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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Interview: The Books

Musical alchemists The Books return with their new album The Way Out, and give us a snapshot of their creative process (spoiler: it includes hiking)

Written by Cari Steel

Emma and I had been told to arrive at the ridiculously grand 33 Fitzroy Square for a “Townhouse Party” at 7pm punctually; but we’re both crap at being on time and we ended up ten minutes late following a drastic dash across London. Tut tut. But it didn’t matter at all, malady capsule and we ended up having what we both keep referring to as ‘the best night of our lives’ (perhaps we are slightly over-dramatising it, approved but it was amazing).
 
Where to begin? The party was collaboratively held by girly cider makers Jacques and David Carter, founder of the 40 Winks boutique hotel, so naturally the whole thing was like a grown up version of Alice in Wonderland. There were even some rabbits, although rather than clutching pocket watches (and squeaking “We’re late, we’re late!” as Emma and I had been doing earlier) they were made of wood and bedecked with pink bows. As soon as we entered the building we were each given a map, printed on to a handkerchief, and a golden key for ‘unlocking’ the bar for some free drinks. As the theme for the night was a swap shop party – whereby each guest brought up to three items of unwanted clothing with them to trade with other people’s – we were also given the equivalent number of ‘tokens’ for each item. The tokens were large playing cards, in fitting with the Alice theme. The event was both ethically and fashionably motivated and everybody was a winner – people were getting rid of unwanted gladrags whilst also finding some unexpected new gems, and it didn’t cost them a single penny. Mankind has yet to determine a more glamorous way to help the environment.
?We went upstairs, where the bar and cupcake classes – yes, dear reader, cupcake classes – were both to be found. Impeccably attired and utterly charming staff floated around, complimenting guests and making jokes. We headed over to the cupcake table, held by yummy-scrummy company Vintage Patisserie. Lead lady, the fantastically named – and fantastically dressed - Angel Adoree, gave a brief talk about how to throw the perfect tea party, and then guests were encouraged to come forward and design their own cupcakes.
?Rubbing our hands gleefully, we and 100 or so other guests took it in turns to create our own cupcakes. The tables were littered with tubes of pastel-coloured icing and a huge variety of decorations, and we were encouraged to get creative. “The trick to icing a cake,” explained Angel beforehand to the hypnotised audience with a raise of her arched eyebrow, “is to hold the icing away from you, squeeze until you have as much as you want and then turn it precisely 180 degrees.”
 
Anyway, I deviate. Before this turns into a cookery/maths lesson, allow me to give you a very brief description of the location and the house itself. Fitzroy Square is nestled cosily a couple of streets behind the BT Tower; in the middle of the square, there is a communal garden for those who live there, and the houses are peppered with blue plaques.
 
Each room in the house leads – well, drifts, really – into the next. There were beautiful decorations everywhere; everything was stunning. Next to the cupcake stand, there was a long table covered with a white tablecloth and the most incredible decorative (i.e. not edible) cakes that I have ever seen. Every single one looked far too beautiful to eat (which was convenient, considering that they were made of cardboard) and they reminded me of the decadent French wigs worn in Marie Antoinette’s Paris. Other toppings included ships, ballerinas and, my personal favourite, dolly mixture. There were also trees sprayed silver or gold and decorated with lacy pompoms, illuminated by soft lighting. The whole place was like Narnia mixed with a bit of London Fashion Week – cosy, retro (there was a 1940s-style record player, for God’s sake) and oh-so achingly cool.
 
The clothes swap went on in a room just outside the bar, and throngs of women – and the occasional awkward-looking gent – scoured the racks of clothes for hidden treasures to take home with them. Meanwhile, in the basement, transformations were taking place. Courtesy of Benefit, guests were given the option of either having a full makeover or instead having a pair of incredible false eyelashes fitted. Emma went for the makeover, whilst I opted for the eyelashes (which were so heavy that I could barely keep my eyes open!) A photographer asked if he could take some pictures, and we posed – in an entirely casual way, obviously – with some Victorian-style props: Emma teetered on a painted rocking horse whilst I tried to hold a parasol in the coquettish manner of an artist’s muse. Needless to say, this was much easier to imagine than it was to actually carry out.
 
