Interview: Silver Jews

I've been a Silver Jews fan long enough to have developed my own set of ill-informed stereotypes about it’s creator David Berman. I’m sure they dovetail perfectly with everyone else’s opinions of the man and involve a hermetic and reclusive artist, deeply troubled by personal struggles of the past and a guy so dedicated to his craft that the tedium of touring and interviews force him deeper into his shell. So the prospect of a face–to-face interview with him evoked feelings of great excitement but also a fair dose of trepidation. These are clearly the opinions of those yet to meet Mr. Berman as I found not a trace of any during our chat in the warmth of the sunshine outside a hotel in Kensington.

From the outset it’s clear that Berman is not one to share the belief that time is a luxury reserved for the lucky few who can afford it. Every sentence is meticulously crafted and pondered over and few words stray into the margins of unnecessary waffle. In today’s music business, of which he had much to say, he is a man who possesses more than his fair share of rare qualities, a few of them being: opinions all his own, respect and concern for yours, a deep knowledge of his craft, and a genuine desire to change people. Together we thrashed out the numerous problems facing the music industry and the world at large - from the ‘date-rape’ of the modern festival, to born-again Christians who wish for your timely destruction. It seems Radiohead don’t have all the answers these days as Berman explained how they gave their music “free to your ears” but with his new record Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea he gives each song “free all the way to your finger-tips” by supplying each guitar chord to play the entire album. He’s old-school but with a hungry eye trained on the present and with donut in hand he walked us through a few things that light him up, piss him off, drag him down and turn him on.

BC: So you’re about to do All Tomorrow’s Parties, do you enjoy doing festivals?

David Berman: I enjoy some festivals but on the whole, no. Festivals are just a lazy way for people to make a lot of money. For promoters it’s like picking the low fruit off the tree. And for bands it’s easy money. You don’t have to be great, as there are other bands there. You can suck, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to make more money than for any other show you do on your tour. You’ll spend less time doing it and then leave. So, I feel bad about that. So I try to pick the good ones, Green Man, ATP, Pitchfork …but the other ones that we did last time I did not like. We did one in Sweden… Roskilde was OK, but it was too much …There’s too much fleecing you know. It seems to me like consumers are so… they just give it up to their bands. Not to pick on Radiohead, but yeah they deserve to picked on cos they get praised so much. The amount of product that they conjure up to me is ludicrous. It’s criminal because it’s almost like date rape or something. You’re taking advantage of somebody who has been put into this situation because of you. And so you take them to this park to rape this person. You’ve been brought into this situation where you don’t feel like you can say no. You’re one of those types of people that has to buy everything they have on the table. But your kid can’t have a backpack for school or whatever. The people that buy the products, these are the biggest fans.

If you want to sell a lot of merchandise you’re basically saying “we’re going after our biggest fans money. I need to go after their money”. And the magazines will tell you, you’re perfectly right to do that, because you can’t make money with records anymore, you can only make it live, and that gives you permission to do whatever the fuck you want. You want to sell a tour CD, you want to sell different versions. You want to sell box sets. You want to sell remixes. You want to do all that. There’s never any sort of question about whether that stuff is…are all those remixes necessary? Why does nobody call them out on that? There isn’t any calling out. And so, since I feel like I don’t have an investment in the system. I don’t have buddies who are musicians or whatever; I didn’t tour and make relationships with certain promoters in certain towns. I didn’t make contractual relationships with anybody, I feel sort of like people want to hush me up. They’re all like “come on, we’re all having a great time. We’re all eating pink donuts”.

(Berman holds aloft his pink donut that he’s been munching on for a while, it seems a pretty apt symbol for the fat-cat music business.)

BC: Surely a gig is your way of giving back to the fans with your time. They’ve supported you and you might have changed their lives, so surely a gig – particularly a gig by itself, not a festival – is a way of, rather than trying to take their money, just giving back to them.

(The pink donut drops from his hands and crashes to the floor. The irony escapes no one.)

David Berman: Uh oh, see now this is where the pink donut ends.

BC: The party’s over.

David Berman: The serious business is that when you spend 15 years not knowing what your fans look like you discover a lot of things … like first of all, I found out that they were a lot younger than I imagined. I always imagined them to be my age or whatever, but I found out they were a lot younger. And that effected how I went into writing this album. I think that I felt more obligated on this album to present like …solutions

BC: Like advice?

