the Books

A blog by Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong of the band 'the Books'

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Jul 23

I Didn’t Know That

Hey All,

We finished I Didn’t Know That pretty early on in the process of making ‘The Way Out’.  For a while we didn’t know what to think of it. 

One of the greatest jackpots that Paul hit in his sample hunting was the hi-hat part in this song, which came from a very rare record that he found on our 2006 tour (I think).  It was clear to both of us that, although it fell outside of any ‘genre’ that we had previously been lumped in with, it was extremely strong and had to be used on the record.   

For the record, I dislike cymbals.  You may have noticed that they almost never appear on our records, which is perhaps part of why our records fall outside of most classifications.  Like a cloudy day, cymbals have a way of drowning out the light in a mix.  By washing over the high end details (or air) of the other elements in a mix, most of the fine detail that i love so much about sound is sacrificed, the number of possible ways to listen through the mix is highly diminished.  There is certainly a time and place for the wall of energy a crash can provide (like in ‘All You Need is a Wall’), but I don’t find use for them very often.  Hi-hats are a bit more tolerable since they can be opened and closed, and can stay out of the way and still give a strong forward momentum.  I love this sample for that reason.

The real break-through for this track was with the Hebrew Stenographysamples.  You often hear musicians say that there is melody in the spoken word, but i find that the literal content and syntactical meaning of the words really hampers my ability to hear spoken word simply as a sound.  It’s an almost zen like epiphany to hear voice just as sound because it takes such tremendous energy to suppress it’s syntax.  Carefully listening to foreign languages is helpful for this.  Hebrew is not a language I speak (i’m embarrassed to say that i’m land-locked in English), so it was easier to hear the melody in Hebrew.         

There was a man’s voice and a woman’s voice on this Stenography record that Paul found, the woman’s voice has a particularly lyrical quality.  He took the sample and erased all of the spaces between their words so that they were talking really fast.  It sounded great so i took them and very carefully aligned each syllable of their speech with a corresponding up-beat or down beat of the Hi-hat sample, to further rhythmasize them.  Then I took each syllable and tuned it to the nearest semitone in the C# scale.  It turns out most syllables are untunable because they are intoned up or down, comprising ultra short glissandi, or they are sibilants or plosives, and are in-effect unpitched.  But a certain fraction of spoken syllables fall cleanly within a single ‘note’,  and their distribution within a given sentence is very ‘funky’.  In fact i’d like to propose a new definition of the word ‘funky’:

Funky: Adj. having quality similar to the distribution of evenly intoned vowels within vernacular speech.

That’s where all of the melodies in the song come from.  you can hear it most clearly in the A Capella breakdown in the middle of the track.  I know this all sounds terribly nerdy, but it took like a week of listening to nothing but Hebrew stenography to discover this, so give me a break.  This is serious research.

I learned how to play all of these melodies on my guitar and re-recorded them so I’d have the Strat version, which you hear scattered throughout, mostly at the very end. 

The muted bass-line was actually played on my Strat, by tuning the low E down to a C-sharp, and playing with my palm resting on the bridge to dampen the sustain. In fact, the second set of our live show is focused around a C# tuning, so when you see us retuning during ‘Meditation’ that’s why.  I like muted guitar strings for the same reason I like hi-hats, they give a nice attack and then get out of the way to keep the mid-range from getting clogged. 

Paul also wrote a great Cello/Guitar line (he’s got an old SG) based on the syncopation within a brushed-guitar improvisation that I recorded with Kelli Rudick, but he wrote it in D, so I had to figure out a way to modulate to it.  It sounded strange at first but it’s really grown on me.  


We also made an extended ‘jam’ section using what we realized to be the quintessential white-female version of James brown.  She’s the one who says “Me! Wow, Unbelievable!” etc.  

"Thought, you have to stretch it very hard and it’s as hard as a brain" 

Tomorrow, ‘A Cold Freezin Night’, although I’ve written about it a bit before there’s a lot more to say about this track.



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