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Past the Blues - An Interview with David Berman

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Dusted's Ben Tausig speaks with Silver Jews founding father David Berman.

Past the Blues - An Interview with David Berman

David Berman, Woody Allen of the Other America! Last week in NYC, he and Will Oldham acted in the Berman-penned short “Publicity Stunt,” in which Berman lay on the couch as psychologist Oldham probed. Funny and clever, but with a curious finale: Berman trotted out a Scottish singer-songwriter who’d handed him a killer demo, and made us listen. It wasn’t horrible. There wasn’t much to say.

The incongruity of the event was an apt metaphor for the history of the Silver Jews, who were once quite touching. Tanglewood Numbers, their new album, isn’t horrible. There isn’t much to say. As ever, Berman delivers charmingly disjointed lyrics, but now he writes caricatured rock songs as if he’s trying to sell - rather than say - something. (A style? An anti-style? I give up.)

In any case, here’s Berman on Tennessee and the Torah.

(I asked) Increasingly, the Silver Jews rock out - why this direction?

(He replied) The same reason an aging man tries to look healthy in a singles bar. He wears that certain sweater. The brown one. Ten years ago I didn't rock out much because there was a lot of rocking going on and I didn't perceive a place where I could contribute. Today bands live inside something called Rockworld. A perfectly safe and fully regulated arena with roped off seating for Mom and Dad. The chicks are hot, the players are good looking and the audience gets laid. Dead bands built Rockworld in the seventies and eighties. Today's stylish rockchilde has inherited the infrastructure and furnishings but instead of building on spends most of his time in "Joe Cocker's Bathroom." Kings of Leon and the Killers should pay estate taxes just to exist. All of this creates the illusion that I'm really rocking out when I'm just kind of rocking out by any other era's standard.

Which bands rocked you into a corner in the 90's?

How about such names as US Maple, Alice in Chains and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? By the way I'm refusing to observe Kurt Cobain's Death Day until it's publicly noted that a lead singer by the name of Layne Staley died that day too. It really is bullshit. It's like how Time/Life and their ilk have condensed the sixties down to two three maybe four images, that are rolled across the screen whenever that fabled decade’s name is ground out. Commercial History pushes the uncategorical out of the way. (Why is Jimmy Martin not in the Country Music Hall of Fame? Who were the jackasses at Rolling Stone who didn't write about Big Star in 1973? Who drove Pauly Shore's career underground again? I want their names.) Now how does Staley/Cobain Day sound to everyone?

For a band that hasn't done much touring, collaborating, or interviewing, that's distanced itself in general, it's surprising to hear that you concern yourself with trends. Or isn't it? Have the Silver Jews always had a punk ethos?

It is surprising for you but I am very conscious of trends. I attend to trivialities like any college educated 21st century significance nexus. It is some of the flashy fruit we pick from the bushes at the oft-surveyed edge of modern consciousness.

Four long years since the last album; what have you been listening to/reading since?

I hardly read fiction anymore. Likewise, I don't watch movies. I've been less comfortable taking leave of the world. I read a couple of newspapers every day. I listen to the music on WSM 650 AM when I listen to music. I read the Torah every day. For most of my adulthood

I'd been the governor of an inward state, and that just seems morally reprehensible at this particular roadside taco stand in history.

You read the Torah in Hebrew?

I wish. Unfortunately I could never learn another language anytime I tried. I couldn't even get a foothold anywhere. French was a bottomless hole and I never hit. Spanish was fortified by high spikey iron fences. I am trapped in the fields and low hills of English.

Is fiction escapism? Is plugging in to the newsstream better? Of what you've read/heard, what has most affected your songwriting and arrangements?

After fiction has taught a human how to empathize (only one of its many excellencies and functions) with other members of its species, its benefits become maintenance operations, unwisely carried out when time is so dear and the enemy is so near.

There is a set of books by Flann O'Brien on Dalkey Archive Press I really love. They are the collected clippings from the Irish Times, of a column he wrote under the name Myles NaCopaleen (spelling wrong here, I am not near a copy) and titled Cruiskeen Lawn. Excellent if you are looking for a model of levity that accepts future suffering as a permanent fact.

Late Roger Miller. The Darkness album is pure joy to me. I liked the sound of some April Wine, UFO, Scorpions records I buy. I was impressed with the Fiery Furnaces’ urgency. I like the way they push their message. I was really inspired by Bobby Braddock’s early eighties production work. I re-bought some old records I hadn't heard in a while and listened to them with completely new ears.

the fall - this nation's saving grace
husker du - new day risin
x - more fun in the new world

Just those three with their outward lookingness inspire in ways that contemporary rockbands, circumscribed by the history of rock, are unable to do. It's like mirrored jeans. Rock music can't solve the problems of Rock on the level of Rock.

As long as rock music feeds on rock history it will be unable to draw lessons from it. The young lion gorging on the stomach of a zebra does not see the complicated architecture of the three-stomach digestive system that it's tearing apart. There are many talented mimics who are able to instinctually channel style from the past. I actually think there is some promise to the Kings of Leon and expect them to outlast bisexual-baiting and -gay-male rock-critic-cock-teasing group like Franz Ferdinand.

Also, and I'm not going for a laugh here, I totally understand and love the way Mutt Lange and Shania Twain’s greatest hits sound.

