Archive: Silver Jews interview

From the Event Guide, May 2008

Suffering Jukebox

By Aoife Barry

American alternative rock outfit Silver Jews, fronted by the enigmatic David Berman, began as a musical project back in 1989, when David hooked up with friends Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) and Bob Nastanovich. The band were famed for the fact that they never played a live show, something which earned Berman a reputation as a reclusive rock star. But that all changed in 2006, when Berman brought the band on their first ever tour, which took in the US, Europe and Israel, the latter having huge importance to Berman who, after a struggle with addiction and a suicide attempt, found salvation in his Jewish religion.

However, although the Nashville-based band are now set to embark on their second ever tour, in support of new (sixth)  album ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’, it seems that Berman still has his concerns about life on the road, and performing live. “I really didn’t know whether I was gonna like touring, you know, on the first time in 2006, and I guess I did like it, because I look forward to it [this time],” he says, sounding surprised at himself.  “I know what to expect and I was concentrating so much on just getting through it last time that I didn’t have a chance to move around or talk to anybody; I really had to sort of hermetically seal myself off.”

So with such a fear about touring, did making that leap back in 2006 help him prove anything to himself? “I proved something to myself,” he agrees, “but I also feel like maybe the people who came to the shows proved something to me that I needed to see. I could never have imagined…there was no way to imagine how many people were interested in the band. I was just really gratified you know, and people came from such far distances to the shows.”

The surprise at finding out that the Silver Jews have such a large fanbase was something that helped Berman go back and assess his career. “It retroactively sort of made me see the work that I had done in a more positive light. Because I had never toured, I never get feedback,” he says. However, he’s not taking to the stage again to bask in the glow of admiration that he will get from his fans. “The sort of asymmetry of the relationship between the musician and the fans is always sort of bothersome,” he offers. “I don’t feel comfortable in that position, the way people approach a musician they respect, like the way I approached Robert Smith when I tried to introduce myself to him after a Cure show, with your head sort of down, very humble.”

For Berman, it seems like the allure of fame is something which has repelled him from putting himself in the spotlight, and something which he is very conscious could have a negative impact on his musicianship should he let it take over. “Being around people who treat you with that respect and deference is very seductive, but I don’t think it’s very good for you as an artist,” he muses. “I think it’s probably part of what makes a musician’s career as a writer so short. I don’t think other artists usually go into this environment for years at a time where they’re just celebrated for something they’ve already done and they’re just going reproducing it. It’s more the kind of career that an actor has, and every couple of years maybe they come off the road and write some songs…And so, I’m happy with it as long as it’s a small part of my life.”

For a man whose band have garnered a huge fanbase worldwide, ironically it seems that David Berman uses the thoughts of those who aren’t fans of the band to spur him on. “I’m hyper –aware of the fact of how many people don’t like what I do,” he says. “And that helps me in the sense that I always want to win people over…I’m definitely the type of person who’s going to focus in on you know, the one negative comment for every ten good comments.  I find an energy in that opposition, and engaging that you know, very, very early on, people who told me that I couldn’t sing or I shouldn’t sing challenged me to do what I could in places where I undeniable could do something – in the lyrics, or the energy, or the album or the things that I felt that I could excel at.”

One area in which he does excel at is writing, and as published poet as well as an acclaimed lyricist, Berman says he tries to raise the bar for songwriting. “I don’t feel like there’s a call for anyone to raise the level of the writing that goes on in music. No one’s calling for it. But I wanna do that,” he says. “I feel that’s something I can do because I feel like the standard that I have for poetry and the standards that I have for literature are necessarily high because I spend my life reading what I consider to be the great works of the English language. And when I come and start to write a song I…I don’t necessarily forget about all that.”

With Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman took an unusual and new approach to his songwriting. He cites the year 1913 as an “important concept” in the record, explaining: “1913 was the last year you could travel throughout the world without a passport. It was the last year you could say something like ‘Look out mountain, look out sea, here I come’, you know. It was the last year you could use heroic language.”

“I feel in a lot of ways the album is me speaking for the first time to younger audience,” says Berman. “I clearly feel that there’s like a pedagogical tone to my relationship with the listener in this album in that I’m speaking for myself clearly for the first time to a younger group of people who I generally think of as people born after 1980.” Describing the youth of today as “intelligent, cynical about the media but smart and wise [and] vulnerable too”, he says that he believes we could now be on the cusp of major change – and he wants the young people of the day to do something about that. “I feel like it’s clear when you look at history that every 80 years or so there’s some kind of disaster that requires a society, in order to solve a problem, to restructure a society so that it looks completely different after the crisis,” he says. “I really feel what I tend to be saying on this album to younger people is this is a 1913 kind of moment.”


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