Hellbound: The Life And Bloody Times Of Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie live, 2010
(Image credit: Getty Images)

People have been dying in this heat. The weather in LA has broken all records: on Tuesday they found Quentin Tarantino’s long-time editor dead yards from a hiking trail. The county sheriff on the local evening news looked perplexed and saddened: hiking in this heat, he said, shaking his head. He was still shrugging as the camera pulled back to reveal the sandy, parched hills behind him.

The perpetual sunshine makes hard work of humping gear. Backstage at the Gibson Amphitheater on the Universal back-lot, an army of crew members have their hands full. Tomorrow night, Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper open their US tour: the Gruesome Twosome (as they’re billed) are going out on the Halloween Hootenanny. The loading bay is backed up with ghouls and spectres and red-faced men in black grappling with impossible-looking cabinets. “What’s that?” asks one, motioning at a bulky monolith. “Aliens, lasers,” another grunts in response. Watching all this unfold is a giant, silver fiend, long hair flowing from a furious-looking skull set on imposing shoulders, its mouth set in a silent scream. Later it’ll come to life onstage as Rob Zombie and his band thunder through Jesus Frankenstein, but for now it’s mute as Rob walks past on his way to soundcheck and touches the hair almost tentatively, gently straightening the unkempt mane.

Moments later the empty arena comes to life as Rob Zombie and his band run through Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, a poncho-clad John 5 does impossible things to his gold Telecaster that he calls Goldilocks, as the gothic horror splendour of Rob Zombie’s stage show comes to life. Up on the multiple screens, Frankenstein’s being hounded down by torch-wielding villagers, the black and white images flickering in and out of life, Joey Jordison sat high on his drum riser dwarfed by his kit and the looming, celluloid man-monster racing past. Rob’s own House Of 1000 Corpses rolls next, bloody victims pinned to tables and wheels, slick gore covering their impassioned, pleading faces, an evil clown looks down and invites you in. Rob barks another order and the band stops and the backdrop blackens and then one word appears, rolling across the screen over and over; ‘Zombie, Zombie, Zombie…’ John 5 hits his guitar and Frankenstein runs free again.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Twenty-four hours later and the Gibson Ampitheater’s in shock; flames lick around the stage, the cavernous arena’s filled with red smoke, it feels like there’s been a fire drill, it smells noxious and unsettling. There’s a disconcerting air to proceedings, it’s like a rally that’s about to turn nasty. The show is grand and grotesque, orange jets of flame reach to the high ceiling, a giant mirror ball dazzles your eyes, lasers reach out across the crowd, explosions are frequent and sudden; they rattle your teeth, there are feathers and confetti, clouds of glistening bubbles, opaque yet with a purple sheen, it’s madness on a giant scale, Rob Zombie at its heart, momentarily still among the carnage he’s wrought and then goading the fevered crowd on, a ringmaster in a bloodied coat, eyes wild, a black, impetuous heart.

“Want some water?” asks the madman. Rob’s standing in the band’s dressing room against tall cabinets filled with long, richly coloured drape coats that look as though they’ve been dragged through the streets. Shoulders are scuffed, cuffs worn, they’re beautifully decayed and distressed, covered in a fine dust; onstage they make the band look like ghosts. Sitting on top of the wardrobe is something that looks like a calliper, a thing that might be used to help brace a withered limb, but then it extends into a skeletal arm and a cruel-looking claw. Anywhere else it would look incongruous, but here in Zombie land it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

You do know that your show won’t fit in any of the venues on your forthcoming UK tour?

Rob: “I don’t care. I want to ship everything over, that’s all we can do. We’re bringing everything and seeing what we can get onstage.”

You rarely compromise, either as a filmmaker or musician. even White Zombie were out of step with the times.

“When we hit, grunge was happening so what I was doing didn’t make any sense at all. White Zombie started in ’85, but it broke big in like ’91 or ’92. When we began I was living in New York and I was just into that underground New York scene; I loved punk rock and I would always be at CBGBs. I liked different worlds: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, but I also loved Van Halen and Alice Cooper. The scene that White Zombie played at that point was that sort of art underground that Sonic Youth were the kings of, while in the real world everyone was listening to Poison. I wasn’t trying to be cool, but hair metal bands literally weren’t on my radar.”

You moved to New York to study.

“I went there when I was 18; graduated high school, boom: moved to New York. I always loved that town; I was always obsessed with the same things and I would look in books and be like, man, the Rocky Horror Picture Show always plays at the 8th Street Playhouse, the Woody Allen movies were there, CBGBs and the Ramones: they were New York, where else would you go but New York?! The movie Taxi Driver… the first thing I did when I moved to New York was to go and visit all the locations in that film and took pictures. It was 1983 so everything was still there, where Harvey Keitel was standing, the porno theatre, where Jodie Foster gets into Travis’s cab, still there, now it’s all gone, but then you could walk right up to it, be part of it.”

You finally headed west, though.