David Berman: Yeah, I definitely feel like folk wisdom, things like that. I always want the person to have something to take with them after the song is over. Um, even if it’s just like a title – like What Is Not But Could Be If – because in a time of ….let’s say when your in trouble, in a time of emergency, you can grab onto one thing maybe. Sometimes in my life it’s been like a piece of advice someone’s given me, or some truism that if you lose site of…or as long as you keep it in your mind you’re able to keep going. So, the whole thing about writing to me is sort of like …it’s a presentation of …it’s not a request to, for you, the listener to only just consider this object that I’ve laid out, but I feel like music - if it works – it sort of acts on a person. It asks their mind to come with the song and it takes them somewhere and it asks questions.

BC: I’d say this album seems to have more answers than the last album. It seems to be coming from a point of resolution, or semi-resolution.

David Berman: I think I seemed to write it like, this one had to bring about a denouement of the other albums. The other albums present problems, which this album seems to be the solution to.

BC: It sounds lighter.

David Berman: Yeah. And at the same time, the darkness, the product of more of a corrupt world in the story songs, than just the narrator’s tendency to be nihilistic or something. I tend to write outside of myself, and I was able to, not just take on different personas, but also to practice being who I wish I was in certain cases. Some of the acting that comes with performance that I wouldn’t have broached in the past, now seems to me to be an important part of a story-telling strategy.

BC: That’s covered quite a few of my questions about how you do assume a character on this record, like on San Francisco B.C. and Party Barge.

David Berman: Yeah, they seem to me like characters that are not necessarily aware. But I also sort of see them as parts of myself. I think that I started to write them as characters, and they are very allegorical in ways that they don’t need to be understood for someone to enjoy the record.

BC: They don’t seem too far from you, or what we’ve learnt of you through the records.

David Berman: That’s important to me, because I don’t want the feeling of resolution not to be attached to the problematic me, because I want to be me – I offer myself as evidence that life can work. Because, I think I present a pretty persuasive picture - in the beginning of my life - of somebody who had tried everything and rejected life. To exist after that and be happy and productive, yet not be under any kind of religious ideology or brainwashing is still rare. I always wanted there to be artists who got sober and were still good. I never could figure out who they were.

BC: There’s a stereotype about how the suffering artist needs to suffer in order to produce. You’re obviously in a much happier place now, so how do you think that affects your art?

David Berman: I think that an artist must suffer sometimes. It could be just something that happened in your youth. But I certainly don’t think that suffering while creating hasn't ever worked out, but I think it’s also more often than not something that doesn’t. It’s like you don’t do anything right when your depressed. You see in biographies about writers who are major alcoholics or major depressives who are able to do their work in two or three week spurts when they were stabilised and able to achieve and for young people you see that in a lot of interviews with young bands. When you’re young and writing songs you don’t know how your doing it, but when you’re older you get some control over the craft - but you remain a student. If you’re young and you find success and everybody tells you how great you are, you’ll never find out how to really write a song. When you think about the guys who can’t write songs after age 30 anymore – you know, I think why that’s so common is, they didn’t write songs long enough to get control over the craft. When you’re older you learn technique so when the inspiration goes, those things carry you through and you create more mature work or whatever.

So, to answer your question, this time there’s plenty of suffering just making the song. There’s suffering involved in just making the song, to get it written and it’s caused quite a bit of misery, but it drives me back to the desk -whereas the suffering of before was more likely to drive me away from the desk. Now I’m more likely to go days obsessed with solving a problem. You know with a song like Candy Jail, just trying to sort out a chorus, and you know “what is the Candy Jail going to be?” And that’s why you start to think about “What does it need to be? What is there room for it to be? What has it already been and there is no point in it being?” So I think that’s why it helps to keep your musical education up. People get to a certain point where their musical knowledge just freezes – wherever they are. They stop going to shows and stop reading magazines. I never let myself do that – even though I might appear to be hermetic or whatever, I always keep an eye on what’s going on, just because. Just to know where there is a dirth, because that’s always where I’m going to work. I realised early on that if you can find one place, or you can find one thing that no one else is doing you’ll have a much better chance.

BC: Do you find that informs your writing, if you see an area that no one else is doing? You seem quite true to yourself – you know what you’re about and you always have done. Do you see an area and think, “I could fill that?”

