Zeljko McMullen, On Deck

Published March 31, 2014


The life of artist, filmmaker, and musician Zeljko McMullen is one of almost divine coincidences. After coming to New York City one summer while studying at Oberlin’s famed conservatory, McMullen sent out one email in hopes of finding a job so he could remain in the city. He received a call the next day and was hired on the spot. The position, inexplicably, was to assist Lou Reed’s personal assistant. After six weeks, the pair found common ground in the synthesizer-centric meditative music Reed had been working on. Eventually, McMullen joined Reed’s live band, setting up a makeshift modular effects rig and processing his boss’s thorny guitar movements in front of European festival crowds.

After severing ties with the notoriously difficult Reed, McMullen co-founded and ran seminal Williamsburg art space/DIY venue Paris London West Nile in the same room that later housed 285 Kent. Hosting a legendary run of performances took a toll, and McMullen eventually gave up the lease and skipped town, finding a new home in a one-room cabin in Woodstock, New York with his stately dog Prince. His most recent work, an entrancing full-length feature entitled We Are Fools, is a psychedelic voyage based on the 22 Tarot cards of the Major Arcana that finds McMullen allowing the universe to shape the film’s narrative.

LEO MAYMIND: Your first full-length film, We Are Fools, is going to be coming out April 1.

ZELJKO MCMULLEN: April Fool’s Day.

MAYMIND: It’s a pretty visually disorienting piece. Tell me about how you came up with this idea.

MCMULLEN: It started in 2007, when my friend Eliza Swann told me I reminded her of the Fool, who is sort of the protagonist of the Tarot. Later, Pedro Reyes hypnotized me and had me talk to my work; and in the hypnosis, my work said that it was Thoth. Thoth is the Egyptian god of magic and writing, and some people believe the Tarot to be an extension of the book of Thoth. The Tarot is sort of its own language, and all of these symbols speak to you outside of your cognitive mind. The 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, which We Are Fools is based on, is an allegorical path of everyone’s spiritual trajectory—everybody plays the Fool.

I got the idea that I wanted to film these as a series of video art rituals and I wanted to assign different people to embody these archetypes. So for example, the first person I talked to was Tony Conrad, to portray the Magician. Then I contacted Maryanne Amacher to play the role of High Priestess. And shortly after conceiving this list of people I knew, I contacted my friend Severiano Martinez to embody one of the cards, and he was so excited that he wanted to help with the whole project. So we made the piece together, while sticking to my original plan for the most part of an unconscious narrative filtered through the perception of many different artists.

MAYMIND: What is your personal connection with the Tarot?

MCMULLEN: Some people use the cards for psychoanalysis or spiritual discovery—you can ask a question and it can give you meditative advice. There are Gypsy card readers that will proclaim to tell you your future. I don’t really look at them like that. I use them as tools for self-discovery and growth. I’ve taken a comparative religious approach to studying the Tarot—Christianity, Kabbala, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. Some people think the Tarot formed around the time of the burning of the Library of Alexandria. When that happened, several of the world’s religious scholars wanted to get together and compare notes and make a pictorial path of the distilled knowledge of all of their beliefs, and this is one idea about the Tarot that I’ve quite liked. People think they made this set of cards that didn’t require human language to depict their ideas, because they all spoke different languages, so the idea was that by putting things in a visual language, it became universal.

MAYMIND: Doesn’t the use of images give a greater chance of misinterpretation?

MCMULLEN: Anything with language can be misinterpreted. The messages always get filtered through your own perception. The Tarot is a set of images that are subjective. What you can call misinterpretation is actually a way for everyone to have their own experience with it.

MAYMIND: We Are Fools takes an unusual approach to narrative in that you let the universe guide its path. How did you decide on this approach?

MCMULLEN: Well, I believe our lives are shaped by what happens to us from the universe, coupled with how we react to that. I wanted this piece to reflect that, so for each scene, we would tell people the bare minimum that was necessary to explain their archetype, this meta-reality. The idea was to make this narrative that was bounced through all of these other people, so it was a movie that doesn’t really have a real director, per se. We sort of set the stage and made the impetus for each of these 22 different short vignettes, but then left much of the action up to the subject of each part. Over the four and half years, we must have shot over 100 hours of footage, which we then boiled down to 88 minutes; and the idea was that the editing process was really where this weird narrative was carved out.

MAYMIND: So what exactly in your past led you to making this film? Did it come about as a reaction to any of your previous work in music or performance art?

MCMULLEN: Before I made this, I had only done very short video pieces that were more performance art rituals. Severiano had made quite a few different video art pieces. Most movies come about because someone has an idea for a story and all of these people come together to execute it, but I wanted to do it backwards. I had an idea but I wanted to have all of these other people formulate how this idea would come out.

