Cellist Paul de Jong is best known for his work as one half of The Books (Amazon, iTunes), a duo renowned for their one of a kind song output that incorporated sampling in its compositions, particularly spoken word. They parted ways four years ago after a decade-long career. While former collaborator Nick Zammuto has released two albums under his own name, de Jong has kept himself under the radar.
De Jong’s new album, If (Amazon, iTunes), from Temporary Residence, uses many of the signature sampling techniques as The Books, and also expands the musical territory far beyond that. It marks the end of his four-year journey to find out exactly who Paul de Jong was as a post-Books solo artist, and it’s getting deserved rave reviews.
But de Jong has taken his decade history with The Books and transformed it into his own routine, either building songs from audio sketches, or at least adorning music from other sources that completes them.
I met with De Jong to talk about the new album, The Books, his life, and other plans in his archive in New Lebanon, NY — that’s 5,000 cassettes, 5,000 videos and 1,500 LPs, still growing and yielding literally tens of thousands individual samples. He’s expanding the space to include a studio that he is moving out of his home. We started with his current project — opening up his archive to others.
PDJ: I would say that about half of the cassettes that I have of the thousands and thousands, are some way Christian, evangelists and small congregations were really big in the 70s and the 80s, taping their Sunday services and then have 50 copies made made and distributing them among the elderly who couldn’t go to church. That kind of stuff really informs a lot of my work.
The other thing I do with it now is, a couple of years ago, since I have this library of recorded sound and that is a library that I really use for composing, meaning that those are actual samples where they are cut, there’s this enormous library system of fragments, single words, musical notes, two thirds is spoken word, that really is my instrument, other than instruments I really play, like cello, the sample library is my instrument and I keep building onto that and there is maybe a thousand times more in there than I’ll ever use in my music, because you never know when something is going to fit. You need a thousand times more to get that one sample that’s just going to fit. Otherwise, don’t touch it. It might be a fantastic sample but sometimes it has to lay around for 10 years before you find a place.
J7: When composing, do you start with the samples?
PDJ: Not necessarily. There is no one to go about it. For this record, I’ve been much looser in my approach than I’ve ever been with The Books, but that’s also the whole creative dynamics in The Books was different than working on my own. I can’t really compare, but sometimes the girls here are copying some tapes and I overhear something and I think, hmm, that sounds good, and I’ll just grab that file, take it to the studio, and start composing with it. The penultimate track on the record, “The Art of What,” starts with a sample that I heard for the first time that day and felt like, yeah, do it, take it, and it became the loop that the whole piece is based on.
I work in pre-mediated and impulsive ways. I am a completely non-exclusive artist, in the sense that I don’t shut out any method. There are no laws. Laws are there to break. And that’s true. You set your own parameters to help you, to aid you along, and if they don’t work, then you change them, you bend them, or you do away with them altogether and hope for whatever works. It’s only music, it doesn’t hurt anybody.
At some point, about two or three years ago, I looked at my sample library. Most of the samples are titled by their content. If they’re non-verbal, they’re described very precisely, what it’s about, in the title. If they are verbal, spoken word, then I just write out as much as I can in the title so that they’re easily recognized. I was looking at them, and it’s kind of tying in with where I ended with The Books. The way we worked in The Books was we used a Microsoft search engine to search for certain subjects in the sample library and tie those together, we started that on Lost And Safe. I felt like 99% of the samples are going to be unused for musical purposes, because sometimes the literary content is great, but the sound quality is not good enough and you can’t really place it. There are all kinds of reasons why one particular sample is going to work, and it is an accumulation of qualities, and sometimes there is just a quality lacking that is really essential for musical use, so what are you going to do with it?
I transcribed the entire sample library verbatim, and it became this big, fat, 550-page book of sentences, parts of sentences, single words, and they were all grouped by source, whether it was an LP or a cassette or a video. Then I have been, for the past two years, editing those texts, kind of the way I edit music within my compositions — reorganizing, slightly altering but don’t do too much, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. You knock things in place until it looks like something, so that’s become a book. I just, in Holland, met with my book designer, we spent two good days. I needed somebody to actually make it print ready.
