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.