Q&A: The unexpurgated Books

Pub date December 16, 2010

Accurately summing up the music The Books create is a tall order. Folktronica, indie-pop, cut & paste, experimental — all these tags can loosely be assigned to it, but none can fully capture the group’s mix of acoustic virtuosity and trippy electronics. First meeting in New York City in 1999, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong soon began crafting their unique combination of found sounds, cello, guitars, vocals and studio experimentation. Their work has led to four albums, a remix collaboration with Prefuse 73, and a commission to create elevator music for the Ministry of Culture in Paris. Zammuto took some time to chat about the group’s use of samples and its newest release, The Way Out (Temporary Residence Limited). Below is a longer version of a Q&A that recently ran in the Guardian.

SFBG You guys seem to put a lot of thought into the venues you perform at. How do you choose?

Nick Zammuto At first, beggars can’t be choosers, so we kinda just played wherever people would have us. And then I think the promoters started to realize that our show just works better when there’s a little more focus and when the ceiling is high enough for our projection to look the way it should. More than anything, the venue — the shape of it and the sound of it — creates the evening. And it’s amazing how it brings out different characteristics in an audience. Part of it is what they bring and part of it is what we do. But there’s that third element, which is the venue. It’s a mysterious thing. I love shows that are sitting down because I think it brings out this more careful detail that we try to bring out in our records, which is difficult to translate to the stage when it’s a noisy environment and beers bottles clinking and stuff like that. But then again, I love the energy of shows that are standing up because people can express themselves easier and we get more feedback from the audience. So both have their benefits.

SFBG You’re playing with Gene Back this tour, which will be the first time you’ll be performing as a three-piece. How did this come about?
NZ He’s a guy from Brooklyn who we met through a project we did with a cellist named Zach Miskin. He was kinda Zach’s right-hand man for this project and he came up to record at my place and I was just really taken with his playing. He can play anything you put in front of him. He learns really fast, so it’s been great to throw stuff at him to see what he can do. He doesn’t disappoint.

SFBG How much of a collaborative process was it in terms of him adding or not adding his own touches to the existing material you guys will be performing?

NZ It depends on your definition of collaboration, but I think the energy he brings with his playing, it changes our set drastically and that’s definitely something we have no control over, you know. That’s his thing. He’s tried to execute the parts that we’ve created for him, but he’s also solved a lot of problems that we wouldn’t have foreseen, not being able to play them ourselves. And he loves to dive into things. For example, he can actually play the guitar riff on “Tokyo.” He came up to us and was like, “Hey, look what I can do.” That’s something we never expected to be able to play live, and sure enough, it’s in the set now because of him.

SFBG Speaking of the guitar line on “Tokyo,” that’s one of many parts on your guys’ albums that makes you wonder how exactly it was created and recorded.

NZ I think nothing is really what it seems on our records and we do a lot of work to cover our tracks in terms of where things come from and how things were made. But essentially, I played that guitar line just as it appears on the record, except it was about half the speed when I originally played it. I just sped it up to see what it would sound like. And it turned the tambour of the guitar into this high-strung, mandolin kind of sound, which was cool, so we kept it. My fingers just don’t move that fast. But luckily there are people out there who can execute my ideas (laughing).

SFBG As diverse as your music can be, there is still a very recognizable overall sound. But it’s not always easy to describe. After all these years, have you guys settled on a fallback response when someone asks what kind of music you make?

NZ The word we go back to because it’s kind of open-ended is “collage.” We pull things from all different places and try to put them together in some compelling way, and I guess the most basic word for that is collage. I think people try to attach all kinds of genre names to it, but none of it has really felt comfortable to us. We just kinda do what we do. But you know, sampling is a big part of what we’ve always done. Figuring out a way to connect all these disparate elements is the basic work we do. So, it feels like collage.

SFBG I’ve always been curious about how you find the material you sample. Where did the material featured on The Way Out come from?

NZ During our tours in 2006 and 2007, we stopped at thrift shops all along the way, wherever we could. We’d pick [up] VHS tapes and audio tapes. Paul is kind of in charge of the audio side of the collection and I do more of the video side. Basically, we take the tapes and digitize them and then go through them and save all the stuff we think might be useful, having no idea what it might be used for. If it kind of has this memorable, emotional quality, we save it and keep it around. And the cream rises to the surface, in a way. We end up with these samples that are so far and above anything that anyone would expect, and you just have to use them. So, we throw all those in a folder called “Must Be Used.” And that’s what starts a lot of the ideas for the compositions.

