Location has always been significant to the Books: Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto began collaborating while living in New York City over ten years ago. The Way Out, the Books' fourth full-length album – their first since 2005’s Lost and Safe – has, from its start, also been shaped by location: the positioning of two books on a shelf, their titles cast in the same font, caught de Jong’s eye at a Salvation Army thrift store in Cincinnati while on tour; it was there the duo found an album title and a path to explore. The two have now settled with their respective new families north of New York City, and work from their home studios – de Jong from a converted bookstore in New Lebanon, NY, and Zammuto from a converted tractor garage in Readsboro, VT. They meet often in a small office located on the campus of Mass MOCA, the renowned contemporary arts museum in North Adams, MA.
The title The Way Out means many things, of course, but the primary meaning is quite literal. All of the sample material, the signature elements of their records, are drawn from outdated media – obscure, private-press LPs, VHS tapes and audio cassettes, which are being land-filled en masse; these recordings – literally on their way out – are rescued from certain extinction and given new life as the foundation for absurd (and absurdly beautiful) sound art disguised as abstract pop songs.
The yin and yang of the Books' process is based on de Jong and Zammuto’s long-standing collector/composer relationship. Although there is significant crossover in their roles, it is this primary dynamic that has continually propelled their unique vision. Apart from cello and guitars, the primary instrument and inspiration of the Books is de Jong’s extensive sample library, which has grown by leaps and bounds since Lost and Safe. Through obsessive collecting and cataloging of long-forgotten private-press records, obscure audio/video cassettes and imagery from rare books, de Jong has amassed one of the world's most compelling and unique sample collections. He carefully organizes the samples into a series of nested folders with broad subjects such as ‘Spoken Word‘, ‘Vocal‘, ‘Animals‘ and ‘Instrumental‘, which are further filed into hundreds of sub-folders with such curious labels as ‘Foghorns, Pipes’, ‘Strange, Small‘, ‘Insects’, ‘Mechanical Instruments’, ‘Telephones, Beeps’, ’Breathing, Sighing’, ’Impediments’, ‘Laughter’, and so on. Says de Jong, “In a way the subjects for a new record choose themselves by standing out through a combination of sheer mass, musical qualities, and content that resonates with both of us. During the process of composing an album, I remain on the lookout to enlarge the library and widen the subjects that we have chosen to focus on. In the case of The Way Out these areas were meditation, self-help therapy and yoga records, among others.”
Using the library as a starting point, Zammuto then finds threads, themes, and unifying rhythms that become the seeds for musical compositions. The compositions are then built from the inside out by adding studio recordings of the duo's guitars and cellos, one-of-a-kind homemade instruments, and occasionally sung lyrics. The result is the tightly knit, highly rhythmic sound-collage that has become the signature sound of the Books. Thanks in large part to the ever-increasing scale, scope and organization of the library, The Way Out represents a huge leap forward for the Books. Zammuto explains, “Since there's more to draw from, I've been able to find far more coherent lines within the compositions, so that each track becomes a kind of world in itself. That's the sound we're after, every track has to go beyond belief in some way, but still feel real and sincere at the same time.”
Each track on The Way Out features a single source or group of related sources, stripped of their original contexts, dismantled and reconstructed into a new shape that brings out unexpected meanings and universal themes. In the track "A Cold Freezin’ Night", a preteen brother and sister take turns recording on their new tape recorder, and the conversation quickly escalates into an unexpectedly violent yet oddly hilarious exercise in harmless sibling rivalry. De Jong originally found the home recording on a thrift store audio tape labeled ‘Talk-Boy’, which was the brand name of a tape recorder heavily marketed to kids in the 1990‘s, popularized by Macaulay Culkin in the movie Home Alone 2. De Jong recalls, “I picked up the Talk-Boys not knowing what they were. It turned out they had all these outrageous kids’ recordings on them, they are just playing with the language that they’ve picked up from adults. They became part of the library and they always stood out. There was enough material to carry a song, and we realized we were going in a direction that’s more hardcore than what people might be used to.” Nick designed a spare but energetic track in which the situation could unfold with it’s dichotomous mixture of cruelty and innocence. Apart from the children’s voices the track also features a classic 808 kick and dozens of samples of vintage synth and dated radio promo music.
