Interview: Nick Zammuto talks The Books, his solo project and beyond

“I’m worried about harming the sanctity of this venue,” Nick Zammuto jokes as we climb the red carpet blanketing the ornate lobby stairwell. This is his first time perusing the halls of the Ryman Auditorium, a venue vastly different from the locales he has grown accustomed to touring alongside Explosions in the Sky for the past months. We weave our way to the back halls of the historic Mother Church in attempt to find an area not riddled with the eager bustling of fans.

Currently with his solo project, Zammuto is one of two founding members of experimental legends The Books. Alongside Paul de Jong, the duo has done everything from video art to French Ministry-commissioned elevator music. After the group’s split this past January, Zammuto channeled his creative energy into a new venture, aptly titled for his namesake. I had the opportunity to sit down with him before the show and discuss everything from The Books to Primus to nautical-themed high school plays.

The Silver Tongue: You’ve been touring with Explosions in the Sky for the past month or two. It’s a cool fit, but it’s an interesting choice of bands to pair. Do you think the fans of Explosions have been receptive of your material?

Nick Zammuto: Oh yeah, I’ve head nothing but good things from them. Stylistically it’s really different, and you can judge for yourself how they are. But I think the thing that ties it together is a sense of joy, the general unbridled joy that you get from playing music. We both have this very optimistic outlook on how songs come together, and it’s meant to be beautiful, emotional.

TST: Do you think that will translate smoothly to Gotye?

NZ: I have no idea. I think so.

TST: Have you talked to them at all?

NZ: Yeah, it was such an interesting, sort of embarrassing, thing that happened. I was at the merch table – because I have to run my own merch table – at a show. I’m sitting out there selling records right after our set. Explosions in the Sky is just starting, there’s this group of people lagging behind and they all came up and bought everything that was on the table. I was like, ‘Man, thanks so much guys! I can’t tell you how helpful that is.’ And they said, ‘Oh, well we’re big fans. We just have the night off and came to see you play.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh cool, are you guys in a band?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we’re in Gotye,” and I said, ‘Ah, I’ve never heard of you guys; I’ll check it out.’ Right at that moment, I’m talking to Wally [De Backer] from Gotye, who has literally the biggest single in like 85 countries; it’s ridiculous. So I felt like a total moron, but luckily they’re the nicest people in the world. I guess they liked what they saw that night in San Francisco, and they invited us to play a few shows with them.

TST: About a month ago, you got on the Zammuto page and wrote a 3-piece story on your life and the dawn of The Books.

NZ: Yeah, I’m going to keep going with that. I got busy doing other things, but when I get home I’m going to keep going. I have to write it down before I forget it all.

TST: What compelled you to write it?

NZ: Well, like I said, it’s time; I’m just going to forget. I’m getting older and moving on to new things, and since The Books’ box set is coming out it made sense to write the book, essentially, on how it happened. It helps me move on and remember what was really fantastic about The Books so I can incorporate it into the new material. So it’s been nice to revisit it; they’re some pretty old memories now.

TST: You also use the site (as well as Twitter) to stay in touch with fans. Do you think that’s an integral part of being an artist?

NZ: I love the interaction. It was something that freaked me out at first; all these people I don’t know personally are all of a sudden freaking out. And I’m a pretty shy person, but it’s been so fulfilling getting to know people through this medium of music. There’s nothing else like it; there’s no other force in the world that can bring people together like music does. You can’t eat it, you can’t breathe it, but nobody wants to live without it. It sounds cheesy, but it’s a force of nature.

TST: Do you think fans of The Books have transitioned smoothly into Zammuto?

NZ: Yeah, people don’t regularly give me negative feedback because I don’t usually get hatemail [laughs]. We’ll see in the fall; my sense is that the crossover so far is fantastic. We just announced a headlining tour which is very extensive, and my future depends on those shows filling up. So I’m hoping to God that some people come because I want to keep doing this. It’s like starting from scratch in so many ways with a new name.

But the players that I’m working with in the new band are just – I’m just awestruck by them. I am just really lucky with how talented and dedicated they are, and they bring so much to the music that is way beyond my own skill level. It’s very fortuitous, and people are really responding to it now, the liveness and strength of it. It blows The Books out of the water from a musicianship perspective.

