It has been a few weeks now since my visits with Nick Zammuto and Paul deJong, known jointly for over a decade now as The Books. A little bio: I first heard the Books during that formative first year of college, around 2004. They’ve had a perennial spot on my playlist and in my thinking since then. It’s their methodology as thinkers and artists that has kept my attention over the years. Seven years later, the opportunity has come up, the excuse really, to make a little one on one time with them. Well, besides that one time after an Austin show, waiting for a table outside Magnolia Café; I think we talked for all of three minutes about… waiting for tables. What does one usually expect on meeting his heroes for the first time? Certainly not tea in the hero’s inner sanctum, Christmas-spiced cookies pulled from the oven perfectly timed to coincide with one’s arrival, or forthright and vulnerable statements. Much less questions in return, nor an immediate willingness to think together, discussing questions of art-and-life for hours. Certainly not. Yet these are the scenes I entered on an only occasionally overcast day in late June.
For those not familiar, the Books are “a band” insofar as they produce sounds that can—though often with much technical difficulty and occasionally not at all—be reproduced in venues intended for more typical music makers. I have seen them perform in Austin bars, New England hipster hangouts, and a university music hall. They also produce films that are often screened at these performances.
Their methods, sources, and final outcomes pose not just logistical, but conceptual problems as well. To tackle these latter quandaries is for many of their fans, once quite an esoteric group, the very appeal. “What are they doing, precisely?” Like the best of contemporary artists today, they evade and provoke this attempt at precision. Like the best of the best, they do so in earnest. Electronic with acoustic. Spoken word with found sound (old answering machine tapes, VHS audio tracks, utterly dated self help cassettes…). Manipulated text projected with relatively ancient black-and-white silent era film. The results might be called collage, but they resist this. Putting the question directly to them, with many more, yielded some answers, but more resoundingly caused yet more tremors in the grounds that usually provide stability for thinking about creative processes. Again, this is their appeal—the synaesthetic engine they offer up to take apart and analyze ad infinitum. Their fans are cerebral supermechanics. Conversations about the Books often end up more philosophical than musical, though they would shun this too-easy distinction.
The day began with a sunlit drive to Zammuto’s home and studio in Readsboro, Vermont, a small town pressed into the hills just north of North Adams, Massachusetts.