Big Kid Dreaming: A Conversation with Rob Zombie, Part 1

This is the first part of an interview with Rob Zombie from 2013, some of which was used in these pages originally. It’s also included in my book ‘More Songwriters On Songwriting,’ which also includes an interview with his musical mentor Alice Cooper.

Rob Zombie at the Roxy. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

“Doing anything interesting seemed impossible,” he said with a smile about his formative years. Sure, he loved the idea of making music and making movies. But it didn’t seem real. “I was just a little kid dreaming of things.”

Now he’s a big kid dreaming of things. Things of horror, often, and things that rock. He followed in the famed footsteps of his friend and hero Alice Cooper to not only make his own kind of horror rock but to invent his own kind of horror rock star. To become the song and then to sing it. And Rob Zombie was born.

Before that happened, though, he was Robert Bartleh Cummings, born on January 12, 1965, the same day that TV’s Hullabaloo premiered, merging pop music with TV. Those became his favorite things, music and TV, growing up. The TV wasn’t for kid’s stuff though; it was for the old movies. That’s where he lived.

His childhood was set on the banks of the Merrimack River in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the same hometown of many of the accused Salem witches. It’s a haunted place, and with a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath mostly at first. When Alice Cooper and KISS got stirred into this mix, the vision of Rob Zombie started coming into focus.

He formed his band White Zombie in the mid-1980s. In 1998 he went solo and made Hellbilly Deluxe, which included some of his biggest and most beloved songs: “Living Dead Girl,” “Dragula,” and “Superbeast.” He’s since done five more albums, including Educated Horses (2006), Hellbilly Deluxe 2 (2010), and, most recently, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor (2013).

He’s created a creative empire, from which not only music springs but also movies. He also has a monumental parallel career as a director, writer, and producer of films in the horror genre, including House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), and The Lords of Salem (2013).

In concert he puts on a ferocious show in every way: sonically, visually, and even texturally. He’s assembled one of the great live bands currently touring around, starring the astounding John 5 on guitar as well as Piggy D. on bass and Ginger Fish on drums.

Admittedly, since knowing only the roaring incendiary character he plays onstage, a character always cloaked in darkness and blood scarlet, and would be the movies he’s made, I was worried maybe be scary in some way.

But he wasn’t at all. The man’s a musician and an artist. From the first question on – discussing the deep grooves which are the foundation of his songs – we spoke of the creation of his songs, his records, and of Rob Zombie.

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: I so love the grooves of your music. When you do “Living Dead Girl” live, for example, that groove is undeniable

ROB ZOMBIE: Yeah, I like grooves. All the music I grew up with  grooves. Like Led Zeppelin is like the fucking grooviest band in the world. Somehow groove left hard rock after a while. But in the seventies all that shit really grooved, and it stuck with me.

Once when asked about your influences, you said only Alice Cooper. But I knew there had to be others.

It’s everything from the Seventies. I loved Elton John, Alice Cooper, KISS, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath—everything. That was when I was pretty young. And as I became a teenager I started discovering The Ramones and the Dead Kennedys. So it’s always been a mixture of arena rock and punk rock, in a way.

You also once mentioned your other heroes growing up, and you named Steven Spielberg, Bela Lugosi, and Stan Lee. Back then were you thinking of this kind of career, as both a musician and a filmmaker?

No, I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was more like a little kid dreaming about stuff. I never had a plan. None of it ever seemed possible, growing up where I did. Doing anything interesting seemed impossible, so I didn’t think about it.

I say that now kind of flippantly. But it was kind of this thing where I loved movies, I loved comic books, I loved TV—I knew I wanted to be part of that. But being part of it seemed absolutely impossible and seemed a million miles away. So the fact that I eventually got there, on some level, is still a mystery to me. That’s how it happened!

Was making music and making movies all part of the same dream? Or was music more of the aim?

None of it seemed real. Truthfully, until punk rock really came along, it didn’t seem like you could be in a band. If you looked at Queen or Led Zeppelin, they just seemed larger than life. Like you had to be a complete virtuoso in every way to think about being in a band. So it seemed beyond. You didn’t look at Alice Cooper and KISS and think, “Oh yeah, I’m one of those guys.” It was like they were from another world.

But when I got into punk rock and it had the look and feel, I could see that happening. I always say the Ramones launched a million bands. Even though they were, of course, brilliant songwriters, there was an element that you could see yourself in them to some degree.

As a kid, were movies and music equally compelling for you?

Kind of hand in hand. I loved them both. That was my whole life, 24/7. I didn’t care about sports; I didn’t care about hanging out with other kids or anything. I’d watch TV, watch movies on TV, and listen to music. That is all I wanted to do, every day.

When did you start writing your own songs? Was that after hearing the Ramones?

Yeah. I was never in a cover band or anything like that. In high school me and a couple friends bought some instruments and tried to play, but somehow it petered out after two days. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City to go to college, to art school, that White Zombie came together, which was the only band I ever had.

That was a great time. It was 1984, New York City, so there were still a lot of the remnants of what I thought New York City was from before. So that was a good time.

So the very first songs you ever wrote were ones for White Zombie?

Yes. The very first songs I wrote went on the record. I am not saying they should have gone on a record. [Laughs]

You wrote those first songs with Scott Humphreys. How did that collaboration work?

Well, he never wrote lyrics at all. Nobody ever has but me. And then we would collaborate on music. Basically the first record I made was just me and Scott. I didn’t have a band yet. White Zombie fell apart. I was just with a producer I really didn’t know at all. And we just started working, and slowly it came together.

As we were working, different musicians would come in to play. Like Tommy Lee, who had been with me in the studio at the time. That’s how it came together. Now, three millions copies later, it seems like a great idea. But at the time nobody really wanted to work on it because it was a typical, “Oh god, this is a solo album. It’s gonna be a huge failure.”

Nobody really wanted to be a part of it. It had disaster written all over it. [Laughs]

End of Part One.

“You didn’t look at Alice Cooper and KISS and think, `Oh yeah, I’m one of those guys.’ It was like they were from another world.” Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

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