The Story of the Books’ ‘The Lemon of Pink’ and the Painful Mystery of Their Breakup
On the occasion of its reissue through Vinyl Me Please, Nick Zammuto and Paul De Jong revisit their greatest work together—separately.
Paul de Jong (L) and Nick Zammuto (R) from the recent documentary about the Books, ALEATORIC.
From the top floor of his new house in North Adams, Massachusetts, Paul de Jong can see the side of town where he and Nick Zammuto made what he calls their "greatest inventions" as the Books over a decade ago. The mostly vacant, squirrel-infested apartment building that Zammuto started renting in the summer of 2002 has since been demolished, but de Jong still speaks fondly of it all these years later.
Fourteen years after de Jong first visited the apartment, the record subscription service Vinyl Me, Please is reissuing The Lemon of Pink, the first music that the duo—along with their traveling friend Anne Doerner—made in the building, and their second LP as a band. On early November Skype calls, he and Zammuto both remember the era fondly, breathlessly describing the bitter cold of the winter they spent working on the record in a haphazard studio they'd set up in the pantry. Two of the three musicians would compose in the studio—sorting through de Jong's vast library of thrifted records, cassettes, and VHS tapes, or recording lines on guitar, banjo, or fiddle—while a third would work away in the kitchen, toiling over pots of collard greens and black eyed peas, using the hallowed vegetarian tome The Moosewood Cookbook as a bible.
It was, for the core duo of the Books, the most fruitful period of their collaboration—the pinnacle of their very particular brand of sample-based experimental composition, one that felt both alien and familiar in equal parts. Though some have since attempted to copy their poppy reimagining of electroacoustic composition, The Lemon of Pink retains a special warmth—one that seems synonymous with finding joy in the winter's darkest months.
Even from the outside, though, it's a strange record to revisit. After 2005's Lost and Safe and 2010's The Way Out, Zammuto announced to the media in early 2012 that the Books had split up. Details were scant at the time, aside from a vague indication in interviews that both members were intending to focus on solo projects. In an essay that accompanies this release of The Lemon of Pink, Zammuto suggests that the collapse of the Books was an intensely painful experience. "Psychologically it's hard because losing The Books was the biggest tragedy of my life," he said in the liner notes. "I still feel that loss every day."
Talking to De Jong and Zammuto about The Lemon of Pink 13 years after its 2003 release, it's clear that this record carries all of the weight of the project on its shoulders—the groundbreaking possibilities that it suggested, the intimate collaboration between its two players, and the heartbreak that would come with their eventual split. To mark the re-release (you have to sign up for the service by November 15 to grab a copy), de Jong and Zammuto reminisced about this period of their band's existence. This conversation has been edited and condensed from separate conversations with de Jong and Zammuto. During our interview with him, the latter also finally opened up about the band's demise.
Watch Vinyl Me, Please's new documentary about the Books, 'ALEATORIC,' made in collaboration with Yours Truly.
THUMP: You met in New York originally, right?
Paul de Jong: Yeah, that's where we had our first inventions. We were kind of neighbors, in the same apartment building. Nick's girlfriend at the time was an acquaintance of mine. They came over for dinner one night. We hung out and really quickly hit it off. The next day or so, we were making music together. The first track off our first record—"Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again"—was literally the first track we ever made. I think it took us a couple of weeks, and then we had five tracks, and sent out our demo never thinking that anybody would think much of it at all.
What brought you to North Adams?
De Jong: Nick went to Williams College, which was just one town over. When I met him he was a pretty recent graduate from the college. He always liked it around there, and he'd lived in North Adams, only 10 minutes away. We were just looking for a place where we could have enough space and live cheaply to make music. Nick knew North Adams, so he moved back there and I stayed in New York, and I started commuting.
Was that around the time you started making The Lemon of Pink?
De Jong: Our first record already had released. We went right on after our first record was finished. Right when Nick rented his first apartment in North Adams, we set up [recording equipment] in the pantry next to the kitchen of his apartment. I had a little room in that apartment as well.
A big part of this band has always been in collecting the sounds that you use to make up the pieces. What do you remember about the collecting process for this record?
De Jong: Collecting never ends. I always pick up new stuff everywhere, so by the time I'm done with an album, I have another wall full of tapes and records that need to be digitized. I'm pretty fast on that stuff. When I worked with Nick, I'd listen through everything and cut it down to sample-sized libraries. Nick wouldn't even get full albums unless it was really relevant. I would share a library that you could navigate pretty well.
Nick Zammuto: I was making field recordings all the time. I had this Sony DAT recorder that I'd carry with me everywhere. Everywhere I went, I'd make recordings. We really eschewed percussion in any standard way back then. We were interested in rhythmic sounds that could be created with unexpected materials. The opening of "Take Time" has this mallet-sounding instrument, but those are a bunch of chunks of Kentucky limestone that one of our friends had in North Carolina under years of weeds. We went out there and pulled the weeds, his little daughter just started whacking them with a stick, and that became the opening sounds on "Take Time." There's things like that all over the record. We did a lot of recordings in the forest, too. When the branches of pine trees break off, if you pluck the little stubs that stick out, they have a tone to them, like a thumb piano.
