A Multitude of Art Everywhere: ZelooperZ Interviewed by Branden W. Joseph

Distorted but structured painting and music.

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

A painting of a black head and torso with exposed rib cage against a red background, titled, by ZelooperZ

ZelooperZ, Chrome Bones, 2017–19.

Hailing from Detroit, Walter Williams, aka ZelooperZ, is one of the most innovative voices in contemporary music. Associated with rapper Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade label, Williams has toured with Brown and Chicago native Lucki, formed the genre-crossing ZGTO with Shigeto, and collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt—to whom he also sold a painting. I caught up with Williams on an art day in his studio, not long after the release of Valley of Life, his third major project of 2020.

Branden W. Joseph

Branden W. JosephValley of Life has a different feel than Gremlin and Moszel Offline, both also released in 2020. What changed?

ZelooperZ That body of music I made in California. I’d never really made music outside of my city, so it was just, like, different weather, you feel me? Because at home it’s mostly cold, desolate. It’s freezing out here all the time, so my bones don’t be moving the same as they would in the heat. That’s why it’s a different energy. The sun is beaming out there. 

BWJ Your still-life for the Valley of Life cover is also different from Gremlin and, especially, Bothic (2016), with the leaf-crowned skeleton that exemplifies your “bruiser gothic” aesthetic. Are you feeling less “bothic” now?

ZZ I would say, no, it’s never less bothic. That’s always going to be a part of me. It’s, just, I have to have a balance with my life or things won’t grow. During the time I made Bothic I was in a negative mind state, not so much what I was speaking about, but just what I was going through in life. It was a darker time. Valley of Life is almost a realization of accomplishments and a realization of self, kind of like laying back and letting me be me.

BWJ Detroit’s art and music scenes have been interrelated for decades. Do the two aspects come together for you other than in your own work? 

ZZ I started off with raves and shit like that, through the underground scene. Coming up in Detroit, you got a lot of warehouse parties, and the people who throw those parties are artists. They want to see live performers or music, and they got their own art going on, so it’s definitely a big mix with the art and music scenes in Detroit. When you go to DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], we’ve got some of the best pieces of some of the biggest artists in our museum.

A painting of two eggs over easy on a table beneath a hanging fruit tree titled, Valley of Life, by ZelooperZ

ZelooperZ, Valley of Life, 2020.

BWJ You’ve described your artistic and musical processes as “abstract,” yet your paintings are not non-representational. What do you mean by abstract process?

ZZ An abstract working process just in the sense that I could feel different every day. I could want to make music tomorrow, but right now I’m in my art bag. But it could change in a flick of a situation. There could be something that inspired me, and I’ll get onto some music shit for weeks. When I say my way of making music is abstract, I never really have a subject or a flow or anything. I just experiment and create. With the art, I like to be more visible, because I don’t like art that’s abstract too much. I understand it, and I appreciate it for what it is; it’s just that I like to see things for what they are. I like to see shit distorted, but I like to see some kind of structure to it. 

BWJ What led you to include those segments of the Francis Bacon interview on Wild Card (2019)?

ZZ I initially came across Francis Bacon on a commission piece that I was doing for one of my friends. She really inspired me, because this artist reminded me so much of my own work and the way I create. That was my introduction to Bacon. Then, later on, I wanted to use some kind of a sample or conversation in my work, and he was one of the guys I first thought of. When he was speaking on working in chaos, that’s all I ever did with my art. It was always too many paintings in my room, too much shit just, like, cluttered around. And one thing Bacon does when he paints, he paints on raw canvas, and I like to paint without gessoing my work sometimes, just to see the grid in the back of the canvas, just to let people know it’s real. I don’t like shit being too perfect, because it’s like, “Is it even paint?” I don’t like the question, you feel me? I can paint perfect, but I don’t like to.

BWJ The artist you reference most is Jean-Michel Basquiat, not only his painting, but also his pop-cultural currency and lifestyle. How do you relate to his career?

