Q&A: David Berman of The Silver Jews

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 BY ED KING Since founding Silver Jews with with college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, songwriter/poet/cartoonist David Berman has rolled stoned, gathered a little moss along with a rotating cast of indie-rock contributors, hit rock bottom, toured the Promised Land, saw the light, and built an accomplished body of earthy, intelligent work. Over the years, as the band’s recordings moved from lo-fi to a matte finish country rock, Berman’s deep, wry, downbeat delivery remained a constant. In 2006, after years of not touring and surviving the lowest point in his personal life, Berman took Silver Jews, including his wife Cassie on bass, on the road for the first time. The tour would take the band as far as Israel. June saw the release of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City), the title of which refers in part to Berman’s restored eyesight following a cornea transplant. In the liner notes Berman supplies tablature so we can play along with the album and, if we’re not already hip to it, realize that the music is ours, not some complex mystery.

PHAWKER: What are five songs that might ease the suffering of your local jukebox?

DAVID BERMAN:berman10.jpg
“Long Hot Summer” – The Style Council
“A Few Things Different” – Kenny Chesney (trust me on this one)
“Borrowed Angel” – Mel Street
“Rainy Day Woman” – Waylon Jennings
“Moments in Love” – Art of Noise
 
PHAWKER: You’ve worked with a shifting cast of musicians. Do you have your next set of recording musicians in mind while writing? How much do you expect the musicians to execute your visions for a song vs how much you expect them to shape the song?

DAVID BERMAN: Some songs find me specifically coaching, but in those 5 to 10 days of practicing the songs in a circle,  the band even criticizes itself or I’ll ask them what they think if x does y. There is some negotiation among the players and then there is the amount of figurative talk I’m feeding them about the song. I’ll try to explain the setting and mood with comparisons or correlations in the leadup to the first practices or as we go along. Until the basic tracks are down nothing is finalized, and so I never have to be stuck with a player’s part I don’t like. Not to mention they are all very smart and fluid, and one way or another “get me”, so a lot of this just happens silently and invisibly.

PHAWKER: You include the chord progressions for the songs on your new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. What secrets will be unlocked when I start playing along with the album?

DAVID BERMAN: Well for someone who has never taken a minute to look at how tablature works, it might unlock the secret to playing a guitar, or even writing on a guitar. To those who already know how to play I hope it will show them the option to not get lost in the pursuit of technique when simplicity will do.

PHAWKER: You’re also a published poet – and not, I assume, owing to your fantastic level of celebrity, like Jewel. Is there ever a time when you need to decide whether the words you’re writing should appear as a poem or a song lyric, or is that determined from the start? Do the ideas from a given point in your work flow over to both media?

DAVID BERMAN: The flowcharts of these things always start with me sitting down with the intention to write a poem or a song. There is no poetic idea, no matter how strong, that could cause me to sit down and write a poem in a season in my life where im ostensibly writing songs. I haven’t had a season for poetry in a long time.

sjmono_09-09-08_philadelphia.jpgPHAWKER: You did some time in academia when you were younger. If you were to go back to that world and develop a curriculum for examining the poetry of rock lyrics, what would be the first examples included and what would you ensure was excluded?

 

DAVID BERMAN: Chuck Berry immediately comes to mind. He was by far the tallest of the forefathers of rock and roll. I would imagine his skills threatened songwriters in Nashville, like Elvis’s was threatening its singers.
 
PHAWKER: It’s only been the last few years that you’ve toured. Have you noticed any changes in your songwriting as a result?

DAVID BERMAN: It’s probably more oracular or rhetorical.

PHAWKER: Your entry into the world of more regular touring followed struggles with some serious health and addiction problems, right? For some musicians, touring can be a challenge to recovery. Did you find it more difficult to stay healthy on the road, or did getting away from your everyday world actually help?

DAVID BERMAN: It helped. With Cassie I have a bubble inside the bubble that is a band on tour, so I don’t try to interact with vice at all. Also talking with wasted people after the shows, you see how you used to be, and it shames you. That’s a good thing.

PHAWKER: How does Judaism and Jewish-American identity play into your music today? The identity part was there from the beginning. Did your tour of Isreal add anything to your sense of self as a musician?jews_are_news_1_1.jpg
 
DAVID BERMAN: These are questions I’m also seeking an answer for, so asking me won’t do you any good.

PHAWKER: After years of being misidentified as a “Pavement offshoot” and, despite the probably annoyance I can imagine that sometimes caused, having fans led to your music thanks to the tie-in, do you ever hear of people being directed to Malkmus’ solo albums through your own records? The further he moves away from Pavement the more I hear him occupying your turf.

DAVID BERMAN: He has that elder statesman status that can both “a blessing and a hearse.” I better Google that to see if it’s original. It could be a good metal song… [Berman Googles this possible heavy metal song title.] Damn.  It’s pure for Google Books but a web search pulls up the early bird who got there first:

 

Results 1 – 1 of 1 for ” blessing and a hearse”. (0.25 seconds)

IRON HEARSE – “Iron Hearse”, 2007 reissue (Psychedoomelic); A blessing and a hearse. The first song on IRON HEARSE’s “Rocktopus” is about. . . a Rocktopus, …
www.peacedogman.com/reviews/030108ih.htm – 13k – Cached – Similar pages – Note this

PHAWKER: What’s your take on Charlie Rich’s “Silver Fox” hits of the ’70s? Do they in any way influence your own take on country music?

DAVID BERMAN: How much do I love that stuff? Like other bands love the Beach Boys, I love Charlie Rich in the ’70s.


PHAWKER: Charlton Heston or James Franciscus?

DAVID BERMAN: It’s so hard to tell the players in ’70s movies apart, what with all that lens flare and facial hair growing on… [Presumably, Berman Googles a phrase in hopes of clarifying the question.]

 

No results found for “lens flair and facial hair.”

 Ah, now I feel better. Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.

 

Silver Jews play First Unitarian Church (2125 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia), Tuesday, September 9, with Monotonix.


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