In 1998, the Books didn't exist yet. Holding their place was a tower of MiniDiscs hovering conspicuously in the corner of Paul de Jong's New York apartment. Nick Zammuto, a dinner guest new to the city, was distracted by the mysterious stack. “Oh, those are my reference materials,” de Jong told Zammuto. His guest's curiosity had only deepened. “My audio samples,” de Jong clarified.
“In my early teens, I started collecting records and recording sounds on cassette,” de Jong tells SF Weekly over the phone. “I kept all of that stuff. So by the time the MiniDisc came around, it was unparalleled — a really nice way to store stuff. So I transferred everything I had to MiniDisc.”
What began as a conversation piece — the tower — became the foundation of a collage-pop project de Jong and Zammuto began soon after their first meeting. As the Books, Zammuto strummed his guitar, de Jong dismantled his tower, and within weeks the duo produced their first song, “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again.”
“What I was interested in back then, I'm still interested in now,” de Jong says. “Finding these isolated moments that, severed from their context, have a really great emotional value.” A dozen years and four proper albums later, the Books haven't strayed from their early revelations. Their sound remains a mixture of, on one hand, crookedly mounted artifacts snatched from a parallel universe of disabused consumer electronics, and, on the other, opaque washes of guitar, cello, and unaffected vocals. What has evolved in the decade-plus since the Books started is the the way they make music. On its surface, The Way Out, the duo's latest and most cohesive album, is marked by more electronics and cassette-based samples than longtime listeners are used to. But the real difference is the rigor with which the duo prepare their sources, a feat of ingenuity and logic that begins with the sound library they are ever-building and refining.
By de Jong's estimate, the Books' library contains around 35,000 samples painstakingly digitized, cataloged, and tagged. “It's becoming a really interesting tool,” de Jong says. “If you type in 'sherbet,' it will also bring up the one sample that mentions crème brûlée.” The duo finds most material on the road at thrift stores, personal tastes and guidelines nudging them away from media produced within the entertainment industry. This discrimination shows de Jong and Zammuto possess a curator's sense of purpose to match their archivist's instinct.
Whether they are willing to acknowledge it, the sideways glance at recent history their work opens to listeners is a large part of the Books' value. One of the more subtly beautiful qualities of a de Jong and Zammuto composition is the way it tends to put us in touch with a wide array of abandoned technologies — from answering machine tapes to children's novelty cassette recorders.
An example of the latter is the Books' recent resurrection of Talkboy, an early-'90s toy recorder spun off from the second Home Alone movie. The duo started collecting Talkboy tapes several years ago while on tour. The cache they gradually built provided the framework for “A Cold, Freezin' Night,” a standout track on The Way Out featuring a startling violent exchange among several preteens (“It's not fair. I want to blow your brains out,” one says through gritted, jawbreaker-coated teeth). With these samples, the Books point up the excess imagination these children inelegantly burn off, via technology. Though, what distinguishes “A Cold, Freezin' Night” from much sample-based art is the way it avoids the irony-laden sampling tropes of Prince Paul, the Dust Brothers, and Danger Mouse, among a thousand others.
With the Books there is a sense that the medium remains the message, but the data matters, too. This concern — intellectually rooted or not — broadens the circle of de Jong and Zammuto's work, overlapping at the fringes of pop music and futurology. It positions the duo as potential sages in the Digital Dark Age, a term popularized by Stewart Brand to describe a future condition that may result from the increased turnover of technology, a time when the most essential documents might be inaccessible because we will no longer have the hardware to read them.
But de Jong is quick to shoot down talk of such extramusical goals. “I'm not pretending to be a sociologist or a historian,” he says. “It's really the emotional response — the response of the artist — that makes the choice.” So, while the Golden Age of dead media buzzes on, the Books continue to work, blissfully building and perfecting their digital beast.