Sean Yseult is my Metal Mother and if you grew up in the 90's, she's probably yours, too. Fame found her when she played in the band White Zombie (which, obviously we geeked the fuck out over), but on top of being a rock Goddess, a road paver for all bad bitches everywhere, and an effortlessly magical yellow-haired bombshell, Sean is a born artist. We talk to her about art books, her long love affair with photography, and being a woman in a male dominated art world. Sean has a solo exhibition on view in NYC art Art on A Gallery through 11/23, don't miss it! All photos by Sean Yseult.
interview: Chelsea Nyegaard
photography: Sean Yseult
CN: Lots of people think that you are either more of an audio or a visual person, while clearly you are both. Do you have a philosophy on transitioning from one art form to another or keeping up with more than one simultaneously?
SY: It’s difficult for me to be creative at both simultaneously. I definitely have months where I am concentrating on visual art, and months where it is just music. I can’t force one or the other to happen though; I have to be inspired by something, see an image or hear a melody in my head that I need to let out. But if I am focused on visuals, as I am right now, I don’t hear any music in my head or have any desire to play an instrument. It’s weird, but I guess it allows me to focus on what I am working on at present.
CN: Is living artfully something that you learned, or something that came naturally to you?
SY: It definitely came naturally to me, but I was lucky to be born in a creative household. My father was a writer and all of our parents’ friends were artists, writers, musicians, sculptors, potters and weavers – so making things and writing music seemed normal. My piano teacher had me performing blue improv on piano in nightclubs by the age of eight!
CN: How did you get into making hand made books?
SY: It is never anything I have wanted to do, but this show I did recently required it. Each panel told a story, and all seven panels together told a story. It was necessary to make the books. I had studied book and paper making back in art school, but was not an expert by any means. I found a friend who had made them more recently and took some notes and did research. It’s not rocket science, but it certainly is a pain in the ass! It was rewarding in the end but I don’t think I would do it again. Of course mine had to include “die-cut” (hand-cut in my case) skull-shaped ball invite inserts, hand-cut keyholes on the cover, hand-torn pages and hand-pressed vellum – it’s making my hands hurt just thinking about it again!
CN: What is your earliest memory of zine culture?
SY: There was a cool zine in my hometown of Raleigh NC called The Blind Boys Gazette. Definitely the first one I ever saw. They would do rude reviews of punk shows like the Dead Boys, in rhymes. And if things didn’t make sense, they would tell you to fuck off because they were blind. Very dada. I was too young to be reading it but it made an impression. There is another zine I still have from a trip to LA in ’83 when I was young and hanging with some punks; it’s called Beyond The Blackout. The Cramps were on the cover and I worshipped them. Then I moved to NYC and our friend Steve Blush opened up See/Hear in the East Village; that was a mecca to zines so we had our pick!
CN: Do you have any advice for female artists who are playing in an all boys club?
SY: Do things because you want to, not to prove yourself to anyone, especially a boy. That is the one thing that strikes me as so wrong, and sad – when people are doing things – especially creative endeavors – to prove something. That should never be the motivation. As long as you are honest to yourself and doing something because you are driven to do it, you love it, you find it rewarding- who cares what anyone thinks? And who cares if you are male, female, both, neither, or whatever? Do your thing.
CN: When did you start taking photographs?
SY: My last year of high school. It was a real turning point for me – up until then I had been at the North Carolina School of the Arts for ballet. I broke my foot in class one day, and the next week I was finishing the summer semester in visual arts. I took immediately to photography and was offered a scholarship to stay in the department. Then my photography got me scholarships to Pratt and Parsons. It all happened quickly.
CN: You shoot erotic female photography, and I heard a rumor that you moonlight DJ at a strip club on Bourbon Street. First, is that true? Secondly, what's your stance on the female form and the media/art world?
SY: First of all, I am not known to dj nor have I ever dj’ed on Bourbon Street or in a strip club, although this vision of me definitely has me intrigued! I have never thought of my photography as erotic, but I do have some nudes in my works, and I love the history and beauty of the Storyville girls in New Orleans, which I tried to recreate in my own vision. For me, the female form is far more interesting and worthy of photographing than the male figure, and as far as media goes – well, advertising is going to do whatever it takes to sell something, as long as they have a willing model. I don’t really mind any of it – art, media- if people find someone/something beautiful or compelling to look at, why not let people look?
CN: I read that you studied ballet and piano before becoming a rock goddess. I love that you take a classical approach to photographing the female form, it's very poetic. Are the two related in any way?
SY: I never thought of it, but now that you bring up my classical training, I do see it n my photography also. I’m sure the two are related, at least in my muddled brain somehow or another. Thank you for saying that!
CN: Do you think fancy equipment and classical training is necessary to creating a solid body of work?
SY: No – only vision, drive and discipline. My favorite works I have ever shot were on Polaroid Land Cameras I found in thrift stores.
CN: Who are your art idols?
SY: Joel Peter Witkins. Gustave Moreau. Rocky Schenk. Gustav Klimt. Marcel Duchamp. Aubrey Beardsley. Andy Warhol. Louviere+Vanessa.
CN: Tell me about your New Orleans.
SY: Graveyards, late night bars, live music, crumbling mansions, amazing food, danger, thick accents, flash floods, decadent parties.
CN: What are the challenges behind being a female artist working on your own versus when you toured with bands and had a team?
SY: It is really refreshing to work on your own when you have always worked in a group. I find it no challenge at all working on my own, and completely rewarding. Whereas in a band everything has to be up for a vote, cut down, approved, or modified. It’s exhausting after so many years. I don’t know about female or male in this situation, I think people would feel the same, either way.
CN: Can you tell us about your book, "I'm In the Band?"
SY: It started off as a scrapbook for myself, after Katrina. It was just me, scanning all of my great photos and ephemera I had saved from those days, because I found them three months after Katrina, still in perfect shape on my 3rd floor but mere feet away from a caved in roof. It seemed important to archive everything. Once friends saw what I was doing, they prodded me to get it out to fans. I suddenly had an agent and then a book deal – which lead to the writing within. It has been a great feeling of satisfaction to hear so many nice comments from fans and critics alike, and also that it is in it’s third printing.
CN: At White Zombie's peak you were a major sex symbol. How did that affect you? What advice do you have for women who are coveted by the boy-world?
SY: I really did not think of myself that way, even at the time. Being in a metal band, 99% of our fans were guys, but most of them were very respectful of me, and would tell me that I was their favorite bass player along with Cliff Burton. If that’s not breaking down sexist walls, I don’t know what is! They would offer me gifts sometimes, usually things they knew I liked – old bootlegs of Black Sabbath, Hot Stuff stickers, Casper patches, Daddy Roth items . . . but rarely did me being a girl come into the equation. Once in Sweden, a horde of gorgeous Viking-looking metal dudes dropped to the ground in front of me and started saying “We’re not worthy!” which really threw me off! I was never “the hot chick” or anything close to popular at any point in my life, and even with fame, most guys treated me in a way I felt comfortable, just like one of them. But to answer your question: if you do end up being coveted by the boy-world, I suppose my advice would be to enjoy it, and be kind and gracious. And humble. But definitely enjoy it!