Silver Jews are one of the greatest bands still making records. They are an acquired taste, and founder/musician/poet David Berman has made damned well sure things stay that way. For years, the rock group operated on the policy that they would never collaborate, never appear on compilations and never, ever tour. Then Berman sobered up, converted to Judaism and in 2005 finally hit the road (including a stop in Israel). His music—including the increasingly enjoyable, narrative-driven Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea—is honest, wholly unique and a solid glance into Berman’s challenging psyche.
City Weekly: You prefer e-mail interviews. I’m one of those suckers who believe there’s something to be said for connecting in person.
David Berman: The quality of your article, which is my only concern, will always be stunted in that face to face encounter 99.9% of the time. I think you’re missing a vital point: Interview subjects in the year 2008 do not get intimate with media interlocutors. To you it’s a talk over coffee. To the subject it’s something else. And that something else means to play it safe by always speaking in the form of the stock answer. That’s why you can read a thousand interviews of one artist and never learn any more than the three angles you already knew plus one new one trotted out for the comeback cycle.
CW: What do you think the relationship between rock critics and musicians should be? How much Silver Jews criticism do you actually read?
DB: I really recommend the passages of Turned On by James Parker, that set up the lay of the hardcore music scene as well as I’ve seen done. If you can get past the title and the fact that it’s a biography of Rollins, prepared for some projected future that never arrived where he slowly becomes Morton Downy Jr. Frank Sinatra, and Jack La Lanne combined. We’ve never been a critic’s darling. In the jazz and pop sense of the concept. It does make me work harder.
CW: I recently read an interview in the Believer with Ian MacKaye who said, “I know music predated the music industry. I know music predates the alcohol industry. I know music predates it all. Music is no joke, and the fact that it has been perverted by these various industries for their own profit is discouraging to me.”
DB: Something people never say: Selling out or buying in or whatever is happening when a psychedelic band from Athens shills for the Beef Council makes us all look bad—”us” as a generation of artists and fans. And there is no discourse going on about it because nobody wants to get kicked out of the publicity party. Obviously writers and musicians are too buddy-buddy to practice real criticism.
CW: MacKaye is fairly one of a kind in his ability to succeed and uphold his values 100 percent. Dischord doesn’t even have contracts! But there must be some middle ground…
DB: I feel that way. I’ve never signed a contract in my life. My friend puts the records out. I don’t have a lawyer or a manager or even an accountant. I’ve never bought a dime of advertising. I’ve turned down Haagen-Daaz commercials when I was living on the last dregs of credit cards with no plan for the next month. There s a lot of temptation being proffered by those industries
CW: You started out committed to obscurity and still established a cult following, but that cult following never had the chance to connect with you in a live setting because you didn’t want to tour—because that was part of the music industry game. So have you learned how to work with the industry here and there?
DB: I still hate the ugliness of it when it doesn’t work. Like the way I feel today about the club we played last night. There’s a lot of thuggishness in the way things work and I hate to have to meet it with equal force. To survive, you change.
CW: In Silver Jew you say to the camera, “I find poetry to be … I feel like I’m just sketching on some frozen pond in Wisconsin … no one reads it.” But until I read Actual Air I didn’t completely “get” the
Silver Jews. I started paying more attention to your lyrics. It was all over from there. I was hooked. So I guess I’d like to explore your relationship with poetry and lyrics—is one form inherently more valuable than the other?
DB: To me a finished thing is always worth more than an unfinished thing, a whole more than a part, so a poem qua poem is worth more than “lyrics” taken from a song. If you were to ask what were more important, poetry or song, I’d say I don’t know.
CW: Do you gain more pleasure from writing lyrics?
DB: No. I get pleasure from finishing a thing. Hopefully in the fewest days possible.
CW: How does the writing process unfold? Do you approach it like a job, as many writers do, clocking in a certain amount of hours each day? Or is it spontaneous?
DB: It happens during the amount of time during which I am writing songs for an album. Im not writing a song right now. I haven’t written one in five months. One day soon I’ll cut off contact from almost everyone and go to work to produce something salable. Six months is a good amount of time to do this.
CW: Does the music come first or vice versa?
DB: A chord progression and a phrase or sentiment come together like sperm and egg. Neither is lacquered over the other.