THE BOOKS: THE EAR IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER
Stream: The Books “Tokyo”
I recently had a phone conversation wrapped in the premise of a game show with one of my favorite bands: The Books. That’s right—The Books are playing games with me! For those of you who are unaware of their splendor, I’m honored to introduce them. As for the rest of you sonic birdheads, I am very pleased to announce that they are currently applying the last golden straws to their forthcoming album. The Books will be in town tonight putting on one of the most ingenious and heartfelt audio-video live performances you are likely to encounter. They are the best at what they do and they don’t do it too often. So be there or be in some grocery store buying organic black beans and American Spirit yellows. Either way, you’ll be in familiar territory. Time to play. (This interview-slash-game show by Derek Thomas of 60 Watt Kid.)
Paul de Jong (violin, samples, electronics, visuals, etc.): Can we please start with ‘Live Shows’ for 20?
Your songs and live video are so precisely paired together, but you pull it off live with what seems to be very little effort. I caught a performance at American Music Hall—emotional bliss! You have a rare ability to provide insight into what everyday tasks would be like if they were accompanied with an ideal soundtrack. Do you design all of your own videos? Who helps you run them when playing live?
Paul de Jong: Yes, we shoot all of our footage ourselves. There is really no great mystery to it. We put the songs together with the video. We recently started working with a great audio/visual archivist who covers a field of film from the beginning of moving image into the 1960s. One of the pieces will be showing at out next performance.
Nick Zammuto (guitar, samples, electronics, visuals): Playing live is mainly about fulfilling our interest in making videowork and a chance to connect with our audience which is rewarding. I’d like to choose a category, please. I’d like to go with ‘Very Curious’ for the highest point denomination available.
For 30 points: Much of your work is a subtle and gentle juxtaposition of electronic and acoustic instruments. What I am trying to say is that the songs really breathe and each instrument and sample occupies a lovely sonic space. Is there is a rule or two that you go by in all your work that determines the Books’ cohesive aesthetic?
Nick Zammuto: I think by avoiding a lot of heavy low end we are able to open up a lot of the high-end nuances that you’re possibly hearing. That’s one rule—but we do break that rule fairly often. Another rule would probably be that we just don’t have any rules. Not much is preconceived, so once we find a thread we try to hang on to it—it’s following the demand of that thread and seeing where it takes us.
For 15 points: Do you take opinions of your collages or songs before they are considered finished? Or do you two go it alone? How do you know when you are done?
Nick Zammuto: A lot of our work is very subconscious. It’s hard to know or say when things are done. But for the most part, it’s really about satisfying the demands of our own ears.
Paul de Jong: In a way, the ear is the absolute ruler. We bounce ideas off one another and have opinions we trust but in the end it’s up to who puts in the work to know and say so. At some point, emotional satisfaction paired with intellectual satisfaction kind of saturate the moment and you just know you’ve reached the saturation point for a song.
Nick Zammuto: George Lucas was quoted as saying, ‘Films don’t finish—they escape.’ And I have to agree.
Paul de Jong: I’d like to choose ‘Samples’ for one hundred please.
The highest I have is for 50 points. So for 50 points—what is the story behind your sample of the father telling his little girl that he was in fact not her father and that he did not know her? And what song was that used in? Word on the street is that you caught that clip in a museum as a parent was getting annoyed with his child. The tonality of that sample reveals rarely captured genuine emotions and I think it sums up what the Books do best—transport and reveal.
Paul de Jong: The song you were referring to was off of our first release Thought for Food and it is called ‘Motherless Bastard.’
Nick Zammuto: If we could get the opening band to dress up in rabbit suits, then we might have something as far as re-enacting the sample’s original context. On our upcoming release we employed some recording from a Talk Boy—a tape recorder for kids marketed in the early ‘90s and used through the Home Alone movies. It turns out when you give a kid a tape recorder they go wild. We kept finding these tapes at thrift shops of kids doing crazy improv with these altered voices. One of them had a brother and sister battling banter competition that escalated to murder, dismemberment and all sorts of brutality, so we used that on one of our new tracks.
Paul de Jong: Throughout the years we obtained a fairly large group of weight loss records, and we have finally managed to turn them all into a weight gain record. Part of it will be featured in one of the ‘group therapy’ tracks on the new album and we are quite proud of that. I think it’s the first real weight gain record out there. I’d like to take samples for the kill please.
It seems you guys enjoy being silent observers. Is every public moment a secret sonic sample mission? Do your friends or loved ones have issues with your constant sampling when you’re out in public together? Has anyone ever just thrown your recorder under the wheels of Satan’s chariot because they feel like they are second priority or anything?
