Speaking for myself, there were so many amazing women to look up to in mainstream rock in the 1990s. Sean Yseult was just that and her look and playing style has since become iconic. From playing bass with White Zombie and Star & Dagger to becoming an author, a designer, and photographer - she represents everything that being a badass woman stands for. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview her. Please check out her book, I'm in the Band, which documents her time with White Zombie. Also check out her amazing (can't stress that enough) website https://yseultdesigns.com/ where she sells wallpaper, scarves, and pillows that feature her eccentric designs you will fall in love with.
HRS: The 1990s seemed like a great time to be a woman in rock n roll. As a women that lived through it, is that a fair statement?
Yes, it was a blast! In the East Village it was common for bands to have female musicians integrated into bands of mostly guys. Even when we toured in the late 80’s we would play with bands like Babes in Toyland and L7. Unfortunately I never saw other female musicians when we got big in the 90’s because we played with the heavier thrash/metal bands like Pantera, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth and Metallica. On the back of my book (“I’m In The Band”) there is a statement saying something to the effect that I was the only girl in this world we toured in. I got some shit for that, even though I didn’t write it - people were like - “What about Lita Ford and Doro Pesch?” I have HUGE respect for both of those women - but their metal was not the kind of metal we were making or touring with. It was rare to even see a girl in our audience. I lived it, so I know what I’m talking about. That said, 99.9% of these metalhead dudes were unbelievably sweet and respectful towards me. I got the fans vote in Metal magazines for the best bass player two years in a row - not female bass player, but right up there with all of the metal bands. Fans would come up and tell me that me and Cliff Burton were their favorite two bass players. It doesn’t get any better than that.
HSR: Your style has always been really cool and you had a look that was always recognizable. Even you gear was unique looking. What inspirations helped create your personal style?
Growing up in North Carolina and attending the North Carolina School of the Arts since I was twelve, I got to make friends with a lot of older kids from all over the world, who really opened my eyes to so many things. One had a car and there were weekly trips to the thrift stores, and that is where I got the rag-tag look I suppose. I had a best friend there and we were dying our hair jet black with different stripes of color (this was around 1980-82) listening to hardcore and stuff like Bauhaus, and we were obsessed with voodoo. There were train tracks nearby and we would collect bird skeletons to make into necklaces. We would patch up our clothes when they fell apart with crazy patches and different colored embroidery thread. When I got to NYC, there definitely was nobody at school or CBGBs with that look - homemade Southern goth-voodoo, I suppose. Being in art school, I went down to Canal Street where there was various industrial supplies including prism sticker paper. I bought that and covered all of my basses for years with it, along with old truck stop stickers you could still find when you were on the road. It turned into a White Zombie look since Rob and I started the band, and carried on.
HRS: Speaking of your bass gear, what did you primarily use with White Zombie?
Once I got sponsored, I only played on Ampeg SVT’s with the 8x10 cabinets, and I had a deal with Ibanez and played on a few of their Soundgear basses.I really liked those. At some point Schecter approached me to design something, so I drew my dream bass - a coffin. They did a beautiful job, and they still sell them to this day!
HSR: You had grown up practicing ballet and classical piano most of your childhood. How did the transition happen to becoming this amazing rocker chick?
It was not a steady transition. I broke my foot in the 11th grade at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and switched to Visual arts that summer while it healed. By the end of the summer, I switched to Visual Arts on scholarship for the year and then got scholarships to attend Pratt and Parsons, which I did both, one semester each. I stayed on at Parsons and then a hardcore band asked me to play bass for them - no matter that I did not own one or play one before. I got a $50 Global bass and practiced. The band never got it together but now I was in that mindset. I had started sneaking into punk and hardcore shows my last year of high school at the School of the Arts with a fake i.d., and I guess I got the bug to play music. Again. I had not played or written music since I was twelve, as we had so many hours of ballet at the school.
HSR: Being the only girl in the band, did you feel pressure to look a certain way when you did press? Did you feel like people had expectations from you?
I always looked the way I looked - it was no pressure! We weren’t a band to “dress up” for stage - we just had a crazy look that we wore all of the time. I never once thought what people expected of me, we were just too busy doing what we were doing.
