State-of-the-Art Ghouls

In its own special way, White Zombie is the perfect state-of-the-art rock band for the '90s, priding itself on its ability to fit in anywhere, penetrate any scene, appeal to any crowd. Made up of three scrungy guys and one sex-symbol-by-default girl, the group is harder than Slayer, faster than Pantera, scarier than Danzig, better dressed than Ministry, louder than God and -- though they don't often get credit for it -- funnier than Pavement.

In the early days, White Zombie looked for all the world like contemporaries of the New York City art-punk band Pussy Galore. But after a few roster changes, the group started plying a harder sound at metal clubs in Brooklyn as an opening act for Slayer. The band spent almost three years on tour pushing its debut, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (it finally went double platinum), managing, in the process, to build up a following among both metal-heads and passionate punks alike. On the road, White Zombie made it a point to play parts of the country rarely visited by traveling acts. One tour took the band to Bismarck, North Dakota, where television crews turned out to cover the city's first touring rock show in five years. Ramming home its dual appeal to overseas audiences, the group played a show in England with Slayer and Metallica one day and joined a concert lineup with Neil Young, Buffalo Tom and Babes in Toyland the next. Most recently, White Zombie trekked to Brazil, where they performed for an estimated 60,000 fans with Supergrass, Smashing Pumpkins and the Cure.

This is a band that likes to get along. Now, if only everyone wanted to cooperate. Johnson City, Tennessee, would have preferred to tell the band to go to hell, but that language may be too un-Christian for residents of such a God-fearing town. According to Geffen and MTV News, a concerned Johnson City citizen spoke up at a city commission meeting, citing White Zombie lyrics she considered to be really nasty and evil. Then Baptist minister Don Strother mounted a crusade to have a February 4 White Zombie concert banned. The whole thing sounded suspiciously like the smash-your-records sentiments found in the 1958 newsletters for the Minneapolis Catholic Youth Center. And it was, of course, terrific PR for the band.

To make a long story short, the city fathers canceled their contract with White Zombie, the concert was moved 20 miles to a nearby town and the protesters failed to arrive in number. It seems that they were overwhelmed by the tons of kids who were there -- as they've always been -- to see a kick-ass rock concert.

It's a long line through rock history from Screamin' Jay Hawkins -- who used to be carried off-stage after his set in a flaming coffin -- to White Zombie. But it's more or less a straight one, and you'd think the anti-rock crusaders who have followed the genre since Bill Haley and the Comets contributed "Rock Around the Clock" to The Blackboard Jungle soundtrack would get over it, or something. But apparently there's still something in rock -- in White Zombie's rock, anyway -- capable of scaring the bejesus out of people who are lucky enough to have nothing more frightening to fear than a rock band.

Still, that fear is always good news for rock. And White Zombie guitarist Jay "J." Yuenger knows why it works, because Yuenger -- like drummer John Tempesta, bassist Sean Yseult and singer Zombie -- is an entertainer.

"When people my age were kids, they were going to see Kiss," says Yuenger. "Here are these four outer-space creatures on-stage with explosions and big sets that did stuff, and that's a lot more fun to me than watching a couple of short-haired guys on-stage looking at their shoes and mumbling. I don't really subscribe to the whole alternative aesthetic that less is more. This is rock music entertainment. More is more.

"We've always had the attitude that there are a lot of different things that are really good, and why can't you combine them? Why can't you have some of the psychotic sound of the Butthole Surfers and some of the weird outlook of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and some of the power of Metallica and some of the energy of the Bad Brains? Why couldn't you have it all at once? That's really what this band tries to do."

The more White Zombie delivers, it seems, the more its fan base grows, thanks to the band's constant road work, the critical imprimatur of Beavis and Butt-head, the endorsement of MTV and the 1995 CD Astro-Creep: 2000, which spawned the razor-slide-riffing radio hit, "More Human than Human." There's a lot of what the overly literal sort might choose to see as invocations to Satan and subliminal instructions on how to disembowel the neighbor family's dog with a blood-consecrated fork on Astro-Creep. Stuff such as "He cut through the bone, he cut through the wire / Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm already dead" and "Strip down core violate and paralyze / Flood my soul a coffee dreg -- supersize / Slung low like a whore -- yeah / Devil want some more -- yeah / Cupid bought a gun -- he gonna blow the fucker." It's all really just dark-side mojo of the sort that Stephen King urges children to interpret from public-service literacy posters, or of the sort that's canonized in movies such as The Omen.

For the life of him, Yuenger can't figure out how people draw the line between art and sin -- why some see White Zombie as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and yet are able to make more sophisticated appraisals of other forms of expression. "I don't understand why the whole focus of the band has to be either [that] it's totally serious -- they're Satanic and they sign contracts in blood -- or [that] it's a big joke, like Gwar. It's neither. I wish people would view it like a horror movie. Can't you look at it as the same thing as a scary book? It's about something scary; it's not a joke, but it's not serious."

Maybe the reason people have trouble connecting White Zombie to its literary or filmic cousins is because you rarely have thousands of hormone-addled kids rumbling in the same room for Stephen King or Halloween's hockey-masked murderer Michael Myers. In fact, so many kids are showing up now that Yuenger says he can't even identify the band's core audience now.

"There isn't one anymore, really. I mean once you get at a certain level of popularity, it just starts being regular kids," he says. "If you look at musical subcultures, there's definitely a good cross section. You have a Nine Inch Nails kid in black lipstick next to a skater-type kid in a Beastie Boys T-shirt next to a metal kid in a Slayer shirt.

"It definitely seems to cross some boundaries. Not that that kind of boundary is so firmly drawn anymore. Nowadays, people have access to everything, so they tend to like everything."

That, come to think of it, sounds a little like a consumerist gloss on what critic/musician Robert Palmer recalls of rock and roll's early years, when the state of the art leapfrogged almost daily. Palmer writes, in Rock and Roll: An Unruly History, of "what a contemporary music critic might call the astonishing eclecticism of our musical offering. There we were, stirring Dixieland and surf music, rockabilly and R&B, pseudojazz and honky-tonk country and western into a big gumbo. We had no idea we were breaking down barriers and cross-fertilizing genres. In those days, the definitions are not so firmly fixed."

These days, of course, the definitions are firmly fixed, at the encouragement of sales departments and record stores and radio stations and journalists. And it's T-shirts, not musical style, that draw the lines of allegiance. That's because the early days of rock and roll are a long time gone; we've taken it seriously, though we ought to know better by now. All this self-awareness contributes to the making of White Zombie.

"If anything, it brings back some of the outlaw aspect of music," says Yuenger, summing up the whole Johnson City debacle. "And I can't think of any way that that's bad."

White Zombie performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 18, at The Summit. Tickets are $22.50 and $25. Filter and Wicker Man open. For info, call 629-3700.

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Brad Tyer