Natural Balance: An Interview With Zammuto

Nick Zammuto, former member of The Books, contrasts a grounded lifestyle in the mountains with the intricate electronic compositions of his new album Zammuto. He speaks to Steph Kretowicz about the album, symmetry and quantum physics

Conscious Luddite Nick Zammuto is nothing if not a contradiction. The former co-founder of multimedia musical duo The Books has made a home with his wife and three young boys in the relative seclusion of the Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. Nestled on a property of 16 acres, at 2000 feet elevation, with the nearest town numbering 700 in population, the man who built a career on electronic music has near banned his kids and their developing minds from engaging with the media and technology.

As close to self-sufficient as you’re going to get, the performer and his wife grow almost all their vegetables, fix their own plumbing and built their own house. Since retreating from New York City to New England in 2006 (via LA, a hike up the Appalachian Trail and North Adams, Massachussets) his pre-school boys aren’t allowed the internet, while Zammuto is nearly always available via email. He freely admits his chopping and changing audiovisual aesthetic is a direct product of his channel-surfing days as part of the MTV generation, but broadcast television is off-limits for the brood. There’s the state-of-the-art studio disguised as a tractor shed, the alternative career option of carpentry over music and a paradoxical double degree in Chemistry and Visual Art. But ask any sound artist and they’ll tell you art and science aren’t so easily distinguishable. It’s just that kind of dualism that informs not only Zammuto’s work, but his entire life view.

Taking time out to chat at the Barbican before appearing on stage for his characteristically funny and incisive piece ‘Real Beauty Turns’ at the London premiere of New York collective Bang on a Can’s Field Recordings, Nick Zammuto talks Zammuto. It’s the self-titled album, of the self-titled project that uses Timbaland’s grammatical deficiencies and recordings of underwater-themed theatre productions as the basis for discussion about abstract mathematical concepts and quantum mechanics. Naturally.

What was the premise behind the album?

Nick Zammuto: Good question. [laughs] It was kind of a ‘do or die’ record because, unfortunately, the demise of The Books left me wondering, ‘what the hell do I do now?’ I thought about stopping music because it is such a drag on my family life, but everybody encouraged me to try something new. So I sat down and started working last May in earnest and finished it in December.

What were you going to do if not music?

NZ: I love working with my hands. I essentially built my own house so I learnt about carpentry doing that. I would love to do that every day, if I could. Especially the big rough work of framing buildings. I just love the skeleton and the structure of buildings. That’s what I would probably do. Teaching is also an option, which is really enjoyable to me but I don’t want to be doing that forever.

That dualism the album explores, between man and machine, it reminds me of the notion of natural versus synthetic objects. There’s really no distinction when you realise, they’re both essentially from the same place, earth.

NZ: Whatever you want to call it but it’s just the truth, with a capital ‘T’. All dualisms collapse when you start to think about them and I think music is great because it transcends that. It doesn’t have to be this or that; it just is what it is. Every time you listen to it you can follow a different path through, which is a nice organic way of listening.

I feel like my music is always taking off on a tangent of that central idea of unity. It’s kind of orbiting around something that’s fixed.

‘Crabbing’ is probably my favourite track on the album. Would you consider yourself a humanist?

NZ: Not formerly speaking [laughs]. I think everybody has a love-hate relationship with humanity and language. That’s another dualism, the most basic one; existence versus non-existence. At the same time as you’re really happy to be alive, you want stuff to change. You want to be somebody else all the time. That’s the dualism that keeps flipping on itself and allows you to pedal forward. Sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it.

That reminds me of a book I read, where the author described a character as a reclusive misanthrope who wants to save humanity. The most philanthropic people can be the one’s who hate people.

NZ: Yeah I love that tension. Where opposites coexist in the most natural way.

What’s behind ‘Too Late To Topologize’?

NZ: When I first heard that Timbaland song, he does ‘Too Late To Apologize’. The way he says it is like, ‘too late topologize’. It bothered me so much. The grammar stickler in me is like, ‘come on, you can’t just drop a vowel like that’. So the only way for to restore balance to the world was to add it back in.

So it’s got nothing to do with topology?

NZ: It certainly does. It’s funny that this abstract mathematical concept was making it so far into pop culture with that song of Timbaland’s. If it was actually about topology it would be a much better song.

Is there much of a community where you live now?

NZ: Not really, no. The public school at the bottom of our hill is just the most warm-hearted place and unexpectedly progressive for a tiny town. I feel like we lucked out in that community. It’s been great for the kids. I live on 16 acres of land, up in 2000 feet elevation and there’s nobody around. So it’s a really different kind of life than most people have. I guess it’s not for everybody but it’s really satisfying or us.

