Digging the Way Out with the Books: A Q&A

Digging the Way Out with the Books: A Q&A

Tomorrow, the Books, the duo made up of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, will release their new album, "The Way Out," a thrilling journey through musical genres and strange source materials that are alternately haunting and hilarious. This eclectic offering, comprised of audio clips culled from thrift-store-bought cassette tapes — on which are captured recordings of everything from children issuing death threats to homegrown self-help gurus telling listeners to slip into orange-colored liquid — is their first full album since 2005's "Lost and Safe." Zammuto and de Jong spoke with ARTINFO about how they replaced the need for a front man with video montage, what they have been up to in the woods, and how you can live in an abandoned tenement in North Adams for very little money if you don’t mind the cold. The interview begins with Nick explaining how the day before got away from him.

Nick Zammuto: I was literally in a tree.

ARTINFO: On purpose?

NZ: Well, I have two small sons, and we have a little swing set, but it just wasn’t good enough, so I built them a super big swing. I made like this 20-foot swing way up in a tree. And I totally lost track of time up there.

What else have you been up to? Every recent article about you guys only says that you’re up in the mountains raising children. That’s it.

NZ: Actually, that is pretty much it. I live in Vermont, and the running joke is that there are four seasons in Vermont. It’s almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. We’re in the construction phase right now so I’ve been building a lot of stuff around the place. We grow most of our own food in the summertime. I end up doing a lot of farm work and carpentry and stuff like that.

Where did you pick up those kinds of skills?

NZ: Just out of necessity. I think I’ve made every possible mistake, but I’ve been getting better.

Is Paul also out in Vermont?

NZ: He’s in New York. He lives about an hour and a half away from me. Down near Albany — it’s called New Lebanon. He should be calling in soon.

Do you guys not see each other that much when you’re not on tour?

NZ: We don’t. We never really see much of each other. We’ve always worked remotely; we work in parallel a lot, and so we’re working on pretty different stuff most of the time, and then once a week we usually get together for a couple of hours and check in, when we’re working on a record, to view work in progress and give each other tips.

[Paul joins the call.]

Paul de Jong: Hello, it’s Paul. It’s a steamy, steamy day here. But you’re calling from the city, so have no pity on us.

Hello, Paul! The new album begins with a kind of thesis statement: "Hello, greetings, and welcome. Welcome to a new beginning, for this tape will serve you as a new beginning. That’s right, a new beginning, as we’re about ready to begin." And I was wondering if the album represented in some way a new beginning for either of you, or for the Books as a group.

PdJ: Certainly, I think after 10 years of working together, and with this being a recess in which our lives profoundly changed — because we both started families in houses where we built studios for ourselves — that’s really created a stability, and that’s something that we both really hadn’t experienced before, in parallel. Also, after three albums, you’re kind of forced into a new beginning, even you're working not to repeat yourself.

In what way is this album distinct, then?

NZ: I think that the library always leads the way, and that’s Paul’s territory. He was building it up for several years before we started working on this record. Once we started listening through that, certain themes started to come to the surface that became sort of the touch-points for the record, and we knew they had to be in there. And I guess going into it, we knew that we’d been away for too long to rest on our laurels, and we had moved on from that sound. We wanted to do something that was more energetic, a little harder hitting, also something that we could really play live in an interesting way, because the live show is really the basis of our livelihood.

In terms of collecting the sounds for the library for this album — was there any set criteria? Do you overload on really disparate samples and then narrow it down from there?

PdJ: It’s very circumstantial on the one hand, and it’s our individual tastes on the other hand, but the circumstantial part is because, when we were on tour, mostly in 2005, 2006, we accumulated an enormous amount of material, video and audio. And we started moving away a little bit from the vinyl collecting, and I think the vinyl collecting and the vinyl samples are really, absolutely, the largest part of the spoken sampling on our previous records, and we’ve really started moving into the audio cassette era, and that influences a great deal the character and the subject matter of the samples that entered into the new library that was made for this record. Cassettes are about a 25-30 year period of our history but they also represent a different kind of culture than the vinyl culture because, where vinyl was relatively expensive to produce, anybody could have 500 or 1,000 cassettes duplicated for relatively little money and that way carry out their philosophy or project.

What kinds of philosophies are propounded on those tapes? What do people want to hear themselves talking about?

PdJ: You get lots of these, for instance, these meditation tapes or self-help tapes that people put out and that have a much broader reach. It’s kind of like cassettes were — what people now use the Internet for — a cheap way to spread the word. And so by starting to sample material from audio cassettes, it’s really naturally moved into, I’d almost say a more amateurish realm, but it’s not exactly that. But it’s the small-business and the small-time philosophers that entered into the library and it’s really amazing because it’s really a different kind of self-consciousness that these people have on these recordings as compared to the serious recording studio situation of an LP. I think that in itself already kind of colors the character of a lot of samples in the new record like the self-help samples but also the samples that come for instance from kids — recording was accessible to a very, very different group than before with audio cassettes, like telephone machine cassettes for instance.