“Yeah, I was in New York for about 10 years and then White Zombie signed to Geffen and their offices were here and I had seen a lot of bands I thought should have been bigger not succeed because they stayed in New York, bands like Circus Of Power, so we moved for the sake of the band.”

All that way for it to end in acrimony…

“Towards the end of White Zombie, certain band-members were like, ‘Why do we have to do this whole show thing…?’ They were walking on stage in their street clothes; it’s note for note what Alice Cooper said happened to his band after Welcome To My Nightmare. It’s amazing how certain people will come from nowhere, get into a band, they’re playing arenas and they’re doing nothing but whine about everything. I’m like, ‘You made more money this year than you’ve made your entire life and all you can do is fucking complain?’ I guess it’s just human nature.”

But it happened again even when you went solo.

“Yeah, until this incarnation, the band never got along that great, so being with a group of people who you don’t get along with and having to tour the world is not fun! Even after White Zombie I missed being in a band: I never wanted to be solo, I’m not sure anyone ever dreams of that, so I would always approach it like a band and it would never turn out the way I wanted. It would for a time, like on Hellbilly Deluxe. It was spectacular, there was a great vibe with everybody, it was just a great moment, and then all the infighting set in and I swear to God, it’s the rare band where success doesn’t come in and make you start hating each other.”

This band seems like a good fit even if your drummer did quit just before the tour. It must be handy having Joey Jordison to call on at short notice?

“Our drummer told us he was quitting right before the tour, that’s true. I was like, ‘Hey, thanks!’ He’s been with us for five years and then he quits with no warning. We called up Joey and asked if he knew anyone and he was like, ‘I’ll do it!’ It was sort of a downtime for his band and he’s been with us ever since. Then the Murderdolls album came out and I thought well, he’s going to do that and he’s like, ‘No, I’ll do that too,’ [they’re opening for Alice and Rob on this tour], so we’ll see if he likes doing two shows a night. On paper a great idea, but let’s see how it translates after a few weeks of shows.”

You mentioned Alice earlier and this is a continuation of the dates you played together earlier this year. do the gruesome twosome have a professional or personal relationship?

“I first met Alice in 1994; they used to do this thing out here, the Concrete Metal Foundations Forum, and one year they were presenting him with an award and they called and said ‘Would you present it?’ and I was happy to, of course, and we’ve stayed friends ever since. We did a song together for the X-Files [Hands Of Death], he came onstage and played with White Zombie once and I went onstage and played with his band and we’ve just had a relationship for the last 16, 17 years and never toured together. We talked about it all the time. To me it seemed really logical, but a lot of the industry types, were like, ‘We don’t know if it’ll work, he’s from that generation, you’re from this generation,’ and I was like, ‘It’ll work perfectly’ because there’s something about this type of music, it seems so timeless and it’s not only people from the 70s like that. It’s the same thing, you go to Ozzfest or whatever and it’s Judas Priest, say; the kids are still young and they get it. It’s been a good mix, I knew it would be.”

There’s a new attraction in the Universal Park for Halloween, The House Of 1000 Corpses: In 3D Zombievision. The hideous Firefly family home from the film of the same name where Dr Satan and two generations of serial killers live has been brought to gruesome life as part of the park’s attractions. Giggling teenagers enter one end and come racing out the other looking ashen and distressed, their bewildered screams filling the air.

This being LA and the first night of the tour, the open-air, backstage bar at the Gibson Amphitheater is a crush of bodies; the guestlist alone numbers 300. Momentarily, the crowd parts and Captain Spaulding, the homicidal clown from The House Of 1000 Corpses, is standing there, drink in hand, a distracted look on his face. Even without his top hat and grinning leer, actor Sid Haig cuts a dynamic, eerie figure. He catches Hammer staring and then, thankfully, the crowd shuffles back into place, but with the unsettling Rob Zombie stage show and the Firefly house waiting to take guests in at the bottom of the hill it makes LA feel cold on one of the hottest days on calendar.

The House Of A 1000 Corpses is back on the Universal lot. You shot the film here.

“If you take the Universal tram-ride, the House Of 1000 Corpses house is actually the Best Little Whorehouse In Texas house: we repainted it to make it look spooky. It’s right by the Jaws ride, which was a pain in the ass because they never shut it off so we could hear it all the time while we were shooting.”

But then they canned it.

“We had a preview, and this was almost 10 years ago now, and I thought it went great; seemed like the audience loved it, but the executives were horrified. They were like, ‘We are not releasing this movie!’ The head of distribution was appalled and so they shelved it and there’s a certain amount of momentum with movies and once that momentum stops it’s trying to get a boulder back in motion. So we shopped it around and everybody turned it down; horror wasn’t happening and nobody gave a shit, it was really weird. We tried one more time with Lionsgate and then they bought it and it did really well for them and then at that point Cabin Fever came out and it just seemed like a new wave of horror movies appeared. But for two years it was a disaster.”

You ended The Devil’s Rejects with Freebird playing pretty much in its entirety as the family faced down the police. you put the soundtracks together yourself, don’t you?

