Zammuto: Beauty in the Unfinished

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Nick Zammuto is in a good mood. The prolific producer/multi-instrumentalist is preparing for the release of Zammuto, his eclectic debut album under that moniker and his first musical project since the demise of The Books, his sample-fueled electro-folk collaboration with cellist Paul de Jong. But overall, speaking from his idyllic, self-built home in the shoebox-sized Readsboro, Vt., it’s kind of hard to get pissed about anything. The hippie-ish residence feels copied and pasted from a post-Woodstock fairy tale: There’s a nifty little home studio which was converted from a tractor trailer garage; plenty of green, flowing nature; and a series of large gardens, in which the family grows most of their food. Zammuto started building the family home back in 2008—with his bare hands, aided by a series of do-it-yourself books and mostly his own intuition. As he speaks (in a soft, unhurried hush not unlike his singing voice in The Books), he battles the din of his three young sons running around wildly in the background. The house itself is an ongoing project, he notes, staring all the while at the surrounding exposed stud walls and wiring.

“But there’s really nothing more satisfying than actually living in a space you created yourself,” Zammuto nearly whispers. “My first son was born in a hospital, but my two sons that were born after that were born in this house.”

“And that makes me proud,” he continues, a hint of fatherly pride crackling through his gentle tone. “More than anything else in my life—that’s a great feeling.”

It’s early on a Friday morning, and Zammuto’s taking an opportunity to catch his breath. Business ventures loom in the distance: He just finished up a block of rehearsals with his namesake band, in preparation for a tour with post-rockers Explosions in the Sky. And in two days, he’ll journey to London, participating in a performance of “Real Beauty Turns,” a hilarious and slightly creepy multi-media piece built from hypnotic, bass-driven electronics and dated visuals nabbed from ‘80s hair care tapes. In the meantime, it’s a typically messy and idiosyncratic day in the Zammuto home—taking the kids to school, cooking self-grown meals, playing weirdly wonderful music.

Like the rough, unpolished and totally unique walls that surround him, Nick Zammuto feels unfinished and totally transitory. After The Books wrapped up a European tour in May 2011, the duo decided to part ways, ending their much-beloved creative partnership. They’d spent over a decade as one of indie music’s most acclaimed and sonically adventurous bands, blending left-field crate-bin samples with squiggly electronics, de Jong’s cello and Zammuto’s guitar and quietly charming voice. Albums like 2003’s glorious The Lemon of Pink sounded (and still sound) like no other band on the planet, and their genre-bending style has left a hard-to-erase thumbprint on today’s laptop-wielding indie culture. But, for reasons still very much unspoken, the project came apart at the seams.

“I can’t talk about it too much yet because it’s kind of too soon,” Zammuto says, “and I don’t want to color people’s experiences of this [Zammuto] record with too much information at this point, but suffice to say, it was a very disappointing break-up. It was just general dysfunction.” He laughs. “To go into details doesn’t really serve anybody at this point. Maybe some day it will make sense to talk about it because I think it’s an instructive story, and it’s an interesting story. It didn’t happen overnight. There were forces at work over the entire life of the project, where they just came to a head and there was no resolution. To kind of take the advice of my friends and family: ‘Things run their course,’ and to assign blame, as much as I would like to, it doesn’t make sense. So I guess all I really have to say is that, unfortunately, the project ran its course. And I loved The Books—and still do. And some of the fans of the band were just some of the coolest people I’ve ever met, just really nice and creative people that came to that project in their own way. I’m really sorry it had to end, but I hope they’ll give the new project a listen and come to a show and check it out.”

Zammuto isn’t dwelling in the past these days. Aided by his newly formed band (drummer Sean Dixon, Zammuto’s bassist brother Mikey and guitarist-keyboardist Gene Back), the once-reluctant frontman is now learning how to step into the spotlight as a frontman in a legitimate rock band context—singing louder, and with more confidence, in order to match the sheer power and hair-blowing volume of his bandmates. Where The Books (a self-described “meta-band”) relied quite heavily on their visual aids during live shows (to the extent where offbeat, piecemeal projections became an equal player their live experience), the Zammuto project was constructed specifically as a band’s band, with “music that was really meant to be played live.” Not that technology isn’t involved: Zammuto was heavily inspired by the TC Helicon VoiceLive 2, a vocal effects processor that, on his new album, sends his voice through hilariously bold sounds—wild robot flange (“Groan Man, Don’t Cry”), thick, distorted harmonies (the proggy, fantastic “FU C-3PO”), and even a pinch of ultra-fluid, Autotune-esque vocoder (the slick and oddly soulful “Too Late to Topologize”), an effect Zammuto describes as “the sound of our times.” Zammuto is the joyful sound of an artist uninhibited, indulging every random sonic impulse that crosses his brain. But in spite of the album’s euphoric, headphone-worthy zeal, the songs came from a naturally dark place.

