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David Berman discusses why 11/7 was bigger than 9/11

Interview: Silver Jews 

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The Silver Jews formed in 1989 when poet David Berman got together with (then) Pavement members Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus. Berman's the only consistent members, though his wife Cassie joins him on vocals on the last three albums.

With his last release, Tanglewood Numbers, he began touring, so he's got a backing band as well to flesh out his poignant character-driven stories. Berman boasts a writer's eye for detail (graduating with Joe Pernice from University of Massachusetts' creative writing MFA program) and a heart capable of brewing significant emotional tension. He's gone through his own troubles, including an intense period of depression and substance abuse around 2003 after the dark, moribund Bright Flight.

He's now supporting his sixth album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, which references Pulp Fiction ("talking about insignificant shit, just like the crooks in the movies when they do that bit"), suggests "pain works on a sliding skill," and conjures defiant squirrels who wake up "in a nightmare world of craven mediocrity." We interviewed Berman via e-mail from Nashville, where he was preparing to head out on tour.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did touring after Tanglewood Numbers change your relationship or process regarding your songs?

DAVID BERMAN: I think it allowed me enunciate my shtick more clearly, in an all-around fashion. Now the narrator really narrates. I don't have to make post-modern choices. I can adapt in a whirlwind.

You told Popmatters last year, "I've barely written more than 50 songs, and I've always been slow to achieve control. I'd like to write 50 more with what I've figured out in the last year." What kind of things are you referring, and what did you do with that on the latest?

Not to stop writing when the song just gets good enough. Keep it in the shop longer. Imagine the solution to the problem of a weak line or section as "pre-existing." Come up with more solutions than you need. Those are some.

You mentioned allowing yourself to be more "actorly" in singing the songs. What's the nature of this realization about presentation, and does it relate to other changes in your orientation toward truths you held self-evident as a youth?

It must involve the fact that I was always a terrible mimic as a kid. Whatever that talent is, I didn't have it. I think when I realized that, considering that's how people learn to talk, so I just got quiet for about 10 years. The best funniest most entertaining people in school were the best mimics. Now I'm old enough and have lived long enough to finally have found in my "public persona," a character I can imitate with no problem at all.

There's a strong sense of past in your songs, like cans dragging behind a back car window with Just Divorced written in white greasepaint. From "I Remember" and "Horselegged Swastikas" to "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat," there's a sense of waking alive in a dead place. What's the fascination with that emotional space?

I like to drop a lot of nouns off in a still setting. The past is a wilderness that is more easily brought under control in a fictive space where you make the rules.

When you released Tanglewood Numbers, you complained about the Killers and Kings of Leons of the world, but is it/was it any different than the '80s when beneath the synthesized R&B of Flock of Seagulls Naked Eyes and ABC albums was cooking hot-to-the-touch stuff like the Dead Kennedys, Hüsker Dü, X, Minutemen and MoB? Is Rock Valhalla really underwritten by the people who make Stella Artois and Planet Hollywood, or is there an ageism in your critique, like Jann Wenner obsessing about Clapton and Macca, and ignoring Big Star?

My concern isn't with the stupidity of the masses like when I was in high school. Now I bitch about the creatives.

Or more to the point, is your complaint about the self-referential-ism in rock an outcome of the pomo impulse? If you're looking for pieces to pastiche you're not looking to create. So, is it simply related to a backward-looking zeitgeist?

Maybe people will look back on what this culture was and see that it ended with demonstrations of stylistic dexterity and lots of amusement. Everywhere, Americans are consoling themselves with luxury and goods. No one wants to criticize it. People actually get angry on the increasingly rare occasions when it is suggested that bands should keep their music out of commercials. No one wants to talk about it but this is just like the cult of the entrepreneur back in the '80s.

You talked to Grayson Currin at Pitchfork about the new album's arc, and indeed the debauched side echoes that hangover place I alluded to, but the second half is more resolved, a reflection of your renewed outlook? Is that reflective of passing 40?

