David Berman of Silver Jews: The Lost Interview
Right off the bat, I’m going to openly and officially claim the proceeding interview as a “success“. I’m sure that you will all draw your own conclusions and, most likely, many of them will be different than mine. Many of you will even leave your own comments contradicting my assessment. I probably didn’t ask the “right” questions as you “would have” and I may not have even gotten the answers that you would have wanted to hear but, if this was a Myspace page, I would be posting a goofy ass little emoticon with some bullshit smiley face next to this article that read “Mood: accomplished“. To me it is successful. This interview almost didn’t happen or, more accurately, it ALMOST did happen more times than I could count.
When David Berman formed the group Silver Jews 20 years ago, he did so with cohorts like Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. The production of the early EPs and recordings were extremely lo-fi, with the use of such unorthodox recording equipment as a walkmen and answering machines. By the time the full-length Starlite Walker (1994 Drag City) was released, Malkmus and Nastanovich had already made a name for themselves in the band Pavement and the Silver Jews were wrongly classified by many as a Pavement side-project. Regardless of the facts that the two bands were very separate entities and that Berman was the primary driving force behind the group, David lived with that tag stapled to his forehead for the better part of the following decade. Although Malkmus was again featured on the 1998 release, American Water, “The Joos” were comprised of a revolving door of musicians over their 20 year stint. Throughout that time, Berman overcame struggles with crack addiction and even a suicide attempt. Eventually, he would even make a conversion to Judaism. In many ways, these became just more incidents that overshadowed the work of the prolific songwriter and poet.
2001‘s Bright Flight featured David‘s wife Cassie Berman on bass/vocals as she became a consistent and essential force in the group. After Tanglewood Numbers was released in 2005, David announced and embarked on the first Silver Jews tour ever. I missed it. A documentary about the leg of the tour which took place in Israel was documented in the film Silver Jew and was released last fall by Drag City. Also released last year was the album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which I feel was the best release that I heard all year. They did one more tour. I made sure not to miss that one. This January, David posted an official statement on the Silver Jews forum about his intention to dissolve the band and place Silver Jews into retirement, so that he could move on to different projects. They had one more show scheduled at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee on January 31, 2009, which they played but, after that, it was all over.
You may have read the article that I posted about the retirement announcement here on the site. When I found out the news, I was preparing to send another follow up email to Drag City about some interview questions that I had sent them for David, way back in October. Berman prefers to do interviews via email, but the picture above was taken when I met with him after the Seattle performance on October 2nd. He was very humble and approachable. He was still drenched in sweat from the show and had a Sharpie mark on his lip from popping off the cap to sign autographs. As he signed my copy of “Actual Air” (Open City Books), I spoke to him about how I would be sending him my questions and he responded very positively. Over the next 3 months or so, I received multiple responses from Drag City to my questions about the interview status, but they were still getting lost in the cracks somewhere. I was able to get a hold of Berman through the Silver Jews forum and he assured me that there was a communication breakdown somewhere and offered to answer them then.
Since some of the questions revolved around the future of the band, I reworked them. Unfortunately, due to the breakup announcement, by the time that I sent them back through to his inbox, the forum had all but come to a halt. Clearly, there were a lot of transitions taking place in David‘s life, not to mention he had a big farewell performance to prepare for and, no doubt, other messages coming through and filling up said inbox. About 2 weeks ago, I decided to take one last shot. I printed the questions out and mailed them directly to his home in Nashville with a letter. Fuck it. I figured that it was the best option and I still had the questions sitting in a file on my desktop. Earlier this week I received an email response with all of them answered. Over time, the questions have gotten longer and more explanatory and leading. I sat with them for too long and, through all of the neurotic restructuring, I still neglectfully mis-titled a fucking song from an album that I actually own (don’t worry, you’ll see where. It’s pretty obvious). It’s taken about 8 months since my original contact with Drag City and an equal amount of time since I first posted about the interview as an update in our “Coming Soon” section. Regardless of all of this, I’m still about to publish the final product and it feels pretty good. I hope you enjoy it.
Dead C: Look out Mountain Look out Sea is a great album and I understand the concept of going out on a good note. I have my own theories but, why did you feel it was necessary to make an “official” statement about dissolving the band. Obviously, nobody wants to see another player/coach-era Magic Johnson but the whole Too-Short/Ozzie Osbourne/Jay-Z/Cher repeated retirement scenario is fairly played out in its own right.
