Thursday, September 30, 2010
For as straightforward of a name as The Books, the New York-based duo’s work remains all too misunderstood. Many people have labeled the musical impetus of Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto as unprecedented, even forming their own ‘genre of one. ’ However, The Books are quite the opposite—creating sonic collages through a combination of intricate computer music compositions and spoken word samplings, forming a sound that manages to resonate as completely familiar despite the seemingly endless amount of deep cuts comprising each piece. It’s more like mash-ups made for the serious and contemplative, rather than a rehash of the Top 40 Charts. In a way, The Books read like the subconscious soundtrack to our own lives.
As The Books make their way down the East coast on their current tour, including a stop at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse on October 3rd, I spoke with Paul de Jong about their most recent album The Way Out, sampling, thrift shops and his recent preference for cassettes over vinyl.
Max Blau: Two months after The Way Out has been released, how do you feel about it?
Paul de Jong: The album is completed six months before it comes out, so there is this period in which we already do different stuff and are starting to have a different perspective toward the record. But it kind of has become stronger for us. It’s really holding up so far. We’re so involved now in translating a lot of the music on the album to the live show, that I think in the past month we’ve mostly been involved with the album as performers. It’s a completely new perspective to work from.
Inevitably, the music is changing somewhat because we’re making live versions of it. And we’re always reluctant because it’s so much a studio process making our albums, and we don’t particularly think so hard about how this is going to work live. We’ve kind of learned by trial and error….The first two records were made without ever performing in mind. With the third record, we started thinking about it somewhat. This record was made with the knowledge that a lot of the material would be incorporated in the show.
I’m really curious about how your sampling process works with your live show. You mentioned that much of your music was never created for live performance—so how does your music morph and adapt within a live setting?
We incorporate so much video into our show—every song basically by now has video...and they’re all synchronized to the music. So we started out in a very straightforward way, we just played the live parts live on our instruments and everything prerecorded was just a stereo track on the DVD sync with the video and would be streamed right out of the PA…That has changed—we were really reluctant …and now we’re over that, mostly because the software is so much better. We’re using Ableton and we have a third band member onstage for our live show…[that] normally plays violin and guitar but also triggers samples with a MIDI keyboard. That’s really changed the entire way we started thinking about using samples live. Now we use Ableton, we can have plug-in effects over tracks, over live instruments that our synced to the music. It all becomes as a live show more dynamic. Not all the samples are canned anymore, just streaming from the tape; they’re actually being played and becoming much more like an instrumental element.
How had the five-year period between Lost and Safe and The Way Out affected the way you two make music? What do you think the biggest change has been over that period of time?
Our personal lives have changed so much over the past five years that I think it had a very profound impact on how we worked together and how we individually work and what our expectations are of ourselves. Up through Lost and Safe, we were basically bachelors who moved around a lot from apartment to apartment. We often lived very far apart from each other and had makeshift studios. We would work very hard at things, but still it would have a little haphazard feel to it. It wasn’t really centered in a certain place.
In those five years, we both married and had children and found ourselves a place to live that is not too far from each other (like an hour and a half apart). We built our private, ideal studios for ourselves—mine is right behind my house and Nick’s [studio] is a converted tractor garage on the land that he has. That created a certain stability in our work lives that I think The Way Out is a reflection of. Also, we started touring so much—it changed our life there as well, because on tour, there’s an enormous amount of impressions.
It’s also very hard work that’s also frustrating because you’re not with your family and you’re not really able to compose or to do the work that you do in your studio. You just kind of do the bare bones on the laptop. To have that studio and connect there for a day’s work—to truly focus on producing a well-balanced work—is something that I don’t think we’ve really experienced before on quite that level.
In terms of your sample library, how many samples did you amass leading up to the composition and recording of The Way Out? And to take it one step further, can you walk me through the process of how you pick out samples?
[Laughs]. I think I’m kind of a thrift store pro. When I go in there, I identify the corner where the videos and cassettes are and the books. I just go through the video cassettes and I pick out anything that is just not mainstream and looks like something that is so obscure that it might yield some interesting sampling material—I’ll throw it in the shopping cart and in the end I see what I have…It’s whatever looks like real ‘near the fringe’ of recorded media that has my interests. I just always have an antenna for that—I’ve always been a collector of antiques, of books, of records, of musical instruments. I started collecting recorded sounds at a very early age—so I have an antenna when I go into a record store. I flip through the spoken word sections real quick and pick out what is really beyond obscure.
If you had to pick one, what would you consider to be one of your favorite thrift stores or record shops that you have encountered during your travels?
We played a concert a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh. And what I do usually before we go on tour is go to Google and look for thrift and record stores in the towns that we’re going to hit, and I map out a trajectory of stores that I absolutely want to be able to go to. So in Pittsburgh, I went to this little record store called Jerry’s and I think it figures into the top 3 best used vinyl record stores that I’ve ever seen. It was a complete surprise that, I just hadn’t expected something like that in Pittsburgh. I ended up booking another night in a hotel and going back there the next day, because there must be at least a million records there and the spoken word section alone took an hour and a half, two hours to get through. I had just a fantastic yield of unusual records. And on top of that, his colleague next door in the same building has a similar shop just for 78 rpm records and he sold me all his obscure private home recordings on 78’s. That’s something I never had gotten into, but now I have.
Is there a particular media format that you prefer when you are looking for these ‘obscure’ sounds?
I started with LP’s, and I love LP’s—I love the sound of it, I love the quality of them. I love the era in which they were produced, but for The Way Out, I really started focusing on audio cassettes, which is yet another era of recorded sound. It’s roughly 25 years from 1965 to 1985, 1990—until it starts to get completely taken out by CD’s. I can immediately identify a sample that comes from an audio cassette or a LP—it’s the clicking and popping from an LP or particular white noises that you get from a cassette. But both media give a reflection of this entire era of recorded sounds that they represent. Audio cassettes have become closer and more endearing to me because they are more from the era in which I grew up myself, so it’s more sounds that I grew up with. But I still really love the classic sound of an LP and of the way they were recorded back then—the kind of microphones they used, the way language was treated—it has a real particular time stamp to it.
One last question for you Paul. Name one artist, or sound/sample in your case, that has really stuck in your mind lately?
That can really be in visual arts or music or in literature too. That’s really hard, and I always feel terrible if I have to pick out one example—it makes me feel like I’m leaving out everybody else. So there is for instance a Russian absurdist writer named Daniil Kharms, and he’s just starting to become translated in America. They’re kind of these short, completely absurd, but very profound vignettes that we both feel a real kinship with. He ended up dying in a concentration camp—which many original minds ended up with that fate, but he’s really amazing—you should check him out.