You’ve said you keep your boys away from the media, like the internet and TV. Gary Numan’s girls are about the same age as yours and he sends them to the Steiner Waldorf School, where they shun technology. And yet he founded his entire career on electronics.

NZ: [Laughs] Yeah, it makes him more evocative, I think. It’s that tension of opposites. It’s really cool. I do it ironically as well. The first Books record I finished in the basement of a bed and breakfast that was owned by a complete Luddite and he didn’t even know that there was an electronic musician living there. I just didn’t tell him because I knew it would make him mad. I’ve always been around people who hate technology with a passion. Even to the point where they’d be like, ‘should I drive today? Is that stuff really necessary?’

My studio is a tractor garage that, from the outside, is just a shack but you go inside and it’s state-of-the-art equipment and I love that tension. It’s really funny and it’s great because I have my band out from New York City and they view it as a haven. We just work with total focus and get a lot done and then we can all go back to our normal lives afterwards. It’s always a beautiful moment to have them up.

Is it mostly analogue or digital?

NZ: It’s a mixture. Analogue is great for a lot of different things but in terms of speed and precision, digital is better. So it depends.

I was watching a documentary on PatchWerk, the modular synth at MIT that you can control through a browser…

NZ: Yeah, I was at MIT last weekend.

Did you have a go on it?

NZ: Yeah, I’m going to. I’ve been really interested in Moog as a company. Over the last year or so I’ve acquired one of the Slim Phatty units and I’m actually going to tour with it in the fall. It’s a 100 per cent analogue synth and it is so fat. There is no digital synth that sounds as pure and as awesome as this synth. For a certain kind of lead line or a bass line, you spin that knob and it’s this feeling of infinity.

Yeah, this guy on the documentary was saying that PatchWerk creates a sonic environment that digital just can’t do. I feel like that things like ProTools would have changed the way people make music completely because you can see, visualise music. In a way, it must create a certain distance from the music.

NZ: Yeah, it’s interesting because I’ve always edited on computers. It does have a strong visual component while I’m working because I can actually see how the structure is laid out. I can actually see where there’s space and where there’s not and it probably effects the way I compose. I wonder if people hear it in the music.

It’s like the composition of a drawing. You’ll have an inclination toward balance and symmetry and might put sounds in places where maybe it’s not necessary.

NZ: And people respond to asymmetry. I don’t know what study it was, you might be able to look it up, but they show beautiful faces, and for some of them they actually make them perfectly symmetrical, where they just take a copy of one side of the face. And then they show the actual face. People always find the actual face to be more beautiful than the one that’s perfectly symmetrical.

No one likes a perfect person.

NZ: Well, no. From a chemical point of view, the concept of right and left is absolutely amazing. It’s like another dualism that just comes out of nowhere. It’s like life just chose that there should be a left and a right. For the most part, if you look at a carbon atom, it’s a tetrahedron. So if look at water, it has a mirror image to it and there’s no way a water molecule could ever know the difference between left and right, because that mirror is part of it and there’s no escaping it. With carbon atoms, it’s tetrahedral. There are four different points arranged in space so that if you have two different things attached to it, there’s two different ways to do it. At some point, amino acids happened, and life chose the left-handed one over the right handed one and that’s what makes the liver end up on one side and the stomach on another. It’s an incredible expression of a microscopic thing having huge implications, and you’ve got to wonder where that came from. It’s such a subtle difference.

Do you have your own theory? Are you religious?

NZ: In that singularity where it came from, that information must have been there somehow already, in the tiniest bit of asymmetry from the beginning. Stephen Hawking explained it well. It’s quantum mechanically impossible to have a perfectly even surface because, if it’s in a container of some kind, then it’s not even anymore. If you lay out a grid that’s infinitely large in all directions and you randomly pull out just two or three elements in that grid and you give it enough time, then it’s going to create a world that’s very asymmetrical. It only takes the tiniest thing to get asymmetry started and it’s quantum mechanically impossible for it to not be asymmetrical from the start.

It’s only the slightest bit of asymmetry that created the structure of the entire universe, because otherwise it would have just been a white, flat space. It’s that slightly off-kilter start that shaped everything. It’s an amazing thing. And the ultimate expression of that is our ability to tell left from right. Which allows the dualism to keep going. It just seems implicit in the universe somehow.

I don’t know, whatever.

Zammuto’s self-titled album is out now on Temporary Residence

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today