If there's stories associated with all the sounds, when you listen back, do you hear those memories as much as the sound itself?
Zammuto: Oh yeah, absolutely. We always try to make sure that even though we had a specific attachment to the sounds, they could be interpreted in many different ways by anyone who listened. We weren't trying to tell a specific story, but to make a rich mix of sounds that could be read in lots of different ways. It could function as a mirror, rather than a diary—something people could attach their own meaning to.
I have a lot of fond memories from that period. Hiking 2000 miles [on the Appalachian Trail in 2001] cleared out my brain, and I don't think there would've been another way to do it. All of that energy was still coursing through my system back then. Breathing fresh air was really important to me. It was a really nice counterpoint to being on the computer working on these records. That's what I remember: an open airy feeling.
The essay in the liner notes talks about a feeling of solitude in the sounds—is that true to your experiences while working on it?
Zammuto: I think that's the sound of the experience of hiking the Appalachian trail. I was living in LA right before I decided to hike the trail, and I had sort of a massive existential crisis. I broke up with my girlfriend and sold all my worldly possessions and just started hiking. I forced myself to deal with myself in a way I felt I needed to. I wasn't particularly fun to be around back in those days, I don't think.
"We were just doing this little studio project, and we had no expectations" Zammuto said. "It was a really free time, and we were living on nothing."
What do you remember most about actually making the record?
Zammuto: The whole vibe of working on that record was nice. I was working in a little cafe right down the street from where I was living. I was doing most of my work really early in the morning; I remember a lot of really good early morning energy on this record. It was really cold in that apartment, and my studio was in the pantry in the kitchen. It was a tiny little room off the kitchen, and if I shut the door and sat on my electric heater, I could stay warm enough.
I was living with Anne Doerner at the time, who's the guitar player, banjo player, and female voice on that record. We had a really interesting and fraught relationship. She's a very transient person. To this day, I have no idea where she is. She was in my life for about a year, on her way from here to there. Whenever I could corner her and stick a microphone in front of her, amazing things would come out. It was like pulling teeth to get her to contribute, but I was really happy whenever she'd sit down and play for me. She had this amazing fretless mountain banjo that a friend had made for her out of this mountain stump. She's the kind of person who, whenever she does anything, music comes out. It was nice having that energy around, even though she was completely unpredictable.
De Jong: We became this trio that was always hanging out in this apartment making either food or music or both at the same time. That's where we'd spend all day. It was wonderful.
Zammuto: We'd make the good luck food of the south, which was collard greens and black-eyed peas. We had that at least twice a week, and then whatever we could find that was cheap. I didn't eat much back then. Anne was really into spicy things. She thought it had some medicinal value. She was so funny. She doesn't feel healthy unless she has direct sunlight on her skin for at least two hours a day. So even in the middle of the winter, she'd disappear and go take off all her clothes and lay out on a rock and just lay in the sun. It was so bizarre, but she was so convinced that'd keep her young.
I read that the apartment you were living in was infested with squirrels. What was the building like?
Zammuto: They did a huge amount of damage to the structure of the building, so eventually they had to tear it down. They lived up in the attic mostly, but there were these holes on the outside of the building. They'd crawl down the outside of the building and into these holes in the walls, and then would scratch through the walls—like giant mice. I'm sure they did a huge amount of damage to the wires.
It sounds like the experience was pretty intimate. I think you can hear that on the record, too.
De Jong: That memory of great intimacy and friendship and musical kinship. The record was mostly made over winter time, and we were confined to this small space, and everything happened in there, but I never felt there was a lot of tension. It was not effortless, we put a lot of work into it, but I don't think we ever dreaded any chore.
Zammuto: It was a big adventure. We had no designs to tour. We were just doing this little studio project, and we had no expectations. It was a really free time, and we were living on nothing.
Listening to it now, the specter of band's eventual breakup definitely hangs over the record. I was told that this release had sort of repaired your relationship in a way. Is that true?
De Jong: It's like family. You can't stay mad at each other forever. You kind of are stuck with each other no matter what. We're all grownups. It's a relationship that went for more than 10 years, and it was really intense. Every band breaks up except the Rolling Stones. In a way, I'd rather break up rather than destroy each other trying to stay together. I think taking that distance gave us the opening individually to pursue individual projects and find out things about ourselves professionally and personally that we otherwise might not have found out. I think that eventually, on a personal level, we felt the same kind of affection that we felt while working together for so long—during The Lemon of Pink, for instance. If I look at the album, I feel this great affection for Nick that supersedes any feeling of regret I might have. Yeah, I'd say there's a reconciliation.
