THE SOUND ARCHITECT Zammuto

Erstwhile Books-man Nick
Zammuto on his new band, the debut album, and what he’s got against brass
robots and right angles.

 

BY ASHLEY OWEN

 

While many musicians hang out at the local music shop,
toying around with gear they can’t afford, Nick Zammuto often finds his
creative inspiration in the PVC pipe section of Home Depot. Between the way he
perceives and approaches composition and the stellar visual elements that often
accompany his live performances, this guy is way, wayyyyy “outside of the box.” If you left it up to him, he would
probably build his own box – resembling more of a lopsided quadrilateral with
absolutely no parallel sides or right angles – and spend days experimenting
with the weirdly altered, intrinsically enticing acoustics in his “box.”

 

Last February, I caught the first-ever performance of his
new band, appropriately named Zammuto, at the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art. Weaving layers of complexly complementary instrumentals with
lyrics – sprinkled with word play and cynicism – delivered through distorted
yet melodic vocals, Zammuto pumped out energy and downright excitement with
every song. With an upcoming tour supporting Explosions in the Sky, an April 3
album release for the self-titled debut album, and personal confidence in his
new venture, he’s all-around stoked about his new band. And after the MASS MoCA
show, incessantly listening to the album, and my thirty-minute phone
conversation with Nick, I’m convinced that he is an artist to watch.

 

***

 

BLURT: What were you
feeling right before you went on stage? 
I mean, you’ve been performing for years, but were you feeling any first
show jitters before premiering your project at MASS MoCA?

Oh definitely, yeah. And it was actually really great to
feel those again. You know, after touring with The Books for so many years,
playing the same shows so many times, I started to lose it. But yeah, I was
feeling downright nervous before the MASS MOCA show. It felt great. I was just
worried I was going to forget the lyrics, it was like the first time I’ve ever
spat out those words all at once… And it really feels like a band, like we’re
starting to have this brotherhood, which is an incredible feeling. I hope those
jitters don’t go away for a while, I like having them.

 

How did you feel
walking away from that show, how did you think the audience responded to the
new project?

It was a great feeling, just kind of feeling like we
embarked, you know. And I can’t thank the folks at MASS MoCA enough… I think we
all walked away from that show feeling like, although we didn’t play perfectly,
we could feel the potential of it, which was fantastic. The reason we decided
to go on tour with Explosions in the Sky was so we could really become a well-oiled
machine by the end of that tour, and really play for a lot of people who aren’t
expecting much, and just try to rock out.

 

Your band sounds very
different than Explosions. what do you think that tour is going to be like?

I have no idea, I’ve actually never seen them live. But I’m
a huge fan of theirs, and they’ve known of The Books and always invited us [The
Books] to tour with them, but it never worked out. They were really generous to
invite this kind of no-name band along with them [this time], and we’re
thankful for the opportunity. I’m not sure how it’s going to work, but I assume
that anybody who’s into instrumental rock music is kind of up for anything,
hopefully…I think it will be fun. And [on the subject of touring], I was sort
of lamenting the fact that I didn’t have more video ready for the MassMOcA
show, so I’ve added quite a bit more video [for the upcoming shows]. For The Books,
video was kind of the front man of the band in a way, and with this project I
don’t want it to be that way, but I still want there to be this video component
because I love doing it so much.

 

So let’s talk a
little about how this new band came to fruition…

Man, I don’t know where to start really, except to say that my old band kind of just stopped. It
was one of those moments where I was like, what do I do now? I always wanted to
work with a drummer, and that was something I couldn’t do with The Books. Luckily,
I found Sean [Dixon]…I
was introduced to him through Gene Back, who also played with The Books. [Back]
is a multi-instrumentalist…whatever you throw at him he can handle it. When I
started composing the record, about a year ago, and I was feeling kind of
dejected and kind of angry about everything that had happened the year before,
and luckily music is the perfect way to get over that kind of stuff. Without
too much of an idea of what would happen, I was just trying to let it flow.

 

At what point did you
start talking to your brother and Gene and Sean about forming this group?

