There are some things you should know about David Berman, if you’ve never listened to Silver Jews. Or even if you have. He’s a romantic, while at the same time, hyperaware of his consciousness–it’s not enough to say “self-conscious,” because that connotes a degree of self-pity. It’s different than that: he speaks his mind in a direct, unapologetically blunt fashion, quite the opposite of his oft-cryptic approach to writing song lyrics.
This June, the Silver Jews will release the excellent Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea on Drag City–their sixth full-length in two decades. Before that, they’re going on a short tour with Israeli trash-rock trio Monotonix, an absurdly perfect pairing Berman describes as “such a wrong thing to do.” Also, Berman is a poet and artists with his drawings recently selected as a part of the Dave Eggers curated caption-art show Lots of Things Like This.”
A few days after Apexart had the opening reception, I had dinner with David and his wife Cassie, who now plays bass full time for the Silver Jews. I wanted to be a bit antagonistic, but was too smitten by their husband-wife glow.
VV: I was asked to talk to you about a documentary you were involved in.
David Berman: Mmmhmm. What was the documentary?
Cassie Berman: The Silver Jews documentary?
David: It only showed in three cities in America, in like one day.
Cassie: No, it went to South by Southwest, and a traveling little circuit.
David: Well, no one was blown away by it.
What was the gist?
Cassie: He hasn’t seen it.
You haven’t seen it?
David: A guy I knew, was going around with us in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it’s me going totally off the cuff, to lots of different people, all day long. And obviously, when you do that, its not as circumspective as when you are emailing, or things you half-way believe, or are poorly explaining…I find that to be the worst kind of activity, to be seen in films. It’s like kissing babies footage; there were really sweet people that were really surprised that this band was in Israel, because of the tour there. The film is basically of these two shows, and it ends up on Wailing Wall- and apparently, I have an emotional experience where I was crying. And this one guy who wrote about it said to him, crying is porn, it’s like his porn.
A reviewer wrote this?
David: Yeah, he was saying that crying is the forbidden; it’s the worst thing you can see. Mick Jagger doesn’t want you to see him cry; it’s the last thing. Unless it’s an important time for where a man to cry; I mean, maybe you’d like to see Abraham Lincoln with one tear or something, but I guess I’m kind of a crier. So, I knew if I saw that movie I’d tell him to take it out. But I didn’t want to; that’s such a wrong thing to do. Kind of like having Monotonix open for you.
When I find something that is the 180 degree wrong idea, then it’s right for us. Because no one else likes that, and that’s something I can be alone with. That’s why I take pleasure in talking about things, spitting out just about anything, the “opposite George theory” of life–because to change your opinion, to change your luck–that’s not working for me. It’s sort of like having a wife who you know loves certain things that you never want to do. That you know would love that if you just would do that thing–something you hate. Ice skating. Hiking, for me.
David: Right, right. But if you were to, its like contained positive energy that you’re not releasing into the world. So when you do those spontaneously, or what I call “throwing curve balls”–you’re making your wife happy, and you’re also breaking a pattern. It’s kind of like liberation of the slavery of the tyranny of never wanting to do anything. It’s sort of like that.
I think in a Pitchfork interview, I did before Tanglewood Numbers came out–I did this long interview, and it was notorious because I explained how much money a person who sells 20,000 records will make. And people–it was shocking to them. It’s the last thing people will talk about, especially if you break it down. I think the latest way that I want to do that, with this album- the chords are all in the album. There are only sixteen chords on the whole album, and so, you always wonder why in the liner notes, bands don’t put their chords there? Its almost like bands are afraid to show how easy it may be. Why is that not often done? Most bands’ chords are only two or three; and people would cover their songs. There is no reason in the world, from a business standpoint–it’s insane not to. If you put these things in there, you are encouraging young children to learn to play on them. And those are the people they go on to cover, maybe.
