Text by Monica Uszerowicz
When I first called musician/artist/filmmaker Zeljko McMullen for our interview, there was, due to technical difficulties, a long delay between everything we said.
The pause rendered interjections impossible: we were forced to listen to each other’s statements in full, without question or interruption; as he spoke, I hastily wrote down additional thoughts to discuss later. The effect, though, was in the end a bit dreamlike—somehow McMullen found a way to address every subject or inquiry my mind wandered to. Hyper-perceptive, McMullen’s got the nuanced understanding to guide him both through unspoken conversation and his own multifaceted portfolio.
There is a thread of interconnectedness and healing between all of his mediums. The founder of Williamsburg DIY venue Paris London West Nile, which eventually became 285 Kent, and a former assistant and sometimes-bandmate of Lou Reed, McMullen has since relocated to Woodstock, NY, producing songs, videos, and visual mandalas intended to create a sense of ecstatic peace in the viewer or listener. His latest work, We Are Fools, is a feature-length film that explores the 22 symbols of the tarot’s Major Arcana. In co-production with Severiano Martinez, editor, screenwriter, and fellow member of the Shinkoyo Collective—developed during McMullen’s time at Oberlin College—McMullen selected friends, artists, and likeminded weirdos to invoke the symbols of the cards. The result was improvised ritual and cinematic art unique to each participant. Seven years in the making, the film includes artists like Tony Conrad, Thomas Arsenault (Mas Ysa), Carly Ptak, MV Carbon, Eliza Swann, and Laura Zuspan, among nearly forty others, with a dense soundtrack featuring Laurel Halo, Iasos, Bruno Coviello of Light Asylum, and McMullen’s own music, recorded as Wish. It is, in essence, a whirlwind, produced by spontaneity and coincidence. When we spoke, McMullen and I discussed We Are Fools, his practice, and the complicated popularity of the occult aesthetic.
Tell me about the beginning of your artistic practice, even as far back as childhood.
I started playing music against my will, after my aunt passed away and left my mom some money for me to take musical lessons. From ages six to thirteen, I took piano lessons. I was good at it, but I hated it. When my mom let me quit, I immediately started writing my own music. A song I wrote when I was fourteen is in the “Temperance” scene in We Are Fools—it’s the earliest piece of music that I wrote.
I began making electronic music when I got a computer, keyboard, and sampler at fifteen. We would throw raves in skating rinks, when I was seventeen, with international DJs. I’d borrow money from my friends’ parents to book people like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, and met all of these huge techno producers and DJs when I was very young. They were kind of impressed with my taste, because at the time, Ohio was sort of obsessed with candy raver stuff. I was into really serious, mental, meditative techno. I did that for another couple years, and other people would book me to play. Those, still, are the largest audiences I’ve played to.
I didn’t initially go to college, because my guidance counselor was like, “You’ll never be able to afford Oberlin.” I was working for GE Capital and making a lot of money, but wasn’t really happy with my life. A friend of mine said, “You’re wasting your time on these jobs,” so I decided to apply to Oberlin and got in. For some reason, when my mom called to let me know the acceptance letter came, I had this weird, overarching feeling that God wanted me to help with his voice on earth. I changed my life completely. I let the bank re-possess my car, moved to Chicago, made music, and then, that fall, came back and started school. I actually had a really advanced musical practice at this point, and there was something that pulled me toward a spiritual practice with my art.
How did you connect your musical work to your current relationship with the tarot?
After I left Oberlin, I got a job as Lou Reed’s personal assistant, and became part of his band. He had tons of spiritual people around him—healers. Some of the people who were really into Qigong told me, “You have a special talent—it’s not just your music and art.” That led me into more esoteric studies; I decided to go to Bard to study with Maryanne Amacher. While there, Pedro Reyes, a sculptor and artist from Mexico, came for a studio visit. He asked me to play some of my music and said, “That was very hypnotic. Have you ever been hypnotized?” He had this practice to hypnotize people, to get them more in touch with the true goal of their work. He put me under this hypnosis where I was talking to my work. It said, “I am,” and then, “I am Thoth.”
I had heard of Thoth, because I’d done a lot of comparative religious studies on my own. But I started researching Thoth a lot more. He’s the Egyptian god of magic and writing, or communication. When I came back from Bard, I was hanging out with Eliza Swann and Laura Zuspan, and they told me, “You’re very much like the Fool.” While I was mentally recovering from my summer at Bard, where you work with many different kinds of artists, it became easier for me to see that you could do any kind of art. I started researching The Fool’s Journey.
The next day, while I was walking in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, I found this book called Meditations on the Tarot, just on the street. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s one of the most advanced books on the tarot. I’ve met people who have studied with tarot masters for years and their teachers forbid them from reading this book, because they’re not ready. I studied the book for months and decided to make a movie based on this path, the 22 Major Arcana, the Fool’s Journey. I assigned people who I thought fit those archetypes and went nuts. This was in 2007, and we just finished earlier this year.
You’ve said in other interviews that you use it as a tool for growth, self-awareness, discovery. Can you say more about that? Was We Are Fools a similar sort of tool?
