Under the Microscope with Nick Zammuto
After a Decade with The Books, He Feels like He’s in a Real Band for the First Time
Nick Zammuto is a musical mad scientist disguised as a Luddite, living with his family in a wood stove-heated house he built himself in Vermont. He tinkers with new sounds and inventions away from the distractions—and insanely expensive rent—of New York City.
Zammuto is best known for his genuinely unclassifiable work with The Books, a two-piece band he formed with cellist Paul de Jong in Brooklyn at the turn of the millennium.
The Books were characterized by their heavy use of found audio material, from long-forgotten voicemails to clips from courtroom TV shows.
Since The Books called it quits at the beginning of 2012, Nick has been hard at work, releasing the second LP Anchor with his new band Zammuto on Sept. 2.
“[The Books] died before its time, at least from my perspective. I was trying to start from scratch something totally new, and it had this frantic energy to it,” says Zammuto about the environment in which he wrote his first “solo” record.
But after touring the world after the first Zammuto LP, that frantic energy has grown into more thoughtful, fully formed songs on his new record Anchor.
The record marks a whole new way of doing music for Zammuto—nearly all analog, with a band shaping the sounds instead of the samples that defined The Books.
It’s especially the connection he has with drummer Sean Dixon that has redefined the way Zammuto writes, the two quickly bonding over their love of polyrhythm.
Dixon would come up to Zammuto’s home in Vermont for days at a time, recording infinite drum loops, attacking the beat from different angles until the right texture emerged.
“I don’t think on my feet particularly well; when there’s too much going on in a room, I kind of shut down. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the more isolated, scientific kind of approach,” says Zammuto.
“I think of my studio as a microscope, where I can really focus on the details, let the foreground dissolve into the background in a way.”
He says his studio is his little refuge, joking that once he comes inside his home with his three kids he can’t have a complete thought.
“I kind of think of it like the TARDIS in Doctor Who,” he says of his studio, which still looks like an old shed from the outside.
“It’s become more like an Apollo mission in there—I can reach 400 knobs from where I sit. I can go anywhere at any time, it’s pretty fun.”
He completely redid the studio for the recording of Anchor, in part with help from an Indiegogo campaign to fund the purchase of vintage analog gear. Playing with a full band awakened an interest in controlling sound in real time.
“A visceral experience is what I’m going for. I feel I’ve done a lot of intellectual music in the past, and I suppose there’s always going to be that layer to it, but I really like rock shows, it turns out,” he says.
“The idea of really being able to saturate a space with sound just really appeals to me these days.”
Nick started playing guitar in high school, but it was only after he got his first computer in the late ’90s that he started writing music. Playing with a drummer has now changed his whole perspective.
“It’s tremendous. I just feel lucky to be able to play off people. It’s such a rush,” says Zammuto. “The Books was such an unexpected success. […] Until I started playing music with a drummer, I didn’t understand what live music was.”
Anchor begins with a literal departure from relying on samples. As album-opener “Good Graces” begins, a flurry of voices fade into the background, leaving Nick’s voice (albeit sometimes processed) the only one left on the record.
He’s trying out several new sounds on Anchor, from the new wave pop of “IO” to the pensive “Sinker,” sounding more like their former tour mates Explosions in the Sky.
“I can’t repeat myself. It makes me ill if I feel like I’m doing the same thing I’ve done before,” he says. “Really I wanted to perfect my recording process, so rather than reaching into other people’s recorded material for the perfect sounds, to be able to generate them ourselves.”
An insatiable appetite for learning new musical approaches may not be the best way to find a huge audience, but it’s how Zammuto needs to work. And the fact that his Indiegogo campaign sought to raise $10,000 but went on to raise over $30,000 means that he has enough people supporting him in whichever direction he goes.
“[Crowdfunding] is bringing up a whole class of musicians in a way, and that’s really exciting to me. We can get away with a much smaller audience; a few people scattered in different cities around the world is enough,” says Zammuto.
“It changes the whole trajectory of my career—instead of having to be beholden to an industry that’s all pretty jaded about music […] and going through endless middlemen, getting a tiny fraction of the actual business that’s being done.”
Nick and his family try to keep their overhead as low as possible so they can put more money into their creative projects. They have a strict no-contractor rule—if they can’t do it themselves, they don’t do it.
They heat their home all winter with wood they chop themselves. Nick’s wife grows most of their food.
When we speak he’s just finished building a giant catapult for the “IO” video. Nick says it can launch a 10-pound rock 350 feet, but he’s betting he can make it go further.
“My neighbours are into it, they’re not worried about coming under siege or anything,” he jokes. “Having a giant canvas of 16 acres to work on is really nice.”
Zammuto + Saxsyndrum// Sept. 6 // Casa Del Popolo (4873 St. Laurent Blvd.) // 8 p.m. // $10 advance, $13 door
Colin hosts a weekly radio show filled with new, independent music on CJLO 1690 AM. Listen to Killer Baby Tomatoes Sundays at 9 p.m.