MAYMIND: You’ve done quite a lot of work in music, both in terms of solo recordings and working with other people. Do you think the Tarot influenced that part of your development as well?

MCMULLEN: Yes, I think that the Tarot has affected me immeasurably. It’s a map for spiritual development. The book that I found on the street is called Meditations on the Tarot, and it was supposedly written over a 40-year period, anonymously, by someone in the Catholic Church who was also very into Hermetic magic and asked it to not be published until after his death. He used all sorts of texts from varying religions to describe these archetypes. Reading that book changed and shaped me as a person.

MAYMIND: And you found this book at a key juncture, right?

MCMULLEN: Yeah, the week that I decided to make this piece, which was after my first summer at Bard. Everything there is very connected and very interdisciplinary, so I thought, why not just make a movie? I had been making music for a really long time, but I had been very interested in cinematic art.

MAYMIND: So shortly before this all started, you were working with Lou Reed. How did you stumble into that position?

MCMULLEN: There was a point in my life after I graduated high school that I was working as a credit card debt collector for two years that drained my soul and showed me all these weird inequalities in the world. I decided to go to Oberlin where I started making music full-time. Before I graduated, I decided to move to New York for a bit to intern for this sculptor and multimedia artist, Luca Buvoli. I was about to go back to Oberlin, but I actually really wanted to stay in New York, though I was super-broke. I got on Craigslist and randomly applied for a job that said “New York based musician/photographer seeks office intern,” and the lady called me the very next day asking me to come in for an interview.

MAYMIND: Did she tell you that it was related to Lou?

MCMULLEN: She didn’t tell me anything about what the job was, but I showed up and I got hired on the spot to be Lou’s assistant’s assistant. She was just his office assistant—got him cars to go places, handled all his health appointments, all of those things. Originally I wasn’t supposed to meet him. Shortly after I got there, she started looking for someone to replace her because she was really stressed out by the job. He was kind of a difficult person, and somehow his assistant’s role was to be the focusing energy point of all his grumpiness and desires.

MAYMIND: What was your first interaction with him like?

MCMULLEN: We actually got along quite immediately. At the time he was doing this weird sort of meditation music and was getting really into electronic music and super into synthesizers. He was impressed that I had studied music and could help him in the studio. I said to him I love Metal Machine Music, which is probably not the thing he hears the most when he meets a new person.

MAYMIND: How did the two of you begin working together creatively?

MCMULLEN: It all happened very quickly. He would call me and say, “I want to work on some music today, come over to my studio.” And the weird, demanding vibe he had about mundane things switched over to, “Let’s go buy synthesizers, let’s go buy gear.” We started just making music in his house together, and it evolved from there. Eventually he said he wanted me to contribute to his band as well, which I was excited about. I had sort of a modular synth rig made out of patched pedals with a mic on his guitar, and I would process his signal live. Some of it was noise textures, but it became very reactive. How I would process the guitar began to affect how he would play. I also had triggers on all of the drums connected to an MPC with a big bank of samples, so any time the drums were hit I could double it with an electronic sound. This led to us going on a big tour of Europe, some of which the shows were huge festivals—at Isle of Wight, there were 80,000 people.

MAYMIND: Then your life took a sharp turn with the space that eventually became 285 Kent, which you named Paris London West Nile.

MCMULLEN: I wanted to move Lou’s office and studio to Williamsburg. I told him we could save him a ton of money, get all his gear out of storage, we could get rid of this office in Soho that he never came to, and I wanted to be in Williamsburg anyway. When the realtor showed me the space that became Paris London West Nile, and later 285 Kent, I knew that my future lay behind that door before he turned the key. It was another situation where I sent one email and it was that place.

MAYMIND: Why did Lou eventually decide to not follow through on this plan?

MCMULLEN: So, stressfully, right before we got on a plane, Lou kept going back and forth about getting the space and I had made the decision that I was going to take it anyway. It seemed really important to me. I was at the airport with Lou, and I was faxing the landlords the lease when he told me he wasn’t going in on the space with me. I was so stressed out at the time. Right before I was about to board this plane, he sent me a text that said, “You know I like the window seat” and I just snapped. I didn’t get on the plane, I couldn’t do it. I was almost shaking, I was so angry. That one text sent me over the top. I took a cab back from the airport back to the office in Soho, packed up my stuff, and began to move into Paris London West Nile. I sent an email to a bunch of friends and asked them if they wanted to move into this crazy concrete room with me, and it just worked out. I never saw Lou in person again, but he did influence me to believe that you could give people all kinds of energy through art, so I exercised that idea into the We Are Fools project, and made a work to give the viewer spiritual energy.