“On that last tour, the future of The Books was still open. It wasn’t certain what was going to happen, although things were bad. At the end of that tour, everybody knew that it was just over, and there was no way around it. So when I got home, I slept for three days, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to start working on a new record.’ I was kind of a raw nerve while I was making this record. It was very much a catharsis. Having worked for 10 years on this project, just to see it fall apart like that was kind of devastating for me. So I questioned whether it made sense to continue on with a music career because it’s definitely not the most stable livelihood for my family. But my wife and my friends just encouraged me to try again.”

At first, it was tempting to continue churning out Books-styled, sample-laden folk-tronica. Longtime fans may have relished that opportunity, but instead, Zammuto decided to push himself as an artist.

“I sat down with a real blank slate. I still had a lot of samples floating around that I’d collected over the years, but I wanted to kind of push it in a new direction. And for me, it was really the introduction of the drums, which is always something I’d stayed away from with The Books. With the new project, I just wanted to bang on stuff, so I bought a drum kit early on in the process and started recording it, which kind of made me up my game, production-wise, figuring out how to really record drums. And then I ended up finding a drummer [Dixon] about mid-way through making the record who is just friggin’ amazing. He is amazing on a rock kit, but his passion is this kind of polyrhythmic style. So we really connected over that. He can keep two or three things going at once while he’s playing, so it was really inspiring to work with him. So I feel like he was a big part of finding the new heartbeat of the project.”

And that heartbeat wasn’t particularly steady: “It was kind of a do-or-die record to make,” Zammuto says. “And I guess when you read into the lyrics, they’re fairly dark for me, but there is a long tradition of great songs that have really beautiful music with really dark lyrics, and I wanted to kind of continue in that vein a little.”

With plenty of new musical tools (like drum kits and vocal processors) at his disposal, Zammuto buckled down, working mostly in complete isolation at his home studio. Started in May and finished (top-to-bottom, from mixing to mastering) in early December, Zammuto found the songwriter-producer working in a near trance, partially informed by his experience composing songs (mostly with hypnotic drum loops and vintage synthesizers) for Emily McMehen’s groundbreaking documentary Achanté, an intimate, unflinching up-close view of Haitian voodoo rituals.

“It’s the most incredible imagery of people experiencing these possessions and really these trance states,” Zammuto gushes. “You can really feel this otherworldliness of it. And trying to match that with a soundtrack was a really interesting challenge, and it was right around the time where I was like, ‘What am I going to do with my life? Let me just try something new.’ Working on that really made me get into synthesis in a way I never thought I would. In terms of influences, that film was a big one because I finished it right before I started working on the album in earnest. To see the way rhythm is used in those ceremonies, and to see the way they’re able to achieve these trance states that last for 24 hours sometimes—it made me think about rhythm in a new way, and it made me think about melody in a new way. ‘What is the rhythm that accompanies these trance states?’ It has to be otherworldly in a way, and it has to kind of represent this altered state.”

That sense of rhythm and trance-like melody gave focus to the blindingly eclectic Zammuto project, something Zammuto desperately needed in order to finish the album, period.

“I said, ‘If we’re going to release this in the spring, I’m going to have to have this done by the end of 2011, period.’ So that means that I had to, since it was going to be 11 tracks, finish a track every three weeks. I’m the only guy that works on the tracks. My band came up—my players came up just a handful of times just to lay down drum tracks and things like that—but in terms of producing it and mixing it and mastering it, it was just me, sitting by myself in my studio. A track every two or three weeks is faster than I’ve ever worked, and I think that’s probably why I was in such a foul mood the whole time—because of the pressure of it. If I couldn’t release it in the spring, that meant it was going to be a fall release, and financially, there was no way…I had to re-mortgage my house to pay for the production of the record, to keep me in the studio long enough to make one. And that money ran out…right now! [laughs]”

“I hate to lay this on you now,” Zammuto continues, “but my financial future right now is looking kind of grim unless this album does well. Right now, it’s sort of a time of reckoning for my career. If this album doesn’t go well, I’m going to have to get real and actually support my family doing more of a nine-to-five thing.”

While the future of the Zammuto project may be uncertain for the time being, the album is meanwhile racking up loads of critical praise. And with a creatively energized quartet ready to destroy onstage, there’s no reason to tread water or make second guesses.

“It felt like I was covering new territory every day in the studio,” he continues, “and I didn’t want to shut down any ideas on this record. I just wanted to try stuff and see if there was still an audience for what I wanted to do in this new context, which still remains to be seen. I would love to be the kind of guy who can sit down and make a Kid A-type record, where it’s just so unified. But I can’t do it. My brain just takes me in too many directions, and I just follow them. I try to make each track its own universe in a way and not repeat myself a whole lot production-wise. And luckily, there are enough ideas floating around and enough inspiration I’m getting from this new gear I have that I think I have another few records in me along these lines.”

Maybe he’ll even get around to finishing that house of his. In the meantime, Zammuto knows there’s plenty of beauty in things unfinished.