Features | Interviews

The Books

By Peter Hepburn | 20 April 2005

Emerging in 2002, the Books’ debut record, Thought for Food, seemed to have materialized out of thin air. Nick Zammuto, a sound artist, and Paul de Jong, a classical cellist, had met a few years before living in New York and had developed a method for creating music that took many by surprise.

Using their instrumental skills and computer technology available to the general public, the started chopping up and reordering their music in entirely new ways. The Lemon of Pink perfected their skills chopping up their own instruments and mashing esoteric samples into the mix. They’re back this year with Lost and Safe, which takes their music in a new direction with the addition of Zammuto’s vocals and less of the mashed cello that defined their first two albums.

CMG recently got them on the phone from North Adams, MA, where they are rehearsing for their upcoming tour (their first). They talked with us for almost 45 minutes about the post-modern nature of their music, the science behind the sound, and Dutch regional politics.

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CMG's Peter Hepburn (CMG): : Hi, Paul? How’s it goin'?

Paul de Jong (PDJ):
Oh, alright. I just ran in and I think Nick just ran out of the rehearsal so I’m not quite sure where he is. In the meantime you can just talk to me, I suppose.

CMG: If you could just introduce yourself and introduce the band that would be great.

PDJ:
I am one half of the Books, or at least the composing Books. I am Paul de Jong. Nick Zammuto is at large. Right now we are rehearsing very hard to get our tour on the road. Ah, there is Nick now.

So yeah, we are working on the tour, which has two added Books members. Anne Doerner who you might know from The Lemon of Pink. She sang on the opening track and even a little tiny bit on Thought for Food. On Lost and Safe she didn’t participate on the recording process, but we’re really glad that she’s joining us on tour. She’ll be playing a lot of instruments, as usual. She’s really very apt on the violin, sings, plays viola now, and keyboards, banjo, guitar. And then there is Mikey Zammuto, Nick’s younger brother is taking over our lower end, playing acoustic bass and electric bass. Nick and me, we’re taking care of sampler, guitar, bass guitar and voices, cello. It’s quite a force of instruments.

CMG: Your background is in classical cello, right?

PDJ:
Yes, I originate in classical music. Very early on in my childhood—I started playing cello when I was five. I am from a pretty musical family. None of them are so-called professional musicians, but all of them were involved for generations in amateur music. I kind of grew up with it. My dad was always really into contemporary music, so very early on I was taken to concerts of contemporary music and I saw all kinds of intriguing alternative techniques being played out on stage and it caught my ear. But yeah, I’ve always played classical music and I still do.

CMG: I read that you were working on a program sponsored by the Dutch government to come up with compositions based on neighborhoods. How’s that coming along?

PDJ:
It’s coming along alright. I’ve made five pieces but about a year ago the whole city council of Rotterdam, the city for which I am composing, has politically changed colors quite radically. Now instead of subsidizing 1500 artists in the city they are going to zero in on three artists, and I don’t know if I’m one of those three. Even so, I’m not quite sure that I would be happy to be one of the three. We’ll see where that goes. I was supposed to make eight pieces and I’ve done five. So far they’ve been really well-received. It’s a great thing to do. It’s public music—I mean it’s not entirely free. I’m working for a very small audience of people who practically never listen to music. It’s a challenge but I know the neighborhoods well—I’m from that city—and it’s really a great way to revisit those parts of the city. I’ve been living for 13 years in the United States, and it’s a great way to go back. I’m honored to do it.

CMG: Nick, you there? Perhaps you could introduce yourself as well and talk a bit about the influences on your music.

Nick Zammuto (NZ):
Well, I grew up in suburban Boston. It was classic rock 24 hours a day. Supergroups of the ‘70s playing at all hours. That’s the kind of music I grew up with. I was singing along to Zepplin in the car when I was five years old. As far as musical training goes, I have practically none. I came into music through the visual arts and started making sound sculptures, which introduced me to working with sound. I bought my first DAT recorder to document my sound sculptures, and I just sort of fell in love with recordings, especially stereo field recordings, the way they could describe a place or thing.

CMG:
Yeah, I was looking at your website and I saw the Spoonbox. That’s amazing. How did you come up with the idea for that?