So, from a mercenary point of view, it’s the thing to do. The reason I do it, is because that’s the sort of great twist of things. The only reason I can do it, is because I use so few chords. The reason Radiohead can’t do it, is because you can’t give something to someone, that they can’t absorb. They can’t give their music away for free; they can give their recordings away and tell them to name the price. But to give someone your music, you have to give them something they can play, and a method of playing. So this insert in there, it has the sixteen chords, and the tabs. All these chords are ones that use two or three fingers at the end of the neck.
Cassie: We call that “Farmer’s Corner” in Nashville–at the end of the neck.
David: Where all my songs get written. By providing these, literally–if a person was to be on a desert island, with a guitar and a CD, and never had played guitar before–or in your apartment, where your roommate has a guitar–in a couple of hours, you could be playing songs. To me, that’s like a whole weird life to it, when it comes out. I’m inviting people to play the songs, and I try to make the songs as coverable as possible, but with as little idiosyncratic–not as much self conscious, self-referential stuff…
David: In the lyrics…it’s so hard for someone to cover a song that has a joke, that is based on that person’s personality.
Well, one second though, if you’re going to say that. I got some crib notes, that are about your lyrics on Lookout. And there are some obscure references. I definitely agree with you; if you’re not really listening to it–it does stand up as a whole, and you don’t need to “get it.” But at the same time, this material that you’re drawing on, is so random. Speeches that Roosevelt did to young boys clubs. That Roger Miller-ism, “country-restroom.” It’s a quick, quick reference…
David: Yeah, that’s the thing. There is a lot of content, and within the content, there is a way of reading the record just as a history of me and Cassie. There is a way to read it, and just like the year 1913–it brings up a lot of stuff, in terms of what I am saying about this time, and comparing it to 1913, before the world changed forever. This album is kind of me speaking to people born after 1980, people that are younger than me. It’s me saying that “things are not going to be like this.” With Silver Jews music, you have to listen to it, and you have to make connections later down the line. Because you’re so used to making music that doesn’t have any meaning, that it’s really easy to listen to without that. And it should be able to do that, song by song. I try and make it narrative and pretty straight.
Well the problem with someone like me, is that I listen to music while doing other things. Especially while writing, or even reading about other bands. Which is probably the worst thing you can do.
David: I know what you mean.
Read about why a band is good, or sucks. And that’s how I listened to Lookout the first several times. I did listen to it on my CD player, while I was doing household chores. And that’s a different type of experience. But when I was on the subway, and no one was around to bother me, and my eyes weren’t fixating on anything. That’s how for me, with everyone of your records, you have to get, and realize they are so accessible. And then there’s the words, in which you start talking about Swedish Fish–which I have to buy for my wife every week.
David: So it builds a connection.
Definitely with your tunes, it’s something you can’t be a background listener to. You’re not going to get it.
David: It’s inferior background music.
It totally is!
David: My music has the ability to depend on that attention. Movies still demand that attention. You can’t watch a movie and do those kind of things. And a director is sure that these things will be examined, and compared to. In music, you’re pretty sure that these things won’t be paid attention to. Except to guys like you, who finally get alone with it.
Can you imagine going into a movie, and reading a magazine, or watching another movie? It doesn’t make sense, in consuming another art form. Or like your thing the other day, I guess people could listen to tunes while they’re looking at your pictures.
David: Well I started to foresee something in the late 90’s, when instrumental music started becoming really popular, that started saying something to me…
Well, in general techno and the electronic movement that is less lyric oriented. That to me really became a part of the shopping culture that’s really come up. Because music like that really makes you the star, you’re in the forefront, and it’s the soundtrack to your life. That’s kind of the Night of the Roxbury guys. And that music means something else. And I think that is what music got to me. And that’s why the band, if they have the right style and the right form, then they are a lot closer to being finished. I think the background is the big issue now. When bands are doing lots of harmonies and reverb, I think it’s a drawing back from the foreground from having to say anything. The Flaming Lips sound was always about individuals, but they created a way out of putting mortal feeling into their songs, while seeming to still embrace the good. Which is all about the “ahhhhhhh.” It’s like My Morning Jacket–love the way it sounds, until you have the opposite experience. Until you’re on the subway, and you can concentrate on what he’s saying, and all of a sudden, you’re like ‘Oh my God, this guy had no idea what he was doing, and he was just hoping to get this stuff by without anyone really noticing.'” And he’s done a wonderful job of it, because if you don’t pay attention, you don’t notice these terribly embarrassing things. If my music doesn’t get heard or concentrated on, then its below the standards of regular people. If you put on a Silver Jews record at a regular office, this sort of dislike that is expressed, is not that this is egghead music. That this is other music performed with a more rudimentary singer, with not as thrilling of hooks or something. But if you put it in another context, and treat it like something that is throwing its weight, and needs to be listened to, and more interpreted . . . I need people to raise their standards, so I can have a chance. If you don’t raise your standards, then I lose. Left alone with regular people and the mainstream, then I fail, in that Venn diagram.