David Berman: For instance,with the first song on the record I felt like I wanted to write a song with that theme. Without being corny about hope or possibility, and breaking the combination lock of impossibility or whatever - and I wanted to do it using really simple language, simple one syllable words. I’ve heard it already - that people say “I don’t like the first song. It’s not poetic language”. You don’t want to hear that, but I also realise that not everybody has read poetry that uses such banal language. Maybe people don’t understand writers like Goerge Oppen or William Casey Williams - they don’t find it to be poetic or they’re just saying that I’m not good at that kind of poetry – I don’t know, but people don’t like you to change, so it can be risky, but I feel like when it looks like I’m doing something different I’m always really doing the same thing. I’m really hitting that split subjectivity between playfulness and failure, like despair - and I feel like the evolution is just towards more clarity. And I’m not so afraid of a theme, I’m not so afraid of specific and concrete themes. That‘s what I feel is what’s most missing these days. I can go down a list of the top 40 songs from now, compared to 1965 - and one thing you’ll notice is that most songs now, you can’t give a one sentence answer to “what is this song about?” Songs exist now as beats with catch words, or images strung together. Once the permission was given for songs to be about nothing, very few people wanted to keep writing songs about things, as it was much easier.

BC: Do you think that because of the world we live in there’s not as much to write about or rebel against?

David Berman: Right, but even if you wanted to write about love there are a million ways to write about love – like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, or He Stopped Loving Her Today – these songs put love into concrete situations that ask questions and/or make you reflect on love in your own life and your own experiences.

BC: I think the success of your work is that you obviously see the world in it’s minutiae and that comes through in the songs, when you comment on something like summer breeze being like the air from a tyre or something like that. You see beauty or interest in such small things - and that kind of describes the larger whole.

David Berman: I think that’s possible, that it can stand for something small.

BC: And everyone can relate to the small things and so therefore relate to the larger things you try to describe.

David Berman: I think also when I started to read the Torah and about Judaism, one of the things I was attracted to was that Judaism does the same thing. It tries to make everything in the day holy. One of the things an observant Jew does is go through the motions of working with the things in this world and what from the outside looks like the rigidity of the laws is actually an intense focus on the here and now and improving the hear and now. I think religions that focus on the hereafter - and also require a certain belief system - are so dangerous. I was so happy to discover this incredibly long-lasting body of knowledge that has lasted so long and is somehow so congruent enough with life that it’s been carried this far. No other system of thought has survived this far, especially with so many attempts to stamp it out. I guess that seems like the closest thing to magic that I can think of, for a person like me who’s a real rational person. That’s the closest thing I can think of to supernatural. And that they were able to do it for so long and - until Israel - to do it without hurting anyone. For 2000 or 3000 years they were able to survive amongst these other religions that do require a belief system and do announce that all the other religions are wrong. That this religion could survive, that seems supernatural. But supernature is alienating – in a sublime way. In the same way that Christianity is alienating to me – the idea of, well it’s something we don’t know about – it’s supernature. Judaism doesn’t make me think about heaven, or what I need to do to get into heaven. I just need to attend to right here and now and the people around me. It’s the opposite.

BC: If they try and describe the hereafter to us through means, as you say like small minutiae, we can all understand that. Buddhism is the same way - it learns from looking at a bird and its function during the day, or nature and the growth of nature. Anyone can look at that and go – "yeah I can understand that".

David Berman: It’s not exclusionary – it doesn’t threaten hell. For me the worst two things right now are Christianity and Islam, in their fundamental forms. They bother me in all their forms. It’s a shame that people can still do that to each other. In the 20th century everybody thought the future was going to be about political oppression. I look at Europe and the way that it has handled itself since World War 2 and see that as a model. It’s like I would have hoped for the future. My stepmother is a born again Christian and she believes in The Rapture. And a lot of people in the United States believe in The Rapture, and there’s a lot of books and movies about it. These Christians believe that the saved ones …the world ends by the saved ones being lifted up in to the sky and the rest of us are left on earth. And the beginning of the Tribulations …of seven years of torture and hell for the rest of us, will end up with us being flayed alive. Well, a person who believes in that… I should take them seriously. I have to believe that a person who believes in that thinks that I am due to be skinned alive and set on fire. If that person continues to have a relationship with me, knowing that’s what on hand for me, then I don’t want to know that person. I don’t consider them a friend. Because, not only do they believe that, but they anxiously look forward to that day.

BC: …to your ultimate destruction?

David Berman: To my ultimate destruction. They might say to you “I’m not looking forward to that bit,” but they look around this world and they see something that needs to be destroyed because it’s dirty and its ugly and they dream of that. It’s funny because on this album there’s a cover of this song Open Field by this Japanese band Maher Shalal Hash Baz, and I wrote the guy after I recorded it, because I didn’t know if I had the lyrics right, and I asked him what the song was about.

BC: I was going to ask you what that song’s about.

