Interview with Rob Zombie: In The Sequel, Mayhem Ensues

Few icons in hard rock and heavy metal have found success in both music and film. While maintaining a characteristic B-horror movie influence throughout his body of work, Rob Zombie’s auteur approach to both sight and sound arguably has no antecedent in the present day entertainment business.

But he still has trouble.

After a falling out with Geffen Records, his label of about 20 years, for the “sequel” to his best known solo release, Hellbilly Deluxe, Zombie took his industrial and dance-influenced metal to Roadrunner Records. It’s largely a continuation of the well-producing yet sleazy-sounding good time horror-themed hard rock that fans have come to expect from Zombie, but with a decade or so of time to let it become new again.

Zombie talks about the record, the ever-frustrating relationship between heavy metal and record labels, and the joy it was touring with one of his musical heroes, Alice Cooper.

What’s the presentation going to be for Mayhem Fest?

It is the larger version of what we did with Alice Cooper. That was already big but this is huge. We have a lot of new gags, a lot of new everything. It is by far the most elaborate production I have taken out in a long time.

I remember when you headlined second stage Ozzfest, it was completely stripped down.

That was the only time I ever did that. That was a novelty. If you’re always playing with a huge show, playing with nothing becomes sort of fun on its own, but that was a one-time event.

You kind of strayed away from a big horror movie visual for Educated Horses. Why did you return to the horror movie influence and what was the inspiration for the visual aesthetic of Hellbilly Deluxe 2?

The inspiration is always the same, even for Educated Horses. Visually, the record was very stripped down, as was the band at that time. There’s sort of a reasoning behind it all that’s kind of a long story, but at that point I had stopped doing music for a bunch of years because I was doing movies. When I jumped back into doing music, I was reforming a new band and getting new people, for me, I sort of wanted to build it back up, not just jump back in and try to achieve the same thing with different people. It just felt phoney. I built it back up from scratch, [so] the image, the vibe, everything was stripped down.

But the influences were sort of the same; the material, the songs on Educated Horses, we play them in the show now and they just fit right in. They’re not that different. The way I always did things was sort of with the horror show vibe, but I wanted to find a new way to present it. It’s that tricky balance of: if you keep doing the same thing, people get bored with it; if you change it, people are pissed that you changed it. I just wanted to get away from it long enough so that when I returned to it, I basically had a fresh perspective on it. I never like doing things that seem like a Las Vegas show—rolling it out in the same fashion.

Why Hellbilly Deluxe 2 and not La Sexorcisto Vol. 2?

I guess it just kind of came to my mind. Right around the time I made the record, it was ten years since I made the first one, and I knew this record would be sort of a return to what I was doing back then. So it all sort of made sense.

You joined Korn and a bunch of other bands boycotting BP gasoline on this upcoming tour. How much is your gas bill for an average U.S. tour?

On this bill, it would actually be pretty high. It all depends on your production, and on this tour we have a lot of trucks and a lot of buses. How much it would actually be, I can’t say. I’d have to do the mileage. But it would be expensive. (laughs).

I think you were Geffen’s longest signed artist—is that right—before you had left that label?

That’s what I was told. I believe so, I guess. If I’m not the longest one, I’ve got to be one of them. When I got signed to Geffen, I can’t think of any act that’s still on Geffen that was there when I signed. When I signed, it was like Cher, Peter Gabriel, Whitesnake, Nirvana. Nirvana came up same time as us. It was that changing of the grunge wave of stuff coming in. Maybe Guns N’ Roses? Guns N’ Roses were there but I don’t even know if Guns N’ Roses are on Geffen. I don’t know if I was the last remaining one but it was definitely down to the wire.

Have things deteriorated so much for major labels, to the point where they can’t properly promote an act like you? It seems that there was a real disconnect through putting out Hellbilly Deluxe 2 through Geffen.

There’s always been a huge disconnect with hard rock music and record labels anyway. Even back then with White Zombie, even when you’re selling millions and millions of records, you’re still getting treated as if, ‘Yeah, but that’s whatever.’ You’re still the dirty little secret of the label, and you still see them funneling all their promotion [elsewhere].

It was so frustrating at the time back with White Zombie, our record was on fire, it sold three million copies, [we were] selling out arenas, and you would still see Geffen pay no attention to us and focus all their energy on the commercial alternative act that would go and sell ten thousand records. And it would drive us crazy.

The Grammys kind of encapsulate the way labels treat hard rock acts. If you’re the heavy metal record that wins the Grammy, that thing could have sold ten million copies, they’ll still present you that award off camera. Yet, some spoken word record or instrumental polka album that sold maybe 1500 copies, they’ll get that one on camera. That’s just the way it is and the way it’ll always be.

It’s funny, you would assume hip-hop would be relegated to that same kind of treatment, especially considering hip-hop came out after heavy metal/hard rock.

I think hip-hop gets treated a little better because you get these nerdy record executives trying to seem all cool. ‘I’m down with Jay-Z!’ They want to be cool, so they pretend to be a part of it. Everyone’s happy to not understand the metal acts (laughs). I don’t give a shit. It’s not why you do it anyway. It doesn’t fucking matter to me. I don’t care.

