The Books: “This language we have is the snake eating its own tail.” Interview by Peter Hollo


I first came across Nick Zammuto on the infamous idm-list in the late 1990s. We both contributed tracks to a remix chain, and in fact Nick lucked out in remixing my track. By the time the first Books album came out a couple of years later, Nick had gone on an amazing walking trip through the Appalachians, and the music he made with Paul de Jong seemed equally informed by American folk, de Jong’ classical background, and the technology through which it was mediated.

The space between 2005′ Lost and Safe and 2010′ The Way Out is explained by an equally life-changing experience: both Books have young kids now.

Nick: I have two boys who are 4 & 2, and Paul has a daughter who’ a little older than 3 now, so just setting that up is a big challenge. I took a lot of jobs in the meantime to kind of load? everything, but I’ve been looking forward to getting back to the Books for a while. In the meantime I started doing a lot of soundtracks for a while, and I taught at college for a while, and I built my own house, which was a pretty big project that I undertook. My wife and I wanted a little more space, raising our boys in a place where they could be boys.

See for some amazing pictures of the Zammuto house!

I was interested in whether Nick was teaching music and sound, or something entirely unrelated.

Nick: Yeah, I don’ have any credibility in music. I don’ think a music department would ever, ever hire me because, you know, I don’ know anything about music. So I ended up teaching in the Art department – I started out as a visual artist myself – and the class that I taught was on appropriation of all kinds, so sampling in all media, and it was really driven by the interests of the students. So the first thing we did was put together a sample library that everybody contributed to and everybody had access to in the class, and that generated a lot of really unexpected things.

Peter: Because this was in the context of art, were you teaching people who didn’ have a specific music background themselves?

Nick: You know, I think too much is given to backgrounds and things. I don’ know why we are so busy putting boundaries around these different artforms – it doesn’ make any sense to me, and I think how I approached it with the classes was just, “Do what you wanna do”. If it’s pointing in a certain direction, even if you know nothing about it, that’s better than being stuck in a smaller world all your life. And I think that’s something that goes for The Books as well. We always learn as we go, and try to find new things that we’re interested in, and make them work as much as we can.

Peter: I think when we last talked it was circa The Lemon of Pink. When that album came out there was quite a focus on cello & acoustic guitar along with voice and your sound library. But it seems to me it’s the most acoustic instrument-heavy album. I’m sure you don’ want to theorise too much about the progression of your sound but it’s interesting that you have a focus on going somewhere new with each release.

Nick: For me half of it is subconscious and I don’ even talk about it, it happens by itself. But then there is a level to it which is very conscious as well. Subversion is something I’m really interested in. It drives a lot of the innovation in the sound – going through these things that overturn the dominant paradigm, whatever that may be, looking for these opportunities. And I think there’ an element of that in each of the albums, whether it’s overturning a paradigm that we ourselves have created with an earlier release, or whether it’s more the zeitgeist of the moment, where you have to respond to something new that’s happening in culture.

Peter: So what do you think you might be responding to now with the new album?

Nick: Before I go into my own interpretations of that, it’s important to say this: we’re trying to meet people half-way. It’s a sort of spongy structure, where there’ meaning there, but it’s not specific until you really start to think about it, and bring your own meaning to it, and I think what satisfies me most about the people who listen to our music is that they’re real individuals – they’re not just there because that’s the thing to do. They’re there because they get something out it. As an artist that’s really satisfying. For me each album was really about the existential crises that we face in one form or another, and these questions, ‘Why?’, ‘What the hell?’ I’ve always had a real interest in Eastern culture or philosophy – not so much Eastern religion, although that’s a big part of it, but more from the intellectual side. I’m really interested in the way that, for example the Zen Buddhists used language to defuse itself, in a way. It’s at the very basis of what we use to generate meaning. This language we have is the snake eating its own tail. I’m trying to get at that with everything I write. I don’t know how to say it without sounding cheesy. It’s a very, very strange world that we live in, full of amazing unexpected things – ourselves included. It seems kinda impossible, and I want to grapple with that.

Peter: So that hints at the delight you’re taking in the beauty of numbers in “Beautiful People”, as well as the nonsense phrases you love so much as well. And while “Beautiful Phrase By Ghandi” is pretty straightforward, there are some times when the listener isn’ sure how they’re meant to take certain things – going back to the slightly creepy but amusing beginning to “Motherless Bastard” on the first album.

Nick: I think we’re very, very careful to maintain a kind of distance to the material. We’re trying to get it to speak for itself, rather than speak for us. By re-sampling and re-contextualising, pulling apart the language and then reassembling it, sometimes it reveals almost completely the opposite of the original material, which again is an act of subversion that’s really interesting. Like the last moments of the record, where Paul was able to turn a weight loss record into a weight gain record. On the surface it’s a joke, but when you really listen to what he says, it’s pretty compelling. When you don’ talk about gaining weight physically but gaining weight mentally then it’s totally applicable to the present moment – it’s not jokey, it’s spot on really.

So you know, we’re looking for those ways to overturn the original material, in ways that make it new again, in really unexpected ways. We’re certainly not interested in making fun of it.

Peter: Some of the impact comes often from not making fun of it, but making the listener feel a bit too complicit – like the answering machine at the start of “Thirty Incoming” – it’s quite a personal declaration.

Nick: Yes, and again, like the “Motherless Bastard” sample [listen to it here] and the kids in “Cold Freezing Night”, it’s controversial – a lot of people are very unhappy with those tracks, and to me that’s fantastic – they’re really doing some work, there’ a tension there which is very palpable. With “Motherless Bastard” that goes back to when I first started making music, and I was just recording everything. I was at the Aquarium in Long Beach, California, down from LA, and I was videotaping jellyfish. And this conversation just happened right next to me – and I didn’ even realise it until I went back and watched the jellyfish, that I had captured this conversation. So I have no idea who those people were! Now that I’m a parent I completely understand that feeling, of the endless, endless need for attention that little kids have. So it ends up turning a parent into its opposite sometimes.

Peter: It’s kind of interesting that you’re talking about these samples and found sounds as a way of connecting with your audience, and I’m interested in how you choose the lyrics when you do sing as well. It’s really lovely to hear your own singing voice there, but the lyrics tend to be quite abstract-seeming. Is that kind of just the way that you want to express yourself?

Nick: I don’ think I’m really expressing myself with my voice. My voice is such foreign territory to me, it’s just this thing that I have that’s become more and more like a musical instrument. Playing guitar you just explore your way into it, and hopefully eventually you find something amazing that you can get down on tape, but really it’s like anything in our music, a process of trying to find out how to make it work. The language that I use for singing, really it comes from the same source as the samples – it’s something that I overheard, or it never was my thought to begin with, but it’s a mutation of somebody else’ thought. Which I guess if you look at it from far enough back, everything you think is somebody else’ thought. It’s a combination of found, and literal meaning, and presence – it’s something that only the human voice can do, so it’s really interesting. But I can’ feel like I can take full responsibility for it – I feel like I’m channelling rather than communicating anything specific.

Peter: I wanted to also ask – and I’m only talking to one of you – about your process or composing together, as you are a duo.

Nick: Well, there’ a lot of overlap between what we do, but essentially Paul has been the collector, and I’ve been the composer all these years. Paul is just amazingly good at finding material, and categorising it in ways that are useful. So he’ produced for the band a sample library that continues to grow.

But it falls on me to work out how it all fits together, in a way, and how to make music out of it. It’s very interesting to listen to the library on its own, but it’s not quite music yet. It’s like the raw materials for baking a cake or something like that. There is this kind of magic that happens in between. So that’s how I spend my days – to find that, however I can, and make it work.

So most of the inspiration for the tracks comes specifically from what Paul creates – that is, the sample library. And I immediately start trying random things with it, and saving what works, and throwing out what doesn’. The most important thing is the first impression of a sample, because it’s the most honest one. So when I first listen through I make a kind of a sub-folder which I call “Must be used”, which is all those samples that hit me squarely, in the heart. Things that I think “everybody needs to hear this”. All the other samples serve the mission that the “must be used” create.

From those kind-of seed crystals, I try to build out instrumentation, and Paul is a cello player, so whenever you hear cello, that’s Paul. And otherwise, it’s kind of a cut and paste job. I never give Paul written parts, first of all because I don’ read music, so I couldn’. Building up a cello part is either done through a process of improvisation, where I’m playing guitar and he’ playing cello, or we sit down together and we have a loop that we kind of want to flesh out, and we go through it together.

Peter: Speaking of cellists, I discovered Zach Miskin‘ album from your blog, and it’s a lovely album – as a cellist myself I’m always excited to hear stuff like that. What surprised me was that it’s a little more like the classical mode of a cellist commissioning people to write music for him, in that none of it was written by him. What happened with those compositions?

