Nick Zammuto on how the music he makes with Zammuto is different from the Books
Zammuto (due Thursday, April 26, at Shine for the Communikey Festival) is the latest project from Nick Zammuto, who was one half of the experimental electronic band the Books. But as with his old band, Zammuto blends organic sounds with the purely electronic in a seamless whole. The group's recently released, self-titled, debut full-length sounds like it could be folk music made by robots in the first flush of full-consciousness.
The subject matter of the album may be, in part, an exorcism of Zammuto's experience of the breakup of his old band, but there is that playfulness and rhythmic inventiveness that has always made Zammuto's musical contributions so inexplicably compelling.
We caught up with the gracious and thoughtful Zammuto at his house in Vermont before he departed for his tour with Explosions in the Sky and talked about "the music of inhibition," Boards of Canada and his seemingly boundless curiosity that he applies not just to his music, but to his entire life.
Westword: In that interview you did with Pitchfork in January, you said that you always consciously thought you were making "'the music of inhibition,' in a way." Why do you feel that's true?
Nick Zammuto: I'm a shy person. I was not born with the kind of American Idol instinct. If you asked me, even five years ago, if my livelihood would involve getting up in front of people and singing, I would laugh. And it's funny because now that that's what I do. I feel like I'm doing it because I have to do it, in a way.
But I guess in a deeper sense, the idea of inhibition is...you try to keep yourself in check, in a way. So it's music that's not really about me but kind of is about me at the same time -- I don't know, like trying to make music that's kind of like sitting stoically over in the corner at a party and just praying someone comes over to start a conversation, but not wanting to just dive in and start one yourself. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. Any shy person can relate to that analogy. How did you find out about Boards of Canada, and why did they strike such a chord with you in the late 90s -- particularly Music Has the Right to Children?
Oh, man, that's a great record. That was right around the time when I got my first computer that I got that record. It sorta clicked, like, "Oh, man, I can't play guitar to save my life, but I can click a mouse like there ain't no thing!" I heard Boards of Canada and I'm like, "I get this; this is like the most awesome Lego set ever." So I was listening to that stuff when I started making music and learned a lot from it just kind of listening to the mechanics of it.
Even if I didn't fully absorb the style of it, it was more the process of making it that was interesting to me, because you weren't forced to kind of sit down in a studio with a band to record it. You could work on it in bits and pieces and layers and audition a lot of parts and really listen to them before deciding if they were good or not. I think that's what I liked about that stuff.
You scored the film Achante last year. How did you get involved in making music for a documentary about Haitian Vodou?
Both the cinematographer and the director were fans of the Books. This was right around the time where it was pretty clear the Books were over. They emailed me and I'm like, "Well, why not give this a shot?" I'm really glad I did because I couldn't ask for a more challenging and interesting and rewarding project. They, Emily [McMehen] and Geoffrey [Sautner] and their cast of collaborators down in Haiti, went down there to research the film about two weeks before the earthquake happened a little more than two years ago. So they were there when that all happened.
Instead of being just another couple of white photographers with cameras when all they needed were like bulldozers, they decided to put their cameras away and instead they got to know the Vodou community down there pretty well and really gained their trust and their friendship. Eventually they asked them to give something to the film and all these Vodou communities basically said they wanted to be possessed in front of the camera -- do these traditional Vodou ceremonies. So they were able to be there and film them from just inches away. Then record all the amazing drumming that goes along with it.
So that was kind of my starting point for the film. They had these scenes worked out that were totally non-narrative. It's more like dance music than it is like scoring a narrative film. Because these ceremonies are so rhythmically-driven, I sort of had to match that rhythmic intensity. But then again, I'm a white guy from Vermont. I have no business trying to make something that sounds like a Haitian native.
So we strategized for a while on how to defuse that whole question about ethnicity and authenticity. What we decided on was that, actually, synthesizers made the most sense to create this sort of possessed, spirit sound on top of these really earthy drums. These are not pretty synthesizers, these were like twist-the-knobs-as-far-as-they-will-go kind of synth sounds. Somehow it created this really great tension that allowed people to get absorbed in the film.
