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The Books recycle culture through sampling
words Sven Hultberg Carlsson
The Books make music with a specific purpose or method in mind. Rather than going on rants about their experiences, love that’s been lost, found or life in the vaguest possible sense, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong set out with a clear, often quirky objective, and typically succeed in the aims they set out for their projects.
The title of Music for a French Elevator, the duo’s fourth album that came out in 2006, is descriptive; Nick and Paul had been asked by the French Ministry of Culture—that’s right—to make elevator music. So the two collagists supreme set out to do so.
For The Way Out, released in July this year, the duo went scavenging through old remnants of culture—VHS tapes in particular—to create an album that is as diverse in texture as it is crazy, humorous and fascinating in sound. Their video to ‘A Cold Freezin’ Night’ will give you an idea of what you’re in for.
When Beatnik calls up Paul to talk about The Books’ new project, we can’t help but ask how the group sifts through the heaps of recordings, records and general memorabilia to find those special pieces of audio they end up incorporating in their music. As we had expected, humour is key in the process.
“I think that it’s always humour. It can be a cover, it can be something that looks unusual. Mostly it’s things that have an immediate, emotional appeal to me. I’ve got to be emotionally affected by it, it can be funny, sad or just beautiful, but there has to be something that gives me the feeling that only art or music can give you, this very pure emotional response.”
What does humour allow you to do when making your music?
“The short answer would be that we strongly believe that humour is the backdoor to the profound. That’s really what it’s all about. Humour can reveal a truth that is very hard to present in other ways in art.
“To reach out to the audience through humour and give them the opportunity to digest the material in their own time; the opportunities are not so finite. It’s incredibly important to us to have this kind of release in music. It’s an emotional release and an intellectual challenge; I don’t think there’s anything else like it.”
Technically speaking, The Books’ chopping, pasting and rearranging of analogue material has them sit comfortably in alongside some of the best producers in hip–hop, the genre that pioneered the craft of sampling. ‘The Story of Hip-Hop,’ a hilarious ode to the genre that makes use of a brilliant voice recording and cuts its samples in the way a Pete Rock or a DJ Premier would, is one of the album’s best moments.
But despite their admiration some of the best boom bap producers’ skillful sampling technique, Paul, himself a Cello player, admits that the movement that began in the Bronx thirty-some years ago is a world that’s largely foreign to The Books.
“The funny thing is that the track is absolutely nothing to do with the genre, and that’s exactly our commentary on the song: we have nothing to do with the music, but at the same time, of course, there are sampling pioneers and geniuses in hip-hop.
“It’s an homage and also just making total fun of the fact that we stumbled upon this record from the 1950′s. It’s a children’s record with four stories on it. A very religious and moralizing record and one of the stories is about three grasshoppers, and one of them is called ‘hip-hop’.”
Even on their professed “sung songs,” listeners to are presented with amazing potpourris of influences on The Way Out. ‘Beautiful People,’ the album’s first single, is probably best described by the creators themselves: a “Christian harmony mixed with a sort of euro-disco-trash beat, an orchestra’s worth of sampled brass and lyrics about the twelfth root of two trigonometry and tangrams”.
It’s sounds like the one described above that have led people to say that The Books inhabit a separate world in music, one that’s entirely their own. Pieces of culture are absorbed, chewed up, rearranged and spat back out at the listener, whose fascination cannot help but be triggered.
While Nick’s background in folk music and songwriting shines through on the more traditional tracks group creates, their avid restructuring of cultural artifacts is still present. On more sonically conventional tracks like ‘All You Need is a Wall,’ a beautifully serene guitar ballad, it’s the lyrics themselves that have gone under the knife before being presented to us.
“[For 'All You Need is a Wall,'] what I started doing when putting together this record was going through the sample library, tens of thousands of samples, and I just transcribed, in a Word document, everything I found to be an interesting line or sentence. I ended up with like 25 pages of text that was just a really good read. I started organizing them, grouping them, and sure enough, lyrics started emerging. So, in a way, these tracks stand closer to the rest of the music we make than you’d expect.
“Free Translator, we took a folk song and put it through an online translation software over and over again, from English to Swedish to German to Urdu and then back into English. You get these crazy, mashed-up translations that have very little to do with the original. We used that as a take-off to write our own lyrics.”
The Books are currently touring North America with an audio/visual set that was put together exclusively for The Way Out. Expect weird VHS footage, humorous influences and a whole lot of musical mastery.
Album: The Way Out (Out now—click to buy)