Q&A with David Berman of Silver Jews

Two sides of David Berman.

E-mail interviews can be a drag unless the person providing A's to the Q's takes the time to respond in an interesting and thoughtful way. Fortunately, we've gotten lucky lately, first with Santogold's Santi White, and now with David Berman of Silver Jews, the subject of a profile in the October 2 Westword. Berman's replies below reflect his background as a published poet as well as his wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor.

The exchange begins with Berman reflecting on his past phobia about touring, his reasons for putting it behind him, and his experiences on the road and onstage. From there, he talks about his previous collaborations with Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, as well as his belated success at establishing himself as an artist in his own right; his belief in doing things for himself -- one he encourages in others; his early fumblings on guitar, an instrument he didn't attempt to master until adulthood; his laborious, time-intensive approach to honing his lyrical imagery; the song on his latest album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, that exemplifies a less-is-more ethic he only occasionally practices; and his improved quality of life since getting serious about Judaism.

For this Silver Jew, faith is as good as gold.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Following the release of your previous album, Tanglewood Numbers, you embarked on your first major Silver Jews tour. Why had you avoided touring up until then?

David Berman: In the beginning, it was meant to be like a faceless art piece. Then I did the first record and it received enough notice to satisfy my needs. I questioned the procedure out of fear. The Silver Jews was never meant to be recreated live.

WW: Did you find the tour to be more rewarding than you'd anticipated? If so, how?

DB: Yes. It’s good for me. It’s social exercise at a time in my life when I’d been hardening into an arbitrary shape back home.

WW: At the same time, were there aspects of touring that made you think, “Maybe I should have just stayed home”? If so, what were they – and how did you get beyond them?

DB: There are so many potential irritants you have to just go into a certain mode, where no delay, no incompetence, no tale-bearing can touch you.

WW: How would you describe the average Silver Jews performance – or is there such a thing?

DB: Tonight will be number 85 in SJ history. It’s evolved into a good live show. Some nights I’m funny with the between-song commentary, some nights I'm not. I have no control over this. I pace the stage a lot and struggle with the mic stand in a ridiculous way.

WW: What was the most rewarding show on the tour? And what was the most challenging or dispiriting?

DB: In Detroit/Toronto/Montreal/Boston, the crowds were incredibly lovable. We should have played Athens instead of Atlanta.

WW: How would you describe your approach to fronting a band?

DB: Control With a Smile.

WW: If I’m correct, Look Mountain, Lookout Sea is only the second Silver Jews album that doesn’t list either Stephen Malkmus or Bob Nastanovich in the credits. Were they busy this time around? Or did you think it would be best to leave them out of the mix this time, since all these years later, Silver Jews is still looked upon in some quarters as a Pavement side project?

DB: Steve has been on every other one. The first, third, and fifth. Bob played on the first one and a little on the fifth one. Pavement was great and hilarious, but the connection stopped bothering me after a while. It’s been a long time since anyone has asked me a question about Pavement and I do a lot of interviews!

WW: The Look Mountain packaging includes a guide to guitar chords. Was that your way of telling listeners, "This isn’t so hard, and you ought to try it yourself"?

DB: It’s my way of asking other bands and songwriters, "Why don’t you do this?" I question the protocol when I see an opening.

WW: Reviews of your albums often pay more attention to your words than they do to the music. Is that okay by you – and maybe even appropriate, in your view? Or do you think this focus almost makes you seem like a spoken-word artist when music is obviously a major component of what you do in Silver Jews?

DB: I think it’s great when they quote the lyrics. I’m all for cutting out the expert middlemen from between the artist and listener.

WW: What inspired you to pick up the guitar in the first place? How old were you when you did? What was the first song you learned to play all the way through? And how long did it take you to realize that playing music would be a major part of your life?

DB: I bought a guitar when I was twenty. But I didn’t write a song until I was 25 or 26. I never learned to play others songs. I learned to play my own songs while I was learning how to make them better. I was 29 or 30 when I felt sure of what I was doing, but not fully identifying as a songwriter until I was 37. Now I’m 41.

WW: One of the great things about your lyrics is the unique imagery you invent. Do these images often come to you fully formed? Or are there times when you have to work on them, revise them until they make the grade?

DB: Everything I write goes through a lot of drafts. A hundred rewrites is not unusual for me to go through – the last fifty maybe just going back and forth on a single line or word selection.

WW: An example of the kind of image I’m alluding to is “sarcastic hair,” from "San Francisco, B.C." How would you describe "sarcastic hair"? And is there a performer or celebrity that comes to mind whose hair, in your opinion, is sarcastic?

DB: The sighting of sarcastic hair was most possible from 1977-1984 by my numbers. Also it's not a stable quality. You have to make it that way and keep making it as all hair tends away from ideas.

WW: It’s tempting to think of the "Suffering Jukebox" you sing about as metaphorical – as, perhaps, a stand-in for you. Do you ever think of yourself as a suffering jukebox in a happy town that people keep at low volume because they don’t want the truth to harsh their mood?

DB: It’s not a stand in for me. But it is characterized as a source of truths – namely the old country weepers on this imaginary jukebox that people in pursuit of wealth may forget. Familiarity and compassion for the bad off.

WW: In contrast, "We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing," which concludes the album, has one of the recording’s most straightforward and sincere lyrics. Is it sometimes difficult for you to write in that kind of plainspoken manner? Are there times when you have to force yourself not to add any extra imagery – to realize that sometimes simpler is better?

DB: Exactly. It’s me stretching. I like that song a lot. Earlier it was called "Sunglasses, Cigarettes and Keys." It was full of images and I had to pour them out and start from scratch a few times before I latched onto this better idea.

WW: Over the years, you’ve spoken very openly and honestly about all kinds of personal aspects of your life, including issues with drugs and alcohol and a suicide attempt. Are there ever times when you regret being so forthcoming? Or as an artist, does soul-baring come with the territory?

DB: I only regret it when I see it taking up twenty-five words of a fifty-word review. The truth is that I have worse secrets for which the other ones cover up.

WW: In recent years, you’ve reportedly become a much more serious adherent to the Jewish faith. How has that changed your life, and your music, for the better?

DB: It’s given me courage. It’s shown me the ways of kindness and humility. It’s given me a grasp of history and a way forward, come whatever.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts