David Berman :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

You’d be hard-pressed to find a story on David Berman that doesn’t at some point cite the first line of “Random Rules.” It’s something of an indie-rock “Call me Ishmael.” I won’t pretend to offer any better summary of the life and work of Berman than “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection,” but I will present a lesser-cited verse for secondary consideration, from “Smith & Jones Forever”—the track right after “Random Rules” on American Water—which begins with a line of questioning that hits you with a quick jab, before winding up a windmill punch of whaaaaaa: “Are you honest when no one’s looking? / Can you summon honey from a telephone?”

In addition to fits of morosity, Berman’s always been a jokester—just as likely to prod at the stark nature of reality as he is to comically deconstruct that reality altogether. One construct that he’s chiselling away at as we speak is that of the artist who loses their touch over time. Ten years ago he felt like the Silver Jews project had run its course, so he retired it. Since then, not a peep—until a few months ago, when he casually returned with an almost shockingly good album like it was nothing. (After multiple false starts recording with heavyweights such as Jeff Tweedy, Dan Bejar, and his old buddy Stephen Malkmus, Berman will be the first to tell you, however, that the making of this album was anything but easy.)

Berman is now recording under the moniker of Purple Mountains, and with the help of Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, has created an album that encapsulates an entire missing chapter of his life—and, in typical fashion, has revealed quite a lot about that chapter in the process: “Drawn up all my findings / And I warn you they are candid,” he sings on “Margaritas at the Mall.” “My every day begins with reminders I’ve been stranded / On this planet where I’ve landed / ’Neath this gray-as-granite sky / A place I wake up blushing like I’m ashamed to be alive.” Berman took an extended siesta, sure, but from the sound of it, he may have taken it at the Cumberland Park Shopping Center in Nashville.

Over the last thirty years, rock music has produced few figures as mysterious and inscrutable as David Berman—but when the Silver Jews/Purple Mountains songwriter gets on the phone, speaking from an apartment above Drag City’s offices in Chicago, he’s immediately warm and welcoming. Over an hour-long conversation, he doesn’t dodge any questions nor throw any smoke bombs and disappear, like I thought he might. Even still, I know better than to take everything he says at face value.

Aquarium Drunkard: I read that there was an HBO project in the works about your life, but that you decided to kill it. If it was to have been made, though, did you have any thought as to which actor you’d like to play you?

David Berman: No, it’s been years since I’ve been in a movie theater. I try every day and every night to find a movie or a TV show that I can watch, but I just can’t make it past ten minutes of anything. I just really have no luck with that.

AD: Have you always been that way?

David Berman: I’ve never been a big movie person, but I used to watch movies regularly in my life, and sometime in the ’90s I just stopped. I certainly never was an educated moviegover.

AD: Given the way your music career developed, I suppose it might be right in line to give filmmaking a shot then.

David Berman: Exactly. ’Cause I’ve found it useful to completely write off things that I had an interest in but that I just don’t have any more time for, like sports. I don’t pay attention at all to any sport. That used to be completely different.

AD: I was wondering about that, because I saw a reference to Steve McNair on the Twitter page for Purple Mountains, and it got me thinking about his murder, and how that might’ve affected you.

David Berman: Yeah, that was the end of it, for me. Well, his death was tragic, and very weird, but when he went to the Baltimore Ravens, that was the end of sports for me. Because I had so much invested in that [rivalry] with the Titans and Ravens, and I was so incensed just by [the Ravens’] very existence—by Brian Billick, and everything about them made me sick. The fact that they were the stolen Browns. It’s funny to hear me even caring—that I would hate a team. It was only like fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago. But yeah, to have him go play there was just unbelievable. I couldn’t go on any further. He was the last hero that I had. He was also someone that I liked, that I would see around town, unfortunately—leading to his downfall, probably. He liked to go out by himself, and you would see him at a bar every once in a while, just talking to the bartender. He was always really friendly, and I would just walk by and say, “I love you, Steve.” Watching the Super Bowl drive against the Rams, the way he scrambles—I can’t watch it. It just makes me tear up.

AD: That Super Bowl was particularly tragic for the Titans, especially when you consider that none of those guys really redeemed themselves in the years afterwards.

David Berman: No. And it was weird because it was the Titans’ first year as the Titans. You know, they had spent the two years before as the Tennessee Oilers. And I had just moved to Nashville. I’d lived in Dallas, and my father was a Cowboys fan and I was an Oilers fan, but I had never had a team where I lived in the town and they were my favorite team. It was like, “Oh my God, for the next twenty years there’s going to be this great tradition of football in Nashville, and I’m just going to enjoy it all.”

AD: Talking about this with you reminds me of something that’s always fascinated me about Steve Malkmus, which is how he was sort of an early crossover in terms of somebody who was in the indie-rock world—an art-oriented person—who also considered there to be a certain poeticism to sports. Nowadays that almost seems to be taken for granted, but it wasn’t as accepted when you guys were living together, right?