Your new album refers to places in TN, NY, MD, and MS, at least; indeed, geographic references, particularly to the American Southeast, are a Silver Jews staple. Discuss?

As a kid I was always frustrated when a story was set in an imaginary place. I find soap operas intolerable because of their phony town names. Plausible details are scene setting to me. I don't have any real geographical allegiances.

That's just my preference as a reader/listener. For it to be given that the setting is a place. For this reason I am poisoned by the attempts to idealize land. It's the problem in the Middle East, same as it's the problem in music row studios.

How will the Southeast change after the flood(s)?

I don't see the southeast as a region with any significant cultural differences in historical terms. Is an accent and a tendency to eat cheese grits enough to delineate a people? By what they call soda? No. Southerners play up their accents when you walk in the room and it's all phony baloney. Everybody watched Headbangers Ball and ate at McDonalds just the same. In the 1970's Walker Percy couldn't find any significant difference in the regions. All that's left is a bunch of cliches. It's all so consciously done. Spreading out the 5 or 6 signifiers over an entire weekend and you can have yourself a real fine time down in spooky old Dixie!

As of this morning 75% of Republicans approve of Bush's handling of the flood. I thought more of these people would been woken up by seeing what no one seems to be able to [tell] them about their president. More than Bush it is Bush-voters who are the problem. The most dangerous voting bloc in American history. People need to start talking about politics at the dinner table again. At Thanksgiving. With cousins and aunts who maybe have all their news filtered by someone in their house. Americans need to have access to correct information in order to govern themselves.

C'mon. Beyond cliches, there must be something about the South that's appealing, distinct. You're forever singing about it – only because you've lived there?

It would be ridiculous for anyone to make that argument. This world is fascinating in all its aspects. But when I'm in Hohenwald Tenn., I’m not in Dixie, I’m in an elephant sanctuary. My point is "moonlight and magnolias, and cicadas, and the wounded mystery is bs personal marketing by people without individual identity. If your writing "southern fiction" right now you better be the author of Tim Franklin's first book, or you don't have a chance. They’re not

making masterpieces in Oxford Mississippi nowadays. It's like the rockmusic. Self-referential to a disqualifying for masterpiece level level. It's why altho I like their songs individually, the Drive-By Truckers won't write an album more penetrating of Southernism than the film Driving Miss Daisy did with the same task. If your an artist isn't time to get universal. I don't have time for sightseeing right now. These are the phases in history when a person is morally obligated to read a good newspaper every day.

Also, really? Are you saying that McDonalds and MTV erase the cultural faultlines created by segregation, the civil rights movement, backbreaking poverty?

No I'm saying that white guys from the suburbs of Atlanta have a million times more in common with white guys from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, than they do with sharecroppers or planters.

How and why did you choose a William Eggleston photo for the cover? Do you know the Egglestons personally? Did you know: his pictures have also been on the covers of Big Star's Radio City, Primal Scream's Give Out But Don't Give Up, and Chuck Prophet's Age of Miracles, possibly among others? Does that make you a hack?

His son Winston and I are friends. I've never met Mr. Eggleston. Winston let me in to the archives and said I could have my pick. That was too much.

Yes I even looked through the other shots that were on these rolls. The house where the red ceiling was photographed has a blue ceilinged room just like it, with the same kind of white cord. What about the Green on Red album? Shouldn't you know about that? Who's hacking here?

Do you share an ethos? You and Eggleston speak about the South in such similar ways - through the eyes of a native; enamored of and amused by its color and colors.

He is for admirers of the crumpled ice cream sandwich wrapper in the mud.

He gets it down for us.

The album refers to many animals; at least, more than most albums. To wit: ponies, chickens, animal shapes and noises, brown birds, ducks, lions, shrews. Discuss? Do you live with animals?

I have a conceptual band with my dog Miles (it has to be conceptual since I have to imagine Miles lyrics as well as my own, called "woodchilde masquerade". One of our numbers we do for Cassie is a little showstopper called "that's Agri-tainment". About the amusements of farm life:

Spoken-word middle part from "that's agri-tainment":

”I was driving down the road the other night when I nearly hit a possum. I turned to my friend and said ‘I could have sworn that possum was wearing a black bowtie.’ He looked at his watch and said ‘of course, he's headed home from The Animal Awards.’"

Judaism seeps into the album, lyrically, in places. If I'm not overreaching, discuss?

Did it seep in philosophically?

In the last year I've started to think of myself as a Jew. I want the strength to weather life. Judaism can grant you that strength. And it's so old. So time-tested. It makes me very happy. And there is so much to read.

You and your wife Cassie sing, together, "let's not kid ourselves, it gets really, really bad," but life, you sing unaccompanied, is "sweeter than Jewish wine." What gives?

The statements aren't in opposition to each other. In fact sweetness and badness are definitively interdependent.

What and how much did Cassie write/compose/advise/counsel/hector?

Cassie wrote the music for “The Poor, the Fair and the Good.” I bounce ideas off her all the time, the riskiest ones, and get her reaction. She is also my sustainer, my ally, and love.

Same question about Will Oldham.

We don't talk about each other's music much. Will is a vitalist. He's always ready to dive off a cliff or eat a fruit you've never seen before.

By Ben Tausig

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