentally challenging college radio DJs to figure out where each song starts. 

Yseult considers Soul-Crusher the pinnacle for this version of the band. “When we asked Tom 5 to be in the band, we said, Hey, we want you to be somewhere between Greg Ginn of Black Flag and Butthole Surfers,” she says. “He went for it, and those overdubs were kind of impressive.” It’s White Zombie’s first album, and a lot of pieces came together on it. “It’s the first record where Rob started doing samples on. He had to hold a hand-held microphone up to the TV set to steal all the snippets from the movies and TV shows he loved. I feel like it captured everything, and it was the thickest in terms of extra layers.”

The visual component can’t be separated from the sound, though. Straker and Yseult considered the cover of each release as a chance to advertise for themselves, and made good use of the space. Soul-Crusher’s cover, for example, smartly juxtaposes a lysergic photo of Straker with a tripping grin and Yseult mid-hair toss with blood-like lettering over a sunny day blue background. They put images like that one on the covers because “back in the day, you go to the record store, and you flip through these 12-inch records,” Yseult says. “You see a picture of Alice Cooper and say, What the fuck is that? I need to listen to that. And Iggy Pop. He looks amazing. Let me check that out! I’m not saying that everybody should put a picture on the cover, but the whole vinyl, record store experience was very important to us.”

White Zombie’s Geffen albums—1992’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume One and 1994’s Astro Creep: 2000—are reliably entertaining as the band perfected a dance floor-friendly punk/metal/alternative rock hybrid. Producers Andy Wallace and Terry Date respectively organized the sound, added density to the guitars, and masked the limits of (by this time) Rob Zombie’s voice. As It Came From N.Y.C. shows, that trade-off came at a cost because those albums simply don’t sound as dangerous. The band on display as on the Numero box set is not trying to make friends, and it doesn’t mean well. Like many of the budget-constrained low budget horror movies that gave the band its inspiration, the lack of outside oversight from a label, manager or agent gave White Zombie the freedom to tap into something genuinely unsettling. The music frequently had more attitude and atmosphere than hooks, but that’s to be expected from a band learning on the job. 

Still, that rawness had made it hard for Yseult to hear that music from that period with much affection. For a long time, the distance between what the band hoped to capture in the studio and what it actually got was too wide to listen to charitably. While the box set was in process and the book was being written, she went back to those records and was better able to appreciate them.

“I’m listening to all this for the first time in years, and it is surprising,” she says. “It was well-rehearsed noise. We worked hard at it.”