I actually don’t honestly remember how or when J. Yuenger and I officially became “internet friends,” but I believe it had something to do with our mutual appreciation of a richly curated Tumblr called This Isn’t Happiness (which -– to my mind -– represents the very best that particular social networking site has to offer). I believe it was from a strange overlap there that we started following each other’s blogs (his being the excellent image-driven J.Yuenger) and we were off and running.
If you’re not a rock geek, you may not instantly know his name, but unless you’re maybe my mom, you’ve probably heard his music. Put simply, J. Yuenger played guitar for the highest profile incarnation of White Zombie, a band I’ve spoken about here on several occasions (most recently here, in a post that inadvertently kicked off my feverish odyssey to pinpoint the location of that Lunachicks photo). If you were standing within proximity of a television tuned to MTV during the mid-to-late `90s, you doubtlessly saw his dreadlocked head banging in time with that band’s endearingly bottom-heavy sturm und drang on such inescapable hits as “Thunderkiss `65” and -- WAIT FOR IT -- “More Human Than Human.” In fact, fuck it – let’s go there now…
Incidentally, I don’t care how canonical or popular or populist or “so `90s” or not-indie-enough or however you might consider it, that’s still a goddamn excellent song. Feel free to disagree, but you’re just fuckin’ wrong. Also, how many rock songs with esoteric, titular allusions to “Blade Runner” can you actually name? For that alone it’s fucking great. Shut up. You’re wrong.
In any case, J. Yuenger is the other dude with dreadlocks in that clip (i.e. the one providing that vicious slide-guitar and slabs of molten power-chordage alongside the rumbling low end of bassist Sean Yseult). “More Human Than Human” was one of those songs that, like, say, “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC from a decade earlier, managed to escape the parameters of its genre’s demographic and infiltrate the listening habits of the layperson. As a result, it no longer belonged exclusively to the leather, flannel-&-wallet-chain set, but rather to the zeitgeist of its era. You could just as easily hear it being croaked drunkenly at a bachelorette karaoke party as blasting out of a passing, pointedly muffler-less Dodge Charger. White Zombie, as a result, were suddenly EVERYWHERE. They even played it on Letterman.
`Twas not to last, of course. The band split shortly after that, with lead singer Rob Cummings/Straker/Zombie pursuing a solo career with a increasingly profitable sideline in moviemaking. Yseult and Yuenger went off to other things as well.
But for those same laypeople who’d lazily lump White Zombie in with all things metal, the truth of the matter is a very different story, one that Yuenger has taken great pains to tell in the last couple of years via the brand, spankin’ new Numero Group box set, It Came from N.Y.C. Here, once again, is a taster…
It should be noted that the book that accompanies the music is a lovingly detailed account of the band’s unconventional trek to stardom, and an amazing document of a time and a place that is well worth investigating, even if you’re not a punk or a metal head or rock geek of one colorful description or another.
FLAMING PABLUM: You just finished a mammoth project of putting together a richly cultivated box set that deeply delves into the surprising backstory of White Zombie, It Came from N.Y.C. How did that all come about? Was there an impulse to set the record straight on the band, to your mind?
J: Yeah, absolutely. Here’s what the history looks like to most people : band magically appears, song is constantly on radio and in every movie preview, band plays arenas, band vanishes. We are not usually included in the history of heavy metal, because we were not strictly a metal band. We aren’t part of grunge, or 90s alternative. We pre-dated nu-metal. Well, I guess we had a hand in creating nu-metal. Sorry about that.
We’ve always wanted to tell the White Zombie story, from the beginning to the end, but the real catalyst was probably the CD box set, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which came out in 2008. It’s a slapdash, shitty thing, devoid of text, neither Sean nor I were consulted about any part of it, and we were both deeply, deeply disappointed in it (it got worse when I was doing research for It Came From NYC and I found that some of the audio on the CD box was compromised).
The opportunity to make something richly visual was really exciting for us, as was being able to present the music in such a way that, if you travel down the timeline from Gods On Voodoo Moon to "Thunderkiss ’65," as different as those things are, the trip makes sense.
Was Rob Cummings/Straker/Zombie involved in the project in any capacity?
Only in that he was interviewed for the book.
If my math is right, you were the fourth (?) guitarist to infiltrate the ranks of the band. When you first joined, were you still playing alongside the noise-rock set like Rat at Rat R, Pussy Galore, Live Skull and Dig Dat Hole, or had the band headed towards a more definitively metal direction?
I was the fifth guitarist.
These were the people who were around, in the neighborhood, and once I was in the band I began meeting members of Pussy Galore, Cop Shoot Cop, Rat At Rat R, because Sean and Rob knew them. Now I was in the position of saying hello to members of Sonic Youth, at gigs or when I saw them in the subway, which was exciting. But WZ had been moving towards being a metal band for a while before I joined, and I don’t remember playing with any L.E.S. art-noise groups. (names are coming back to me now : Band Of Susans, Surgery, Reverb Motherfuckers, Honeymoon Killers.. etc.)
In Manhattan, we played with bands who were metal-ish, but with an art-school sensibility, like Raging Slab, Blitzspeer, Lunachicks, Prong — and we started opening for major-label groups. Danzig, Slayer. Then, all of a sudden, we were playing with Biohazard and Suicidal Tendencies out at L’amour in Brooklyn - which in hindsight seems insane. We didn’t get booed; we sold t-shirts. To Brooklyn skinheads.
