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Behind the Scenes with Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, the Books


Interview conducted by Julie Shapiro, 2003

How did the Books come together as a band?

We met in New York City through a mutual friend named Julie Wolfe. We all lived in an apartment building in a Dominican neighborhood called Inwood at the very northern tip of Manhattan. It was amazing, meringue and little kids on their tricycles at all hours. Once it was clear that we had a strangely similar interest in sound, it didn't take long for us to start working together with the thought that we would try to make 'pop' music. It didn't quite turn out that way but it most certainly has been fun. Anne Doerner helped us a lot on The Lemon of Pink . She is this amazing woman that Nick met in North Carolina, during the time he spent in the south after completing the Appalachian Trail in 2001. She's this crazy piano genius that studied math at MIT and has spent the last 20 years nomadically playing fiddle and banjo on farms and on the streets of various cities all over the world. And she has a great voice.

How is this musical project different from other ones you've been involved with?

Unlike our solo efforts, the Books is a collaboration between some very different people. In the spirit of collaboration we suspend our egos and give what we have freely and try not to be afraid to have our ideas get screwed up by other people. It feels very different than working alone since we have each other to lean on and inspire. It's sort of magical because it allows us to become more than the sum of our parts. It's one of the most satisfying feelings there is since it seems to be the reason we are here on this planet. We just try to have fun and love sound, and respect each other.

In writing songs, do you integrate samples before or after the instrumental parts, or do the samples drive the music?

The sound we are after is one where music and samples are integrated, so that you just can't tell which came first, as if they arose together. Our compositional style is usually bassackwards, nothing is planned, or at least the plan involves no preconception. When it's really working the songs seem to write themselves. A lot of our effort goes into building an enormous library of sounds and samples, then we just listen to it and internalize it until a kind of critical mass is reached and the elements start to naturally build relationships and structures. It's like planting a garden and watching it grow. Then we make a big meal out of the things we've grown and invite people over to enjoy it.

Where do you find recorded sound and samples that are woven into the music? Do you prefer bits that have a musical quality or do you search for contrast?

It's strange but most often the sounds seem to choose us. It seems like all we have to do is keep our antennae up and these amazing things keep coming our way in a steady, inexhaustible stream. We like turning over the really wet mossy rocks and sleeping under fruit trees during certain seasons and playing golf in thunderstorms. Our families are also a constant source of inspiration and material. Paul seems to have inherited the "collector's eye" directly from his grandfather, who when sent out to buy clothing would always return with some old clock. We like the sounds that make us laugh or sigh every time we hear them. We're particularly struck by a sample when the combination of its sound and meaning elevate its impact into something that is sincere, profound, or hilarious.

Do you think of your songs also as narratives/documentaries/short stories?

Yes, albeit not particularly didactic ones. They are sort of self assembling narratives. They are built on the mind's natural tendency to connect everything by threads, it's unavoidable really. We give our songs a lot of room to breath, although we're sort of amazed how the same themes tend to repeat and evolve into a clearer picture. This must be an unconscious outgrowth of our own interests and foibles.

What role does radio play in your lives? What kind of radio do you like best, and is there any correlation between what the Books are doing and narrative radio work?

**Nick Zammuto: I grew up in suburban Boston in the '80s where it was classic rock all day every day, and our family spent a lot of time in the car. I still know all of those songs, and I consider them a big part of my musical heritage. When Nirvana came on the scene my adolescence kicked in big time, all thanks to the radio. In college I worked in a lot of chemistry labs, and it turns out that the majority of scientists are heavily addicted to NPR. They can't go a day without it, so now I always associate NPR with the smell of acetone and fruit fly gruel. Nowadays I flip on the radio in the car to keep abreast of popular culture, the war(s) and other stupid things. I feel closest to radio that speaks its mind freely without getting caught up in the commercial world too much. It seems like wattage and quality are inversely proportional a lot of the time.

Paul de Jong : Being an avid music-listener and book-reader for as long as I remember, radio has always been somewhere in between those two experiences. I do remember radio actually came before I either could read or started to listen to music out of my own initiative. I rarely listen to anything as "background," simply because I do not seem to be too good at concentrating on more than one thing at the time. It kind of would be like listening to music really concentrated while reading Dostoyevsky in the background. Radio is a gentle medium, in that it brings other peoples' interests into my life without corrupting my own merry ways. We recently got our proper introduction to radio production through Gregory Whitehead. We did the soundtrack for a 90-minute radio drama called The Loneliest Road , which was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and will be aired in September. Its all about the strange yet inspiring people who live on the Loneliest Road in America, namely Route 50 in Nevada. In parallel with the making of The Lemon of Pink we composed about 50 minutes of score material from a series of improvisations around the theme of lonely roads. Then we got together with Gregory and laid it all down and mastered it. We're proud of it and hope lots of people get to hear it. Hopefully we can make it available on cd for those who miss the broadcast.** The Books will perform live for the first time as part of the Third Coast Festival this fall.

What challenges will you face in creating your music outside of the studio? What can we look forward to on stage?

We don't want to make an on-stage reproduction of what we do in the studio. It's hard to imagine how to do that anyway. But we would like to try to stay close to the spirit in which we create our recorded work. The challenge is to figure out a way to distribute the sound into a large space while also allowing the subtleties of the sound to remain intact. At this point we are probably more comfortable cooking for an audience than playing music for them, so another challenge is to overcome our shyness that we are so well attached to at home. This might lead to an excessive theatrical extravaganza, but there will be some music too, probably. You can expect something bizarre but cohesive, hopefully.

Okay, I've got to ask. The name! Where? Why? How?!

Where: October 2000, Nick's last night in New York City before moving to LA. Why: We like books. How: We passed around a list of potential names to our friends, and it was the only name that was universally not chosen. It's much better than 'The Headless Strausses.'