The movie itself was definitely like that. It was seven years of enacting these rituals to invoke the archetypes of the tarot. I felt like every time one happened, it was pure magic. I didn’t tell people what to do. It would be this thing that didn’t come from any one person’s mind; it was the collaborative effort of multiple people manifesting something that comes from way beyond human, larger than human. It’s one thing to learn about what the tarot cards mean, but when you start thinking of them as more powerful energies that encompass the totality of our world, they change shape. They don’t just tell you about what’s happening in your life. They teach you how to allow those energies to assist you, how you can assist them. Like The Magician—it’s the entity on earth that manifests God’s will. When you think about it that way, as opposed to, “You’re going to meet somebody strong who will help you,” it re-orients your relationship with it. You think of them more in terms of spiritual exercises. In my opinion, that’s what they were made for.
A lot of the people working on the film felt that these lessons and spiritual exercises transformed them, as well. Probably only a few people in the film had any working knowledge of the tarot. Maryanne Amacher was a master of the I Ching and knew the tarot well, and I consulted her once a week on it. She was to play the High Priestess. She kept saying “I’m not ready”—and then she died, while I was making the film.
That is such a strange, sad story. I imagine that some of the pieces in the film unfolded naturally; while viewing it, I got the sense that so much of it just happened, unscripted.
Completely. There was no script. That was the major intention I had going into the project—to give people as little direction as possible, so that the work became the result of different people’s energy working together. Certain people would say things like, “This is what I want to do in this particular scene.” Different people’s ideas would give some [directive] nugget toward the people preceding or following them, but that was it. It was really just making a positive choice not to decide too many things.
Outside of filming, a lot of things happened to direct my life. I remember we shot two separate scenes. I had to get on a plane the next day from Baltimore to Oakland, to start digesting some of this project with my friend Severiano Martinez, who I made the movie with. Originally, I’d asked him to be in one of the scenes, but he told me he’d like to help with the whole project; we edited all of the material together and carved it into a piece. When I was supposed to leave to California to work with him, I had thirty dollars to my name and a car that I needed to stash somewhere. I was driving back to the place I was staying, and someone smashed into us and totaled my car. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the next morning, his insurance company gave me a check for seventeen-hundred dollars. I scrapped the car and was able to live off that money for the next month and a half. I have a weird relationship with money; I like it but feel that it’s something wrong. Somehow, the tarot took care of work on the film, to manifest it.
How much of your life is still like that—do you still allow it to unfold with coincidences and happenings? And does it affect your artistic practice?
I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t do anything for money unless I respected what the job was. Most of what I’ve done to live is help other artists manifest their work. Somehow, things just happen; I don’t consciously plan, I don’t use a bank account, I don’t have a credit card. Sometimes I run out of money and can’t buy food, but it never happens for more than half of a day. Last summer, for example, this woman asked me to help her teach at Oberlin. I was able to help and make some of my own work. I transformed We Are Fools into mandalas, and made a new score for them. Then I came back to New York and had a residency at the Clocktower. I turned it into a tarot parlor, with the movie transmogrified into moving mandalas and four hundred pounds of salt on the floor and all of these psychedelic patterns on the walls. I had no idea what I was going to do for money after that. My friend Tom, who lives in Woodstock, told me to visit. Another sort of shaman friend of mine, Margaret de Wys, had just cured herself of breast cancer with ayahausca treatments; she lives close to Tom and needed someone to cat-sit. I was ready to do it, after living in my residency in the Financial District, which is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been in my life.
It’s so creepy.
The residency is in a haunted building; I’ve had friends there who left after their first night. I took a bus to Woodstock and Tom picked me up. He told me about his friend Nick Kent: “He’s deep into the Meditations on the Tarot, and wants to know if you’d like to work with him on music for a day. He’ll give you some money.” Nick is fifty-five and has been working on amazing music for thirty years, but never played it for anyone. He’s deeply enmeshed in alchemy and mystic studies. When we met, he said he’d employ me for as long as I wanted; it was this savior situation. When I was at the residency, I told myself, “Something will just happen.” I think people manifest things with their fears, so I tried not to worry.
In a similar vein, there is a nice intersection of art and healing that happens with particular artists. You kind of occupy that space.
That’s the main goal of my work—to help people do better, get more in touch with their spirituality, reflect better, love more. I never felt the urge to use lyrics until I started working with the tarot. Most of them are still derived from Meditations on the Tarot and spiritual lessons for self-bettering, which is not the norm in pop music. People like to talk about the bad things. I think we’re globally going through a consciousness shift. We have to look forward to something more positive. We have to love instead of separating. I don’t make artwork because I want to stand on a big stage and have people adore me. I want to make artwork that will help people be happier.
What’s strange is that this sort of stuff—tarot, magic—has been really having a moment. It’s nice to it in the mainstream, but I feel like there’s an undercurrent of exclusivity.
Occultism is huge now. It’s good for people to be more spiritually aware, but there is a much greater trap than ever for people to be influenced by dark forces. I think I told somebody the other day that tarot is the new grunge, as a joke. But it is! This stuff is slowly infiltrating other things—which is funny because this esoteric stuff, in my opinion, has been behind all of our cultural and societal revolutions. They were always carried out by a more elite, secret society. Now, all the secrets are in the mainstream, but people don’t really know how to use them. They’re often young with dark energy, and getting into it to have more personal power, which I think is messed up. People are doing petty black magic—and I think if you’re going to use magic, you need to do it to heal the entire world. Otherwise, it’s just selfish.