Smile Politely

Re-reading the culture from The Books

In my 30 years on Earth, there are certain lists I maintain in my head. They don’t have to be exact -— no top ten in order, but they are there, unbidden by my own person. They simply occupy that space — meals, vistas, college football games, etc. The Books hold a spot on two separate lists. One for an album, Thought for Food, that absolutely floored me with its radical uniqueness, and two, for one of the best live show experiences I’ve had to date. I saw The Books a few years back at the Courtyard Cafe, and it remains one of those shows that I keep handy in my memory because it was good enough to want to recall and relive again and again. So, I implore you. Go see Iron and Wine, yes. But get there early enough to see The Books. You’ll be very happy you did.

I had the chance to talk with them the other day, and they had some pretty interesting things to say about their craft. Check it out.

SP: For readers of SP who might be unfamiliar with The Books, could you describe the music you make?

TB (Nick): Literally, it’s sampled music, and it’s collage music. And then we also play our own instruments and sing along with it. But we take a lot of inspiration from the samples that we find, and that drives the direction that we go in. Paul has always been a collector. He was into vinyl for many, many years and has a huge collection of really interesting samples from old records, completely obscure things — everything from spoken word to musical samples, but definitely outside of DJ Shadow-type sampling where we’re looking for break beats or horn riffs, although we do use some of that. What we’re looking for is a lot broader. For the live shows we decided we didn’t want to be the center of attention on stage, so we’ve gone for a video collection as well. As we’ve traveled around we’ve found vintage thrift shops all around the country wherever we go and pick up videos. It’s a good time to do it because VHS is on its way out quickly. It’s all getting landfilled, so it’s the time to put a VHS collection together. We’ve found a lot of very strange, one-of-a-kind productions — instruction videos for bizarre products. We go through them and we take the stuff that might be useful. Sooner or later they find a home.

SP: I saw you play live in Urbana a few years ago…

TB (Nick): I remember it. It was fun.

SP: It was a great show and I remember being knocked out by your video presentation. I imagine it would have been a difficult transitioning from first starting the project to how you were going to present this live. So the whole video thing was something that came out of the need to play live?

TB (Nick): Exactly. It’s a happy accident. It was frustrating that people stopped buying records. We were just a studio band and we’re thinking, “well, we can’t make a living doing this.” And then Tom Windish, our booking agent, he basically convinced us to put a show together.

TB (Paul): Coaxed us into it, yeah.

TB (Nick): I was uncomfortable with the idea at first, and then it kind of became its own thing over the years. And video was the key to making it work for us.

TB (Paul): From playing live, we now have the opportunity to largely satisfy our interest in moving image, and also not make it the droll performance thing where a couple of people play their instruments and that’s basically it. I think we’re more comfortable creating a show where there’s more going on than just that.

SP: So you feel pretty comfortable now with the live presentation?

TB (Nick): Yeah. It’s been the audience response that has kept me going. It’s been an absolute joy to go out and meet people and present the culture back to them in a way. We filter a lot of stuff and try to re-present it. The stuff we deal with is discarded on a number of levels. It’s kind of the refuse. It’s completely unstylish stuff that we’re dealing with. And somehow, when we present it again to an audience it becomes new again, and it becomes worthy of looking deeper at it. And that’s a really satisfying thing. And it opens up a window that you don’t get to experience very often.

SP: Really, you guys are almost like museum curators. You sift through all this garbage and you re-present it. Do you feel like you are showing the audience the remnants of a disappearing civilization or something that is still vibrant now?

TB (Paul): It’s not so much archaeology, because I think most people are finding a real personal relationship with what they see, because there’s still a lot that relates to what they see in their lifetimes. There’s a certain edge of nostalgia to it, but it’s not a death.

TB (Nick): There’s something kind of universal that we look for. I think most of our music has a universal theme, rather than trying to just reproduce something that happened in the past, it’s making it new again. Focusing on the universal qualities and elements. Media will constantly be recycled. CDs are disappearing and who knows what will happen to the digital work of the future. But it will certainly disappear at some point. There’s a lot of truth to this constant feeling of being human and everything you have is going to disappear at some point. And it’s a cause for celebration as well as legitimate concern.

SP: I hear a range of emotion in the music. I hear joy as well as a kind of ironic approach to the detritus of the civilization itself.

