INTERVIEW: Rob Zombie
Back in 2012, Rob Zombie and band laid absolute waste to the Australia’s Soundwave festival. Their set in Melbourne was one of my personal highlights, the perfect multimedia monster-mashup of pyrotechnics, lights, pounding rhythms, the intimidatingly virtuosic guitar playing of John 5, and of course Zombie himself as the ringmaster at the centre of it all. Rob Zombie is one of those artists who really commands the term ‘artist’ – someone who takes their inspirations and personality, filters it through their creativity and creates something original. When you step into the audience during a Rob Zombie concert you’re stepping into an arena where anything can happen – a sensory assault in the best possible way. But a lot of work goes into putting on a show like that, from a creative and a logistical standpoint. So what’s it like to be at the centre of something like that? When I had the opportunity to interview Zombie prior to his return appearance at this year’s Soundwave I thought it’d be interesting to hear about his live show and his creativity from that perspective.
So you’re coming back to Soundwave only two years since the last one…
We had a blast on that tour and that’s why we’re returning. As soon as we did it we were ready to come back. But I don’t even know who else is playing though, to tell you the truth!
Will this year’s show be different to the last one?
It’ll be different… I don’t remember what exactly we did last time because we’ve played so many shows since then, but it’ll be different. Different show, different songs, different anything.
So what goes into putting on a show like this, from a logistical standpoint? Obviously not everyone who’s in a band and is reading this will have the budget and the practical means to put on a show of such a scale, but how does it go from a concept to the stage?
There are many things… a lot of times I’ll come up with an idea even when we’re making the record. I can visualise it. I’ll come up with a crazy idea like ‘Ooh, I want to make a 14-foot-tall boom-box to stand on.’ And then I go to my friend Wayne who has built all of my stage props and worked on my movies, and then we work out how to built it, how to ship it, how to pack it… the mechanical parts are sometimes the hardest. Some times you can visualise it and build it but that doesn’t mean it fits! Sometimes the roofs are too low and we can’t actually use it. There’s a lot of thought that goes into something like that.
Aussie audiences often miss out on all of this great production stuff altogether due to the expense of touring down here.
It’s such a drag because in the US is where we do our biggest shows and it’s so expensive to ship it. It costs more to ship it than it does to build it in the first place! And it’s always the case that when we ship it, even if it arrives in time it gets damaged and we can’t use it anyway!” So in terms of being a performer, are there a lot of cues to hit, during a show like that, or is there scope to get lost in the moment? “I mean, it depends. Last summer we did this thing called the Mayhem tour and there were a lot of cues because there was so much pyro and so many giant props that it was almost like a Broadway show. And I kind of hated that after a while because you can’t really get lost in the moment – there are so many moving parts. But on the last tour we just did, a co-headlining tour with Korn, we left all that stuff at home and we did a rock tour without all that crap. And we did great. I think the band is actually better without it because you can get lost in the moment and you can use the stage differently – which you can’t really do when you have all that other stuff because it gets in the way. I thought all the fans would complain but no-one ever mentioned it. It was unbelievable!
One of the great things about my job is getting to talk with people about what drives them creatively and I’ve always wondered with you – you’ve been able to make a career for yourself which both celebrates and participates what you’ve always loved, whereas a lot of people might consume things – “I’ll watch that, I’ll listen to that…” Was it always a matter of “I’m going to make it happen as a career” for you, or did it just kind of lead this way because you were so passionate about it?
