Paul de Jong
Paul de Jong’s first solo album is both a bit more than a year, and a bit less than a lifetime, in the making. IF, which will be released by Temporary Residence Ltd at the end of April, is the product of flurry of writing and recording that took up much of the last year for de Jong. Some of the foundation was laid before that, however. “There are a lot of ideas on this record that I had started maybe a couple of years ago, but most if it I did on the spot,” he notes. In that time beforehand, de Jong was doing a lot of sketching in sound, listening to source materials, and digitizing samples from his sizeable collection.
It would be hard to overstate Paul de Jong’s accumulated library of recorded materials. In the town of New Lebanon in upstate New York where he lives with his wife and family, de Jong rents a space in an old abandoned mall into which he is moving his entire studio. By his estimate, there is roughly 50 feet worth of eight-foot-high shelves in the space that are taken up by his VHS tapes alone. “The kind of stuff that informs my work…really needs a lot of space,” he understates. “One thing about living out in a small town is that kind of space comes at a fair price.”
New Lebanon is not too far across the state line from North Adams, Massachusetts, the town where de Jong once resided when he was still working with guitarist and vocalist Nick Zammuto in the wildly inventive duo, the Books. IF arrives roughly five years after their final album, The Way Out. Though it is de Jong’s first solo outing, he had some help from local musicians that he recruited to aide in his endeavors. “There are a handful of musicians that I work with who I actually met in this town,” he recalls. “They moved to town to farm and do jobs two or three years ago, and they are all musicians.” These musicians have contributed to IF in the form of drums, guitar, background vocals, and even cello, despite the fact that the cello is something of de Jong’s primary instrument.
“It was really wonderful to have these people live next door, and to be motivated to contribute,” de Jong says, considering whether working with local friends made the creation of the album feel more personal. “These are young musicians who are very open-minded. It was really nice, during the process of writing a song, to be able to send them a text and say ‘hey, do you have an hour, like, today or tomorrow’, and they can come right over.”
The way de Jong organized these impromptu recording sessions, oftentimes the musicians wouldn’t actually know what kind of music they were laying tracks down on. Instead, de Jong would give them a verbal description of the music, as opposed to having them listen to the material itself. Geography was somewhat key to this kind of spontaneous, unorthodox approach. “I have plenty of colleagues who are great artists in their own right, but they don’t live in my town.”
Once again drawing from the local labor pool, de Jong had not one, but two assistants last summer who were tasked with digitizing his aforementioned archive. At the end of several months of work, the assistants had a stack of hard drives with 2,500 videos that de Jong hadn’t seen. For instance, when it came time to make a video for IF’s first single, “Auction Block”, de Jong says he picked out one hard drive that had perhaps 600 videos on it whose titles were ordered alphabetically, and he “didn’t get much farther than the letter A.”
It can be hard to wrap your head around how much time and effort it would take to amass a sample library that numbers in the tens of thousands “that are all cut and named”, according to de Jong.
He does not exaggerate when he plainly states, “I’ve collected my entire life.” Indeed, it’s hard not to read a double meaning in that observation. Starting by collecting spoken word LPs when he was a kid, he later began to collect spoken word samples on MiniDisc when he lived in New York City in the late 1990s. He would often sit with two VHS recorders and two remote controls, going through all sorts of tapes, and if he found something he liked, he would rewind to go back and record it. This had become a serious habit around the time he began working with Zammuto, and picked up especially when they started touring. “Five thousand VHS tapes are faster to collect than you think.”
“The collecting thing is tradition, it runs in the family. I had a grandfather who was a great collector of antiques and books. He loved to go to flea markets and find this really rare stuff for next to nothing, and my grandparents’ house was completely stuffed with really precious, unique finds that all had a story…. I think that story in a way was more important than the object, the object was just kind of a reason for a memory.”
For de Jong, collecting has always been more about the human element than the materialistic element. “It’s like human interaction. Objects are, for me, like human interaction. Often, these sounds that I’m working with are voices from the past, and this is the communication that we make, between me and those people who recorded it. They are people who are no longer around, or maybe they are still around but I’ll never meet them, and so this is the interaction.”
When de Jong was five-years-old, his parents gave his older brother and sister a sound system for their room, and, feeling that their youngest should have something as well, gave him a radio with a little record player on top, along with a box of 7-inch records to go with it. At the time, they couldn’t have possibly predicted where this single gift would lead. “I can tell you that my fascination with all aspects of the sounds that I work with now, [it] all has roots in those 7-inches.”
Even at that young age, de Jong’s record collection was out of the ordinary. His father was a doctor, and one time gave him a 7” record of the sound of heart murmurs. He also brought home tiny promotional records from pharmaceutical companies, Reader’s Digest advertisements, some classical music, and “Love Me Do” by the Beatles. The little record player was unique in that it played not just at 45rpm and 33rpm, but also 78rpm and, notably, 16rpm. “You play a 45rpm [record] at 16rpm, and it slows down, and it gets so low. I was completely fascinated by that. I mean, that just opened my ears to a world that I could so totally relate to. I was sold, you know, that was it. Never, ever went back.”
