The Books Recycle Samples Into Vibrant New Sound

Nino P./Courtesy

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How is it decided what goes into a time capsule? Those caches always seem to include a variety of cultural capital, presumably the best indication of what was once consumed; a Diet Mountain Dew can, a New York Times, a floppy disk, a scrunchie. But the stuff that we throw away is probably a much better indicator of our material culture and contemporary zeitgeist. Musicians Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, collectively known as the Books, create a type of pop music that samples audio and video from thrift store castaways, taking advantage of all that was deserted by material culture.

Zammuto and de Jong started producing tracks in 1999, and released their first record Thought for Food, as the Books, in 2002. Last Tuesday at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the Books performed tracks mostly from their latest release, The Way Out. Over the years, de Jong has compiled an extensive audio and visual sample library from thrift and consignment stores from all over, happily rifling through old audio/visual deposits. He describes himself as "not sickly, but pretty obsessive compulsive about it." Zammuto is the main vocalist and guitarist for the Books, and de Jong plays the cello, but the core compositional element of the music comes from their found (and spruced up) samples.

Says Paul, "The sample library, I think I can say, is the main instrument in our studio. It's what we work with; we play all kinds of instruments, we have all kinds of friends and colleagues who play for us, but the sample library is what brings, what kind of glues it all together." This type of sampling, from a source material unattached to any profiteering, shucks the wheat from the chaff and reintegrates the sound/video into an alternate context: As Zammuto and de Jong collaborate around a sample, "it becomes completely impersonal and it becomes really detached from, severed from the context . . . It doesn't seem to reference intellectual property of somebody else or somebody else's voice, for that matter."

So this is how songs begin for the Books: de Jong culls the samples, sends them off to Zammuto to choose those that "must be used," and they collaborate from their respective homes in New York and Vermont, composing and producing musical parts around the samples. The Way Out, the Books' most recent release and first on the Temporary Residence label, is (like their previous three albums) the product of sifting and plucking sounds from a variety of non-musical sources: new age self-help videos, instructional golf tutorials, "Talkboy" tapes, electric razors, just to name a few.

The topics of the sampling can't be generalized, but certain tones do seem to precipitate and form motifs as songs within the album, but that origin point could come from anywhere - the cadence of a voice, an 808 loop, a creaking door. In Paul's words, "You start sketching something out, starting with our samples and it just grows from there. Sometimes it's a musical sample that gives a structure or a harmonic idea and you go from there. It might end up being something completely different from that which you started out with, but that's also a function of the library, of the samples, to be an instigator. It doesn't always have to end up being about that sample, we can also make something that's several compositional steps ahead."

But how then are these songs played live? After a subdued, plaintive set from opener the Black Heart Procession, the Books delivered a performance of tightly coordinated music and video collage. The visuals don't play as back-up to the songs: The self-produced video collages are tightly coordinated to each track, enforcing, confusing or simply placing them in their original context to squirmingly pleasing effects. A performance objective is to "translate (the tracks) musically well to live instruments and keep the integrity of that which cannot be reproduced in any other way than through pre-recorded tape."

For a show in a concert hall, with a clear division between performers and audience, the collection of audio and visual made the performance remarkably immersive. This multi-sensory atmosphere showcases the Books' own musical abilities, as well as pays respect to the samples' origins. The songs are their own time capsule, containing the discarded paraphernalia of popular or personal culture. The music itself is not attached any specific age's musical genre, but the found samples are rooted in the time they were produced, packaged and then left to die in a thrift store. I look forward to opening up The Way Out in 50 years and traveling back in time.

Build a time capsule with Amelia at [email protected]

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