The Books: Reading Between the Lines

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The title of The Books’ third album, Lost and Safe, is the damn truth. Listen: bluegrass melodies on banjo and fiddle contorted into paperclip sculptures; crates of samples seemingly dug by a blindfolded Goodwill shopper; lyrics that make accidental sense. It sounds like everything from Asiatic Appalachian folk to a soundtrack for a future where robots made of empty tomato cans, ham radios, and duct tape rule the world.

Not that the NYC/Western Massachusetts-based duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong can completely explain their music either. “We never heard our kind of stuff until we started doing it,” de Jong says. “That basically means we didn’t know what we were doing at first,” adds Zammuto.

Zammuto and de Jong met in 2000, when they happened to share the same Manhattan apartment. Zammuto is a visual artist who previously dabbled with stroboscope-like guitar on Willscher (Apartment B), an album recorded through a PVC pipe. De Jong is a classically trained cellist from the Netherlands, who spent years modifying his instrument with guitar effects. (“I largely wasted my time on a decade of experiments,” he quips.)

The Books was initially formed to create “pop music,” says De Jong. “[But] when Nick said ‘pop,’ we both stopped to ask what it really means. [The definition] took us both by surprise.” The band kept the pop format as a loose premise to work in, but their music developed a striking cut ‘n’ paste aesthetic more endearing to the folks on IDM listservs than, say, Christina Aguilera fans.

The Books’ music isn’t easy to translate, but it’s not exactly “folktronica” or “digital folk,” tags popular with the critics and journalists who acclaimed their scattered 2002 debut Thought for Food and the following cult hit, The Lemon of Pink. “We just happen to use those instruments that people identify with folk music–banjo, mandolin, fiddle,” says de Jong. “But at the same time, what we do has so little to do with folk music.”

Nonetheless, The Books do embody electronic music’s “folk” essence–namely that anyone with the right software and imagination can domesticate electricity. They favor cheap consumer software, basic microphones, and a sampler. “I think it keeps you more centered as an artist,” says Zammuto, extolling the virtues of simple editing software like Sound Forge and Acid. “It makes you think more carefully about the source material.”

To make Lost and Safe, The Books visited a Wal-Mart to record bouncing balls, performed junk-shop percussion with an amplified file cabinet, and listened to 10 hours worth of minidiscs of Zammuto’s brother rambling in the woods (a representative sample: “Expectation leads to disappointment/If you don’t expect something big, huge or exciting/Usually, uh, I don’t know, it’s not just as, yeah”). “We are both into collecting sounds that are so out of this world, but at the same time very natural,” de Jong explains. “It can open up people’s ears to sounds they never thought of listening to.” Instead of mutating the sounds with zeroes and ones, they let those moments breathe. “Things will have to stand on their own in order to survive,” offers Zammuto. “You can’t take crap and turn it into gold. You [have to] start with something really nice and work with it.”

One of The Books’ favorite pastimes is recontextualizing samples of what de Jong calls “language oddities.” “In all our three records, there are cut-up language samples that are done by serious voices 40 to 50 years ago,” he explains. “[They say things] that could not have been said back then, because we chopped them up and made a new material order.” There is room for self-parody within this technique–as when a sample of an evangelist from the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s church interrupts a pastoral banjo and cello duet to dictate “Sit up straight and be quiet! Sit down, son. Sit up straight in your seat!” Often, The Books carry on entire conversations made of disparate utterances. In “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps,” one voice says “You may call me brother now,” while another (sampled from a separate record) replies, “Yes, brother, I know.”

Included in Lost’s lyric sheets are lines both sung and sampled–with no noted distinctions. The band’s chicory-watered vocals add to this theme, containing meditations on seeking order within chaos. “That’s the basic state of the world,” offers Zammuto. “That’s really the way we think about sound and its potential to connect to other sounds…[meaning] can be magnified if you mix them together in the right way. But as always, it’s about bringing whatever you have to it. We try not to pin down the meaning–we try to leave it open for everyone.”

Prefuse 73 on The Books

“[Around November 2003], I was introduced to The Lemon of Pink from Kieren Hebden (Four Tet), who had picked it up while we were on tour together. Once I put it in my headphones, I was hearing something so unique and original that it became the soundtrack to that tour for me.

“As soon as I got home, I contacted Nick (Zammuto) and told him I wanted to include him in the list of guests on [my] next album. Months later I received material from them via bicycle, and from there I figured it would make sense to make an EP out of it. (The CD) was over 20 minutes of stripped-down sessions from the The Lemon of Pink and other field recordings. I wanted to do some versions of their songs with beats à la Prefuse 73, but not exactly consider them remixes–more like collaborations. I started working on that separate from my actual album, trying to incorporate only their sounds. I wanted to create something ‘banging’ out of it as well as new compositions. The sounds I used would be aligned with [theirs] sonically, rather than aligning our styles of production, which differ but both rely heavily on edited elements.

“I feel their last record was generally slept on and remains a gem to be discovered and felt by many who can relate to any inventive forms of music. It’s a mesh of a bugged-out Nonesuch record, a perfect psychedelic folk record, and a precisely cut-up edit record made out of beautifully composed pieces rolled into one...

“I don’t know what else to say. They’re on their own shit.”