TB (Nick): Detritus is a little bit pejorative. It’s the stuff that never got into the mainstream. But it’s not that it wasn’t a worthy venture. Although there’s certainly some things that it’s very clear why they weren’t mainstream. The interesting things about all these old instructional videos, for example, are health and beauty sections. There are all these hair products, things to tie your hair back, and they all have their own instructional videos. So it’s about the product, but there’s all of this inadvertent cultural information in there as well — like the model they choose, the clothes they’re wearing, the kind of VHS camera they used, the kind of colors they chose. It’s sort of an inadvertent documentary. There’s some real truth there. That really happened. The production wasn’t completely in their control; they were a product of their time. And that’s really what I love about that kind of stuff. You get a sense of what people were really like, even though they’re trying to represent themselves in a particular way.

SP: You said you filter a lot of information, and obviously, you dig through a lot of stuff. You have to make thematic choices for the record or the videos. Do you have some idea of what you want at the outset, or is it a lot of happy accidents?

TB (Paul): There are happy accidents, although we’ve gotten to a point where we’ve built such a large collection that there are a lot of well-developed themes that we can choose from. So there is a critical mass within a lot of different themes. Within those collections are happy accidents, but by now it’s classified in a way that we can make very specific choices of what we want to address. It makes the work different because if we’ve decided to develop a certain theme or we need more material we can search in a very targeted way. So it’s not all happy accidents.

TB (Nick): We definitely tip the odds toward the happy accidents by arranging things in a particular way. Even the way we name files makes it very easy to do word searches. By searching for size and organizing samples by their duration, you get really wild rhythms that are totally unexpected. So it’s like having a crazy instrument; you just have to learn how to play it. As time goes on, there’s a lot more pressure to get it right. Once we get a theme going, we can only really do it once, so we have to make it right. This feeling like you can’t screw it up; it’s precious, which is kind of counterproductive.

TB (Paul): But there is so much material that if we feel that it hasn’t reached that point of fruition, then it’s better to just let it lay and let it go until we know it’s there. But to start early on it — we might lose it that way.

SP: Even on one individual track, there’s so much going on that I wonder, even if you feel like you’re mining a particular theme, there’s a bit of a Rorshach quality for the listener. What might feel like retreading the same theme, I wonder if it might be a completely different experience for the listener.

TB (Nick): Yeah. We kind of gave up trying to figure out how other people hear things. We’ve just learned to trust what we hear. But yeah, You’re right. I think about the Rorshach thing, there’s always going to be that quality in what we do. We’re not trying to make a specific statement, a political one or a cultural one. We’re just trying to meet people halfway. Here’s this different stuff — you fill in the blanks with what you have to bring to it and give meaning to it. We make sure that it’s a rich listening environment.

SP: Do you think there’s any kind of latent political or social statement in the whole process? Even if the songs are ambiguous themselves.

TB (Nick): I’ve thought about this a lot, and we’ve gotten this question before. We’ve taken some flack for it as any musician who makes something remotely political definitely faces. And it’s not that we’re making topical stuff, but in our searches we find these themes that repeat themselves, and therefore we save them. And a lot of those themes are political. On top of that, we are the filters, so our own tastes drive it to a degree. It’s not really intentional, but it gets in there.

TB (Paul): It’s almost like either you draw attention to it by addressing it or you draw attention to it by avoiding it. But since it’s part of everybody’s life, you’re going to run into it. It’s not up to us to address the issues. The people can see the issues for themselves. As much as it’s part of our concerns, we notice it, and so it becomes part of what we do.

SP: Can I ask about the new album?

TB (Nick): We’re playing quite a number of new tracks at the show. As the collections have grown, it’s lent itself to this new kind of work where we can really explore certain sections of the library in greater depth. We’ve definitely been on a hypno-therapy kick recently. A lot of totally amazing lost hypno-therapy tapes. Wherever we go we seem to find them. That’s been wonderful to cut that stuff and work with it.

SP: So you’ll be using a lot of those in the new record?

TB (Paul): It’s part of it. There are more themes that are confined to one or two or three songs. It’s less all over the place in terms of references. That’s kind of a difference from the other records. There are longer narratives, more sticking to a single theme within a piece. We delve deeper into single themes.

SP: (tells dumb story about finding amazing-looking hypno-therapy albums in Tacoma, Wash., only to get home and find out they were housing America records)

TB (Nick): Well, I highly recommend hypno-therapy. It’s been extremely helpful to us.

The Books play this Saturday at Krannert with Iron & Wine. The sold-out show starts at 7:30 p.m.

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