Q&A: David Berman of the Silver Jews
Interview conducted by Ryan Warner
Singer and poet David Berman has been recording sharp-witted lyric-driven records for the better part of two decades. The vast majority of that time was spent out of the public eye, rarely communicating with press and never playing live shows. Still, the Silver Jews’ cultish popularity grew with a string of critically acclaimed albums and the book of poetry Actual Air, which received glowing reviews from The New Yorker and GQ.
Berman eventually did come out of the shadows before the release of the Silver Jews’ fifth record, Tanglewood Numbers. In an extremely candid, now notorious interview with Pitchfork Media in the summer of 2005, Berman opened up about his personal struggles. With brutal honesty, he discussed the battles with addiction and depression that nearly took his life and the restored faith in Judaism that saved it.
Three years later, on the heels of the group’s sixth record, Look Out Mountain, Look Out Sea, the Silver Jews are midway through the second tour. The record is something of a departure for the Jews; songs like “Candy Jail” and “Party Barge” show a lighthearted playfulness that, while not wholly absent from earlier records, feels genuine for the first time.
In addition to the new album, record label Drag City will release the documentary “Silver Jew” later this month. The film chronicles the band’s visit to Israel during their first ever world tour, highlighting Berman’s renewed commitment to his faith.
I caught up with Berman in between gigs and got some insight into his recent shift toward becoming an accessible artist. Along the way I discovered why Silver Jews prefer not to release singles and got a personalized explanation of the band’s name. The Silver Jews will play their first ever Minnesota show at the Triple Rock Social Club on Wednesday, October 8th. (18+. $14. 9 p.m.)
City Pages: Your newest record explores a lot of new themes and feels less autobiographical than your previous work. I found it surprising that nostalgia, which has been a constant theme in your music, is given very little face time here. Was there a conscious effort to stay away from the past?
David Berman: When you have a second act in life, after the mid-life crisis, divorce, sobriety or whatever crushing change you may have to go through, it can really cure your tender feelings about the past. Hard times are good to talk about when they’re over.
CP: There is a card inserted into the packaging of Look Out Mountain, Look Out Sea that has a list of all the chords used on the record. The top of the card reads: “Anyone can play these songs,” and you encourage your fans to do so. Right now there’s a contest where anyone can videotape themselves playing the songs in order to win Silver Jews swag. I’ve heard artists complain about having their songs “butchered,” and here you are encouraging it. Were you at all hesitant about the contest?
DB: I thought contests like that happened all the time. Or is it only that fans are invited to make a video? Or a remix with the original parts? Anyway, it seemed like a way to close the Mel Bay circle of this record with the chord tablature. There is something weird about how simple rock and roll hides its simplicity. Why does everyone print their lyrics but never their chords? It seems like a disinvitation. A denial of the folk aspect. For years I’d heard people condemn or extol country music for being constructed out [of] the same three chords, and some rhetoric about punk rock being three chords and a cloud of dust, but they never happened to mention WHICH chords they were talking about. It took me a long time to find out.
CP: There is very little in the way of b-sides or demo recordings for a Silver Jews fan to find. After six full-length records, I find it hard to believe that there aren’t some loose ends that never made it onto the albums. Is it possible that a Silver Jews rarities record might see the light of day?
DB: After recording on cassettes for so many years, I wanted the albums to be like stand alone volumes of a set. It’s what I prefer out of bands. I don’t care about their marginalia.
CP: On the first tour your set lists were pretty well balanced with material from your entire catalog. Will this tour highlight Look Out Mountain, or will it be another grab bag from your discography?
DB: It's about a third LOMLOC and two thirds "greatest hits.” It's more like a play than a jam. If people come to more than one show they shouldn't expect to hear "deep cuts" and rarities. It's more [The Cure’s] Staring at the Sea or [Echo and the Bunnymen’s] Songs to Learn and Sing than [The Grateful Dead’s] Dick's Picks, for sure.
CP: You have become an easily accessible artist over the past few years -- you even contribute to the Silver Jews forum online. I find this particularly refreshing, given that the norm in the music industry is to have a wall between the artist and their fans.
DB: I like posting interesting essays. I like nudging band/fan customs and rituals, even if just to show that I am paying attention. John Updike said, “Fame is a mask that grows into the face.” Situational micro-fame can be like Botox injections. A gas that flows into the face.
CP: Are there any current musicians out there that you wish would get more exposure?
DB: There is a female songwriter in Nashville named Patty Lemay who records under the band name Spiritual Family Reunion. It amazes me that people don't pick up on how good she is.
CP: The popularity of the Silver Jews has grown steadily over the years without having so much as even a modest radio hit. In the sink-or-swim world of the music industry, your band is one of few that have managed to succeed in this fashion. To what do you attribute your success?
DB: I think there needs to be a wall between art and commerce as thick as the one between church and state. Singles are promotional items. Bait for the discography. Afterwards, the singles are judged as either successful or failed components of a career. It creates a statistic for failure that will eventually mar people's impressions of the act.
CP: In the movie Silver Jew you give a great fictional response when you are asked about the origins of the band’s name. I was hoping you could give me another one to send off this interview.
DB: Argentina, the Silver Republic, has the fourth largest Jewish population in the world after the US, Israel, and France. Silver Jews are gaucho Israelites.