Nick Zammuto: Well, it’s what we do for a living now so they need to respect that. I think the intensive looping is the most bothersome. When you’re making electronic music you are constantly looping phrases that repeat for what seems like forever as you discern their contents. Basically there is no way around listening to the same damn thing over and over again. I was recently nudged to move the studio out into the garage and I actually quite like it.
Paul de Jong: It’s definitely different when you are in control of the looping. Much less annoying then being at its mercy. I find it quite enjoyable actually—time-testing fragments. The American composer Carl Ruggles used to time-test bits of arrangements by pounding out a couple bars over and over for hours. When asked what the hell he was doing he said he was just time-testing the interval.
Nick Zammuto: So what’s the score anyway?
Paul de Jong: What’s the winner’s prize when we get to L.A.?
Um, let me see here—I can’t remember exactly right now but I do recall it involves chocolate and a snorkle.
Paul de Jong: I think our personal Alex Trebek is a bit of an amnesiac.
I’d actually like to pick the next category if that’s OK with you two. I’m choosing the category ‘Very Curious’ for 20 points: Do you two ever make up games or strategies before writing a new song to provoke creativity? What are some of the secret ways you coax creativity out of yourselves?
Paul de Jong: Sure—sometimes I need to seduce myself and sometimes it’s even necessary to force myself into something.
Nick Zammuto: The general aloofness of one’s senses can push the colors into different area as well. Images and specifics can be very handy in describing certain situations. I’d like to choose a category if I may. Can I go for ‘Random Questions’ for the kill, please?
Ah yes—I thought you’d never ask. I made a mix of a few of your albums while driving by the coast in Northern California. Your music has an ability to draw out fond memories and keep the darkness at bay. For 20 points—what advice would you have to offer a run-down heavyweight boxer with aspirations towards getting involved in late-night infomercials?
Nick Zammuto: Finally some deep stuff! First off, if they could find a spot next to the ‘Farting Preacher,’ that would boost their audience immensely.
Paul de Jong: Definitely. The farting preacher has all the hype right now. Try and keep the promotions down to one-minute segments or less but make them highly repetitive. Let’s stick with ‘Random’ for 30 more points.
How do you feel about television as a missed opportunity? Or if you could broadcast anything 24 hours a day, what would it be?
Nick Zammuto: Puppies.
Paul de Jong: Definitely reruns of CNN Today running backwards.
Nick Zammuto: At some point in the future you’re going to run out of footage and …
Paul de Jong: Well, that’s not really my problem. I think that’s what we should do. Another question from the category concerned with ‘Samples,’ please.
As far as verbal or vocal samples, it seems to me that you use words for their emotional tenor and vibrational implications—what the sampled words are actually saying is often almost secondary. Is this something that you do intentionally? Or am I reading into this too much?
Paul de Jong: I think that’s up to the listeners, really. A sample can take on different qualities when relating to its surroundings but I think they are equally important. Both literally and figuratively really. The functionality of the sample can be considerably greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Do you live close by one another?
Nick Zammuto: It is a fairly reasonable distance. For the most part we see each other once a week and work—quite a bit more often as we come towards the completion of something.
Who will be releasing your next full length?
Nick Zammuto: We’re not quite sure at this exact time. We may be self-releasing or we may not be. We have not finalized that part quite yet.
How do you relax and what about playing music for a living feels like actual ‘work’ to you?
Paul de Jong: Well, we have never been a band with a huge corporate interest and at this point that seems to be becoming pretty irrelevant. In the past three years the face of the industry has changed a lot. There is a lot of work that goes into making a Books album. From finding the first sample, classifying it, categorizing it into a new sample library and dressing it up. There is definitely a lot of time and love put into it. Playing live is one of the main ways we enjoy the work we put into each album. We relax and enjoy.
I was curious if there were things fans might be surprised to know about you—fetishes and what not?
Nick Zammuto: People seem to be surprised to see who we actually are. I think people also for some reason assume that we must take a lot drugs.
Paul de Jong: Please pass the candy.
Nick Zammuto: Really, I am complete straight-edge and I always have been.
Paul de Jong: Then again, I do enough drugs for the two of us.
THE BOOKS ON MON., NOV. 23, AT THE MASONIC LODGE AT HOLLYWOOD FOREVER, 6000 SANTA MONICA BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $27 / ALL AGES. VISIT THE BOOKS AT THEBOOKSMUSIC.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/THEBOOKSMUSICPAGE.