ZZ One thing about Basquiat that I’m really inspired by is the metaphor of his life. Like him just being famous after death. And that’s why I constantly repeat his name, because I want people to know I’m getting it while I’m alive. I kind of get possessed a little bit, because I even meet up with older artists that he once kicked it with when he was around, and they teach me shit. I ain’t gonna name drop because I don’t wanna put my friends out there, but they teach me about knowing that your style is never over with, it’s going to be an ongoing search, you’re never going to get a definite style. I feel like Basquiat being so free with his style is just complementing to my music so much. I paint totally different from him. I feel like my style is more, as I said, Francis Bacon, but Basquiat is my inspiration for music.

BWJ Your paintings combine high-keyed colors, painterliness, graphic linework, and often dark subject matter, like ghouls, skulls, and skeletons. How would you describe it?

ZZ I feel like my work with the skulls is just true faces sometimes—what a face would look like to me, like a reality or the depiction of the concept. Like, I can be painting a woman, and she wants me to do a Medusa-vibe. So I’m embodying that characteristic with her already, her aura. I like to embody people’s faces, but in darker tones. And with the linework, I’m just big with Afrofuturism and electronics and shit like that. I used to break open all my games and shit as a kid and just look inside at the computer chips. I’m just big on that type of shit and embodying that in my work. Most of it is just pastel dust and sharp lines. 

A painting of a large eyeball on the right side with a face in profile on the left with blue in the background titled, by ZelooperZ

ZelooperZ, Retina, 2017–19.

BWJ Since COVID, people have been talking a lot about artists selling on the web, but you’ve been doing that for years. You’re what we might call an Instagram-native artist. 

ZZ Yeah.

BWJ What do you think about that means of distribution? 

ZZ The whole thing is that I was kind of forced to sell my shit online. Making music, people see me in a certain light, so I can’t really be out too much, because people like to fuck with me, and I don’t like to be fucked with. It started off by asking each person that retweeted my work if they wanted a piece. And then, after a while, I just stopped asking if they wanted a piece and would just tweet it every day. It’s like I’m a robot in that sense, but when it comes to making the art, it’s a totally different thing. 

BWJ It seems very contemporary, even if you were forced to do it.

ZZ It definitely was forced, ’cause I was piss poor. I’d spend all my money on tour, come back home broke, and be like, “What am I going to do?” The only thing I knew how to do was paint. That was my talent. Not even paint: I knew how to draw. When I started painting, a fan brought some paint to a show because he wanted to see if I could do this shit. I just started doing it on some accident shit.

A photograph of a person sitting in a chair with a painting and boxes behind him and paintbrushes on a box in front of him titled, ZelooperZ in the studio

ZelooperZ, 2020. Photo by Sidd Finch.

BWJ You’ve talked about commissions bringing you different influences, like the colors of anime, which you don’t watch. Is this similar to collaborating with a producer?

ZZ No, nothing like that. A commission is just a person that wants a piece from me just to have a piece from me. It ain’t no collaboration. It ain’t nothin’ like that. It’s almost like a business card, you know what I’m saying? Like when I make album covers for people. There are like four or five album covers, and you got to be close friends, and I do it out of the kindness of my heart, but I want that to be a big deal one day. When people look back, like, “Damn, he did seven hundred covers!” I just want to have a multitude of art everywhere.

BWJ What’s next?

ZZ Basically, what’s next is chillin’, making more artwork, and focusing on that, ’cause I got more music. It’s just giving them air to breathe. I can keep hitting you over the head with music, but I want you to appreciate it too.

Valley of Life is available now. Visit @MoszelOffline on Twitter and Instagram. 

Branden W. Joseph has published extensively about art/music crossovers, including the book Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture (Bloomsbury, 2016) and the edited volume of Kim Gordon’s writings, Is It My Body? Selected Texts (Sternberg, 2014). He is the Frank Gallipoli Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Columbia University.

Studio Visit: Clotilde Jiménez by Terence Trouillot
A drawing of a muscular Black male affixed to the wall in the studio of ​Clotilde Jiminéz
Melvin Van Peebles by Lee Ann Norman
Melvin Van Peebles 1

Artistic development, near-death experiences, and the power of persistence.

Life as a Collage: Sarah Cain Interviewed by Maddie Klett
Abstract paintings in a book titled, Music Book, by Sarah Cain

An artist’s book paints on music sheets.

Failure as Protest: Tala Madani Interviewed by Gwen Burlington
A painting of a excremental human figure draped across a long table titled, Shit Mom (Feedback), by Tala Madani

Paintings that challenge received behaviors.