Arts & Culture

A Conversation with The Silver Jews Front Man

David Berman is the front man and only constant member in the (formerly) ever-changing lineup of Silver Jews. On albums, he is loose-lipped and brazen, throwing clichés to the wind and spouting lyrics that are brilliant, simple, and beautiful; Pitchfork, … Read More

By / July 29, 2008

David Berman is the front man and only constant member in the (formerly) ever-changing lineup of Silver Jews. On albums, he is loose-lipped and brazen, throwing clichés to the wind and spouting lyrics that are brilliant, simple, and beautiful; Pitchfork, bastion of all that is hip, said of him “the things that flash through my mind…if I had discipline and talent, could perhaps be turned into words by David Berman.”

It’s a strange compliment, but, when dealing with Berman, one learns to wade through the sea of compliments…and the sea of weirdness. The New York Times called his debut collection of poetry, Actual Air (Open City), “one of the most highly acclaimed debuts for a poet in recent memory.” And his on-and-off sideman, Stephen Malkmus, is one of independent rock’s greatest heroes: once the singer/guitarist for the band Pavement, he’s now a highly-successful solo artist.

When the Times interviewed Berman in 2005, he made a passing reference to a new hobby: reading Torah. Now, he does it every day—partly for other reasons, but partly because the unexpected collusion that his once-arbitrary band name has brought.

This has been a busy year for the Berman and his cohorts. The band and their first Israeli national tour were the subjects of the documentary Silver Jew. And their just-released album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, is the venerable latest entry in a just-as-venerable catalogue. We recently caught up with Berman to discuss touring Israel, the new album, studying Torah, and…show tunes.

How did you decide to record your recent documentary in Israel—was there something about the country, or the time, or something else, that made that tour more videogenic? And how did you wind up touring Israel in the first place?

Well Israel was the easternmost point of 45 shows we played in 2006. I had gotten with a booking agent for the first time. We talked about what I would and wouldn’t want to do. He asked me if there was one place out of the ordinary I’d like to play. I didn’t hesitate. At first I wasn’t sure if there were fans there…I found out there were. One Hasid sent a book with his sister thanking me for naming the band Silver Jews. Before he found religion, he found the Silver Jews and wanted to thank me, despite the fact that the he no longer went to concerts or listened to secular music. When did people start asking about the "Jews" part of your band name?

Jews of the “don’t make trouble” variety haven’t been a cultural force for a while. Political correctness was the topic of the day when I came up with the name. Perhaps I thought people would be forced to speak politely about the band. But really, “Jew,” it’s a beautiful word. It looks good too. The J is so unique, the e, so affable, the w, so strong. Despite all the professional show business Jews who changed their names, I’m going to make the name stick out. So if you are counterintuitive and a natural contrarian like I was in 1992, trying to be all conceptual, you might choose such a name.

Are you still studying Torah?

I read it everyday but I don’t perform the mitzvot. I am some kind of sub-junior Jew-in-waiting. What was that like for you when you started—were people instantly like, "oh, a Jewish indie band"?

Only people in Britain said the word indie back then. We were duly classified as “lo-fi”. But I since we didn’t play shows, I don’t know what they thought. People would call it a Pavement side project. Do you go through phases of writing poems and phases of writing songs, or does it all happen together?

It’s never at the same time. It’s always the only thing going on. But there are long stretches where I just read. What about the idiom of country music appeals to you—did you grow up listening to it, or is it just that particular shade of gothic Americana?

I like the narrative nature. The stories. The mix of humor and despair. It’s just something I’ve always been fond of. When I was a kid I did like the pop country of that time better than the hard rock music. Here’s an example: “Somebody’s Knocking” by Terri Gibb. If you listen to that you can hear how uncountry country got in 1981. It’s weird that she won country female vocalist of the year on that. Where did the title—and, I guess, the idea—Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea come from?

It’s a play on words for Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. “Lookout Sea” can obviously be heard as “lookout see.” I had a cornea transplant in January of 2007, and a lot of vision motifs are in the lyrics. This new album seems like a weird progression in several directions—it’s more poppy, if that’s not too pretentious to say. But it’s also…well, not darker than your previous stuff, but maybe a more finely developed sense of darkness?

I see it as more open to the uninitiated. It’s not inward looking, it’s outward looking. And clarity is an aesthetic value on this one. So what you say is right. There’s a lot more call-and-response vocal stuff going on here—and this record finds your entire band from the last album intact. Has songwriting become more of a collaborative effort? What’s it like to tell someone else, "Here, sing these lines"?

The arranging is collaborative. That part of making music is done pretty fast, if the blueprint is complete enough to work with. Writing the songs with other voices in mind just widens the possible cast of characters. It’s one small step towards show tunes, but I don’t plan on exploring that territory.