David Berman: Well he told me. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness – I had no idea – and it’s the Jehovah’s Witness vision of the afterlife, which unlike the fundamentalists who believe in The Rapture, their twisted version is that WE all disappear and THEY are left on earth, they’re left on earth forever - at 25 forever. So there are no old people and there are no children. It’s their interpretation of Isaiah 65. To me, I just thought of it as this minimalist kidnapping mystery or whatever – “Open field, no child” – but, you know it’s a reference to Isaiah, which I thought was strange, because in Candy Jail I did the weirdest thing, which is something that I’ve never done before, is I quote, I quoted Isaiah. “I had tried thee in the furnace of affliction”. And it goes on to say “and you were silver,” like you were melted silver.

I think that people, especially people who get sober, or go through dying, overdosing, things like that… I don’t want to speak for everybody, but it totally takes the fear of death away. Because it happened to me, and nothing bad happened. At the same time you feel like you’ve been through hell a little bit. Some people are afraid of going to hell and addicts have been to hell and they don’t want to go back. They live their life like that, and the hell that I fear, is that I guess I could get into it in like…probably 40 minutes. Even though I don’t know anyone around here, in 40 minutes I could probably set up something with liquor and drugs and I would start a process which would become hellish. When you realise that if you don’t do that …as long as you avoid doing that you’ll be ok. It’s like when you first start driving around, when you’ve quit drinking and drugs, and you see a policeman, there’s this wonderful thing that happens. First of all you think “Shit!” then your realise that; oh ….I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s the most incredible feeling. It’s the kind of feeling you can’t get unless you’ve had the fear to begin with. So I’m always getting this pleasure out of thinking “that could be me”. When I go out on a Friday or a Saturday night I don’t worry too much. I concentrate on the people who would have been me. I concentrate on the really wasteful ones and think “that would me be.” I feel all right now.

BC: How long have you been without all that?

David Berman: Four years. And so, I constantly say to myself “I’m so glad, I’m so glad, I’m so glad.” Because I didn’t believe before that you could really live without it. I couldn’t imagine life sober, it just seemed unbearable to me. And I had no role models to show me. Everybody I know who’d gotten on drugs had got married and dropped out of society - or dropped into society. So, I’m always feeling that relief and I thought it would be dishonest if the record didn’t reflect some kind of escape from the corruption of society. That a solution be presented, even in the very first song, or even in the last song. They’re both in the subjunctive tense and they both sort of demand the listener to reflect on, I guess, “…could that be useful?” This is being presented as something that could get you out of a jam …but could that really get you out of a jam?

BC: I think the last song really does leave the listener with something that the others albums didn’t, in that it’s a love song.

David Berman: Definitely.

BC: It’s a love song from the latter part of someone’s life: “if you’re not seeing anyone, shall we hook up?”

David Berman: It’s not making big claims for love. It’s the kind of thinking that sweeps you away, like drugs and alcohol does. It’s almost saying, “here’s a solution”. It doesn’t require that we find perfection, because if we have to wait that long we’re never going to get it. That song used to be called “Sunglasses, Cigarettes and Keys” and it was about bullshit. I wouldn’t have changed it to a love song unless it could be a different kind of love song, and I thought it was a different kind of love song because of that aspect. It seemed to work against the general western romantic narrative, which seems to me to be dangerous, narcotic. And it also seems to me to be something that leaves a lot a people in the cold.

BC: Does the title of the record reflect a new look on the world? It’s quite a confident title.

David Berman: It’s interesting because I knew I liked the vigour of the title. There’s a confidence to it, but there’s also an aspect where it provides an underlying sort of clarity, like “LOOK OUT!”

BC: A warning?

David Berman: Yeah. “STAY AWAKE!” But also a lot of the record is about seeing, about a pun on words, like Lookout / Sea. Look / See. And it’s also a play on words because Lookout Mountain is in Tennessee, and so the phrase is a play on words of “Lookout Mountain – Tennessee”. So, when I find something that can yield a lot of different things that all sort of umbrella over the record - and it works with the painting.

BC: That painting’s cool, what’s it all about?

David Berman: I had the title, but I didn’t have a cover and I went looking and I went into Art Forum magazine and I found an ad for this painter and he does all these colourful, almost day-glow paintings. But I found out about this other project that he’d been doing, a cover painting where he paints this painting once a year, with one tube of black and one tube of white paint. And he paints it from memory, so he doesn’t refer to the old ones - and they’re almost exactly alike. I wrote him, and he’s a well known Australian painter and I couldn’t afford to give him the money that it was worth and it turned out that Starlite Walker, the first Silver Jews record …he was like, “Ah, I’ve always loved that cover. It always influenced my painting in Art School”

BC: No way!

