Swinging Modern Sounds #66: The Library of Babel


Richard Wagner had a word for the total work of art, as you probably know, gesamtkunstwerk; the term was intended to refer to a work that united all the arts in one spectacular production. In the modern era, you see efforts to do this in film, in the multi-sensory hyperstimulation of contemporary film, though there are still operatic and theatrical impulses along these lines (Robert Wilson would seem to be one example, or the Living Theater), and there have been theorists, like Artaud, who have tried to chip away at the idea.

I have always felt there is a related concept, the total artist, the worker in the arts for whom no part of life is uncontaminated by the creative impulse. She can be walking down the street on the way to pick up her dry cleaning, and somehow this activity is indivisible from her artistic activity. He can be sitting around in the house reading a book, and this is part of his artistic practice. These artists often seem to be working in a very synergistic way, able to rationalize and fructify kinds of activity that are normally considered outside of the realm of artistic activity. John Cage was really good at this (mushroom gathering!), at finding a way to theorize in which non-musical activity is musical; Andy Kaufman was great at this (The Great Gatsby!); La Monte Young has been really good at it; Yoko Ono has been good at it; Marina Abramovic is perhaps a very good contemporary example; Kenny Goldsmith is a prime literary advocate for these kinds of ideas in poetry and online.

Is there a good example of the total artist in rock and roll? Brian Eno might be an example, because he is a systems guy, often trying to put into place musical systems that don’t require his constant input, but which can generate content without him (see, e.g., 77 Million Paintings). Merzbow, Boredoms, some of the other great noise artists of the last twenty years get pretty close, wherein the work and the non-work meet, close in on each other, creating an environment in which the listener has to be alert to daily life, for the possibility that the work under scrutiny and daily life are very similar, such that the work teaches us things about how to listen to daily life. The Lou Reed of Metal Machine Music? The Linnell/Flansburgh partnership that had the dial-a-song 900 number back in the day? Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices?

I want to propose a fine recent example of the gesamtkuntsler, the total artist, in Paul de Jong, the cellist, composer, collagist, archivist, and former member of the band The Books. I was a particularly enthusiastic fan of The Books, at least of the first two albums and, to some extent, the third, called Lost and Safe. And the reason that I liked The Books was because their fusion of acoustic music, of music made by musicians playing old-fashioned acoustic instruments, and laptop music, struck me as particularly unusual, surprising, and beautiful. Whereas a lot of laptop music can sound a little anaerobic and not terribly expressive, and whereas a lot of acoustic music can feel sentimental, or so hemmed in by historical preconceptions as to have nowhere to go, The Books managed to transcend each of these pitfalls, creating music that was very musical, full of musicality, without ever seeming sentimental, in the meantime preserving an experimental impulse that was exceedingly clever, joyous, and enthusiastic. They didn’t really sound like anyone else. DJ Shadow was doing similar things with samples, and then there’s Cut Chemist or J. Dilla, but those examples are so hip hop as to be thoroughly unrelated to The Books. For me, The Books were sort of the best band on earth for a period in the oughts.

The Books, however, did not last. There was a really good, weird experimental project Music for a French Elevator (which really was music for a French elevator), and then a last album The Way Out, wherein you could tell that the band was already driving the principals, Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, apart from one another. It was eleven years they managed to work together, longer than The Clash lasted. Why complain? For me, the later albums by The Books defaulted in one important way: they were less reliant on found vocal samples, which strongly motivated the early work. The Lemon of Pink, the band’s masterpiece, was almost entirely dominated by found samples for the vocals, and the assemblage of these obscure vocals, with their particularly strange obsessions (religion, philosophy, and spirituality often dominated). But by the time of The Way Out, Nick Zammuto was finding more reasons to sing. And, apparently, to write lyrics. It’s not that Zammuto was a bad lyricist, or singer; I just felt like the vocal samples were spookier, more universal. It all became a bit too obvious if the reason for The Books was to express Nick Zammuto.

Zammuto, when the band broke up, went out and formed a band called, well, Zammuto, and while this band preserves some of the impulses of The Books, it also sounds suspiciously like songwriting at times, with a rhythm section and stuff. And songwriting, at least for me, is destined to disappoint, or to fall into the dangerous sentimental tendency, at least if your indisputable accomplishment at some earlier point was the album called The Lemon of Pink. Zammuto, by now, has released two albums, and they are aren’t bad at all, and if all you want to engage your originality detector is some seriously chopped up beats, and melodies that float over the top in a way that isn’t so rooted to traditional harmonic development, then you will like these albums.