SFBG The answering machine messages in “Thirty Incoming” are simultaneously touching and kind of silly. How do you decide what musical tone and context you’re going to frame a sample in once you decide to use it?

NZ A sample like that just speaks to everyone, you know. And it’s interesting how the interpretation of that phone message varies from “Wow, this is the most sincere man I’ve ever heard in my life” — which was my interpretation when I first heard it — to “That’s creepy. I don’t know what I’d think if I got that message on my phone.” So, it just has this sort of supercharged quality to it where it means a lot to everyone who hears it, but for different reasons. You can’t really go wrong with it, unless you were to counteract its tone somehow. What it suggested to me was this oceanic kind of sound. Those lines go so deep, that it had to be this wave after wave of pulsating sound coming in and then receding. Then we tried to find musical elements that could achieve that sound. So, we ended up using cello and effected vocals, electric guitar and bass to pull it all together. And also this drum tom that I recorded last summer while we were in London. This is the first time we’ve used real drum sounds in forever. It was fun to work with that quality of sound.

SFBG Hearing drums sprinkled throughout was a nice surprise on this album. I particularly like the hi-hat pattern throughout “I Didn’t Know That.”

NZ That was a lucky find. It was from a rare record with only like 500 copies made in the 1970s. It’s from this black history record. And it’s just this great hi-hat riff that’s just there between these two spoken word tracks. When we heard it, we were like, “Wow, that’s totally amazing.”

SFBG Have you ever been contacted by someone who appears in one of the found samples you’ve used throughout your career?

NZ People ask this a lot, and we haven’t, I think for a couple of reasons. Like going back to the “30 Incoming” samples, that tape must be 20 years old already, so who knows how old those people are now. And you know, we’re a pretty small band and it doesn’t really go outside of a certain circle of people who listen to this kind of thing. So, I don’t know how it would get to them, unless it was through some crazy kind of way. Maybe it will happen someday.

It would probably take some crazy series of connections. But it’d have to be a crazy feeling for someone to stumble upon a song that contains something they said or did and most likely forgot about 20 or 30 years ago.

It feels like archeology, even though it’s of the recent past. It feels like there’s some distance between now and then, so it takes on a totally different meaning. There’s all this inadvertent cultural information in these tapes. Stuff that was in the background when people were making them, but now they become the foreground because it’s so different from how we are now. And it often comes across as funny. But it also has this unconscious quality to it, which is what I like about it. That none of this stuff is planned. It’s not preconceived what this stuff means. It’s really honest in the way it comes though. It’s just people being themselves.

SFBG As meticulous as you guys seem to be at crafting albums and each individual song, do you ever struggle with deciding when something is done being worked on?

NZ Yeah. I mean, I compose the stuff and it takes forever (laughing). And it’s a completely exhausting process. But you just kinda know when you’re done, because you don’t want to work on it anymore. It becomes like a zero-sum game. Nothing you can do can make it any better than what it is, so you just let it go. Tracks are never finished, they just kind of escape.

SFBG You switched from the European label Tomlab to the US-based Temporary Residence Limited for The Way Out. Is there a difference between how Europeans and Americans approach your music?

NZ I think Europeans think of us as kind of like a freak show (laughing). And they like us for that reason. But I think when we play in the US, there’s this familiarity because there’s more nostalgia to it. Because we all grew up in the times that we’re sampling from, the ’80s and ’90s mostly. It’s less of a freak show and more of a warm look at the past and where we came from. Kind of reclaiming our childhoods in a way.

SFBG What kind of music inspired you both during the creation of the new album? And is there something you’ve been particularly into as of late?

NZ Me personally, I’ve been on a big Police kick. I don’t know why. But going back to their catalog, I love the way their records are produced. And I especially love Stewart Copeland’s contribution. He can play the drums like no one else. It all has this clarity and precision and energy to it that I really love. So, I’ve kind of been studying that from more of a production standpoint. As for inspiration during The Way Out, during our visit to London in 2009, Nigel Godrich’s engineer Drew Brown invited us to Nigel’s studio for about a week. Nigel was away working on something else and Drew was like, “You should just go and play,” and we were like, “Are you kidding me?” (laughing). And seeing how that studio is put together and the music that has come out of it, Nigel’s and Drew’s way or working is really inspiring to me in terms of getting a mix that’s kind of warm and transparent but also really powerful. I think that had a direct effect on our record.