Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong—known widely as The Books since their conception-shattering 2002 debut, Thought for Food—never intended to tour. A decoupage of samples hoarded from thrift stores and majestic or frenetic guitar and cello lines, their music seemed safest in transit from studio to headphones. Live, it might beg more questions—Who's playing what? Is this really a performance? What are these voices?—than it might delight.
Eventually, though, the duo took to the road, bringing along synchronized videos that turned their quiet, careful ideas into hyper-sensory, hyper-provocative entertainment. Onstage, their little sample-based tunes suddenly became wonderful, weird epics. The band's latest and inarguably most diverse record, The Way Out, is one of the year's best; the band's live show pushes those tunes to what must be the limits of economical imagination.
We talked to Zammuto at his home in southern Vermont.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: During the five years between Lost and Safe and The Way Out, you built a house and worked to raise a family. Did that time away from The Books bring you back to the fold re-energized?
NICK ZAMMUTO: You'd probably get a different response if you talked to Paul. I just work. It's what I do. But being involved in those other projects, especially doing architectural design for a couple of years and having children on top of that, really changed the way I think about things in a very basic way. So there was a lot of refreshed energy coming back to The Books after a few years off. Knowing that our livelihood is based on playing live rather than producing records also changed the way I think about composing. It really has to work onstage for us to make a livelihood out of it, so that was more of a concern this time around.
The Books were reluctant to tour for a while. Was the realization that you had to in order to make this your livelihood a difficult one?
It made me furiously angry for a long time, that people wantonly steal what we do. But I've kind of come to realize over the years that going out and seeing people for real—even if it's for just a few hours during the show—brings a sense of reality and closure to the work that, at this point, I don't want to live without. A lot of my original fear about getting onstage and having our work misinterpreted has really been replaced by an awe of the power of live music. There is no other force in the world that can bring people together that way. That's a pretty amazing thing. I know it's a total cliché, but it's really true. To see this self-selecting group of people come together from who knows where and be there together in that moment is a powerful thing. I think of records as paying it forward in a way, and that's always a good way to live. It's like tipping well in restaurants; it guarantees you good service down the line in a karmic way. You make the records essentially for free. You know you have a good thing going if people show up after that.
What did that realization make you reconsider about the way you write music for The Books? What needed to change?
There's always this meta quality to our performances. Not everything in our show is reproduced live. It's almost a glorified karaoke, what we do, because there's always an image there. And there's usually some kind of backing rhythm that ties it all together. It's electronic in nature, so to reproduce it live I don't think would add anything. But there has to be clean lines for us to play throughout the music—more continious guitar lines or cello lines or vocal lines that can tie a track together from beginning to end. That's what I look for when I'm composing: "OK, what could we be doing onstage that could possibly add to this?"
Video is such an important part of your show that moves so well thematically and musically with the sounds you and Paul are making. To what extent is it a synesthetic synthesis, where the music is informing the video and vice versa?
Our band doesn't really have a frontman, and neither of us are comfortable standing up onstage and sucking up that much attention. From the beginning, we always wanted to include video in our show as the stand-in frontman. It's like the lead singer of the band in a lot of ways, and it carries a lot of charisma, hopefully. It would be a tall order for us to be that charismatic onstage. I really love that word synesthetic, and I feel like image mixed with sound is such a powerful combination. When you're watching a narrative film, it only goes so far in experimenting with synesthetic phenomena. What we're interested in is expanding that notion of how video can be used as a rhythmic device. The cutting is really rhythmic against what we're playing onstage. There's really a one-to-one relationship between what's going on in the sound and what's going on in the video. When Paul was working on his audio library, I was working on a video library. A lot of the new videos are made from the stuff that I've been collecting over the last few years. Since we've had an audio library and a video library ready to go from the outset, we've found a much more tightly integrated approach. We'll have a video idea the same time we have an idea for a musical track, so from the very beginning, they become tied together. When you're sick of working on the audio, you can switch to working on the video. They refresh each other, give each other ideas.
You played some of this material for the first time live at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., in March. It's interesting to see how people react to a track like "A Cold Freezin' Night," where a little boy tells a little girl, "You stay alive as long I want you to so I can kill you."
I think the thing we're after is to really give people a chance to have a personal response. It's not like we're looking to have the same response from everyone. We feel like the audience kind of completes the work. Maybe it's a cliché, but we're trying to put that into practice, where we leave the meaning of it spongy enough where the only way you can complete it is by filling in these large gaps with your brain. You've got to bring yourself to that process.
There's a lot of humor in our live show, especially, but it's not the kind of jokes everyone laughs at all at once. Some people get it, some people don't. You see these little sparkles of response coming from different areas of the audience, and that's when I'm enjoying it the most—blank stares from half of the people, smiles from the rest. It's just on the edge of what's perceptible. On the new record, there's some stuff that people find pretty damn disturbing, and other people find it really hilarious. I'm always wondering where that line is between the scary and the funny. Maybe you can have those feelings simultaneously.
How do you interpret those interpretations? As the artist, what do you take away from those disparate live reactions?
For me, it's tremendously satisfying. The material totally depends on how it's presented. In all the hypnotherapy material we use, it would be one thing if it came across clearly as just a joke. It would mean something really different than what we're really after. It's almost believable. Some of the weird stuff they say about orange liquid sounds absurd, but there's something to it. Reframing it hopefully adds a depth to the material, and, in its original context, it would never reach this audience. We're trying to expand the meanings of these things in a way that people can enjoy for its superficial value. But there's also something else in there that, if you dig, you'll find it. Paul is the collector of the two of us, and he spends a lot of time going through this material trying to find stuff that might be useful for the compositions. I think the experience of listening to it is almost like an archaeological dig—you're going through layers and layers, and you'll never get it the first time you listen.