For nearly 10 years, the duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, known collectively as The Books, has pursued a singular and almost unclassifiable musical direction. Combining Brian Eno’s Ambient sound, found-sound elements and warped Indie Rock sensibilities — with touches of Frank Zappa’s avant-garde ethic and Negativland’s cut-and-paste songcraft thrown in for color — The Books’ discography is a sonic collage of skewed beauty and intelligence.
After relatively brief gaps in their release schedule — 2002’s Thought For Food, 2003’s The Lemon of Pink, 2005’s Lost and Safe and 2006’s Music for a French Elevator EP — The Books took nearly five years to craft their latest work, The Way Out. But don’t get the idea they were locked away in studio isolation, arduously assembling their masterwork over half a decade.
“When we started working together, we were both single men moving around a little bit and in the past five years that changed,” de Jong says, fresh from a soundcheck on The Books’ current tour. “We both started families and found ourselves houses where we made studios. That’s taken up quite a bit of time. Then creating a new sample library took almost three years and then making the new record … time flies.”
Zammuto’s situation in particular had a huge impact on The Way Out, as his studio space is detached from his house, allowing him the luxury of higher volume.
“My studio is an old tractor garage that I converted,” Zammuto says. “Since it’s apart from the house, I could really work loud. The fact that I didn’t use headphones once making the record made a big difference, in terms of getting a mix that was more transparent.”
Punctuated by a stream of self-help source material, The Way Out serves as the fulcrum between self-inflicted pop psychology and the people who would seek such tangential assistance.
While The Books weave in songs that aren’t directly related to the self-help theme, those off-topic tracks reinforce the album’s overarching concept.
“We had such an avalanche of hypnotherapy and self-help material that it made sense to expand it into almost an EP and spread that EP over the length of a record,” Zammuto says. “From the beginning, we knew that material was going to be important; in the end it became a way to bookend the stuff which is unrelated to the hypnotherapy stuff. We don’t want people thinking it’s entirely a self-help record, but it became useful for bookending the concept of the record, The Way Out and its various interpretations.”
The Way Out’s title works on a variety of levels, describing the path people take to escape their mental or physical chains as well as the perceived fringe aspect of that path. As de Jong notes, it also points to the obsolescence of the vinyl and cassette resources that provide the found sound for The Books’ recordings. That concept wasn’t really on The Books’ minds when they started the writing process.
“Those themes kind of emerged from the sample library and that came about because we shifted a little from using LPs as the main raw material to expanding the library to audiocassettes,” de Jong says. “That spans a different era in recorded history. Small businesses with big ideas would spread their word in a fairly cheap way on cassettes, so (the album) naturally started gravitating towards that material once I started digitizing and cutting audiocassettes. There’s just an enormous amount of self-help and guru-like meditation tapes, and there’s really great material there.”
With the fruits of their thrift store and used record/bookstore excursions transferred to the digital realm, The Books have the ability to call up their sample library at the touch of a key on stage. That gives Zammuto and de Jong (and their live multi-instrumental cohort Gene Beck) the latitude to re-create anything from their diverse and wildly entertaining catalog for an audience. But that format also means that The Books’ shows are necessarily formatted and more structured than improvisational. In concert, the Books utilize a video component that is as integral to the experience as the music that they’re reproducing.
“The video projection is linked in a kind of one-to-one way, as if it was a lead singer moving and dancing with the music. And, again, that’s from VHS tapes we’ve found,” Zammuto says. “Working live is so different from making a record, it took a long time to come to grips with the difference between the two. But now that we have a feeling for how it works, we’re able to pull out interesting instrumental threads that we want to play ourselves and leave a lot of the stuff that works better as electronic rhythms synced with the video. In a sense it’s like glorified karaoke, but it’s built for a live dynamic, somewhere between watching a film and seeing a concert.”
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