The four band members are all keeping their lips zipped, lest the merest hint of a smile ruin the faux menace Zombie's crew has working here. And of course, Mr. Zombie himself has his ten-year-old metal-maven look down pat: furrowed eyebrows casting wide shadows across his eyes, pursed lips, unruly black locks, and bushy beard making him a dead ringer for psycho hillbilly Steve Earle circa the smack-addled Hard Way years.
Rob Zombie has worn many hats on that shaggy head. At various times, he has been a bike messenger, a porn-mag art director, and a Pee-wee's Playhouse production assistant. Now, in addition to being a musician, he's a filmmaker; his independent horror flick awaits release. But Zombie refuses to lump his on-stage persona in with his other jobs. With a drop-dead serious tone, he would have this writer believe that his grim game face is far from fictional. Really.
"Well," he concedes, "it's kind of more like a hyped-up version of my normal self. I kind of relate it to being a football player. Football players have a certain kind of personality that comes out in a more intense way in front of 15,000 fans."
True enough -- though it helps to have a scary name to market your alter ego. Robert Cummings gave way to Rob Zombie circa 1987, when his then-two-year-old hardcore band, White Zombie, started making a name for itself in New York before its much-hyped 1992 major-label debut, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1. (Despite the fact that his birth name is no huge secret around the industry, Zombie doesn't divulge it in interviews, presumably hoping the reference won't be made.)
White Zombie was the result of every value that its evil inventor held dear: hard-rock music, cut-rate horror flicks, and hardcore porn. Naturally, 13-year-old boys coast to coast were instantly addicted. In fact, many of them first got acquainted with Zombie through Beavis and Butt-head's ardent admiration of him. As those two paragons of early adolescence recognized, Zombie has always seen the big picture better than others of his ilk: He designed the band's spooky look, the creepy album art, the macabre stage productions and videos. Go see a Zombie show and you'll find a hormone-addled audience reveling in the spectacle of sci-fi creatures, scantily clad Xena-esque warrior princesses, and sweltering guitar firestorms.
Clearly, Zombie has always had the visual part nailed. Now, with the release of The Sinister Urge, he's staked his claim to being the best this niche has to offer musically, at least until Axl Rose balances his uppers and downers well enough to regain something close to coherence. Rather than try to attract fresh souls to his devilish rock cloister, his latest release will appeal mainly to his existing fan base. In other words, it's the rock-metal meld we expect, only turned up a notch and morphed in a couple of new directions, with a string section, turntable scratches, and a slew of Zombie's fave horror-movie sound effects.
Zombie is no longer drawing on any kind of inner demons to purge his soul on paper. Check out the opening lyrics to "Dead Girl Superstar," one of the new album's pile drivers, which features a blistering, old-school solo from Slayer guitarist Kerry King: "Well, she threw downtown on a gambling green and fenced a chicken dog in a movie; a long-haired baby got a record machine like a hacksaw falling on me." Though the song might conjure visions of Marc Bolan's trippy lyrics in "Bang a Gong," Zombie says he is now most concerned with word flow and rhythm when penning his raunchy tunes. His monotone, growling delivery is designed to make the lyrics work more like another instrumental track, so the words, albeit disposable in some cases, become part of the song's production value rather than a classic-rock anthem. Sprinkled liberally throughout is Zombie's unique use of the word "yeah," a trademark vocal trick that dates back several albums and is used to both begin and end phrases, to propel the song along, and to slur the spacing between thoughts.
It's a little surprising when Zombie says his biggest influence is the Ramones, but then it starts to make sense. This was a band that took a persona, milked it for all it was worth, and never fell into the trap of taking itself too seriously. Joey Ramone's recent death affected Zombie just as much as the murder of John Lennon affected legions of hippies. "You'd always think that a band like [the Ramones] would get together one more time, so you feel like something is taken away," he says. "I still consider them the greatest American rock band." Zombie is delighted to point out that he's working as coproducer of a planned Ramones tribute album, which he hopes will be released on the first anniversary of Joey's death. His band will perform "Blitzkrieg Bop" for the project.
Asked whether he thinks that 20 years from now, his music will be considered ahead of its time or mere forgotten rock fodder, Zombie chuckles down the phone line. "I'm not worried at all about criticism," he says. "When I first started with White Zombie, we got terrible reviews all the time, and now some of those same people are looking back on that stuff as classic. Alternative Press gave us like the worst review for the first Geffen record, saying it was the worst band ever. That really didn't hurt, because if I saw something like that, I'd be thinking, 'God, I have to hear that for myself.' I think the worst thing of all is if somebody has a wishy-washy view of your music."
What Zombie is anxious about, though, is what the public will think of his horror flick, House of 1,000 Corpses, which is teased on the new album. He wrote the script two years ago and finished the film in early 2001 but ultimately had to buy it back from Universal after it was shelved upon receiving an NC-17 rating. He has since trimmed a few of the gorier bits and is hoping for an R rating and release. Zombie likens his cinematic work to such low-budget 1970s horror films as David Cronenberg's Shivers, in which parasites transform normal humans into sex maniacs.
While one would think such a movie may not be a good fit for these uneasy times, Zombie begs to differ. "After September 11, I think people are thinking about things differently," he says. "It's not like [the terrorists] were watching The Matrix and decided to blow us up. People have real issues to deal with now instead of pointing fingers at some horror movie that's supposedly responsible for all the violence out there."