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Interview with The Books

img  Tobias Fischer

I was wondering what you have been up to since the last record. Have you worked on other projects between "Lost and Safe" and "The Way Out"?
Indeed we took a lengthy break and many have been wondering what we've been up to in the meantime. It seems that after three albums (Thought for Food, the Lemon of Pink, Lost and Safe) and almost seven years of continuous collaboration it was time to hit the 'reset button'. On a personal level, both Nick and I settled into new places to live and we both had children. Nick found a piece of land with a house high up in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont and singlehandedly turned an old tractor garage into the most silent place imaginable for recording and composing while being near to his family. I bought a 200 year old building that housed a used bookstore in a small village about an hour away from Nick in the state of New York and turned it into a home for my family and have a magnificent studio in the back, housing my vast collection of instruments, records and books. The need to take this time and create a situation of physical stability for ourselves and our families seemed to follow naturally from a period of frequently moving around as bachelors and making our records in makeshift studios. And not only our families, but also the direction of our art seemed to demand that stability and focus. And I believe that "The Way Out" is a reflection of that change, and a very positive one.

Is there something like a primary source of inspiration for the new record that you could elaborate on a bit? It seems like the voice samples are more prominent and significant - of course, also in a humorous way - than on your previous albums.

Every one of our projects is being preceded by a period of building a greater sample library. The library has always been our primary instrument and it takes several months to get to a substantial and meaningful increase of volume: raw materials, like LPs and audiocassettes have to be bought (something I do mostly while on tour), digitized, worthwhile samples selected and cut, named and categorized into a system that is easy to navigate and share with Nick. For 'The Way Out' I expanded the library by almost a third of its original size, ending up with about 35.000 categorized samples, another activity that took up a lot of the 'interbellum' between 'Lost and Safe' and 'The Way Out'. Contrary to earlier expansions where the primary source materials were still mostly LPs, the latest one focused a good bit on audiocassettes, which give an interesting reflection of the history of fringe recording over roughly the period of 1970-1995, after which the CD and other digital formats decidedly took over. One of the feelings we had starting out on this album was that we wanted to make use of longer narratives and have a majority of so-called 'up tempo' tracks. The sample materials that were yielded from the audiocassettes seemed to open the door to both: we found lots and lots of self-help and self-hypnosis, meditation and yoga recordings that we could bend and edit into the extended narratives we were looking for and we ended up with quite a collection of 1970's fast musical riffs and synth-samples that we otherwise would have been reluctant to use were it not for their large number and the vast choices they presented. The voice samples, I believe, seem more prominent than on earlier albums because they are less 'shattered', more consistent, and have even more become one with the original recorded voice (Nick) and the lyrics, which in one way or another are often derived from the literary aspects of samples.

What do you do when you are not busy with The Books? How do you make ends meet?

We've been fortunate to live off the Books for a few years now, mostly because of income derived from live performances. It should come as no news to you that income from record sales is mostly the 'icing on the cake' but will rarely financially sustain an artist. What we hoped when we started out making a little money with our records was that at least our royalties would enable us to create the next record, but that was not to be. It was our great luck to be persuaded by our American booking agent to find a way to bring our music to the stage. It made us venture seriously into the world of video, which by now has become a backbone to our work and also gave us the opportunity to engage with our audience in a way that wasn't possible through our recorded music alone. Now we have been traveling the world as performers for the past five years, and on the one hand it terribly disrupts our family life and our workflow, on the other hand it is invigorating to know we can create some financial stability this way and focus on new creations once we arrive home instead of having to commit to a job unrelated to the Books, which we did for years. The nature of our work dictates the commitment of endless hours of library building, listening, and composing through many hours of trial and error, aside from spending time rehearsing, video-making, and touring. There's always more work to be done.

Is there a thematic connection between the songs on "The Way Out"?

I think Nick and I have our individual thematic connections between the various songs on the record, so I can only imagine that probably every single listener creates his or her own world within the record, at least that's what I hope for. We've always maintained that we just create 50% percent of the experience: the other half needs to be completed by the listener. There are clear thematic lines that run through the record, the self-help recordings would be the most obvious one but I think one can find deeper underlying currents that connect the songs together: musical and philosophical ones. I do think that every individual song on this record represents a more self-contained world, in comparison to our previous records. We like to see it as every song represents a city within its own walls, but they still stand in the same landscape and there are many roads that connect them. If that sounds abstract to you, well, that is an important element of the way our music and narratives seem to work best.

How does your songwriting process work? Do you writer and conceive of all the songs together or do only send certain ideas back and forth? When do you know that a song is finished?
"There is no one way of doing the dishes", one sample says on the last track of 'The Way Out'. The genesis of most songs is rooted in the sample library: sometimes a single sample is like a 'seed', attracting other samples and instrumental parts like a magnet, sharing contrasting or complementing qualities with other samples. Although there is significant going back and forth between Nick and me, over the years my activities have gravitated towards the collecting side of things. I create 90% of the library and often manipulate spoken samples into new narratives which I set aside to use in songs. Nick's activities have focused largely on composing, making the necessary selections from the vast library and bringing them into a meaningful musical concept. Sometimes a song is begun by one of us and goes back and forth a bit, but as a rule our kind of work is impossible to execute with two people at the same mouse. It needs a lot of 'alone' time, decisions that are too intuitive, fast and numerous to explain to anyone but ourselves. While making a record we regularly meet to discuss the work and our immediate needs from each other to keep the productivity moving forward, but then we will quickly crawl back into our private studios. The collaboration is not straightforward and based on a single method. We can work together on music, lyrics, videos, samples, t-shirts, posters and sometimes not collaborate at all. We're still figuring it out and it does not get any easier.