I’ve already typeset the whole thing myself, so over the years, in my collecting habits, I have for decades type fonts that I find attractive or are rare or unusual, and I’ve used those with The Books and other things. While I was editing the text, I was at the same time looking at fonts and picking a font that I thought would really work well with that particular text, then I would create that font as a true type font for computer use, you scan them and there is software for font creation, so you can clean them up. It’s a job, and in the meantime I made this record, so it’s a year ago when I felt like it’s all great to write books and make artwork and prints and this, that, and the other thing, but what I’m known for, if anything, it’s for the music that I’ve made with Nick, so if I want to find an audience that will read my book eventually or take an interest, I have to create a donkey on which all that stuff can ride, and that is music. So a year ago I got serious finally and just dropped everything else.
I’m easily distracted. I have easily 30 projects going at the same time, and if one project is in danger of getting completed, I’ll just start another five. At some point, I thought, let’s put everything aside and make music, and it’s me well, I think. At least for me personally, and now I have a record.
J7: So did you just drop music for awhile after The Books?
PDJ: No, never, not at all. I had to reestablish my working methods flying solo, which is after 10 years of collaborative effort and so intense that we really didn’t do any solo work in those 10 years, only minimal because it was so absorbing, especially when you also go on tour. At some point it starts gravitating to work, like, wow this actually is keeping me off my work. You start wondering what is my work? Where do my urges actually want to lead me? I had to reinvent myself. If you’ve collaborated for 10 years and then you’ve had a life before that, you know, as a marginal figure, then you can’t really pick up where you left off because you’ve changed in a decade, so it takes awhile. You have to look at who you were before that, because you’re going to need that. But in the end there’s nothing more you can do with it than mine a little bit. You have to carry it into your current decade.
But I’ve done commissioned work, mostly music and video combined, and I’ve made overtures to work myself to making tracks until I found my way, and then I could sit down and do it. It’s been four years or so since The Books broke up. I don’t find that terribly long. I’m a fine cello teacher, so I actually have a profession where I can make a living. Or eke it out, at least. I think, for me, it’s essential to keep in touch with that side of my profession. It’s like a decompression period, you have to come back to normal, because being on the road and being over your ears into a collaboration, you do get somewhat removed from reality, because, also, that was all we did. And then we got families, which also grows you apart a little bit. You do want to spend time with your other loved ones.
J7: When did you start incorporating found sound into your music?
PDJ: Childhood, literally my childhood. I have a box of seven inches that my parents gave me. I was lucky enough to have my own room in the house that I grew up in from a very young age. I had an older brother and an older sister and we all had our own rooms. They like our studios. My brother tinkered endlessly with astronomy and electronics, so his room was benches of electronics and solder and stuff. I was into art and into sound. I listened to radio from a very young age. I mean, 3 years old I was pretty much glued to the radio, music or talk. My parents gave me a radio with a record player on top when I was five, and they gave me a box with seven inches that was accumulated over the years. I can bring back my deepest musical influences that make me what I am, a great deal of what I am, to my deepest roots, right back to that box. It had excerpts for St. Matthew’s Passion, Bach violin concertos, Oscillations of the heart — heart murmurs. My father was a medical doctor. There were medical quizzes. “Love Me Do” by the Beatles. All that stuff, I was just transfixed by it. Reader’s Digest advertisement records with spoken word stuff. So there was spoken word, there was foreign languages, there was classical music, there was solo instrumentals, there was pop music, there was ethnic music, there were heart murmurs and sound effects. It’s all there. It’s all what I’m still interested.
That record player had 16/33/45/78 rpm settings. 78 was fun, but 16, that was the real stuff. Stuff gets so low and slow that you really can’t tell anymore what it is. That kind of stuff sounded beautiful. So, hey, that’s what I do now. I’m just doing it on a larger scale.
