The Books: Don't take us literally
They don't make personal statements in their music. It's much more fun to use other people's, they tell Howard Male
Friday 15 December 2006
So why oven gloves? The question seems quite reasonable for a band whose world of words and music is made almost entirely from the juxtaposition of the banal with the extraordinary. But we'll get to that later.
The guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto and the cellist Paul de Jong formed The Books in 2000, which neatly detaches them from the century of jazz, blues, and other popular recorded music to which they refer, and escape from, in their work.
The significance of the year wasn't unnoticed by Zammuto. Did he feel a sense of musical responsibility? "Well, kind of. I did have a palpable sense of where we were technologically," he says. "That anybody who has access to a computer can produce a professional sound. So it was important to stay out of big studios - stay out of the mainstream, basically, and still make it work somehow."
Although ages aren't revealed, Zammuto is a decade older than de Jong, and the only common ground they had musically when they met was Nick Drake, whose "Cello Song" is the encore to their live shows. Zammuto cites Nirvana as a formative influence, while de Jong grew up with Bowie, Roxy Music, and New Wave - once he'd thrown off the shackles of a classical-music childhood (he started learning the cello at eight years old). It's pleasing to discover that now they listen to a fair amount of world music, including Konono No 1 and Mahmoud Ahmed, as well as recently rediscovering Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, with which they both feel a strong connection.
But what's really exciting about The Books is that none of these influences are particularly present in their music. Their nearest contemporaries sound-wise are perhaps their fellow Americans Califone, whom it turns out they admire and played with early this year at a couple of sold-out gigs in LA. But while Califone just like to scrunch up their essentially live performances with a few glitchy, scratchy samples, The Books are happier fully immersed in the infinitely malleable universe of digital sound. Or, as Zammuto puts it, "recording little pieces and using the computer to organise those bits." The result is a kind of less-is-more future-folk, cliché-free and miraculously organic, given its provenance.
Part of this uniqueness stems from the unusual samples they use and how they use them. They don't just repeat snippets of sound or vocals so they function as hooks, as, say, most hip-hop acts do. Instead, whole sections of speech are allowed to unfurl, with all their natural pauses and repetitions, conjuring atmospheres which either clash pleasingly with the delicate collage of instruments in the background, or comfortably bed down with them. For example, on their most accessible album, 2005's Lost and Safe, the "vocal" on the track "Venice" consists almost entirely of an American reporter's description of a Salvador Dali "happening" in Venice: "The canvas and the photographers are covered with paint. I might add, it's black paint and gold paint on a white canvas..."
Where do they find these things? "That was on an old Decca record of obscure opera recordings made in 1966. It's a bonus track on that record," says de Jong gleefully, revelling in the discovery.
Even the lyrics, which are actually sung by Zammuto in his gentle, Paul Simon, voice, have all been sourced from old books and religious texts. They have no interest in making personal statements. "It's something we've tried to avoid entirely; to remove the ego from the writing process," says Zammuto.
Another standard rock ingredient that The Books have dispensed with is the drum kit. I mention my feeling that much rock drumming functions, paradoxically, like speed-bumps, preventing the music from having any real momentum. Zammuto agrees. "Yes, the cymbals especially. They completely obliterate the way you can use the high-end as an expressive thing in music. It opens things up if you remove the drums. There's so much more air and space."
So what do they use instead? "We went to the toy section at Wal-Mart and that generated some interesting percussion," says Zammuto, smiling. "Lost and Safe also utilises a looped bounced baseball and an old filing cabinet with a sub-woofer inside it, so who needs a drummer?"
It's remarkable considering the buzz surrounding them over the past year or so, and the fact that they're already on their third album, that the band are still pretty much broke, and still recording in a bedroom - Zammuto's to be precise. File-sharing fans are the problem. "It's the spin-offs which might just make us a living," says de Jong. So go to their website now, folks, and buy an enigmatic T-shirt, or some even more enigmatic oven-gloves. Oven gloves? "Well, we spend a lot of time cooking together," says Zammuto, reasonably. "It has the same kind of rhythm, and needs the same kind of patience," adds de Jong. "And if you start with really good ingredients then you can't go wrong," concludes Zammuto.
Their show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of hours later gives no indication of the fatigue they'd alluded briefly to earlier. "By the end of the year we'll have played 80 shows, which is nothing we imagined we'd ever do," De Jong had said. But their playing is fluid and intense, and the new, synchronised, back-projected films have clearly been as meticulously assembled as their music, justifying their pride in them. Created from clips from cans of film and videos picked up in thrift stores, plus some home-movie footage, they are by turns enigmatic, witty and hypnotic, and add to the power of the performance rather than just complementing it.
Computer music made in bedrooms is often no more than a storm in a laptop, but The Books have somehow managed to locate the ghost in the machine.
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