Interview: David Berman on Silver Jews’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

Interview: David Berman on Silver Jews’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

 

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Though he says otherwise, it’s hard to think of an American songwriter as admired by fans and critics as David Berman. Though his band, Silver Jews, often lingered in the shadow of the more popular Pavement (since the band featured Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, Silver Jews were frequently written off as just a Pavement side project), Berman established himself as a lyricist of the highest order. Instead of touring, Berman channeled his gift of gab into a creative writing degree at the University of Massachusetts and later into a bestselling collection of poetry entitled Actual Air, which received accolades from literary bigwigs like Billy Collins and James Tate.

After the release of 2001’s Bright Flight, Berman suffered from severe chemical dependency and depression—documented extensively in a now infamous Fader article—that led to a suicide attempt and then a conversion to Judaism. Upon reforming the Joos in 2005 for the intense Tanglewood Numbers, Berman set out on the band’s first tour. I recently spoke on the phone with Berman about his excellent new record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, its epic press kit, his outsider status as an artist and a Jew, cover songs, and his friendship with the late video artist Jeremy Blake. Our hour-long conversation contained much rambling (on David’s part) and much gushing (on mine); the following is an abridgement, with David’s suggestion that I “make it read well.”

There’s an unwritten rule to not write about the press kits that come with record promos, but I’ve never seen one like Lookout Mountain’s. Can you talk a little about the approach, such as the reading list you included?

So many things go on when I’m making these albums, so many different books I’m reading and references get thrown in. A lot of the other albums, I guess I could have treated the same way, but this time I wanted to give the gatekeepers who hear the record first as much information as possible. I thought there was such a multiplicity of facts that would break the tendency of the way critics use press release kits as review bullet points. Nobody likes to see the same things used over and over again.

That’s interesting that you say “gatekeepers.” Normally press kits have a couple of old record reviews, but I’m really interested in these six new literary pieces about the new album by novelists and short story writers such as Benjamin Weissman, Ben Greenman and Joe Wenderoth.

I thought of that because I can’t ask critics when I send out press releases to try harder. You can’t insult a critic; it’s really not a good idea. But it’s what I really wanted [to do] because I feel that so much music today is very light when it comes to the lyrics and words. People aren’t used to looking for more. So if my record is appreciated for being “more” in those areas, then I totally rely on different standards. I think one of the interesting things about the music is that it could generate a lot of interesting writing. I wanted to give permission, or even encourage [writers] to try a different tact. And I couldn’t control what the guys wrote, and I wasn’t necessarily blown away by what they wrote, but I asked these 12 guys and like six of them actually got around to writing something. I didn’t know any of them. I asked a guy who’s an editor at McSweeney’s for the names of 12 different guys, so it sort of worked out that way.

I thought I detected a McSweeney’s connection between them all. Didn’t you contribute some pieces to a Dave Eggers-curated exhibition in New York recently?

At the Apex Gallery.

Is that a recent relationship or collaboration? With Eggers and McSweeney’s?

You know, I used to give stuff to The Believer. For, I dunno, maybe two years I would give a poem every other month. I always sort of keep a distance from that kind of collegiality.

The press kit also includes footnotes for the songs from sources like Emily Dickinson, the Book of Isaiah and Teddy Roosevelt. Were they inspirations for these songs or did you think of them later as secondary or explanatory material?

No, those were all things that were inspirational. I was purposefully reading Emily Dickinson when I started writing because I was really into the short lines and the quick rhymes and her general fascination with…Well, the website you’re writing for is called Slant.

Yeah.

I got the inspiration to come up with the title [of Pavement’s] Slanted and Enchanted from Emily Dickinson.

Really?

“Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” And so many things she said have influenced me. “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—is a house that tries to be haunted.” I think there’s a certain hermit, solitary aspect to the way I live and she certainly didn’t get out much. In a lot of ways I feel the unlikeliness of this old maid in her bedroom in Amherst couldn’t be farther away from the Norton Anthology or whatever. No one could be farther away. So I get a feeling from reading her poems chronologically that she keeps writing these poems thinking the world won’t know them. It’s really unbelievable.

Well, some of the writers and musicians you list in the reading list at the end of press kit are canonical authors and then there’s the Dead Kennedys.