NZ:
Thanks. Sound is motion of the air, that’s all it is. Motion of the air is created by various things, speakers being one of them. I wanted to use that to create not only movement in the air but also movement through objects. One idea that I came up with was to use a small puff of air from a more bass-y end of the frequency to use the spoons while there are other sounds coming out of the speakers as well. It plays with inside and outside a lot as well—what’s in the box and what’s coming out of the box. It bridges the gap between recorded medium that’s representational and one that’s purely phyical or visceral.

CMG:
Then I’m guessing you’re probably behind the drums on “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps” as well.

NZ:
Yeah, I had that idea a long time ago. It sort of reared it’s ugly head years ago, to install a subwoofer inside of a filing cabinet and sort of play on the whole idea of industrial music. I went to Wal-Mart and bought this really cheap filing cabinet and put a subwoofer inside of it. It sort of had this resonant frequency to it already, which became the tuning for the track. It was roughly C-Sharp. We tuned everything to that.

CMG: How did you come up with the name for the band?

NZ:
Well, like always, we’re always putting together huge lists of names, and most of them are silly plays on words, like most of our titles. I think Paul came up with that idea: The Books. We shared it with all of our friends when we were starting out. Out of all of the names on the list it was the only one that was universally not chosen.

PDJ:
We were pretty surprised that it hadn’t been used by any groups before.

NZ:
Yeah, and it was better than The Headless Frogs, or whatever we were going to be.

PDJ:
And we are book people.

NZ:
Yeah. I always think of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. It’s kind of huge, but also ambiguous in a way.

CMG: You two met living in Manhattan, but now you live in other areas, right?

PDJ:
Yeah, but not that far apart. After some traveling around, Nick finally settled in North Adams, Massachusetts, which is about a three and a half hour drive north from New York City, where I still live. We do most of our work in Massachusetts. It’s a small town, a nice and quiet house, and you just get a lot of work done in that environment.

CMG: So do you do most of the writing and creating of the music together?

NZ:
Well, it’s a little of both. We often times work alone at home and then when there’s work that requires both of us—either we’re synthesizing large pieces together or we’re doing mastering—we tend to do that together. Our main studio is up here in North Adams. It’s nice and quiet; there are no distractions here. There’s no nightlife whatsoever.

PDJ:
If one of us comes up with an idea and works it out on the computer, the other can start working on it as well. Often it is reduced to something completely different, and usually better, but it’s a lot of going back and forth.

We put together a library of sounds, and then before we start on something we usually make kind of a folder that we call the “must be used folder” and it’s kind of a distilled library. You can make selections out of it. We often listen to those over and over again together and alone until we can get a shared concept of what we’re working with.

CMG: How do you pick out these samples?

NZ:
They sort of pick themselves out. It’s a process of trial and error really—we just sort of try everything and we save what really works. It’s difficult for us to tell what’s really gonna work. Sometimes we have an intuition about it, but most of the time it’s a process of random mutation and evolution. We spend a lot of our time just listening. That’s the beautiful thing about electronic music. It’s 99% listening and 1% action. It’s a passive way of working in that sense, but it opens up your ears.

CMG: Do you sculpt the music to fit the samples, or do the samples fall into place after?

NZ:
Well, it can really go either way. Sometimes we have a musical groove of some type going and we just let it loop and keep going and try improvisations over it, sometimes with instruments, sometimes with samples. Sometimes we have a larger chuck that we really want to use and we have it in our minds that we have to use it, so we keep throwing music at it until it feels right.

PDJ:
We have piles of large samples that we are dying to use but never really find their place unless it kind of fits by itself into a piece. We kind of keep it as good wine in the cellar and it will come in handy someday.

CMG: With all samples, there seems to always be a historical baggage attached to each. Do you think a lot about how other people will interpret the snippets that you use or is it more your appreciation of certain elements of the samples that attracts you to them that leads you to use them?

PDJ:
It’s a very personal thing. We have very personal relationships with these samples and you can’t really compare how other people listen to them and how we do. We’ve seen the birth of a lot of them and seen them in their raw form—have heard them in context. Besides, I don’t think I really know all that well how Nick interprets them, and I’m quite sure it’s the same with him. There’s so much unknowable about the connection of the ear to the mind. It’s hard to tell. Personally I don’t think that much about what other people might think about it. If you’re healthy in your skin you don’t need to worry about things like that.

