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Silver Jews
an interview with David Berman by Stav Sherez / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Silver Jews by Paul HeartfieldHe's on the phone, pacing the small illuminated box of a motel room. The curtains are open and from outside, looking in, it is a tableau very much like you can see repeated the world over, every day, everywhere, almost a quintessential modern archetype: Man Sitting On Motel Bed, Man Pacing Room.

These are only abstractions after the fact.
There is something in this small, enclosed situation that speaks to us all, whether we are watching from outside in the cold November air, or through the eyes of the tramp who shuffles past, stares dead-eyed into the room, a paradigm of all that he cannot, will not, ever have, and then walks on, disappearing into the blackness of the park. Or the police car that slows to an almost imperceptible movement, the two straight-backed close- -cropped cops turning their heads to stare at this anomaly - for we are not used to such things anymore. We live in a world of curtains and doors, a world of blinkered and occluded views, in which we all find smaller worlds to hide ourselves in; folded, somehow, into the darkness.
Yet, tonight, a man stands in a room, the light is on, the window reflects his face to us, a bearded man staring at the wallpaper of which he can undoubtedly tell you more than you'd ever want to know.

Now rewind back - an hour earlier - and I'm walking up the cold, narrow street towards my meeting with David Berman. London is covered in a glassy chill, breath mushrooms and dissipates in the air, people crouch and bend themselves against the wind.

A man has been following me all day.
When I stop to light a cigarette, he is there.. When I turn a corner, I can see the smoke from his own cigarette disappear into the grey sky. I walk past the confluence of three great churches and up St. Petersburg Place. The roads here are all named after Russian ghosts, all that was left to the exiled Tsars and royals who escaped the public execution, the shot in the back of the head, and settled in this part of London at the beginning of another century. The churches keep the wind off my face, darken the street in their elegant and chilling shadows. The streets are empty tonight apart from me and my pursuer. There is a war on. We stare up at planes suspended in the air with a new wonder, tinged with fear and excitement.

David Berman's late.
I'm sitting, sipping my fifth coffee, mucho agitato by now, as you would expect, talking to the press guy about the time when Berman, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovic were all security guards for a while. Inside the hotel I could be anywhere, the d├ęcor is Indigenous Corporate, plain wood and faded carpet, close your eyes and you're in Bangkok or Belize. These things don't matter anymore.

David eventually stumbles over, fully bearded, corduroy jacketed and sporting a tie; he could be an upstate New York University creative-writing teacher or a character from an Updike novel going through a breakdown. There's a badge on his tie that says 'Silver Jew' just in case you hadn't already guessed. We shake hands, the press guy gives David a stack of CDs, this in addition to the drink he's holding and the room key. We make our way down the corridor, David weaves and the stack of CDs sandwiched in one hand precariously swells and trembles and it looks like they're going to go crashing down any minute. Somehow we make it to the door and after several attempts the electronic key deigns to let us in.
"Usually when we come here we're not the biggest artists," David says to me as we fall into the room. "Like in America, we're the biggest Drag City band but on Domino we're small, Smog sells much more. I always felt that [Domino boss] Laurence was making me stay at his house because I was a big shot or something - this time I said, 'I can't fucking stand being in your house' because they keep it so cold and I found Europeans generally they're like hey..."

I look at Berman as if he's just proclaimed that the sun is green. "Cold? What on earth do you mean?" He coughs, reaches for his cigarettes.

"Yeah, is that like a British thing?" He asks.

I feign a 40s accent. "There's a certain British stoicism in being cold. Makes you more of a man and all that."

Berman stares at me as if I've just admitted to sacrificing children. He sneers. "To get up in the morning, take your clothes off and get in the shower when it's freezing like that - please someone allow me to control my climate. Like even here." He suddenly springs up, hits the storage heater; of course there are no buttons on it and the knob has been amputated leaving only a small metal stump. "There should be a button to - if this was an American hotel room I would come in here and..." He's getting more frenzied now, pointing around the room at imaginary climate controls. "Air con okay, we would get freezing and then I would turn it off."

He reaches for the windows, the air in the room is only a touch hotter than that inside of a rain forest, the windows are designed for mental institutes, they will only open an eighth of an inch and, if not careful, you'll lose a finger. David grapples, the windows hold firm, perhaps you can even see them smiling. "These fucking windows. Anyway, we're not here to talk about the weather."