Zammuto: Losing the Books was like losing a child to me. Maybe not that bad, but it's the most devastating thing to ever happen to me. I suffered, deeply. It happened in slow motion, which only made it worse. I could tell things were falling apart, and I tried to fix them to no avail, and just felt thwarted at every turn. So much of my energy was being wasted that I just needed it to stop. That relationship will never be repaired. The damage is simply too great. I can't work with him again. The really sad thing about it is that I poured my heart and soul into those records. I really lived with them day and night for years in and years out. To not be able to listen to that work and be happy about it is really hard for me.
If the band was still functioning in some way, even if we toured very rarely, I could feel good about the project. But because it ended so badly, I can't derive any joy from it—which is just horrible. It's also hard for me to build upon it, because I lost the name. So I've consciously tried other things to expand what I'm capable of. I always wanted to work with a band and record instruments properly and write songs properly. I had a lot of fun doing that, but it's the samples I really love working with. To go back and try to reclaim that work in a different way after the footprint that the Books created—it's gonna end in disaster.
I feel really shut down by the whole situation, and I have for years. It continues to generate a lot of bitterness for me. I would never blame Paul; it takes two people to have an argument. I don't know what else to say other than that. It was my baby, and it's gone.
"Losing the Books was like losing a child to me." —Nick Zammuto
Neither of you have ever spoken much about the breakup. Could you talk at all about what happened?
De Jong: It's really personal, and I feel it takes away from the stuff that we've willingly released, which is the music and the art and the shows. We've been very careful to keep any personal issues or even artistic issues out of the work that we presented to the public. In a way, I'd like to keep it that way, because then the legacy is the music, and that's what we decided is the essence of our relationship—rather than personal stories. There's some of that in both of our later music that can be found, but I'd rather put that in an artistic form than a biographical form.
Zammuto: I don't want to get in trouble for spilling the beans here, but I feel they need to be spilled at some point. I don't want to express any blame or bitterness, because I think we're far enough out that it's unnecessary, but at the same time I feel I owe people an explanation for what happened. Paul will obviously have his own perspective.
It was an imbalance in the amount of effort that was being applied to the project, and it was like that for years. I took issue with it, and I tried to communicate as much as I could about it. As the project developed, we turned it into a business—and a livelihood, more importantly. Right around the time I was starting a family, I needed some semblance of a regular paycheck. I had expectations that we could do that with our project. Those expectations were just repeatedly dashed. I feel like I communicated my issues in friendly ways, at least at first.
The fact that he couldn't pull himself together enough to make a contribution when I needed him to really damaged my ability to take care of my family, and perplexed me. We had something really good going, and it seemed like a really simple thing for him to sit down for a couple of hours every day and work. But we'd have our weekly meetings, and he really didn't have anything to show for himself. This went on for a long time, without much of an explanation. That started to happen during the making of our third record.
We took some distance from the project after the cycle for that third record had come to an end. We hired a manager to try to bring some kind of accountability to that process, and again, all of those attempts to make a schedule and stick to it really backfired. It became really hard to work with him and I needed someone I could count on. I had a family to take care of, and I couldn't have that kind of presence in my life. It was really damaging to my day to day psyche. It had to end, and in a permanent way. [Editor's Note: After the interview with Zammuto, THUMP reached out to de Jong for additional comment about the band's breakup, but he has not responded at press time.]
Paul said the relationship now is better than it had been, but it sounds like from your perspective, that's not the case.
Zammuto: I don't know how he would know that, because we haven't really spoken to each other in seven years. I've bumped into him two or three times in the last ten years. But he has a family now, too; I don't want to cause him any problems. As long as we're on the same page about how our existing work can be managed, well, that's all I'm worried about.
When you both think back on The Lemon of Pink, what do you feel?
De Jong: I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I hear it. No matter what happened later with the Books—the tension and eventual breakup. When I listen to that album, I think, we've done that. No matter what happens, that stands—like a proverbial brick shithouse. I feel it's an album for the ages. It brings all the qualities of the Books as I enjoyed them over the years together.
Zammuto: I started writing the liner notes three times, and each time I was not happy with how they were coming out. I built a treehouse earlier this year for my kids, and one day I went up in the treehouse and tried to write as directly as I could, to put myself back in those moments and write a first person recollection of what happened, without trying to frame it in any way. That felt good. I felt the joy of making that record again. I'm happy that Vinyl Me, Please is releasing the record. All of those records are still finding their way into new places all the time, which is great. But there's a cloud that hangs over it. It's an open wound and I don't see it healing.
Subscribe to Vinyl Me, Please in order to get a copy of The Lemon of Pink reissue. Vinyl Me, Please will host a celebration of the record as part of its monthly listening series The SPINS at various venues across the country on Thursday November 17—head to their site for more info on those parties.
Colin Joyce is THUMP's Managing Editor. He's on Twitter.