Sean Yseult grew up in an era of larger-than-life rock stars, from Freddie Mercury to Lux Interior, and it’s safe to say she took mental notes along the way. Visual style, heavy riffs, flamboyance and tongue-in-cheek menace all seem to be the running themes in her bands, from White Zombie to Rock City Morgue to Famous Monsters—and now Star & Dagger, a band she describes as “Valley of the Dolls gone a little bit Satanic.” If you’re going to have a concept, that blend of evil and glamor is one of the most durable ones around.
The members of Star & Dagger—singer Marcy von Hesseling, bassist Yseult, and guitarist Dava She Wolf—are in fact well-adjusted grownups in real life: The latter two are also visual artists (and longtime friends who met at the Parsons School of Design in New York City); and the first two double as entrepreneurs: Hesseling owns Fifi Mahony’s, the glamour store on Royal Street. And one of Yseult’s many ventures was the Saint, a bar and musicians’ hangout that she ran successfully for six years. All the better to leave it behind and get lowdown when the rocking starts: For the finale of their release show at Tipitina’s (for Tomorrowland Blues, on Megaforce) Star & Dagger (with a guest second guitarist and drummer, as there’s no permanent ones) were flanked by burlesque dancers and tore into Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” a grind-rock classic that was, for once, covered without irony.
Star & Dagger isn’t necessarily a stab at the big time—Yseult’s already been there with White Zombie and She Wolf got close with her ’90s band Cycle Sluts from Hell, sort of a campier counterpart to Girlschool or L7 (she wrote their college-radio hit, the beautifully titled “I Wish You Were a Beer” and now does most of Star & Dagger’s lyrics). The pair became bandmates after hanging together in a Lower East Side bar one night; they were spotted by punk godfather and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, who noted that they really needed to start a band. “I came back to New Orleans and we kept sending each other riffs that we’d written on Garageband,” Yseult recalls. “Next thing you know we had five songs and we needed a singer.” Hesseling, who’d fronted a prog band in San Francisco before moving here, got the nod after sharing a Barcelona vacation with the other two.
“We have this idealized vision of what it is to be a rocker,” Hesseling explained in the backroom of her store. “If we have an image, it harks back to the Anita Pallenberg idea of glamour, with the Stones in Morocco. Playing in the band is our moment to change into our rock ’n’ roll goddess selves, drink whiskey and play. No expenses and no bills.” Along with the Mountain song, they’ve covered Blue Cheer and MC5 onstage, and their nod to an early era of rock—when “heavy” hadn’t yet turned into metal—are no accident. “There’s melody in those songs—Yeah, bring back melody!” says Hesseling, the most exuberant band member onstage and off. “Bands are getting so heavy that you feel annihilated when they scream at you. We don’t want to get too poppy, but we like having songs you can sing along with.”
“What would you call our kind of music?” Yseult asks in her Lower Garden District home, and brightens up when I suggest rock ’n’ roll. “Ah, that’s so much better than all the categories—there’s so many these days, right? My natural writing style goes more to heavy blues, riffy kinds of things, like we did in the early part of White Zombie, before it got electronic. But you take a band I love, like Queen—they’d have a song that would be almost classical and another that would be heavy-ish, and the next would be some romantic ballad. Why does it all have to be one thing?”
Yseult and then-boyfriend Rob Zombie picked the right time to start a hard-rocking horror band. During the post-grunge ’90s, freaky misfits were suddenly given license to make rock fun again, and White Zombie did their bit, fuelled equally by Zombie’s theatrical sense and Yseult’s heavy riffage. The band came up from underground to sell seven-million albums and get two Grammy nominations. Yseult’s memories of that era could fill a book, and they did: I’m in the Band was published in fall 2010. “We wanted to create a whole world you walked into—it was like, ‘Here’s what we wear, here’s the kind of movies we watch, and here’s the lifestyle.’ The Cramps achieved that, and I think we did with White Zombie. I was just looking through some old T-shirts that we want to reissue, like the one with two monsters drinking big bottles of booze with X’s on them—I’d forgotten how funny Rob’s drawings were.”
Nowadays, her best memories of the band come from pre-fame days. “We spent a lot of time in the van, Black Flag-style, sleeping on peoples’ floors; I’m sure my life will never be like that again. But the clubs were great, that’s when you can really interact with the freaks—and I mean that in the best possible way, because I consider myself one and I encourage everyone to wave their freak flags. So that was the most interesting part of White Zombie, the first half. I have no complaints about getting huge—those big tours were a blast—but there’s a lot of isolation where you’re only ever around your crew, your band and the other band. You’ve got to have a crate full of books.”
One payoff was the chance to pay back their heroes. “We took the Ramones out with us—I’ll never get over that, that’s always gonna blow my mind. We got to hang out with them for six weeks. Joey Ramone would come up to me every day and say, ‘Thanks for taking us out, you’re the only band besides Pearl Jam who ever did.’ And I’d think, ‘Yeah—that’s because everybody worships you and nobody has the balls to ask you to open for them.’”
Yseult fell in love with New Orleans on a White Zombie tour and moved here after the breakup. “Our first show ever in New Orleans was at Tipitina’s opening for Soul Asylum—that must have been ’86 or ’87. Ever since I first drove around and saw the streetcars and those crazy old dilapidated mansions, the whole vibe and beauty of the city, I knew I wanted to live here one day. When we got bigger, I remained sort of homeless between tours, so I’d always come down here and stay in the French Quarter. I loved that whenever I’d walk out the door I’d run into friends from other bands.” She lived for a year at the corner of Esplanade and Bourbon before taking her current digs, which she bought right before the Lower Garden gentrified. “After White Zombie I had a year of extensive R&R—no, I wouldn’t say rest because I did a lot of partying. A friend tended bar at the Abbey, which we always called the Shabby, and I basically lived on Decatur for most of that year.”
Opening a bar proved a natural step, especially after friend and One Eyed Jacks owner Rio Hackford twisted her arm. Yseult happened to call Hackford just as he was about to open his next place (Pal’s Lounge in the Bayou St. John neighborhood) and had his sights on a third. ”I won’t say he’s superstitious but he’s very dialed into coincidences, and it happened that I called him, asking if he ever needed a partner or investor for a bar, just as he was driving past the place.” She and husband Chris Lee (Supagroup frontman) ran it for six years. “It was a totally packed rock ’n’ roll hangout; we had lounge furniture and a great jukebox. And we made our money back in three months, which is unheard of. After a while it became so time consuming that we couldn’t do our creative things anymore, so we thought we’d pass the torch—to a generation that apparently likes DJs better than live bands.”
After White Zombie, she got a few high-profile offers, including one from the Cramps. “They asked me twice, and I said no the first time because I was too nervous. Bass players were such a revolving door in that band, and I thought it would just kill me if something were to go wrong, and they were such good friends. But I wound up doing a couple of tours with them, and I was on the last tour they did [Lux Interior died in 2009].” But most of the offers she got weren’t worth taking. “I got a few ridiculous calls from people wanting to put some super band together. They’d just name these guys from hair metal bands and very famous people that I don’t want to diss right now, but it sounded like the most atrocious thing in the world. They wanted to get some famous people together, who really have nothing in common, to make money, and I hate that. Even if I don’t make a penny, I’d rather have some fun with my friends.”
Playing heavy music with cool people for the fun of it? Sounds like an idea that could catch on.