I started playing cello when I was five. My parents took me to lots of concerts of classical music, but also of contemporary music, new music, contemporary composed, and it opened my ears at a very young age. Before I was 10, I had already heard people playing all these extended techniques on the cello and I was like, wow, you can do that on the cello! I started experimenting very early. It was always in a serious manner in the sense that, well, humor is as serious as anything. I approach it in a very conscientious way.
As soon as I learned to read and write when I was about seven, I got my mother’s old typewriter. She got a new one and I got this big typewriter and I started writing poetry. My influences were my family, my grandfather was a very bookish, very eloquent, rhetorical fellow, completely self taught, a newspaper man who made all the crosswords. His father was a typesetter at the newspaper. He started working with his father in the typesetting department of the newspaper when he was 11. Back in the day, early 20th Century, it wasn’t even called child labor. Then when his son started going to high school, he did the entire curriculum parallel to his son. He must have been in his 40s by then, and worked himself up to be the head proofreader at another newspaper. He became a really self-made, self-taught classicist, and etymologist, and wrote lovely little articles, along with his crosswords, about the etymology of words, and had this archaic way of speaking, which I remember well. That was a big influence in the way I wrote.
Also, I was lucky that, before you had to pay $35 to get into MoMA, my parents dragged me to every museum, every gallery and art show that was in Europe, every week somewhere. I got exposed to what immediately resonated with me. The 70s was a fantastic time for children and art. It was very accessible for children. There was stuff with buttons that started moving. There was pop art in your face. What immediately resonated with me very strongly, as small as I was, was dadaism and surrealism, and especially the literature where things are very strongly typeset, where typography is part of the literary expression, so to say. Absurdism resonated. Humor in art, there is another element, and you see it in what I wrote when I was seven or 10. There’s text that I wrote when I was seven that I still think is the best I ever wrote. Absolutely, hands down. In form, in composition, in wit, in spontaneity, right on.
I came to America when I was 27 and up till then in the Netherlands I had composed music somewhat, I had been in bands, I had written theatre, I had directed theatre, all very much in a collective manner, straight out of the 80s, early 80s, late 70s. I started with a group of friends, music and theatre groups when we were 16. That was what we did. Screw school, you can’t learn anything there. If you can learn it yourself, then don’t go. I’m afraid I’m telling my kids just the same.
You think my English is poor now, when I was 27, it was a lot worse than this. I lost my language coming to the United States, my literary voice, because I really wasn’t as proficient in English as I was in Dutch, and I was used to writing poetry in Dutch. But what are you going to do? You’re in Illinois in the sticks, corn fields that is, because that’s where I started, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. That’s really out there. Really wonderful place.
PDJ: I started my doctoral of music there. I mostly spent my days in the stacks of the main library. The main library, there are 14 stories, seven stories up and seven stories down. I mean, what a cool place that is. That’s one good reason to go to school, the resources. And, of course, also, human interaction. It’s just authority never set well with me just because they betray you. Authority will betray you.
So I shifted my language to composing and I started composing, or learning to compose, and that started to take the place of writing. An interesting thing happened. I came to the U.S. and I really felt I had landed on some heavenly planet where there is endless used book stores and thrift stores and media resources. The first thing I did was start to record LPs at the library, because there were LPs as far as the ear could hear. That’s where I found LPs with spoken word. It took me at least a decade to figure out ways to compose. I did compose electronic music before I came to the U.S., but it was all in collaboration. Here I was on my own, and I think really losing my native language surged me forward into composition.
J7: That’s another reinvention of yourself you’ve had to make.
PDJ: Correct. And then finally my language caught up because I found my voice in English in sampling, in using found spoken word and rearranging that into my language and what I wanted to say and my meaning, re-contextualizing that language in my framework, and now I’ve written a book out of it, so there, I’ve made a successful transition into another language. Who cares if it took 25 years? It’s wonderful all the same.
J7: So when you started messing around with sampling in your work, it was pre-digital?