Paul de Jong was curiously silent during the breakup of The Books. Nick Zammuto didn’t entirely hold his tongue, and de Jong didn’t avail himself of the opportunity to settle differences. The people who really loved The Books, however, were waiting fervently for the moment when de Jong would tip his hand. That moment finally came in April 2015, when the long-awaited solo album by de Jong, as they say, dropped, and in no way did it disappoint. IF, the album in question, sounds more like The Lemon of Pink than anything produced since The Lemon of Pink, and the insane archival impulse that made the early albums by The Books unusual is back. The album combines this archival impulse with some really beautiful instrumental playing, with great drumming and rather thrilling guitar passages, and cello. Paul de Jong’s album IF is one of my favorite discoveries of 2015. It’s both old and new, funny and sublime and totally listenable all at the same time. As a solo debut, it’s fabulous. Few things have satisfied me as completely lately.

I was, therefore, really excited to try to find a way to talk to Paul de Jong, and I harangued his publicist until I got an invitation to go meet de Jong, in upstate NY, east of Albany, near the Massachusetts line, during the period where the hideousness of winter 2014 was still in evidence. I was told to turn up at a certain shopping center in the question, and to go up some stairs in the shopping center next to the Chinese restaurant. I could hear the cello being practiced from a distance, and so I just followed the cello. And after going through enough doors that my transit was a lot like the Get Smart title sequence, I was in the Paul de Jong media library. Where the samples come from.

I cannot quite explain to you the vastness of this library. It was, I should stress, about twice the size of my entire apartment, and this perhaps explained why Paul de Jong lived in this somewhat obscure upstate berg: more square footage for a lower price! He had just moved the studio out of his house, into this office suite, and here he managed to employ some youngsters whose sole mission was to help him find and store obscure samples for his work. He had racks and racks of obscure vinyl and CDs and cassettes (they’re back), and lots of video, and this enormous collection (in scale it was not unlike the WFMU music archive, which I have been lucky enough to gaze upon a couple of times) was not only all purchased by Paul de Jong, in what must be the most intense thrift store habit of anyone you have ever met, but some enormous portion of them have been listened to by Paul de Jong. To reiterate: this library does not contain, or did not from what I could tell, any copies of, say, the Rolling Stones oeuvre, or the complete works of The Replacements. Paul de Jong kept stressing to me that he didn’t want anything mainstream, as if this were the kiss of death. So this was an entire library of recordings of spielers blathering on, evangelists, and yoginis, and Paul de Jong had spent some significant portion of his life bearing witness to all this blathering, looking for the brief moment of grace that would, in the old days, go into The Books albums, and which now served as the raw material for IF.

Paul de Jong is a great cellist (you can go online; there’s good video footage), and he can read a score (I saw some in his office), but this doesn’t fully describe the Paul de Jong artistic mission. The Paul de Jong mission declares, from what I can tell, that, texturally speaking, or taxonomically speaking, everything is music, or could be, and that recordings of music (so disliked by John Cage, in a rare example of Cage failing to see where he might have capitalized on a theoretical approach to composition), or even recordings of evangelists and yoginis, are instruments in the theory of music, or performances of music, and the songs follow the incorporation of this material; the songwriting is this theoretical activity I have described, the thrift store/tag sale habit, the listening to evangelists. The samples don’t decorate the music, the samples generate the music. And, if this is all true, what I’m describing, there doesn’t seem to be a moment when Paul de Jong is not being the artist who makes this music, which means he is a gesamtkuntsler.

The interview that follows here, which, believe it or not, is missing the first ten minutes, because I had a technological failure with the recording device, is lofty, intense, ethereal, funny, and complex, and it is all these things because of the total artist aspect that comes off of de Jong. He is funny, wry, skeptical, but also very serious, ambitious, and thoughtful. When I was there, he was also working on videos for songs from IF, which of course he makes himself, and which are sample heavy in ways that are not at all unlike the album itself. Try this one, which is labor intensive to an almost mind-boggling degree:

The work is consistent, across genres, and it has a certain kind of pathos to it that just is who the guy is now. If we were talking about Paul de Jong in light of the writing of C.G. Jung, we would say he was completely individuated at this point. He knows exactly what he does and how he does it, and the path is clear before him, and he produces this work as a total product of who he is. It’s just exactly the kind of artist I would like to be when I grow up. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.


The Rumpus: Can you track a particular sample on IF for me? Like, for example, the track “Snakes?”

Paul de Jong: The cruddier the better! I’m probably the only one who goes to this kind of length to save a sample because I think there is still, you know, most likely something of beauty, interest, and humor here that gets me going and it makes it a building block for composing music, making something new. Pastor Cymbale is the man’s name, which is already fantastic. “The Hardest Thing in the World” is the title of the sermon. With a lot of public speakers, their uncertainty about the content increases the volume of the delivery. Self-confidence goes down, volume goes up! They reveal a lot of what’s not being said in the tone of their speech. A lot of them have a key word that they ride until the poor horse is as dead as can be! It gets funnier every time. It’s humorous because it’s so revealing; it’s not entirely fair what I’m doing to them but, then again, what’s fair, really? So there is the tone of voice, the quality of speech, the quality of the recording itself, the time-stamp that the recording delivers. In this case a cassette. It places the recording in three decades of the past century. If you’ve been there, you know it. All these qualities—if they work well together then the recording has potential. I need the composition to make those connections. It’s got to sit comfortably and everything has to be able to connect. No loose ends.

Rumpus: Does that mean in all cases the composition, the song, is driven first by the sample so that the music is accompaniment for the sample or does it happen in the reverse too?

de Jong: I’m an entirely non-exclusive composer. Meaning that there are no methods and no rules. I create methods, I create theories, and I’ve created rules in order to help technically or compositionally. I change them at will; any rules are a directive aid to facilitate rather than to obstruct… unless you need obstruction! Then, it serves it purpose. So yes I sometimes pick—I wouldn’t say at random—frivolously and just try things out. And sometimes I create very intentionally a harmonic structure that I start out with.

I try to avoid one thing to be the accompaniment of the other. I try to avoid that; it’s all right if something has a role but that role ought to be able to be questioned during the composition. Roles shouldn’t be particularly clear. In the song “Snakes,” for instance, the music gives the pastor the drive that he wouldn’t otherwise have. I created the rhythmic motive of the music, before I introduced the sample into it. But, you know, one of the central activities of everyday is I sketch.

Rumpus: You mean with the cello?

de Jong: With the computer, with video, with sounds. I have a lot of busy work creating and constantly building on the sample library and looking for the stuff. So, yeah, I have little notebooks that I scribble in. If words pop up or I read something (and I love to misread stuff), I usually write it. That’s one of the great things: if you walk into a thrift store or in a book store and you read the spines of the books and there is a title that pops up and you’re like, “What was that? What did I just read?” and you completely misread the title. It’s just so much fun.

Rumpus: So, when you make a sample like the “Snake” sample and it becomes the piece, is it still important for you to retain the cassette and retain the sermon in its whole form for the purposes of the collection, or are you done with it now?

de Jong: I’m done with it. Yes: I’m done with it! I keep it for reference. I also keep it for, well, maybe that guy will come back later in another piece. Also, when I started my sample library, there were things I omitted. So, the process is as follows: you buy a cassette, you put it in a box that says “to do” (laughs), and it gets digitized. Then you have forty-five minutes or an hour-long sound file. Load it in, listen through it (I mean, I’ve got a backlog that cannot be finished in this lifetime but, so be it). I listen through it for wherever I hear something that I find juicy. It’s very intuitive. I don’t listen to everything word for word because it would drive you nuts! You can’t do anything else! While I work on something else—some other busy work—I have the cassette going on my computer at the same time. I’ve got a little antennae going for when something happens! I stop it and take a marker. I drop two markers at that beginning and end of the fragment and think “Yeah, that I’ve got to keep!” The rest you kind of don’t want to deal with anymore. Anything in between the markers, I just delete. I keep an original raw, digitized file on my hard drive. So then I end up with a long file with all these fragments back to back. It’s what I call a digested version of that whole cassette, that recording. Well, when you listen to that, sometimes a cassette doesn’t yield more than three words (if that!) or just a little cough, or a microphone “pop,” something like that… answering machine cassettes. I have just unbelievable amounts of beeps!