The party ended at nine, and clutching our goodie bags and a few left-over cupcakes, we left behind the shimmery glamour of 33 Fitzroy Square. Needless to say, we have already both planned to buy the house sometime before we turn 30, so we’ll be seeing it again soon. As we walked away the building faded into the darkness of twilight. As we gradually lost sight of it, and as it lost sight of us, we wondered if we had fallen down a rabbit hole and it had all been some kind of a wonderful dream.
emma_block_jacques_town_house
All illustrations by Emma Block.

Emma and I had been told to arrive at the ridiculously grand 33 Fitzroy Square for a “Townhouse Party” at 7pm punctually; but we’re both crap at being on time and we ended up ten minutes late following a drastic dash across London. Tut tut. But it didn’t matter at all, rx and we ended up having what we both keep referring to as ‘the best night of our lives’ (perhaps we are slightly over-dramatising it, but it was amazing).
 
Where to begin? The party was collaboratively held by girly cider makers Jacques and David Carter, founder of the 40 Winks boutique hotel, so naturally the whole thing was like a grown up version of Alice in Wonderland. There were even some rabbits, although rather than clutching pocket watches (and squeaking “We’re late, we’re late!” as Emma and I had been doing earlier) they were made of wood and bedecked with pink bows. As soon as we entered the building we were each given a map, printed on to a handkerchief, and a golden key for ‘unlocking’ the bar for some free drinks. As the theme for the night was a swap shop party – whereby each guest brought up to three items of unwanted clothing with them to trade with other people’s – we were also given the equivalent number of ‘tokens’ for each item. The tokens were large playing cards, in fitting with the Alice theme. The event was both ethically and fashionably motivated and everybody was a winner – people were getting rid of unwanted gladrags whilst also finding some unexpected new gems, and it didn’t cost them a single penny. Mankind has yet to determine a more glamorous way to help the environment.

emma_block_jacques_town_house_cakes.jpg

?We went upstairs, where the bar and cupcake classes – yes, dear reader, cupcake classes – were both to be found. Impeccably attired and utterly charming staff floated around, complimenting guests and making jokes. We headed over to the cupcake table, held by yummy-scrummy company Vintage Patisserie. Lead lady, the fantastically named – and fantastically dressed - Angel Adoree, gave a brief talk about how to throw the perfect tea party, and then guests were encouraged to come forward and design their own cupcakes.

?Rubbing our hands gleefully, we and 100 or so other guests took it in turns to create our own cupcakes. The tables were littered with tubes of pastel-coloured icing and a huge variety of decorations, and we were encouraged to get creative. “The trick to icing a cake,” explained Angel beforehand to the hypnotised audience with a raise of her arched eyebrow, “is to hold the icing away from you, squeeze until you have as much as you want and then turn it precisely 180 degrees.”
 
emma_block_vintage_patisserie

Anyway, I deviate. Before this turns into a cookery/maths lesson, allow me to give you a very brief description of the location and the house itself. Fitzroy Square is nestled cosily a couple of streets behind the BT Tower; in the middle of the square, there is a communal garden for those who live there, and the houses are peppered with blue plaques.
 
emma_block_cup_cake_class

Each room in the house leads – well, drifts, really – into the next. There were beautiful decorations everywhere; everything was stunning. Next to the cupcake stand, there was a long table covered with a white tablecloth and the most incredible decorative (i.e. not edible) cakes that I have ever seen. Every single one looked far too beautiful to eat (which was convenient, considering that they were made of cardboard) and they reminded me of the decadent French wigs worn in Marie Antoinette’s Paris. Other toppings included ships, ballerinas and, my personal favourite, dolly mixture. There were also trees sprayed silver or gold and decorated with lacy pompoms, illuminated by soft lighting. The whole place was like Narnia mixed with a bit of London Fashion Week – cosy, retro (there was a 1940s-style record player, for God’s sake) and oh-so achingly cool.
 
emma_block_benefit_makeover

The clothes swap went on in a room just outside the bar, and throngs of women – and the occasional awkward-looking gent – scoured the racks of clothes for hidden treasures to take home with them. Meanwhile, in the basement, transformations were taking place. Courtesy of Benefit, guests were given the option of either having a full makeover or instead having a pair of incredible false eyelashes fitted. Emma went for the makeover, whilst I opted for the eyelashes (which were so heavy that I could barely keep my eyes open!) A photographer asked if he could take some pictures, and we posed – in an entirely casual way, obviously – with some Victorian-style props: Emma teetered on a painted rocking horse whilst I tried to hold a parasol in the coquettish manner of an artist’s muse. Needless to say, this was much easier to imagine than it was to actually carry out.
 
