Features | Interviews

David Berman (Silver Jews)

By Peter Hepburn | 14 October 2005

In the now-defunct world of indie rock, Stephen Malkmus, Doug Martsch, Lou Barlow, J. Mascis, and Dave Berman stood as slightly larger people among boys. These guys had what it took: the guitar chops, the dry sense of humor, the personality. Of course now that the sort of cinematic, new wave, Talking Heads/David Bowie/Brian Eno-indebted independent music has come back into vogue, these guys’ record sales are smaller than ever, and their target audience isn’t getting any younger.

Not that they haven’t been fighting back. Malkmus put out his strongest solo record, Face the Truth, earlier this year, and now Berman, far and away the best songwriter of the group, has released the Silver Jews’s long-anticipated fifth album: the fantastic Tanglewood Numbers. It’s the darkest, most concentrated album to date from the Silver Jews, and can stand to-to-toe with ’98s indie classic American Water.

So throw on that dusty old copy of Starlite Walker, kick back, and let Dave Berman tell it like it is.


CMG: : What are your five favorite records of all time? (I get to ask this because it’s an email interview)

Dave Berman (DB): These are the five that come to my mind: X Wild Gift, Charlie Rich Behind Closed Doors, The Darkness Permission to Land, Dinosaur Jr. You’re Living All Over Me and R.E.M. Fables of the Reconstruction.

CMG: What have you been listening to lately?

DB: Mostly I listen to 650 AM. WSM. You can listen to it at WSMonline.com if you want a real country music education. Especially around lunchtime.

CMG: Why don’t you like CAN?

DB: Everything is boring about them. What’s more boring than a can? And they put okra on one of their album covers. I like Germans but not music from Germany.

CMG: It seems like a lot of the music being made and received well critically today just doesn’t have the things that made indie rock of the early to mid ’90s great. There isn’t that loose, relaxed feel, those sprawling guitars, or that inability to play one’s instrument. Even Tanglewood Numbers feels like a record from someone distinctly older and wiser. Is indie rock dead? Does it matter?

DB: If by indie rock you mean independently produced and distributed music, then no. If by indie rock you mean the barely overground music listened to by college age and college educated white humans in the nineteen nineties. then yes, it’s dead. These names change you’ll see. What they call “post-punk” now, at the time was called “new wave.”

CMG: Do you worry about the Silver Jews becoming anachronistic in the face of this modern post-punk?

DB: First let me clarify I meant the bands in the past (e.g. the cure/devo) that are now categorized as “post-punk” were called new wave at the time. Of course the term “new wave” had it’s own obselence built into the word “new”. Am I afraid of going out of style in the face of the out of style style that’s in style again? No.

CMG: What do you think of Arcade Fire?

DB: Cassie plays them in her car. I pretend not to like it but probably I do.

CMG: Which of your albums are you most proud of? Any particular songs stand out for you?

DB: Well I’m proud of the first one for pulling it off. And the second one for getting through it. Nothing is standing out this very second.

CMG: Do you ever go back and hear an early song and just absolutely hate it?

DB: Yes. But I probably hated it back then, too. In other words, my estimation of the songs hasn’t changed much.

CMG: One sentence describing the last five years of your life:

DB: The problems of the mind cannot be solved on the level of the mind.

CMG: I’ve always been curious, with relation to “Advice to the Graduate,” what is a band called the Silver Jews doing singing with Catholic terminology?

DB: We all inherit the western traditions of which the Catholic Church is a major fount.

CMG: Any plans in the works for a follow-up to Actual Air?

DB: Not right now.

CMG: Is there a self-portrait at 38? What’s the outlook?

DB: It is an outlook. Not such an inlook like when I was 28.

CMG: How many times have the Silver Jews played live?

DB: Ten, maybe.

CMG: Is there any way you can be convinced to tour?

DB: If it paid well and I could figure out away to get off by myself.

CMG: If you did go out, who would you want opening?

DB: The Azita Yousseffi Band.

CMG: Does the Silver Jews-Pavement link (or perception thereof) bother you? The Silver Jews were around first, after all. How about the fact that you still have to answer questions from punk kids about somebody else’s band?

DB: No. It did up through 1998 maybe. Now it seems kind of quaint.

CMG: On that note, I’ve read that Slanted & Enchanted was the name of a comic strip you drew in your UVA days. What was it about? Do you still have any of the strips?

DB: It wasn’t a comic strip. Was that in that terrible Pavement book? That is such a piece of garbage. It was a drawing I had made of a figure on Whitney museum stationary and had written the phrase below it. It was taped to Bob’s door in the apartment in Jersey City I shared with him and Steve.

CMG: What did you major in at UVA?

DB: Englsih.

CMG: Tell me about working at the Whitney with Malkmus. How well did you two know each other? How did you get the job? Was Nastanovich working with you too? Where were you with school when you worked there? How’d you get from Virginia to New York?