Did you have certain aesthetic goals for The Books when you started out? If so, how have they perhaps changed over the years?
Very early on we discussed the Books as a project in which we wanted to try to galvanize and apply our often rather conceptual artistic endeavours and experiments of the past into a kind of music that a broader audience might relate to, instead of just our family, friends and colleagues. We somewhat restricted ourselves to loosely formulated rules towards timing of individual pieces, and distribution and character of compositional elements used. Soon these rules started to bend towards a rather organic development of what we might call our own style. And that 'style' keeps developing with every album, each one creating new questions to answer, new territories to explore, and new ways to grow.

What do you hope people to take away from a The Books show?

The show offers almost an overload of information: three musicians on stage all playing more than one instrument, pre-recorded sound, all synchronized with video being projected directly behind the band. By the way, we just added a new band member to our show. Gene Back is quite a virtuoso violinist, guitarist and keyboard player. It seems impossible to take it in all at once, so I hope people go home feeling energized and fulfilled without the feeling they have 'missed' something essential. Reactions I hear from individual audience members range from having been absorbed by the video and feeling that the live performance acts as a soundtrack to having listened through the entire show with their eyes closed.

How did you get in touch with Temporary Residence and how would you describe your current relationship? What are you looking for in a label these days?

We were for several years looking for an alternative to Tomlab, who released our first three albums on a shoestring with in the beginning only Tom Steinle (the owner of the label) doing all the work. For a small label operating from Europe having to deal with the American market where 2/3 of our audience resides proved really difficult and in the end counterproductive. When we started out with Tom Steinle he really showed the vision, the understanding and the willingness to do what it takes to support us and help our music find an audience. And, of course, that's what we were looking for in a new label. We could not have anticipated how the success of the Books was to develop over our first six years but by the time we had made 'Lost and Safe' we knew it was time to look for a label stateside. That proved to be quite a long process, and many times we considered doing it all ourselves. It was Jeremy DeVine of Temporary Residence who finally fully convinced us of how a well-matched, visionary and sensibly ran label can contribute to the success of an artist. Jeremy has long standing international relations so we are assured of worldwide distribution at all times, and he has a long experience and real understanding of the US record market and its currents. Having been able to successfully remain in business for a label the size of Temporary Residence speaks for itself. They've been able to fashion their CDs and LPs into desirable objects through care, communication, and creativity.

Can music have political dimensions? Do sounds have directly political semantics or is any attempt to politicize music always only achieved through discourse about the music?
Politics at any level is part of our daily lives as citizens, and as such is directly influencing our livelihoods as artists. We are not so much bringing politics into our music out of a sense of duty, but since it inevitably crosses our path and when is not just confined to its own 'political' quality, but shares a more universal human element, we will not leave the opportunity untried. Our music is aimed at the single pair of ears, at the individual listener. That somehow seems contrary to most 'political' music that I can think of, which seems mostly aimed at uniting the masses. Can music be political? When the two share some psychotic element, probably. I don't think we aim to be preaching any particular message or be patronizing, but it is rewarding to sometimes be able to inspire an audience member to listen more than once to the same thing and derive different interpretations from a single message, and apply such listening to the outside world, politics included.

Do you think there are still genuinely new sounds to be discovered or can modern music basically be said to be a recombination of already existing forms and elements within postmodern concepts of collage, pastiche or bricolage?
It keeps perplexing me to find out how different Nick and I use our listening mind. We can listen to the same thing and have totally opposite emotional reactions, and focus on entirely different sonic aspects. The 'newness' of a sound is rather subjective, but I'd assert that the world of new sound is only ever expanding, as long as they do not get soaked up in a continuous sponge of white noise. For instance, I have a hard time seeing every one of my 35.000 different samples to be of equal value, like 'Monaden'. Every one of them can be individually recognized through its specific musical, historical, literal, and acoustic as well as many other characteristics. The combinations are endless, and not a day passes without a new discovery that delights me. If you think everything has been discovered, spend some time in silence.

What can we expect from The Books in the near future?

I wish I could tell you. I am working on a more serious expansion of the media library than ever before. That's rather exciting for me. To expand the band with new players seems to give new shine to old repertoire and will no doubt give us new ideas for future projects.

By Matthias Rauch

The Books Discography:
Thought For Food (Tomlab) 2002
The Lemon Of Pink (Tomlab) 2003
Lost And Safe (Tomlab) 2005
Prefuse 73 Reads The Books E.P. (Warp Records)    2005
Music For A French Elevator And Other Short Format Oddities By The Books (Self-released) 2006
Playall (Self-released) 2007
The Way Out (Temporary Residence Limited) 2010

The Books

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