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Silver Jews
 by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Silver Jews by Paul HeartfieldLet's say you're a manic depressive or something and six months of the year you're manic, and for six months of the year you're depressed. Let's say it's split up in, like, one-month blocks - this is hypothetical - and you don't know when it's going to happen. You'll see about two months of mania, a month of depression, three months of mania, blah, blah, and you don't know what's going to happen. But you're writing songs all along. You set up a recording date for three months from now, and you have no idea when you go in whether you'll be in this complete mania or this complete depression, this hypothetical person. Those are two different records. If there's a parallel universe then, in one of them, he's in a manic phase and interprets his song and then he goes into the other universe, plays in his depressive phase and he interprets his song. Two different records you know, but we can only live with the idea that there's one. The one you have down, you know. And then, even after that, even after the record's done, well, there are all the other sequences, you know? The idea for a minute, as a fan, that there could have been this other sequence that was better. It would seem like it was a failure or, like, it hadn't reached its potential.

The same principle applies to the listener, too. The mental and physical environment when you first hear a record colours your future perception of it. There is a multitude of variables.
Which may affect whether you'll ever hear it again. And the second time it could've been something that really, you know, changed you. If music can change somebody.

Obviously your lyrics are the primary focus of your records, but American Water's instrumentation is much more of a factor than your previous material. Did you set out to prove you're a musician as well as a poet?
Definitely, yeah. We even had an instrumental break. I didn't know that was going to happen. So you didn't go into the studio with a plan? No, it was only because the band was so good you know? And we practised a lot. We practised for eight straight days, three hours a day, and the songs ... I was like, this isn't going to be one of those records where the music is a pedestal for the singing. There's other things in here and let's let them happen. I'm happy with that.

Certainly with The Natural Bridge you were lumped in with many others among the genre that sprung up, or was invented. American Water is less easy to categorise. Was this a direct reaction to being pigeonholed or would this record have turned out the same regardless?
I don't think we have to do that, especially because people don't think of us that way in the States. I'm not saying that I wouldn't react to a pigeonhole ... I would, I'm not above that. But, in this case, it wasn't that at all. If it sounds good it's going to go in that direction. Before it all happens, there's just the songs. Just put the people in the room and see what they do with them. I want them to write their own parts. I mean, I'll guide them, like 'I want you to play this piano like it's your first day back after a 12 month term in Vietnam. And you're broken and you're shattered.' That's the only way I can talk, you know? There was a big screen TV in the studio, right where we were playing. I'd put on different things and pick a channel for the song that seemed like it was going to give it the proper...push.

Would your lyrics adapt in the studio, depending on musical mood shifts?
Yeah, you tinker when you're in the studio. We were doing Send In The Clouds and there's a line 'Seventeen doctors couldn't decide whether I should be allowed in the game'. We were doing a take and Steve [Malkmus] is trying to fuck with me and he kept singing 'gime' like in a Jagger way, or something. And these verses I want us to sing exactly together, [he's] going to be a little lower in the mix, but I want us to be singing the same words at the same times, in total sequence. So we have to decide whether it's going to be 'game' or 'gime'. And we sat there for twenty minutes talking about it and then, finally, have us swayed into 'gime'. Some days I wish I'd said 'game'.

In the fickle world of music, do you expect a similar level of praise for American Water as you received for The Natural Bridge, which was very well received?
Not in the US.

It wasn't? Sorry.
No, it's a good question. I think more people could like this record, but the people who liked the last record really, really liked the record with intensity. You can get closer to that record than this one. This one is more distant, and this record has an awareness of an awareness of the imminence of the audience that the last record didn't have. The last record was recorded under such stressful conditions damaged that I couldn't even get to a point where I imagined it would ever be heard, you know? I was just trying to get through the process. The trade-off is that there's a carefreeness to the presentation on the new record. There's less singular presence of a single person. This is obviously the work of a unit of people, a group of people. So there's a watering down of a singularity of vision. It's a rock record, and the last one wasn't. And that's the difference. In the sense that a record recorded in a lonely situation like the last one, where it was just me and God in a recording studio, probably found its best listeners in people who are listening to it alone. A record that's recorded in a situation where everyone was having a good time would most likely be listened to in a room with maybe two or three people. [American Water is] really more the sound of a community.

You are quoted as saying "I'd like to write songs that are musically more complex and lyrically simpler." Do you mean more complex in terms of time signature, or more layered?
Just more things going on, more things to listen to. I'm not interested in making the music avant-garde. I'm not at all. When you feel like you're, technically, not a very good singer you must overcompensate for it with content. I think that's why Bob Dylan or Lou Reed went towards the literary because they had to play their angle.

