A time and a time and a time and a time: The Books' Nick Zammuto on sample-heavy songwriting
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Samples may be king in hip-hop, but in other realms of pop music they wander around like helpless misfits. For the East Coast duo The Books, though, the use of samples has dictated an entirely new creative process. Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong amass hundreds of gigabytes of material from thrift stores, bargain record bins, and other realms of audio purgatory. Over time, some of these bits—mostly recordings of people talking, musing, lecturing, berating—find their way into The Books' compositions, not merely providing some atmosphere but setting rhythms and at times unwittingly singing along with the duo's layers of acoustic guitar, cello, bass, and, on 2005's Lost And Safe, Zammuto's timid vocals. Live, The Books make this sonic landscape more accessible and engrossing with the help of similarly cobbled-together videos, which Zammuto says function as the band's "frontman." As the two finally completed a follow-up to Lost And Safe for release sometime next year, and prepared for a tour that hits the Cedar Cultural Center on Tuesday, Dec. 1, The A.V. Club asked Zammuto to detail some of the more tricky samples The Books have grappled with recently.
Dutch speech pathology record
Nick Zammuto: It's the sound of a lot of, mostly kids, with kind of rare and pretty radical-sounding speech impediments, where either their voice is tremendously raspy because of a throat condition, or they stutter, or they for some reason leave all the consonants out of their speech, or they sing everything. There are probably 25 different examples, and each one is just amazing. There's a couple where their noses are completely closed. It's all in Dutch, and I don't speak Dutch, so it's this very direct experience of the sound of speech without being bogged down by the literal meaning of it. People have to hear these, but I'm not convinced that I've ever found the right music for it. It has to be understood that it's not this kind of freakshow. It's really this incredible experience of the human voice and how it can deviate from conformity. That's something I haven't found a good home for yet.
The A.V. Club: Speaking of kids, you've both had children over the past few years. Has that opened up a new dimension of sounds for you, or expanded what you look for?
NZ: Yeah, absolutely. Mostly subconsciously, I think. I think we've always been interested in presenting the ordinary world as an extraordinary thing, and having kids just kind of confirms that. Everything they see is completely new to them. Their sense of what's entertaining is, in a sense, much simpler than it is in an adult or a teenager, but in another sense, it's much more keyed in to the reality of the situation. It's a completely un-jaded view of the world, and it's really nice to live vicariously through them and experience that again.
NZ: Talkboy was a tape recorder for kids. It was in Home Alone 2, Macaulay Culkin used it to disguise his voice. So they marketed these things, and a lot of kids had them, but we didn't know what we had until we started listening to them. Kids just kind of go crazy when they get a tape recorder for the first time. It's an empowering thing. They lose a lot of their inhibitions, so these tapes are full of these pretty wild performances. The music has kind of had to rise to the occasion and become more energetic to keep up with them, so this record is much more driven than our previous ones. I think some people will be taken aback by it. [The sample is] basically a conversation between a brother and a sister, and they're basically trying to outdo each other in terms of insults, and it's hilarious, but also kind of frightening, because they take it to such an extreme. So that's one of the new tracks.
AVC: What do you mean when you say the new record is "more driven"?
NZ: It's got more of a heavy beat to it. We've discovered the wonderful world of the 808 kick, and also had the opportunity to sample some really amazing synthesizer—that early synth sound that's totally alien, but at the same time really organic and warm and analog-sounding.
AVC: You've said that sometimes a sample will dictate the time signatures and tempo in a song. Do you look for sounds that will challenge you technically?
NZ: Yeah. There was one in particular, and I don't think it's ready to make its debut into the world until the record come out. It's this guy repeating this kind of reflexive statement. It comes from a sermon, where he's saying, "I am what I am, and I will be what I will be." The sermon stretches over and hour, but it always returns to this theme of making this reflexive statement. So Paul just cut out all the instances of him being this way, and it becomes this incredible stream, it's almost like this self-assurance. It's got a triumphant quality but also an insecure quality. I've been listening to it and trying to find a pattern, and I finally sort of cracked the code in terms of how he was using triplets and quarter notes and the boundaries between them in his voice. I was able to really carefully model this polyrhtyhm that follows his cadence in a way.
AVC: You've only been playing shows with The Books for a few years. How has your approach to playing live changed?
NZ: I went into live performance kicking and screaming. "No, we can make a living through CDs alone, we're a studio band!" And of course that's just impossible. You have to tour to live. So we kind of bit the bullet, and realized right away that playing for a live audience is an entirely different aesthetic. It's its own thing. We can't expect to achieve the level of detail that we like on our records on the stage, so we go for a much more dynamic kind of sound in our live show. The videos are a really helpful way of drawing people into the sound. The video helps people swallow the pill, in a way. Now that we know that our tracks are gonna be used in the live environment, that affects the way I compose them, for sure, because there has to be something for us to do onstage that's compelling. I think you can hear that on the new record, especially, that these are more designed for the stage.