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Interview: David Berman of Silver Jews

"I'm a private guy, and people give me space, anyway."

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David Berman of Silver Jews

David Berman of Silver Jews

Brent Stewart

Published poet, sometime songsmith, and reluctant performer, David 'DC' Berman is one of underground music's great oddballs. Since forming the Silver Jews in 1989 with a pre-Pavement Stephen Malkmus, Berman has rung up an unusual career tally: six albums, but only two tours. Born as a strictly lo-fi outing —early "Joos" records played directly onto boombox— Berman has authored a slate of increasingly-loud, weirdly countryish albums for Drag City Records, a label founded on a love of the renegade. Often painted as publicity shy, the Nashville-based Berman was all charm when I spoke to him.

On the back of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, there's that photo of you, all sweaty and rockin’ out. Is that the state of the Silver Jews in 2008?
“Well, there’s always a certain amount of self-deprecation going into any photo. I’m not that sweaty stage-animal, but it’s fun to play that for a couple of weeks. But, I’ve gotta tell you: the shows really do demonstrate to me that the music matters. In times like this, it’s not like the phone’s ringing off the hook; I’m a private guy, and people give me space, anyway. By some process, some people bought my records enough to let me live on for ten years. But I never knew what that meant; I never experienced the ‘exchange’ with other people.”

It took you so much longer to learn that than most musicians.
“Obviously, I had to come out and play live with 50 songs. Everybody else starts out with no songs, but they start playing live, and they take for granted a lot of the rituals of performance. Not only have I not played live, but I don’t really go to shows anymore, I’m 41. That environment is so foreign to me that it gives me the opportunity to do all the wrong things; to play with the rules, play with the form of what a rock-concert is.”

Is it hard to bear the psychological burden of being the lead singer?
“Yeah. But I never really had stage fright. People think it’s so unconventional not to play live, but, for me, it’s the step before that. It’s so conventional. I couldn’t see a reason why I’d need to change. Because it works. The form just followed what was happening at the time, when the aesthetic was faceless, was putting out obscure seven-inches. It was almost like conceptual art: this is a band, but it’s not really a band, because it’s not really recorded in a studio, and it’s not made by this gang that heads out together on the road.”

Can people get a sense of who you are, as human-being, by listening to your records?
“I think so. There’s no barrier to it. But, then again, I’ve never met anyone who I became friends with that was, first, a Silver Jews fan. It seems like it would be great to go out into a world in which people understood you. What a privilege to venture out in the world, and discover a humanity that already thought of you benevolently. But, even though I'm obviously showing my good sides in the product that comes out, it’s not like that.”

Do you think about Silver Jews' place in the annals of rock history?
“Oh, no. It seems like rock history is forever in the midst of this endless annalment. I think rock was killed sometime in the ’90s, and now we’re just going through these mimickings, retreads, and recombinations. That’s why I think it’s interesting that so few bands concentrate on writing good words. Pop music is so fixed; there’s a limited amount of combinations of these notes and chords. But words are infinite, and they change everything. I guess it’s a hard time to know what to say; but I’m amazed that there hasn’t been a coherent message from this generation. For a long time, it’s just been ‘shopping.’”

So, why do people so readily excuse bad lyrics?
“It’s because they want to listen to that good music that has those bad lyrics. So they rationalize it by saying ‘lyrics don’t matter.' And because no one is honest about it, or, more likely, because they rationalize it away, it degrades the situation. So people aren’t getting better, and pop songs are getting less and less articulate, and are going out of their way to do anything but communicate a message. Pop has become a mute genre, the perfect kind of music for advertising. There’s no message.”

Are you always trying to communicate a message?
“Oh yeah. I make sure that every single sentence, every single phrase, contributes to one premise, one idea, one message.”

Tom Waits once said something like ‘every song needs a city, a street-name, and weather’. Given how found you are of proper place names, is it right to imagine you ascribe to a similar songwriting ethos?
“I would say that that’s got to be an influence of the so-called ‘K-Mart fiction’ of the early ’80s, the hard style of someone like Raymond Carver. Plus, I always hated it, when I was a kid, when stories and TV shows were set in a mythical place. It meant more to me when a TV show was in a certain city, I needed to have that knowledge. So, I want the songs to be that for other people.”

I once read you saying you were ‘on a mission from God’. Are you still on that mission?
“To be completely honest, I am really lost when it comes to what I thought I meant when I said that. I’m just reading a lot. I actually really need to go and talk to the Rabbi who lives here, who’s a really smart man, and figure out what’s going on. But, sometimes your life seems so allegorical, and, then, maybe under stress you have to back off that.”

Were you particularly religious when you grew up?
“Oh, no, no, no, no. I always believed in God, but in my own dirty way. See, I had prayed, when I was a kid, for certain things to happen, and they had. I was always very grateful.”

Has anyone ever wrongly accused the Silver Jews of being anti-Semitic?
“One time, only. In New York City in 1994, the owner of the building that housed a record-store was worried about their window display for the album The Natural Bridge. He was concerned that it had some sinister implications, so he made the record-store take it down. He was the very old, post-Holocaust survivor; the whole idea of his generation was to keep quiet, not make any trouble, and if you wanted to be in music you would have to not have a Jewish name, to cover it up. Therein, the irony of being in a band that actually calls themselves Jews.”

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