I think that these are touchstones for me. There’s a kind of art you appreciate and there’s a kind of art you incorporate. There are certain things about all those works that really affected me and whether or not they’re actually incorporated, someone else may hear them in these songs. Quite frequently artists are wrong about what influenced them. Again, [I was] trying to saturate [critics] with information about the environment that this record is coming from.

I really like that observation about art you appreciate compared with art you incorporate, because you also mention—and this is the last question about the press kit, I swear—Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence. Bloom seems really apt for this record, because you have a cover of a Maher Shalal Hash Baz song [“Open Field”] on there, but you also included guitar chords for your songs in the album’s liner notes, presumably to inspire covers of these songs.

Yeah, the guitar chords thing. Really, the question is: Why doesn’t anyone else do it? One of the values that’s stressed about indie music is its simplicity. And it’s the same with country music: It’s stressed that the music is just two or three chords. But nobody ever says what those two or three chords are. It seems to me that there’s something really being hidden there. It’s such a blank spot that the culture doesn’t seem to think about it. Why are the lyrics put down and the only other part that we need, that we have a shorthand for, that takes up one single font space, and it’s never there! I think it’s to keep the wall between [the listener and the musician]. For all the punk rock and post-punk and independent music’s attempt to arrange the ideology around the mundane and the non-extravagant and the non-indulgent and with the real, the down-to-earth, is kind of belied by that. Why not have a completely different paradigm? Like the folk paradigm, where you write songs and you also hope that people will play them. And from a financial standpoint! Like Lucinda Williams, I wouldn’t really care for it on the last couple of albums, but if she put in the music for Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I bet people would be playing it all over the place.

And repeat the “Passionate Kisses” effect, I guess.

There really is a level of guitar player that can pick songs out of the radio, and that is the minority. Then there is the whole group of guitar players that can do something if they have some chords. The other thing is that those 16 chords I have purposefully milked out of the easiest chords at the end of the neck in the area known as “Farmer’s Corner” in Nashville are all done with two or three fingers with no barring. For somebody who’s never played guitar before, it would not be unrealistic to pick up a guitar, think about it for an hour or two and be able to play [these songs].

I only know of the Dean and Britta cover of “Random Rules.” Are there other Silver Jews covers that you’re particularly pleased with or displeased with?

There aren’t that many. I really don’t know of any. Other than very rare cases, we’re not the band that other bands would namedrop. We’re not like Smog, whose songs have been covered a lot. We’ve never been that popular. People are more familiar [with what we do] now. If you looked at all the people who said something about Will Oldham versus the Silver Jews in the 1990s, it would be a thousand to one. And that’s interesting. I’ve always been friends with Will and Steve Malkmus and Harmony Korine, and had these friends who are sort of legends in their own categories. And that’s also from not playing live and not having collegiality with other bands. It keeps me as an odd-ball-out. And that’s a good thing in the end, for me, because it’s about credibility. You can establish autonomy.

There was a Village Voice article that claimed Silver Jews don’t have fans, they have disciples.

That’s a funny thing, ’cause we’re not really critically beloved in a way that would explain why we hang on. I think there is a level of euphoria among the people in the front at shows. I’ve asked people if it’s really different from other shows and they say, “Yeah, that was really unusual.” On a wider, larger scale the records all pretty much sell the same.

Well, the people who bought the Arizona record would be in their 40s now.

It’s funny. Drag City’s putting out a movie called Silver Jew that’s about my trip to Israel in 2006. For the booklet of the DVD I want them to put this story in there from a book by Rabbi Nachman Breslov. For his followers, he’s the rabbi that was never replaced. The person that brought me this book was the sister of somebody who became a Hassidic under the teachings of Rabbi Nachman. And she gave me the book before the show, and wrote a note inside the book about an old Silver Jews fan: “To David, this book is from my brother, who was for sure the Silver Jews’s number one fan in Israel. Anyway, for him, your coming to Israel is unreal and a dream come true. Therefore, he made me give you this great book. This is nothing tragic. He found God a few critical years ago after we made our homemade album. And now he is happy and married and studies Torah. He believes in your Jewish soul and says thanks for naming your band the Silver Jews. He also knows that you are a reader and that’s why you will enjoy these 13 tales written 200 years ago. In them are secrets about the times before even Adam and Eve were Jews.” So, there’s a fan from long ago who’s now well into a strict religious lifestyle that doesn’t permit him to go to shows or listen to secular music, and he has children and a beard, I’m sure [laughs]. I like that.

