Earlier this week Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Silver Jews’ David Berman whose new album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea drops June 17th via the Drag City label. Here, in discussion with AD, Berman discusses his faith, recovery, the documentary film Silver Jew, songwriting and his fairly recent role as bandleader in a live setting after years of non-touring, and what effect that has on one’s creative process.
Aquarium Drunkard: What made you decide to go on tour for the last couple of albums after so much silence? In a Pop Matters interview, you listed your reasons for going as “1) I’m on a mission from G-d and 2) I’m not joking.” Can you elaborate on that? Are your reasons still the same?
David Berman: I was the hedgehog and not the fox the day I did that interview. Maybe I should list all the reasons at once. Perhaps the most interesting one I don’t talk about, is the way it helped me put a second act of my life into play. Intentionally or not, I was able to enter a sort of mythic structure through which I could keep growing and survive. I think I was so stuck in life, I needed to find a heroic narrative for myself. There it was, ready-made and waiting and one day I just realized “hey I’ve got an idea for an odyssey!”
Sometimes the album cover art looks like a good parody of this, my midlife idealism.
Aquarium Drunkard: As someone who had never toured before, you had the benefit of being more grown-up, more mature your first time on the road. How was the experience?
David Berman: I like it fine. The driving is too much. I’d rather travel by ambulance. And I like doing the shows and signing records. I’m generally open or open to being open, but I shutdown and get real quiet around other bands.
AD: What was it like playing in Israel? Do you know Hebrew?
DB: I would rate the sunlight there as the best I’d ever seen or felt and I want to go back as soon as I’m invited again. So far no secretworldwidezionistentertainment councils have contacted me. My Hebrew is hardly there.
AD: In the film Silver Jew, you tell a group of Israeli fans that, because you’d never toured before, you’d never had the experience of making someone happy. Judging by your reaction to the kids, and their reaction to you, I’m guessing that this had a pretty big effect on you both as an artist and a human being. Can you talk about that at all? Do you think that things would have turned out differently had you been able to judge fan reaction from the get-go?
DB: Fan reaction is so out-sized and hyperbolic in rock music compared to other arts. I don’t think any songwriter who comes up through playing clubs can really claim to have independently developed their art. All along the way so much information is coming, the writer inside the performer unconsciously reacts to all of that. By the time they get to be thirty, the writer is gone. I’m glad I did it this way. I taught myself to write without applause for a long time. This is the first post-applause album I’ve done. Maybe that accounts for what’s so different about it.
AD: I want to ask you a few questions about Silver Jew and your experiences that surround the film. Early on, when discussing the origins of the band’s name, you talk about how for the first fifteen years, the name — the moniker, really, of “Jew” — was something of a millstone around your neck. What did you mean by that?
DB: I meant that as a poet I loved the name Silver Jews but you have to remember how politically correct things were in the nineties. People in Northampton, Massachusetts and New York looked for meaning in it when I claimed none. It could have been my imagination, but I know it wasn’t.
AD: Did you grow up in a Jewish home?
DB: No. My great grandfather was the last practicing Jew in my family. He died in 1982.
AD: How did you become re-interested in your faith? Was there a single moment of epiphany or was it a gradual unveiling over time?
DB: Over time. I always had a background belief in God. In other words, instinctually I’ve never doubted that we are not alone. I think I fell out of love with art, or came to the end of my adventure with it, and beyond that I found a body of work to be studied that was immense and exciting in ways that literature or scripted cable TV series cannot be for me anymore.
AD: On earlier tracks, like “Like Like The The The Death” from American Water, how much of the spiritual questioning and yearning is your own? For instance, in “Send in the Clouds,” you sing “My momma named me after a king / I’m gonna bury my name in you.” The obvious conclusion is that you’re singing about King David, who is, if my biblical knowledge serves me well, considered something of the Alpha Jew behind Moses and the prophets.
DB: That’s right . Back then I thought of Jewishness as something like my left-handedness. I also was employing the Jewish way of making the everyday sacred without knowing it, by transforming the very common name David, into something dominant and regal.
AD: Tell me about your trip to the West Wall; your reaction while reading and praying seems to come on very suddenly. Obviously, the Wall is a very holy place in the Jewish faith; what were your feelings while approaching it and while praying? What passage were you reading at the Wall?
DB: I was reading the Shema. It’s something Jews say three times a day. The best is if you can die with it “on your lips”. I was taken pretty unaware. The Shema is a vow that I have never taken all the way. It’s words resonate all the way down to my bones. Maybe because I resist following their instructions.