PDJ: Oh, yeah. Well, I started sampling when I was 13, with cassettes. I didn’t even have a reel-to-reel. I used to cut cassettes with a razor blade and then put things backwards or upside down, and then glue them back together with nail polish. That was a hit or miss kind of thing. You know how to get to play a cassette recorder so well that you know when you hit the stop button, that point where you have to cut is right at the head, but it’s almost impossible to know for sure.
Then I moved onto reel-to-reel. That’s where we were able to slow things down and do more complicated sample sound things. The first sample sound things were with three cassette decks running two into one, and stuff like that. We made one piece that was 32 tracks, and you hear a solid band of white noise over everything because it was overdubbed with cassettes endlessly, but it also makes it what it is and I love that sound, so you work with it.
In the era of computers, you can make a thousand cuts in an hour, and you try something out, it doesn’t work then you throw it out, so digital sketching, sketching with sound, has become infinitely easier, which is wonderful, because I do sketch everyday, something, that’s where most of my ideas come from. I make sketches, I’m cutting samples and doing busy work with digitizing stuff and I hear a certain sample and I hear another sample I like and I’m going to try something out with that and make a little sequence with loops and things, see how it works, put it backwards, whatever I do with it until it has run its course and I move on. So I save it. But there are all these little beginnings, little sketches, like little drafts.
But back in the reel-to-reel era, you had to be damn sure. You had to think a concept through pretty far before you would commit to it, because the commitment to a thousand physical cuts in a piece of tape, that’s like three weeks of work or something, and chances are it’s going to sound like crap anyway, so you throw it out. No harm done, it’s just music, it’s just art, it doesn’t hurt anybody, except my children have to eat, only back then I didn’t have any children.
What it taught me was to actually conceptualize, to internally conceptualize much farther than just trying everything out and ending up with a heap of sketches that only combine two ideas at a time and then stop, so it never really goes beyond a certain, initial stage. But, no, you sit on it and you work it out internally. What I’m trying to say is that it’s really formed the way that I now approach working with today’s technology. I don’t take today’s technology for granted. I think it’s an unbelievable relief to have around because it does speed up certain things, it just doesn’t speed up thinking.
J7: What took you from Illinois to New York?
PDJ: I studied cello in Illinois, and my cello teacher Nathanial Rosen had, after three semesters, decided to move away to New York, and resume his old job teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and I followed him. I lived there for 13, 14 years. I studied there for a short while and then I really was done with it. I studied privately then with him for a while longer, and then the jobs started to come in.
J7: So when you met Nick during those years, how long did it take after meeting to decide to collaborate?
PDJ: In two weeks after first meeting, we had our very first track, which is the very first track on the very first record, “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again.” It was very organic.
J7: You must have been fairly like-minded to work that quickly.
PDJ: Willing. Like-minded, yes, but fascinated, and the right time and right place, the willingness was there, this fascination with each other’s approach to things, complimentary. I think we have worked for 10 years, often more out of opposing points of view than parallel points of view, but as long as there is a willingness to come to an effective solution, then that is just a mode of collaboration. It’s a professional way of being. Conflict can be, in a contained way, an effective way to get things done. It doesn’t mean it has to rule you. You can rule it.
J7: When you recorded this album, did you feel any pressure because of The Books’ past? With the music and living up to expectations?
PDJ: No, I think I worked myself through that before I started. I think that is one of the things that might have held me back subconsciously for a few years. Insecurity, a subconscious feeling of insecurity. But, you know, you grow, so I don’t know. If ever, it was quickly dealt with. Those are feelings that I believe best be dealt with by time in a subconscious way. Some people might say, no, it’s very good if you address them head on, but I’m not so good at that. I’m better at letting it rot and become like the hummus to grow something new upon. It just needs time. So I worked past it, and the expectation of The Books, if there is an audience expectation, I’ve been an artist longer than I’ve had The Books. I’ve done this since I was seven. I really don’t care. I care, I do care, but it doesn’t freak me out. I feel very warm toward my audience and I have absolutely no idea who they are, but if it doesn’t please me it is certainly not going to please anybody else.