Mostly forgotten today, 16rpm (technically 16 2/3) was in use in the post-war era up until the 1970s for recordings of books for the blind, or, as de Jong points out, for transcription purposes. “16rpm really doesn’t exist anymore. It was mostly for advertisement records – tiny, tiny little records, sometimes they would even be printed on postcards.” He even once came across a little Nazi propaganda record pressed in that speed, “maybe 4 inches across. It had on one side a 16rpm song, and the other side had some speech. [I] had it once, but then lost it.”
After looking at the album’s title a few times or more, it is hard not to see something in its capitalization; as in “a big if”, a significant uncertainty. IF being a first solo record by one half of a very distinct, much-beloved former duo, feeling some pressure of expectation, internally or externally, would be understandable. That wasn’t really the case for de Jong, however, who says he kept it under wraps for long enough. Preferring to quietly work away at first, de Jong wanted to prove to himself that he could see the project through. “I didn’t approach Jeremy DeVine at Temporary Residence with a demo until I was good and well two-thirds into the record. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this.”
In certain ways, IF will be both immediately recognizable and subtly surprising for fans of the Books. The restless tinkering, the counterintuitive genre dot connecting, and the piquant potpourri of vocal samples have all carried over. Still, it’s hard to think of a Books song as spare and swooning as “Age of the Sea”, one of the earlier pieces de Jong composed for the album, which consists of little more than a bass and cello in 5/4 time, both played by de Jong and nestled in ambient cushioning. “Purpose”, which follows, is similarly spare — a gentle keyboard lament adrift in the rustling wind. In many other places, however, there is so much going on that it is easy to miss the oddity of certain details.
“It’s a little bit like the inside of my head, really,” says de Jong. “I draw from a really vast collection of samples, and moving images, and still images, and sounds. It comes together in really unusual ways, and the thing is that I don’t really have a method for anything, and I never have.”
Likening his process to “kind of trying to invent the wheel with every new piece,” de Jong claims that there is no unifying concept that stands at the basis of what he does, but that it becomes somewhat recognizable because ultimately his work is rooted in fairly traditional musical styles. He was a classical musician, but early on, he was also interested in getting hands-on with electronic music. The concept of editing as an artistic tool appealed to him. If he was to be accused of having one particular style, he says, it would be an interdisciplinary collage style.
That claim is more than backed up by “Auction Block”. In trying to visualize how the music made him feel, it gave him a sense of “weird Americana”. That’s where the song’s use of country fiddle and the voices of auctioneers came into the picture. To get the final results, de Jong took a much longer recording of an auctioneer, and then whenever the voice hit the right pitch or the right action, he cut down to that point. Doing so made the sampled voice instrumental, and the specific language not really matter, though the source was still very clear. What he wanted from the results was “hopefully nothing you’ve ever heard in music at all. In a way I guess what I hope to achieve is to make the completely unfamiliar immediately acceptable, so that people feel immediately at home with something that actually they are completely unfamiliar with.” If he achieves that, he says, then he’s pretty close to reaching his goal.
On IF’s second single, “This Is Who I Am”, the song starts with a less whimsical vocal snippet: a man repeating harshly, “you made a fool out of me.” The frantically spiraling minute of “Snakes” goes even darker: “you stupid this, you stupid that.” It turns out, de Jong reveals, that “Snakes” comes from a sermon that was at least an hour long. “I hope that my humor is not mistaken for anger,” de Jong explains, “there’s no anger.” Less noticeable among all the fiery preachers and remixed cattle auctioneers that populate IF is the use of de Jong’s own voice, which pops up once, in the background of the title track. While he isn’t yet entirely comfortable and reconciled with his own singing, he finds it easier to work with his speaking voice.
True to the nature of his creative process, de Jong is already thinking about the next album. “A good few pieces that I started composing for this record, I decided to abandon because I saw [they were] not going to fit in…there’s already a stack of stuff to start on the next record.” Before that, of course, comes his duty to setting IF off on the right foot, and he is also looking into the logistics of recreating it live. On top of all that is a somewhat related book project that has been in the works for while as well.
“About two years ago,” de Jong explains, “what I did is I transcribed verbatim all of these fragments and these phrases that make up my sample library. So there are all these fragments, partial phrases, phrases, little stories, from 800 different sources or more.” When it was all written down, he had almost 500 pages, which he is now starting to edit into readable text. Driven by the hunch that the literary content aspect might be really interesting, he notes that they are “sometimes very funny, sometimes very moving.” A great many of the samples that he has transcribed have long sat unused in his archives, but the book might become something of an Easter egg hunt for Books obsessives. “If you read the whole thing, you’ll find texts that you recognize from somewhere. There are some cross-references there.”