an interview with Nick Zammuto, who plays Schubas next week
Nick Zammuto is on tour with his project Zammuto, in support of their self-titled debut LP. It’s their first headlining tour after supporting Gotye and Explosions In The Sky earlier this year. They’ll be performing at Schubas this Tuesday (10/9) and tickets are still available.
Nick and I spoke earlier this week about transitioning from The Books to Zammuto, his family and lifestyle, and how he relates his chemistry degree to the creative process of music.
Our chat begins below…
Nick Zammuto: Yeah, spending those times with those guys – we really hit it off. We just love those guys. They’ve been super generous with us. Stylistically, it’s pretty different. Their stuff is kind of like epic, and ours is kind of more detailed and quirky. I think there’s a similar sense of joy that we have when we play. Hopefully people feel something positive.
bvC: What was your experience like touring with Gotye?
Nick: It was a great experience. That crew is amazing. Wally is in the eye of the hurricane. I think, in that respect he was very taken aback by the incredible response to that song [“Somebody That I Used To Know”]. It hasn’t seemed to have affected his core very much, which is amazing. He’s kind of running with it. He’s in a lot of ways like us; he’s been working his ass off for years and just had this song. The shows were interesting, because you know, people would cheer after we were done, and their cheers were like an octave higher than like a normal response because it was all teenage girls in the audience. I don’t think the audience crossover was quite as clean with the Gotye crowd, but we definitely made some fans, especially of the parents that were bringing their small children along to appreciate the show.
bvC: How did “Battle Hymn of the Republic” make it into your set?
Nick: (Laughs) Yeah, well, that’s the biggest question – a very unexpected thing. I have this enormous collection of VHS cassettes that I developed when I was part of The Books and I still have a lot of that stuff lying around. I was looking at it and this tape jumped out at me, this autoharp instructional video and it just had to be done. It was one of those things that just happened instantaneously. We put that together within a day of seeing that. He plays “Battle Hymn of the Republic” very slowly on the autoharp and each time he goes through it he adds a layer of complexity, but it’s still all done really slowly, so I’m like man we gotta blow this up in an interesting way and have this strange proggy freak-out and have it return to this well known melody at the end and it all made sense.
When I showed it to the band, I was like “this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to basically do a cover of this well known song and then we’re going to do this proggy freak-out, alright?” and they were like “ok…” It changes time signature every bar basically and it took them a while to figure it, but I think now they understand the flow of it and it has become one of our favorite things to play because it jumps off the stage in a way that we really love, and it has all of these unexpected changes. The concept was simple – it was to take tiny fragments of his playing – basically 2, 4, 8, 16 frame pieces of it, because everything based on the frame rate of VHS and the tempo. So as long as I took collections of frames that were divisible by two, I could somehow get them to fit within the structure.
bvC: In the recordings from when you played in Athens, Georgia – was the guy who loves “Zebra Butt” doing anything other than yelling?
Nick: (Laughs) That guy… yeah. I have no explanation for that. That was one of the craziest nights we’ve ever had. We played in Miami the night before, which means we drove over 700 miles to drive to that show. We drove overnight and were out of our minds. We were like on another planet when we arrived in Athens, Georgia. Not one, but like several people in the audience were really into “Zebra Butt” for some reason. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to make fun of us or if they were really with us, but by the end it seemed like they were really with us. When I first came up with the idea of “Zebra Butt,” and I ran it by everybody including our label, they were like “come on, man, don’t call it that! It’s just ridiculous.” I was like, “trust me guys, Google ‘Zebra Butt’ and it will change your life.” I highly recommend that everyone Googles “Zebra Butt,” it’s the most incredible collection of images you will ever see. Each one is like a fingerprint or a snowflake.
bvC: How long do you see yourself continuing this project now that it’s picked up?
Nick: Well, as long as people will let me – so far so good. We’ve had some really amazing shows, especially in the towns where The Books had a really good turnout. People have been coming out and the shows have been excellent. I feel like we still have a lot of growing to do to make sure that we can survive, but the amount of positive reaction has been overwhelming. We have high hopes but we’re definitely in the phase where really need people to turn to make sure we can.
bvC: What inspired you to blog during the songwriting and recording process and post those demos?
Nick: The Books were coming to an end and I think I had known that we weren’t going to be able to continue it. It turned out that the last Books tour was not feeling stable or happy at all, so I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. It became kind of a do or die situation. I’m asking the universe to have lightning strike twice. To have two bands that you can tour with seems like it would be impossible. I was trying to figure out how to get people in on the new project as smoothly as possible. I wanted to use my own voice. I felt like within the Books I was working so hard on the project and always speaking for two people, where really I just wanted to speak for myself so it was a chance for me to do that with the new project, kind of have this transparency from the beginning, and people seemed to appreciate it. People seemed to appreciate. I guess, the industry to a degree, they were interested in what I was doing, seemed to be okay with it. We were able to do a record release even though all the tracks were kind of out there already by the time we released it. It was a great way to interact people and have interesting conversation about the creative process. It definitely helped the process along to see what people were responding.
bvC: I had noticed that you had done a lot of the blogging on the Books blog as well.