People often refer to your music as unclassifiable, or if they try to give it a genre label, they call it experimental — although I think it’s unclear what that really means, it’s mainly come to stand in for difficult music. Do you classify your music, or is it not worthwhile to even try?

PdJ: I find it interesting, the "experimental" moniker, because I think we are, in a way, really far from it although we’re not free from experiment.

NZ: Genres, as a concept, once you start to think about them, they’re pretty problematic. I think genres come out of not really having a great language to talk about music so you have to make these generalizations. I think we’re really interested in specifics, so that’s where the music comes from. We’re interested in those moments that just speak, for whatever reason and that’s really the only criteria. On this record, there seems to be more genre-bending going on than on previous records. There’s definitely these kind of break-beat moments, and electro moments, disco moments — but again, that kind of comes naturally from the library, and what’s compelling about what we find.

I feel like listening to any of the albums, some of the songs are laugh-out-loud funny and some are really terrifying, and make me feel like I’m being brainwashed into joining Heaven’s Gate or something. While I do think this has to do with your source materials, I also think it has to do with your musical interpretation of them. Do you guys always just look to evoke the widest spectrum of emotional responses?

NZ: Yeah, not only the widest, but the most varied. And the thing that’s really great about the response to this record so far is that it seems like everybody has a different favorite track, it’s not like there’s one that stands out, but every track resonates in a different way with people. And that’s also the really satisfying thing about playing stuff live is that there’s not this kind of group-think going on. If you look out at the audience while we’re playing, you see these little pockets of response. It’s really personalized I think, in terms of the interpretation of it, and that’s really what we’re striving for to a large degree.

PdJ: Really interestingly, what I find in what’s been written so far is that people are really looking for where the intention is in this record. They’re looking for some song that’s the focal point of the intentions, and they don’t really find it. What they find is their own intentions as listeners, which is a really good sign.

NZ: We’re trying to make a mirror in a lot of ways.

It’s funny that that happens with an album that samples so much self-help audio, because your listeners, like people who buy self-help tapes, are looking for something prescriptive, and then just end up reflecting on themselves.

NZ: It works!

Whoa! Do you want to talk a little bit about your live performances? While you perform, you screen videos that you make. I’d be interested to hear about whether you make them simultaneously with the music or how those get produced and then why you incorporate them into the shows.

NZ: We’ve been making videos for long enough now that we have a video library going simultaneously with our audio library, so connections between the audio and the video form much earlier in our process now, and sometimes we’re working on them simultaneously. And the same phenomenon happens with the video collection. There are certain themes that rise to the surface, like summer camp videos, for example. We just found dozens of them and they always have these iconic shots of belly flops and burning marshmallows and kids hitting each other with pies and things like that, so once you have a critical mass, these have to be used in some way. For example, in "A Cold Freezin’ Night," the home [audio] recordings that these kids were making definitely worked in a kind of seamless way with the summer camp videos.

And then, when you play the videos at your live performances, how do you think that changes the experience of listening to your music? How is it different for people who only hear the tracks without the visuals?

NZ: I think we’re sort of hoping for a one-two kind of punch. We’re hoping to let them process the music a little bit first and then we want to give them our own visual perspective on it, you know it’s kind of like making a book into a film, in some ways. Basically there’s no leader to this band, neither of us are the front man. We wanted a front man, and the video became the lead singer. We can just sit on the stage and play our instruments. But it’s not a film, and it’s not completely a concert either, it’s this synesthetic experience where hopefully the two become more than the sum of their parts.

I read that you’ve been working on a documentary about Biosphere Two. How did you get involved in that, and is your interest in that related in any way to the New Age sources on "The Way Out," which often features the voices of people with utopian dreams?

NZ: It’s an amazing project. Shawn Rosenheim, an English professor from Williams College started teaching classes on utopias, and attempted utopias — I guess dystopias were his real interest. That kind of naturally brought him to the story of Biosphere 2, and he became completely obsessed with it, and started interviewing everyone who was involved with the project, and he got just amazing access to the materials that they recorded while inside the biosphere for those two years in the early nineties. The film is basically the story of building the biosphere and then that first experiment, which of course turned into a kind of “Lord of the Flies” situation pretty quickly. Well, not exactly, but there was a major rift, they split into two groups of four within six months of living in there, and so the story unfolds, in this utopian scientific experiment where everybody’s convinced that they’re going to die on Mars someday, to where it basically turns into prototypical reality television by the middle of the film. the Books composed music for that, Paul and I worked on music for a long time, and then I got involved in the edit, once it was clear that they were out of money and somebody had to work for free or it wouldn’t get done.

Were you sampling the audio from within the biosphere for the music for the film?

NZ: Mostly to get that kind of breathy, machine-y sound that is somewhere in between wind blowing through the leaves and air conditioners in the background — that’s sort of what the soundscape of the biosphere is, of a world mixed with all of the technology needed to keep it alive.

Watching your videos, it seems that your use of appropriation and collage relates to the work of a lot of fine artists, anywhere from Martha Rosler, or even Mike Kelleys stuffed animals, or filmmakers like Harmony Korine — I was just wondering if you have any artists that you look at when you are making the films.

