C&T exclusive: A chat with Silver Jews' David Berman
As noted here before, David Berman and his Silver Jews will appear at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse on September 13 as part of their fall tour. With that date approaching, Drag City was kind enough to allow C&T contributor Tiffani Harcrow to chat with Mr. Berman:
With the release of the Silvers Jews’ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea in June, music blogs and publications from every corner of the interweb have seen a dramatic rise in pithy expressions and droll insight as David Berman makes the publicity circuit and firmly cements his place as the interviewer’s most sought-after Jew. From Parisian Gallagher revivalism to horrifying yuletide fantasies, David Berman talks about the new album, the new tour, and the dangers of sight-seeing in Ireland.
TH: You've stated several times in interviews that Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is your best album. Do you think that fans and critics have agreed with you? And what makes this album so different from earlier records?
I must have fallen into that REM mirror world where you completely lose perspective on your own work, except I don’t have Q magazine to hide the truth for me.
People might prefer the other records, but those records prefer this record, in the sense that they wanted to be like this record. Which might mean that preferring the first records requires misunderstanding them.
TH: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is full of obscure references from Theodore Roosevelt speeches to Emily Dickinson poems. Do such diverse allusions slowly coalesce from things you're reading at the time, or is there a more premeditated writing process?
DB: There is always a period of time where the songs are on “simmer” maybe for a period of weeks. When you’re moving around, driving, walking, talking, or reading, you keep it out in front of you, so you’re kind of auditioning the flot[s]am and jetsom passing before your pattern recognition screen.
TH: Given the arc between the more desolate first half of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea and the more optimistic end, "Open Field" is a perfect transition or negotiation between the two sides. Were any other cover songs considered for this album?
DB: No, it was the only contestant. It seems to function as a nature preserve in the middle of the record. A wild place for all the song’s squirrels to disappear into.
TH: Has your approach to writing changed since your bout with drug abuse and depression?
DB: Mostly it’s not enough to draw the connection between getting stuff done and feeling good. People see that, know that, and still can’t get stuff done. Can’t act. Can’t decide.
Nowadays, I refuse to ignore the conditions for my own survival. For a young person, trying is a choice. When you’re depressed or addicted, trying is a choice impossible to make. Now I’ve taken the choice away from myself. I’ve removed the adolescent option.
Nihilism seems impossibly quaint to me now.
TH: In "Suffering Jukebox" you describe a machine "all filled up with what other people mean. And they never seem to turn you up loud, gotta lotta chatterboxes in this crowd," which reminds me of an old Pitchfork interview in which you mention your strict avoidance of Silver Jews' criticism. How has your relationship with criticism changed since you began touring and facing potential critics in person?
DB: In person I haven’t had a bad experience.
Technically I don’t read the reviews, but a few get through. The most galling ones turn my mind into a theatre for the showing of violent fantasies. When it’s on it’s open 24 hours a day, including, or should I say especially, Christmas.
TH: In a recent Slant interview you mentioned feeling a bit wary of performing "San Francisco B.C." in Paris given the song's multiple French phrases. I was at that show, and I remember thinking how strange it was to hear lines like "I'm drunk on a couch in Nashville, in a duplex near the reservoir" while in a crowd of Parisians so far removed from that type of background. Given the centrality of your lyrics to Silver Jews' music, is it difficult to perform where a barrier to language, if not experience, exists?
DB: I haven’t had that problem. I just assume that the audience at a show like that is weighted towards the section of the population that is interested in a variety of the products of the English language arts. Both of our Paris shows have been in 100 degree plus temperature rooms. I find this funny because where do you want to look more smooth and cool and in control than Paris? Instead you get to look like an audience volunteer from a Gallagher show at the Hartford Civic Center. Completely soaked.
TH: Has performing live changed the way you approach song writing? The inclusion of the guitar chords with Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea seems like an additional way to connect with audiences.
DB: Yes. These were the first songs written in that knowledge. I think there is a connection between writing these songs with an audience in mind, and the attempted handoff of the songs to the audience in the form of the chords and lyrics.
TH: What is your favorite song to perform live?
DB: "Tennessee" is fun. We didn’t play that on the last tour.
TH: Whenever I go into a record store, the Silver Jews' discography is typically represented in its near entirety while other bands have one or two vinyl releases to their respective sections. And owning a Silver Jews album on vinyl just seems to make sense— the purchase of a new record should be an event, not an afterthought on iTunes. Has the switch to digital dilettantism affected the way you view your music or fans?
DB: A year ago I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the record before that day that all music ever made is on your cellphone.
Records and CD’s are slowly turning into corpses, the music is leaving its body behind.
Over the last coupla [years], I think Drag City has probably lost 30% of its physical sales, all of which is not made up by digital sales.
TH: Taking inspiration from "Candy Jail" and the lines "I came all the way to see your grave. To see your life as writ in paraphrase," what short paraphrase would you write for your own life at this moment?
I was Once Like You.
TH: What is your most recent injury?
DB: I broke a bone in the palm of the right hand, under that pad at the base of the thumb [while] on tour in Ireland. Cause: a stumble in the dark on rotting Dundalk wharf...
The Silver Jews will be playing with Monotonix at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta on September 13. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is now available from Drag City.