An interview with Nick Zammuto of The Books.
When I listen to The Books, I imagine them feeding their rummage-sale flotsam of infomercial VHSs and discarded home-recorded cassettes into a funnel of a bulging, pastel, Dr. Seussian machine, operated by a mouse with unseen Rube Goldberg innards, that spews cohesive concept albums out of a ear horn. Yeah, it’s like that. But really, I’m not doing them justice. Since 2000, the audiophile duo of cellist Paul de Jong and guitarist Nick Zammuto made four albums that function as annals of forgotten analog recordings from the past 50 years but still soar as highly-listenable and re-listenable opuses. So, when Nick Zammuto announced this January, “It seems the air has gone out of the Books for the last time," I too felt deflated.
But I took solace in the formation of Zammuto’s new band, christened and dubbed Zammuto. Scanning his website for his new songs and information, I saw photos of him and his family on their homestead in Vermont. Seeing pictures of his blueberry-stained sons next to crates of vegetables from their garden, I was intrigued. Myself hoping to start homesteading and farming in Minnesota, I thought we might have an interesting conversation. I talked to Nick on the day of the album release, two days before the start of his tour.
WK: Are you looking forward to your upcoming tour?
ZAMMUTO: Definitely. Yeah. It’s gonna be a lot of fun; this is going to be our maiden voyage in a lot of ways. We’re gonna have everybody in the band together for the first time.
WK: Is it going to be hard to be away from your family? Or are they coming with you?
ZAMMUTO: No, no, I can’t take my family with me; that would be an absolute disaster. I have three boys that are all under six years old—one that is still pre-crawling. So they’re all gonna stay here. Luckily my wife is an incredible person and an incredible mother, so they’re in good hands. I will definitely miss them though.
WK: When you’re on your tour you will probably won’t be around for putting the seedlings in the ground and the start of the growing season—is your wife going to be able to handle that on her own?
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of her domain, really. I do the heavy work: I’ll shovel horse poop all day long, no problem. But I don’t have much of a green thumb to be honest. I’m just good for the grunt work. But my wife can grow anything. She is starting everything inside right now. We can’t really put anything in the ground until the end of May anyway because there is still a chance that it will frost— we’re up pretty high here— I’ll definitely be able to help her when it’s time to turn the soil over when I get back.
WK: How did y’all get into homesteading?
ZAMMUTO: It wasn’t idealism so much as, uh, intuition, I suppose. When we first got married we were living down in town— the town of North Adams, [Vermont] which is a little village down in the valley here in the Green Mountains. And we knew that we wanted to go to a place where kthere was room to have a family, where we could let the kids run free most of the time. And Molly has always wanted to grow food, so we were looking for a spot where we could grow food as well. So, we looked around town, maybe ten miles around North Adams, and still didn’t find much for the price. There wasn’t much land to be found that wasn’t either super expensive or just un-farmable. And all the houses were kind of overpriced at the time. Molly was pregnant with our first and she had this incredible nesting instinct that was uncontainable. She kept going a little further afield from where we were thinking—we were thinking that we still kind of wanted to be near town—and then she saw this little picture on forsalebyowner.com of this little brown shack that was downright ugly. But the description said “open meadows, distant mountain view.” So she said, “OK, I’ll just go up and check it out.” So she came up here in the middle of the winter and she just immediately fell in love with the land. We’re up at 2,000 feet elevation at the top of a ridge. But, fortunately, it’s nice and flat up here because we’re right at the top. It’s a field that’s been cleared probably since colonial times. So there are a lot of old stonewalls and things running through our property, but a lot of the forest around us has grown back since then. But still, there’s sixteen acres up here that’s still pretty open. Most of it is pretty acidic soil, I assume it was pasture land at some point, and it is full of blueberries now. I think Molly had this instinct when she was up here checking it out that this is blueberry country. We bought the place when there was still snow on the ground and, sure enough, when the snow melted, we walked out onto the field and there was blueberry plant everywhere. It was amazing.
WK: Wow, that’s fortuitous.
ZAMMUTO: Luckily, there was a barn up here at one point, so there is one patch of land that is fertile enough to grow watermelons even up here at 2,000 feet elevation in Vermont. So we kind of have the best of both worlds up here in terms of homesteading: A lot of great berries and fruits and permaculture and also a really nice, sunny place to grow veggies.
WK: How big is your plot?
ZAMMUTO: The veggie garden has a deer fence around it. And the deer fence is something like 75 ft. by 40 ft. in a rectangle.
WK: So it provides plenty for your family, I would imagine?
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, we eat like kings during the growing season and we’re able to put away most of our root vegetables. We dehydrate some stuff; we can tomatoes and things like that; and we freeze a lot of beans and broccoli. We actually still have a lot of potatoes left. And we ran out of onions in February. We did pretty well this year.
WK: I would imagine that homesteading makes you rely on your wife more than other contemporary couples do. Would you say that’s true?
ZAMMUTO: I would be nothing without my wife [laughs]. That’s all I have to say about that. I am just extremely lucky to have her. It takes a special kind of couple to live this way: you both have to be on board. She is a visionary in terms of how she wants to work this land up here. I just kind of follow her lead on that. I’m here, responsible for bringing in the money. That’s my focus with the music—well, not to bring in money, but to make great music that hopefully brings in money. So, yeah, it’s a very even dynamic between us. And it really is her job and her profession, in a way, to run the agriculture part up here. And it’s something that she loves to do and she’s teaching the boys how to do it as they grow up; they’re steeped in everything she knows about working this land up here. So, yeah, I rely on her heavily [laughs].
WK: So is she sort of the force, or the muse for your new album then?
ZAMMUTO: Well, no, not so much. She definitely encouraged me to make another record after The Books ended. I was thinking, “well, I might just be a carpenter because I don’t know if it’s gonna work.” She said, “don’t worry about it. Just make another record.” So, she pushed me out into the studio last year to start working on it. Yeah, I have her to thank for the permission to make it. But when I am out here, writing the music, it’s not usually about our relationship. It’s usually about more universal themes. I don’t know if she will ever read this, [laughs] but she’s not exactly the muse for my poetry. But she provides the foundation for me to just get the work done.
WK: The Books’ albums were a lot more conceptual than your eponymous album, how was the creative process different this time?
ZAMMUTO: Well, it was a lot different. I mean, The Books were kind of a concept band. It wasn’t even really a band; it was more of a collage project. Paul would hand me a whole bunch of junk and I would try to fit it all together and that was the challenge and fun of it. I don’t read many reviews, but the Pitchfork review was interesting to me because I think they really got it right. Now that the internet is so prevalent, it makes collage out of everything, in a sense. It makes irrational connections between things really commonplace. And I think people have become sensitized to that way of looking at the world. On the internet, there’s this amazing patchwork of way too much information all of the time. So, the concept started to feel a little stale because of that alone. You can do a keyword search for anything and have an amazing automatic poem that pops up on your google search. It’s incredible.
It felt like the four records became a finished body of work anyway by the time it became clear that we just had to pack it up. Moving onto this record, it was really a blank slate. And I knew that I wanted to work with real players. What I couldn’t do with The Books and what I always wanted to do was to have a drummer. So I just found the best drummer I have ever known [laughs]. I mean,[Sean Dixon] is just up for anything: He’s a scientist at the drums. He’ll bring something in, he’ll have an idea for a rhythm or something like that. And I’ll be like, “let’s do this. Let’s expand upon this.” So oftentimes, a rhythm is the beginning of a song. He would come up a few days at a time throughout the making of the record and he would give me hours of recordings to sift through to assemble into the songs that you hear on the record. And he can reproduce it all live, 100%, with incredible expression. He really adds a lot to the live show that I think brings the record to life. And then, my brother Mikey is on bass and Gene Back is on keyboards and guitars. Gene was part of The Books, so he knows the whole history and he knows how I work. He’s an incredible arranger. All the string parts were written and recorded by Gene. He would record them down in Brooklyn and send them up to me to mix them.
Working with these guys was a major inspiration, just figuring out technically what we could do. And the record, well, [laughs] some people think of it as good and some people don’t. But, the record is sort of all over the place stylistically. I think that that was our joy of trying everything that we could, in a way. Sort of “we’ll see what sticks” and maybe find a more unified approach for our next record. At this point, we’re just into the joy of trying stuff. Because we can reproduce it all live I think it’ll make sense once people see the show.
WK: So you said that you were into more into universal themes, but there seems to be a more personal element on the album that was never really a part of The Books’ albums. Could you say more to that?
ZAMMUTO: It is really different. I was in a difficult emotional place because of the loss of The Books. It was my baby for ten years and to see it end was a huge tragedy for me. So, if you read into the lyrics you can kind of see the darkness there, not pointed at anyone in particular, but there’s this feeling of disappointment. There’s this feeling that it’s time to really get to work on something new— leave the past behind in a lot ways. But really, you get it with “Yay,” there is this creative destruction on this record. And that’s intentional. I’m just trying to push as hard as I can on certain ideas to see where they’re gonna break. And I guess [laughs], I’m gonna find out how far I can push an audience before they break.
WK: Yeah, there seems to be this idea of work and creative destruction, as you said, on the album. Some of the lyrics on the songs, I find really interesting in this regard. One being on “Idiom Wind”: “we could talk all night, but talking isn’t real/ We could put a name on it, but it’s not the real name.” Also on “Too Late to Topologize”: “Cross sea harping on the paragon screams dalliance.”
Too Late to Topologize from Zammuto:
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, Um [laughs].
WK: Could you...[laughs]
ZAMMUTO: [laughs] Sorry go ahead.
WK: Yeah, sorry: long, sprawling question…do you think the music you’re making is just contributing to “the conversation,” that you seem to reference, in the grand sense, or is there something more to it?
