the Books

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

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Jul 28

All You Need Is A Wall

Hey All,

This is a pretty cryptic song:

and if its a wall
then you should cast a shadow
maybe possibly
it’s a thought you think is true
when you appear to be
belief, belief

i never loved a wall so much

asleep in a chair
where the two go click

look at the floor
flat pattern order
it’s the great power one receives
from a very modest source
and you don’t feel a thing
when you drink from the springs of living water

asleep in a chair
where the two go click

Despite the apparent impenetrability, the lyrics of this song have a very clear origin for us.  Some years ago Paul found a recording of a radio interview between an American journalist and Donna Williams, an Australian artist and writer who had debilitating autism throughout the first decades of her life.  We both immediately fell in love with her voice and her way of speaking; she speaks from a very internal place (I suppose because she has no choice) and it is a rare and beautiful thing to see words used so honestly.   She became very well known internationally with her book “Nobody Nowhere”, which is an eloquent first-hand account of what it feels like to have autism.  She says in the opening pages “This is a story of two battles, a battle to keep out “the world” and a battle to join it.”

I don’t have autism, but I can really relate to this.  That’s part of what makes her writing so brilliant.  She’s a raw nerve.  Somehow autism gives her an extreme sensitivity to the basic existential quandaries that we all have.  The feelings of alienation and “perceptual chaos” that we all experience are so all-encompassing for her that she is forced to deal with them directly in every moment.  What I might experience as “generally sucky” she might experience as a “battle for survival”. 

As I’ve written a bit about before, my experience of extreme and constant alienation led me to leave everything behind and hike the AT in 2001.  I think I did this so that the “battle” could take place without distraction and away from others to avoid dragging them into it.  (I was annoying to be around at the time.)  The hike became a way of diverting a crisis that I felt coming on for many years.  It did what i hoped it would, and I still think about it every day. (thus i bring it up.) 

I remember it hit me very strongly one day about three months into the hike:  Opposites arise from the activities of the mind…hot and cold/up and down/empty and full are created out of the desire for one over the other…the most basic dichotomy is existence/non-existence… in every given moment I’m choosing one or the other… and that’s what life is… the desire to exist is perfectly balanced by the desire not to exist.  you want some things, you don’t want others, that’s what keeps things moving: “a battle to keep out “the world” and a battle to join it.”  I suppose the deeper epiphany is being able to maintain an awareness of this process, so that longer term work can be achieved.

I think with autism, these overarching dichotomies collapse quite naturally, which can be both freeing and deeply disconcerting.   The sensory parts of the brain are sufficiently detached from the survival parts that the sky can just be blue (without a desire for it to stay that way or rain, whatever the case may be).  To just experience “blue” or just hear language as “sound” is an ecstatic state but you can’t live there all the time without becoming “annoying”.   

When writing the song I was thinking about the feeling of falling into this state and catching myself before going too far.  I think there’s something universal about that feeling of wanting to escape but holding back.  The first verse is a direct allusion to “Plato’s Cave”, which to me is the greatest image we have suggesting our concept of existence is deeply flawed.  The second verse is more of a description of the ecstatic feeling of coming out of the “cave”.  The chorus is the dream state in between, where you’re neither here nor there, but work is being done nonetheless.   

I recorded the electric guitar line here in my studio, and most of the rest of the instruments were recorded in London with Drew.  I recorded the acoustic guitar part on Nigel’s guitar (a magical guitar that I’m not allowed to talk about), and Paul recorded the string parts on his arpeggione, which sort of looks like a six string fretted cello.  (maybe he’ll write a post about it).  I had the vocal melody from the start but the lyrics were the last thing to come.  It often happens that I’ll just sing nonsense words over a chord progression to find nice melodies and worry about the words later.  I finished writing the lyrics here at home while reading about Donna Williams, and recorded them in my studio one night last summer.  I use a pair of AKG C414B’s large format condensers to record most everything these days.  Sample wise there is a great string swell from Paul’s library that we use repeatedly in the chorus section.  The very spaced out string sound in the end is a fully wet recording of Paul improvising on his arpeggione through Nigel’s reverb box. 

What’s up with my voice in this track? you might ask.  Suffice it to say, I always wondered if singing high was an innate talent (like James Mercer from ‘The Shins’) or whether it was just a matter of practice, like doing a back-flip: scary at first but surprisingly easy.  It turns out it’s much more of the second thing.  It also seemed in interest of the message of the track to have the voice dwell in it’s extremes, describing a somewhat displaced state rather than hanging out comfortably in the center of it’s range.

thanks for reading, tomorrow: 30 incoming.

Nick


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