photo credit: shannon mclean
Earlier this week Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Silver Jews’ David Berman whose new album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (the Joos sixth LP) drops June 17th via the Drag City label. Here, in part one of the interview, Berman discusses his faith, recovery, the documentary film Silver Jew, songwriting and his fairly recent role as bandleader in a live setting after years of non-touring, and what effect that has on one’s creative process. Stay tuned for part two of the interview which digs into the new LP and more.
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Aquarium Drunkard: What made you decide to go on tour for the last couple of albums after so much silence? In a Pop Matters interview, you listed your reasons for going as “1) I’m on a mission from G-d and 2) I’m not joking.” Can you elaborate on that? Are your reasons still the same?
David Berman: I was the hedgehog and not the fox the day I did that interview. Maybe I should list all the reasons at once. Perhaps the most interesting one I don’t talk about, is the way it helped me put a second act of my life into play. Intentionally or not, I was able to enter a sort of mythic structure through which I could keep growing and survive. I think I was so stuck in life, I needed to find a heroic narrative for myself. There it was, ready-made and waiting and one day I just realized “hey I’ve got an idea for an odyssey!”
Sometimes the album cover art looks like a good parody of this, my midlife idealism.
Aquarium Drunkard: As someone who had never toured before, you had the benefit of being more grown-up, more mature your first time on the road. How was the experience?
David Berman: I like it fine. The driving is too much. I’d rather travel by ambulance. And I like doing the shows and signing records. I’m generally open or open to being open, but I shutdown and get real quiet around other bands.
AD: What was it like playing in Israel? Do you know Hebrew?
DB: I would rate the sunlight there as the best I’d ever seen or felt and I want to go back as soon as I’m invited again. So far no secretworldwidezionistentertainment councils have contacted me. My Hebrew is hardly there.
AD: In the film Silver Jew, you tell a group of Israeli fans that, because you’d never toured before, you’d never had the experience of making someone happy. Judging by your reaction to the kids, and their reaction to you, I’m guessing that this had a pretty big effect on you both as an artist and a human being. Can you talk about that at all? Do you think that things would have turned out differently had you been able to judge fan reaction from the get-go?
DB: Fan reaction is so out-sized and hyperbolic in rock music compared to other arts. I don’t think any songwriter who comes up through playing clubs can really claim to have independently developed their art. All along the way so much information is coming, the writer inside the performer unconsciously reacts to all of that. By the time they get to be thirty, the writer is gone. I’m glad I did it this way. I taught myself to write without applause for a long time. This is the first post-applause album I’ve done. Maybe that accounts for what’s so different about it.
AD: I want to ask you a few questions about Silver Jew and your experiences that surround the film. Early on, when discussing the origins of the band’s name, you talk about how for the first fifteen years, the name – the moniker, really, of “Jew” – was something of a millstone around your neck. What did you mean by that?
DB: I meant that as a poet I loved the name Silver Jews but you have to remember how politically correct things were in the nineties. People in Northampton, Massachusetts and New York looked for meaning in it when I claimed none. It could have been my imagination, but I know it wasn’t.
AD: Did you grow up in a Jewish home?
DB: No. My great grandfather was the last practicing Jew in my family. He died in 1982.
AD: How did you become re-interested in your faith? Was there a single moment of epiphany or was it a gradual unveiling over time?
DB: Over time. I always had a background belief in God. In other words, instinctually I’ve never doubted that we are not alone. I think I fell out of love with art, or came to the end of my adventure with it, and beyond that I found a body of work to be studied that was immense and exciting in ways that literature or scripted cable TV series cannot be for me anymore.
AD: On earlier tracks, like “Like Like The The The Death” from American Water, how much of the spiritual questioning and yearning is your own? For instance, in “Send in the Clouds,” you sing “My momma named me after a king / I’m gonna bury my name in you.” The obvious conclusion is that you’re singing about King David, who is, if my biblical knowledge serves me well, considered something of the Alpha Jew behind Moses and the prophets.
DB: That’s right . Back then I thought of Jewishness as something like my left-handedness. I also was employing the Jewish way of making the everyday sacred without knowing it, by transforming the very common name David, into something dominant and regal.
AD: Tell me about your trip to the West Wall; your reaction while reading and praying seems to come on very suddenly. Obviously, the Wall is a very holy place in the Jewish faith; what were your feelings while approaching it and while praying? What passage were you reading at the Wall?
DB: I was reading the Shema. It’s something Jews say three times a day. The best is if you can die with it “on your lips”. I was taken pretty unaware. The Shema is a vow that I have never taken all the way. It’s words resonate all the way down to my bones. Maybe because I resist following their instructions.
AD: I read an interview with you where you referenced William Bowers’ Village Voice piece wherein he says something about how disarming it is to see you cry in the film. He goes on to say that it’s equally jarring to see someone “with such a sharp mind speaking so hippie-ly about receiving universal answers,” as if it’s impossible to both have an active mind and be a believer in anything. Have you experienced any other befuddlement of this sort since you’ve been more public about your faith?
DB: Well there is a kind of hysterical atheism I’ve noticed lately coming out of people. I don’t know if people want to hear this, but Judaism is not harmful to human life its daughter religions that claim one true way. Jews would be surprised to find out how truly kind and wise their own religion is. Since they don’t proselytize, and historically keep to themselves, where are you going to hear about it? Only insiders know.
AD: Israel was obviously a very emotionally challenging time for you, between the emotional rush of the tour itself, where you yourself were in life, and having discovered your faith, and it was all under the gaze of video cameras. So you went from this semi-seclusion as a non-touring artist to all of this exposure in an intense, emotionally naked moment, though you seemed to handle it really well.
DB: It helps that I’ve never seen the film. I had some friends watch it for me and evaluate it. I was on the fence about it for a long time but when I heard about the crying at the wall I knew I wanted to let it go out. I like curve balls but I don’t get to throw them much. Releasing that
Seemed a little more audacious than adding bagpipes to a song, and so it redeemed the idea of releasing it at all.
AD: One of my favorite things about the film is watching you and your wife Cassie interact. She looks so proud of you throughout the film, and the love that you guys have for each other comes across as genuine. How did the trip affect her as someone coming from a non-Jewish background? It seems to have ultimately tied you guys closer together, which is a beautiful thing.
DB: Cassie and I are so close together that we protect our little territories of difference. She got a blackberry phone yesterday. To me that is mortifying. She can’t stop loving the Virgin Mary. The V.M. reminds me of butchery.
AD: To what degree was she involved in your recovery? She seems as though she takes good care of you, and there’s that other famous Nashville singer/film subject whose wife helped him through his problem…
DB: She was very involved. She read all the same books I did. She had to stop drinking like she was taught to in Louisville. I dragged her through some nasty awful places. – words/marty garner
++ Stay tuned for part two of Silvers Jews :: The AD Interview
MP3: Silver Jews :: Suffering Jukebox
MP3: Silver Jews :: People (from American Water)
Amazon: Silvers Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea