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On the search for sounds

The Books turn anything and everything they hear into music

By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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NORTH ADAMS - It's a blessing and a curse to be tuned in to every single sound around you. At least it is for Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong.

On their way into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this past Sunday, they overheard a snippet of someone's conversation: "Where are we going?" the person remarked offhandedly. "Oh, it's called Canada."

Zammuto and de Jong laugh heartily when they recall this moment later over coffee at Mass MoCA's cafe. It's a perfect slice of mundane talk that could be manipulated - to draw out its "inner beauty," as they would put it - for the music they make together as a duo called the Books.

Sampling snatches of found sound and field recordings has become the bedrock of their work. The problem, of course, is that they've ended up with a library of nearly 25,000 audio and video samples waiting to find a new life in song. That's just a ballpark figure, they stress. They can't keep up with the contents of the library anymore.

Nor can they sum up their aesthetic in finite terms. Calling them sound-collage artists comes close, taking into account the slippery detours into electronica fused with acoustic instrumentation and the hushed vocals that often bookend spoken-word narratives. Sometimes they sing over their samples and write accompanying lyrics, but they're just as happy to let the sample tell the whole story.

The fact that de Jong and Zammuto are playing two sold-out shows tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Art is no small feat. They've released three albums since forming the Books in 2000 but didn't tour until after the last one, 2005's "Lost and Safe." They simply didn't think a live set ting was feasible given the painstaking studio sorcery they employ.

"It didn't even occur to us that it was possible to take it on the road," Zammuto says. "Once we started getting royalties from our CD sales, we realized there's just no way to make a living unless you go on the road."

But that stripped them of the anonymity they had enjoyed as artists holed up in their home studios. Zammuto, for one, had to adjust to the idea of performing before an audience, which he now says is part of the pleasure of having a band.

"I didn't feel particularly comfortable onstage at first because I actually had to learn how to play the guitar and learn how to sing," he says.

So what was he doing before that?

"I was just shooting rubber bands at my guitar," Zammuto says, alluding to the avant-garde nature of coaxing the sounds he wanted. "Figuring out a way to present the samples along with the music without it just looking like karaoke was hard to do."

They came up with a simple stage setup, playing cello and guitar over prerecorded samples, accompanied by videos projected on a screen. "All the ego that a rock star could project, we're projecting with these found images instead," Zammuto says. "That's sort of like our doppelganger."

Zammuto and de Jong share an easy chemistry in conversation, attentive to what the other has to say and what he contributes to the band. Their roles aren't rigidly defined, but like an old married couple, they've worked out a dynamic, often toiling separately until they're ready to exchange ideas.

They thrive on their respective talents. Zammuto, 33, who grew up in Andover and now lives with his wife and two kids in a house they're renovating in southern Vermont, has a visual-arts background. De Jong, 44, was born and raised in Holland in a family that prized all sorts of music in the home, and he learned to play cello as a child. Like Zammuto, he's a full-time musician and is raising a small child and renovating a house with his wife 30 minutes outside North Adams.

Zammuto and de Jong are united in their fascination - obsession, they admit - with sounds. They met almost 10 years ago when they were living in the same apartment building in New York. When Zammuto found out that de Jong maintained a collection of audio and video samples, he realized he had found a kindred spirit - and a bandmate.

They lived in North Adams for a while, and while neither of them resides here anymore, the town has been sort of a home base for them over the years. Zammuto graduated from nearby Williams College, where he's now a visiting artist who teaches a class on sampling. From Mass MoCA's parking lot they point to a brown house perched on a hill in the distance. "That's where we recorded 'The Lemon of Pink,' " Zammuto says of their second album.

Five years have passed since their last one, "Lost and Safe," but they've had a good excuse to take some time off. "Essentially we started having children, and that's enough to shake up any plans for the future," says Zammuto.

They're halfway done with a new album, which might be released this year, but they're not rushing it - mostly because they can't.

"Our productions are always pretty slow just because there's so much work to be done," Zammuto says. "It's really hard to finish a track in less than three weeks or a month."

"It's such vast amounts of raw material, that it's enough chaos as it is to get even the slightest feel for what we're working with," de Jong says of their samples library, which is meticulously organized by source (date and location) and category (content of what was said). "It's funny, the larger the candy shop gets, the more we kind of pick our tastes."

And the library keeps swelling, especially when Zammuto and de Jong are on the road. Trolling Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in the towns they encounter on tour, they're particular about what they'll buy; they're partial to old instructional videos for products that don't exist anymore.

They're not, however, as interested in recognizable texts or voices. Aside from a few well-known cameos - Albert Einstein's mellifluous cadence makes a memorable appearance on an early song - Zammuto and de Jong look for evergreen sounds that lend themselves to a universal voice.

Lately they've been picking up self-help and hypnotherapy cassettes, which they say have inspired much of the upcoming album's new age-y themes. "You're getting verrry sleepy," Zammuto says when asked what the album sounds like.

As with all the Books' albums, most of the initial work was deciding which sounds would inspire Zammuto and de Jong to create anew. They've got plenty to consider.

"It's a very active kind of looking when you're looking for samples. It's a great kind of meditative exercise because you really get to see American culture from this very strange perspective," Zammuto says. "It's not the mainstream that we're looking at, it's the fringes - things that are trying to be the mainstream but somehow just never really got there."

De Jong nods his head. "There's something about going out there and finding it yourself and rummaging through all that stuff," he says. "It's kind of a harvesting, a social-cultural farming."

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.