Kind of knowing that it represents an outside perspective at the same time it represents one that is sort of freely given to the film. I think it's taken people a while to wrap their brains around that. I think people in this country are a little bit worried about the film because there's this deep seated feeling that you have to tell their story in order to make it legitimate. You can't just leave it untold.
But really, I think it's more of a deep seated expression of just feeling uncomfortable with the first world collaborating with the third world. So it really brought out some interesting responses. But it just won Best Experimental Film at the European Independent Film Festival, which is amazing. It's a great thing this has happened, I think it lends some legitimacy to what Emily did. Hopefully we'll be able to release the soundtrack sometime this fall.
In what ways would you say you approached the music for Zammuto differently than you did with The Books?
It's a totally different approach. Sort of by necessity and by design. Zammuto is a band. It's a four-piece band. Although it's mostly me in the studio trying to figure out how to make a record. I bring in my players fairly often, and they give me a lot to draw from in their performances. Then I figure out how it all fits together. But it's really the live show that's the ultimate purpose of what we're doing.
Gene Back, who was part of the Books for a long time, is also in this band, and he plays keyboards and guitars on stage, sometimes simultaneously. He also did all the string arrangements on the record just multi-tracking violin in his apartment in Brooklyn -- he would send them up to me. My brother Mikey is on bass, and in retrospect, I cannot think of a better bass player for this band, actually. We think in really similar ways, so it's great to work with him.
And Sean Dixon on drums, who has just kind of blown my mind in so many ways, just as a composer, he falls into that category of drummers that I would call a scientist. He's got incredible precision and control and heart, as well -- which is a rare combination. Everything he plays has this groove to it, but he does things I've never seen anybody else do. So he's great on a rock kit but his real passion is polyrhythmic playing.
He's learned a lot directly from the African guys that he knows. Having him in the studio has awakened me to stuff that I would have never known was possible with drums. So what's on the record sort of pales in comparison to what he can do live, and I'm really looking forward to playing these shows with him because he's really fun to watch.
Yeah, in that Afro-Cuban style, polyrhythms are essential.
It just makes the music feel like it's moving backwards and forwards at the same time. It has a really deep, organic feel.
The Books were known for introducing unique sound-making devices. Did you bring any of that sort of thinking and technique into Zammuto?
Yeah, there's quite a lot of that in this record, and I think it's something I'll continue on with more ostensibly in the future. For now, it's a background, textural thing for the most part. I still manipulate vinyl a lot because it's so satisfying. I'm not really doing it live so much, because it's such a delicate sound that it doesn't translate well on stage. But for records it really adds this dimension that's kind of amazing.
A friend of mine made a little video of how I work up here, so there's kind of an illustration of one technique that I use in that video. You can find it on the website. So actually scratching patterns in the silent parts of vinyl and having that be an impulse to send through things like PVC pipes and things like that to give it tonal color makes for this sound that people have no name for: "What is that?" I love those kinds of things that really disarm any categorization.
You have a "song" on the album called "Crabbing" that sounds like a sample of someone who is speaking and singing on a fragment of old reel-to-reel tape. How did you achieve that kind of sound, and what about that interested you for a 37 second song?
It's more like a sample. It's not a song I wrote. It's literally a straight up sample of a record that I found. It was the most mysterious record I found last year. I found it in Brattleboro, Vermont, at a thrift shop just going through the bins. It's a totally white, well, now kind of brown, record cover that had one word on it, just "Conchology."
It turns out that this was the high school class musical for the class of 1963, or something like that. It all takes place under the sea, so the voice in that song is the voice of the misanthropic crab who is very wary about the presence of humans underwater. So this crab is singing about how humans are going to destroy their world. It's like this, I guess, cautionary tale of exploitation.
