Tag Archives: storytelling

M Is For Major Arcana: Storytelling Through The Tarot

In addition to being lovers of the paranormal and all things Fortean, Wendy and I also have been performing in a rock band since college. The name of the band started as Nevermore, which we thought was sweet because everyone loves Edgar Allen Poe, but we switched it to Sunspot because the lawyers for a power metal band called Nevermore threatened to sue us when they got famous before we did.

Sunspot seemed like a cool name because they’re dark mysterious parts of the sun that interfere with radio waves on Earth. We’re all into sci-fi, so having an astronomical event be the name for our band sounded about right. Plus, it was the 90’s and compound nouns were all the rage then (Pearljam, Soundgarden, etc…)

We’ve always had a touch of an occult bent to the music and have long enjoyed the symbolism and mystery of the Tarot deck. In fact, our band, Sunspot’s first album, Radio Free Earth, featured The Fool from the Rider-Waite Tarot on the cover. I’ve always loved the Tarot, even though I don’t find it particularly mystical.

It’s a great party game, but it’s also a useful tool for self-reflection. The Major Arcana represent archetypes of personalities, and we all have a little bit of those archetypes inside of us at one time or another, so it can almost be a form of psychoanalysis. When you deal the card, what does that archetype mean to you and for your life?

So when, we were looking to create a rock opera that we were going to tour the country with, we knew we were going to be playing for a lot of people who had never seen us before. We needed to find some kind of shorthand that we could use to get a message across quickly to audiences who weren’t very familiar with our music. The Tarot seemed like the perfect and we could even give it a frame story of a lonely guy talking to an Internet psychic and the cards that he deals would then lead into the songs.

But in order to get to that story, we had to work our way through the process of how we would tell a story in a live music performance by using background videos, tarot cards, and loud rock songs. Here is the process we went through and the notes we took to figure out the beats of the story, what Tarot cards would work the best, and then you can see what became the final product, our rock opera, Major Arcana.

What Story Are We Trying To Tell?
“Life is pain. Anyone who says different is trying to sell you something.” – The Princess Bride

We’re all slowly disconnecting from each other. How can it be possible that we know more about each other than ever (we know what someone has to eat through their Twitter update, we know what they’re listening to at the time through Blip.fm, we know the score of their children’s soccer game through Facebook) but we take care of each other less than ever. We know the lives of celebrities better than we know the people who live next door. A recent study found that the number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. We have more ways to connect with people like us than ever, but there’s nowhere we belong more than ever.

The theme of this work is taking a journey that starts in naivete which leads to mistakes, pain, and isolation. It is only when he doesn’t try to control others but takes control of his own destiny that he rejoins society and finds the place where he belongs. Sunspot’s music and live show is a communal experience for the audience. Bringing people together is something we do extraordinarily well (there have been 4 weddings from people that have met at Sunspot shows!) Our music and performance is about connection from interacting with the audience to communal singalongs. We are all about bridging the gaps in the human condition.

Why The Tarot?
The main character is portrayed as a modernized version of The Fool from the Tarot and is representative of a desperate soul in search of experience. We use graphics and animation during the songs to show the emotional significance and characterization of each experience and to highlight the performance onstage.

Each song is represented by a major arcana tarot card that in its meaning helps represent the song graphically while the music conveys the emotion and the performance makes it real for the audience. By using the Tarot mixed with sci-fi elements we’re combining mysticism and technology. Viewing modern-day problems through the lens of archaic symbolism, much like the main theme of the piece deals with the paradox of how ultramodern forms of communication cannot cure the age-old problem of humans not relating to each other.

By using the Tarot, we don’t have to spell everything out for the viewer and we can use symbols that many are already familiar with, yet simple enough that their meaning can be imported through a few images. Also, it enables us to use a motif that began on our first record and work off the symbolism of each record afterwards because the iconography of our albums can be juxtaposed with the Tarot easily as well as integrating into the show’s themes.

Here is the basic structure of the character’s journey, the symbolism and iconography of each moment:

When The Revolution Comes (The Fool)

The character is an idealist and it’s one of our few songs that is honestly idealistic. It’s pure and sweet and non-ironic.

This is the perfect song to introduce the Fool character. After all, it’s his naivete that sets him on his journey.

The Breach (The Emperor)

Stinging disappointment and the way that idealism and hope can be inverted and crushed. Trust is abused and eventually broken. The descent begins.

The Emperor symbolizes the desire to rule over one’s surroundings, and its appearance in a reading often suggests that the subject needs to accept that some things may not be controllable, and others may not benefit from being controlled.

Sweet Relief (The Hanged Man)/Tunguska (The Wheel of Fortune)


A pean for the beginning of separation, the start of a change. The idea that the grass is greener on the other side of the street. The notion of emotional divorce from the world begins to seem attractive because there has to be a better way.