CMG: Do you ever read through reviews and just find a reviewer picking up on a sample and interpreting it in a way that you never would have thought of?

NZ:
Oh, yeah. That’s definitely something that we invite. Our music kind of meets people half way. Oftentimes reviews that we read are greatly entertaining, be they positive or negative—people’s honest responses are fascinating and unpredictable, and we like it that way.

PDJ:
I am often surprised that people may pick up on a certain line or sample in our music and kind of center an entire piece around it, whereas for me it’s sort of a trifle that just fits into the whole.

CMG: It seems like a lot of the reviews or interpretations of Lost and Safe see it as a political record. What do you think of that?

PDJ:
It’s the same thing as people talking about one particular sample in the album or one particular lyric. It’s their 50%. We come across these statements and recordings and we’re not not going to use them, because they strike us as something that is being said, sometimes 40 years ago, that is very contemporary.

CMG: As far as Lost and Safe goes, did you approach the album with a specific goal or idea?

NZ:
Yeah, we definitely had a few unifying ideas just in terms in how we wanted to use instrumentation—we added a few new instruments into the collection—and then we always sort of conceived of the record as going from birth to death, through the stages. Each track, at least for me, represents a stage in life in some way. I don’t know if people will ever really get that, and I don’t really care, but it was a way for us to think about it.

CMG:
Yeah, now that you mention it does seem to follow, especially with “Twelve Fold Chain” at the end.

NZ:
Yeah. That’s based on a really ancient text, like most of our lyrics. It’s something that the Buddha came up with about 2500 years ago. It’s called The Twelve Fold Chain of Dependent Origination. There are two versions of it, and if you go to our website you can see sort of what the original form looks like. It’s sort of like the original 12-step program. It starts off with ignorance as the root of all problems, and the ultimate problem being death. There’s another twelve fold chain that goes in reverse so you can sort of understand where that ignorance comes from. I’ve always sort of found it really helpful in my life, really meaningful, and I wanted to make a song out of it.

CMG: It seems that this album really gives you a greater opportunity to express yourself now that you are writing and singing. How has that transition been?

NZ:
It’s been a nightmare. I’m just not much of a singer, and I never thought of myself that way, but because of the circumstances it seemed like the right thing to do a lot of the time. We wanted to work more with words, in and of themselves; play with found-texts, incorporate more lyrics. It’s been sort of a revelation to me over the past year to work in that sort of a way.

PDJ:
At some point we are looking to put the samples and the found-texts to slightly different use. We needed that. After The Lemon of Pink we began thinking immediately about how to expand those possibilities for language. Now we have come to the point where we are far more purposefully looking for samples that have to do with lyrics, and also lyrics get influenced by samples we really want to use. The use of Nick’s voice and the samples—just everything is involved there. It’s much harder to find the right samples, but it makes it slightly easier because it’s a different way of zeroing in. It’s more purposeful.

CMG: How did you start using computers to chop up the segments of cello and guitar and samples?

NZ:
It’s just a very direct way of working. The technology just lends itself to working in that way. Maybe it sounds new because the technology for doing it is kind of new. As time goes on our aesthetic is changing, like what goes on with the edges of samples. It’s just a very natural way of working. It has almost become a very contemporary form of percussion. We shied away from standard drums sounds from the beginning as something that has really never interested us. It kind of opens up air above all of those sounds if you leave the traditional drum sounds behind. Making quick cuts between things and having that be the percussive element helps to replace those sounds. It also reflects how most peoples’ consciousness works as well. We don’t move smoothly between ideas. It resonates in various ways.

PDJ:
Also, we are both strings players. Nick is a guitarist, bass guitarist, and I am a cellist, so we just don’t have much of a background in percussion. When we needed it we just started looking for alternatives. A lot comes out of experimentation.

CMG: How has it been translating that for the live shows?