For me, it had a lot of other meanings, so it made sense to throw it on there. This whole record has a lot of dejection and disappointment in it for obvious reasons. And I guess there's more universal meaning to it as well. For me it summed up how I was feeling at the time. I'm sure that record was one of fifty records for that class to take home as a souvenir or something like that. I can't say for sure exactly where it came from. That's the only information I have.
Someone who is new to your music will hear, for lack of a better word, organic instrumentation mixed in with electronics. What about using all of that together continues to appeal to you and how would you say it has evolved since you started making music like that?
I don't really have an answer for that. It's really an intuitive process for me. When I sit down to work, that's what happens. I don't have a good explanation. I'm totally self-taught so there isn't any real intellectual underpinning to what I do. It's all built from what I have around me, so I kind of have to live in that world because I don't have access to any worlds outside of that.
Given where I live now, which is pretty isolated, it's getting even more idiosyncratic as I go. I work in an old tractor garage in the middle of a mountain meadow. It's a very weird place to make electronic music but it's always surrounded by a lot of uncontrolled, organic elements.
In working with things readily on hand, did that inspire you to create things that made sounds that weren't created by pre-fabricated instruments?
Yeah, totally. I studied the visual arts before I studied music. And I actually think I have a pretty visual aesthetic when I make music. Obviously the interfaces that you can use on a computer to make music are very visual. They definitely have an influence on the output. So yeah, when I was in college I was making paintings and then sculptures and then the sculptures started to include a sound component either through mechanical means or through installing electronics inside them. I needed a way to document the sound because just taking a picture of it wouldn't mean anything to anybody without the sound.
So I invested in one of those DAT recorders back in the late '90s, and the first recordings that I ever made with those just totally changed my life. I never really had the ability to make high quality stereo recordings before. The first few that I made with that field recorder were, just, wow. As a sculptural medium, there is nothing better than sound, especially given how easy it is to cut it now. It opened up my ears in a way. Everything became music at that point when I started making those recordings. I think everything came directly from that.
That kind of relates to that thing on your website where you talk about this thing you built that integrated laser with the sound where the sound kind of guides how the laser patterns are created?
Yeah! You'd have to see it. It's hard to explain. But basically what happened is that I broke the side view mirror in my car. When you go to the auto parts place, the cheapest option is to get one of these little, flexible mirrors that you can cut into the shape of your mirror and stick it on there. But it gets totally warped so it's almost useless as a side view mirror because it vibrates a lot and it just doesn't work.
But the cool thing was that I was driving down the road and my car was old and shaking a lot, and when I was looking in the mirror, all the street lights and things like that, because the car was vibrating, were making these incredible patterns, like looping patterns, figure eights and circles depending on how the car was vibrating. And I'm like, "That's gold." So what I did was took an old speaker out of a cheap speaker set and attached one of these flexible mirrors directly to it, so I could put any sound I wanted through the mirror and then shined a laser pointer off the mirror and projected it onto the wall. Through experimentation, I found that you can really manipulate that picture into almost anything you want -- to kind of compose visually.
It's almost completely subsonic. It's only sounds below twenty hertz that really make the picture move a lot. It's kind of a way of making music without sound at all. It's kind of interesting. I think it might be a set piece in our show at some point. Maybe in the fall. But I'm not bringing it along this time. I want to build a song around it and have it be more than just this kind of oscilloscope experience. I'd rather give it more structure and it's going to take a little time.
What lead you to finding out about Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language," and what ideas in there did you find especially interesting and appealing in using in modifying your own house in Vermont?
I think his focus is on how scales are related. Everything from the smallest scale to the largest scale and trying to make sure there's some continuity between those. I really think it is really the continuity between scales from like something you'd hold in your hand like a doorknob to how do you position your house on site, there has to be a continuous chain between all of those elements that creates a feeling of flow.