Gene was in it from the beginning, and so was my brother,
Mikey. [He] traveled with us a lot on those Books tours, and we all got to be
really good friends, Gene and Mikey and also my tour manager Brendon Downey,
who is also helping a lot with this new project. So really it’s almost the
exact same team as we had before, except for
Sean who came aboard mid-summer. And I bought a drum kit last January, first
time I ever played drums in my life…I live out in the middle of nowhere, and my
studio is separate from the house, so I can go out there and just play as loud
as I want to, day or night. Having that chance to play the drums for like two
months straight, and at least get a sense for what was possible, was really
therapeutic. By the time I enlisted Sean, I had kind of settled on this
polyrhythmic style of playing. It’s got elements of rock, but hopefully it transcends
rock in a lot of ways…Somehow, [Sean’s] able to play from the heart at the same
time that he plays like a scientist, which is really interesting. That’s what I
like about music a lot of times, because it has this kind of scientific rigor
to it at the same time that it really just feels right, you know?

 

Totally. How would
you describe the sound of the new project and this new album?

Oh man, I don’t know. To me it sounds like rock…especially
compared to the stuff that I did before. It’s a much deeper sound, it’s got a
lot more body to it. Not that we’re aiming for the lower chakras, but still, it’s
kind of nice to be able to hit them once in a while. It does have electronic
elements, but it’s not electronica. It’s, I don’t know, I could probably come
up with some silly genre…

 

How did the recording
process for this album go?

From a technical perspective, my work was very much in the
box with The Books stuff, I almost did everything on the computer. And with
this [project], it was much more about capturing
live performances wherever I could, so I really had to step up my game
production-wise. I was really learning a lot of technical things as I was
writing the music, which was really inspiring. Because I had no idea where it
would go, or whether people would like it, it was a very freeing process. And the
track order is almost exactly the order that we recorded the album in, and I
kind of like it when that happens because it tells a story about how things
evolved. [On] the first track, that’s me playing the drums…that was the first
time I ever recorded myself playing the drums, and it has this totally stupid,
out of control quality. By the end [of the album], Sean is playing these very
refined [rhythms], so the album’s got this funny trajectory to it.

 

I watched that
documentary, “A Day With Nick Zammuto”, and I was fascinated by some of the
techniques shown that you use to make different sounds, like using PVC pipes to
produce natural harmonics. I’m curious as to how you came up with that and also
if any of those DIY techniques were incorporated into this upcoming album?

Yeah, I think of everything as DIY…I’ve always loved
building things, and that’s actually how I got into composing…I used to make
objects that made sounds, as part of a sculpture
program…and I needed a way to document the sound, so that’s when I bought my
first decent tape recorder. And I just fell totally in love with the process of
recording…it’s very much a sculptural medium: you
can take a piece of recorded sound and manipulate it in so many ways that it
connects to other sounds in so many interesting ways…so that was really the
inspiration in the beginning. The PVC pipe idea has been around for a long time…but
if you go further with it and really control the inputs and outputs on it, you
can get really beautiful stuff, a natural kind of sound. On the record, there
is a lot of vinyl noise…I think it’s more than just a nostalgia for that medium,
it just sounds good to me, it feels alive, it feels really deep, [and it’s] a
way to produce rhythmic sounds that aren’t necessarily part of the drum kit.

 

Do you have a
favorite song on the album?

No, I don’t. I listened through it on my ride back from
Boston the other day, and yeah, I was happy with it. That’s not a normal thing
for me. Usually when I listen to [my music], I’m like, ‘I should have done that
differently’. But this one I’m happy with, it’s really nice. I feel like my
best work is still ahead of me, hopefully, so that’s what I’m going to try to
focus on now.

 

At the MASS MOcA
show, you mentioned you hate brass robots…hence the title of the song FUC3P0. I
was wondering if there was any reason in particular why you don’t like brass
robots?

Yeah, the way brass tarnishes…no, it’s absolute silliness…well,
I mean there is a very serious side to it. It’s like, when you get sick of your
sidekick…Like, R2[D2] just go for it, why do you have to drag this guy around
with you? You know, even though [C3P0] is really good with languages of all
kinds, and he has good common sense, you’re not going to save the universe
dragging that brass robot around.

 

Were there any
notable sources of inspiration that you drew upon while composing this music?

