The Books' collage daze

Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong construct their songs from an ever-growing thrift-store library of samples

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      In the decade since the Books formed, their genre-defying style hasn’t gotten any easier to categorize. Mixing intricate electro-folk with a dizzying patchwork of spoken-word samples, the group’s music is both instantly accessible and utterly baffling—a sound that has been achieved through endless hours of crate-digging, searching for the perfect clip. And while the explosion of websites like Vimeo and YouTube has made it easy for artists to unearth obscure new samples, the duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong prefer to go about things the old-fashioned way.

      “During our tours of 2006 and 2007, we made a real habit out of stopping at thrift shops wherever we would go,” explains singer-guitarist Zammuto, on the line from his parents’ house in Andover, Massachusetts, where he and his family are celebrating Thanksgiving.

      Rooting through stores for old home videos and DIY cassettes, the duo sought out clips that were outside the mainstream. “It was either regional, or one-of-a-kind, or a home recording, or just outdated in one form or another,” he says.

      The pair amassed a huge catalogue of samples, with de Jong focusing on sound clips while Zammuto gathered videos. Zammuto also picked up a second gig: teaching a course in collage-based art at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “It was as genre-free as possible,” he recalls. “Some people were making videos, some people were making music, some were making paintings and drawings, some were doing straight-up performance art.”

      Now his focus is back on music, as the Books have spent recent months touring in support of their new album, The Way Out, which was released in July. Over the course of its 50-minute run time, the LP contains some of the highlights of the band’s thrift-store sample hunting.

      “I think the high points of the library this time around were the answering-machine tapes, which were unexpectedly good,” Zammuto enthuses. “Those are really hard to find these days.”

      The most attention-grabbing clips, however, are the hypnotherapy tapes that bookend the LP. “Group Autogenics I” sets a peaceful tone for the album, as the band lays down a gently bubbling acoustic groove while a soothing voice murmurs about “orange-coloured liquid” and invites the listener to “take yourself down deeper.”

      “They usually are talking about really positive things to help you out of whatever hole you’re in,” Zammuto says of the hypnotherapy tapes. “They work, to some degree. Even the tone of voice just suggests this inner work that’s being done.”

      As Zammuto delves further into the inspirations for the album, it becomes increasingly clear that he has carefully analyzed every clip in the Books’ collage of samples, choosing each one for its meaning and emotional impact—a skill that doubtless served him well during his time in the university classroom.

      “I’m really interested in that moment where the music subverts the original sample in some way,” he says, “where it really kind of twists the meaning in some unexpected way.”

      He cites “I Am Who I Am” as a favourite example, explaining that the harsh and glitchy techno arrangement was designed to undermine the evangelical preacher who repeats the titular phrase. “He was obviously trying to be confident about it, and make that statement as self-consciously as possible,” the guitarist says. “The music had to push it hard enough so that it would break in some way and go off the rails.”

      Although samples provide the foundation for most of the band’s material, several tracks on the new album focus instead on Zammuto’s own singing. One such song is “Beautiful People”, which borrows the melody from a Christian hymn and pairs it with lyrics about mathematics. Listening to the ethereal harmonies, you’ll hear phrases you probably haven’t heard since high-school calculus: “convex figures”, “twelfth root of two”, and “irrational sine versus tangent 45”.

      “It just seemed like an interesting idea to take something that was originally Christian in its nature,” Zammuto reveals, “and replace the concept of God with the concept of an irrational number—which is not too far off, I think, in a lot of religions, kind of more mystical ones.”

      It’s heady stuff, and as the songwriter launches into an explanation of the mathematical intervals between notes, there’s no question that the members of the well-studied Books live up to their name.

      Given their unclassifiable sound, it should come as no surprise that Zammuto and de Jong’s approach to playing live is equally unconventional. The band’s stage setup is dominated by the video backdrop, which matches each song with a head-swimming collage of clips.

      “The video is kind of the frontman,” Zammuto observes. “It kind of carries the charisma of the show in a lot of ways. Not the charisma of a single person, or a single ego, like a rock-star kind of thing.” The result, he says, is “somewhere between a film and a concert”.

      Fans can expect a multimedia display that’s every bit as meticulously crafted as the album. “We’re really looking for those synesthetic moments,” says Zammuto, “where all of these different instances of human moments kind of add together, hopefully in a really affecting way.”

      The Books play the Vogue Theatre on Sunday (December 5).