David Berman: On the most practical level, if you don’t say you’re done, you’re still “for sale“. Offers continue to come in for live appearances. Symbolically I wanted to distance myself from the music media market, which repulses me. So……
Drag city has a new book of yours listed in the “upcoming” section. I was hoping that you could tell us a little something about “The Portable February“.
It’s a hardcover book of a hundred humble drawings. I don’t really know if it’s appealing at all. It costs $9.95.
When I spoke to you after the last Seattle performance, you told me that you enjoy responding to email interviews because it is one of the only “creative outlets” you have while touring. Having the pointer and easel on stage, along with matching suits, created a spooky evangelical vibe and demonstrated a calculated attention to the visual elements, but you sound as if you draw a distinct line between creation and presentation. Is that true?
I draw the line between being subject and object. I crossed over the line for a couple of years and didn’t really like it. I think too many people want to be the object of interest as an end in itself. It’s kind of the disease of the age.
What has always intrigued me about your lack of performing live, in the past, is how it may affect aspects of your creative process. Bands usually practice their songs quite a bit before recording them but, they also get together regularly to practice for concerts. Once you had written, recorded, and sent an album out for distribution, with no intention of performing it for an audience, were those projects over for you? Have you always liked the idea of sending off messages in bottles or little musical packages into the ether, and has that helped you to move beyond them and on to new projects and stages creatively?
Well I think that the record/tour cycle is just a business cycle, one of production and promotion. It’s pretty easy to see that ‘s not my thing. Business.
In your work, both written and musically, you’ve showcased a remarkable ability to avoid sounding contrived, but I’ve also seen incredibly matter of fact statements made by you like, “This winter I’ll sit down and write an album” or something along those lines. A lot of thought must go into making the final product feel so inspired and I know that there may be some naivety on my part for separating the two concepts so much but, do you usually sit down like you work at H&R Block with the conscious intention to bust out an album or poetry book?. I also wanted to know about your process for writing poetry versus music and lyrics. Are they mutually exclusive or do they often morph from one into the other?
I don’t think i ever existed in a state when i was making poems and songs. It was one or the other and they were just different vessels for the same substance.
Journalists have tended to beat the “new to touring” angle to death, amongst other questions, so I’d like to apologize now for feeling that there may still be some life in that line of questioning. Everyone likes to interrogate you about why you decided to tour or why you didn’t tour etc. etc. etc. What I want to know is if you felt that built up tension when you were starting to tour and if you ever felt like Wile E. Coyote when he realizes that he has run off a cliff and is standing on nothing?
It wasn’t too difficult a thing in the end. It was pleasant on a day to day level. I don’t know if I would have liked it if i’d gone on and confronted empty houses. I would have hated that. But it was rare and so every night was refreshing to the ego to say the least. I don’t think that’s something I wanted to get used to though. It felt good but I’ve had a lot of experience with pleasures that harm.
You’ve implied that you have no interest in seeing the recent documentary (Silver Jew) about your tour to Israel, but it contains a quote that you must have heard a thousand times by now where you say, “It’s like Footloose. I come into town, liberate the feet of the teens“. It appears, that the audiences and fans that you’ve met had an equally liberating effect on you. It’s as if you lifted each other up and were both genuinely surprised by the extreme appreciation of each other. Are these fair assessments to make?
It’s funny I didn’t know I said that, and I’m pretty sure I heard someone else say that in the past, though maybe I’m just catching the barest echo of my own speech. Not only have I not seen the movie, no one has ever told me anything I said in it! Whether I was being original or not I don’t know, but that was how Israel felt especially.
I’m not sure if you identify with being the reclusive hermit that you’ve been dubbed because, I’m sure that you have your own normal life beyond tap-dancing on cue, and you seem to be a fairly accessible and approachable human. Being less of a public figure, however, seems to prompt others to impose their own narratives on your life and interpret it as they see fit. When publications like the Village Voice do things like refer to your fans as “disciples“, it seems like there is an imposed pretentiousness on your character that you have no control of or, at least, have not bothered to control. Have misconceptions and statements ever pissed you off, do you quietly enjoy more dramatic and sensationalized takes on your life, or do you even pay attention to any of that shit at all?