The party ended at nine, and clutching our goodie bags and a few left-over cupcakes, we left behind the shimmery glamour of 33 Fitzroy Square. Needless to say, we have already both planned to buy the house sometime before we turn 30, so we’ll be seeing it again soon. As we walked away the building faded into the darkness of twilight. As we gradually lost sight of it, and as it lost sight of us, we wondered if we had fallen down a rabbit hole and it had all been some kind of a wonderful dream.
emma_block_jacques_town_house
All illustrations by Emma Block.

Emma and I had been told to arrive at the ridiculously grand 33 Fitzroy Square for a Townhouse Party at 7pm punctually; but we’re both crap at being on time and we ended up ten minutes late following a drastic dash across London. Tut tut. But it didn’t matter at all, link and we ended up having what we both keep referring to as ‘the best night of our lives’ (perhaps we are slightly over-dramatising it, recipe but it was amazing).
 
Where to begin? The party was collaboratively held by girly cider makers Jacques and David Carter, founder of the 40 Winks boutique hotel, so naturally the whole thing was like a grown up version of Alice in Wonderland. There were even some rabbits, although rather than clutching pocket watches (and squeaking “We’re late, we’re late!” as Emma and I had been doing earlier) they were made of wood and bedecked with pink bows. As soon as we entered the building we were each given a map, printed on to a handkerchief, and a golden key for ‘unlocking’ the bar for some free drinks. As the theme for the night was a swap shop party – whereby each guest brought up to three items of unwanted clothing with them to trade with other people’s – we were also given the equivalent number of ‘tokens’ for each item. The tokens were large playing cards, in fitting with the Alice theme. The event was both ethically and fashionably motivated and everybody was a winner – people were getting rid of unwanted gladrags whilst also finding some unexpected new gems, and it didn’t cost them a single penny. Mankind has yet to determine a more glamorous way to help the environment.

emma_block_jacques_town_house_cakes.jpg

?We went upstairs, where the bar and cupcake classes – yes, dear reader, cupcake classes – were both to be found. Impeccably attired and utterly charming staff floated around, complimenting guests and making jokes. We headed over to the cupcake table, held by yummy-scrummy company Vintage Patisserie. Lead lady, the fantastically named – and fantastically dressed - Angel Adoree, gave a brief talk about how to throw the perfect tea party, and then guests were encouraged to come forward and design their own cupcakes.

?Rubbing our hands gleefully, we and 100 or so other guests took it in turns to create our own cupcakes. The tables were littered with tubes of pastel-coloured icing and a huge variety of decorations, and we were encouraged to get creative. “The trick to icing a cake,” explained Angel beforehand to the hypnotised audience with a raise of her arched eyebrow, “is to hold the icing away from you, squeeze until you have as much as you want and then turn it precisely 180 degrees.”
 
emma_block_vintage_patisserie

Anyway, I deviate. Before this turns into a cookery/maths lesson, allow me to give you a very brief description of the location and the house itself. Fitzroy Square is nestled cosily a couple of streets behind the BT Tower; in the middle of the square, there is a communal garden for those who live there, and the houses are peppered with blue plaques.
 
emma_block_cup_cake_class

Each room in the house leads – well, drifts, really – into the next. There were beautiful decorations everywhere; everything was stunning. Next to the cupcake stand, there was a long table covered with a white tablecloth and the most incredible decorative (i.e. not edible) cakes that I have ever seen. Every single one looked far too beautiful to eat (which was convenient, considering that they were made of cardboard) and they reminded me of the decadent French wigs worn in Marie Antoinette’s Paris. Other toppings included ships, ballerinas and, my personal favourite, dolly mixture. There were also trees sprayed silver or gold and decorated with lacy pompoms, illuminated by soft lighting. The whole place was like Narnia mixed with a bit of London Fashion Week – cosy, retro (there was a 1940s-style record player, for God’s sake) and oh-so achingly cool.
 
