Producer and multi-instrumentalist Nick Zammuto is best known as one half of The Books, the duo he formed with cellist Paul de Jong in 1999. Their distinct sound, a blend of sound collage and live instrumentation, received high acclaim when they released their debut album, ‘Thought For Food’, in 2000, and even more so with the follow-up ‘The Lemon Of Pink’ in 2003.
The Books released their fourth album, ‘The Way Out’, in 2010 – a title which in some ways proved prophetic, as it was to be their final release together. In January this year Zammuto revealed in an interview with Pitchfork that the duo had split. At the same time, he released the debut EP from his new band, whose moniker matches his surname.
In April, Zammuto released their eponymous debut album via Temporary Residence. A logical progression from The Books, the record finds Nick Zammuto on fine form both musically and as a lyricist, seemingly with a new confidence in his vocal performances. But it was as a live band that The Books always really came to life, so as Zammuto head to London to begin a European tour at Birthdays in London on 30 Nov, CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to Nick to discuss the transition to his new project.
AM: When did you begin working on the Zammuto album?
NZ: To be honest, I’ve had this new project in the back of my mind for a long time, and started working on it during the downtime between the last Books tours in 2011. It felt pretty clear then that The Books were coming to a close, so I started rough-framing a new band based around the idea of replacing the cello with a live percussionist.
Although I loved working and touring The Books, the show started to feel like glorified karaoke after a while, basically playing along with pre-sequenced rhythms. I wanted to feel like I was in a real band, and having a live timekeeper felt essential. Luckily I found an amazing drummer in Sean Dixon. He’s incredibly creative and loves polyrhythms like I do. He has this unique combination of being super-precise but also playing with a real human touch. You’ve got to see him play… he blows my mind every show.
AM: So this isn’t a solo project?
NZ: No, it’s not a solo record, it’s very much a four piece band. I’m afraid the name suggests the project is about me, but ‘Zammuto’ was a fall back name. We had many other working names… my favourite was ‘Sexsexful’, but I’m afraid we couldn’t fully live up to it. I ended up choosing ‘Zammuto’ since it’s a family name and my brother Mikey is in the band, and it rests comfortably next to Zappa.
Out of necessity I do most of the writing for the records, but Mikey, Gene and Sean really bring it to life on stage. The ultimate purpose of the project is to play live, while the record serves as a kind of starting point. Sometimes we stay true to the record but where there is room for expansion, I let them go for it. I’m not a frontman, and never will be. We perform in a semi-circle and keep attention moving around the stage constantly.
AM: How do you approach writing a song? Presumably it’s not as simple as just sitting down with a guitar and bashing it out. Do you have a particular process?
NZ: The Books model is still very much in place. I build collections of sounds and words and concepts and when a kind of ‘critical mass’ is reached, I start to give shape to it. The other members of the band make contributions along the way, but I never show them the whole picture until it’s finished. I take a lot of tangents in the studio and it would be a drag to make them to sit through my endless tinkering. I try to spare them the pain and keep it simple for them!
AM: The ‘Idiom Wind’ EP came out at the same time you announced that The Books had split, has the transition been as seamless as it appears?
NZ: Yes, it has been fairly seamless. Although I lost the name, the new project feels like a natural continuation of The Books, both for me and the audience, I think. People at every show come up to me afterwards and say, “This makes sense, you needed to do this”.
AM: What finally led you to split up The Books?
NZ: Suffice it say, it became impossible to work with Paul, and over the many years we worked together it became an increasingly inequitable relationship. There was a lot of artificial respiration that went into The Books in those final years and it was completely exhausting. I did what I could and felt like I fought the good fight, but couldn’t save it. I thought about completely quitting music pretty seriously at that point, but my wife and family encouraged me to keep working, so I did. And I’m glad they persuaded me. I’m having more fun now than ever on tour. It’s been an exhilarating and busy first year.
AM: Are you happy with how the Zammuto album has been received?
NZ: Yes, extremely pleased. The shows have had a roaring response, even in smaller venues. I think people are pleasantly surprised by the energy of the show, given my more cerebral past. My band is made up of real players, and the show is for people who love live music and musicianship, with the added twist of occasional electronics and videos.
AM: Do you have plans for the next one?
NZ: Yes, plugging away already!
AM: To the uninitiated, what should people expect from your live show? Have you carried on the visual aspect that was so much part of Books shows?
NZ: The show is very visual. About half of the show has a synced video projection very much in the spirit of The Books. The videos are usually on the hilarious side. But we’ve found that many of the songs work best without video, since the band is so fun to watch, and I don’t want to sauce it over unnecessarily. After people break the code of what we’re doing they usually stop trying to predict what’s going to happen and just come along for the ride. Surprise is a big part of the show.
AM: When it comes to performing live, how easy or difficult is it to translate your recordings to the stage? Have the Zammuto songs changed over the course of this year?
NZ: It’s very detailed music, so it’s taken some time to wire all the changes into our nervous systems. After about 70 shows this year, it’s finally subconscious and we can focus more externally while playing. The songs have evolved in interesting ways. Each of us have found new things through repetition.
AM: We’re increasingly told that live music is more important as a means for professional recording musicians to earn their living – whereas traditionally touring possibly promoted albums. Is that your experience?
NZ: That’s 100% true. Playing concerts is what keeps us alive financially, while I never expect a return on recorded music. Really the opposite is true now… albums are used to promote tours. That’s why I retooled my approach towards the show. I’d much rather be known for our live shows than our records, although I’ll always do both.
AM: Finally, it’s coming up to that time of year when people start compiling their end of year lists, what music have you particularly enjoyed in 2012?
NZ: I’m the father of three boys, so I listen to what they want, usually. Mostly the classics this year: Paul Simon, The Police, Gillian Welch, Bee Gees, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke. I haven’t listened to much new music this year. I should probably start doing that.