PdJ: It’s funny, it’s the materials that are the inspiration. It’s what we find on the road almost anywhere in the world. In a way, it’s the fringes of our culture and of our society that are incredibly inspiring, so it’s a very intimate look at the human individual or the human in the group that for me is just incredibly inspiring. Not that I’m saying that I’m not inspired by other artists, but I think that that is kind of the driving force for me in anything I make. And I think that in the videos we make, as they begin to be created more and more simultaneously with the music, we’re freer to really go deeper into that relationship between sound and visual. It often for me feels that you have to look at sampling in a different way.

NZ: I think we both approach it with kind of a beginner’s mind. We definitely love art of all kinds, and we’ve been watching it, but it’s hard to name anybody.

PdJ: I feel akin to a certain state of mind when I see somebody’s work and it’s really hard to explain how that works, since it’s somebody else’s work and works are different to everybody. I’m pretty sure that if I start saying, "Last week I was really inspired by the work of Collier Schorr," or somebody like that, if somebody starts looking at it, they will be like, "What the hell is he talking about?"

NZ: I guess if I had to name a couple of people, I remember the work of Bill Viola definitely hit me really strongly at some point, maybe unconsciously that ends up in it. And Tony Oursler as well made some hilarious video-based stuff, projecting onto weird objects and stuff like that. I’m really interested in that kind of thing.

Have you guys had any good finds, video or audio samples recently?

NZ: Avalanches. I guess what you hear on the record is really the tip of the iceberg. We collected just thousands of tapes and most of them we haven’t looked through yet.

PdJ: A lot of it, once it’s found and classified in the proper way and listened to, we know its potential value to eventually be a part of something, but it’s like a wine cellar — once you’ve got the right meal cooking in the kitchen, you know which wine is ready for that, so you go to the cellar and pick it up.

I was looking at your charming Web site. It’s very interestingly designed. Can you talk about the design a little?

NZ: Oh man, it’s been a while, it’s been neglected for a long time, but it became an outlet for a lot of the visual material that we had laying around, and then Paul started an amazing collection of still images as well. The Web site became an outlet for things that we found interesting but couldn’t find a place for on the record. And we sort of set it up to be like a house where you walk into different rooms and there are different things in there that might represent the furniture inside that room.

PdJ: I think if we have to expand, we’ve got to start digging dungeons now and moats. Throw a drawbridge in there.

NZ: Rich and Lisa’s house would be a good house to use.

PdJ: Right, our friends in North Adams, our friend Richard, who we worked with actually for one track on the album that he provided great video footage for. He’s an image researcher and he often goes to the National Archives in D.C. and just goes through hundreds of hours (he’s got incredible stamina) of old news reels. So, where our collection starts roughly at, say, the era of vinyl and our video collection is confined to a handful of historical stuff that ended up on VHS, his area of expertise is really from the beginning of the moving image to where film becomes obsolete and video takes over. To work with him is really amazing, it lends a completely new flavor to our show, actually, and we’re doing another track with him for the new season as well.

You were talking about his house?

PdJ: Yes, they bought a house that is an unbelievable place. They haven’t counted the rooms, I think they have avoided counting the rooms. There are a lot of bathrooms, several of which are dysfunctional.

Have they been in all of the rooms? It sounds like there might be a surprise somewhere. They might find a whole other family...

NZ: You just have to see it to believe it. North Adams is full of all of these buildings that were made for a heyday that’s long gone, and this is a fortress of a mansion that was built right in the middle of town in, I guess, the late 1800s, early 1900s, and they just moved in, and they put like one object in each room.

PdJ: I remember all the way in the beginning, when we made “The Lemon of Pink,” Nick lived in this building in North Adams that was an old tenement building for factory workers that was entirely empty. There were two buildings next to each other and, at some point, a friend of ours moved into the other building and both buildings were kind of organized into apartments, but since there were no doors you couldn’t really see where one apartment would start and another ended. And I remember in the other building, I counted something like 60 rooms, and back then — it’s like almost 10 years ago — a building like that could be had for less than $100,000. They were really glad to get it off their hands; of course you’d be freezing to death in any part of the house.

NZ: I moved up to North Adams after a short time in Manhattan. I couldn’t get any work done in Manhattan. It was just too loud, and there was not enough space, so I moved up to North Adams because I knew the rents were low and I could just make my pennies go further, build the records…

Build really large swings.

NZ: Yeah, now I live on 16 acres, my nearest neighbor is hundreds of yards away.

Now that we're at the end of the interview, do you want to go back to the beginning? Will you tell me very quickly how you guys started working together?

We met in Manhattan — I guess they call it upstate Manhattan, 200th street in Inwood, and Paul had lived there for a long time, and then I ended up moving in with my girlfriend at the time, and she introduced us over dinner, and Paul had us over and he had started sort of a prototypical sample library already at that point, and I really was interested in that because I was doing the same thing — although focusing on different types of sounds, kind of building raw materials — and we wanted to see what would happen if we brought them together.