Nick: Yeah, I feel like that was part of my role in The Books. Things were so difficult for those last few years that I really became kind of disheartened. The chance to tell the story from my own perspective has been good – therapeutic in a way. I want to continue on with that. I kind of started telling the story of The Books, but I ran out of time, I got too busy with other things. My plan is to go back and write about each track and where it came from and where we were when we made it. More for myself than anything, before I forget I want to get it done and into words. Journaling helps me to process things.
bvC: My father spent many years as an analytical chemist, so I sent him some of your blog posts about being a chemistry student and asked if he had any questions, and he asked – Do you see any analogies between how molecules react together and how music and words come together in your mind?
Nick: Absolutely. Yeah. From the very beginning it became a very resonate thing. You have to finesse molecules in order to get them to do what you want them to do. I knew this one guy who would write the chemical reaction on the glass beaker in reverse so the molecules could “see” them. It’s a geeky thing, but it’s a thing that’s always stuck with me. Trying to get all of these tiny things to work together to do something that you want them to do, that’s the beauty of chemistry. It’s not the concepts so much, but being in the lab and actually trying to make stuff happen. It’s like cooking food; it’s a real art. Music is the same way. You can bring any two things in proximity; any two sounds are going to start to interact. They’re going to be in tune with each other or out of tune with each other, and then you can take steps to bring them into tune. I guess some of the chemical work that I’ve always used was the idea of valance. Like, the carbon atom has four valences – it means it can connect to four things. Sounds have handles in kind of the same way. They want to combine with other things in certain ways. I think that’s why 4/4 has become such a common meter in music. It has a sort of elemental proxy that makes sense to people. The more I try to compose, the more these valences are found. When you have a bunch of sounds and you throw them together, they spontaneously form a certain kind of music often. I feel like I’m not in control of it whatsoever, I’m just sort of there to watch it happen, so it’s a lot of fun.
bvC: How did you get involved in that film about Haitian voodoo, Achantè?
Nick: Ha, yeah, Haitian voodoo… that was a really, really satisfying project to work on, and it came at just the right time as well, because I need a project before I started working on the Zammuto record to kind of reset me, in a way. Emily McMehen and her co-producer, Geoffrey Sautner, wrote me an e-mail one day explaining the project, and they sent me some of the video they had shot in Haiti. They had been fans of The Books, so they knew the kind of sound they were after. I don’t think they had a very specific thing in mind, but they asked me if I wanted to do and I said, “yes” right away. They’re doing a wider release at some point. It’s a really music-directed film. There’s hardly any narrative to it at all. It was sort of counting on the footage to tell the story of the voodoo ritual. The concept was not to go in and make some kind of ethnographic film about the religion of voodoo, the idea was to go in and give people the experience of what it’s like to actually participate in it. They filmed four voodoo ceremonies – a couple in the city and a couple in the country. If you know what you’re looking at, if you have some experience with voodoo iconography, you can kind of see all of these characters interacting, so they explained to me what was going on and I was able to write those characters into the music in a way.
The epiphany for us was to realize that part of the tension of making anything about Haiti at this point is like white people going into this very deep African-based traditional – I mean it’s a very strange combination of African and Christian influences – so you feel like you’re entering another world. The idea was not to try to make something that sounded like Haitian music whatsoever, which would have just been disingenuous. So instead we settled on this kind of throbbing, dancey approach to the soundtrack, which actually had a lot of synth in it. The lead voices were kind of possessed synthetic sounds – not like pretty synthesized, kind of ugly ones. They brought the film down to Haiti show people and they were of course worried about that, and they all loved it, like “Finally, someone has represented our religion in a way that we can agree with.”
bvC: I noticed in the trailer that one of those songs ended in your album in a different form.
Nick: One motif ended up making it onto the record.
bvC: When is that soundtrack coming out?
Nick: I haven’t talked to Emily in a while but I’m actually working on another short soundtrack for her about Mongolian contortionists, which is also really beautifully shot. I need to talk to her soon anyway; we’ll talk about how to release it. I think it’s about time that film has a general release and maybe I can make it available on DVD or something.
bvC: When did you start developing your lifestyle, as seen in the Naked Musicians video?