You’re basically your own little media company between all your music and film work and comics and all the rest of it. Why didn’t you just release Hellbilly Deluxe 2 independently?

Well, I couldn’t. Hellbilly Deluxe 2 was contractually owed to Geffen Records. I had taken Geffen’s money and made the record. Contractually, I owed them that record, but then, it became very clear to me as we were getting prepared for the release of the record, I go, ‘They don’t give a shit.’ Anyone I knew that worked at that label had long left the label. It was a different label.

When I signed to Geffen—it’s hard to believe—it was the premiere hard rock label to get on. ‘Get on to Geffen!’ Maybe with the next record I could do that, but I didn’t have the infrastructure to suddenly go, ‘I’m going to release it!’ and do what? I don’t have a record label, I don’t have a situation to do that. That’s why the best choice, the best idea we could think of, was getting Geffen to move us to a label that we thought would get it.

We could try to do something completely different next time, but this time we were sort of caught up. We already had one foot inside the machine, couldn’t really get it out yet.

I think you’ve already stated that you would probably just go digital with your next release; or rather, you don’t see the point of doing physical albums anymore.

I like physical records better. I always want to make ‘em. I want to keep making CDs and stuff as long as the plants stay open to manufacture them, even though that doesn’t seem like very long. It really feels like you’re trying to sell a product that nobody wants anymore. They want the music; they just don’t want a CD. Some people do. But for the most part, every month and every year that goes by, it really feels like you’re trying to sell something that is a dinosaur.

Longer term, projects like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the remake of The Blob. Are these planned for after Mayhem?

No, I have more touring after Mayhem. I’ll probably do another tour in the fall and more stuff. I still have yet to get back over to Europe, so I’ll do that in the winter. I probably won’t start a movie until 2011, and I’m really not sure yet what that is. I haven’t worked that out.

The movie business is also having its own kind of trouble.

The entertainment business, let’s just say, is constantly in flux and it’s a moving target. It’s kind of depressing sometimes—I was talking to my manager about this—you feel like, the record business; here’s the business that I’ve been doing for 25 years and he’s been doing for 40 years, and overnight it seems like it’s just gone. Or it’s so far removed from what it was, you’re like, ‘What is this business?’ It’s strange. And the movies are the same way.

Now box office numbers look good because everything’s 3D and everything’s an inflated ticket price and everything’s this or that. But those are just mega-blockbusters. That business is getting weird too. You’re getting the same sort of thing you got in the record business.

It’s all turned into the same thing where you’re going to have mega blockbusters and tiny, tiny indie movies and nothing in between. Just like you had mega bands selling out stadiums and you have little club bands. And the problem is everything I do exists in the middle (laughs). That’s where it’s always landed. That’s why it’s always such a struggle for me. You’re always sort of fighting the trend of the business.

You definitely have your own niche. Your comic seems to have done really well. You seem to have a hell of a lot of merch; didn’t you basically make all your own clothes in the White Zombie days? Has anybody wanted you to start a fashion line of Rob Zombie-related stuff?

Not really. I see people doing a lot of clothes that are basically rip-offs of stuff that I was doing back then. They’ll even tell me it is. The way I feel about stuff is you really can’t do anything unless it’s really something you’re passionate about. Everyone thinks that ‘Oh, now I’ve got a name, I can start my own record label, I can start my own clothing company.’

And some people can do it; maybe it works for them. For me, I know it’s not going to work, because if I don’t have the passion to put in the time and the energy, where’s it going to go? The things that I put the time and energy into was music and then became movies. I’ve always figured that I can make these things work because I can put as much time and energy into it as I need.

How was the tour with Alice Cooper; I can’t imagine you get very starstruck these days, but was that a personal landmark for you?

Yeah, it totally was. Besides just being a blast. It was probably the most fun I had on tour, which is saying something. It was great, for that reason. I’ve never gotten to tour with anyone who was a significant musical figure to me growing up, so to do that was awesome.

That had never happened before, even Ozzfest?

No. When I was a kid, Alice Cooper was the guy. Other stuff came later that I enjoyed but it wasn’t significant or life-altering in some way, like the first time you saw it you go ‘Oh my god, this has changed the way I thought about music.’ The things that were sort of like that were Alice Cooper, Elton John, KISS, just weird things, I don’t know how I would see them or find them.

It was awesome to be there, and there he is playing every night with you, playing those songs that you can’t ever remember a time in your life where you weren’t hearing those songs. But I could see how Alice did a show where he opened for the Stones and it’s probably the way he felt about playing with the Stones. I dunno.

Do you get that a lot from bands that you’re playing with now? How stoked they are to be playing with you?

Sometimes, yeah. It’s cool. It’s just the circle of how things go. So many of the people that I loved when I was a kid are not around or not touring and I’ll probably never get the opportunity to play with that it’s great when you can. One time White Zombie played a show in Brazil and Page/Plant were on the show, and they closed the night, and that was amazing, you know. You stand on the side of the stage and there’s Page/Plant on the stage with a huge orchestra doing ‘Kashmir’ and you’re like, ‘Fuck. Yeah.’

Rob Zombie performs at Mayhem Festival on July 23 at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, NJ, and July 28 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ.