Nick Zammuto of The Books

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Paul de Jong had to go pick up a case for his travel cello so he diverted duties to Nick Zammuto. They were supposed to have been together, but only one Book was fine. I think Nick Zammuto was caught a bit by surprise as well -being between shows, driving from one ville (Ashe) to the next (Knox)- but he obliged anyway. Not knowing where to begin, I thanked him for making the music he makes. He responded modestly:

“Thanks a lot. You know, so much of what we do is, well… We can't really take responsibility for it. Whatever we find- we're just given these treasures. They're gonna be lost unless (laughs) there's an opportunity to share them with the world in a way, but anyway… (Aside: hey, can you just put some money in the meter, I think it's gonna run out) sorry ‘bout that. I'm on a busy road here, I'm gonna just duck around the corner. I'm in Asheville, North Carolina right now.”

So, while interview conditions were less than optimal, with freeway sounds pouring into each of our phones and shitty reception in between them, Zammuto was earnest, graceful, forgiving and eager to engage.

Oh, you're in Asheville, are you driving up to Tennessee now?

Yeah, we're driving to Knoxville in just an hour or so.

Does a notion of place or setting play an important role in your music?

Yeah, I've been thinking about that recently because we finished our first record just a few miles from here and I haven't been back since then. It brings back so many memories from working on that record. We finished that first one in the basement of a bed and breakfast that I was working in at the time. It was more of a hiker hostel than a bed and breakfast. It was right on the Appalachian Trail-I hiked the trail back in 2001; that's what originally brought me down here. I hiked from Maine to Georgia, and then when I was done I went back to work for this Inn- which was owned by a total Luddite named Elmer. I don’t even think he knew that he had an electronic musician working in his basement, but it's where we finished our first record. Since then we've moved all over the place, so…..

Does each place elicit something different from your music?

I think so. I think in general the music will hopefully meet people halfway. Including us. So wherever you are, whatever you're thinking at the time- it can be interpreted so many different ways. Of course there's sort of a center to it, but I think it's open to interpretation, so that the influence of place is important and the detail within the sound can sort of map itself onto the detail of any place….if you let it.

These days, are you finding plenty of room for creative exploration in the US?

Oh, I think it's a fantastic time for music. Yeah, it's really just explosive, actually, because people have access to computers, recording equipment- much more so than we ever have before- music is just coming out of the woodworks. I like to think of it as a new kind of folk music because it's really not based in… there's no corporate control over it. It's really people working in small circles, sharing music with their friends because they love to do this. I think that really shows in the work. Music is warmer than it has been- and I like that a lot.

So you think technology plays a big role in this musical explosion?

Yeah, I think it plays a central role in it. Not that I'm technocratic about it at all, but I think it's becoming easier to express emotion through that technology. Just given the amount of hard drive space we have to work with now, we can develop these libraries that really say a lot about who we are, what our personal taste is and what we find to be interesting. Before that just wasn't possible- even five, ten years ago. We just didn't have that much room to work with. Now you can work on a scale and at a speed that makes it possible to do certain things and I think the music has been greatly affected by that.

Would you say that your work's lack of an overt or explicit political agenda or any sort of oppositional message is in some sort of sense it's political statement- it's message to the public?

Yeeeeah… I think our work is non topical, that what we're interested in, in collecting the samples we have, is that they seem to be themes that are repeated in a lot of material that we go through. And so then it sort of takes on a meaning because it's multiplied by itself. (Ambulance) So, it's interesting to see that when we released our last record, a lot was made of the sort of political statements that were on there. But these were political statements that were made in an entirely different time, and the fact they still have meaning today in a different context is what really interests us. So, I think that… yeah, the political is inescapable, but if you can approach it in a warm and playful way rather than a doom-and-gloom sort of way, it can work.

There seems to me- maybe I'm making this up or extracting it, but it seems to me that there’s a kind of play in your music between like, bare sound and raw perception on one side and a meaning and significance on another side. Am I making this up, or is this something that you're thinking about and deliberately putting into play?

Yeah. In my own arts education, I studied the visual arts and a lot was made in my education, you know probably mostly artificially because I don't think artists really think in these ways, about you know, the difference between modernism and post-modernism, like: what is the difference there? And I think modernism does have this focus on the formal qualities of things- just the sound of it, just being able to enjoy a perfect cube or something like that for what it is, rather than what it represents. And then post-modernism is just completely the opposite, it's: there is no such thing as this object-completely constructed. And I think both of those things are operating simultaneously now in our culture. And in our music as well. There are certain sounds that are just absolutely satisfying as sounds and go way beyond our ability to describe them- they're just viscerally enjoyable. And then other parts of our music are completely intellectual as well. They're totally based on texts or plays on words or whatever it is- but they're sort of vaporous, there's nothing really there except for the context that's created for them. So, yeah, both are operating.

So, kind of continuing on that topic, to me your music seems to resist any sort of labeling and categorization, yet it still has a pretty pronounced identity. I'm sure you still, even now that a lot of people are familiar with your music, get asked “so how would you describe your music”?

(Laughs) I really have NO idea how to answer that question. And I don't think it's necessarily for me to decide. It's one of those things where I'm too close to it to give it an objective name. But it definitely involves collage in a basic way. So I would call it, you know, collage music- bringing together otherwise disparate elements and trying to make a kind of unified whole with them. And, yeah, a sort of a little known, or little understood play on words is the title of our latest album. “Lost and Safe” means “Found Sound” because it comes from “Lost and Found” and “Safe and Sound” which can come together to make “Found Sound” out of that. So that's another central element to what we do- we kind of listen to find material and bring it together. Yeah, it's really hard to give it a genre name. I think it bounces around. I don't think it quotes genres particularly either, although I think there's a baroque element to it that I've really always loved, the sort of canonization of musical ideas, playing things or the same thing at different speeds over itself to see how it interacts with itself. I really love that approach to composing.

I've read something about your creative process, that you try to proceed organically and give each song a sort of natural development and spontaneous evolution, but how about the whole project in general- do you envision this developing in the same way as you develop a particular song, or is it more consciously planned out?

(Laughs) Good question. I don't know, Paul and I are extremely different people, so I don't want to speak for him. So I'll only speak for myself… Let me start in a different place. The thing that has captured both of our attention recently is the idea of working with video as well as sound. And more recently composing video at the same time that we're composing sound so they arrive simultaneously so we don't get stuck in the idioms of either a soundtrack or a music video. It's sort of somewhere in between. They can really reflect upon each other in a one to one sort of way; in a synaesthetic kind of way. That seems to be the direction we're headed in, in an… (laughs)… organic way. Now you can buy a 500 gigabyte hard drive for like 250 dollars- that's a lot of video you can fit on there. And we bought over 2000 video's on our last tour and it's all fantastic stuff. Really rare, totally out of the mainstream, really beautiful stuff- totally usable within these sort of collage things. So the central collage element is I think going to be a constant theme for the Books. But the form that it will take I think is already starting to jump out of something that is purely musical and moving into more synaesthetic territory. I don't know if you've seen our DVD yet.

No, I haven't- but I've seen the show and it's similar to the projections, right?

Yeah, they’re polished versions synced with tracks from our records. And there are a few new studio recordings on there- sort of starting to play around with this idea of working simultaneously with video and audio.

Do you hope to at some point incorporate new artistic disciplines into your work, or for right now do you think you have enough on your hands working between video and music?

(Laughs) Yeah, I think for the foreseeable future we have our hands full. Although, who knows? Yeah, dancers have taken an interest in our music that's really interesting as well. It's something that I didn't really predict. I guess because of its sort of multilayered aspects, choreographers are really attracted to it. So we've had dozens of dance troupes choreograph to our music. It's pretty fascinating to watch. Although, I would have no idea where to begin with choreography.

Wait, so you've incorporated dance into your shows?

No, no I think I would fall over.

Oh, ok, so they're doing this independently.

Yeah, they're using the tracks from our records as the backdrop, not like showing up at our shows and getting up on stage. No, they do their own thing with it.

An unexpected consequence?

Yeah… Everything is an unexpected consequence. (Laughs) When we were working on our first record, we were like, huh, maybe 50 people will hear this someday. It's gone far beyond the scale that we thought it would. It continually surprises us in that regard. We never expected to tour. We never expected to go on the road. I never even expected to start singing, you know? But it kind of needed to be done. And so the music is always pushing me to learn new things and to do things that I'm not particularly comfortable with. So it’s stressful and difficult, but incredibly rewarding. Now that we have a show up and running and it’s sort of polished and fun to play, the audience is so warm and just so great with us that it’s been, you know, great. And not so much in an egoistic kind of rockstar way, but in a way that makes me think that it really has meaning for people.

So do you feel that your music, or even music in general, in enhancing a listener's sensitivity to their world and enriching their perception- can have a sort of “transformative” effect?

Yuuuuhhheees, I think so. Actually, when I was hiking the trail, I was reading this woman's work, her name was- she called herself Peace Pilgrim. She would just walk around the country and talk to whoever she came across. She was like a true American master- in a very home grown sort of way… and she was a great proponent of inner peace. That was the sort of cheesy, flower child aspect to it but I think there's also a really practical and pragmatic aspect to it. We're surrounded by SO much information and noise- it's just a media assault. Especially on certain issues… as we're seeing right now… And it's really confusing to exist in that state. Where early on in our evolution, we were lucky to hear maybe a couple hundred voices in our lifetime, now we can hear a couple hundred voices a day. So for our souls, I think it's a very confusing time. And so our music has been kind of a way for us to reconcile that noise, to kind of sift through it and find the stuff that really resonates and then amplify it in some way- find a way for it to elevate itself. And I think listening will often allow you to reconcile the amount of noise you have to live with in the world- make sense of it and enjoy it in a spiritual way. Cause it really is reality now. There's no escaping it.

I have one last, kind of selfish question. My girlfriend got me into the Books a few years ago, and on the song “Take Time”, about 2/3 into the song, there's this really raucous laughter that's just truly amazing, and it just warms our hearts every time we hear it.

Yeah, ours too. (Laughs) That's um… that's from an African film, and it was in French. I think it's called the “Quartier Mozart”. I'm pretty sure that's the name of the film. And it's from a scene where the women are standing around a well, talking about the sizes of their husbands’ penises.

Wow. Never would have imagined that. Well, there you go- thanks for that.

Yup. (Laughs) It's a great shot.