PDJ:
Before we started making Lost and Safe we did quite a lot of thinking about that. We kind of had an inkling that we were going to be playing live at some point. We played one small set in Chicago just after The Lemon of Pink was out and we quickly found out that there were just a few pieces that we really thought we could pull off as convincing live pieces. That kind of explains the more coherent instrumentation of Lost and Safe. Although you can approach those instruments from many different ways, the sound is coherent. We have an easier time translating that to the stage. We are changing parts here and there. It’s a completely different medium. “Enjoy Your Worries” or “There is no There,” where everything is just chopped up to near oblivion, we decided not to burn our fingers on those quite yet.

CMG: I was reading the financial note on your website. Do you have any words for the kids out there downloading independent music?

PDJ:
If you eat two hamburgers less you can buy a whole record.

NZ:
It’s hard to say whether file sharing has really helped us or hurt us. The fact remains that most people assume that we’re doing alright because we have a couple records out, where in reality we barely scrape by and we can not afford essentials like health insurance. I think it’s mostly a problem of communication. If our fans really knew what our situation was then they’d be more apt to buy our records or buy a t-shirt from us. Unfortunately the system of distribution doesn’t want the truth to get out. We make $1 each on every CD we sell, which is nothing. We’re left out in the cold a lot, and I just don’t think people recognize that. We’re on a sort of mini-campaign to educate people about how we fund our music.

CMG: Would you like to make music as a full-time job?

NZ:
Yes, of course.

PDJ:
It is a full-time job.

NZ:
I believe we deserve a livelihood from it. I really do, and not even a big one. We don’t want to be rich, we just want to be able to do our work, and right now, unless we work 14 hours a day we have to take on other jobs to support ourselves.

PDJ:
Our need in composing and producing are very small. We work on computers that are not fancy at all, we don’t have a separate working building, we don’t have any soundproofing, we record in Nick’s bedroom (which, by the way, has great sound), we don’t have fancy microphones. For Lost and Safe the only investment that we made was buying one new microphone. We are not making huge investments, but that also has its reasons.

CMG:
You guys do all of your own production work, right?

NZ:
Yeah, from producing to mastering, we do it all.

CMG: What do your parents think of your music?

NZ:
[laughs] They're our biggest fans. Whenever we’re close to finishing a track I give it to them and let them spend some time with it because they have great things to say. They’ve been pretty much right on. Just speaking for my parents, they really like the new record cause it has more vocals in it. The opposite is true for a lot of people.

PDJ:
My parents, with all the music that I have been making for the past 25 years, always have this first reaction that they don’t understand it, and then they get really intrigued and keep on listening until they find their connection to it. One of the greatest things was that when The Lemon of Pink came out they listened to it five times in one night with their friends. Their friends are in their 80s and were completely fascinated with it.

CMG: Reactions to Lost and Safe have been much more mixed than to the first two records. Why do you think that is? Does it bother you?

NZ:
No, it doesn’t bother me. Expectations lead to disappointment, as they say.

CMG:
If anything this is the most innovative of the three.

NZ:
That’s the way I feel about it. We’re just hitting our stride. Every record is a new and wonderful experience for us. I think if you go into it with fresh ears and few expectations, you’ll find something in there that you really enjoy. But no, it doesn’t bother me at all.

PDJ:
People need to think about it a little more I think. Listening to it more than once would probably help.

CMG: Where do you see your sound going from here?

NZ:
I have a feeling that playing live will influence the way we think quite a bit. What that means I’m not sure. Just the style of recording and playing and singing and writing will probably all change. Not radically, but maybe. We’ve also started working with video a lot, which has been fascinating, so we’re trying to figure out how to make kind of videos that arise simultaneously with music, in terms of production. Put sound and image together in a way that they completely mutually support each other, so that if you take one away the other won’t make sense. That’s a dream of mine, to move in that direction.

CMG: Do you think your next project might be a DVD?

NZ:
Yeah, and our live show has quite a lot of video in it. Stuff that we’ve been collecting. Some old family stuff and some crazy stuff—Japanese videos of children under their desks during earthquake drills. Things like that. Very strange collections of images, yet for some tracks you can make some telling associations between [the music and the video].

CMG: What are both of your favorite Books songs?

NZ:
That’s like asking which is your favorite child. Each is a totally unique thing, at least in my eyes, and it’s difficult to compare them.

PDJ:
I have feelings with every song that bring me back to the times that we were working on it, places where we were. They all have these emotional memories.