Star & Dagger, with Donna She Wolf (center) and Sean Yseult (right)
Heavy music runs in the veins of guitarist Donna She Wolf and bassist Sean Yseult. These two rock goddeses hit it big with Cycle Sluts from Hell and White Zombie (respectively) in the late 80's and haven't stopped playing since - they're true rock 'n' roll lifers. She Wolf and Yseult have a new band together called Star & Dagger, a killer combo that trades in the dark, dusty, sexy, hook-driven blues-rock that you'd hear emerging from some idealized biker bar in the middle of the desert. She Wolf and Yseult spoke with us about the band, their forthcoming album Tomorrowland Blues and what they've seen change over the years.
All of the members of Star & Dagger have been in multiple bands, and some of you are in multiple bands right now. How did you know it was time to start a new one?
Donna She Wolf: We didn't really plan on it. One night Sean and I were downtown drinking at a bar together when Lenny Kaye spotted us and with a wave of his hand said "You two should start a band together...I see it!" This inexplicably conjured riff writing, jamming, demos and so on until ultimately there was a band. So in a way, the whole thing was divined by Lenny Kaye.
Sean Yseult: Yeah, if you look at our early recordings, they're all filed under the "K Project," for Lenny!
Star & Dagger offers a much more druggy, desert-rock vibe than any of your previous bands. How did you develop that sound? And did recording the EP and Tomorrowland Blues in Joshua Tree have anything to do with it?
Sean: I'm sure the Joshua Tree vibe seeped into our recordings; it's inevitable. But the riffs were all written in New Orleans and New York - it's a big reason I wanted to work with Donna, because her riffs and guitar style were so heavy but more in a 70's blues way than heavy metal, which is what I really like. I've always been influenced by Black Sabbath as far as my riffs and songwriting, and have been friends and fans of bands like Kyuss and Monster Magnet since touring together back when I was in White Zombie. Donna's sound reminds me of Ace Frehley (KISS) at times, and early Aerosmith at others - I just feel like we have a definite 70's heavy blues thing going, and we're happy to keep company with our friends in the desert who also appreciate that sound!
The band is split between New York and New Orleans. How has this impacted Star & Dagger's writing process? Do you feel like the cities where you live have seeped into the music you make?
Sean: I love the NYC/NOLA combo that goes into our writing. Donna writes almost all of the lyrics, and they are truly phenomenal. Both her lyrics and her riffs are full on NYC grit, like how New York was in the 70's and 80's. I'm inspired by New Orleans the same way many of the heavy bands are down here - heavy but with the blues groove that is so dominant down here. Sometimes Von [Hesseling, Star & Dagger's vocalist] will come up with this beautiful vocal line, hum it on a track over my bass, and within a day Donna has added guitars and these dark, haunting lyrics that add this insane dichotomy to the vocals and extra layers to the song. I find it completely startling and inspiring every time. It's great to wake up, open your email, and have that sensation.
Donna: We write separately and apart. The digital age makes everything so easy; geography is irrelevant. When we compose by long distance it's usually a volley started by the bass, then sent over to me for guitar, then back to New Orleans for Von Hesseling's vocals. Sometimes each member will have something more complete that's brought in to be worked on. Sean and I have gear in New York so when she's up here we tie up loose ends. I fly to New Orleans a lot, where we also fine tune whatever we've worked, in the studio there. Living in NYC has definitely shaped me creatively. Even though I have a broad scale of musical influences I am still deeply rooted in the old-school NYC underground. That is especially true regarding my guitar style. As of yet, I haven't gotten to write too much while in New Orleans. Not sure I'd be able to. I might be too happy.
Both Cycle Sluts from Hell and White Zombie were super-successful. Do you feel any pressure, whether from yourselves or from the outside, to reach for those same heights?
Donna: I don't know if I could honestly classify Cycle Sluts as having been super-successful, but thank you for those generous words. It was a uniquely structured band whose dramatic and bizarre saga would be better divulged in an HBO mini-series than in a brief interview. However, it was a fun ride from what little I can remember. That being said, my lifelong attitude is that there's nowhere to go but up.
Sean: For me, I don't think it's possible for rock bands to reach the heights White Zombie reached back in the day. Not many rock bands are selling out arenas and traveling with five tour buses and three or four semis anymore, so it would be pretty unrealistic for me to think in those terms. I find it hilarious that both White Zombie and Cycle Sluts' greatest fame were both due to Beavis and Butthead - maybe now that they are back together, Donna and I should go and court them - at least we are still making music they would like!
Donna, you've played in all-female bands, bands where you're the only woman, and even a band with the world's first transsexual rock singer. How does the gender makeup of your bands impact the kind of music you make together?
Donna: Chemistry is what's important, the plumbing doesn't matter. When the energy is right, magical things happen and if you've played in bands for a long time you recognize it immediately.
Sean, I understand you owned a dive bar in New Orleans. How actively were you involved with operating it? Do you feel like it was a pretty good reflection of your musical personality?
Sean: We sold it a couple of years ago - but we had a blast running it! My husband (Chris Lee of Supagroup) and I opened up The Saint in 2002 and ran it for six years, very hands-on. I got to do most of the fun stuff: fill up the jukebox, go thrifting for furniture, bad wall hangings and cool light fixtures, plan parties and events. The bar became an infamous rock'n'roll late night dive bar right away; it was amazing. Due to the jukebox it was as huge reflection of my musical personality - there was always Sabbath, Kyuss, the Cramps, the Ramones, Slayer, Motörhead, Link Wray, the Birthday Party, etc. on the jukebox! Thanks to Chris there was also AC/DC, ABBA, and friends like The Upper Crust, the Supersuckers and Down on the jukebox - it really was a good time for bands that wanted to go somewhere with good music, cheap booze and late hours. We usually closed around 6 AM!
What are your plans for releasing your debut LP, Tomorrowland Blues? Are you looking for an interested label, or will you go the independent route?
Donna: It will be released by a label that feels like a good fit or we'll put it out ourselves. It's a full-length LP produced by Ethan Allen and Dave Catching (Eagles of Death Metal), who by the way also accompanies us on guitar at our live shows. We also put out a three-song, colored vinyl release that's currently available on Last Hurrah Records and produced by J. Yuenger, with cover art by poster artist Lindsey Kuhn, available through Last Hurrah's website.
Y'all have been there for both the boom and bust days of the traditional record industry. How has your approach to the business side of making music changed? And is there anything that stays the same?
Sean: It was amazing to ride that wave, at the peak of the music industry. But as far as writing music and being creative, nothing changes in that realm, and that is what matters to me. Of course, it is fantastic to have the cushion that the boom provided me to be able to focus on being creative and do what I want to. That really allows us to be true to who we are and only make music we really believe in.
Donna: The music industry playing field has changed entirely. On one hand I miss the cushy major label perks I used to enjoy, on the other hand it's empowering to have autonomy in major decisions without the interference of middle men. Whatever the case, maintaining professionalism is key.
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