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The Books

29 Oct

Speaking with Paul de Jong of The Books is something akin to listening to a Books record; an erudite and inviting ramble through a collector’s brain, full of idiosyncratic tics and references with a continual warm enthusiasm for the material at hand. De Jong and his partner Nick Zammuto have been making music as The Books for decade, in that period becoming what Pitchfork called “more or less a genre of one”, although with their rhythmic and melodic sense built upon complex snippets of found material, they might be considered a parent’s Dirty Projectors or a sample-obsessed They Might Be Giants. The Way Out is their first in five years and as we caught up with de Jong to talk, he was killing time between interviews reading a manual for industrial washer parts and reminiscing about bookstores and used LPs. The Books stage show, which is an elaborate, video-enabled affair, comes to town on Saturday with a gig at the Cedar Cultural Center, and to set up that experience, de Jong discoursed on how audio cassettes are like the internet, the power of a good agent and avoiding disaster.

CakeIn15:I’ll admit that I am a little nervous about what to ask you, because I feel that you could probably talk about anything. When talking to a lot of bands there are some sort of fall-back questions about things they like to do, partying on the road but I’m not sure that those are appropriate questions for you.

Paul de Jong: The party for me, on the road, is just kind of this unbelievable opportunity I get to connect with the audience and play music and to see the world and to see the world’s book and thrift stores. It’s an incredible honor to do that and to make a living that way, so yeah, that’s where the real party is. It’s the kind of thing that I think of partying that I think of being with my friends and it’s the kind of thing that you are in every town so shortly, so briefly that if you have friends in a town there is no time to see them and no time to make new friends. That doesn’t mean that contacts, new contacts wouldn’t be meaningful, but there is so little time. We do more and more stuff like master classes and colloquiums at universities and colleges and go to radio stations and participate in radio programs so the schedule is more and more full so you start feeling drained, because friendship is this really wonderful thing to receive and it refuels oneself. I am always glad to come home and see my wife and daughter again, but it’s no fun for them to be on the road so we miss eachother like crazy.

C15: With your new record, The Way Out, it opens and closes with two songs that are taken from self-help and autogenics tapes, about relaxing and taking a journey. Do those tracks frame a narrative or journey of the record and if so, what was your conception of that journey?

PdJ: I think you’re right that the record is bookended by those tracks and then in the middle you have this chain of missing links that are drawn from this longer narrative of the same kind of material, like the self-help material. It’s kind of because we had so much material. When we started out making the record we had so much material in the library that I had been working on for three years to expand it since the last record so that the sample library almost doubled so that the sample library gave us direction with what the subject matter would gravitate to or focus on the record and since we kind of started exploring the audio cassettes as a source medium as opposed to vinyl, old LPs, so I moved into this new era of recorded history. Audio cassettes back then worked the same way as the internet, it’s a one-time investment for people who have big ideas but small budgets, a way to duplicate their message in a cheap way and distribute it, rather than the LP or the CD, which were more expensive. So you get all these fringe gurus and self help savants that have a lot in common but do is slightly different, but there is this great benevolence among them that they really want to help and there is something really positive in their voices and in their messages. Of course, it’s totally making fun of them, too, by totally altering their words, but we ended up with so much material that it seemed to be one of the anchors of the record, that stood out as an anchor of the record like the answering machine messages and the Talk-Boy recordings of little kids that ended up in “Cold Freezing Night”, evangelists of which I have heaps and heaps and heaps of and ended up in “I Am Who I AM”, motivational speakers who also ended up in “I Am Who I Am”. And so those are really the cream that floated to the top of the big jug of milk that we were able to skim and use then. All the songs in the record, they have not so much to do with eachother, there is not an ongoing narrative in the record, in a way I see every song as a world unto itself, as a city unto itself but they are all existing in one landscape.

C15: On the same street surrounded by the same city walls.

PdJ: Exactly, but their architecture is distinct, their culture is different. So it felt like those self-help tapes, those self-help songs kind of, paced it somehow, framed it in a really nice way, it’s got a good introduction and a good exit to something that might feel really fragmented or brittle.

The Books ~ Group Autogenics from StudioBlue on Vimeo.

C15: Can you talk about creating The Books for the stage and how that’s different to The Books in the studio?

PdJ: It’s very different but the processes are coming, coming, coming closer to eachother. We started making video five years ago or so when we started playing live. First five years, we just started making records, we didn’t think about playing live shows and you know, after the second record we got the message, ok, you’re not going to make a living making records alone. Actually it was an agent from Chicago, [Tom Windish] who is still our booking agent who came out and sought us out, because we had plenty of critical acclaim we just never thought it would be really possible to bring it as a show to the stage. So he came out and convinced us that we really had an audience there and that we should really try. So we saw that as an opportunity because we needed to translate the songs to the stage for our performance for our instruments and that can’t be translated on pre-recorded mediums, instead we needed to reproduce the music as it appears on CD, because it is really made for the studio, for individual ears only. And there are so many factors in live music that you can’t control that we needed to create something that we could rely on somehow so it had to be a pretty simple performance. We both had great interest and history in the visual arts, so we both saw it as an opportunity to have the video take center stage in our performance. I had already started collecting video and kind of in the same way I collect sounds, I throw out what I never want to see anymore, keep what I really think has potential, if not now, in 10 years, it doesn’t matter. You really go for enormous quantities if you want to make work like this from found materials. When we stated creating the show, the music already existed, so we started retrofitting the videos to the music, so we made these videos that are really tightly rhythmically aligned with the music and sometimes in an illustrative way, sometimes in a more abstract, rhythmical way. As we progressed and we started composing music for The Way Out, we saw it as an opportunity to compose video simultaneously. Sometimes with The Way Out we actually started with the video, with something we really wanted to use. In “Cold Freezing Night”, we had this huge amount of summer camp video, yearbook videos and it’s full of these idiotic moments of belly flops, or kids playing or fighting or kid’s plays, and we kind of knew that the material would go really, really well with the material that we were working with on the track, so while Nick was working on the music I already started working on the video and as soon as Nick ad the track done, all I really needed to do was to kick the video into place here and there and there it was.

C15: With the inter-relationship between the audio and the visual and the dependence on video, is there space for happenstance or improvisation, or in the worst case, disaster?

PdJ: Disaster I haven’t experienced yet, only maybe once or twice have we had a skipping DVD where you get the quintessential Milli Vanilli moment, we don’t lip-sync or instrument-sync but it can happen where a piece of equipment malfunctions and that’s one of the reasons that for years we didn’t take a laptop onstage, we just streamed everything from a DVD and played along with it. Now, since the software has become more failsafe, we take a laptop onstage and we have also an extra musician with us, Jean Beck, who plays a host of instruments and also triggers samples from a midi keyboard. I think that samples from a keyboard and having three instrumentalists interact onstage, there is a lot of musical dynamics despite the fact that you’ve got to kind of play along with a click-track, with a tape. But the more you get used to playing with a click-track and a tape, the better you know it and the better you know the kind of niches where you can take you freedom and where it works. At the same time, though when you want to play a show effectively 200 times over 2 seasons, you really just want to be able to reproduce it failsafe, but at the same time there are moments where we can do things different every night and I think that’s how it stays alive.

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