David Berman: So, what a great coincidence that he knew the Silver Jews and we were able to use it. It works so well for me, because those elephants out there on the rocky beach …there’s mock heroism, but there’s something also that just goes along with a lot of stuff, like the way I put animals in songs and human situations, usually a song that’s like a critique of human society – I’ll normally put animals in there. I think that the painting is somewhat like a critique of colonialism. I think is the original thing that he’s thinking of, about Babar being civilised in Paris and being sent back to Africa to civilise the elephants and maybe he’s sort of looking wistfully back at Europe. It’s definitely about going out in the world. Even on the lyrics page, I put them on different pieces of stationary from different hotels around the world - that I actually got off eBay - but it makes it seem like the album is about going around the world. There’s a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, where he’s talking to these kids before Strange Victory Strange Defeat, from 1913.

There’s a lot of stuff to do with 1913 on the album, which is the last time you could travel around the world without a passport. And so, more than any other record, the reason I’m so pleased with this one is that I was able to sew in a lot of different themes. I think that the warning aspect of the title has to do with the 1913 aspect of the album, in that I sort of see this as a 1913 kind of time, a time where, in 1913, no one knew what was going to completely change the world in the next couple of years. It seems like the West was totally derelict in it’s high estimation of man and civilised man at least. I think the Victorians and Edwardians had totally read the world wrong and their children were to pay for it. I think that’s the way I think about the United States and how the young people today are going to have to prepare and they don’t realise it. There’s no anger towards the adults of this era who have forgone long term planning. So Teddy Roosevelt talking to those kids in 1913 and saying, “Hit the line hard” is to me an absurdity, because he’s talking about football. But, within four more years they were gong to be hitting lines in World War I that were far more serious than anything Teddy Roosevelt could have conceived of. Adults forget that we’re handing down situations that we would not survive in and that they will have to. So, I’m always …like I said before, when I went out and saw that people were younger …that made me write this album differently, where there is a certain amount of “Look out! I’m older. This is what I see.”

BC: If we can just finish up with some quick questions. - you mentioned how songwriters were wrong to stop paying attention to the current music scene as they get older. Which bands are lighting you up at the moment?

David Berman: Monotonix, Spiritual Family Reunion, Dave Cloud, Hudson Bell, Arboretum, are a few.

BC: You've toured with Yoni Wolf of Why? What do you think of that songwriter?

David Berman: He is an excellent writer and very funny fellow.

BC: Do you see any link between collectives like Anticon and their particular genre of hip hop and the genre occupied by the Silver Jews, be it through a leaning towards poetry or an approach to music, i.e. lo-fi?

David Berman: I haven’t considered the link but appreciate the comparison. We attend to language in a time when language is abused by the corporate and explained away as unimportant by the rock critical apparatus.

BC: What's the difference between a song and a poem? Is it just that one is set to music?

David Berman: A poem is complete. Lyrics are a part.

BC: Do you see music as a dilution of poetry?

David Berman: No, it can't be reduced to a poem.

BC: Were you writing poetry before songs?

David Berman: Yes, as a teenager

BC: Are you of the opinion, "this is me, these are my songs, think what you will," or are you more concerned about what people think about your music?

David Berman: I am concerned.

BC: How does criticism, be it good or bad, affect your song writing? You have quite a dedicated fan-base so does adulation make writing harder?

David Berman: It has its place in my own education about my work. If I put too much weight to praise or condemnation I am fucked. Not playing live has insulated me from the adulation that even a mildly successful local band receives on the average night.

BC: What do you do between records?

David Berman: In between records I live like a citizen, a neighbor, a nobody.

BC: On American Water’s song Random Rules, after the lyric about asking a painter why the roads are painted black you sing his reply as "He said Steve it's because..." Presuming you wrote this song why would he call you Steve and if your frequent collaborator Steven Malkmus were to sing it would he say Dave?

David Berman: I say Steve: a. Because it rhymes. b. To show that it's not me. c. Because it creates this funny confusion about Steve and me. Steve would never call me Dave unless he wanted to make me mad. I like David. Strangers call me Dave.

BC: Are there any questions that no one's asked you that you wish they

David Berman: No one ever asked that so it is a good question.


Silver Jews
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Chimpomatic Review: Silver Jews, Live at ULU



30th May 2008 - Tumblr