Well, I used to teach some of the poems from Actual Air to a class of ninth graders, and when I would say you were in a band called Silver Jews, they would kind of balk at the name.

Yeah, yeah.

They’d ask whether that’s making fun and I would say, no, he is Jewish. But I wanted to ask about your faith and how that plays into your art.

Well, there’s this really good article [“The Reciprocal Antagonist” by David Kaufmann] that came out today at the Jewish Forward. That guy, in all the years I’ve had to talk about the subject, that guy really got my thing down. My viewpoint is sort of feeling inside and outside of Judaism. When I do interviews and people hear that I’m associated with Judaism, and that I had a conversion experience, it sort of [amounts] to where religion [lifted me out of depression]. And it’s really much more complex than that. I really am much closer to not believing than I want to be and I battle with a lot of the issues about Judaism that I read from the Torah every day. In the back of my mind I’ve always believed in God. But in the times we live in there aren’t any rituals, there aren’t any places to really explore that, except in the shallowest A.A. ways possible. But I am really fascinated by Judaism, by the deep study, by the amount of text, and the amount of interpretation. Really there’s nothing like it. How enlightening the whole thing is, how different it is from its daughter religions. It’s really not settled for me. It’s something I can keep reading and keep reading. And that’s what I try to tell people: A Silver Jew is like a secondary Jew, like a minor Jew. That’s what I am.

We keep discussing communities, like the indie community and the Jewish community, so I wanted to ask about the South. Your poetry and songs are not focused on the South the way, say, a Drive-By Truckers song is, but the South is a part of that.

Well, I think I put opposites into play. I am not only neither Christian nor Jewish, but said to be in between, and I feel the same way about being from the South and being from the North. I write with my left hand but I throw a ball with my right hand.

So you’re, like, socially and religiously ambidextrous?

Yeah, or I’m outside of both camps, or I’m in the middle. Instead of being split, I’m in the middle. I think that’s why the Silver Jew is like a “Southern Yankee.” It doesn’t make any sense. Or like a “Bluegrass Drummer.” Silver Jew doesn’t make sense because a Jew, by definition, is one thing. Judaism hasn’t split down into sects. Orthodox and Reformed rabbis recognize each other as Jewish, unlike other faiths where people only recognize one sect. So, I’m just always trying to synthesize things like that. That’s, I guess, the kind of work I do instead of laying bricks. I take these strands of thought and make these bodies that have lots of strands in them.

Is that how you’d describe your lyrical approach? Your songs do have a collage feel sometimes.

I think it’s more like humor and sadness. I try to keep to the elements. People who only listen to rock normally just hear that there are a lot of country elements. Really, it becomes much more of a middling point and there’s both, rock and country.

I read an interview with you recently where you said Lookout Mountain has a very different feel from the other Silver Jews albums. And I want to know more about what you mean by that, but to me, I sense a lot less of a country influence on this new record. Though maybe that’s…not right [laughs].

I don’t know about that. I feel it’s more balanced on this record. The different feel, I guess, would be a lot of different things. I think it’s more post-applause music. It’s the first music I wrote after first accepting affirmation from a live audience.

Well, it seems like there are more narrative songs on this album, for one. You said once that what you liked about fiction was that it teaches people how to empathize. Do you think of these songs as fiction, and is empathy a goal when you’re putting them together?

Yeah, I think of them as fiction. I think of them as little stories. I think of them as characters that are sort of exposed to the inhumanity of the world. [Long pause] I guess I’m speaking about the narrators, like Aloysius in “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer,” compared to the B characters, who are cartoonish, but they’re very…[pauses]

Sympathetic?

Well, yeah. They’re parts of me.

The album feels like it’s more optimistic, certainly more than Tanglewood Numbers. At the same time, there is this mixture of sadness and humor that you were mentioning. For instance, every four out of five times I hear “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing,” it’s very sweet and romantic. But the fifth time I hear it, it’s really sad. Do you have this kind of flexibility with your songs in mind when you’re writing them?

I kind of want a song like that, for instance, to reflect the fact that the two characters in that song could be a toothless man and woman at an A.A. meeting drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and wearing sweatsuits. But it also works for [David’s wife and Silver Jews bassist/vocalist] Cassie and me, to a degree. I think a song like that one is a pragmatic romance. Pragmatism and romance are sort of opposites. There are enough really good love songs and I don’t even know if I could write one if I tried.

