Everything is music in the world of the Books. Anything you can think of, from a thin sheet of paper to a heavy lead pipe, is a potential instrument to blow, scrape, shake or rhythmically tap against a hard surface.
"For example, say you step on a pine cone," says Nick Zammuto. He's talking while he stands on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago; in a few hours, he and Paul de Jong will play the second show in a two-night stand at Schubas Tavern. "You make this beautiful crunch," he continues. "Then you send that through a pipe, which you can tune to every frequency and get almost any note you want out of it. It becomes a xylophone or something like that. We put together virtual instruments by sending sounds through pipes and other objects."
Zammuto and de Jong live and work in the Berkshire Mountains area of North Adams, Mass. They traipse around the country, rummaging through thrift stores and flea markets, collecting bizarre and unusual instruments (like a six-stringed arpeggione), before retreating to a small studio to bang and clang away. The experiments are bolstered with common instruments such as cello and guitar and recorded onto a PC.
"Whatever we find compelling, and if it's safe to use, we keep it filed away in a library. We always listen to the library, over and over again, to get it ingrained in our subconscious. When we start playing around with rhythms and melodies, we find these connections between samples that allow them to eventually find their home in the music," says the 30-year-old Zammuto. He and 41-year-old de Jong aren't the first musicians to make loops and beats with randomly found objects. Nevertheless, like electronic artist Matthew Herbert, the duo uses aleatoric processes to create academic sound art with a pop sensibility.
The Books' first two albums, 2002's Thought for Food and 2003's The Lemon of Pink, are mostly instrumental. De Jong's cello playfully interplays with Zammuto's guitar as sounds flicker around and burst, like intermittent firework displays. Zammuto sings a few lyrics, but his voice is mostly buried beneath the cacophony of random noises and vocal snippets sampled from old records. It sounds as if the duo is having fun in the studio.
On 2005's Lost and Safe, however, you can clearly hear Zammuto for the first time. His singing voice is winsome and literate, leading listeners to lump the Books in the "indie-tronica" category alongside Dntel and Her Space Holiday. Not entirely comfortable with those comparisons, Zammuto says, "Of course, you can draw comparisons much more easily to what you can call 'conventional' music. But I think if you listen very closely at how we're using [my] voice, it really has nothing to do with indie music at all."
"We've been sampling texts -- mainly sound texts -- and putting them together," says Zammuto. For example, on Lost and Safe's first track, "A Little Longing Goes Away," he sings Verse 20 from the ancient Chinese scripture Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way and Its Virtue). The disc's final track, "Twelve Fold Chain," incorporates the classical Buddhist text of the same name. Zammuto adds, "[My vocals] are not autobiographical. It's not about us in any way. It's just a way to use a single voice to collage together multiple experiences with multiple angles."
Lost and Safe has garnered considerable acclaim. Respected British magazine the Wire ranked it as its top album of the year. Unfortunately, as Zammuto tells it, Lost and Safe is doing better in Internet downloads than actual album sales. The group responded by posting a statement on www.thebooksmusic.com. "Our work, although deeply satisfying to us, has left us on the brink of financial collapse since we began, so we are asking you: Please, do not steal our music thinking we can afford it," wrote the duo.
"I think we've lost two-thirds of our record sales," explains Zammuto, noting that he and de Jong supplement their incomes through touring and soundtrack work. "We're certainly not anti-downloading. It's simply a moral decision on how you want to support the artist."
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