In the track "I Am Who I Am", The Way Out reaches an energetic peak that stands in stark comparison to the often subdued, polite nature of previous albums. Here the in-your-face sound of an electric razor seamlessly replaces the distorted electric guitar, as a preacher's voice extols the existential statement "I am who I am and what I am." With a palpable mixture of confidence and ensuing identity crisis, the sum of its parts transcends the original source material. Words are a kind of sculptural medium for the Books, and language is not used as a tool for self expression so much as a starting point for abstraction and reformulation. For example, in the track "Free Translator", the lyrics of a well known American songwriter are transformed into something wholly different by translating it multiple times through free online translation software. Zammuto explains, "We took the lyrics and translated them into German, and then Swedish and then Italian etc. and then ultimately back into English, and what we found was truly astonishing. Somehow the poetry persists while all of the imagery mutates in unexpected ways…stuff we would have never thought of on our own.” The mutant images are reassembled into a new set of lyrics that have only a ghostly literary trace of the original, while somehow still capturing the spirit of original. The new song is then framed with a sample from an old guitar instructional record, that repeats the lyric "and I see...", which bares a striking resemblance to the voice of the original artist, further extending the metaphor of far-reaching influence.
Fittingly, The Way Out is bookended by tracks featuring samples cut from hypnotherapy and self-actualization tapes. The voices on this material tend to be lulling in tone, measured in cadence. De Jong explains, “I really got into cutting up old self-help records and cassettes – self-hypnosis and therapy records, all that. But we never use any of that stuff in its original form. The beautiful thing about those records is there’s an attitude in the speakers that is optimistic, very positive. I think we were both drawn to this tone of voice. All these people have zeroed in on a key word or a guiding principle, so they repeat stuff a lot and they speak very slowly. It’s really easy to cut their words apart and rearrange them. it becomes this strange pool of bizarre therapists.” Verbs, nouns and adjectives are freely recombined to create an absurd but strangely compelling guided meditation.
In July 2009, the Books had the great honor of being invited by the producer/engineer Drew Brown to work in London for four days (and nights) at The Hospital, the studio of legendary producer Nigel Godrich. With Brown’s generous help, they were able to gather and record elements for The Way Out using Godrich’s mind-boggling collection of vintage instruments and synths. The Books pride themselves on producing, mixing and mastering their own recordings at home using simple gear, and The Way Out is no doubt their most accomplished production thus far.
The Books' legendary live show has always incorporated video as a primary element, creating an experience somewhere between a rock concert and a film. In a way the video serves as a kind of "frontman" for the band, rather than a typical ambient backdrop. As with the majority of the audio samples, the video is mostly culled from abandoned VHS tapes from the 1980's and 90's. The video is tightly synchronized to the band's live performance, conveying a vast emotional energy that's often simultaneously hilarious and profound. Zammuto and de Jong are increasingly incorporating audio and video simultaneously; the effect is exhilarating for the senses of both the audience and the band, and bridges the age-old gap between the two. The Books have also added a new member for their stage show: The über-talented multi-instrumentalist Gene Back, whom they met through a recent collaboration with cellist Zachary Miskin. With the addition of Back's extremely capable hands, the Books are able to present the innocent wisdom and surreal charm of The Way Out in a way that is both technically faithful and emotionally revelatory.
“Genre-wise I can't explain this record. It hints at clear reference points only to subvert them seconds later. I think instead of looking at music stylistically it makes more sense to look at the environment and process that created it. In our case it's a kind of chaotic pile of compelling detritus, acted upon by a lot of patience and free play that allows it to shake itself into a kind of order that favors emotional sense over literal sense. There's always a feeling of self-assembly when a composition is going well, like these things were always meant to be together, and the effort goes into creating the conditions for self-assembly, rather than forcing things into a preconceived shape. We’re the filters,” concludes Zammuto. “That’s basically what we are and I think that’s what everybody is in this culture, where there’s so much information around us all the time. That defines who you are in the end, what you filter and why.”