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A Surprise In Itself: An Interview With David Berman

Peter Wild interviews David Berman of the Silver Jews

About a dozen years ago, I interviewed Guided by Voices’ Bob Pollard and Tobin Sprout in a grotty room above the now defunct Duchess in Leeds — and it was one of the most gruelling interviews of my life. I’d had such high hopes. I remember walking through the doors of the Duchess as the band were sound checking — and they were sound checking with a song called ‘Your Name is Wild’ which I thought was particularly auspicious (given my surname). The band didn’t see the joke. The band were, in fact, the proverbial blood from a stone. I could just tell that they thought I was a total idiot. They didn’t want to be interviewed, particularly by me. It was one of those experiences that haunts you. And it rose, like a grisly spectre, as I made my way to interview Silver Jews‘ frontman David Berman. Because. Well. I read that David Berman didn’t like giving interviews. I read that David Berman had suffered some ups and downs in recent years (going as far as trying to take his life a few years back). I thought oh no oh no oh no: it’s going to be another Guided by Voices.

Which just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

David Berman is not difficult. He is softly spoken. Bearded. Given to long pauses. He is 39. Stick insect thin. His eyes are a little dark, but this is the only real evidence of any ghosts. His band Silver Jews formed way back in 1992 and has over the years involved collaborations with the likes of Steve Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (at one time, the band were unfairly regarded as something of a Pavement spin-off), Will Oldham, Azita Youssefi and various members of Lambchop, Royal Trux and Jesus Lizard. As far as what they sound like: like The Fall, they are always different and always the same. They emerged out from under the aegis of 80s punk and ploughed a distinctive country rock furrow — but they didn’t tour. In point of fact, I catch up with David Berman, erstwhile Silver Jews frontman, 12 years into his career and out on the road for the very first time.

I kick off by asking him why it’s taken so damn long to tour. A lot of different things happened at once, David said. For a long time, we didn’t have to tour. In the beginning, because of the Pavement thing, we were able to sell a certain amount of records. We were able to sell not such a great amount of records, but enough to live on. So there was no incentive to do what didn’t come naturally. Obviously there was the idea that we could sell more records if we played live, but I guess I didn’t care enough to sell more records to do that. In the past, David has gone on record as saying that, from time to time, it sort of teed him off that people kept referring to Silver Jews as a Pavement spin-off. So I ask him whether he was waiting for Pavement’s split to die down before embarking on the tour. He laughs. I was waiting for all of the bands that existed when we started to break up. There are very few bands from 1992 still around. Saying all of that, you’re the first person to mention Pavement. In 35 shows, I’ve been waiting for someone to shout ‘Box Elder’ or something but so far so good. After 35 shows, I say, he must be getting to be a dab hand at the whole live thing. In the beginning, people told me that they were both excited and worried, David said, quietly. They were worried that what they would see would be — he pauses and looks around the basement room in which we find ourselves — something uncomfortable. It’s been a struggle to remember some of the words. Two nights ago, I spaced out in the middle of ‘Pet Politics’ and I forgot the words — but I looked out and the audience helped me. They could see that I didn’t know. But it wasn’t uncomfortable. There’s a lot of love and affection. David paused again at this point. You can see him drawing a bead on a thought. I’m glad I’m not a young person, he said. ‘[The reaction] is really gratifying, but it doesn’t change the way that I see myself. In 2004, I don’t think any Silver Jews fan was probably expecting another record. Certainly not a record as upbeat and rocking as Tanglewood Numbers, [the most recent Silver Jews album] I interrupted. David nodded and said, The fact that I’m doing this is a surprise in itself.

I ask him if there have been any other surprises on the tour. He says, The last few shows we played in Israel were pretty much the most amazing experience of my life. This woman gave me a book of Hassidic tales. Her brother, she told me, had been the number one Silver Jews fan in Israel and — this is not a tragedy, but — he found religion and [these days] he studies Torah and he finds it completely unreal that Silver Jews are coming to Israel. She said he wanted to thank me for naming the band Silver Jews. And… David paused again at this point, paused to the degree that — given his earlier comment about ‘Pet Politics’ made me wonder whether he was spacing out. That knocked me out. That there was some Hassidic man sitting at home in his living room reading the Torah who wouldn’t couldn’t go to the Silver Jews show… but, as a kid, he would’ve been in some ways shaped by it… You can see that this had a huge effect on David. A lot of the Jews I met in Israel, almost all of them are secular. They get turned off by their religion, in the same way that Americans get turned off Christianity by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson. So… to me, maybe to some of them… someone like me, from America, comes in and sings these dubious theological stories and stuff like that and makes it okay to look into it… I don’t know.

