There is an alternate Nashville in another universe where everything works the way it was supposed to, one where Willie Nelson was never forced to move back to Texas and the current crop of country superstars pay more than lip service to the dark genius of the Louvin Brothers and Porter Wagoner. In this Nashville, there is a new king whose presence looms large over Lower Broadway. His songs are sung through dripping spit by every down n dirty drunk who made it out of Little Rock only to land in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge; his words of praise dot hymnals in the carnival shadows of the Ryman’s stained glass. This king is David Berman.
If you were to stand on a dark Opry stage back in 1946 with Mother Maybelle Carter and stare into country music’s future, Berman’s are the tired eyes you’d see staring back. This is what country music was supposed to be, all dark and dense and honest. You can hear it in the straining gospel of the Carters and in the loaded-repent-repeat lives of Johnny, Willie, and Kris. If country music’s sad, it’s only because country musicians are honest; Jean-Paul Sartre had nothing on Waylon Jennings. Only later, sometime in the late 70s maybe, did Nashville trade in its soul for a rhinestone saddle.
And so this is where the Silver Jew finds himself, riding the dark horse through the city of gloss….
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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/marty garner