Planet of Sound:
For The Books, Sampling Is Fundamental
Sampling, sound collage, loops, contextual rearrangement and the use of found voice recordings as lead vocals are not new techniques in modern music, certainly not on the experimental side and neither in large part in more popular forms. But I would argue that no one’s presently employing these methods in more creative or enjoyable ways than The Books.
The duo – Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong – create sound sculptures out of multiple sources, both prerecorded (to date they’ve amassed an archive of an estimated 35,000-plus speech and music recordings, on tape and vinyl, from which they draw for samples) and live (Dutchman de Jong is an accomplished cellist, while Massachusetts native Zammuto plays guitar, bass and self-constructed percussive instruments; their recordings and performances have used live singing as well). It’s a patchwork that’s been termed “folktronica,” for lack of anything better. More recently, they’ve been crafting videos in much the same spirit, and after dismissing the idea of live performance for the early part of their existence, finally began touring heavily, with additional musicians, several years ago. What’s most intriguing, perhaps, is that by making their exploratory compositions as curious, accessible and fun as they have, The Books have built up a relatively sizable worldwide audience, to the point where they now play mid-size clubs and theaters (such as Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, where they’ll perform on October 3rd), and command large draws at festivals.
Meeting while living in the same New York City apartment building in 1999, Zammuto and de Jong quickly bonded over their musical tastes and compositional approaches. They’ve both moved, separately and together, several times since then, while releasing such albums as Thought For Food (2002), The Lemon of Pink (’03) and Lost and Safe (’05). Following the issuance of 2005’s Prefuse 73/Books remix EP (Prefuse 73 Reads the Books) and 2006’s odds ‘n’ ends tour disc Music for a French Elevator, the pair embarked on some time off with their families. Zammuto now lives with his wife and two sons in a small town in southern Vermont, while de Jong is raising a child with his wife near North Adams, Massachusetts, the group’s de facto home base. Their fourth proper album, The Way Out, released July 20th, is a bizarre and captivating listen, funny and funky at once, expanding The Books’ musical canvas with more instruments and ummph while disconnected voices speak from discarded therapeutic tapes, answering machine messages and children’s Talkboys, among other things. Sort of a middle-American bush of ghosts…
I recently spoke with Zammuto and de Jong about their art…
As you amass an ever-growing library of recordings from which to extract samples, how do you keep track of it all? How do you remember what’s on them all so you’ll know what will work best in whatever piece you’re putting together?
De Jong: “It’s like a private national park! You never get to know it entirely, and it never…has everything readily available as to what’s in your mind all at the same time. But if you like it enough you’ll take frequent walks in it, and you know…Nick kind of came up with this idea of making sub-folders, once we start on a project, that are called the ‘Must Be Used’ folders. Now, going through the vast amount of 35,000 samples, as I said, having frequent kind of random listening sessions, [you] kind of extract samples from there that really have potential in different ways. They are strong by themselves, because that’s the reason they are in the library in the first place, but they really kind of seem to point to more potential for a project that we are working on.”
Is it usually the voice recordings that trigger the ideas for your pieces?
Zammuto: “No, not necessarily. There’s a lot of instrumental stuff in there as well, and the stuff that’s most useful in composing is when there are long, open notes to work with. Or short riffs and things like that are useful, too. But if you think of it like some kind of weird orchestra…like, we have a collection of just bizarre instrumentation – all these outdated instruments like viols and rebecs and krumhorns, things like that…you never know when a note like that is gonna come in handy! So it’s good to have those at your service as well.”
De Jong: “No instrument can be sampled in all its aspects. And sometimes we have just a couple of notes of a certain instrument that are really beautiful and that are – how do you call it? – kind of malleable, that can be changed in really convincing ways, I suppose.”
A lot of The Way Out samples old hypnotherapy and self-help tapes, giving the album something of a theme. Do you usually work in thematic ways like that, or is that a new thing for you?
