In 1998, The Books didn't exist yet. Holding their place was a tower of MiniDiscs hovering conspicuously in the corner of Paul de Jong's New York apartment.
Nick Zammuto, a dinner guest new to the city, was distracted by the mysterious stack. "Oh, those are my reference materials," de Jong told Zammuto. His guest's curiosity had only deepened.
"My audio samples," de Jong clarified.
"In my early teens, I started collecting records and recording sounds on cassette," de Jong says. "I kept all of that stuff. So by the time the MiniDisc came around, it was unparalleled — a really nice way to store stuff. So I transferred everything I had to MiniDisc."
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That tower became the foundation of a collage-pop project de Jong and Zammuto began soon after their first meeting. As The Books, Zammuto strummed his guitar, de Jong dismantled his tower, and within weeks the duo produced their first song, "Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again."
"What I was interested in back then, I'm still interested in now," de Jong says. "Finding these isolated moments that, severed from their context, have a really great emotional value."
A dozen years and four proper albums later, The Books haven't strayed from their early revelations. Their sound remains a mixture of, on one hand, crookedly mounted artifacts snatched from a parallel universe of disabused consumer electronics, and, on the other, opaque washes of guitar, cello and unaffected vocals.
What has evolved is the way they make music. On its surface, The Way Out, the duo's latest and most cohesive album, is marked by more electronics and cassette-based samples than longtime listeners are used to.
But the real difference is the rigor with which the duo prepare their sources, a feat of ingenuity and logic that begins with the sound library they are ever-building and refining — which, by de Jong's estimate, now contains around 35,000 samples painstakingly digitized, cataloged and tagged.
"It's becoming a really interesting tool," de Jong says. "If you type in 'sherbet,' it will also bring up the one sample that mentions crème brûlée."
The duo finds most material on the road at thrift stores, personal tastes and guidelines nudging them away from media produced within the entertainment industry. This discrimination shows de Jong and Zammuto possess a curator's sense of purpose to match their archivist's instinct.
Whether they are willing to acknowledge it, the sideways glance at recent history their work opens to listeners is a large part of The Books' value. One of the more subtly beautiful qualities of a de Jong and Zammuto composition is the way it tends to put us in touch with a wide array of abandoned technologies, from answering-machine tapes to children's novelty cassette recorders.
With The Books there is a sense that the medium remains the message, but the data matters, too. This concern, intellectually rooted or not, broadens the circle of de Jong and Zammuto's work, overlapping at the fringes of pop music and futurology.
It positions the duo as potential sages in the Digital Dark Age, a term popularized by Stewart Brand to describe a future condition that may result from the increased turnover of technology, a time when the most essential documents might be inaccessible because we will no longer have the hardware to read them.
But de Jong is quick to shoot down talk of such extramusical goals.
"I'm not pretending to be a sociologist or a historian," he says. "It's really the emotional response — the response of the artist — that makes the choice."
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