In 45 of the 50 states, it is illegal to write about the Books without using the word “unclassifiable.” So just what does that say about their audience? Who, exactly, is listening?
“We’re this kind of crossover band,” suggests Nick Zammuto, the guitar-playing, younger, more American half of the group. “You know, it has these upper-chakra and lower-chakra elements kind of duking it out. It generates really interesting mixes of people.”
The group’s upper-chakra credentials have never really been in question. Paul de Jong, the duo’s cello-playing, older, more Dutch half, is classically trained. And once the pair, albeit two albums in, decided just how the fuck they might possibly translate their aural collage of stringed instruments, dried-vegetation-based percussion tracks (think crackling leaves and breaking branches), and literal library of found sounds (some played forward, some in reverse) to the live stage, they took on such storied indie-rock tour stops as the Andy Warhol Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and, of course, the Ladies Literary Club of Grand Rapids.
So although the Books don’t usually spring to mind when lower chakras comes up in conversation, The Way Out, the group’s fourth and latest full-length, does offer some self-styled funk (“I Didn’t Know That”), evangelistic fury (“I Am What I Am”), and a fine example of unadulterated sibling hate (“A Cold Freezin’ Night”). Perfectly acceptable, at least by West 57th Street standards, for after previous NYC performances at Columbia’s campus, North Six, the Bowery Ballroom, Webster Hall, Lincoln Center, and the World Financial Center, the duo are now scheduled for a sold-out November show at that most upper of upper-chakra locations, Carnegie Hall.
Though here, too, there appears to be a lower element.
“This is going to be the first time we’ve played a subterranean show,” says de Jong by phone from the basement of a Massachusetts theater. “Which, you know, is kind of scary.” He laughs. “I think Zankel Hall is entirely subterranean.”
“From night to night, we play in such radically different places,” Zammuto adds. “Sometimes it’s like a sweaty club, and sometimes it’s, you know, a pristine art space, and sometimes it’s an echo chamber of, like, a hockey rink or something, so it’s really interesting, at least from my perspective, to see how the shape and the story of a room plays in to how the audience perceives the work.”
The Carnegie Hall crowd’s reaction might very well be confusion—or at least initial unfamiliarity. “I think part of what we do is try to create this kind of gestalt feeling, where people just fill in these big gaps that we leave for them, and how they fill them in is really kind of a personal thing,” Zammuto explains. “And so, you know, I assume that this self-selecting audience for a venue like that is going to have a very different interpretation of things. I think that’s the reason we’re attracted to anonymous voices instead of sampling from the mainstream—like Girl Talk, for example, where everybody’s familiar with these fragments and what makes them compelling is they can hear the recontextualization. We don’t really do that. We take from voices that no one’s ever heard before, so they can only assume where they came from without actually knowing. And the cool thing about doing that is that those voices, because they’re really completely untied from their original context, become the universal voice in a way.”
“So that’s sort of who we’re writing for, this kind of universal person,” he concludes. “Not to be cheesy about it, but we’re writing for what people have in common rather than what they have as differences.”
The Books play Carnegie Hall November 13