Hit the Books; the Books will hit you back

The New York City band makes music of overheard conversations and discarded items

by Emily Garber

The Books sway eternally in the gray area.

They comfortably define the relief that exists in the in-between: between folk and electronica, between working as an artist and as a composer, between music that requires all of your attention or none of it.

On the first track of their latest release, “Lost and Safe,” Nick Zammuto quivers out the lyrics, “Yes and no are just distinguished by distinction, so we choose the in-between.”

The Books’ legacy lies in their jarring yet attractive sonic collages. Zammuto and partner Paul de Jong play a sort of found art, mixing sound clips from discarded home videos and harmonized PVC pipes with acoustic guitars and cellos.

This juxtaposition creates a sound that is as fascinating as it is strident, as glorious as it is contemplative, as lost as it is safe.

Though Zammuto called the song and album names “mostly a shtick,” the puns and ironies of titles “Getting the Done Job,” “Explanation Mark” and “A Little Longing Goes Away” inspire thought and analysis as much as the music itself.

“Everything is up for interpretation,” Zammuto said. “We’re all multifaceted beings. We’re still trying to figure out where we stand.”

Their listeners are doing the same.

The vocal sound clips used on some of their songs have political connotations that seem to hint at the war in Iraq. However, Zammuto insists the old, grainy clips are inserted merely to inspire thought.

“Instead of being a statement on a situation, it’s a general statement on political discourse,” he said. “It’s interesting to see words from the past used in the present tense.”

The Books refrain from crediting the sources of their sound clips in their liner notes.

“They’re not secrets,” Zammuto said, “But why pollute people’s minds with unnecessary information? How they’re used is more important than what they are.”

What they are, though, is something else.

For instance, Zammuto was visiting an aquarium, videotaping jellyfish for his own viewing pleasure. He didn’t realize what he had captured until he got home:

“Mommy! Daddy! (pause) Mommy! Daddy! (pause) Mom? Dad?”

“You have no mother or father.”

“Yeah I do!”

“No, they left; they went somewhere else.”

“No, you’re right here! I do!”

“I’m not; I don’t know you.”

“Daddy (whimpers) Ö “

“Don’t touch me; don’t call me that in public.”

“It was a very affectionate conversation that happened right next to me,” Zammuto said.

This dialogue now appears as the introduction to the song “Motherless Bastard” on their first album “Thought for Food,” released in 2002.

Zammuto is between professions as both a physical artist and a musician. As a college visual arts professor curious about the production of music such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, Zammuto sought to produce his own sound using his existing art.

“I record the art of mine that has good acoustics,” he said, such as filling a filing cabinet with subwoofers.

This visual/sonic creativity carries through to the Books’ live show. Projected in the background are segments from old Salvation Army videos and discarded home movies, “synched intimately with what you’re hearing,” Zummato said.

The visual and audible aspects of the Books’ live performance hopefully will “inspire some smiles,” Zummato said.

“That’s the most wonderful thing, to hear the audience laugh,” he said, “but in a more profound way. The world is hilarious if you look at it from a certain angle.”