the Books

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

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Jul 30

Thirty Incoming (first half)

Hey All,

This track contains what I have come to believe is the ‘best answering machine tape of all time”.  I remember the first time I heard the tape pretty clearly.  We were in the van, a gray 15 passenger Dodge we called Arthur, on tour in 2006 somewhere in the Midwest.  My wife and I were previewing some of the tapes that we had found during the past week when we first played “30 incoming”.  By the end of the tape we were in tears.  Every voice on the tape so direct, so sincere, sometimes somber, sometimes hilarious… I mean who talks like that?  And yet there it was, totally real and we owned the only copy in existence.

A bit of back-story… It was (and still is) common practice for us (mostly Paul) to enter a thrift store and immediately head towards the answering machine section.  On the 2006 tour it was mostly Matthew Michel’s job.  He was our tour assistant/merch guy/storyteller on that tour.  You might remember him as part of the “smoke ring” encore, where he would, with extreme poetic license, recap highlights from the tour while I blew giant smoke rings out of an altered phonograph horn that Paul found.  Anyhow, answering machines have gone completely digital since the late nineties, but the original answering machines were all analog using standard audio tapes or mini-cassettes.  We would go through all of the analog answering machines and pull out the tapes.  If they wouldn’t let us buy just the tape we would buy the whole machine, take out the tape and give the empty machine to the next thrift shop.  Since 2006 these machines have gone completely out of circulation, so it seems the window for collecting these tapes is over.  Luckily we got about 200 of them.

For the most part the weird beeps and clicks are the best thing about these tapes and Paul saves them in a folder called “beeps and clicks” which is very useful, but every once and a while there are messages on there that are worth saving.  In the case of “30 incoming” everything about it is worth saving.   Of course we have no idea who these people are or how they are related, your guess is as good as ours.  but in a sense it doesn’t matter since what they say is so universally human.

When I first heard the tape, I remember thinking that the “morning after” message was just about the warmest and most sincere thing I’ve ever heard.  I have since been shocked to learn that many people find it to be creepy and uncomfortable to listen to.  There certainly is a “staring into the sun” quality about this sample.  It is so direct, so concentrated, it’s almost too much.  I suppose that’s why people don’t usually leave messages like this.  Like the “Motherless Bastard” sample in “Thought for Food” it works well musically as an introduction since it super-charges anything that comes after it.   The subtext that it creates is so rich, a tacit story is woven into the music from the beginning.

The sound-scape of the answering machine has a highly nostalgic quality that also lends itself well music… the crackle and noise and complete lack of low end represent a voice that has traveled a long distance to get here, and has gotten beat up along the way.  It’s hard to believe that the medium of the interpersonal voice messages has only been around for a few decades.  It reminds me of the writings of Marshall Mcluhan, who is the writer who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”.   He argues that media are a direct extension of our beings and that the widespread adoption of a new medium is an irreversible and unpredictable step in human evolution.  He is worth his own blog entry but for this track i am struck by the power of the medium of “voice mail” to capture such real and concentrated emotional moments and store them indefinitely. 

The music of the track was my attempt at illustrating how real human moments can inhabit these peculiar electronic spaces that we’ve invented. 

I’ll write about the process of recording the music tomorrow, i’m wicked tired from the drive, i don’t think i’d do it justice tonight.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Nick


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