There are many words in Nick Zammuto's dense, challenging music, but you may not find yourself crooning along. On his self-titled album, which came out in April, much of the singing is so electronically processed that the words are hard to make out. The guitarist and vocalist generally writes lyrics last, he says, letting them fall atop his rhythms and melodies "like dust on furniture."
Starting in 2002, Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong, working as the Books, released four acclaimed albums of mysterious music. It often combined electronic sounds and snippets of found speech—from, for example, self-hypnosis tapes. The Books split up after their 2010 swan song, The Way Out.
Zammuto's new release is startling music, with fat keyboard lines, punchy bass and touches of dolorous acoustic guitar. A striking feature is the drumming of Sean Dixon, whose energetic playing skirts around the beat as often as it hits it. Also in the new group are a couple of Books-era collaborators, guitarist/keyboardist Gene Back and bassist/brother Mikey Zammuto.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Zammuto is making screen prints at his Vermont home. He has a degree in visual arts, as well as one in chemistry. "For this tour, I finally got a pallet that allows me to do big posters," he says. "There are two of them. One is a picture of a zebra face, and the other is a zebra butt." A funky track on Zammuto is called "Zebra Butt."
The posters are an important revenue stream for a touring musician. "At this stage, we need all the help we can get," Zammuto says.
An exacting craftsman, Zammuto mostly recorded the new release on his own, alone in the studio. "I bring my players in one at a time, but I never show them the whole picture until it's finished," he says. "I'll give them a chord progression to play off, or even just a tempo or a key to riff on, and they generate so much material that I can then go back and pull from."
You can hear Zammuto's attention to detail in a song like "Groan Man, Don't Cry," the album's second track. Quick keyboard arpeggios and a brittle, almost Caribbean-inflected electric guitar part accompany majestic organ chords and cryptic, digitally obscured singing. "You're on your own," a computerized voice sings. "Leave the past behind."
Dixon's marvelously dense drumming is at the core of the track, and of the new band's sound. "His real passion is polyrhythms," Zammuto says. "I guess some of them come directly from African sources, but he has this way of incorporating them into his normal playing, where it doesn't have that ‘ethnic,' stolen quality. It's this fresh, new kind of sound."
The Pilot Light show should be a lively spectacle, with videos synced to the music. "The video is almost like another member of the band," Zammuto says. Multimedia shows have a reputation for being overwhelming, he notes, but "we've been really careful to spread the video out over time, so that when it's the focus, it's really the focus, and otherwise it's either absent or doing something that doesn't distract from the band's performance."
Also prominently featured in Zammuto's touring show: that electronically processed singing. He speaks in detail of a "magic box," made by the pro audio company TC Helicon, that lets him reproduce the record's unearthly vocal sound "in a really satisfying way." Why is he so fascinated by what sounds like the singing of androids?
"It is in the air right now, this idea of the sensitive man-machine," he says. "Now that we've irreversibly adopted all this technology that mediates all of our interactions, we're stuck in this situation of trying to maintain our humanity. And that's part of the sound of the record."
Zammuto has performed in Knoxville, with the Books, as part of the 2010 Big Ears festival, and he loves the city. He also once passed through the area on a non-musical mission, when he walked the Appalachian Trail in 2001. The portion that goes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of his favorites.
Why did he walk the trail? "It was an absolutely all-consuming existential crisis," he says. "What else would make you want to do something that ridiculous? I was living in L.A., and I found myself in this car culture that I just could not see myself in. I saw myself going down this path of becoming a professional chemist and working in a lab the rest of my life, and my soul just rejected it."
So he left. "I broke up with my girlfriend. I sold all of my possessions and started hiking. After that, I knew I wanted to make music. I came off the trail just wanting to sit down and make records. That's what I did."
Zammuto with Touch People
Pilot Light (106 E. Jackson Ave.)
Sunday, Sept. 9, at 10 p.m.