ZAMMUTO: I, I don’t know. [laughs] I just don’t know yet. Right now I’m just sort of letting it go. I mean, it releases today. And it’s gonna have a life of its own and I don’t know what that life is going to be yet. I hope people spend enough time with it to understand it the way that I do. Or, understand it in a deeper way, if it’s not the way that I understand it. But yeah, I’m glad that you picked up on those two lines. In essence, what I’ve always written about is the collapse of dichotomies. Basically, that line from Idiom Wind, “we could talk all night but talking isn’t real” is a direct rewrite of the Tao Te Ching. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that book, but it’s one I always return to— it’s just incredible. It was written 2,500 years ago, so it’s got this ancient, timeless quality to it. It’s about how opposites are intimately connected to each other. So that line from the Tao Te Ching, is something like, uh, I should look it up because I’m gonna get it wrong and embarrass myself. But it’s something like, “The name that can be named is not the real name.” Once you put a word on something, it destroys it, in a sense. From an existential point of view, I really feel that all of the time: language is a blessing, but it also a curse. You need it, but at the same time, you lose it by putting things into boxes. And I think music is a great way to pull people out of those boxes and give them things that they don’t have names for.
And that other line is a really bizarre one, but it came to me at a strange moment “Cross sea harping on the paragon.” There’s this thing that we’re all floating in, it’s like a boat, but it’s being undertaken, by this other side.
WK: What’s the other side?
ZAMMUTO: It’s this corrosive element in the world. I feel it all the time, especially since having kids, that death is everywhere. Everywhere. It’s all around us. And I feel my own mortality more than I ever have, having kids. “Harping on the paragon” also has this political aspect to it. If you look at all the talking heads, they’re saying a lot, but not doing anything. I have this fear that people mistake writing emails for actually doing stuff. [Laughs] Because so much of my life here, living up here and homesteading, is real, physical work—work that requires almost no intellect to do and it’s really satisfying for that reason. So I am trying to balance that world with the music, in a way.
WK: On top of that, I would imagine that you’re much more aware of death, homesteading because the vegetables often die from disease or pests—they fail sometimes. Chickens die. Wait, do you have chickens?
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, we do. We have a couple dozen.
WK: So, you’re also surrounded by life though.
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, yeah, that’s the dichotomy that our existence requires: life and death there. Perhaps there is a fuzzy line between them. Especially living in Vermont, where the seasons change so radically at this time of year, where it goes from arctic tundra to lush greenery in basically a month, it just seems impossible every year. But that’s what happens. And at the end of season, where all of this lushness turns into this rotting brown, mulchy stuff, you can’t help but feel a little sad, but also really thankful for getting a chance to watch it. Huh, I don’t know. Just being this being that is capable of living through those seasons without feeling that life/death cycle because of our intellects and because of central heating and electricity, well, it’s like we’re floating above it, rather than really in it like we used to be. And I think that’s part of the reason why people want to homestead: they want to get back into that seasonal rhythm again. So that you’ll know that life will extend even after you’re gone. But our culture is completely messed up to our relationship to the natural world. I don’t know if we’re doing anything to reconcile that, but it’s certainly on my mind.
WK: On the Weird Ceiling you say, “Faces up to the weird ceiling” seemingly dealing with the transcendent, this dichotomy you mention. Could you tell me what you mean by the Weird Ceiling, I guess?
Weird Ceiling from Zammuto:
ZAMMUTO: Oh totally, yeah, yeah. To me the weird ceiling is this very literal experience. Walking outside at night up here, there’s no lights around us at all—there’s no light pollution. So sometimes I walk out and see the Milky Way and it feels like I’m in it. And for me, that’s the weird ceiling, the night sky. And you sort of have this window into the universe. [Laughs] It sounds super cheesy when I say it now. You know, we have absolutely no idea why we’re here; the most basic questions, we just don’t have answers for. And I think looking up into the night sky proves that. It’s an incredibly vast universe and every direction that you look in the night sky, you’re looking back to the first moment that started it off, which is a total mystery to me: how that could’ve happened. It’s an illustration of the anthropic principle, everything appears to you the way it does because you exist. If conditions were different, you wouldn’t exist and you wouldn’t know it.
Yeah…I don’t know: it’s a mysterious place. Some people look up and they imagine a god and for me that totally destroys the mystery of it. I would rather it just be kind of weird [laughs].
WK: Why does it destroy it for you?
ZAMMUTO: Because, again, it’s giving a name to something that seriously you cannot name. The more you think about it, the less you know about it…huh…I can’t really put it into words easily without getting overly philosophical.
WK: Well sure, even here, you’re trying to name it.
ZAMMUTO: Yeah, exactly. Well, I’m trying to undo it—unlearn it… I’m not religious, but I’m really spiritual. And there’s a real difference between the two for me. And definitely part of living up here is knowing that difference. It’s not about belief; it’s about just experiencing what there is to experience. And…you know…passing on my genes. I don’t know if you’re about to do this as well, but it’s what we’re designed to do. It’s how we exist: everybody has parents. And to be able to pass that love that we got from our parents onto our kids just feels right: that’s what we should be doing.
Bill Orton is a founding editor of Wunderkammer.