Sort of too many to count, because so much of it is subconscious…A
lot of my listening habits now are fueled by my children. As a family, we’ve
been really into Paul Simon…and the production on those [earlier records] is
just spectacular. On the opposite side is Radiohead, which is this unbelievable
controlled chaos that they’re able to reproduce again and again on their
records…And then kind of in the middle is The Police, [especially] while trying
to figure out how to incorporate drums. I really love Stuart Copeland’s
playing, it’s got this really snappy, precise quality to it, but still really
human…My boys right now are on a Bee Gee’s kick. My middle son in particular is
a dancer, he’s got all the moves…and that’s why I’ve gained an appreciation of
dance music.

 

Have you played some
of your music for your sons? And are they dancing all around for it?

Yeah they do. And it’s funny, I handed out the record to a
bunch of my friends to try it out on them just when I had finished it. And they
were all like, ‘this is really weird, but my kids really like it.’ I think the
parents are kind of turned off by all the weird manipulated voices on this
record…and that’s the thing with this record [for a lot of the press too],
the voices. For me, that’s not really the thing, and for kids I don’t think
that’s the thing… kids don’t even question it, they just roll with it, which is
great.

 

What are you using to
manipulate your voice?

It’s a really amazing piece of gear and it’s only been
around for a couple of years. It’s called the Voice Live 2. The reason I was
interested in vocal effects on this record is because finally you can do them
live in this really compelling way. Before, it was really hard to get vocal
effects on stage, easy in the studio but almost impossible to do it well on
stage. But this piece of gear opens the door to really interesting live vocal
effects, so I just wanted to try it out. I don’t know if I’m going to stick
with it, but it’s been really fun to play with it so far.

 

It adds a really cool
element to it. I read the article you wrote about the process of you and your
wife building your home and your gardens and your awesome set up out there. Do
you find any parallels between your music composition and other aspects of your
life, like your construction and craftsmanship?

I really haven’t tried to put it into words too much yet, so
I’m just going to talk off the cuff I guess. People think of my music as kind
of angular. It’s pretty intense, and it’s not necessarily the best thing to
listen to casually for that reason…And there’s something about right angles
that really bugs me, especially when the ceiling is parallel with the
floor…[because] it sets up this highly reinforcing sound situation where the
sound just bounces up and down between the floor and ceiling and it’s always the
same frequency wherever you are in the room….it starts to feel really boxy to
me. What I wanted to do with [my] house is kind of eliminate that wherever I
could, so it meant that there were going to be hardly any right angles in the
house at all. Now I know why people don’t build that way, because every piece
of wood has to be a different length, and the calculations get pretty crazy…In
a general way, a good piece of music, when you listen through it, is never the
same twice; you can follow a different line and hear different things every
time. I think good architecture is similar, it kind of controls your experience
in a way but it doesn’t limit it…The other idea is just to align it with nature
in some way…To actually be able to use the sun to heat the house for the most
part was an important thing…and just being aligned with the motion of the sun
and stars makes me feel at home when I’m here…I feel like
music can sound that way, at least in a subconscious way, where things are kind
of in balance. I like this idea that a sound can be moving forward and backward
at the same time…and I think that’s what polyrhythms are for me, that feeling
of space within a sound, where there’s more than one thing happening at a time
but still they’re in resonance of each other.

 

Aside from the
upcoming tour, do you have any other plans in the works for this new project?

This summer I want to jump back in the studio right away, if
I can. Financially I’ve spent everything I have producing this last record and
trying to get this new band off the ground, so I’m sort of counting on people
actually buying the record at this point to keep me in the studio, otherwise I’m
going to have to do something else for a while. I feel like the band is in a
really good place to jump in on a new album right away…I always sort of thought
of the Books as a sort of “metaband” in a way because it was never really our
intention to tour, and so everything was a retrofit to make that happen. But
with this band, it’s really meant to be a live thing. And the amazing thing
about these players is they can bring the album to life in a way that really
makes it better. So I’m hoping people will take that risk and come see us play.

 

Do you enjoy live
performances or working in the studio more?

I really love them both, but they’re very different kinds of
activities. I think about this every day, what works on a record sometimes
doesn’t work at all live…and certain things that work live will never work on a
record…Changing gears between them sometimes is hard, but it’s also really
refreshing to have two different perspectives on the same stuff all the time. At
first, I was really freaked out about performing. If you had asked me five
years ago if me, singing in front of people, would be my life…I would have been
like ‘you’re crazy…that’s just ridiculous’. But, I mean, that’s what I do now. And
I like it.

 

 

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