When you sang "All my favourite singers couldn't sing" on We Are Real were you referring to them?
It's a reference to that. Also it's a statement and a plea. A plea for people to understand that in the past and in the future it will always be so. That the confines and the perimeters and the definitions of what singing is, what painting is, whatever, always change. And for a long time they've widened. What's happened because of the widening is that people who would have been lost to us, like Willie Nelson for instance, haven't been. But they could be. It's a reminder to people. Let's take the quotes off 'singing', that's all.

On Blue Arrangements you sing "Sometimes I feel like I'm watching the world and the world is watching me back". Assuming this is autobiographical, do you feel more like an observer than a participant?
That was something I actually considered revising. It was actually hard to write that and sing that because it seemed so self-pitying. I'm very down on self-pity. I had a tough time singing that but it was honest to the character of the song. Did you ever see that movie Breaking Away? Cycling movie? It was supposed to be like that, this poor kid sees this society girl...I would never say anything like that. I would think something like that but I would never say it out loud. But I'm a real social person and I would even go so far as to push myself on people. Like last night I was in a bar - a pub - and there were two girls sitting at a table. I'll go up to any woman in the world and start talking to her. And I just sat down and said 'Hi, I'm David'. That's not the English way, but I'll definitely intrude. There was a certain time in my life, probably a formative period, where I was only an observer. I was fifteen years old and then I was ready. But I think I was a late bloomer, always one of those people who watches, learns and then enters the game.

So, 'why can't monsters get along with other monsters'?
I think that's about me and Steve being...for each other probably the only person in their life who is aware of...we both admit to each other our faults and flaws and the damage that we do to other people in situations. And, in a way, it's a bond between us and, in another way, it causes friction too. We fight and he won't be my employee and I won't be his.

After The Natural Bridge, is it fair to assume that Silver Jews is no longer seen as a Pavement side-project?
Yeah, it's not an issue for me anymore, and it's really funny. It used to bug me. I think I'm really cognisant of the fact, I think a lot of people are too. I'm not the only one that thought about it. It seems pretty clear to me that Silver Jews will still be around when Pavement has self-destructed. [Silver Jews] is so low key and it asks so little of people and it doesn't demand attention and it doesn't insist on being bought and it doesn't get in people's faces. Only to ensure its survival, you know. It's very camouflaged. In that way it's protected.

You don't play live. Have you ever thought of interspersing a music set with poetry readings? Or you could be your own support act.
I feel like there has to be new ways of presenting music live. I was talking with my friend Will the other night about turning it into a lecture. Like, you'd play a couple of songs and then talk about writing it. Bring something new to the song besides the fact that, okay, I'm going to play a different solo or I'm going to sing different words in the second verse. What you bring new to the song is information. You could even have some kind of transparency [projection] or graph things on a chalkboard or something like that.

You've somewhat bizarrely suggested an interest in working with, at different times, Dave Matthews and Extreme Noise Terror. Assuming this isn't a way of amusing yourself during interviews, who's next on your wish list?
[long pause] I would love to record with Siouxsie Sioux. I don't even like her singing or anything that much, but I find her a fascinating icon or something. I had a dream about her. I got here yesterday and immediately took a nap. I fell asleep and in the dream Laurence [of Domino] put me in a room with a microphone and her. There were just like these two drums - that was all that was in there and he wanted us to record. He locked us in there and ... she was, like, bending over ... she looked really sexy and really good - I don't find her sexy or attractive in real life, but in the dream she was really, really hot. She's bending over to get a drum, and I come over and put my hand on her ass and, like, she got really upset. She was like 'We've got work to do. This isn't what this is about, we've gotta record.' And so we recorded these tracks and she took the record home and listened to it and within the work she could feel that there was a sexual energy. And she comes back and she's, like, 'I'm taking you to my estate!' And Laurence is, like, 'No! He has work to do, we have things we have to do here. You can't take him away.' And she's, like, 'Bug off! This is more important than any work, this is going to be a great romance.' And the next thing I know, I woke up. And, in my sleep, I had punched the wall as hard as I could and my hand was sore and there's a dent in the wall. I don't know why, I wasn't angry in the dream or anything. It was some release or something. So, Siouxsie Sioux, yes.

Any new stories about Jackson [David's dog]?
Yes, I have one ... well, I broke up with my girlfriend of many years and we agreed that she should have custody. So, I haven't seen the little fella in three months. But I am going to see him at Christmas. He's doing well, you know. I call him once or twice a week, and my girlfriend - or ex-girlfriend - puts him on the phone and I talk to him for a little bit. Apparently he spends several hours a day staring out the window, waiting for me to come home.

That's nice.
Yeah. It's nice to be loved.

CWAS #4 - Winter 1998/9 - The Lost Issue