emma_block_benefit_makeover

The clothes swap went on in a room just outside the bar, and throngs of women – and the occasional awkward-looking gent – scoured the racks of clothes for hidden treasures to take home with them. Meanwhile, in the basement, transformations were taking place. Courtesy of Benefit, guests were given the option of either having a full makeover or instead having a pair of incredible false eyelashes fitted. Emma went for the makeover, whilst I opted for the eyelashes (which were so heavy that I could barely keep my eyes open!) A photographer asked if he could take some pictures, and we posed – in an entirely casual way, obviously – with some Victorian-style props: Emma teetered on a painted rocking horse whilst I tried to hold a parasol in the coquettish manner of an artist’s muse. Needless to say, this was much easier to imagine than it was to actually carry out.
 
The party ended at nine, and clutching our goodie bags and a few left-over cupcakes, we left behind the shimmery glamour of 33 Fitzroy Square. Needless to say, we have already both planned to buy the house sometime before we turn 30, so we’ll be seeing it again soon. As we walked away the building faded into the darkness of twilight. As we gradually lost sight of it, and as it lost sight of us, we wondered if we had fallen down a rabbit hole and it had all been some kind of a wonderful dream.

It’s nigh-on impossible to define The Books, click or the genre of music that they create. Because they are relying on an everchanging source of material as their inspiration, pill so too does their music morph and flow into new directions and styles; a constant evolution of sounds. If pressed, you could say that they were a ‘folktronica’ band, but even then, this doesn’t appreciate the complexities of their music. Building a track out of a computer can sometimes render a song as cold and clinical as the software on which it was created, but The Books have a warmth and deftness of touch that permeates through their work and makes each song seem human. It’s no coincidence then that the men behind The Books, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong are both highly attuned to their surroundings, appreciating and needing to be immersed in the natural world in order to do what they do. I caught up with both of them on the phone recently; I was sat in noisy old Brick Lane, they were calling from their homes in New York State. I was a little jealous.

Can you talk me through the creation and the concept of your new album, The Way Out?
Nick: Basically the primary instrument of The Books is the sample library and Paul is the master librarian. So I will let you fill him on the creation of that…..
Paul: Since we’ve started I have always been a collector of sounds and images. When we started going on tour about five or six years ago I had the opportunity to visit a lot of different cities in the US and worldwide, and when there was time, I would try to hit as many thrift stores and book stores as I could find and pick up LP’s and tapes and video tapes. So by the time I would get home I would have a room full of new material that I could then get cut into new samples. In the past four years the library really grew enormously. I had so much material about certain subjects that they kind of presented themselves out of the library, it gave us a real choice to find a body of samples that deal with a certain subject that we can then create a new narrative from. In the first track of the record (Group Autogenics I) there are a lot of samples from hypnotherapy recordings and self help records. We had a lot of those samples so we had the opportunity to use the best ones. The way these people speak makes them really easy to cut because they separate their voices and they speak very slowly, so we could move their voices around at will and create a completely new narrative out of that.
Nick: Then the next step in the process is to figure out how it all fits together, which is an equally obsessive process!

Are your roles clear cut? How does the creative process work?
Nick: There is a significant crossover in our roles, but the basic dynamic is that Paul is the collector and I am the composer.

If you are assimilating that much material in your library, I’m guessing the process of recording an album must take a long time.
Nick: Definitely, it’s hard to finish one track in less than a month!

So, when you create your work and put that much effort into it, does it automatically have to lead to an album? Is it too much effort to just create one single?
Nick: No, we have done some one-off singles in the past, and we have also done remixes for people.
Paul: We made a song for the Cultural Ministry in France for their elevators recently and we recorded a Nick Drake song for a compilation. (Featured on Louisiana; compiled by Kenneth Bager). So we do shorter projects but we like the idea of having an album and a body of work. It’s a good reflection of a period of time and work for us.

Is there a particular concept or narrative to this album?
Nick: There is no center to it, necessarily. The hypnotherapy samples frame the record, I think; we are trying to go deeper, not in an overbearing way, but in kind of a playful style.

