“It’s true, we don’t look good on paper,” laughed Nick Zammuto, speaking not only of his eponymous new band and music but also of the late, great group he co-fronted with Paul de Jong, The Books. The problem under discussion, however, is the almost universal glazed eyes that meet most literal descriptions of his musical projects. He’s always referred to it as “collage music” with the process in the foreground: samples, scratched vinyl, seemingly random snippets of radio broadcasts, conversations, and ambient sounds constructed with painstaking inventiveness in his rural New England studio/home. (If you have to, think of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.”) But in every case, the description belies the dazzling quality of Zammuto’s work, which even skeptic friends find moving once they hear his ruminative, sometimes pounding psychedelic songs. How does he make something that sounds so programmatic (on paper) feel so emotional in speakers? “Sometimes I think it works because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said, speaking via Skype from a highway junction outside Boston last week.
Zammuto, whose new band plays a Halloween show at Muddy Waters this Wednesday, did not begin as a rocker. Born in D.C. and raised in Andover, Massachusetts, Zammuto, a self-proclaimed “sort-of jock,” attended Brown University, double-majoring in chemistry and fine art — which he insists was not a form of academic schizophrenia. He only picked up an electric guitar because his brother Mickey wanted to start a punk band. His sound fascination evolved from the sculptures he did in college, much like Santa Barbara artist Dick Dunlap. His most memorable college art show included gym lockers, saws, and subwoofers. “I annoyed a lot of people,” he laughed. After college, in New York City, his tiny apartment made his sound sculptures shrink. “I started doing everything on a computer,” he explained. He also met Paul de Jong, which is when The Books were born.
It wasn’t a career plan, Zammuto emphasized. “I thought if maybe 50 people listened to our music, then that would be great,” he said, describing a gradual arc from abstract sounds to the band’s surprisingly compelling brand of beats, acoustic music, and snippets of found sounds. What was great about the band was its nervy forward momentum; even softer songs grabbed at people’s attention, making the arbitrary sound bites seem like a story listeners could justify in their own imaginations — it was fun but demanded participation. “It was weird. Most bands tour and get a following and then make albums,” said Zammuto. “We didn’t tour until our third album, and it was a complete shock that we had audiences.”
Less than five years, three albums, and a box set later, though, The Books are gone and a heartbroken Zammuto (“It was my baby; I hated to see it die,”) is ready to reboot.
“The new band is just killing it,” he claimed. The lineup includes brother Mikey; Books guitarist, keyboardist, and violinist Gene Back; and new member of the family Sean Dixon, whose polyrhythmic playing defies reason, according to Nick. Working backward from the sonic experience of building an album, Zammuto now gets to play with musicians rather than samples.
If the music is hard to convey, the visual part of the show is difficult for even its maker to describe. “I’ve never seen myself out in front of a band. I’m always hiding in the back,” he said. “The screen is like a fifth member of the band out in the front.” Zammuto promises to incorporate Halloween into the screen magic, and wondered aloud if he could take stage blood on the plane here. “I’ll need a lot,” he said, ghoulishly.
Beyond all pretentious music vocabulary is the smart pop pleasures he gets on the new record. Zammuto insists that a restless naïveté motivates him. “You know that Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’? Well, that’s what I do with these songs. When I reach a point where it will sound like every song you’ve ever heard, I always go in the opposite direction. It complicates the way home, and that’s what I like.”
Zammuto plays Muddy Waters Café (508 E. Haley St.) with openers AU on Wednesday, October 31, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 966-9328, or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.