That’s a good bridge to this Apex gig that went down. Speaking of mainstream…it seemed like a very high art thing to be involved in. Is this a regular occurrence for you, down in Nashville?
David: No. It was totally, out of the blue. I don’t know Dave Eggers, and he asked for one little drawing…I never volunteer myself, but I did say that I do this kind of stuff, this is my specialty. These rude little drawings. So I sent a bunch of them, and he put up those. These are my most inquisitive impulses; why should I hang my cartoons in shows with Mac from Superchunk and John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats in coffee shops….what I’m really saying, is if you can contextualize yourself–it’s impossible usually. But I don’t belong to the art worlds, and I don’t belong to the music or poetry worlds either…It’s like I have this little cheat going on. I can do one thing in those three places that’s a bit good, but in all three of those places, I can’t do everything good. I’m a bad drawer, I’m not a good singer, and in poetry I have no training or form. So, it’s almost like I’m cheating…like a con man, who is presenting a little bit of one story…
Yeah, but didn’t everyone say they loved it, the other night?
David: I don’t think people got a chance to look at them. It was too crowded…it was very tiny, and you couldn’t get back from the walls and get a look at them.
Did you have to stand by it, and explain this is my….
David: No…there wasn’t any other artists there, and I thought that was weird. And there was a line out the door, but no one would leave. I was glad that I was in that show, but it was poorly planned.
Were there price tags on it, for sale?
David: No…it was just a show. I just thought, well, hopefully this will jack up the value. For insurance, you have to declare a value. So, I said a thousand dollars.
David: Yeah. And they’re just pieces of 8 ½ by 11 pieces of paper. But I’m like, if I don’t call it a thousand, if I don’t say I’m a musician, and if I don’t say I’m a Jew, no one is going to say I’m a Jew. If I don’t name these prices and contextualize myself, if I keep letting the world do that for me, I’m going to keep meeting the wrong people and put in the wrong places and misunderstood. Because that’s what it is–you get tired, you make the record, and then say “take it over guys.” It’s a recipe for being misunderstood, for anybody, if you have stuff you’re trying to communicate.
With this showing, and with the Jews output, it seems like there has been a lot of attention thrown your way.
David: But I’m coming out more, so people are opposite maybe.
Do you think there are more people hearing it, more people recognizing that it’s good?
David: For me, and maybe you’ll be surprised at this–but I think that music fans who aren’t Silver Jews fans….no, I don’t feel that way. I feel like it’s “He’s still here?” And “Is he qualified to do that?” and “What’s he trying to get away with?” I do feel some hostility from writers, because it’s easy for them to make that case–that it looks easy. Would you really be surprised if I told you that the consensus of people that hear Silver Jews records, end up despising Silver Jews? That’s how I go around thinking. I think more people have heard the Silver Jews and said “I despise that band” than have bought a Silver Jews record.
I think its more of a I don’t know who they are, versus those that love. I’ve never heard of a hate. Maybe I’m just not talking to the right people.
David: Google “I hate the Silver Jews.” I did that once, and there was a quote from Sufjan Stevens interview. He said “I hate bands that make fun of religion . . . I hate the Silver Jews and other bands that make fun of religion.”
William Bowers admits that crying is his porn while writing about the Silver Jews documentary