(Both laugh)

Or people just saying their telephone number! If that’s the most interesting thing I could get from it. Sometimes it’s just a little bit of noise. I’m not going to go back and look for more. So, usually when you listen through the entire digest, which might be thirty samples, thirty fragments, fifty fragments, two fragments, you almost get the gist of what I find essential in a literary way or a musical way; you get the gist right there. And then I already see, “Oh, I can combine this source with this” and can already create something out of it, so then the sketching begins.

If I’m really inspired I move aside what I’m doing at that time and I’ll just sketch for a little bit and see if “Oh, that sounds like something I just cut a couple of days ago! Or a couple of years ago!” And so I’ll sketch it. If it works, I’ll put it away and give it a name. So, I’ve got a nice backlog of attempts that don’t go much further than a kind of first try or second try. So, when I start a composition I already have a lot of little beginnings that really don’t have much of a middle or end at all and, sometimes, if I improvise on my cello or keyboard or what have you, it will evoke one of those other fragments that’s already kind of a kernel of something, and that gets put together. There can be a the whole snowball effect there.

Rumpus: On a song like “Auction Block,” was the folkish string melody there something that you composed to go thematically with the auctioneers? Or was something you were tinkering around on its own?

de Jong: Tinkering. I guess I try to create snakes that always bite their own tail! But sometimes it’s already biting in the middle while it’s being worked on. You know, there’s a segmented snake. This is all juggling but it’s sort of slow-motion juggling. If you’re driving a car and you’re going seventy-two mph and it seems a little too fast, it only takes a few miles slower to offer a lot more control. That’s sort of how I work. My daughter is seven years old and she has a chorus teacher (eighty-something years old); I was sitting in on her voice lessons recently (and I was singing along) and I realized again that I have a terrible voice! I don’t know how to control it; it seems like an out-of-body experience when I sing. It’s all wrong! I didn’t grow up with traditional singing at all. The instructor told me a very simple thing: if you have to hit a high note, aim low; if you have to hit a low note, aim high. It’s the same thing! So, you asked something…and I am in the process of answering it. Oh, “Auction Block”! So, those auctioneers came in fairly late.

Rumpus: How many auctioneer samples are there on the track?

de Jong: Two.

Rumpus: Just two?

de Jong: But they’re really cut up. If heard them by themselves and tried to make out what they’re saying, you wouldn’t understand a word. I cut them right on the rhythm that I already had composed. So, basically, where the downbeats are I had to kick them in place on beats of the music that was already there. And I think the first auctioneer was a little bit slower than the tempo of my music and the second one was a little bit faster so I had to tweak quite a bit. Also, I had to deal with the pitch. The pitch has to kind of really work with the music so sometimes, of course, they go off-pitch because they’re very unruly auctioneers. So you just throw out a couple of words until you hit the next pitch that works. The thing is that the style of these auctioneers is so distinct that it still communicates: anyone who knows it, it has immediate recognition. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. I wonder if there are people who really try to figure out what these people really say. A good auctioneer is incredibly witty. And at break-neck speed! It’s great to hear.

Rumpus: One thing that really interests me about the thing is how the percussion works on this album. There’s so much really incredible percussion. Is it a live drummer or a sample of a live drummer?

de Jong: It’s a live drummer. There are three instances where I used a live drummer, a young guy from town here. I’m such a lucky guy; there is a group of recent college graduates from the Amherst area who moved to this town in their early twenties (I think they’d just completed their BAs) and they flocked here because one of them comes from this town. It’s a funny place, this town, because it’s kind of decidedly a wasteland (a cultural wasteland, so to say). It’s kind of a thruway, this town. It was one of the first interstates in the United States: Route 20. Originally, it flowed toward Boston, I believe? I’m probably wrong. But it’s one of the first roads that also went to the Midwest. These twenty-somethings came because there’s a farm that was available that’s on land owned by “The Abode of the Message,” which is the headquarters of the Sufi community in the United States.

Rumpus: Wow.

de Jong: And it’s right here up the road! The Sufis, decades ago, bought half of the whole Shaker village here. They own and operate in, say, five to ten Shaker buildings there. The other half of the Shaker village is owned by a private school called the Darrow School, which is a boarding school.

Some of these youngsters who came to town operate that farm so they’re great idealists but also very practical idealists. Some of them are musicians. I started with two of them: a guitarist and a drummer.

