Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, who make up the art-pop band the Books, were on tour on the West Coast, driving to another gig, when they popped in the cassette.
What they heard was nothing short of mind-blowing. Two children, presumably siblings, in an innocent yet disturbing dialogue: "I want to blow your brains out. I am going to kill you. So you will stay alive as long as I want you to, so I can kill you. You are such an idiot," one of them chirps, in a sort of singsong. "I can kill you with a rifle, a shotgun, anyway I want to. Probably by cutting your toes off and working my way up toward your brain."
"We were on tour in our van," de Jong says. "We would just drop in casettes and listen to them. That came on and it was one of those moments when you knew you struck gold."
The kids are both innocent—it's clearly play—and menacing, for the graphic nature of their make-believe threats. The recording became the basis for "Cold Freezin' Night," a song off the Books' fourth album, The Way Out. The Books build the song around samples of the tape, with a frenetic drum beat underneath sounds of gunshots and chirps that accent the kids' play talk.
De Jong and Zammuto are scavengers in the detritus of pop culture, looking for thrown-away sounds to reimagine. De Jong is the sound archivist of the pair; he's built up a massive collection of samples, which has grown exponentially since the group began touring, putting him on the road and into thrift stores around the country.
"A lot of the material I'm interested in is obsolete material, as the title says, on The Way Out," de Jong says. "On the road, in record and thrift shops, usually you can find me in the sections where you don't find people at all. I'm looking for spoken-word records, self-help, answering machine cassettes."
When he gets back home to New Lebanon, N.Y., he begins the exhaustive, painstaking work of listening to all of it and then digitizing what he likes, cataloging it and filing all of it away for later use.
"Every record is like another mine shaft, some kind of cave, where you don't know what you're going to find," he says. "It never becomes less exciting than the first time."
De Jong often immediately gets ideas as he's listening and will begin looping samples and developing compositions. Later he'll send samples to Zammuto, who lives in Readsboro, Vt. "He has a completely different approach because he gets his material without knowing where it comes from," de Jong says.
They build music around the samples—de Jong plays the cello, Zammuto sings and plays guitar—but often, the samples "want to be connected to other [samples], sometimes opposites."
This process of listening intently for musical ideas everywhere has, at times, altered the way de Jong related to the world. "I used to hear samples everywhere," he says. "Especially living in New York City, you pick up snippets of conversation. Everything can get me going if I want it to. But you've got to give your ears a rest. We both listen for our work, eight to 10 hours a day, easily. A little bit of silence is really revitalizing."
The Books have been together for 10 years, but started playing live only five years ago. Their shows, including one at Knoxville's Big Ears festival in March, are known for the video montages that the band has said serve almost as a "frontman." Like the music, the videos—some of which can be seen at the group's website—include found art, in this case obscure home movies and old instructional videos collected from thrift stores and married to other found sounds and images.
While at first the videos were retrofitted to the music, de Jong says that process has changed. "We're already sketching out videos while we're making the music," he says. "It's just a different technique. Everything takes so much time with what we do."
Does he ever wonder about the people who made these audio and video recordings? Of course, he says. "It's not so much about those particular individuals, it's just a tape or just a record, it's already deconstructed from the individual," he says. "You've mined it from the fabric of this country. It's more a reflection of a state of the generation or the human condition.
"I think about kids in a room messing around, but it could be any kids in any room," he says. "What we're looking for is a universality, a universal quality in the music."
But not everybody is so certain of that.
"We kind of regularly get people at concerts who say, ‘Wow, that's me on that recording,' and we're pretty much certain it isn't," he says. "But that just proves how universal these tapes are."