David Berman: Right, no. It was just that he didn’t hide what was an interest. I think other musicians—I don’t know if they hid it, but it was a bad signal to send out or something. And he just did a good job of not caring about that. So many walls were coming down. Besides the Berlin Wall—the wall between sports and music.

AD: I recently read a 2008 interview with you where you kind of bluntly stated your prediction for an upcoming crisis in this country—that in another ten or fifteen years you expected to see a fearful, older group clashing against an angry, younger group, and that it wasn’t going to be pretty when it all comes to a head. So, now that we are actually reaching that breaking point, I’m wondering what you think the next ten to fifteen years will find.

David Berman: I know nothing! [Laughs.] I’m completely different than I was then. Like, I felt prophetic. I was really religious, you know? It gave me a lot of strength. One thing that just seemed absolutely clear to me was that everything was unraveling, and that we were losing the last generations of people who knew how to work the country and knew how to work the institutions. That no one was gonna want to be the labor economist; that none of us were gonna be able to operate the world that we’d been given. I’m fearful of waves of suicides, I’m fearful of AI, and I’m fearful of the fact that we just have zero protection from corporations anymore. I know that everything’s unstable and that nobody’s committed to each other—that we’re not together—so it’s really hard to say… It would come out of nowhere—it wouldn’t be something we could predict. It would be a black swan. Like, someone asked me today, “[Do you have any] advice on life, blah blah blah?” I had none, except it’s absolutely ridiculous—you’re just not paying attention—if you have a kid. It’s just crazy. If everything’s fine and everything goes wonderfully, then your child will be the last of the subhumans before the genetically edited children that will be coming down the line. To bring a kid into the world when you’re not gonna be around in forty years, and they’re gonna basically be unable to compete on any level, intellectually or physically or whatever, you’re just not thinking.

AD: I’d like to bring it back to something you mentioned a minute ago, which is that you felt that your spirituality had guided your foresight about the future in 2008. Are you still as devout as you were in that time?

David Berman: No, I’m not. My faith was undermined by the same sort of things that make people skeptics of religion in general. Part of it was, there was no real place for me in Judaism. Maybe if there was I would’ve hung in there, but I was attracted to the social-justice aspects of Judaism, and I was attracted to the prophets. The prophets had something I didn’t have, which was a line on God. They had communication. That’s why I call it a “subtle God” [in “Margaritas at the Mall”]. I’m being sarcastic. It’s kind of angering—you get to the point that if you do believe in God, you get angry at God, and then nothing happens. Although I’ll never rule anything out; I’m not an atheist in any way. Part of it was also that Judaism is all about community—everyone prays in the third person—and where I live in Nashville, there’s just nothing there. The reform temples—the rabbis are like anchormen. There was just no community for me. So that made it easy for me to backslide. And then I had read everything that I had wanted to read, and I just stopped being able to pray. I still try it, you know. I’m an older guy, but I barely even masturbate. Like, I don’t know if I pray or masturbate once a month. So I’ve given up on both of those.

AD: I’m a half-Jew myself, so I was really interested in hearing you explain recently that a Silver Jew, to you, is a half-Jew on their dad’s side—meaning that they’ve inherited the Jewish name, but aren’t fully accepted by the religion itself. I’m only Jewish on my mom’s side, so I don’t know if that makes me a Bronze Jew or whatever—

David Berman: No, it makes you a Jew. Makes you a Gold Jew. [Laughs.]

AD: It feels weird to me that I’ve been given some acknowledgement by the religion or whatever despite the fact that I’m completely non-practicing. I’ve always felt almost guilty about that arrangement. No one even knows I’m Jewish because my last name is very goy.

David Berman: That’s the irony, isn’t it? That it’s the one who doesn’t get to be the Jew who has to carry the name. The Silver Jews are the Jews of the Jews. The outsiders.

AD: Getting into the music of this album a bit, something that I wanted to talk to you about is this moniker of Purple Mountains, and the line in “All My Happiness Is Gone” that ties into it: “It’s not the purple hills, it’s not the silver lakes.” It got me thinking about [the moniker’s source material] “America the Beautiful,” which is pretty directly about how beautiful the hills and lakes can be—and here you are saying it’s not those things. It almost seems like a mission statement of some kind of your view of the world and of your music at large.