But that’s a really nice one!

Well, I can write these kinds of songs that are kind of a twist on what a love song is. That’s why I’m interested in writing in different forms. I like to play with different conventions.

What kind of a role did Cassie play on this record? She sounds much more prominent vocally, but she didn’t write any of the music.

I knew she was going to be a part of it when I was writing it. She didn’t write any of it, and in fact, she didn’t really hear it until the other people did. I mostly work in the day, and she has a full-time job. But when I was writing it, I was thinking about how to dramatize it. That goes back to the question of narrative, I was interested in dramatizing and bringing it to those levels. Widening my range and bringing in a feminine point of view or a feminine voice to complete or increase the size of the world it encompasses. I guess on all Silver Jews records, it’s extremely male-centric.

My favorite line on the album is “Romance is the douche of the bourgeois” [from “San Francisco, B.C.”].

[laughs] I like that one. Somebody actually, in a negative review, said I was a poor economist. He quoted a character’s line as if it was an opinion of my own, which is one of the basic things you don’t really do when you review a book, criticize an author for what the main character says.

In the liner notes there are even quotes around it!

It’s amusing, ’cause when I was singing in Paris I was really conscious of the fact that I was singing “douche” and “bourgeois” and “rendezvous” and “affairs d’amour” like, oh my God, what does this have to do with San Francisco, all these French terms? There are these weird things I just wanted to do that don’t make any sense, like how on the thank you’s everybody’s last name goes up to L. I don’t think I thank anyone whose last name begins with a letter from the second half of the alphabet. I don’t think anybody has noticed that, all these interesting things that are going on.

Could you say a little about your collaboration or your friendship with artist Jeremy Blake and why you dedicated the album to him.

Well, it reminded me of when we were putting out Bright Flight, I had two other friends die. Jeremy was sort of a John Brown figure of whatever is to come, as far as I can see, whatever I’m critiquing about society. He was somebody who was, in a way, what you want a classic type of rock star to be. The closest thing you could see of the independent, cowboy-type whatever in this world, and people like to say in the articles they write about him and [girlfriend] Theresa [Duncan], like, “Aww, he had everything and he ruined it.” We are all trying to get everything. Everybody is trying to get everything. Especially in the music business, in the entertainment world, everybody is sort of gorging. And Jeremy was obsessed with the idea of a persecution going on. I don’t believe that there were necessarily individual human agencies that were tracking Jeremy, but I feel like he and Theresa, for all I know, were sensitive to things that we’re not sensitive to. And they were very smart, such smart people. Who knows what two smart people can do to each other? After Theresa died, he was in shock and I was able to talk to him and I was telling him about this song I was writing [“My Pillow Is the Threshold”] and I was sort of thinking about Jeremy as the narrator, missing his dead love so much that he just wants to somehow be together [again]. So I was sort of writing it, trying to put myself in Jeremy’s shoes and that’s what came out, and of course, then a week later he was dead. It’s hard to say why you dedicate an album to somebody, I only do it every once in a while, but he really was the right one. [Pause] He cared about the band so much! That’s really what I’m not mentioning, that it would matter to him a lot. And he was one of these people that I think was misguided in their fanship. He believed too much in what I did. He thought I was much better than I am! That was always the story with him, he was always so enthusiastic about the Silver Jews. So when he had his solo show at the Corcoran, that’s what I was saying, people have that on their calendar: Solo show at the Corcoran! In the city you grew up in! But I think, as you see all the time, these things are fleeting, celebrity and fame. Even Corcoran brochures disintegrate and incinerate.

Wow. Well, let’s talk about something a little more cheerful. You mentioned it’s weird to revisit these older songs, do you have any particular songs that you really like to hear when you play them live?

Yeah. I find, like, maybe four songs on every record playable. Maybe the Silver Jews will have enough records someday that we could have an Echo and the Bunnymen Songs to Learn and Sing-style singles collection. But as the era of the album ends, the era of the greatest hits album ends first. That’s like the first thing that the era of the digital downloading takes care of, the greatest hits.

When kids make their own mix CDs, they’re kind of making their own greatest hits albums.

That’s right. The album has to hold on to its secondary function as a group of songs in some cases, but everything else will be ground down to single songs. Though albums will always be available for that and there will always be a conscientious listener who wants to hear things the way they’re supposed to be heard. I don’t worry too much about that kind of thing.

Sure. The disciples.