Nick: I approached it in the way that I write for anyone, in that I feel I need to get to know them before I can really pull from the sounds that they’re doing in a way that will suit them later on. So for me it’s really important that they actually make the journey up to my studio here at my home, and we do the recording here. So I invited Zach to come up and do some open-ended sessions up here, and we worked in a little tracker garage that’s separate from my house, that I converted into a sound studio a year after we moved up here. It’s got just enough room for 2 or 3 people to work together in. I love it, it’s a cosy, comfy place to work in.

Zach actually brought up a friend of his called Gene Back, and he’ actually part of the Books now – we’ve been looking for a way to expand the band for a long time, for the purposes of the live show: we were looking for a multi-instrumentalist who could play a lot of instruments to wash out the pseudo-karaoke of the live show, and he’ done it amazingly well – Gene is amazing. He plays fiddle, keyboards, guitar. He’ coming to Australia – I wouldn’ do it without him at this point. He’ a big part of our sound on stage, now – he can actually play “Tokyo” [a frenetic track from their second album The Lemon of Pink]. When I wrote it I didn’ think it was possible, but he called me up on the phone, “Hey Nick, look what I can do!” So it’s great to actually have someone with chops. [listen to the original here] I’ve never thought of myself as a musician – I’d still rather shoot rubber bands at my guitar than play it. So anyway, Zach actually brought Gene up – they were college buddies, and Gene actually oversaw the making of Zach’ record in a way. So I had them both in the studio when we first met, so for all of those three compositions on the record, I had them do really sparse semi-structured improvisations around a key, so whenever there was a beautiful moment I could cut it apart and expand upon it. Maybe I’ll write a blog entry on it. We recorded around a circle of fifths of tempo, rather than pitch – I don’ know if you’re interested in hearing about this.

Your interviewer avers that he most definitely does. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph, dear reader, if musical arcana’ not your thing.

Nick: You start out at 120bpm, and you record just roots and fifths in the improvisation, and then you go up to 133-point-whatever, which is basically 120 times the 12th root of 2, and you do this 12 times, so you touch on all the different tempos, so when you want to re-pitch those samples into each other later on, they’re always going to line up rhythmically in a way that fleshes out the musical scale at the same time. So even though they’re improvising with just roots and fifths, when you end up re-pitching it later on it becomes a completely enriched world, where everything is moving forwards and backwards simultaneously. So I was interested in expanding on that idea, and it worked out pretty well.

Peter: You talked about Gene joining the live band, but he’ not on The Way Out, although there do seem to be other contributions, including some female vocals.

Nick: No actually, it’s pretty much just me & Paul, and that sample library, which includes isolated notes from female singers. The one really cool thing that happened during the making of The Way Out is that a friend of ours called Drew Brown, who works with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead producer) in his studio, was a fan of our music and invited us to come to Nigel’ studio when Nigel was out of town – so we had a chance to spend four days in that studio just playing. It was amazing, I don’ even know where to begin, but it was really interesting to see how he laid out his space, and the kind of vintage instruments he had, and working with Drew was just a dream. That yielded a lot of new sounds for us, like the drum track in “30 Incoming” which was just an improvisation I laid down with a floor tom.

Peter: So in a track like “I Didn’ Know That”, which is about as close as something funk & hip-hop related as you’ve got, that’s also kind of mostly collage?

Nick: It is, yeah. The primary samples came from an old black history record, from Philly or something like that, and so that started that off, that hi-hat sample, which set the tone for the track. The children’ voices were off part of that sample. And the rest is our own instruments that we filled in.

Peter: We are going to be seeing you live soon. The last couple of times I’ve seen you there’ been a backing of video. Is that still a big part of the live show this time round?

Nick: The video is still kind of our front man, in a lot of ways. We just like to play our instruments and concentrate on that, and not jump around on stage – so the video kind of jumps around on stage for us. We build it with pretty much the same aesthetic as the music. We have a lot of new material to show you.

Peter: Does it come after the audio is made, or sometimes simultaneous?

Nick: Originally it was all a retro-fit, but more recently we’ve been co-producing the audio and the video in a lot of ways, so it’s much more integrated. A video sample that has audio attached to it becomes the seed for a video. It’s much more satisfying to work that way too, because when your musical brain gets tired you can work with your visual brain for a while and vice versa.

See the Books on their Australian tour:

Wednesday, February 16 – Perth International Arts Festival

Friday, Februray 18 – Seymour Centre, Sydney

Saturday, February 19 – The Zoo, Brisbane

Sunday, February 20 – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne

Monday, February 21 – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne


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Radio broadcaster - Utility Fog on FBi. Cellist - FourPlay String Quartet. Web administrator, editor, reviewer, sporadic blogger, science fiction fan, bicycle rider...