The Books: Interview
“Okay, this is disturbing but it’s also really funny.”
When a fan or critic claims, “Nobody else sounds anything like this band,” it’s (usually) nothing more than laughable hyperbole. For The Books, a decade-long career of pastiche-composition and treasure-hunted samples has proven repeatedly that they don’t need to make any such claim — the work speaks for itself.
But this you already know. What you might not realize, however, is just how articulate and sharp-minded guitarist/arranger/vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist/arranger/instrumentalist Paul de Jong can be in casual conversation. Being accustomed to the baffled or mildly perturbed responses to my typically long-winded questions, it was a welcome surprise that both members not only took my questions head-on, but with careful consideration. Zammuto and de Jong bounce hypotheses back and forth concerning The Way Out (TMT Review), curious detachment, Tiger Talk Boys, house-building, chaos, and exploding moments of altered origin.
How are you guys doing today?
Nick: Good. How are you?
Pretty good. It’s a sunny day in Northern Cal.
Oh, nice. We’ll be there soon.
Yeah, I hear you’re playing here on the 30th. Hopefully, I can make it.
Paul: Are you in Los Angeles?
No, I live just north of San Francisco.
P: Uh-huh. Yeah, we just played there about a year ago.
Where did you guys play?
N: We were in the Noe Valley.You’re over the bridge, right? Like, up in the hills?
Yeah, that’s correct. I’m on Mt. Tam but I’ll be moving to the East Bay shortly. How was the Noe Valley show?
P: It was a ministry, right? The church there.
N: Yeah, it was a funny couple nights we spent there. It was really fun though. At a nice part of town.
Cool. I wanted to get into a few questions in regards to your latest album and your music as a whole. One thing that I really love about your stuff is it seems to demonstrate an ongoing and shared sense of humanity — pointing out the uniquely human things often overlooked in everyday experience. Do you think that’s an accurate observation?
[Laughs] Kind of a big question! Sorry.
N: Yeah, no, I think that’s definitely an accurate way to do it and I think we try to […] I don’t know. I think we’re kind of scientists about the way we look at people. It’s sort of with a little bit of curious detachment for the most part. So rather than try to get in any tussle ourselves — pushing and pulling on issues, in particular — it’s more like observing patterns and then kind of pulling them into a new context. If you watch a film like Koyaanisqatsi or something like that, it’s that kind of feeling.
The overwhelming size of it all; everything colliding together in a chaotic way makes it interesting. The music isn’t really about us, it’s more about what we find. I don’t think that’s what a lot of artists are doing. Maybe in the most universal aspect. But I think what we’re trying to do is explode… [Laughter] moments that have origins outside of ourselves rather than inside of ourselves.
“So, in order for culture to move forward — especially where there’s so much information flying around all the time — it seems like collages need to be made in order to reshuffle the elements and see them in a new way.”
That’s a great description. Like you say, that goal definitely sets you apart from artists with different goals in mind. One of the things that gets a little bit overlooked is the humor that’s involved in your music. A lot of it, the line between humor and what the appropriate emotional reaction should be. [Laughs].
For example, in the song “A Cold Freezin’ Night” on the new album, I’ve played it for friends and some think it’s super-unsettling and some think it’s absolutely hilarious. I like the mix of the two. Is there ever a conscious effort to encourage multiple interpretation or reaction?
N: Yeah, that’s the thing that I’m most attracted to, things that sort of contain their opposites. You can kind of watch it fight itself out inside people’s minds [Laughs]. “Okay, this is disturbing but it’s also really funny.” Y’know, it’s both simultaneously. There’s a tension there that makes it really useful in music.
P: I can’t really think of any emotional reaction that’s actually appropriate! [Laughs] Every emotional reaction is probably appropriate, in that sense. Yeah, it’s kind of leaving 50 percent up to the interpretation of the listener. What we do is a 50 percent reach-out to the audience. It’s hard to tell how they’re going to react. It’s not up to us entirely.
I’m not sure if it was that song in particular, but I read something about how you found a bunch of Tiger Talk Boy tapes. Was that the case for the samples on “A Cold Freezin’ Night”?
N: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly where they come from. At least most of them. Yeah, all the main samples come from the Talk Boy tapes. And there’s some other home recordings that we also draw from that aren’t exactly the Talk Boy but it’s the family tape recorder kind of situation.
I liked the song before but the Tiger Talk Boy, for me and for a lot of people I know, was such a huge part of our childhood. So, it kind of made a whole lot of sense when I heard it that way. I think there’s even a kid who sings that R. Kelly song (“I Believe I Can Fly”), he sings the chorus. Do you know what I’m talking about?
N: [Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Yeah, I thought that was pretty amazing. [Laughs]
N: I always view it as the other version of “soar” though. The R. Kelly version is s-o-a-r, [Laughs] I always hear it as s-o-r-e.
[Laughs] In Elementary, I was in school choir and we sang that song. There was this kid in my class, his sole role in that song was to do the “Whoo!” at the end of last chorus — the way R. Kelly does on the record. I thought that was pretty awesome.
