The Books have staged a quiet revolution in sound design. Progressive yet old-fashioned, cerebral yet unassuming, the Massachusetts-based duo has breathed new life into the electro-acoustic genre. But Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong's blend of sound collage, chamber music and glitch - that is, artful audio stutters - is more than the sum of its meticulously assembled parts: Their music a thing of beauty.
The two met in New York City in 2000 through a mutual acquaintance and quickly developed a friendship around their shared interests - gourmet cooking and music making. After briefly relocating to North Carolina in 2002, the duo signed with the experimental electronic label Tomlab.
That year's debut disc, Thought for Food, showcased a playfully intelligent band with a finely detailed sound. Its follow-up, The Lemon of Pink, threaded haunting, Appalachian-style folk with singing and freely associative spoken-word samples. Their latest release, Lost & Safe, is an exercise in joyous minimalism, with ever-evolving rhythms, homespun acoustics and cut 'n' paste prose.
Zammuto, who is also a visual artist, brings a panoramic perspective to the band's music. His guitar parts are ruggedly articulate, with plenty of interesting twists and turns. De Jong contributes gorgeous cello lines, adding a stately grace to The Books' sound. He's also a musical packrat, compulsively collecting snippets of audio, such as antiquated poetry readings and the venting of frustrated citizens. Each element, sampled or organic, is subsequently chopped up and folded together in a kind of aural origami.
Championed by critics, The Books enjoy a wider fan base than is typical for experimental artists. Maybe because they eschew the elitist 'tude of many avant-garde musicians. Above all, The Books create music to be heard, not analyzed.
But that doesn't mean they aren't chatty. Seven Days recently spoke with the lively de Jong in advance of The Books' upcoming performance at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge.
SEVEN DAYS: A good deal of electronically manipulated music sounds cold. Your stuff is the opposite - highly stimulating. How do you manage that feat?
PAUL DE JONG: It's our attitude of listening. And the sounds that we are drawn to are what we like to work with. Sounds that are particularly cold, you can't warm up. You can't make something that doesn't sound good in the first place any better by applying an effect. Then it's about the effect, not the source. Our library is true to our tastes . . . There's not a lot of invasive surgery.
SD: You claim to use cheap software and patchwork gear to create your records. Why do they sound so damn good?
PDJ: Well, if you don't mess with your sources too much, then you can use very simple software. Cheaper or expensive, it doesn't make any difference. Sequencing and editing is about spending time and the dedication of your ear.
SD: How do you and Nick break up the musical workload?
PDJ: Not in any particular way . . . There's the knowledge that we can support each other and count on each other's support in any aspect of the work. We understand that we need time alone to actually get composing done. You can outline pieces together once you're into something, but the groundwork has to be laid by one of us. Then we can discuss it, and take it further . . .There's so much to be done, and each of us just does whatever is needed. For us, it's the most fruitful way to work.
SD: Both of you are strong instrumentalists. Do you always think about how you're going to recast the acoustic performances in a digital environment?
PDJ: Yes and no. Both happen. Sometimes we make very purposeful recordings, and at others it's pure improvisation. Some parts are created from completely cut-up instrumental parts. Then we might write it out and re-record it as a single take. In live performance, it's expanded my technique on cello quite a bit, because I have to learn these crazy parts. And there are the freak accidents that sound beautiful. They're like brilliant freebies!
SD: Your music makes terrific use of vocal samples. You must spend an incredible amount of time finding it all. Are you always on the hunt?
PDJ: Yes. Unless we're composing and editing a record, that is. But when we're not, it's constant collecting. On tour, it's fantastic - we go to all these cities and, if we have time, hit every possible thrift store and record shop we can find. When you compose, you have to stop building. You listen to everything and try to internalize it. It's not about how much you have. It's about knowing what's there.
SD: To me, that's what separates you guys from a lot of other artists. It all sounds fluid, like the samples themselves are suggesting changes in the music.
PDJ: We just have these discoveries, and we're completely happy when it works. If it doesn't, no sweat - we just move on to the next idea.
SD: Sometimes the pieces have a humorous absurdity. Other times they're kind of dark. Some sound vaguely political. Is it just serendipity?
PDJ: Some samples don't have a particular literary meaning. But if they end up in our library, then they mean something to us. Often the narrative gets chosen for purely musical qualities, rhythmic qualities or vocal qualities. But of course, a great deal of it is intentional. If it didn't fit perfectly, we wouldn't use it. If something has a political meaning, it's possible we held on to it for that reason . . . But how it functions in a song is not entirely up to us. We're doing 50 percent of the work by proposing it. The other half is completed by the listener.
SD: I, for one, enjoy listening to music with aspects that are open to interpretation. As with a William S. Burroughs novel, you draw your own conclusions.
PDJ: Right. We're not preaching anything. But we're exposed to the workings and problems of society as much as any other citizen of this world, so we're not going to pass it up if we get confronted by it. We're not an ivory-tower duo. There's more of a universal human interest.
SD: The songs on your records are like going from room to room in a big, old house. Does your actual creative environment shape your music?
PDJ: Yes. Our demands are not great, but silence and time are the parameters that really define our work. And if there's a kitchen nearby, it's the third element!
SD: You guys really love food, huh?
PDJ: Well, I'm especially skinny, but I love to cook! Somehow the process of preparing food has similarities to the process of composing.
SD: I can see that. Both require a little bit of daring, improvisation and lots of patience.
PDJ: That's it!