The Anniversary

Thought For Food Turns 20


“Aleatoric,” a sampled voice intones amidst crystalline chimes on “Read, Eat, Sleep,” the second track on the Books’ 2002 debut album Thought For Food. “Aleatoric. Alea-toric. Aleatoric,” others dutifully repeat, testing different pronunciations and emphases. The first voice — possibly the host of a spelling bee — uses the word in a sentence: “By digitizing thunder and traffic noises, Georgia was able to compose aleatoric music.”

Aleatoric music, as you might be able to glean from context clues, is music in which elements of the composition are left up to chance. Fittingly, the Books’ music itself is often called aleatoric. Composed almost entirely of Nick Zammuto’s guitar, Paul de Jong’s cello, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of esoteric found sound and field recordings, it might seem as random as digitized thunder and traffic noises: sound and fury signifying nothing. The gag, though, is that nothing in their music is really left to chance. Every non-sequitur vocal sample, every banjo strum and violin note, every percussive pop and click — everything is precisely organized according to some strange logic known only to its creators. It might be nonsense, but it’s perfect nonsense.

There’s a bit of DJ Shadow’s majestic sampledelia and the Avalanches’ transcendently goofy plunderphonics and maybe even some post-rock in the Books’ cut-and-paste aesthetic. The Books sometimes got lumped in with “folktronica,” the faintly ridiculous label applied to Four Tet, Caribou, and other early 2000s acts mixing electronic beatmaking and acoustic instrumentation. Moving away from pop music and into the realm of the avant-garde, the Books’ music took cues from the sound collage approach of Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète. But even if they can be placed in a vague lineage with other historical movements and contemporary trends, the Books didn’t emerge from any discernible scene or tradition. They were and always will be singular artists who sound like no one and nothing else. In some ways, Thought For Food, which celebrates its 20th birthday today, feels quaint and old-school: electronic-based music with a resolutely analog mindset, an exercise in digital crate-digging that preceded the peak of hyper-online information overload. In others, it still feels decades ahead of its time.

Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong met in 1999, introduced by a mutual friend who realized that they were living in the same New York City apartment building. De Jong invited Zammuto to dinner and played him some of the field recordings that he’d been collecting in a stack of minidiscs. Two weeks later, they had their first song together: “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again,” which would become Thought For Food’s opening track. “I think in that first track, almost all the elements are there,” de Jong told NPR in 2010. “The found sound and our instruments and the fact that we recorded pretty unassumingly in our apartments with the window open and you hear a crow in the background, and it all becomes part of the music. I think that created our sound right there.”

Their work would continue to evolve over the course of the next decade and three successive albums, but all the elements really were there right from the beginning. Indeed, one listen to “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again” is probably enough to tell if you’re on the Books’ weirdo wavelength or not. Zammuto’s guitar harmonics lead into sounds of golf and tennis on television, rhythms made from tactile ASMR-esque sounds, bird calls, a rant from a court TV show, and dialogue from an obscure Russian film. Somehow, it works. It sounds oddly accessible, even beautiful. “Just by placing two disparate elements next to each other, they immediately start a conversation as your brain tries to wrap itself around their relationship,” Zammuto says. “And I think it’s your mind itself that creates that relationship in a lot of ways. And that’s what the music is about, is the ability of the mind. … Given any two things, your brain will fill in the gap, and we’re always interested in how big we can make that gap before it falls apart.”

That juxtaposition of disparate elements to create surprising connections — and ultimately, meaning — is at the heart of the Books’ work. They sample daytime television one minute and a Jean-Luc Godard film the next, and both are given equal weight. It doesn’t matter where a sample originates. It doesn’t necessarily even matter what it’s saying. In some ways, their songs feel more like sculptural objects made of sound than traditional music as we think of it. “It’s very much like cut and paste poetry,” de Jong told Pitchfork in a 2003 interview. “As a child I was drawn very strongly to the collage art of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Fluxus. Written or printed words never stood alone; many artists invented ways to append visual and theatrical dynamics to their literary roots and came up with a sum exceeding the parts … It’s like listening to a painting. When I’m reading poetry, I hear it. When I see a street sign or a banner, I hear it, and almost automatically start rearranging words on the basis of aural connections I make. It’s hearing what I see and seeing what I hear that unveils unexpected meaning, humorous or profound, from the raw material.”

What’s easy to miss when discussing the Books’ music is how unpretentious and funny it actually is. The samples are always in conversation with each other, and they often hit like absurdist punchlines. The opening of “Motherless Bastard” is a priceless black comedy skit that segues into one of the record’s most straightforwardly beautiful and emotional compositions. “All Our Base Are Belong To Them,” one of the most moving tracks on the album and the only one to feature non-sampled vocals, is named after a dumb early internet meme. “Contempt” recontextualizes Brigitte Bardot’s sexy dialogue from Godard’s 1963 film of the same name into a dry conversation between two men recited with all the passion of reading a phonebook. Really, the Books’ greatest magic trick might have been their ability to ride the fine line between humor and pathos, wackiness and profundity, without settling definitively on either side.

That’s a delicate balancing act, and the Books weren’t always successful. Thought For Food is a singular, surprising, and often transcendent piece of work, but it is by no means a perfect album. The squelchy “Mikey Bass” and “Deafkids” are more interesting than they are enjoyable to listen to, and “A Dead Fish Gains The Power Of Observation” is a blessedly brief one-note joke that almost threatens to stop the album’s momentum dead in its tracks. Zammuto and de Jong would arguably go on to greater things with 2003’s The Lemon Of Pink, continuing to experiment with non-sampled singing and slightly more conventional song structures before calling it quits in 2012 and pursuing separate solo careers. But there’s an innocence and a purity to the simplicity of Thought For Food that will always remain. “How do you do? Welcome to the human race. You’re a mess,” says a voice sample on “All Our Base Are Belong To Them.” Thought For Food is the best kind of mess — a beautiful, devastatingly human one.

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