DB: Pretty well I imagine. I got hired out of an ad in the paper. Steve had a shitty job at a bargain book company. So when there was an opening I brought him in then West. It was good. We were teamsters, the guards, and had excellent benefits. Bob was a bus driver for a ferry that went from Hoboken to midtown. You got off there and Bob drove a shuttle bus to different office buildings. Bob and I graduated in 89. He moved to Jersey City. I moved back to Dallas. Then Austin. Around Christmas I drove up to live with Bob. Steve had spent the year and half traveling and recording a seven inch. He moved from California around the same time.

CMG: In all of that, when exactly did the Silver Jews come together? Bob, Steve, and West all ended up in Pavement; were you ever invited to join in with them?

DB: Let’s see. When the three of us moved to the New York area Steve’s 2 7-inches had become somewhat of a little sensation among the musically educated. The first years this built. I remember when we first moved in, Steve playing me the songs from Perfect Sound Forever, which I think he had just recorded before he left and wouldn’t come out for 6 months, on the acoustic guitar standing in this doorway. I remember thinking “wow he’s gotten a lot better than he was in college.” This was right in the time he was turning from nerd into stylin’/jaded man. There was no middle stage really. We all change. We were all nerds in a way. Thrilled to sit next to David Yow at a bar, or “look there’s the singer from pussy galore!”

CMG: Even though all of your records have had their own specific character, in many ways Tanglewood Numbers feels like the most extreme break. What did you go into the studio looking to do with this record?

DB: I wanted everything to be more emphatic. To grab people’s attention. I didn’t think the Silver Jews commanded enough respect. We were basically buried. No where to be found in the catalogues of rock criticism. Check your local Spin Guide to the ‘90s.

CMG: It’s funny you should put it that way, ‘cause it seems like there are plenty of critics (myself included) who would readily state that American Water is as good as anything Pavement ever did, but it never gets quite the recognition it deserves. When the slacker stereotype was such a distinguishing characteristic of early-‘90s indie rock that you played a significant role in creating, do you find it strange to be taking a more ambitious stance? Did you ever buy into that?

DB: Because I don’t play live and tour, I don’t have many relationships with musicians and music fans as you would imagine. You may notice we are never on tribute albums and compilations, etc. We (I) have never been part of a music community. So the only thing I find strange is when people expect me to know the people in Sebadoh and Superchunk or the Mekons. All the musicians I know are on this record.
I am 38 and my life as an involved-show-going-music-fan/musician ended well over ten years ago.

CMG: To what degree do you see it as a political record?

DB: I haven’t decided how political it is.

CMG: This is probably the best band you’ve had backing you on any of your records —- it just sounds like a full, cohesive unit working really well. Have you considered pulling a Bonnie “Prince” Billy and going back and re-doing some of your older songs with this crew?

DB: I wouldn’t want to insult the other versions.

CMG: Aw, c’mon, not even “The Frontier Index” or “Ballad of a Reverend War Character”? Those two would be great with the band you had going for Tanglewood Numbers.

DB: Yeah maybe that second one. The other version is not such a good version.

CMG: Was this record more collaborative than your other ones?

DB: Less in the sense that I took way more control. More collaborative in the sense that I used a lot more people.

CMG: Why no instrumental track?
DB: There was one but it gots some vocals put on to it. “How Can I Love You” used to be an instrumental called “Belle Toke.” Which was Will’s old phone number in New York. BEL-TOKE.

CMG: What’s your favorite track on the record? What’s Cassie’s favorite?

DB: I like song number one (“Punks in the Beerlight”) the best. Cassie would probably say number three (“K-Hole”).

CMG: Do you worry that people just aren’t gonna get it or just won’t like the musical choices?

DB: I worried about that earlier this summer when no one was giving me any responses. It’s weird. I told this to Cassie before it happened. When you make a record and send it all your friends, your phone goes dead. No one calls you anymore. Name your reason, but that’s what I’ve found with every record. Even from the record label. You don’t get any feedback.

CMG: What do you have to prove to the critics at this point?

DB: That we deserve some of the respect usually diverted to the artist known as Fiona Apple.

CMG: Crooked Rain has sold 237,000 in just over 10 years. The rapper Young Jeezy sold 170,000 copies of his debut record, the cleverly titled Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, in one week. Does that sort of number discourage you?

DB: Precedent doesn’t discourage me anymore. I think we live in a time when unprecedented things (for the good and bad) are happening faster than we can comprehend.

CMG: How many copies has American Water sold?

DB: No more than 30,000.

CMG: The first track on CocoRosie’s Noah’s Ark is titled “K-Hole.” Is Special K making a big come back in indie circles? Is a CocoRosie/Silver Jews duet inevitable?

DB: My song is about the K Street Project. I think theirs is about some drug.

CMG: Can Kanye save us? Can Walt Whitman?

DB: Absolutely not.

CMG: I was watching TV today down here (I’m living in Santiago de Chile right now) and I heard Joanna Newsom’s “Peach, Plum, Pear” used in a bank commercial. Is there a God?

DB: Yes but he has granted free will to all advertising executives to do good or evil as they wish.