TST: How does the vibe differ between just you and Paul [de Jong] and an actual band?

NZ: It’s really fun to be in a band. I’ve always wanted to work with a percussionist, and that’s something I couldn’t do with The Books; it was outside of the parameters of what we did. The Books ended up doing this karaoke approach where we would have a lot of electronic rhythms and sing along with them. And this time I wanted to start with a percussionist and build around what he was capable of. Luckily I found this guy named Sean Dixon through Gene Back, who used to play in The Books as well. He said, “I know the perfect guy,” and Sean is the perfect mix of precision and heart. Everything he plays has this warmth and real grace to it, but it’s also super precise. He can pull off stuff that I’ve never seen anybody else do. It’s really exciting for me to work with him; it’s totally changed the way I think about music.

I can’t sing Sean’s praises enough both as a musician and as a person. It’s an unbelievable pleasure to travel with him; my family loves him. Same with Gene – and my brother Mikey, obviously he’s part of the family – but Gene is so versatile. He can play anything I put in front of him, so he did the string arrangements on the record and went in directions that I would have never thought of; it’s amazing. He’s a triple threat on stage because he can play guitar, keyboards and violin. Even though we haven’t done with the violin yet, that’s his first instrument.

TST: How did you get to know him?

NZ: I met him through a cellist. I was doing a commission for a young cellist named Zach Miskin. He was one of Gene’s best friends, so Gene was part of that and that was how I met him.

TST: With Zammuto have there been any new techniques you have tried out for the record?

NZ: I had to learn how to record drums. It’s something I’ve never done before, and it’s a tricky thing to do. Engineers spend their whole careers trying to get it right; I was starting from scratch on that. So I bought my first drum kit a little more than a year ago when I started working on the record. I was like, ‘What are these things?’ and started wailing on them to see how they sounded and recording them from every possible angle to get the sound I wanted. It took a long time; I think I made a lot of mistakes that are fairly obvious on the record, at least to me. Then I would bring Sean in for sessions and say, ‘Here’s a tempo, here’s a feel, here’s a polyrhythm. Just go for it.’ And we would record for hours, and then I would go back, cut the parts of his sessions that were outstanding and build from them. So there’s still a collage approach to how I make music, but it could be anything. Sometimes there’s a simple structured frame to play along with already, but I count on him to bring it to life.

When I first started making music, I had no musical training, no musicianship whatsoever. It was like total reckless abandon when I was in the studio [laughs]. It was like, ‘Okay…blah! This is music.’ I want to get back to that, trying to find this real, beating heart to everything. Even if it’s not totally finished or precise, I just want it to be raw again. So I’ve been trying put my players in situations where it throws them off-balance enough to come out of their comfort zone. You know that sound; it’s the sound of people working. I don’t want it to be too comfortable, so I’m trying to mix it up and throw a lot of sounds in there. We’ve built the infrastructure of the band so we can incorporate a lot of the electronic components in an organic way, hopefully. So it should never feel stilted or karaoke-like.

TST: Do you feel like The Books were karaoke-like?

NZ: I don’t know how it came off, but I started to get really bored during those shows. They were pretty much pre-scripted. Now I can look over at my brother Mikey and play off of what he’s doing. Just having somebody to look over and smile or wink at is fun.

TST: I noticed that you mention Primus and The Police were two of your big influences before The Books, and I got excited because Primus is my favorite band. Sorry, I had to bring it up.

NZ: Oh yeah, well “Hats Off.” When I first started playing music it was bass. Victor Wooten, Jaco Pastorius and Les Claypool, those are the guys I really learned from. I never became a proficient bassist by any means, but I love the sound of the instrument. Also, I guess [Tim] “Herb” Alexander – I think Sean is a similar drummer in a lot of ways, especially when you see him life. He’s just doing stuff that is so out of the ordinary, but it still makes total sense. It’s weird, weird-ass playing, but it makes sense.

TST: What’s your favorite Primus album?

NZ: Pork Soda. There’s something about the rawness of the album and the mean lyrics, too. I love it.