I got there a little bit before 40. I started to change when I was 38. Doing the tour stuff is a perfect exercise for keeping me on the right side of 40.

Explain the relationship between the Stephen Bush painting and the album.

I think that would take too long. I'd have to send your editor a request for payment.

You made a great critique of the GIGO principle when you noted, "Americans need to have access to correct information in order to govern themselves." Do you feel differently, four years later about our future, as like Charlton Heston, we look at sweet Lady Liberty covered in beach? Can you only fool everyone for so long, or was Lincoln whistling out his ass in a pre-Goebbels world?

No one can tell the American people the truth. That they are the problem. No candidate will do this. Only in the wake of some cataclysmic disruption. Even then, the rightwing blame system will go to work finding someone besides the American people to hold responsible.

You experienced what sounds like a rather profoundly self-destructive period. What do you think it is about creative artists (and even uncreative ones like Bret Michaels) that prompts this, and what brought you back: bottom? (Ever since Mike Cooley's "Gravity's Gone," I never hear "hitting bottom" the same way.)

An artist is already halfway to being an asshole starting out. Addiction basically hands the keys over to the inner asshole. If I have this right, an artist is typically a half-assed thrill-seeker on the make.

A lot of things brought me back. You have to go several months without relapsing for your mind to heal enough to understand why it's better this way. At first it's so inconceivable because you have lost your ability for joy. You need a few months to start feeling the old feelings, in order to "get it." It's a decision hard to make because there is no evidence of its rightness available until 60 or 90 nights of complete joylessness are pushed through.

In Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors, the philosopher who is the centerpiece of his character's documentary kills himself, despite having made a persuasive case for the resilience and hope of life. Someone noted that your characters are often lonely and alone (in the movie the philosopher says the world's a cold place only made warm by our capacity to love). Is it significant that this album ends with the idea of comity and similar purpose? Is there a limit to how much meaning we ourselves are able to supply life, like a smoke alarm battery that might run down without maintenance?

Yes. I completely agree with what you're saying.

Did you read the piece in today's New York Times about the economist who predicted all this financial hardship in the U.S. years ago, that they dub, Dr. Doom. Does it relate to the idea that propelled this album, a kind of wishful ignorance that produced the current financial debacle?

I was thinking the other day. Everything changed on 11/7. I hope in the future people will talk about November 7, 2000. On 9/11, the Bush Administration began its worst work, but unless you go back to 11/7, you fail to see the real cause of our ruin: the 50 million people who voted for Bush/Cheney. Not too mention the 62 Million who voted for the same in 2004. There should be a name for those 12 million chipped in to throw it all away, their negligent guardianship of something that wasn't theirs to destroy.

What prompted you to add the chords and notations to the songs in the liner notes? Is it part of the rebirth of that DIY aesthetic that suddenly becomes more necessary when we no longer can afford to pay people to do stuff for us?

It just seemed crazy that it's not commonly done. Like some invisible rule that no one can perceive until it's broken.

Are you a fan of The Mountain Goats? Who else do you listen to, especially for their writing?

John Darnielle is an excellent writer. I like the Fiery Furnaces. They have these boggy narratives, like you've landed into a fat and marshy John Barth novel.

You employed Cleveland as a cipher for the long-suffering on "Inside the Golden Days of Missing You," is there anything(s) specific that sponsors your empathy with the Cleveland-ites?

I saw one show in Cleveland. It was the Replacements at Peabody's Down Under in Fall of 1985. One side of my family is from Wooster, Ohio. The TV was all Cleveland stations, and so I came to have a TV mediated knowledge of Cleveland. Dick Goddard. Judd Hambrick. The sad eyes of Sam Rutigliano. I always have this tender-hearted feeling for the old town.

Silver Jews plays Cat's Cradle Thursday, Sept. 11, with Monotonix. The 9:30 p.m. show costs $12-$15.

  • David Berman discusses why 11/7 was bigger than 9/11

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