That's what I learned, more than anything, from that book was how to pay attention to how those scales work together. I think you can apply that way of thinking to almost any field. And I think, actually, computer scientists have picked up on his ideas of architecture for designing computer interfaces and things like that. It's just a classic. It's a great book because it has a spiritual side to it as well as a very practical one.
I heard about the book on the radio. It was [part of] On the Media on WNYC -- it's a really good show. They mentioned it one time. They were doing a story around Christopher Alexander and I thought I should read it.
It looks like you're always working on some kind of do-it-yourself project and either building or inventing things. Is there anything that has fascinated you of late that you're teaching yourself how to make or a concept that has fired your imagination?
I haven't had much time to do anything except set up this record and rehearse the show. Actually, I guess I can say we've really been into screen printing. We make all our own merchandise here, so we got a four-screen, screen printing set up. So it's basically swivel arm with four different screens to put on there so you can layer four colors. It's a beautiful process, especially when it's working smoothly. Each print is different but different in a really spectacular way from the rest. So when people look at it, they can tell it's handmade but still you can make additions.
So what we did was to do a fundraiser for the project and the first 500 copies would be a special orange and black splattered vinyl and we hand printed the covers. So we just finished an edition of five hundred and it took most of last week. But it was really, really fun. I learned a lot from it and I'm really happy with the results. The cover is a picture of the zebra butt.
Just like your song.
Exactly. I was cautioned against using the title "Zebra Butt" by everybody. But I was like, "Trust me guys, Google "zebra butt" and you will change your minds. It works every time. Try it. Google "zebra butt" in Google images, it will change your life.
It seems as though you take a very hands on approach to everything in making your music and your home life at this point. When did that become very much a lifestyle, and why is that important to you?
It didn't really come out of idealism. It came out of, I guess, instinct. It's something my wife and I share. When Molly was pregnant with our first boy -- I have three sons now all under the age six which is an amazing thing -- she had this incredible nesting instinct. She said, "We've got to find a place." I happened to be on tour at the time. She was looking around the town we were living in, which was North Adams, Massachusetts, and not finding anything that was affordable or a place where we could grow anything, really.
So she started looking further afield and found this property on forsalebyowner.com. On the advertisement was a picture of a dilapidated shack, but next to it, it said "beautiful meadows, open mountain views." So I said, "Okay, I'll drive up and check it out." It was about a half hour outside of where we were originally looking and it was in the middle of the winter when we bought it, but she was so adamant that this was the place. I'm looking at her like, "I think you're crazy because this is just like a shake in the middle of a giant, arctic tundra." She said, "No, trust me, I dug underneath the snow and I found blueberries under there."
Sure enough, once the snow melted, man, it's paradise up here. Especially during the warmer months. Luckily there's a patch of land here that's really fertile, and Molly has an incredible green thumb, and she can grow anything up here. So everything came from that. [When we had] this space to expand into, we started getting a lot of ideas about how to use it, and become more self-sufficient. When the Books went on hiatus, it was kind of the perfect time for me to buy some power tools and learn how to build things. So that's mostly what I did in 2008 -- construct our house. Starting with the shack and adding on to it since then.
People look at it and say, "Oh, it's part of the back to nature movement," or whatever. But really that's not what it's like for us. It's a lot of hard work to live up here. It's not for everybody. My friends from the city come up here and they're exhilarated to be up here for four days and they say, "I couldn't do it. This is hard." But it's our place and we're really putting roots down now. Every time the season comes around, we know a lot more than we did the year before.
We don't have a lot of money so the idea of hiring a contractor to fix my plumbing or whatever -- no, I'll do it myself. Apart from it being a financial necessity, it's just really satisfying. Nothing scratches that primordial itch than creating the space that you live in. When you're framing a new space from scratch, and you realize a year later that this space didn't exist until you created it -- it's so deeply human.
Now two of my sons have been born in the building that we made ourselves. It just means a lot to have done it ourselves for that reason. I'm really glad we had the opportunity to do it and things came together in a way that allowed us to in terms of time and resources.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.