It was TV that first illuminated the morbid mental recesses that Rob Zombie now mines so profitably. Late-night creature features led to obscure midnight screenings in Boston, after which he'd walk the streets until the morning train home. "It seemed so cool," he says. "Like your whole life depended on it."
Zombie worshiped the whacked-out, low-budget efforts of Ed Wood and James Whale and the seditious camp of Roger Corman and Russ Meyer. He'd been primed for such obsession at an early age.
"Certain things burned heavy impressions on me back then," Zombie says. "I remember seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I was so young, I thought it was all real. By the time I was old enough to know that it wasn't, I figured, 'Well, why can't it be?' I guess I never lost my fascination for anything that I immediately liked as a kid. I'll never forget the first time I went to Disneyland – I thought, 'Oh, my God! I have to make my life like this!' I always told my parents that I'd never work."
Zombie's labor-averse philosophy failed to impress New York's Parsons School of Design, which cast him out into the work force after a few seasons of poor grades and attendance. He landed a string of jobs to grace the resume of any future rocker: bike messenger, production assistant on Pee-wee's Playhouse and art director for pore magazines (Zombie completists should seek out late-Eighties issues of Over 40 and Tail End).
At night, Zombie haunted the legendary CBGB, where he grew increasingly dissatisfied with the anemic post-hardcore contenders parading before him. "After going to shows for a couple years, I couldn't believe how god-awful every band was," he says. "It just became obvious to me that any idiot could do this." So Zombie formed a group in his very own image, an image that, he says, has remained the same since he was old enough to grow a decent set of whiskers.
Named after a 1932 horror classic, White Zombie welded Rob's beloved schlock-shock aesthetic onto lurid neometal. "We were too metal for the N.Y. artsy-fartsy scene but too artsy for the metal scene," he says.
One early White Zombie supporter was influential fanzinc editor Gerard Cosloy, an East Village neighbor of Rob's and his then girlfriend and bass player Scan Yseult. "Rob always had a fully realized idea of what he wanted," remembers Cosloy, now a co-owner of the post-indie label Matador Records. "White Zombie were an intelligent group – it was always meant to be larger than life, not some insular, weirdo punk-rock thing. But, then again, I don't know anybody who'd have predicted that Rob Zombie would end up a hero to every fucked-up teenage kid in America."
White Zombie lumbered on through adversity and neglect, eventually building a strong following with indie releases and punishing road work. In 1991 the band scored a Geffen Records contract that – with support from tastemakers Howard Stern and Beavis and Butt-head – turned it into a reliable platinum commodity. But "reliable" wasn't what Rob Zombie got into this business for; "reliable" wasn't going to get him that personal Disneyland he'd always dreamed of. So Zombie abruptly called time on White Zombie after AstroCreep: 2000. "We hit a wall," he states. "I don't want to have ideas for things that can't be done just because other people aren't into it. And I didn't want to make records for money, which is what it would have turned into."
White Zombie co-founder Yseult was informed of Zombie's decision by conference call. Even so, she bears no ill will toward her former partner. "Rob is definitely driven," she says. "He has a vision, and he gets it done, and there's a lot to be said for that."
Yseult is speaking from a small Oklahoma City club, where she's performing with her new all-girl band, Famous Monsters (which she describes as "Josie and the Pussycats meet the Munsters"). "I definitely don't want to do anything as serious or grueling as White Zombie again," she vows. "But it was great while it lasted – I had a blast."
Rob Zombie pleads ignorance about the current fortunes of any former colleagues. And just in case you suspect that there's any mushy nostalgia hidden behind that gnarled exterior, he adds, "I could give a crap what anyone's doing."
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