I started just improvising, and we had this trio. One of the music styles that I’m least practically versed in as a player is jazz; I really don’t know much about it. I also, really, don’t know it from the inside. I don’t have a real, deep understanding as a player of jazz. I was interested in starting to improvise with this attitude: “I’m just going to improvise with what I think jazz might be.” I don’t know what I was doing but that was my attitude. So, that’s what we’re doing. It’s great fun and new things come out of it. It’s all an attitude. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is; you can have outrageous concepts and might get something out of it that has nothing to do with the concept.

Rumpus: So, that next-to-last song with the awesome guitar solo on it, is that you all playing? Because that has drums on it, too…

de Jong: Right. So, I started playing with them at the same time I started working on the record. Roughly, it took me all year: I started in February last year in 2014 and I delivered it December 1st, meaning it was done by November 1st or something like that. So, eight months, I believe it took me, which is reasonably good because it takes me about three weeks per piece from beginning to end. So, I asked these guys first if I could record each of them individually for just forty-five minutes. I think that’s where I got the guitar solo from (out of those forty-five minutes). I gave the guitarist some parameters. Make sure that if you play open, your notes ring out so that I can cut. Try to ring out before there’s too much dissonance, because that’s really hard to combine if you’re working with a harmonic structure.

Rumpus: Yeah.

de Jong: I gave pointers. I told them not feel restricted. Sometimes, again, a little rule can open you up. So I asked them to do an opening improvisation and, within the forty-five minutes, I found what the drummer did: he started really soft and he built and built and built! That I used in its entirety for the piece, “If.” I placed that drum solo in there and I went through every attack in time that he did and if the attack sounded good to me, if it sounded right, I just knocked it into place so it’d be on a beat. If there was a mishap, I just threw it out and moved the whole file a little bit up, a beat up, and went on to the next beat. And that’s how, in essence, that whole drum part was cleaned up without really taking the life out of it, without taking his style and his elegance and his build-up out of it. I tried to change as little as possible. You clean it up as much as you can, as little as you need.

I recorded with two mics and a bass drum. I don’t have many mics, only a rudimentary recording technology that I work with so the bass drum didn’t sound particularly appetizing. So, I cut out all the bass drum hits and just replaced them with a regular orchestra drum that I had a nice recording of and I kind of mixed that in. With good mixing, you can place that well into the spectrum of the rest of the percussion so that it sounds convincing. I mean, it might sound completely outrageous, but, you know, it’s the art of making the completely unfamiliar sound instantly acceptable. Then Spencer, the guitarist, also did a session freely on guitar for the penultimate piece on the record, “The Art of What.”

For the sample at the beginning of that track, the assistants here were digitizing cassettes and I just walked in for this or that and I overheard—there were six computers going at the same time—and thought: “Juicy! I’ll take that!” So, I just milked that computer of that file, took it home from the studio, and immediately started working with it.

So, I had that sample that I think goes from A to G harmonically and I asked Spencer to do one free improvisation with just A and G in mind as harmonic progression and then one where he actually has headphones on and locks into the rhythm. There was maybe twenty-five minutes of material there and I did, of course, everything to it in cutting to make it into what works best for that piece of music. So it’s not exactly how we played it but, on the other hand, it’s very much how he plays! It’s his personality; it’s all there.

Rumpus: A lot of people have already compared this album to The Lemon of Pink. It’s a record that I really love a lot. When I heard “Auction Block,” I sort of had that feeling also—that it seemed idiomatically related to The Lemon of Pink. Do you feel that way about it?

de Jong: Yes, it is who I am. I think we saw many good days as The Books but the great days, for me, (and that might be very individual; that might be a personal thing—Nick might have different preferences) included the making of The Lemon of Pink. The way that came together and the understanding that we came to within our music were really great. I feel very warmly toward that album. Where the first album is still sort of a haphazard, you know, burst of creativity, The Lemon of Pink has this warmth of greater understanding and greater control of the material. There is also the great luck we had to work with Anne Doerner, in that time, who was just about a third member of the band.

Any relation that there might be between The Lemon of Pink and what I’m about to do is purely unintentional; I truly have not thought about it. It’s part of me and it’s where I like to be. As an emotional state, it’s where I like to be. There’s great pleasure in what I do—in what we do— so I think all that does reflect in what you make (boundless curiosity). In the past weeks, I’ve been making videos for the singles that are coming out.

Rumpus: I saw the “Auction Block” one.

de Jong: Right, I made what they call a “teaser.” That sounds so pornographic to me! I made this full-length video for “Auction Block” and now I’m working on one for “This Is Who I Am” and, after that, I have another one to go. I’ll probably eventually use the derivative of those for the eventual live performance that, at some point, might be there. I’m making video and I’m realizing that it feels so much easier than making all the music. Here I am and I made a video in, like, three days whilst any piece of music (any, no matter how simple it seems) takes me three weeks! Maybe the work is two days on a little piano piece and then I need two weeks to agonize myself to shreds and, in the end, change nothing!

But, you know, you do what it takes, which made me realize: why is it that video feels so much easier? Well, it’s because it’s not my profession and then I realize that “wow, if I just can bring that kind of ignorance—that blissful ignorance—that I bring to making video and bring that into music making where you think everything to death.” Yes, it is important but, on the other hand, it’s just music. Really, it doesn’t harm anyone. Even if it’s bad! So, if you think of it that way and you bring that attitude to it, it really matters less.

I’m always trying to find methods to uncomplicate a complicated thing or a complex thing. So, it had something to do with something… what I was saying.

Rumpus: Would it be accurate to say that some of the uncomplication with this record is to be located in that not having to collaborate?

de Jong: Of course! Absolutely. It took me a few years to have the confidence to just work with myself. In a collaboration, you may know that you have some technical weaknesses and you may believe that your collaborator can compensate for that. When that collaboration ceases to exist, you end up noticing that the problem was never actually solved within yourself. There are neglected areas. Now, those things are easily reacquired or acquired but you have to address them and, before you can address them, you have to identify them. You have to think about how the collaboration actually worked. That takes time; it takes emotional time. It’s a great comfort to have a healthy collaboration. I disagree with this notion that it’s almost like a marriage. It’s not! It’s much more ruthless emotionally (a working relationship). You’re not conceiving a baby, you’re constructing a baby.

I did not feel this rush of creative energy coming out of being on my own. And I also didn’t want that. I didn’t want to ride that kind of wave that can be fueled be anger and unresolvedness. So it took me a little longer to come to an understanding. I think it’s wonderful to collaborate but I have never in my life learned from myself as much as I have in the past year making this record.

I had a hunch that I was in the right place; it’s not like I was being idle those last few years but there was dramatic emotional, professional, and personal development in my life. It’s like if there’s something physically out of whack then a woman isn’t able to get pregnant. That’s kind of the way it is: if something is out of whack then maybe the baby should wait, you know?

Rumpus: Is it odd for you that everyone is sad about The Books? As a huge fan, I was sad about The Books. Nick seemed to be sad about The Books, and you’re sad about The Books, too. Do you regret the way it all happened or do you see it as the thing that had to take place to get you to this period of maturation in your own music?

de Jong: I see it as something that had to happen. I mean, of course, it was devastating for years, you know. What is probably devastating is to realize that when you’re in something like that, you have such little control over situations. Not even that: you don’t notice you have no control over situations; you don’t understand anything at all. The level of immaturity you can dwell in at an advanced age is staggering! And that’s only thinking about my role in it! I don’t even understand what went on in Nick’s half because he must’ve walked around with the same questions that hit me. And many more! What do I know?

That was also the state of things that made us so creative (the understanding). We don’t even know how we listen, individually, to the music that we make together. It’s because we’re different people; we have different, horrible frames of reference.

(Both laugh)

That would be a good record title…

You feel sad but, at the same time, you know that we have this really fine thing that we’ve done so, there’s that. So you know that it’s really okay, what you’ve done. Also, no matter how emotionally radical and financially radical, it was just a difficult break up. But I think it was an act of artistic responsibility to call it quits. You don’t want a situation that you can’t control or resolve or even steer in any way to seep into your artistic output. Just walk away because you’ll regret that so deeply.

Rumpus: There’s the famous Lou Reed remark about when he fired John Cale from The Velvet Underground. He said something like “Everybody says the friction produced the great work but I felt like the friction was just painful, and why should I have to live with that?” Is it a similar situation in this case?

de Jong: Great work produced the friction. And the insecurities! It’s something that I realized then (and I realize even more now), you’ve got to make what you make to please yourself. You’ve really got to be addicted to your own work; never come to hate it. Never deny its existence.