“I discovered music in the early 70s – it was FM radio and then it just played everything; Kiss and then Diana Ross and then they’d play Alice Cooper and then the Allman Brothers, and you took it all in and you weren’t judging it: that’s just how I interpreted music so anytime I put those songs in the movies, those are just songs I love, that’s just the stuff that moves me. It’s real and you see it in [Martin] Scorsese or [Quentin] Tarantino films. You know it’s from the heart when I do it because if you went to a studio and said ‘Here’s the last eight minutes of the movie and it’s all going to play out to Freebird,’ they’d be like, ‘Get out!’”

So you grew up in a musical household?

“I think I grew up in a musical world. Back then, besides the radio being great there was a lot of TV like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Midnight Special, The Tonight Show, just this stuff happening everywhere. That’s why growing up I loved Billy Preston as much as I did Kiss. I notice kids now will be like, ‘Fuck that, it’s not metal!’ Who gives a fuck what anything is? It’s just music. They’re so worried about it.”

You stripped everything back for the very underrated Educated Horses album. People didn’t seem to get you without the gore; do you feel like the Zombie character has sometimes painted you into a corner artistically?

“I think it’s one of my best albums, but people do want the bigger thing; I get that. You want to give people what they want, but I don’t want to be fake about it. The band that was Hellbilly Deluxe and Sinister Urge was gone, and it was all new people and I thought, well, to just get new guys and put them in crazy suits it’ll seem so fake, it’ll be like a Las Vegas act, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just play as a band and build it back up again?’ I think that idea worked, but it freaked out some people, I love that record, but I think people hear what they see and people go, ‘Oh, it was so different.’ And I go, ‘Those are exactly the same type of songs and the same shit we were doing before and after,’ it’s not any different, if we play them in the set they don’t stand out, it’s just that you saw something and you freaked out because it didn’t make any sense to you. Also, a big, big part of that was that I had been off doing music for so long, doing movies, that I’d got so far away from what I’d been doing that I was like, ‘Now I’m supposed to put on make-up and do this crazy shit again?’ It just felt so phoney, it doesn’t now, I’ve fallen back into it in a natural way, but at that point it just felt wrong.”

The Lords Of Salem ended that album and it’s the name of your next movie…

“I grew up in Massachusetts, so you’ve got Salem there so that whole mythology is very present. There were just 20 people accused of witchcraft in Salem, that was all. So it’s based upon that idea that there were more than 20, but some of the 20 were real, put to death and then 300 years later, or so we think, they’re returning to wreak havoc on the descendants of Salem, very simple premise. I was toying with remaking The Blob, but then I changed my mind because after doing the Halloween movies I didn’t want to do what was perceived as another remake. It becomes exhausting in those situations because it feels like you can’t win no matter what you do – it’s too similar, it’s too different – so I wanted to do something that people would walk into and accept it as fresh, whatever it was.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When do you take time off?

“I don’t really have any downtime; I get stir crazy, it drives Sheri [Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife] nuts. She wants me to have downtime until I have it and then she’s like, ‘Oh god, put him to work!’ Right now, the tour will end and I have two months off, but those two months will be spent finishing the script for Lords… and then we go to England and then as soon as that’s done we’ll go right into production on the movie, finish that, go right back out or do a record. I literally haven’t gone on a vacation in five straight years.”

You’ve done pretty well for the weird kid who used to sit at the back of the class.

“I bet no one remembers me from school. I hated it there, I had no interest, I didn’t do anything, I was boring. I was in that dull haze that school brings on. I remember leaving and heading to New York City and attending Parsons School Of Design for like two years and I walked into the dorms and every fucking kid’s a weirdo – I thought I was the only one like that and apparently every school has one and they’re all here together. And that’s when you explode and come alive, you know? ‘You guys like those movies too that no one else ever heard of and these bands too?!’ There are moments now when I’m actually talking to people who were in these movies that you desperately tried to see as a kid – they’re now friends who I talk to all the time, that’s what I find the most satisfying of all. Malcolm McDowell, who I loved, or Alice Cooper or whoever, I remember the first time I saw Clockwork Orange in high school and now, years later, Malcolm would be here for this show, but his daughter just got married so he’s out east, it’s so cool.

“I remember going to [Sir] Christopher Lee’s house – I was working on another movie that never happened, but it would have technically been Crow 3. This was before Lee had had the big resurgence and I had dinner at his house and I’m freaking out all the time I’m there; it’s Dracula! And then I had drinks with Richard O’Brien because I wanted him in the movie and Patricia Quinn who I went to dinner with because I just love the Rocky Horror stuff and it was just incredible and everyone was so cool, but of course the movie never got made, but it would have been great, but those are the moments I cherish, I got there, you know. They let me in…”

Philip Wilding

Philip Wilding is a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, biographer and radio producer. As a young journalist he criss-crossed most of the United States with bands like Motley Crue, Kiss and Poison (think the Almost Famous movie but with more hairspray). More latterly, he’s sat down to chat with bands like the slightly more erudite Manic Street Preachers, Afghan Whigs, Rush and Marillion.