After he dropped the word “catapult” into his song “IO,” Nick Zammuto decided to take it over the top. He spent $600 on lumber at Home Depot and built a giant medieval-style catapult in his Vermont yard to film a video, delighting family and friends by launching objects hundreds of feet. Then he loaded up a birthday cake.
“That was my favorite moment of the year,” he says. “[The cake] went straight up in the air and couldn’t stand the G-forces and just broke into a million pieces and rained frosting… I know those kids will never forget it as long as they live.”
Zammuto loves to experiment at the home he shares with his wife and young sons on 16 acres of mountain meadow just over the Massachusetts-Vermont border. He’s built devices that play spoons or project laser patterns through speaker vibrations. And he designed a simple tool that calibrates where to gouge lines across a vinyl record’s usually quiet end grooves so anyone can create beats for automatic playback.
But the most far-reaching innovation for the co-founder of defunct New York collage-pop duo the Books was the creation of Anchor, Zammuto’s second solo album, recorded in the studio that he built in a tractor garage across his yard.
It’s a haunting yet playful, largely electronic album that casts warm shadows through Zammuto’s less-manipulated vocals, analog gear acquired through fundraising for the record, and live drums by polyrhythmic ace Sean Dixon.
“I tried to turn my studio into a microscope for sound,” Zammuto says from his rural homestead before his namesake band embarks on an East Coast tour that hits Great Scott on Nov. 7. “It’s very focused and very quiet, and there are no distractions. I don’t have the Internet out there. I don’t have a phone out there. I just create an environment where I get totally sucked into the detail of things.”
The microscope analogy comes naturally to Zammuto, 39, who double-majored in art and chemistry at Williams College. “I’m a scientist—that’s what I am at my core,” he says. “I was going to be a research chemist and got halfway through my thesis before I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life under fluorescent lights, working for a corporation.” So he shifted to visual arts and became involved with music by working on sound sculptures. “Music was a really late development, sort of an accidental career,” Zammuto says. “It was really unexpected that people liked what I was doing, but it encouraged me.”
Growing up in Andover, Zammuto certainly enjoyed music. In middle school, he began frequenting the library to borrow records by Ornette Coleman, Weather Report and Kraftwerk, already gravitating to experimental and electronic music as well as Fugazi and Primus. “Now I listen to music mostly for production,” he says, citing Brian Eno and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich among his inspirations.
“With Anchor, I wanted to do something darker and quieter,” Zammuto says. “As I get older, I’m not into the frenetic stuff.” The September release still ranges from the sparse, atmospheric tracks “Stop Counting” and “Your Time” to the schizoid garage-pop swinger “IO,” the bass-wound “Need Some Sun” and “Code Breaker,” which bubbles over tricky time changes that evoke early ’80s King Crimson.
He recorded the album mainly by himself, playing synthesizers and some guitar and bass and developing ideas through trial and error. The New York-based Dixon joined to counter electronic rhythms with acoustic drums, and the band’s filled out live by Zammuto’s brother Mikey (bass) and Nick Oddy (guitar, keyboards).
“There’s a bit of retrofitting that goes on, but Anchor was really meant to be played live, so the four of us can really cover everything,” Zammuto says of his group, which often plays to synched videos. He describes himself as “the man behind the curtain. I have a lot of stuff going on that keeps everything together.”
Just don’t expect the same formula for his next album. “I don’t want to repeat myself,” Zammuto says. “If I’m systematically losing my audience because of that, that’s OK. I just need to get by.”
Zammuto plays Great Scott on Nov. 7