Then you give it away and see what happens, and, if there’s some universal tastiness in it, that’s great! You can’t factor in the unknown; all you can do is have a fully open mind, as much as you can. Almost anything in life is a constant battle against fear. Expectations create fear. Communication creates fear. Do you really know what someone else means when they say something to you? Or what their intentions are, at least?

Rumpus: I don’t mean to pry on this stuff, so I’m going to move on a little now, if that’s okay. So you might tour with this material?

de Jong: This is only one record, meaning there’s only forty minutes of music there. I don’t even think, necessarily, that every piece on the record should be performed live. I don’t know that, in every setting, every piece would work very well; I haven’t been performing with a group since The Books dismantled. This has been several years. We already saw, after our first and only hiatus with The Books (which was between Lost and Safe and The Way Out) where we didn’t tour for a couple of years and decided to, you know, redeem the relationship through work which, I think was the best thing we could’ve done. Then we called it a day. But, at least we tried.

We already noticed once we went on tour for The Way Out that a lot had changed in the world of clubs, performance, and college performance. There were a lot more bands on tour. Everybody had a show. This is partially due to the decline of record sales. Or someone theorized that it’s the decline of record sales. There were a lot more indie bands, seven days a week in any given city. Only a few years before that, you know, you go to Knoxville and The Books are the only show in town on Friday night or Thursday night.

Those days are gone. Now the guarantees would be lower. So, you have to budget your tour accordingly. If there is an unknown factor as regards income then the amount of musicians and personnel has to be limited. It’s economics. Now, I don’t know really how this record is going to do, but, yes, I would love to go on tour. I know exactly how… I know more or less how. I’m taking my time but I have an ideal setup where there are five musicians on stage and I can absolutely orchestrate everything in any way I want. You know: a guitarist/bassist, cellist/bassist is me, a percussionist, a drummer, somebody who can play drums but who can also play vibraphone, for instance, a keyboardist who can also trigger samples, a violinist who can double on viola and on rhythm guitar so that you have specialized musicians who can also overlap with one other band member. And that can be found, I know! But these are experienced musicians because there are some complications here and there. Also, if I have to rehearse with a band for three months, I really don’t have time for that.

Rumpus: So, here’s the last question. Why’s the record called IF and why is it both letters capitalized?

de Jong: It’s capitalized probably because it’s typographical…

Rumpus: It looks better on the cover.

de Jong: No, it’s not on the cover. There are no words on the actual record.

Rumpus: I don’t have an actual copy!

de Jong: On one side of the LP, it’s handwritten “Side One” and that’s it. And the rest—all the words and the credits and everything—is on easy peel stickers so you can take them off.

(Both laugh)

So, it’s a sample (IF). It’s a sample from another LP. It’s an LP that’s like a sermon from the 1960s or ‘50s, even, an unbelievably beautiful record cover that I fell in love with immediately. I’ll see if I can find it, all right?

Rumpus: All right.

(While searching for the LP, de Jong: “Things are particularly hard to find because of sheer volume.”)

(After finding it)

Rumpus: Wow!

de Jong: That is a real design to be envied!

Rumpus: I might have to take a picture.

de Jong: Yeah, yeah! So, of course I wanted to use that. I’d love to put it on a tee-shirt; it’s so incredibly beautiful.

Rumpus: All right, so now we know that, partly, the title is an intertext but what about its literary properties?

de Jong: It’s like in Lost and Safe, it hints towards stuff that is one step further out. You think, “That can’t be what they meant” (like Lost and Found, Safe and Sound). It can’t be the first step, so what if? There must be something but what if there’s nothing behind it?

Rumpus: Meaning you want to leave it open-ended and that’s part of its property that’s attractive to you.

de Jong: The graphic design is wordless; it’s almost blunt. You know, it’s a crossed-out Sharpie kind-of block thing. It doesn’t have any association standing on its own. As a singular entity, it’s starting to relate to the music on the record and it becomes two things. That’s what I don’t want. I want it so open-ended that it goes straight into the music and that’s that. No obstructions, nothing there. You’re just walking right into the music and you don’t have to think “Oh, if! Let’s sit down and think about that for an hour and see how it relates to all that music.” Not at all! It’s a very low threshold; that’s all I want. It’s not like some kind of funky picture that I have tens of thousands of or quirky photo because it already becomes a thing of its own. It becomes an entity that then becomes bigger than it ought to be. It’s about the music! So I really wanted a title that, all it does is, opens a door.

Rumpus: That’s a really good answer.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →