If there is a single theme that runs through all the reviews of the Books, it concerns the unique, unclassifiable nature of their music. The constituent ingredients are not all that unusual - an eclectic collection of samples (culled from movies, field recordings, and records) paired with acoustic instruments (banjo, fiddle, guitar, cello, mandolin, and so forth) and stitched together with a healthy dose of digital processing and editing. And yet the results are so affectingly singular. When they released their debut album, Thought For Food, on Tomlab in late 2002, it struck like a veritable bolt out of the blue. Released just a year later, their sophomore effort The Lemon Of Pink is a more lyrical record, while remaining quintessentially Books-ish, resisting easy labels or any attempts to pigeonhole.
So, how do they describe what they do?
"We think we're country and eastern," laughs Book Nick Zammuto, when I put the question to him. "No, really, we're a food band - that's the genre we put ourselves in. And it's not that our music is like cooking; it is cooking. When we get together, we make food and we make music. It always happens simultaneously. We're just much more comfortable cooking for audiences than playing for them, so I think that might be part of our live performances someday." It's appropriate, then, that I meet with Nick over a lunch that he has prepared at his apartment in the small, industrial city of North Adams, Massachusetts. Joining us is Anne Doerner, whose haunting vocals, banjo, and fiddle run throughout The Lemon of Pink. Paul De Jong, the other founding member of the Books, is absent, visiting his family in the Netherlands.
The collaboration between De Jong, a classically trained cellist, and Zammuto, a self-taught musician with a background in visual and installation art, began in New York City a few years back, when they lived in the same building. "It was sort of an instant attraction," Nick recalls. "He had me and my girlfriend at the time over for dinner one night and put on this Shooby Taylor record. Do you know Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn? He would scat over anything! And we were all on the floor. We both kind of knew at that moment that we listened in interesting ways and had similar approaches to music."
When the two started playing music together, they saw their work as the Books as a pop project, something quite different from the more abstract, experimental work that they each made on their own. And though they had an instant musical rapport, that first record was a long time in the making, produced in fits and starts over a couple of years and in a variety of locations: New York, Los Angeles, the suburbs of Boston (where Nick is from), eventually completing the final five tracks of the record in rural North Carolina.
"I ended up hiking the Appalachian Trail," Nick says, remembering the final steps in Thought For Food's long road to completion. "And that was a defining moment in my personal experience. It was completely purifying, in a way. I ended up living in North Carolina right after that and my mind was just open to music in a new way, because my ears were so clean, basically. There just happened to be a lot of instruments lying around and I ended up meeting a lot of people, especially Anne, and it led my interests in new directions."
By contrast to Thought for Food, which followed a tortuous path, The Lemon of Pink, took shape in a single stretch over a scant few months of intense activity in a small room in Nick's old apartment in North Adams. "It happened much more all at once," Anne says of the second record, as she began to prepare tea. "I mean that's what he [Nick] worked on for five months straight; whereas Thought for Food was more like you guys [Paul and Nick] having different moments of fun here and fun there."
"You know the sophomore effort is always difficult, once you realize that somebody's going to listen to what you're doing," Nick says somewhat ruefully. "And we were trying to deal with that in the most constructive way that we could. For me, I needed some kind of focus, some kind of sustained effort, just to figure it out, so that was The Lemon of Pink, but now," he laughs, "I just want to have fun again."
When we spoke, The Books were gearing up to begin work on their third record as soon as Paul returned to the States. In preparation for this, Nick has been going through their giant library of samples, culled from all manner of sources: snippets of film and television dialogue, historic speeches that Paul has collected from sound archives in Rotterdam, old records, and, most recently a batch of tapes and mini-discs made by Nick's brother of interviews with friends, philosophical musings and the like.
"We distill [the samples] in a variety of ways, often by putting them in folders, grouping them and kind of fingerprinting them onto our brains and then you start to make associations between them," Nick explains after we finish lunch and sit down in front of his computer to leaf through sound files. "Some of these associations are rational: like a death theme. We've got a lot of great death samples that we've got to use," he says enthusiastically. "The great thing about them is that they're all really bright and happy. They all have a death theme, but there's something about them that's either really funny or really sweet."
An entire Books song often emerges from a single element: a fragment of speech or a particularly compelling sound or set of sounds. "It all seems to grow from a seed," Nick explains, citing the example of some recordings that they made of a friend's eight-year old daughter improvising on a lithophone. "There's this moment when she plays the riff that you hear at the beginning of 'Take Time'," he explains, "and that's the lithophone as she was playing it, just looped. It has a really interesting time signature and a nice melody and it made a nice loop and that was how it started. We had a tempo, a key, and a time signature from that sample and the rest kind of fell naturally from it and was a continuation of that idea in one way or another."
"It's about finding certain resonances between things rather than having things stand for particular concepts," he says of the process of creating a song, as he takes out a mandolin and begins to play with a short loop of Anne's banjo that he finds particularly compelling. "It's about finding the connections between things. I think of what we do basically as just tuning; tuning whatever we find so that it moves in harmonious ways."
March 15, 2004