At this point, I kind of felt like we were teetering on some theological brink and so I tried to reel things in somewhat; I ask, given that it’s fairly momentous, Silver Jews touring, whether there are any plans to follow in the footsteps of his buddy Will Oldham, and release a live album [Will released an album called Summer in the Southeast, under his Bonnie Prince Billy moniker last year]. Yeah, David said, sort of excitedly. The two Israel shows we did were filmed. I’m getting the band Hot Chip to remix the song ‘Punks in the Beerlight’ [the first track on Tanglewood Numbers], and that is going to be released with a Live in Israel DVD.

By now, the ghost of Guided by Voices had long departed and we were having a good old chinwag. In addition to fronting Silver Jews, David Berman is also a published poet. His book, Actual Air, is well worth picking up if you’re a Jews fan or, hell, even a poetry fan. So we got talking about writing. You see, I’d been watching an old Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, before I left the house to interview David — and there’s a bit in Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman gets a telegram informing him that his mother has died and Paul’s reaction is to walk the length of the room, pick up a banjo and start to sing. I couldn’t decide whether singing was catharsis or distraction. Given David’s well-publicised ups and downs, I wondered how he saw the whole writing and performing thing. Not writing, he said. Performing I do. Reading between the lines I figure that he means performing is both catharsis and distraction. While I’m singing, I’m rereading the songs through the faces and wondering how I would view them if I was hearing them for the first time. But writing… Writing is pretty much always… It’s a pleasure when you have your Eurekas but it’s a problematic activity to say the least. I did stop writing. [The urge] was medicated down. I made myself so I didn’t care.

I said to David that I wondered how songs and poems suggested themselves. I guess that I imagined a huge internal mail chute, with parcels labelled either SONG or POEM, falling into his lap. It’s not a mail chute, it’s more — he lifts his hands up, makes a sort of antler shape alongside his head — it’s more outgoing… Sometimes I’ll have something and I’ll wonder if it’s a poem or a song. But I haven’t really been writing any poetry. Maybe I’ve grown out of it. Maybe you’ll come back to it in your 60s? I say. That would be nice, he says and smiles — David Berman has a great smile, his whole face lights up. It could be my fly-fishing.

Cass, David’s wife, recently joined the band and is now part of the touring group. She comes over as we’re talking and feeds David a dumpling. I ask David if it’s good having the missus out with him on the road. It’s great, he says, smiling again. It’s great for me. I get to bring my home with me. And it’s great for her. Gets her out of the shitty office job for a while. It remains to be seen if it’s good for a marriage. David laughs a hearty laugh. Cassie and I have gone through so many things… So many hard things… There was always… I watch him cast about for the right words. One thing that was never hard was her and I. It’s always been easy.

We talk songs some more. I asked him if his favourite songs, the songs that came to mind as his best songs if he was asked, had changed now that he was performing them live for the first time. He said yeah. I know which ones are over achievers and which ones are live underachievers. I’d say like for instance ‘Random Rules’ is a better song on record, ‘Smith & Jones’ is way better live. I say, ‘Random Rules’ was the first Silver Jews song I ever heard. He smiled some more. It’s always fun to do. It’s one of those ones where you sing the first words and everyone goes Ahhhhhhh… All these things are still new to me. I’m learning. I like that…

Cass is looking over by this point and I know that I should leave the man alone and let him have some feed before they go on, but I have to ask whether it will be another three years until the next record. The band is touring throughout the summer. I think of September though December as the time when I’m going to try and do a record. I don’t write the songs as I go along. So, I say, you don’t write songs on the road, as of yet, and try them out live? I don’t think I’ll be that kind of performer, he says. I think I would want everything to exist as a recording first… He looks off again and I wonder if he’s spacing out, but he’s just thinking.

Unless the song was just, you know… too good. He shakes his head, smiling. That would be a nice problem to have…

Peter Wild is the co-founder of Bookmunch. He is the editor of a forthcoming series of books for Serpent’s Tail, the first two of which — Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall and The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth — will be published in 2007. His writing and fiction have appeared in Scarecrow, NOO Journal, Word Riot, Laura Hird, SN Review, The Big Issue, Nude Magazine, Alt Sounds, City Life and Eyeballkid.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 20th, 2006.