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Homesteading: Nick Zammuto on Composing, Decomposing, and Life after The Books

By Doug Benidt

After pop polymath Nick Zammuto ends his current US tour at the Walker on November 10, his thoughts will undoubtedly turn away from the stage and toward the definitiveness of winter as he readies his land and homestead for a season that “gets a little hairy where we are in Vermont.” Sure, Nick’s revered as a genius musically and found critical success with his previous band, the vaunted acousti-lectric collage duo The Books, but I’m interested in the life he’s forged in the rural wilds of the Green Mountains in southern Vermont and his synchronous view of making art and living off the land (and grid). He was kind enough to share his thoughts with us from the road between gigs with his latest self-named band Zammuto.

Doug Benidt

I imagine you’re already thinking about what prep you’ll need to do at home before winter arrives. How do you ready the property?

Nick Zammuto

We live near the top of a ridge in an eastern slope so nor’easters tend to dump snow on us. In 2010 we had more than four feet on the ground during February. Apart from putting the garden to bed and mowing the fields—about 10 acres of meadows—I spend many evenings cutting and chopping firewood. We heat solely with wood and need between three and four cords to stay warm. This year, our neighbor was harvesting lumber and we bought about 40 “junk” trees from him. That’s wood that’s too gnarly to be milled and needs to be cleared to let straight trees grow. That amounts to about three years worth of heat, so I’ve been busy chainsawing, axe-splitting, and stacking that pile. It’s a good workout as well as being a release of mental tension from long days in the studio. Chopping wood is extremely therapeutic. It’s a chance to crush the heads of my enemies, so to speak.

Benidt

I, too, have a bit of land and do the tree-felling, chopping, etc. Aside from the unnerving physics of the tree actually falling, I find the rest of the process is great for longer thoughts. This may seem silly, but are you occasionally composing while chopping?

Zammuto

More like decomposing. Chopping is a kind of full-body percussion, except that you end up destroying your instrument, splitting it in half again and again, only to eventually vaporize it for heat. Winter-related activities are very death focused, and I find composing has this death force within it as well. When the process begins, there are a staggering number of possible outcomes, and as it progresses those possibilities are pruned. It’s as much a subtractive process as an additive one. When you’ve got an axe and a pile of wood to chop, there’s a strong element of fate involved. A raw collection of sounds produces a similar feeling of fate when I listen through them and imagine the possibilities.

Benidt

Tell me about the duality of living remotely (both notions) while being an artist in the sweep of the digital age.

Zammuto

I’ve always been drawn to music that sounds like it’s moving backwards and forwards at the same time. I think my obsession with polyrhythms stems from this need to reconcile elements of life that move at vastly different rates. Not to be too grandiose about it, but our collective future seems to hinge on finding a balance between the world we create with technology and the natural world we evolved from. I think music is a great way to investigate the more spiritual side of this dilemma. We try to find the best of both worlds, and imagine ways they can coexist.

Benidt

That’s interesting, perhaps a bit Buddhist—the concept of simultaneity of time within sound. And given that idea, what are you hearing or hoping we hear in the track Yay off your latest recording?

Zammuto

Creative destruction. When the Books finally died, it was extremely painful and there was a lot of pent up energy that I needed to expel. There were new freedoms to explore as well. It’s a very transitional record. Now that the new band has fully formed, my outlook is already quite different. The raw potential of the musicians I’m working with is much more my focus now. I want to write music that they can create and destroy with, so to speak.

Benidt

You’re a composer/producer but you also sculpt and create ingenious instruments and gizmos like DIY lasers. And given your location, it’s easy for me to imagine you contemplating a bone, wood, and sinew synthesizer. But I understand your home studio is a blend of digital and analog?

Zammuto

Yes, through studying the visual arts and doing years of carpentry on our own house, I’ve developed a keen interest in manipulating readily available materials. Walking through the aisles of hardware stores is always an inspiration. Certain objects seem to suggest uses far outside of their intended use, and I try to do what they suggest has to be done. I also like tools, both physical and digital, since they open up a creative space to jump into. I think the whole band takes the idea of “playing” music to heart—that it’s a way to express freedom and joy within a certain structure.

Benidt

How have the seasons and sunrises—the natural rhythm of the days—impacted your composition or process?

Zammuto

I have three young kids, so that means we’re up with the birds with little time to waste. My most creative hours are in the morning, so I try to work on music while the boys are at school. Then I spend the afternoon working outside and playing with the kids. Then in the evenings after the bedtime routine, I often go back to work doing more visual work or open-ended experimentation. Winter is a great time for recording and detailed sonic work, plus snow removal. The warmer months are our time to grow food and build stuff. The local saying goes, Vermont has four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. After living here for nearly seven years, it pretty much holds true.

Benidt

So the phrase “woodshedding” holds two very real meanings during your winter days. But I think the focus allowed by the cessation of summer and growth is important to the creative process. I’ve often thought that’s one of the reasons the Twin Cities has such a vibrant music scene: plenty of winter to work on music.

Zammuto

Yes, I literally work in a woodshed all winter. I think the idea of the “woodshed” is to have a space away from others so you can work unselfconsciously. I soundproofed my space not to keep sound out, but to keep it in—so I can play loud anytime, day or night, and not bug anyone. In fact, I never work with headphones anymore. I’m a shy person, and I need a lot of time to exhaust possibilities before I find the right path through a composition.

Benidt

What are you listening to lately?

Zammuto

At home, my boys are on a Paul Simon/Police kick. And my middle son is a dancer and prefers the Bee Gees. Anything by Gillian Welsh, and the kids’ albums by Elizabeth Mitchell and Johnny Cash are staples. I occasionally check in with pop radio to see what’s up, but that never lasts long. To be honest, I don’t listen to much music while working on my own records.

Benidt

And how do you go about sharing your wealth of musical understanding with your kids? Do you surreptitiously leave instruments and classic music about the house, or do you guide their listening and playing?

Zammuto

I’m very wary of musical education, particularly for composers, and I’m a strong believer in self-teaching. Luckily, my sons all possess a strong inner drive and playfulness. I’m simply there to encourage them and provide the materials. My middle son, who’s 3 1/2, picked up guitar recently, and without any prompting wrote his first song. It’s about owls, and he calls it “Talon.”

Benidt

The idea of an artist living and creating in (beautiful) seclusion is a naturally alluring one, but what’s not readily apparent is the very hard work that goes into realizing that utopian ideal.

Zammuto

Yes, it’s easy to idealize, but maintaining a homestead requires commitment. My wife is an extraordinary partner, mother, and brilliant gardener, and it was our collective intuition that brought us here, not so much any kind of intellectual ideal. We designed and constructed our own house, which was a huge risk and adventure, although seeing our sons born in the rooms we constructed is our most cherished experience. We’ve got our roots down and it feels good.

Left to right: Mikey Zammuto, Sean Dixon, Nick Zammuto, Gene Back

Photo: Matt Day

The Zammuto homestead in winter

Photo courtesy the artist

A summertime view of Zammuto’s house

Photo courtesy the artist

Two of Zammuto’s three kids, Asa (inside) and Sepp (outside, with cats Truck and Lobster)

Photo courtesy the artist

The Books: Nick Zammuto (center) and Paul de Jong (right) with Gene Back

Photo courtesy the artist

One of his many inventions, Zammuto dubs this one “a poor man’s laser show”

Photo courtesy the artist

Six lasers aimed at mirrors are mounted on speakers, which vibrate with sound, creating patterns on the wall

Photo courtesy the artist

Nick Zammuto’s self-portrait (with woodshed)

Photo courtesy the artist

The interior of Zammuto’s woodshed/studio, a refurbished tractor garage

Photo courtesy the artist

Zammuto’s son Sepp poses with his Fisher Price Record Player