Interview – Nick Zammuto of The Books December 6, 2010

To use a tired term that I basically hate, The Books show up on a bunch of my bucket lists. I got to talk to them a few weeks back and got to see them live just yesterday. Their new album, The Way Out, fences with the latest Titus Andronicus record for my favorite of 2010. The best song from the album (in my honest opinion) is embedded at the top. Give it a listen while you read for optimal value!

Nick Zammuto is momentarily drowned out by the sound of a wailing child, and for a brief moment, it’s hard to tell if the sound is a sample, another digital artefact cribbed from years of being half of the sonic alloy foundry, the Books.

“Whoops, that’s just my two year old freaking out.” Fresh off a two-year hiatus that saw the release of their latest (and arguably most accomplished) record, The Way Out, it’s a timely reminder of why the Books continue, and why they briefly paused their work. “The long and short answer is children.” The time off, it seems, came as some welcome respite. “We were kind of burned out by working. Two years straight on stuff so it was time for a break.”

Zammuto and partner in crime Paul De Jong formed the Books at the turn of the millennium with their debut release, Thought for Food. Follow-ups The Lemon of Pink and Lost and Safe cemented their wholly unique sound: take two parts samples and curiosities from the world’s thrift and record stores, mix in equal parts original compositions surrounding those samples, shake well and garnish with a fierce awareness that permeates every minute. With the digitization of their findings, however, the creation process has changed.

“Paul loves the thrill of the hunt more than I do. He is a real collector and will go to great lengths to find things.” Touring has given new life to this treasure hunt. “He wakes up early and goes out thrift shopping. He’s amassed an unbelievable collection of raw material. We have a backlog of many thousands of tapes, both cassette and VHS. There’s no shortage of raw material. I think we both like going through it all, it’s very inspiring.” Sifting through the material to come up with gold has perpetuated their songwriting. “Things kind of start to make themselves at some point,” he adds.

The Way Out prominently features some sensitive material. Standout “A Cold Freezin’ Night” features samples from found TalkBoy tapes filled with the violent ramblings of a prepubescent. “When I first heard it, Paul delivered it as part of his sample library and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what has our culture come to?”

It’s a darkness that contrasts starkly to the semi-ecclesiastical wailings on mid-album thesis statement “I Am What I Am”. Both could be aggravating, but are dealt with a sincerity that seems hard come by. “When you take a sermon with a lot of attitude and content to it and you cut out most of that content and just leave this repeated phrase, it has this note of nonsense to it that could be interpreted as flippant or sarcastic. I think in general we are not interested in making sarcastic work. All you can do with that stuff is preach to the choir. We want to highlight and recontextualize information so you can see it in a different way.”

All the sampling and borrowing seems risky these days, but Zammuto is unfazed. “I think at this point it feels more like archaeology than stealing.” With ideas of ownership being challenged with more regularity, he feels being able to practise their kind of advanced pastiche is part of what keeps culture advancing. It’s worth the risk.

“I would rather get a cease and desist order and have to give up all of the royalties it ever makes for the chance for people to hear it.”