I don’t like stuff like that. It seems intended to embarrass people out of liking my work. I have enough trouble getting people to trust me on my own without that kind of warning off of those who might be curious: “Nothing to see here. Just a cult you are too late for!“
You’ve made very casual comments in the past that people have taken very critically, such as references to bands like Radiohead and My Morning Jacket. Are you ever surprised that the simple comments you might make as an individual in a conversation would rile people up and matter to them so much?
Yes. It’s surprising. It makes me feel like a teddy bear ripper. It reminds me of the recent tea parties. People seem to spend a lot of time defending the feelings of the rich and powerful.
You made the comment in an interview with MusicOmh that you, “don’t want to be like Pearl Jam, taking up space where other younger bands could come through.” “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” was the first song on the last album that really struck me lyrically, with it’s references to the comically ridiculous state of music and culture, but you still seem to have a lot of faith these days in the younger generation. Is there anything that you’ve seen or experienced specifically to justify this hope or, do you have more of a logical optimism based on historical patterns or an idea that the lack of pro-activity in the past will force a reactivity from the future?
It’s probably just wishful romanticism. It’s not even a feeling really. Just an obligation I feel to represent the possibility of something better than what we have going on.
How about your conversion to Judaism? Was that a very calming and organic process or more of an intense climbing with raw fingers to a mountain top for salvation scenario that simply resulted in a state of increased inner peace or understanding?
Judaism helped me to get sober. It helped waken me to political realities I was blind to. In some ways Judaism has jarred me out of an unearned peace and keeps me wary to other people’s suffering. I can’t say there has been a conversion to ritual Judaism. I pray. I continue to read every day. But I don’t have peace.
I wanted to ask you about your, now infamous, suicide attempt but, my curiosity only comes from the fact that I have had one myself. I’d like to offer my experience up for 2 reasons. The first is to help frame my questions appropriately. The second is because I feel that journalism/interviews have taken the one-sided approach of expecting the subjects to divulge their inner souls for possible exploit, while the “journalists” don’t often reciprocate anything, making it feel more like an interrogation than a conversation.
In my personal experience, there was a distorted logic in my mania where, although I didn’t necessarily want to die, I still didn’t want to live in my current state at that EXACT moment. I kind of threw the dice on that one and ultimately was able to cross suicide off as an option and stop viewing it as an “impending result” that was looming over me. It’s a really fucked up and dangerous logic that allows you to spin the wheel like that but, after wards, when I was still hobbling around and the air and trees and dirt were the same non-responsive scenery that they had always been, I realized that I would never hit rock bottom. Instead, I would just be around for the shit or I wouldn’t and all that I could even hope to change was my perspective. For the many years that have followed, it has also been a more sensitive topic for the people around me than for myself; for me it was old news and I felt that I was less likely to attempt something like that than ever. I was wondering how, and if, your experience adjusted your perspectives on life. Do you ever have the most amazing situations, where you do or see something, and think about how you very easily might not have been around for it?
I think suicide worked for me. Whether I died or not, I can’t say for sure. I do know that on the other side of the experience I feel a clear purpose where I lacked any before. I also have no problem talking about it but it really seems to make “the neighbors” nervous.
Although my depression prevented me from wanting to even brush my teeth, it was a very constructive time for me as far as writing poetry and teaching myself to play the guitar. Was there ever even a subconscious fear of losing a creative edge when you moved out of your depression and/or dependencies? Do you have any aversions to anything you created during those time periods?
I wasn’t too creative when I was depressed. To a certain degree I have aversions to everything I’ve created. If I always feel the way I feel today, I’ll never look back at those things.
You’ve made various references to interpreting otherwise simple things as signs. These signals have helped to encourage you to make final decisions regarding such things as altering the production direction on Tanglewood Numbers and to go on tour for the first time, but you insist that these responses are not superstitious? Do you feel that these signs are simply the result of what Confucius refers to as “yielding” and of putting yourself in tune with the world around you?
Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it.
Actress Mary Elizabeth Ellis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is also a huge fan of yours and I promised that I would ask a question for her about the song “Send in the Clouds”. She wanted to know what “Soi Disantra” meant and, based on numerous forums I found through a google search, she’s not the only person that will be happy to find out the answer to that question.