De Jong: “I think it happens because the library has expanded to proportions where there are certain themes that are just kind of self-emerging, in a way. My theory in reference to the hypnotherapy is that from, like, 2005 on, we started really collecting for the library a lot of audio cassettes, and kind of moving away a little bit from the vinyl, because we already had a lot of vinyl, and audio cassettes were something that we kept bumping into in the thrift stores – there are a lot of them, and it’s kind of on its way out, to an extent. You know, in the 25 or 30 years that were most popular, they were really cheap to produce. It was cheap to put your philosophy or your hypnotherapy methods onto tape, and have like 500 or a thousand copies printed, very much in the way the internet is used now. You couldn’t do it in the time of LPs, or even CDs – both are a little more expensive than audio cassettes were. So I guess that thematically, audio cassettes are heavily…thematized by a small amount of self-help groups…and a lot of religious stuff. So you run into a lot of stuff that you really don’t find anywhere else. And same with telephone messages, answering machine cassettes. That’s kind of a really unique occurrence in recorded history.”
I guess because it’s not something I go searching for, I’m a bit fascinated by how and where you find all these recordings that you use. Like answering machine tapes with messages on them. Where does one come across something like that? Thrift stores?
Zammuto: “You really can’t find them anymore! They’re pretty much gone, because they were replaced by digital machines, and of course, even back in 2006, the last batch of them were going through Goodwill and the Salvation Army, things like that.”
So you could find them in Goodwill stores?
De Jong: “Oh, absolutely. They’re in the machines, and often they’re also just among boxes of audio cassettes at thrift stores, because they’ve been taken out of machines, or have been stored with cassettes, and then the whole box goes out, so, you know, if you have an eye for them, you can recognize them. We’ve found maybe 150 to 200 of them all over the country.”
Have you ever been contacted by people claiming to be the voices in a sample you used?
Zammuto: “Ha ha ha! No, not in any real way. I think the chances of that happening are unbelievably slim. And, you know, legally we own the masters, because they essentially sold them to us, so it’s not really an issue. But sometimes people come up to us and they’re like, ‘That’s me!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s not really possible, because…”
De Jong: ” ‘Because that’s my brother!’ Ha ha ha!”
Do you discuss what style of musical accompaniment would work best with a certain voice recording? Or do you just instinctively know which direction to take?
Zammuto: “It’s really instinctive. Because sometimes it’s good to kind of match the tone of a sample, and sometimes it’s good to go a different way with it. Like, with the hypnotherapy stuff, especially in the last track on the record (“Group Autogenics II”), we wanted to see what would happen if we put a lot of energy behind these kind of hypnotic voices, and it really changes their meaning a lot. I’m interested in when to flow with it and when to flow against it.”
I love the humor you put into your music. So many of the voice samples you use are so funny and strange, but I get the impression that they weren’t really intended as such.
Zammuto: “Yeah, it’s hilarious, but mostly we don’t get the feeling that we’re making fun of them. We’re not trying to deride them. We’re not trying to be sarcastic. I think the imagery is so outlandish, that it becomes funny because it just goes outside of anything we’ve ever heard before. But at the same time, we really want to have them keep their integrity, and not be passed off as a joke. We want people to think they’re on to something. And they really are, in their original form. And of course we’ve changed the context so much that it’s a very different thing, but still we want those voices to have some kind of integrity, not like a comedy record or something.”
Is your process for creating videos similar to your process for audio?
Zammuto: “It uses a slightly different part of the brain, but the creative aspect of it is really the same. ‘Cause as we’re building up a sound library, we’re also building up a video library, and also Paul’s been working on a still image library that’s really interesting. And it’s really nice, because when you’re tired of making music, you can work on a video, and vice versa. It kind of helps with general productivity to do that. Let me put it this way: since we have both libraries kind of working simultaneously, we can find connections between them – between the audio and the visual – much earlier on in the process, so I think the videos are becoming much more integrated with the sound than they were in the past, because it kind of arrives more simultaneously. So it’s really hard to see the video and know which came first. I think, you know, with music videos, obviously the music comes first and not the other way around.”
I’ve seen you acknowledge Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and Radiohead’s Kid A as being early inspirations for you. To me, what you’re doing has much in common with My Life in the Book of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno. Would you agree?
Zammuto: “Oh, definitely, yeah. We actually got to meet Brian Eno recently and talk to him about that record a little bit. Actually, I think it was not until after our second record that I heard My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.”