Nick: It’s my wife. She’s the most incredible person I know and I’m just so lucky to have her to keep me sane and busy. I think my life would be very different without her. Luckily, we share this vision. We’re happy to live slightly outside of society in a way. It’s not like we’re luddites or anything – we have electricity, we have running water. It came out of necessity rather than idealism. I’m a musician; I don’t make a lot of money. We just wanted to keep our overhead as low as possible. When Molly was pregnant with our first son, we started looking for a place. Molly really took it upon herself to find the perfect place. Along with pregnancy comes this unbelievable flood of nesting chemicals, so she was really driven to find the perfect place. We were looking around the town where we were living in Western Massachusetts – North Adams. We didn’t find anything within ten miles of where we were that would allow us to grow anything. There wasn’t enough space and it was too expensive, so Molly started looking slightly further out from where we had originally planned to look and found this picture on ForSaleByOwner.com of this little brown shack, and it looked like an absolute piece of shit. It WAS an absolute piece of shit, but it was on a beautiful piece of property -16 acres, way up high in the Green Mountains. Close enough to town that we could easily go to the grocery store a couple times a week to resupply, but pretty out there. They had this shack on it. It was in the middle of the winter and she wrote me this e-mail with a picture attached and said, “This is it, this is where we’re going to live, okay?” I’m like, “It looks like a dilapidated shack in the middle of a field of slush.” Apparently she had dug through the snow and found all these blueberry plants and soil underneath.
So we bought the place, not even knowing what was under the snow, and it turned out to be absolutely perfect. There are wild blueberries over most of the property. Apparently there was a farm there that had enriched the soil a lot in one section of the yard, so that’s where our garden is. Over time we’ve been able to learn carpentry and now we know enough to build our own structures, and so we started doing that in 2008 in the break between Lost and Safe and The Way Out. We were able to add on to our own house and basically double the size of it and renovate the whole thing at the same time. There’s nothing more satisfying than living in the structure that you’ve built yourself. It’s an incredible feeling- I highly recommend it.
It was just meeting Molly and having someone who was willing to take that risk with me. There’s a million other ways my life could have turned out for certain, but I’m really happy with our place and where we are. It’s also a great place to work and get music done because my studio is detached from the house. It’s about 100 feet away from the house in this little tractor garage. I insulated it and put a floor in there. It’s tiny but it sounds great in there, so I never have to work with headphones anymore. I play drums as loud as I want, day or night, and not wake anyone up, so there’s no inhibition. If I was living in town, I’d always have to worry about the neighbors and things like that.
bvC: You posted on your blog that your wife helped you put the limited edition vinyl together. Have you done much DIY stuff as far as art goes? Have you collaborated with her on other art projects?
Nick: I guess I’ve always been interested in embracing music as an object as well as the sound. I think for people who are interested in owning the object of it, you know CDs and industrially produced vinyl can only go so far. I think people really want a personal touch if they’re actually going to own the object, so the idea is the make something really unique. Molly and I bought a four-color screen printing set-up about halfway through making the record, and we started making t-shirts and posters and other stuff for the band, and it’s been great, because we both studied the visual arts, so I think we both have a knack for printmaking, especially, as a process. Since we have kids running around, we can tag-team production. When you’re working with water-based inks, you cannot let them dry out or you’ll lose your screen, so you have to keep going once you start. One of us will be controlling the children while the other one is printing and then we’ll switch off and it works pretty well.
bvC: What role does music play in your children’s lives?
Nick: It’s totally up to them. They seem to be tuned into it pretty well. My oldest one has a very scientific kind of mind. I think he could be a good composer, but I’m definitely not going to force him into it. I never had lessons of any kind, or any kind of music education, really. I’m very wary of planting things in his mind that might become an impediment later on. I’d much rather have him teach himself about music rather than me teach him, because I want him to form spontaneously.
The second one, Asa, is definitely not a scientist. He’s like the magical rainbow. Like, really different from his brother. He’s the dancer. You put on the Bee Gees and he goes totally crazy. He channels John Travolta. It’s amazing.
The little guy, I don’t know, he’s only a year old. He can keep a really steady beat when you put a stick in his hand. It’s really steady.
bvC: There’s one video where someone is playing a glockenspiel and he’s just watching.
Nick: That’s actually Sean, my drummer, playing that. He’s a very even-keeled little boy. He has a long attention span.
bvC: Do you still capture field recordings?
Nick: I do, and I still collect vinyl and VHS, and I think that’s always going to be a part of my process and I think it’s going to come into the foreground sometimes and then recede into the background other times. The record was very much based around the songs I was writing, but the live show, more than the record, still has this collage component, and we’re going to continue on in that vein. I just created a cover song of The Books song “That Right Ain’t Shit” and then recreated a video for it as well, kind of in The Books style of collage on the VHS. That goes over really well, like a very strangely sexual version of that song and is a lot of fun.
Studio recordings are great because they’re clean, and field recording are great because they’re dirty. There’s unintentional stuff that happens that really feeds into the music in a really interesting way for me, with things that are unexpected and absolutely essential for the music to work.
bvC: When you were collecting samples in public places, where did you have your recorder?
Nick: (Laughs) The best way to do it is to actually videotape, because if you’re pointing your video camera at an object, then of course you’re capturing the sound 360 degrees around you, but everyone assumes that you’re only interested in the object that you’re filming. So, if you want to capture a conversation between two people, you just go up with your video camera and videotape someone else standing right next to you or a tree or whatever and they’ll pay you no mind whatsoever. It’s like a slight of hand.
bvC: Did you learn that trick as you went along?
Nick: No, I discovered it. One of the first recordings that I ever made that ended up in a song was for “Motherless Bastard” on the first Books record, where it’s the sound of this little girl saying, “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!” and the father’s like, “You have no mother and father.” As a father I totally understand his frustration because the girl just wanted to show him everything, like “Look at this! Look at this!” and he’s just getting tired of it, which is understandable. So, I was videotaping jellyfish right next to this conversation, and I didn’t fully realize what I had captured on the audio track until I brought it home to watch the jellyfish video, and lo and behold I have this incredible conversation between a father and his daughter recorded. Those kinds of things are just magical, amazing.
bvC: In an early Books interview you did with Mark Richardson of Pitchfork, who taught one of my college classes, you had said at the time in 2003 that you hadn’t embraced the Internet, and therefore hadn’t discovered a vast amount of music. Has that changed at all for you?
Nick: The Internet has changed things, and Mark kind of wrote the obituary of The Books in a beautiful way I think, and I really appreciate that he did for us over the years. Without that first review, I don’t think The Books would have really existed, because for me it was very much like a passing collaboration with one dude – Paul. When that Pitchfork review happened it was like, “Oh my god, we’re a band now, so let’s make another record.” If there hadn’t been a response to that record I would have done something else. I kind of owe Mark my career in this basic way.
He made the point in review of The Books box set that the Internet really has changed sample-based work because it’s so much easier to find weird things and exploit them, and that’s true. For me, that’s a good enough explanation of why The Books made attempts to end, though that’s not the real reason. It’s a tidy way to say that people have moved on.
The Books never used the Internet as a search tool. I think we were always interested in things that had no Google footprint whatsoever, and those things still exist in large quantities, you know, stuff that’s never going to be on the Internet. If you go to a thrift shop and look at all the outdated media there, that stuff is still untraceable to a large degree. I love that idea that there is this archaeology of the recent past that there are these undiscovered things that you can make your own because otherwise they’re just going to be in a landfill. If it doesn’t end up being the focus of the new project, it’s definitely still an inspiration to the new project.
bvC: Are you pretty selective in what media you take in?
Nick: Yeah, and mostly it’s just a matter of not having enough time. Like, I haven’t seen a movie in years. Not because I don’t want to, but because I have three kids and I have to work in the studio all day. It’s the same with music. I end up listening to a lot of the same stuff over and over again because that’s how kids listen to music. Kids love to get to know something deeply. They’ll listen to a record like 100 times in a row. They just demand it. There are a couple records that we listen to as a family that I’m really happy to hear 100 times in a row. We’ve been into Paul Simon’s early work, like right after Garfunkel and before Graceland. For some reason all of my boys love that stuff. We’ve been on a Bee Gees kick. My sons really like The Police so we got The Police box set. Radiohead is something I’ve always loved, mostly for its production. As a side bar, we just got an opening gig for Ultraista’s first performance in New York City, which I can’t wait for. It’s going to be a blast.
So yeah, I am very isolated. It takes a while for me to get into music. I think I can enjoy anything pretty deeply. It takes several listens for me to kind of crack the code of it. Usually I’m so involved in creating my own code that my head is very thick, it just takes a while for it to sink in. I never dismiss anything. I don’t have a critical instinct, I don’t think. I could never be a music journalist. I don’t have a big enough view of music to be able to criticize it. I just want people to make as much music as possible, and say nothing that would shut that process down.
bvC: How do you feel you’ve developed as an instrumentalist, particularly a guitarist, over the past decade?
Nick: Again, that goes to the thickness of my skull. I’m a very reluctant musician. Some people just pick up a guitar and whatever they play is music, and that’s not me. I just feel dense. When I pick up an instrument I just see strings, like, “Ok, I guess I should pluck these.” That becomes part of music as well; trying to coax music out of an instrument is difficult for me. I feel I find things that are very out of the ordinary, very non-idiomatic, because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing basically. Luckily the guys in my band are very proficient musicians. When they touch strings, music actually comes out of them. Once I have something that I really love compositionally, I can give it to them and they can reproduce it live usually right away. It’s a great partnership with them.