N: [Laughs] Yeah, and it’s kind of all pre-filtered, in a way, for us by what we find. But, y’know, you find these universal cultural moments and it’s amazing how far-reaching they are. Like there’s this one shot of me as a kid on a snow day at home, in front of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when it was a Buzz Clip on MTV. So, I just kind of stick my head in front of the TV. I’m videotaping the television and stick my head in it. [Laughs]. And everybody did that! Everybody remembers that video and everybody roughly my age was exactly feeling it — almost exactly the same way. It’s amazing how it captured that period in our lives.
I know you guys do a whole bunch of scouting and research for finding stuff at thrift stores and all that. Do you have any aversions to the direction the internet has taken? Do you try to steer clear?
P: For the work we do and for building the library it’s just not a very interesting resource. That’s by no way a rejection, actually, because I’m completely amazed and delighted by what I can find on YouTube for inspiration and historical material that’s like learning, y’know? It’s like learning, it’s my education somehow. [Laughs]. So, I think it’s definitely expanded my world enormously. But for raw material, for material to build the library with, I’m attracted to the stuff that has kind of aged somewhat — in particular, [a sense] of detachment to it. The age adds to it. And that makes it easier to reappropriate them and decontextualize and kind of [re]make it […] again.
You mentioned “decontextualizing.” I think that’s a big part of what I hear in your stuff — taking things out of context and rediscovering it. One of my favorites on the newest album is on “The Story of Hip-Hop,” where it sounds like someone narrating not a story of a music genre but a children’s book about a bunny rabbit named “Hip Hop” — still, there’s this hip-hop groove over it. From the very get-go, was decontextualizing an interest for both of you guys even before the first album?
N: Yeah, that’s been a theme throughout, for sure. But I think collages is what we do and I think effective collages subvert the elements that they’re using and change their meaning. And that’s really how it becomes an original work. Otherwise, it’d kind of just be blatant stealing — just trying to make the same point the original is making. [Laughs]. So, in order for culture to move forward — especially where there’s so much information flying around all the time — it seems like collages need to be made in order to reshuffle the elements and see them in a new way. So, that’s the work that we do — trying to figure out how this stuff can fit together.
“The music isn’t really about us, it’s more about what we find.”
On the last two albums, there’s a combination of incredibly obscure samples with highly well-known ones — the Jabberwocky poem on Lost and Safe, the Ghandi sample on the new album, etc. Is there that a creative decision you’ve made for a desired effect? Was it conscious to not go solely on obscure samples but a combination of the two worlds?
N: Every once in a while there is a sample of well-known voice that people just need to hear. Usually, it’s something that’s public domain that we use. So, from our perspective, it’s not as risky as if we’re using a sample of Madonna or something like that, y’know? [Laughs] Everybody needs to hear what Ghandi’s voice sounds like. It’s just amazing. So, I suppose that’s a conscious decision.
I think that track is just his voice and then the track ends. It really sticks out. But not to switch gears entirely, I know you guys are both family men. One of you even built a house recently. How much time have you been able to balance between your family and the band?
P: […] Yeah, the great thing is that in the past couple of years, we’ve both started families. We both kind of managed to settle down in places where we do our work at our home. So, our studios are pretty isolated from our daily life. So, basically, you just walk through a door and your family’s right there. In terms of practicality, it’s just amazing what that is for my life. So, being on tour is probably the hardest thing, in a way. Being away from the family for an extended period of time, not being there. Then, coming home and having to switch gears dramatically. But that comes with the job. [Laughs]. So, that’s a small complaint.
N: Yeah, for me, building my house was sort of like the album I made in between Lost and Safe and The Way Out. It was just a giant undertaking and we designed it all ourselves. So, it was really a creative activity although the audience was really only my family and friends. But it’s done. Like Paul said, living, working at home is a great luxury in a lot of ways but it’s also difficult to maintain those boundaries. How do you get a full day’s work in without any distractions? [It’s] sort of the key to doing creative work. So, there is that balance to be found. But it’s definitely the most productive place I’ve ever worked.
Sounds like a house would be an “album” worth working on. Not to read into it too much, but there’s a sample on “Thirty Incoming” where someone says “Have you got your house built yet?” Nothing to do with you?
N: [Laughs] Yeah, I think it’s a classic rural-America kind of sentence — the house is never gonna be done. Like, just forget about ever finishing it. As long as it’s livable then that’s probably good enough. [Laughs].
[Laughs]. But you got yours done, I’m guessing.
N: Ah, done enough. There’s still a lot of trim-work but it keeps the weather out.
Well, hope to see you guys on the 30th.
N: We’re really looking forward to that show, in particular. That’s gonna be a really fun night. That’s a special place to play.
N: Black Heart Procession is also playing with us as a duo. They’ve been with us for the entire fall. They’re such nice guys — we love those guys. Their duo set is just beautiful. Highly recommend you see that. Also, we have a new player with us. We’ve been touring as a duo for a long time and then we added a third player this year named Gene Beck. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and he really brings a lot to the show. Really happy to have him along.