The Books — consisting of Paul De Jong and Nick Zammuto — have been making sacrifices to immerse themselves in their art form since releasing their debut, Thought for Food, in 2002. Their knack for the exploration of our everyday world within sound provides depth and understanding beyond most artists’ ordinary perception. A new DVD, Playall, finds the band compiling visuals from the near-defunct technology of the VHS tape. Zammuto talks about the concept behind Playall, Brian Eno, and his feelings about independent music showing up in television commercials.
Do you guys have plans for a new record anytime in the near future?
We just released a DVD, which has quite a few new things on it. The DVD was a huge amount of work, so we definitely think of that as a major release, involving new music as well as this whole new visual element we’ve been putting together. Beyond that I’m working on a soundtrack and editing a film. It’s a documentary about the biosphere, which was a project out in Arizona in the ’90s, and it’s been fantastic. Other than that, there’s always a new project on the horizon.
What was the concept behind the Playall DVD?
When we started touring, we started going to Salvation Army and Goodwill and thrift shops all around the country and picking up VHS tapes — just whatever we thought might be interesting. We brought home over two thousand VHS tapes. The DVD is largely based on the projection we do behind us in our live show, although it’s polished and finished versions of those. Music videos, basically. The concept was to incorporate all of these videos and some video we shot ourselves with tracks from the records and some new material.
When beginning work on a track, do you usually build the samples around the instruments, or vice versa?
Could be either way — it kind of arrives simultaneously, usually. There’s some tearing of the two that becomes kind of the seed for the rest of the track. Once we find something that’s really strong, we can build on to it and put together a body of sounds that can elevate it somehow. Then we can start to decide how it can begin or end and how it will be.
I’ve always been curious, where did the primary vocal sample from the track “Lemon of Pink” comes from?
That was from a Dutch cosmetics record. I think it’s a lipstick color, actually.
Do you ever go back to tracks listen to them and completely forget where a certain sample took place?
Yeah, especially as we get older our memories start to age a little as well. We’ve been through so much by now that sometimes it’s hard to remember. But the really key stuff is very strongly mapped into our subconscious, so we know where the major stuff comes from.
Do you ever get inspiration for your samples by just walking outdoors?
Oh, absolutely. I hiked the Appalachian Trail back in 2001 from Maine down to Georgia and that was a reset button for my whole brain. It was so nice to be outside in the peace and quiet. I didn’t listen to music during that time and I didn’t make any recordings, but I did a lot of listening to the natural sound of the forest. It’s amazing how spending time outdoors can tune your senses in a way; it kind of brings you back in touch with the world in a really healthy way. I’m speaking for myself. Even my sense of smell has increased like a hundred times; it’s been incredible. And a lot of our percussion comes from stuff we’ve found out in nature, like steeping on pinecones and snapping twigs and things like that.
How long did it take you to hike the Appalachian Trail?
One hundred twenty-nine days.
Where would you guide a person who wanted to start collecting samples?
I think vinyl has kind of already had its heyday in terms of what you can really get out of it. But I think the best place to start is in your daily life, just by listening to everything that’s around you and going through your own personal archives. I think the most important part is knowing how to listen for it. You have to kind of strip to the pretense away, to not pay attention to the context of it. You have to pay attention to the actual sound of it at any given moment and sort of pull it out of context in your mind to hear how it might be used out of its original context. You can do that with anything — radio, TV, conversations with your friends — but the thing that we’ve been into really recently is VHS tapes. They are totally outdated now so people are just throwing them out and giving them away, so that’s what we collect at thrift shops. There are mountains of them, and they are all beautiful. It’s been a real inspiration to start working with them.
What was your main inspiration to start collecting samples?
I think it’s not really an inspiration as much as a compulsion. Sometimes it’s really kind of bad because everywhere you go you’re listening in this way. I think maybe the inspiration is this modern life we have — or this post-modern life, which is a better way to describe it. The amount of noise that we have in our lives is completely over-saturating; we’re just kind of swimming in so many different voices and so much information. Picking through it requires a huge amount of energy, and I think it really tires people out being surrounded by so much noise all the time. Sample collecting has been a way to reconcile all this noise within our souls in a spiritual kind of way. It’s a way of making sense of the noise and tuning it and making something beautiful out of it.
Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing recently with your “sound art”?
On the DVD there’s an extra with quite a few sculptures on there, but that’s kind of taken a back seat, although I’ve made some sculptures that have been really useful for the Books music. In an “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps,” that was the filing cabinet that I installed subwoofers inside of. You can send all different kind of sounds through the filing cabinet so you get this sort of rough, metallic percussion drone. We’ve played around a lot with PVC pipes as well, sort of tuning ambient sounds in a way. I studied sculpture, drawing, and painting in college, and it wasn’t until after college that I really started making music, so that’s my background.
You guys have been playing live shows sporadically for the past few years. What’s it like rehearsing for those?
It’s pretty intense. Our show is very choreographed, so there is a lot of music that we need to know and memorize. There’s a lot of rehearsal that goes into it. Then to figure out how to get the rhythm tracks to blend with both the video and with our live playing, we have to do a lot of retrofitting from our records to make it work. So we have our computers running while we’re rehearsing, fixing our files at the same time as we are learning our parts. And there’s quite a bit of rewriting that needs to be done for each track that we bring to the stage.
What are your thoughts on independent music showing up in commercials more and more frequently?
It’s an unfortunate situation. Our label hasn’t paid us in over a year and a half. People just don’t buy CDs anymore. So when these commercials come along, they are the only ones paying market rate. I have a small child who needs health insurance, who needs food, and I’m not going to turn down that source of income. It’s an unfortunate thing; I wish I didn’t have to. I’ve gotten hate mail about it before. I had one guy that say, “If you get a flesh wound, just use superglue.” I was like, “Leave me alone, man.”
There’s just a huge misunderstanding between how people think the music business works and how it actually works. We take huge financial risks whenever we start a new record. We’re the ones who pay for that. We’re the last ones that get paid for what we do. Trying to raise a family within that context is very stressful and really distracting to making creative work. We really have to take the opportunities that come our way just to survive.
There are a few Brian Eno quotes that I always think of when listening to the Books. Maybe you could tell me if they are relevant to your music.
I’d love to.
“I take sounds and change them into words.”
Yeah, I think that’s the activity of the mind. I think it’s totally unavoidable in music. You put two sounds next to each other they are going to form a sentence in some way. I think that’s what he means by that. It’s a really subtle language to have sounds interrelate. It totally activates the narrative parts of our brain while at the same time being a purely sonic thing as well.
“We are increasingly likely to find ourselves in places with background music. No composers have thought to write for these modern spaces, which represent thirty percent of our musical experience.”
I think the interesting thing about background music is, for guys like us, it’s the first thing we notice when we walk into a room. So it’s never background music; it always just really sticks out. The fact that it can recede in the background is really important to film and music. It can provide us subconscious emotional atmosphere for the foreground. It’s there, and there’s a real art to making it. There’s no systematic way to do it that’s truly satisfying. So there is a lot of art in making music that’s designed to recede into more subconscious types of perception.
“As soon as I hear a sound, it always suggests a mood to me.”
I’m always amazed at the flexibility and on-the-dime responsiveness of our limbic systems to almost anything. Human beings are absolutely raw nerves, and they are totally sensitive to their environment if they let themselves be that way. Every color, every shape, every sound has a meta-quality that goes far beyond its ostensible meaning. I think the more we synthesize ourselves to that the richer our experience can become.