A pean for the beginning of separation, the start of a change. The idea that the grass is greener on the other side of the street. The notion of emotional divorce from the world begins to seem attractive because there has to be a better way.

The Hanged Man relationship to the other cards usually involves the sacrifice that makes sacred; personal loss for a greater good or a greater gain.

And when the song switches to “Tunguska” it’s the moment of impact, when the isolation begins. The character gets the last vestiges of his hope destroyed, blown away.

The Wheel of Fortune represents the intercession of random chance into the Fool’s path. The card represents the forces that can help or hinder the querant suddenly or unpredictably.

Eat Out My Heart (The Devil)

Here comes the idea that there’s no way to win, that separating from humanity is the best way because when you care too much, you lose.

Or it’s the idea of being a slave to an idea. The character is a slave to his idea that he’s been hurt. “Eat Out My Heart” is a song about hating someone else and being a big old victim. It’s wallowing in self-pity and delusion that someone else is to blame for why the character feels stung. As long as the character is encumbered by those emotions, they never get better. It’s not about being upset with the girl who this song is for, because that girl isn’t suffering. It’s the character singing who is being punished and he’s punishing himself. The Devil is great for “Defeated” but also works for “Eat Out My Heart” to add some levity here.

The Devil is the card of self-bondage to an idea or belief which is preventing a person from growing or being healthy. It is the card of futility, pessimism, and mistakes.

Neanderthal (The Hermit)

The lowest point of the emotional arc. Relationships are about domination and humanity is cast aside in favor of the animal. It’s the heaviest moment, the darkest lyrics.

The Hermit represents the need to withdraw from society to become comfortable with himself. He represents isolation.

Dig Your Grave (Death)

The other side of the door. It’s about seeing how someone else retreats, it’s about how someone else runs away from the rest of the world and in reacting to that event, the character starts to regain his (or her) sense of connection to the rest of the world. Only through forgiving others for how they’ve wronged you, can you start to become part of the community again.

Death implies an end, possibly of a relationship or interest, and therefore implies an increased sense of self-awareness.

Perfect (Strength)

A realization of that’s how life is, that you can’t control what happens around you only how you react to it. The character just wants to decide his own destiny.

“It doesn’t matter if everything’s ugly, it doesn’t matter if it’s all unsafe.” This song works well with this theme right off the bat. It’s a little more fun and the message is more straightforward. It’s happy, but not too happy and would lead well into Summer Day.

The modern interpretation of Strength stresses discipline and control. The lion represents the primal or id-like part of the mind, and the woman, the ‘higher’ or more elevated parts of the mind. The card tells the Querent to be wary of the temptations of the flesh.For example, in The Chariot card, the Querant is fighting a battle. The difference is that in Strength, the battle is mainly internal rather than external.

Summer Day (The Chariot)

I’ll be part of the group but by my own terms. I’ll live my own life and I’ll do it the way I want to. That’s what’s important, that’s what counts. You can’t make me grow up because I’ve seen the pain and the suffering that grown-ups endure. I’ll join, but only if I get to make the rules.

After the impulse that pulls us out of the Garden, we get on our chariot and depart. At that point, we are the Hero of our own story; maybe the Hero of everyone’s story. That Hero might represent Helios, the Greek god who drives the Sun’s chariot across the sky, bringing light to the earth.

No Place Like Home (The Star)

You have to accept that the world will crush your hopes sometimes, and that the world is hard. But it’s not impossible to find your place and sometimes it’s right back where you started, but when you get here this time, you at least have a better understanding and you’ve chosen to be here. So now, you may not necessarily be in the place you think you shoud be, but you’re in the place that suits you best.

The pool of water refers to the subconscious. The land refers to the material world. She renews both. Usually divined as hope for the future, good things to come regarding the cards close to the star. By having a foot in both, this is where the Fool understands that he needs to be part of the material world as well as his own life. This is the reintegration and reconnection back to society.

So, this silly story told through tarot cards consumed about a year of our lives. From the initial concept, to writing new songs, to figuring out how to synchronize the videos and lights, to recording the actors, to booking the tour, and then editing the DVD and all the videos ourselves.

And through that year-long DIY creative undertaking, much like a good Tarot reading, we learned a lot about ourselves. We loved the final result and the show was great (we even recorded a video tour diary as well as a directors commentary track on the DVD!), but it was the processthat we’ll always remember.

By doing it all ourselves and creating everything from scratch (except for the Tarot cards), we put ourselves through what sometimes felt like Hell. But it was our own “hero’s journey” along with the character from the show. And hopefully we too might have started off the trip as the Fool, but came out the other side, The Star.