De Jong: “I think [Eno] has been a big factor in how we’re being perceived in the UK. Because it was really pretty coincidental, and just luck, I guess, for us, that our record Lost and Safe came out in the UK not very long after, or at the same time as, one of Eno’s records. So when he started being interviewed about his record, he really, really kindly mentioned us, in the most kind words, and…he’s taken very seriously, on many different levels, in the UK, so that had a huge impact for us.”
Zammuto: “Sampling in this way is a very vital way of working in this culture that’s so noisy. You know, [Eno] is a real intellectual when it comes to music, but he also understands music on a really emotional level at the same time. And that’s a very rare combination, and I think that’s why he’s been so successful as a producer. And still at the same time he makes room for his solo work and all these off the wall projects that he’s interested in. And visual art as well. And that’s really super inspiring. Because, you know, it’s what we do! And he’s done it really well.”
De Jong: “When I think of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, I kind of feel that I, in a way, grew up with that album. And I still don’t think that we make great danceable music. I think My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is ultimately a very physical, and at the same time listenable record. I really admire that.”
There’s some pretty physical, danceable things on The Way Out. “I Am Who I Am,” for instance.
Zammuto: “If people start dancing at our shows, I’m gonna be freakin’ out!”
Tell me about your early experiences with performing your compositions live for audiences. Did it translate as well as you hoped? What have you adjusted about live performances since then?
De Jong: “We’ve become a lot more organized. We learned A LOT from what works for us, and what seems to work for an audience. We started out with a band of four, and we really learned by trial and error onstage. For instance, we didn’t have an engineer with us, so it was always kind of this trying to explain as well as we could to the engineer of the evening what our music was about, and what they could expect, and then kind of hope for the best. So we really had to kind of reconcile ourselves, for a while, with handing off a real large part of control over how the music actually sounded to an audience. Which is kind of hard, because, you know, what we do on record is kind of uber-controlled. But what we got back from it is really a great dynamic between us and our audience that we hadn’t really experienced before. So I think that at some point, it really kind of started to kind of crystallize, what works for us onstage. And I think we are very much better now. It’s not without its troubles, because the music on CD, the recordings are so hard to reconcile with the entire circumstance of live performance. Thank God that we have a regular engineer that’s kind of our trusted pair of ears. Because we are getting to these circumstances of larger festivals and larger audiences where you have absolutely no idea who you’re playing for. It’s much harder to gauge. And still, you kind of want to find this individual listener in the audience – I’d rather see it as 10,000 single pairs of ears than this huge, humongous body.”
Have either of you ever been in another musical group or played in a more “traditional” band? Do you have any interest in doing that?
De Jong: “I mean, I’m a classical performer. I’ve got, before The Books, now 25 years of classical performance, and I’ve been in several bands that onstage were even more unorganized than the Books ever were! But that’s because I thought I had to play guitar, which I’m completely incapable of doing. But yeah, I’ve performed lots and lots, but Nick has a completely different story than me.”
Zammuto: “Yeah, it was actually Tom Windish himself, you know, the illustrious booking agent, who actually drove to my apartment, this ramshackle in North Adams, Massachusetts, and kind of sat me and Paul down. This was after our second record, and we were just starting to make a third, and (laughs) he basically said, ‘You guys have to tour! You could a lot of money.’ And we were like, ‘No, we love being in the studio, and there’s no way we could play this live – it would be impossible. I can’t play the guitar, I don’t know how to sing – what am I supposed to do?’ And he was like, ‘No, trust me – you’ll figure it out.’ And basically he convinced us to book our first tour, which happened a couple years later. Without his nudging, I don’t think it would’ve happened. And for me, I had never had experience performing live. I mean, I’d sort of come out of a weird combination of like a scientific background – I studied chemistry in school – and the visual arts, and so the idea of performing in front of people was never appealing to me at all. So those first concerts were absolutely terrifying! But now, I sort of see it as a very different medium than making a record, and you can reach people in a really different way with a live performance. You can do things that are just not possible on a record. And now that I understand the art form a little more, it’s starting to be more and more satisfying, and a lot of the fear is gone as well, which is nice. I guess that’s maybe why it works – it was never a goal. It’s just a natural outgrowth of our work.”