AD: I read an interview with you where you referenced William Bowers’ Village Voice piece wherein he says something about how disarming it is to see you cry in the film. He goes on to say that it’s equally jarring to see someone “with such a sharp mind speaking so hippie-ly about receiving universal answers,” as if it’s impossible to both have an active mind and be a believer in anything. Have you experienced any other befuddlement of this sort since you’ve been more public about your faith?
DB: Well there is a kind of hysterical atheism I’ve noticed lately coming out of people. I don’t know if people want to hear this, but Judaism is not harmful to human life its daughter religions that claim one true way. Jews would be surprised to find out how truly kind and wise their own religion is. Since they don’t proselytize, and historically keep to themselves, where are you going to hear about it? Only insiders know.
AD: Israel was obviously a very emotionally challenging time for you, between the emotional rush of the tour itself, where you yourself were in life, and having discovered your faith, and it was all under the gaze of video cameras. So you went from this semi-seclusion as a non-touring artist to all of this exposure in an intense, emotionally naked moment, though you seemed to handle it really well.
DB: It helps that I’ve never seen the film. I had some friends watch it for me and evaluate it. I was on the fence about it for a long time but when I heard about the crying at the wall I knew I wanted to let it go out. I like curve balls but I don’t get to throw them much. Releasing that
Seemed a little more audacious than adding bagpipes to a song, and so it redeemed the idea of releasing it at all.
AD: One of my favorite things about the film is watching you and your wife Cassie interact. She looks so proud of you throughout the film, and the love that you guys have for each other comes across as genuine. How did the trip affect her as someone coming from a non-Jewish background? It seems to have ultimately tied you guys closer together, which is a beautiful thing.
DB: Cassie and I are so close together that we protect our little territories of difference. She got a blackberry phone yesterday. To me that is mortifying. She can’t stop loving the Virgin Mary. The V.M. reminds me of butchery.
AD: To what degree was she involved in your recovery? She seems as though she takes good care of you, and there’s that other famous Nashville singer/film subject whose wife helped him through his problem…
DB: She was very involved. She read all the same books I did. She had to stop drinking like she was taught to in Louisville. I dragged her through some nasty awful places.
Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s shift now to Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Tell me about the song “Suffering Jukebox.” Coming from someone who has always been so loath to tour, it’s easy to read a line like “Suffering Jukebox, such a sad machine/You’re all filled up with what other people mean/And they never seem to turn you up loud/Gotta lotta chatterboxes in this town” as a complaint from the stage.
David Berman: Well it wouldn’t be me. I get to sing what I mean, and get turned up loud and it seems the people who come to Silver Jews shows are the type that really pays attention to what’s being said. I guess I’m commiserating with my opposite, which means the guys who play in the bars on Lower Broad, playing country classics. The ones who don’t get to tour, who are stuck playing for tips, even know they can play a thousand times better than me.
AD: What about “My Pillow is the Threshold;” while the lyrics in the chorus are theoretically positive, the tremoloed guitars seem to suggest otherwise, almost as if entering a relationship with someone who’s going to truly know you is more terrifying than it’s worth. In essence, it captures the push-pull of wanting to be known versus fear of actually being known.
DB: The wording is calmer, much calmer that the music. Because the narrator doesn’t register the tenor of emergency in the music. There is some anxiety, he must be deranged or intent on perishing.
AD: “Open Field” was written by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, aka Tori Kudo. Can you tell me about the song? How did you come across the track, which — lyrically speaking — is very dissimilar to your work, and what led you to record it?
DB: I got a few Maher records in the mail from Stephen Pastel a couple of years ago and that song really impressed me. The minimalism. I was thinking about the squirrels in Strange Victory. It would be nice if they had somewhere to scamper off into after the song was over.
How can I put a meadow or a field in the album?
AD: “Strange Victory Strange Defeat” begins with (and is inspired by) a clip of Teddy Roosevelt saying, “In other words, don’t flinch, don’t fall, and hit the line hard.” Where did you come across the clip? I think it’s particularly interesting that this song, which criticizes the way that music has evolved aesthetically, sounds more than a little like the Arcade Fire.
DB: The clip is from a box set of American Oratory. The chorus has some rhetorical heft but I was worried it would sound striving like a Soul Asylum anthem. As a counterpoint I thought the verses should sound somewhat equaniminous.
AD: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea has a more hopeful feel to it. Even a song like “Suffering Jukebox” lacks the despair that colors some of your earlier work. You, the singer, seem less wrapped up in the proceedings here, as if you’re just the reporter, a reporter who sympathizes with and understands his story without actually being a part of it.
DB: I think that has to do with re-adjustments I made after touring. Touring really straightened my aim out and recalibrated my shtick, I think.
AD: The new album is dedicated to the artist Jeremy Blake, whose story received a great deal of media attention last year. To what extent did you know him? Given what you had been through by the time Jeremy passed away, is this record a sort-of monument to having come through the other side?
DB: He was a good friend and a good friend to me. He was also a tremendous fan of my work and really encouraged me on my road back. Jeremy’s problem wasn’t chemical but it was madness and in a lot of ways I see him as a harbinger of what we as a society have waiting for us when we finally finish shopping.
AD: You recorded the LP with your touring band from 2006, which makes them the longest consecutive incarnation of the Silver Jews. How did that familiarity help the recording process?
DB: It was a factor in the practicing and the basic tracking. This is a band compiled out of the past bands. Everyone on this record has played on at least one other.
AD: You’ve said that touring made you realize how young your audience is, and that that has enabled you as a writer to think a bit more clearly on what it is you’re trying to say. Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility as an artist, knowing how captive your audience is and, perhaps, the effect that your words can have on them?
DB: Definitely. I’m not going to be anyone’s Jim Jones!
AD: There is that classic struggle in art of whether you’re creating for yourself or for your audience. If you are creating for yourself alone, you run the risk of leading people down a path that you may not want to. If you create for the audience alone, you run the risk of no longer being true to yourself. How do you toe that line?
DB: You create for a composite audience of people you care about, people you respect. It’s something you do mentally as you go along.
AD: Self-honesty seems to be an overwhelming theme of yours, which is a rare commodity in an age of hyper-irony and the general posturing that people in the underground music world self-apply. Honesty, though, is an emotionally rough trade; do you find it hard to remain honest with yourself and your audience?
DB: Honestly, strict honesty from an artist only clarifies about 10% of the illusions and delusions we carry around about them. Because the artist knows the audience doesn’t want to know.
If you break down to much of the fantasy you do harm to the experience of the music. It would be dishonest for me to claim honesty
AD: At one point in that Village Voice piece, you’re talking about being a writer, and your style, and how your music demands people to pay it closer mind than, say, My Morning Jacket’s or the Flaming Lips’, whom you can put on and let fade back and it just sounds good. How does being a trained poet affect the way that you look at music? Are there any younger songwriters today whose lyrics you enjoy?
DB: In the eighties they had this really corny tag for music like X and the Clash: “music that matters.” No one wanted to call it new wave. No one said “post-punk” yet. “Alternative” and “progressive” were unusable.
I still think in these terms though. Music should individuate the musician. It should mean. It has to matter. But we are full up with messengers who have forgotten the message and there really isn’t any vocal resistance to the problem. There are no critics willing to rain on the parade in 2008. I don’t think the system permits this criticism.
AD: I’ve read that you started out by making up songs on the spot and singing them into Sonic Youth’s answering machine. Now, though, the lyrics to your songs seem to be much more carefully crafted. At what point did you start putting more craft into your songwriting?
DB: Yes it went from improvisation to composition and revision in the spring and summer of 1994. I had spent the preceding two years reading and writing poems.
AD: Do you plan on releasing any more books of poetry? (ed. Berman’s “Actual Air”)
DB: Harper Lee only wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I like the idea of one book better than only having one.
AD: To what degree do you consider yourself a country musician? You obviously don’t fit into the contemporary Nashville mold, which is a nice thing, but where do you see yourself in the grand tradition of Nashville singer/songwriters? Which of the “old guard” do you feel the most kindred to?
DB: Since I’ve lived here lots of legends have died. Hank Snow, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, Grady Martin, and just recently Eddy Arnold. The singers have the country hall of fame, The songwriters have their own museum and the session players have theirs. The industry is divided into these job categories. That really keeps it different. I do all those jobs myself. Making a country album is like making a movie. But if you are looking at songwriters who’ve shared this zipcode the list of my favorites is long. One, Dennis Linde, just died. His last hit was “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks. I love that song. He was like Shel Silverstein and John Prine and Roger Miller. The funny ones. That’s who I like. words / m garner
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