I see what you mean about the playfulness…. In the hypnotherapy samples, I distinctly heard the Doctor say “you will get fat and lose your self esteem”. That doesn’t sound like typical hypnotherapy to me!
Nick: Of course, that wasn’t its original form. That was Pauls mission, to turn a weight loss record into a weigh gain record! (laughs) So he was able to pull different fragments from the same tape and rearrange them to mean their opposite.
Paul: Nothing is quite what it appears to be. Not that the original songs can’t stand by themselves, it just means that in this new narrative they take on another identity. The only track that is completely undoctored is the track of Ghandi making a short statement, which is something that is so beautiful in itself and so deep that you don’t want to change it, you just want to pass it on.

Is there is a particular way that your tracks come together? Is it samples first, then lyrics?
Nick: I think that Paul and I are always working in parallel, while he is putting the library together I am sketching out melodies and different kinds of musical textures. Eventually the work that I am doing and the work that Paul is doing comes together somehow and there’s a kind of resonance; we call it the ‘critical mass moment’ where it looks like there is something that is worth exploring in a deeper way. Once you have the body of samples that you want to use and a rhythm and a melody you can start to figure out where the beginning is.

You both clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but do you ever come to each other with ideas that doesn’t mesh well or work out?
Nick: I think that’s most of the time (laughs) There is so much going on in both of our computers that there is always something in there that’s worth pursuing, but yeah, there is a lot of trial and error. I sometimes think of it as an evolutionary approach to music. Brian Eno has used the word ‘emergence’ which I like. There is a lot of chaos and a lot of sounds going every which way and every once in a while, the sounds find each other in a way that is really unexpectedly beautiful. You know, like the way that organisms will mutate and change over time into something completely different. I think, we look at those moments that are worth saving and let them grow on each other and eventually we have something.

Was there anything in particular that was inspiring you while you were creating this record, or was it a case of just having your ear to the ground and seeing what comes your way?
Nick: It’s both, for sure.

I was wondering if your surroundings affect your work; you both live in the Catskill Mountains (in New York State). I can imagine that it’s quite an experience to be surrounded by such peace and tranquility.
Nick: Yeah, I have spent a lot of time in my life living outside, and to have that more direct connection to the natural world has always been a way for me to stay sane.

Do you mean that you have literally lived outside?
Nick: Uh-huh, I spend a lot of time camping and hiking, going on extremely long hikes. (pauses) There is the standard existential crisis that you have in your twenties when you realise that you are probably going down a path that you really don’t want to be on, and hiking was a way for me to reset my life at that time, so now living out here in the mountains just makes me feel at home, it always brings me back to that deciding moment in my life.

Do you switch off when you are hiking, or are you busy thinking up new melodies?
Nick: It’s more of a complete emptying of my thought process; that’s been its value to me, a time where I can leave everything behind. That’s where everything starts from, the silence, and I could never find it in the city, it was so chaotic and noisy that I needed to change my surroundings in order to make the work that I wanted to make.

I have read that you both have your own recording studios in your homes.
Nick: Yes, that is a key part to it, we never pay for studio time.

I’m guessing that this gives you the freedom to experiment when you are not watching the clock, and paying for the time.
Nick: Definitely, it’s sort of a complicated idea, but I think what we are doing is nu-folk music; people are taking technology out of the hands of corporations and big businesses and into their homes. The folk instrument of our time is the computer, and it’s changed how people make music. You see a lot of music coming out of the woodwork now where people are living with the music instead of doing it in a rush in some expensive place, they can pick away at it.

I’m curious if you focus as much on visuals as you do on audio; do you incorporate visuals into your live shows?
Paul: Yes, the visuals came about because we really didn’t start as a live project at all, we were just making music at our homes in our studios, and once we found out that it’s really the only way to sustain ourselves with our music – to go on the road, we saw that as an opportunity to create something around our visual interests so we started creating videos. In the beginning we retrofitted our videos with our music, and now we are moving towards creating a video library which is being created in the same way as the sound library. When we are on the stage we call the video screen our frontman. It’s more than just a light show or a vectorial, it comes more to the foreground than the live musicians.

You’ve recently been touring around Europe. Do you have plans to do more touring, I can imagine that the whole process takes a lot of effort!
Nick: Well there is no effort in the sense that we don’t jump on stage very much! The real limitations are that we both have young children so we don’t leave home too much at this point in our lives, but we will be back in Europe sometime next year.

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