Well, everything that I love, that I now do, it never seemed feasible that you could do it for a living, you know what I mean? When I was a kid, being a fan of Alice Cooper and KISS, it didn’t seem like you could do that, I didn’t think. It just seemed like this larger-than-life personality. I loved it but it didn’t seem like you could do it. Same thing with movies: you’d go see Raiders of the Lost Ark or Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it didn’t seem like you could do that. It seemed like ‘Oh, special people do that.’ And I didn’t live in Hollywood, I didn’t live in New York City, I didn’t live anywhere or have any access to anybody connected to show business in any way at all. And many, many people have told this same story, but it really wasn’t until I really discovered punk rock around 1981 or so and started listening to The Ramones and the Dead Kennedys: punk rock made me think ‘Oh I could do that.’ And Johnny Ramone would tell the same story: you’d watch Led Zeppelin and say ‘I could never play like that but I could play like this…’ And then it just becomes baby steps. Every day you see new possibilities of where you can go to it. To get from Point A to Point B seems like an impossible journey, but there are a million steps in between.
I know for me I grew up in a tiny, tiny town and I loved guitar but I didn’t think I’d ever do anything with it, but now it’s my job. And I literally never thought it was possible.
And it’s totally possible! The funny thing is that most of the people who do these things that we’re talking about are from tiny towns somewhere! I swear, if you have the passion for something, it will happen. That is the main thing. Most people don’t make their dreams come true because they’re not passionate enough about it and they quit. Not because they weren’t good enough at it, they just quit!
Yeah, it’s that thing of waiting for something to happen to you instead of going out to get it.
Yeah! Okay, as soon as somebody asks me – this is the number one question – as soon as someone asks me ‘What’s your advice for someone trying to do…” y’know, whatever, becoming a writer, making movies, fill in the blank – I go ‘the fact that you asked me that question tells me you’re never going to do it because you’re already looking for a shortcut. The person who’s gonna do it is already doing it. They’re not asking anyone’s advice. I never asked anyone’s advice. I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. I just do my own crazy thing because I love it. I still don’t ask people advice. Nobody’s ever really given you any real advice anyway – they learned it all the hard way and they’re not going to give you anything for free.
Speaking of people who have gone out and got it, John 5 – what’s it like to work with that guy? He’s a freak!
He’s great. I love working with John. We’ve been working now almost ten years, I think – almost ten years – and it’s phenomenal. He’s at my house right now. [Voice in the background: “Hello!] And I love working with John because he’s got so much technique, he can play anything, he’s the nicest guy in the world and he’s the most talented guitar player. It’s like, how much easier can my life be?
Do you play any guitar?
Just a little but no, just fun but not where I’d consider myself an actual guitarist.
It must be intimidating to pick up a guitar around John 5.
Well I don’t really think about it that way. I feel more bad for everyone else. Like when we’re with other bands they’re intimidated. Like I don’t consider myself a guitar player so I’m not intimidated by it, but you do see other people who do consider themselves guitar players and don’t have a thousandth of the talent. The thing is too, it’s not even about who’s the best. I think that’s the other thing that confuses people. I love John, he’s a phenomenal guitar player and a great songwriter, but a lot of people who’re great guitar players couldn’t write a song to save their lives. Someone who can barely play might know only three chords but when they put them together they might write the greatest song ever written, y’know?
So what’s the creative process like for you? How do you communicate ideas to the other guys?
I do everything by my gut reaction. Like now when we’re working on songs we’ll be playing something and I’ll go ‘Yeah, that’s it, I like it but it needs to be more like this, do this and this…’ or someone else will be playing something and I’ll go ’Eh, I don’t hear it. It sounds too typical to me.’ As the years go on you just get this gut reaction to it. It doesn’t mean that you’re right, it just means it’s what’s right to you, that you feel it. Someone else can sit there all day long and go ‘No man, this part fuckin’ rocks’ and I’ll go ‘I don’t like it!’
Well you’re the orchestrator of everything and it’s being released under your name.
Yeah, because you can never stand behind something if you don’t feel it, because then it’s not a part of you.
Rob Zombie performs as part of the Soundwave festival
February 22 RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
February 23 – Olympic Park, Sydney
28 – Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
March 1 – Bonython Park, Adelaide
March 3 – Claremont Showgrounds, Perth
Rob Zombie Sidewaves
February 24 – Big Top Luna Park, Sydney
February 26 – Palace Theatre, Melbourne