TST: I also noticed that you mention Aphex Twin and Squarepusher as other influences. When you were creating the new record, what artists would you consider influences?

NZ: I don’t really listen to much when I’m working on a record; it has to be this idiosyncratic thing. Depending on the techniques that I’m using that day, it will lend to a Drill and Bass approach every one in a while. In fact, some of my earliest tracks were basically rip-offs of Squarepusher. I would take a breakbeat, cut it up, and be like – it was like the Rosetta Stone – I was like, ‘That’s how they did that!’ I learned a lot from that and the idea that drums don’t have to be played in real time. It was such a fantastic thing, so freeing. I remember recording a little fragment of the Clinton impeachment hearings back in 1999, and that was my first Drum and Bass track. I guess maybe there’s an echo of it in the music now, but it’s not electronica in that sense.

TST: So I was listening to “Crabbing” and spent probably twenty minutes trying to figure out the origins of that track and couldn’t figure it out.

NZ: [laughs] And you’ll never ever find out what that is. It’s this really rare record that I found. It was just a white sleeve – well, it was kind of brown because it was so old, this dirty old record. It only said one phrase: Conchology: Junior Class Show: 1963. Sure enough – it must have been one of fifty pressed – it’s a recording of this high school musical about this undersea cautionary tale about humans making a mess of the fishes’ habitat. So the voice of that track, the reason it’s called “Crabbing,” is this misanthropic crab that is warning the rest of the fish about how humans are going to destroy the world [laughs].

TST: Have you tried seeking out the high school that did it?

NZ: No, I have no idea what school it was. It has nothing on it but Conchology: Junior Class Show: 1963. I have no idea where it came from, but I found it Vermont, so it may be local to that area. I’m sure I’ll find out someday, maybe.

TST: Somebody might catch wind.

NZ: I doubt it [laughs], it’s such a rare thing.

TST: Do the locations where you record serve as an inspiration? Because you’re never in a polished studio.

NZ: Yeah, for simple economic reasons [laughs]. But location is absolutely essential, playing live as well. More than anything, the venue creates the show, and you have to play into a space of some kind. Whether you’re playing into the space of headphones or the room you’re working in, it has a huge influence on the direction. When I was working at Elmer’s in Hot Springs [NC] he had a banjo and a guitar in his music room. I hiked the Appalachian Trail and met Elmer, who ran this bed and breakfast in North Carolina. We hit it off, and he invited me to come back to work for him. So I would cook breakfast and dinner at the inn, and then during the day and at night I would work on what became The Books’ first record. We actually finished that record in his basement, and I’ll get to that eventually in the blog. So here’s Elmer, this luddite, and I’m secretly setting up my computer down in the basement and he’d say, ‘What are you doing down there?’ ‘Oh, nothing!’

TST: Now that it’s been roughly half a year since The Books’ split, has it been easier to look back on it with hindsight?

NZ: It’s still pretty harrowing for me to think about. I just actually physically held The Books’ box set in my hands for the first time. And I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s great. It’s so beautiful,’ but it’s like my dead baby’s in a coffin. It’s still pretty dark. It’s a hard situation in so many ways to lose a project that was my baby for so long. Out of that heartbreak hopefully will come some new energy. So far that’s been the case, and I hope people respond to it and support it. But I’ve never had more fun on stage; it’s a blast to play with these guys.

TST: How have you gone about getting the box set compiled?

NZ: We had everything pretty much done; all the music was finished by the time we decided to do it. Jeremy [deVine] from Temporary Residence is hands down the best label guy I’ve ever known; he’s fantastic. He took it upon himself to really make it something special. There’s seven LPs in it: there are four records and one is a double, so that’s five. Then there’s two LPs of the French Elevator tracks and all of the unreleased material which consists of B-sides and soundtrack stuff. Then there’s this dvd that has every video we’ve ever made. Then there’s this thing that looks exactly like an audio cassette, but it’s a USB drive that pops out like a jackknife that has a digital version of everything. And there’s also a book about golf; I didn’t know that.

TST: Is there a significance to that?

NZ: I just like golf. I like the way it looks, but I don’t playing… I just like the funny outfits [laughs].

We're looking for writers and editors to join the team. Interested? Apply today!