CBGB. The place had a weird layout, acoustically, but by the time I got there (my first time was with my teen punk band in 1984, opening for Flipper, and the second time was in 1989 with WZ, a few weeks after I joined), they’d been putting on 5 bands a night, every night, for years and years, and the sound was absolutely dialed-in. Every band sounded good and loud in the house, and the fat monitor sound onstage made you feel like you were really playing well.
Anecdote. The very first time I walked into the club, there was a gang of fearsome-looking skinheads, smoking a joint and listening to a demo tape over the CBGB sound system. We had heard a lot about how violent NY skins were, how they were ruining The Scene for everyone, and we cowered in a corner, waiting to put our stuff on stage. The music sounded great to me, though; raging hardcore with a metal edge. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over to the smallest skinhead, a menacing-looking kid in a crombie, and asked him what we were hearing. The kid, who I would come to know years later as Harley Flanagan, broke character, looked delighted, and said, “The Cro-Mags!”
I gather the living conditions during your NYC tenure while in the band were pretty squalid. What are you own recollections of life on the Lower East Side during that era? Decades later, what do you think the biggest misconception is about the downtown NYC of that period?
Conditions were pretty squalid. Rob and Sean were living in an illegal basement plywood-walled apartment when I met them, and I was basically homeless for the first year I was in the band. The area was starting to gentrify, which meant that rents were high while the streets were still completely chaotic. Violence could erupt at any moment, and the cops couldn’t do anything about anything. There was a heroin supermarket at 2nd and A with a long line of people in front of it. This was after a lot of mental health facilities had been shut down, and there were crazy people everywhere, pissing on everything and screaming.
A lot of my L.E.S. misadventures happened while I was delivering pizzas there. The first time I got robbed was in an Avenue D project hallway, where I was pushed me to my knees and a knife was held against my throat. They got my tips, but not my bank, which I’d stuffed into my sock. The second time, somewhere across Houston, Ludlow Street maybe, there was a gun in my face. It was a revolver, and when you see one of those from the front, you can tell if it’s loaded or not. I looked at the bullets in the cylinder and gave up all my money.
As for misconceptions, I think when people picture New Yorkers, they think of, like, two fat Italian guys yelling at each other. Throughout my time in NY, people were usually surprisingly friendly. The city’s very different today, of course, but New Yorkers, to me, still have a kind of humanity that is sometimes lacking in people in other cities.
Well, the main thing would be New York itself. I am peripatetic by nature; when I’m done with a place, I move on. That said, when Sean first had the idea of moving the band to L.A., I was very, very resistant. It later turned out that she was 100% right, but NYC is the only place I’ve ever lived where I thought I would stay forever. And, of course, the pre-Giuliani city I’m talking about is a place none of us can ever visit again.
I guess I miss the idea of NYC as the center of the universe. The city was a beacon even in my earliest awareness of the world. Sesame Street is clearly New York. I looked at the publishing info in comic books, Marvel and DC. New York is where comics come from. Later, when I had some records of my own, I looked at the back covers - New York is where music comes from. The first left-of-the-dial sounds I heard, Blondie, Ramones, The Cramps, New York. Movies, from "Shaft" to "The Warriors," "Basket Case" to "C.H.U.D.," New York. When I finally got there, there were coolest people, and the biggest freaks, and everyone was doing things. There were records and t-shirts and stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. Yes, now that every store sells things that you can easily get online, I have to say that I miss the shopping.
I miss an afternoon with the windows open, sun streaming in, listening to your favorite NY music, choose your poison, Lou Reed, Monk, Tribe Called Quest. Knowing that the artists have most certainly walked down the street where you are, because you are where everything is happening. That’s a feeling I can’t really describe.
When the band went major, the band decamped to sunny California. Did you ever return to New York City after the band imploded? Have you been back since?
Sure, lots of times, though I’m there less so now that a lot of the music industry has moved itself to Nashville. The last time was for a wedding in Brooklyn, and I never even went into Manhattan. Everything is sodifferent now that visiting is kind of disturbing for me, and the people I know who still live there are forever talking about the latest tragic shuttering of a place we used to go.
What are you up to these days?
I worked a lot in 2015, on the WZ box set and on a bunch of other records for various labels, and then I moved to Spain at the end of the year. I’m taking some time off, but the turnaround time for vinyl is really long (and getting longer), so stuff has been coming out throughout 2016. Two of those records that I’m very proud of are the soundtracks/scores to "The Warriors" and "Taxi Driver," both of which I mastered for Waxwork Records.
Having cut your teeth in the hardcore age, do you think the looming new administration (be it Clinton or :::shudder::: Trump) might at least inspire a new age of suitably angry protest music?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the next battle-cry will be a song. This will probably sound very “kids these days..”, but young people just don’t place music at the center of everything the way people my age (there are a lot of different metrics, but I guess you could say I’m a senior member of Generation X) did, or, especially, how the Baby Boomers did. Music is more like a single arrow in the Millennial quiver, so to speak.
I hope I’m wrong, though. If Americans, who are supposed to be so angry about everything, finally do take to the streets, perhaps some of them will start singing.
I'd really like to thank J. for his time and enthusiasm. If you haven't already, you really need to check out It Came from N.Y.C. Find it here.