Having caught The Books earlier this month at All Tomorrow’s Parties, I highly anticipated their upcoming D.C. performance Thursday night at the 930 Club. The Books have a unique aesthetic not only to their music, but also their art and visual performances. The two main members, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, bring found sound and video footage together, creating multi-media compositions that resemble stream-of-conscious thoughts. In a recent NPR story, de Jong said that when recording in their apartment, a crow’s caw became embedded in their song, and they kept it there — like a John Cage story when Christian Wolf kept playing a recital with the windows open. City traffic muddled up the performance, but Wolf embraced these sounds as part of the experience.
Since I saw The Books perform live, I became fascinated with their ability to resurface discarded sounds and videos. Once edited, they turn this material into a whole new story. Their unique sampling and composing process will make you appreciate their aesthetics as a band and for sound all around you. I even found the usual, annoying hold music to be humbling, wondering if The Books would ever try using it in a song. I found out about Zammuto’s feeling on hold music, as well as more details on their music and visual processes, during a recent interview.
Nick Zammuto: Do you know how many times I’ve heard that same music waiting in that room? They’ve been playing the same hold music for the past five years!
AON: Well, this is a phone interview, but do you have to actually make this call in a particular room?
Oh, no, it’s just a virtual room. Mentally, I feel that these conference calls are like meeting in a room; it’s really the same thing.
Now that we’re connected, you don’t have to listen to that hold music anymore. But, for the future, would you ever consider making your own hold music, instead of listening to the same, predetermined tunes?
I actually wrote that music! Not really, but, hey, I feel that any number of our tracks could work as hold music. We did an elevator music record though; a few years ago we were asked by the French Industry of Culture to make music for elevators.
Speaking of weird rooms and elevators, I caught you guys earlier this month at All Tomorrow’s Parties. So what was your impression of Kutsher’s, the venue?
It was pretty amazing. There were two good things: The food for the artists. We had this little place, things we’re really delicious, and it was cool to see all the musicians hanging out there. And then, I think I saw one of the members of Iggy Pop’s band, I don’t know who it was since I missed the show, but he was this really leathery, Keith Richards-looking kind of guy, dressed completely in leather, and he was out on the driving range, hitting golf balls, like with a three iron, or something like that, and it was poetry in motion. He had the most natural golf swing I had ever seen.
I wouldn’t imagine that, after seeing the way they used their energy Friday night!
It’s so incongruous. It was really hard to wrap my head around it, just to see that he’s a really good golfer.
Well, yeah, the whole festival was insane like that. I was especially blown away by how your visuals and music matched up so well during your live set. Could you explain that process?
We started off reluctantly playing live five years ago, and we never really considered ourselves a live band. We were kind of studio rats, because a lot of things we were doing were meant for the studio. I mean, I can’t really play guitar. So I went into playing live reluctantly, but one way that I built up the courage to do so was to let the video be the frontman for the band. It’s not exactly like having Iggy Pop, but the video is like the lead singer in a lot of ways because it captures attention.
Visuals are powerful like that.
We’re really interested in that one-to-one kind of relationship. I think a lot of bands that use visuals use them in an ambient way, like a light show. We’re into make it, not just a narrative, but there’s a lot of content in there that relates directly with the music. The cool thing about doing this for the past five years is that now that we’re making music and videos simultaneously, they’re a lot more integrated. We have a video library at the same time as our audio library. So, we see a lot connections between the two, early on in the process. For example, with “Cold Freezing Night”, where the kids are kind of going crazy, well, we connected that pretty early on with all the summer camp videos that we had lying around. So it becomes a natural combination.
Had it always felt natural, or did it become that way over time, when you realized how much sound and video you accumulated?
On our first big tour, we only had video for about half of our tracks, so we were straddling that live. But on those tours, 2006 and 2007, we just bought a lot of video tapes and audio tapes, so our collection has really grown. Now that we have this volume, we call it a “critical mass”, we know that we have enough of a certain subject matter to make a video out of it.
During your ATP set, was there some home footage of you guys being really young?
Yeah, that’s actually us! So, yes, we use some home videos, during “Clashy Penguins”. It’s not on any of our records; it’s just a DVD only thing.
So you guys made specific DVDs with videos aside from your albums?
We released our first DVD in 2007, and once we have enough to move forward, we’ll release another one.
I read that you get a lot of your footage at thrift stores, which is probably the perfect place to find stuff. What attracted you to thrift stores?
We’re not really interested in the mainstream. Like, if you’re shopping at a dollar store, you’re not going to find anything vintage — just things made in China. We’re into things that are homemade, like old answering machine tapes, video tapes for instructional videos, products that don’t exist anymore, summer camp videos. You know, every summer, they do a video yearbook, they compile all the footage from a year? We found a lot of those on tour. We do this one song, with golf, too …
You should play that one for The Stooges! So, I like to go and look for weird findings as well. I was at a yard sale and found these tiny answering machine tapes. I thought that they’d be gems, because the people selling them were such characters. But I listened back to them, and it was just crap. Some tapes from a board meeting. Ever get excited about a find, and it’s just not worth keeping?
Bummer. That happens most of the time. But every once in a while, you find something that’s mind-blowing, and that keeps you coming back. But that’s all mostly Paul’s territory. He’s got a huge collection and library. I’m more on the composition side; I just work with what he gives me.
So have you always worked with making collages?
Again, this came from our need to have video while on tour. But we’re both visual artists in our own terms. We’re attuned to working with videos, naturally, and video editing is quite similar to audio editing.
What software do you use then?
Cheap software, there’s a company called Sonic Foundry that sold itself to Sony and they make a sound sequencer called “Acid”. We do some color correction, but we want to keep it as close to as we found it.
So the visuals are your frontman, but what about all the voices incorporated into your songs? Are they characters, or just voices?
They’re sort of like characters, but I think they blend together into a particular voice. They’re anonymous, so I think of it more as a universal voice. The stuff we’re interested in has a certain human quality, and we’re interested in with what everyone has in common. We’re looking for different instances with this universal voice.
I noticed, especially on the new album The Way Out, that there are a lot of voices that sound like guidance counselors or self-help mediators.
Yes, definitely. Another big thing was when Paul found a bunch of self-help tapes at the thrift shop.
How many different self-help tape samples are there on your new record, approximately?
There’s probably 15 or so. Some of it is weight loss, some of it is anger management. There’s also meditation, relaxation. If you look into the history of autogenics, it reached its peak in the ’90s, so there’s an avalanche of tapes. Autogenics is a way of bringing someone into a self-help place, like taking deep breaths, and using a keyword to help all parts of you relax.
That’s cool, that these samples are related to self-hypnosis, but as a band, you guys are using them and channeling them toward your audience. I felt like your set was incredibly relaxing and comforting myself.
Yeah, that’s a thing we can do that with a group of people. You know, the real highlight of ATP was the crowd … having a group of people inhabit the place that are just there for the music! It was a nice vibe. I’m glad you found it relaxing; we’re not there to overwhelm anyone! I’m looking forward to playing in D.C.; it’s been a while. 9:30 Club is a really great place to play; it’s one of the best-sounding places, the audience is right there, it just feels nice.