David Berman: Yeah. It’s definitely ambiguous. I had this name that was such a burden. It was the bane of my life, ’cause I just didn’t think it would matter—it was just an art project, you know. I didn’t think I’d have to live with it for twenty years. It was such a difficult name to have. And Purple Mountains is so plain on one level. It’s so easy. You just have to think about all the times I had to explain what I did for a living. It’s like, going to get a haircut, I can say something normal now, at least. I thought of [the Purple Mountains name] while I was driving out West, obviously, straight toward the purple mountains. And when I was out there, working, trying to make the record, there was a huge purple mountain right behind the studio, and there was a story about [Katharine Lee Bates], the woman who wrote “America the Beautiful,” and her severe clinical depression, and her trip out West, her own personal situation. And me wanting a facade, knowing that I was not going to come up and be David Berman. The funny thing is, no one in any of the interviews I’ve done yet has asked, “Why didn’t you just play as David Berman?” And it was so clear to me—it would never, ever be a question that I would do that. Number one, I hate my name, because it’s my father’s name. But also, it’s not about me. I can’t imagine putting my name on a t-shirt. For someone to wear my name? Me? It’s ridiculous.

AD: Merch sales would probably drop a bit, it’s true.

David Berman: It’s one of the best things I love about the artform; I’ve always felt really good about the fact that you could work under a collective name. And then there was an asshole part of me that knows that, if the album was good enough so that the record would be remembered, when people sing “America the Beautiful” they would have to think about my band. And in particular—I’m always obsessed with this—the people who hate my music, I love the idea of them, especially any baseball lovers, who would have to stand up in a crowd with thousands of other people and put their hands over their heart and swear to the majesty of my own artistic creations. It’s such a cynical move—it’s so Trump-esque that I couldn’t help but enjoy that feature of it. But also there’s the third twist, which is that I can also claim complete innocence and deniability, because “purple mountains” isn’t in the song. She says “purple mountain majesties.” So it was just all there. The exploitation and the denial.

AD: In looking into “America the Beautiful,” I was really surprised to find that it has no official status, despite the fact that it’s basically an alternative national anthem—it’s like the alt-rock national anthem—and also that it was written during a major national depression [the Panic of 1893].

David Berman: Yeah, that was all surprising to me. The thing that made it make sense to me as a band name is that it’s a song that everyone can sing. The common complaint is that people can’t sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s like a lot of things in America: You have this thing, but you can’t really use it. You have his freedom, but you can’t really use it. “America the Beautiful” is just simple, but the story behind it…

AD: Something else to note is that it was originally a poem. It was published in a journal, and then it took on a life of its own because it was popular. I can’t imagine a poem having an effect like that now. Do you feel like the decline of poetry in American public life is something we should be concerned about? As someone who’s sold one of the more substantial poetry books of the last twenty years, I have to ask.

David Berman: I don’t know, I feel like maybe people aren’t reading more poetry than ever, but people are writing poetry all the time, whether they know it or not. And certainly, to me, as long as there’s language and people are speaking, I’m not too worried about it.

AD: In the last ten years, before you started working on this record, did you write music or poetry at all?

David Berman: During those ten years I kept writing, but I didn’t pick up a guitar for seven years. That’s the way I’ve always been, between the albums: For two- or three-year gaps I wouldn’t pick up a guitar. And when I don’t pick up a guitar for a year or two, that’s when the songs fall out. And a lot of it is waiting, because it’s waiting and it’s wading through bad writing. For every good line, there’s a hundred pieces-of-shit lines that I have to write, and I have to get through those. If critics were harder on the musicians that they love, there would be better songs. But as they grow older and they lose their talent, critics refuse to let them know that and protect them, and they get to the point where they put out music that just isn’t up to the levels where they’ve already been. It must be very strange to live in the world of Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam. I don’t know what kind of handle they have on their own loss of talent. Obviously Willie Nelson understands that it’s been forty-five years since anyone’s really cared about any song of his, but I feel like I don’t see very much vocational unhappiness. I heard Springsteen was an unhappy person. I don’t know, I haven’t read his biography. But a lot of people in my field should be a lot more unhappy than they are. They go to press with bullshit.

AD: Something I think about sometimes is how other types of artists—directors, painters, novelists—are not only accepted in old age, but they also seem to be regarded as having put out some of the most important work of their career in old age. But in music it’s the exception to the rule. It’s pretty rare when you have someone like Bowie put out a really good record at the end of their life—a record that is legitimately good.

David Berman: But what wasn’t rare was that he was lost for thirty years or however long. Even the exception is a perfect example of the problem. Like, he figured it out at the end, maybe—I don’t know, I haven’t listened to his record—but I know that he must’ve still been in his thirties when Let’s Dance came out. There almost are no exceptions. They don’t just kind of lose it—they completely lose the ability. It’s been something I’ve wondered my whole life and feel like the answer is that they get older, their lives get more comfortable, they rarely hear any bad news, they lose touch with the way people are living, your brain becomes less plastic, you’re less able to let your mind wander, you’re less able to have a persona. There’s a million little things. All I know is that the answer is: You have to write harder. You have to be harder on yourself. words / n rogers

Related: Silver Jews :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview (2008)

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