HSR: You have said that the band toured for 2 ½ years straight so you didn’t have to pay NYC rent (very smart!). Describe what that was like, living on the road for so long and being somewhat of a gypsy.
At the time - in my 20’s - it was awesome! Looking back on it it seems like a nightmare, it’s pretty funny. But back then just sleeping in the van in the rain at a truck stop was a fun adventure, ya know? And many, many floors. We slept on Babes in Toyland’s floor, Bruce Pavitt’s (SubPop) floor, Steve Albini’s basement concrete floor, much to his chagrin, the Dwarves floor . . . once on Geffen we were doing a little better, sometimes getting a Super 8 hotel room or two to get a shower, but still in a van. Then we slowly graduated to a tour bus, but no hotels - catch a shower where you can, and the bus is packed because you have the entire road crew on there with you and carrying the gear under the bay! It’s not exactly the way you picture rock stars living, and we certainly weren’t stars at that point. But we kept climbing up in travel and accommodations in increments, as our crowds increased over that 2 ½ years, and eventually we got a second bus for the crew.
HSR: Joan Jett was an inspiration to you as well as Poison Ivy from the Cramps. What was it about those two in particular that gravitated you to them?
Two total badasses. Unrivaled! Joan Jett was one of the shows I got to sneak in to while in high school. She just blew me away! Playing - and looking- just like Deedee of the Ramones, badass attitude, awesome band - they looked exactly what the East Village in NYC was about, and they told me that is where they were from. It’s the first place I went for lodging when I got there the next year! Ivy - with the glamour and outrageous outfits, I would never try to emulate her, but they were one of my favorite bands in high school even though I had no idea what they looked like. I just loved the creepy sound coming off of my homemade cassette tape. They played a secret show at CBGBs just three days after I landed in NYC, and I was there. Again - just blown away! The look, the music, and to realize that they had created an entire lifestyle - the whole crowd looked like them and seemingly ate and breathed whatever poisons they ate and breathed and stayed up all night watching old horror movies on a beat up TV. They were all great to look at, but to see another female, so confident and kicking ass in a band was very inspiring!
HSR: When it comes to heavy metal and punk rock, what about the subculture did you relate with?
The rejection of society norms. Why be normal? We were obsessed with B-movies and Bukowski and horror and voodoo and underground artists, in addition to the music we liked - we were extremely integrated into subculture in so many realms.
HSR: Tell me more about your photography. You are shown at galleries all over. What are you hoping people get out of it? What do you get out of it?
I have a number of fans and collectors for my photography, and I think they are getting a sense of decadence, humor, and/ or history out of my work. Or maybe the image just makes them happy and they want it on their wall. For me, I have these visions in my head - sometimes things I have dreamt. I simply feel the need to put them on paper. Sometimes the images are fantastical and very complicated to recreate, so I have a strong feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when I finish a series or even just one photo.
HSR: You have a degree in graphic design from Parson in NYC. Nowadays, I am sure that is all done on the computer. What was graphic design like when you went to school for it?
I loved it. The teachers were amazing, and everything was very hands on. Getting into the darkroom and the muck of the chemicals, silkscreening, hand-cutting everything for design projects . . . I hate working on computers to this day, and I actually do as much as possible at my drafting table before scanning it in to the computer to finish up.
HSR: You also design pillows, scarves and wallpaper. Do you have any other things you would like to design?
Definitely! I have done tiles in the past - I would love my designs on everything - notebooks, purses, shower curtains, you name it!
HSR: What advice would you give a women in the music business that you wish you would have known?
Perhaps to get credit for songs you wrote or co-wrote. I wrote a lot of riffs and entire songs for White Zombie and have had people try to discredit me due to the fact the all songs are written by “White Zombie”. Of course we split everything evenly as we all contributed, and I have no problem with that. That was me and Rob’s idea as we both came from punk rock/ hardcore roots. But since I have been composing involved piano pieces and other work since the age of eight, it is a bit maddening to hear someone reference you as just the bass player or belittle your role in the music.