Soi-disant means “so called”. the line before it mentions monsters. the singers are calling themselves monsters, but then adding “so called!” . Even in calling myself and Steve monstrous, I had to undercut it, to avoid sounding self-important. It was the tendency of the times.
Do the lyrics “I Love You to the Max” from “Punks in the Beerlight” have anything to do with Wesley Willis?
No. Wesley Willis didn’t cross my radar in the years when i would have been open to him.
On the Dime Map of the Reef EP you have a song called “Walnut Owl” which you have said was originally also being kicked around as a possible name for the band. Do you remember any other names that were toyed with and, are there many fictional origins that you’ve claimed for the name “Silver Jews”?
Walnut Falcons, I think you mean. We played one show under the name War Comet. But i got stuck with Silver Jews pretty early on. I never liked my name growing up. Berman. Sounded like burp. German. Sperm. So not liking my band name was a familiar feeling.
How about yourself; have you ever given yourself a rap MC name or a CB handle of some sort?
You’ve referenced the days that you and Malkmus worked at the Whitney Museum of art but have also stated that you worked in a morgue when you attended UVA. Did you find any similarities between the two?
Yes. I think you get the picture!
The albums that include Stephen show obvious points of collaboration and Cassie’s vocal and musical contributions add a lot and compliment the songs nicely. Over time, however, the Silver Jews lineup has shifted around quite a bit and your voice as an individual artist has gotten stronger and more prominent. How did you approach collaborations and has it changed over the years?
I found near the end that to be the most difficult part. I don’t think I’ll collaborate on art again. It’s a good thing for young people.
I don’t think so.
Thanks you so much for doing this. We try to make conscious and focused efforts to avoid the “assignment” scenario and to only do interviews with artists that we actually listen to regularly and respect. It is truly appreciated. I look forward to seeing where your work takes you and where you take your work.
Thank you Christopher, sorry it took so long. im typing this to you from the newspapers and periodicals reading room at the library of congress.
Albums like American Water and Bright Flight have fallen into an elite category for me with the likes of Liquid Swords (GZA) and Remain in Light (Talking Heads). These are albums that I can and have listened to excessively but never tire of. They actually get better over time. If I were to compare Berman‘s lyrics and songwriting to a film, I’d have to equate it to “The Big Lebowski“. I can easily hear one of his songs 20 plus times before a lyric might pop out at me for the first time. They’re subtle and they creep up. The layers unfold slowly but, when they do, they hit hard and quick like an epiphany. David made a reference in a Pitchfork article that perfectly summarizes how I view his work:
“Like this example of Arby’s: Spending 30 years aware of this company name , and in one second, it can be revealed to you that the name is “R.B.,” and it stands for roast beef. The name a-r-b-y holds within it this reference to beef. If someone didn’t know what Arby’s was, it would just look like a name or whatever.“
Although Berman has created a catalog of work with an, arguably, inherent timelessness, many have expressed feelings of disappointment about his decision to leave the music world. I’ve always thought that it was ridiculous to project expectations and disappointment on those who you only know as public figures. It’s clear that people have a tendency to define themselves by their possessions. They also define themselves by the titles that they hold. When someone is traumatized and goes through severe tragedy, one of the hardest things to do is move beyond the damage and view themselves as they had before it occurred; to become more than just “someone that (blank) happened to”. They have become damaged themselves and their identity can easily be drawn from that. Many people even identify themselves through others. You may view David as a “writer” or a “musician” or.. whatever. I’ve had the feeling that David views himself as an individual who, although he may write, create music, etc., is still the individual and not the creation. That belief has been strengthened for me through this interview. The reason that I was so interested in conducting it in the first place is because my questions came from a genuine place and I knew that he was someone who would provide genuine answers.
David is not dead. It may feel that way to those who can only identify him through his past and his contributions through music but, as he stated, there are “different vessels” for the “same substance“. If you are one who is selfishly mourning what a stranger has refused to continue to provide for you, you should probably chill the fuck out and get a grasp on your perspective. In reality, he hasn’t even retired and plans to continue producing work available for public view. He doesn’t seem too comfortable being idolized and, if he did, I doubt that I would have had any interest in him or his work from the beginning. My guess is that whatever he produces in the future will be for all of us, as much as it will be for himself.
David’s book “The Portable February” will be available June 23rd through Drag City Records
The photos below were taken at the show in Seattle @ Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room on October, 2 2008
(click to enlarge)