No, indeed not. What we are here to talk about is the new Jews album, 'Bright Flight', a return to form after the slightly rocked-out excesses of 'American Water'. David lights up another cigarette, flicks the ash. His speaking voice is so deep that my chest resonates as I listen and I'm sure that prolonged exposure would cause total organ collapse, like those CIA sound weapons that dissolve your insides. Of course, these days, we have bombs that can suck the lungs out of a person's mouth. Creativity is no longer purely the franchise of the intellegensia. We talk about this, about the new album, in a room that feels as if it is getting smaller with every minute, every cigarette. Berman is the most distracted man I've ever seen. He lopes around the small room as if it were a practice track and he, the disgraced athlete. He holds three conversations while answering my questions. He smokes like it's 1959. I move forward, try and make myself heard over the Altman-esque overlapping conversations.

"So, David, the new record seems much more organic than the previous one. Did you consciously set out to make this type of album?"

His eyes catch mine. His fingers beat an incessant tattoo on the windowsill. "I knew what the line up was gonna be like so I knew basically that it wasn't gonna be a rock record. Not having Steve Malkmus on the album immediately changes one thing, which is that there's just less guitar solos. The guy who plays guitar on the record is playing in more of a tapestry style. You know, mostly when I make a record, I'm not a control freak, I'm not someone who goes in and has a vision of the record and works towards that vision. The album was created before my eyes and it's a combination of accidents. I want everybody in the studio to feel comfortable, always making suggestions. We move fast, we work fast, and I think working fast keeps the new ideas coming and we don't set aside a day to do a certain thing, it just pops up - like piano playing - that guy was a real blessing. His name's Tony Crow and he plays with Lambchop but he's been around forever. He was a friend of the producer and we got him set up and on one song he might have four tracks - an organ part, a standard piano, a grand piano - we used him a lot. Everything apart from Let's Not And Say We Did, that real rollicking one, everything seems to be of a piece. You know, it sounds like the same five instruments in the room, you start getting emotional over it, that's what I want - it's always gonna be focused on the words and I wanted a pretty band in the background."

Pretty is perhaps not a word I'd have chosen. They sound more like a drunken jazz band trying to play country, especially on the stumbling, addictive-as-crack grooves of Transylvania Blues, the traditional SJ instrumental. I ask him about this. "Despite your obvious focus on language, you always seem to include an instrumental on every record."
He stubs out the cigarette, lights another. "It's a palette cleanser. [Transylvania Blues] is kind of the story behind how my parents met at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. That's where I was conceived also - so I guess the blues is that I was born, it's kinda cynical. In fact, when we recorded the record we didn't have much time to mix it because I wanted to rush and get it out because I needed the money. So there's certain things that normally you would have sat around with for a couple of weeks and listened to, and there's maybe ten, twenty things you're like: 'we've got to get rid of that, we've got to change that', but those things, I didn't get a chance to take care of. In one of the songs there's a tambourine that ruins the whole fucking song for me - it's too loud, it's off time and it's way up there and this guy Mark Nevers who produced the record, he spent fifteen years doing everybody from Billy Ray Cyrus to Clint Black, all these shitty, major label country bands and he knows how to work those big national studios and I was blown away that he didn't hear that and no one else heard it and that it got all the way through to Abbey Road to the mastering. We always have the instrumental, even from the very beginning, from the 'Arizona Record', our first EP - it's just kind of a tradition and I never go into records saying we have to make a whole new sound. I feel like I'm almost writing the same record over and over again and in different ways from different vantage points at different ages. They always end with a ballad, there's always an instrumental falling in the middle, the weirdest song is always song 7 or 8 and I keep feeling like I'll keep rewriting the record and trying to make it better and also I don't feel like we've ever been the belle of the ball when it comes to the most popular band, we've never been the critic's darlings or anything and so I felt I'll keep rewriting this record until someone says hey, this band is really good, so maybe that's why I'm doing this."

Someone hands David a passport. Whether it is his or not, I don't know, all I can tell is that nestled inside its pages is a small paper wrap. I pretend not to notice, continue as before. "For someone who obviously cares a lot about language, don't you think that most lyrics these days are asinine at best?" This perks him up. He swivels towards me, slurps at his drink.

"Yes, there's no competition. It's the visual culture. A lot of rock critics are to blame for it - like I remember when Guns 'n' Roses became popular and rock critics were embracing them. They love to have this paternalistic attitude towards the band, like they're the dumb rockers with all the energy and we praise them and we tell them why their music's important. Like the way Iggy Pop is what rock is supposed to be - it's the big dumb Stooges thing and anyone who tries to do more than that is pretentious or really has no business doing it and I think that when people say Rock and Roll's all used up - in one very important category it's not even been taken out for a walk - very few exceptions, anyone's even tried. You know people always go, 'you have very good lyrics David, that's your strong point' - well I don't even think there's any competition - it looks good because there's just no one else and I'm constantly surprised by how much praise I see being thrown at it. People will actually quote lines, you'll read Rolling Stone and people will quote lines like they were something you might put on your gravestone - very few people do it right."

"Very few people even try." I interject, sensing this is something he likes to talk about. David nods vigorously.

"Yeah try, exactly. Try at all. And even my own friends downgrade it. Like Malkmus always says now, 'well your lyrics are all perfect, you try', because we're like competitors, 'your lyrics are great and everything, David, but you know what, lyrics to me are not important, they're just an afterthought' and to me what he's really saying is he used to be good at doing it and he's not that good at it anymore. There was a time in history when I think he was great and now that same writing style comes off as flippant, it's just not nourishing sounding to me and I tell him that. I tell him, 'why in the world, I'm like your best friend, so why in the world when you make a record don't you spend 500 bucks and send me a plane ticket to come out to Portland and listen to what you're about to put on tape forever and let me make some suggestions because I can tell you that this and this and this isn't working here and you're doing yourself damage.' So his latest thing is, 'ah it's just a cookie-cutter', what's the term for it? It's not sour grapes. It's like a cousin to sour grapes where you can't do something so you claim it's not important to be able to do so, so they say 'I'm not a lyric person, that's not what matters.' And then you've got all the instrumental music and if I really want to get down and critical..."

Oh, please do, David.

"I would say it goes hand in hand with a lot of the narcissism in the culture. People don't want to listen, they want to have their Tortoise music playing in the background because then they're the focus really and the music is the soundtrack to their life. And I know I'd rather listen to instrumental music than have to listen to the Spiritualized guy trying to be deep with me but, you know, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this music..."

"No?" I feign disbelief. David's on a roll now and I'd be stupid to argue.

"What I'm saying is that to me it's a symptom of some kind of sickness that people are so distant from the word and the word's like the famous William Carlos Williams quote: 'It's hard to get the news from poetry when men die every day for the lack of what is found there' and I feel that's true now more than ever - people need to be spoken to, spoken with, to hear that someone is out there thinking we're not all locked inside our skulls and we're not all just shopping, you know, because that's to me what instrumental music is, it's just a soundtrack for shopping, a soundtrack for dancing, a soundtrack for pleasure, for pleasing yourself."

Happy to get that off his chest he leans back in the chair. I look at my notes. They don't make any sense to me anymore. I throw them away and carry on, regardless. "A lot of people describe your work, your writing especially, as ironic, but it seems to me that, in the majority of cases, people confuse irony with something far less valuable, the in-joke, the retro laugh - a way, perhaps, of avoiding serious issues, of eschewing intellectual rigor."

David lights his sixteenth cigarette. "It's endemic, I think. Irony, like any other thing, is a critical tool and in certain times in history it's been more important than others and it's been most important when people are selling a lot of bullshit and no one's calling it bullshit. So there was a time in the early 80's when David Letterman's sense of humour really caught on and it was effective for a while, it was important to take the bullshit out of commercials - but now all the commercials are ironic and they have to be because if they're not they won't sell! They have to laugh at themselves and so it's no longer a tool to attack the lies, it's become the lie itself and so it's overdone but nobody wants to think like hippies, we need irony, it can't go away, but we need balance like anything else, it's got to be in there because it's a bullshit detector."

The room is covered in a fog-like blanket of smoke. It's getting harder and harder to speak. I expect Jack the Ripper to come swaying through the mist anytime now. I shift in my seat. "Don't you think that a lot of the common perception of irony is actually a fatal misunderstanding of the term?"

David springs up, suddenly animated, the cigarette jumping between his fingers.

"Exactly, it's become a way of announcing 'I'm in on the joke are you in on the joke?' It used to drive me crazy, the fat Elvis jokes. You know, in '77 it was maybe important to deflate whatever Elvis represented, he was a ridiculous character, but when everyone's laughing, everybody's nudging each other then who's being corrected? It feeds on itself." Which brings us neatly to the band moniker. "A lot of people seem to take your band name as ironic when it isn't."

David shrugs. "You know, I don't think about it much now. For a long time I really regretted it, I felt saddled with it and it's really weird because in every other aspect of my life I choose my words carefully and I just don't know how I wound up with it. I mean, there's a million band names I could think of that would be better but I wound up with it and I finally decided that okay, what I'm gonna do, maybe the only way I can look at this in a positive light, is to normalise the word and it is a word, it's a proper noun for a group of people and it's a group of people that I'm a member of and it's a problematic word because it's a proper noun that if said with a certain, depending on how you pronounce the word, it can turn into a slur."

And I'm reminded of Kinky Friedman remarking that the word Jew is pronounced in Texas with fourteen syllables: J-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-w-w-w-w.

"Yeah. So now, I'm really relaxed with the name actually. It doesn't mean anything and the only time that I ever really think about it was when I got into Nashville and everyone asked 'so, what do you do?' and I said 'I'm in a band, the Silver Jews', and they're like 'Silver Juice? Dews?' And then I don't ever apologise for it or say anything about it but I don't think it's a great band name but it's problematic and everything we've done's been problematic and in a sense I feel it's appropriate for us."

It's easy to see why someone like Berman would enjoy a name so confrontational and unforgiving. I light a cigarette. My mouth feels like sandpaper, I can hardly get the next question out. "Yes, it's funny that. How the word Jew can be seen as pejorative. Seems that anti-Semitism is easily couched within language. The word 'Hindu' doesn't quite have the same charge."

David checks his watch, taps his foot, time is getting on. "It's only ever come up one time where it actually affected me," he says, getting up, pacing across the room. "It probably secretly has affected me and I just never found out about it but one time, a few years ago, when 'The Natural Bridge' came out, there's a record store in New York, Other Music, and they have light boxes [window displays] and we were asked when The Natural Bridge came out if we wanted to be part of the display and I said 'yeah, that's great'. So they went ahead and made the whole thing and they put it up and the owner of the building was like an 80 year old Jewish man, he came by and said, 'I don't want that in the window, I won't have that in the window.' And, at first, Drag City wanted to make a big deal out of it, get some press out of it, then I thought 'no, I don't want to do that' because then you become like Negativeland where you're known for controversy outside the music. I would have like to have asked him 'why?' Unless he thought we were a skinhead band or something - even if he was a concentration camp survivor, he should be glad to live in a time when you can do that. I mean, I fucking got off on the times I've done press in Germany. I've loved sitting there with these German reporters who are very conscious of it and always talk about the name and say, 'I think it's great that I can sit here fifty years later...' and that in the newspaper I can be this guy, the Silver Jew, and that's fine. They're always amazed that in America you could have a name like that and get away with it."

I sit and wonder what exactly they think it is one's getting away with. I realise that if I don't hit David with another question soon, he'll be up and pacing again. I catch his eye, blurt out. "Growing up Jewish in the South, how did that affect your self-identity?"

He pauses to think, runs his hands through his hair. "I never really thought about being Jewish, I mean, I knew that I was different, but when I would go to New York to visit my grandparents was the only time I ever got any Jewish culture. Now my dad, as he's gotten older, has started to embrace it. Like he doesn't go to work on Yom Kippur. When I was growing up, I think, he was a guy living in Texas who was a businessman who knew that there was a certain amount of prejudice especially from his generation and I think he wanted to be a gentile in a lot of ways and he's a real macho guy, he got into playing polo which in England is not macho but in Texas it's a real macho sport."

I smile. "I couldn't think of anything more gentile than that." I say. David laughs.

"Exactly, it's not a Jewish sport and anyway I think that it didn't really play a major part in my growing up, sometimes I wished that I was blond-haired, wished I wasn't so quiet and bookish and thoughtful...things I maybe ascribe to my Jewish heritage."
David is focused now, the subject holding him. I see my chance and carry on. "I think that the years of anti-Semitism and the shadow of the Holocaust has meant that our generation has grown up deracinated, somehow ashamed of our heritage." He looks back, strokes his beard and nods.

"That's a good point. Maybe it's got to the point where we actually think of the word Jew as a slur word, as an insult."

I nod. "Yes, I think, especially here. There's a tradition in British Jewish culture of pretending you're not Jewish, hiding behind the mask of gentility."

David issues a look of utter disgust, like finding out that the inside of the cake you've just bitten into is filled with semen. "I've had intimations in Britain, I feel anti-Semitism here is huge, a much bigger deal than it is in America, I really feel it - it's kinda played off as a joke sometimes."

I tell him to read Philip Roth's novel, 'Deception', which deals especially well (and hilariously) with this. "The funny thing." I say "is that anti-Semitism here resides in our so-called liberal middle classes. It's not rednecks you have to fear here but professors and publishers."

David looks surprised. "Whoa, really?" He says, lighting another cigarette, I think of cancer and respiratory machines that look like encroaching insects. David nods, "Let me tell you a story." He says. "I remember years ago I got into a fight with Frank Black backstage at a concert. It was right after 'Starlite Walker' had come out..."

Suddenly the phone rings. David picks it up. "Oh you're late? You're canceling? We're old friends, hey? Yeah." He puts the phone down, visibly upset now. I have to remind him that he's in the middle of the soon-to-be-famous Frank Black story. "Oh, yeah." He says through a ribbon of smoke, "So, after the Frank Black fight I called Laurence and I knew that he's a real master of the press stuff and I knew the Brits like little gossipy things like this but I didn't know...what they did basically was they told the story of the fight from my point of view and they had a picture of Frank in profile and then a picture of me in profile facing each other and we both kinda had angry looks on our faces and the headline said 'Jew Baits Black'. I loved it. Anyway, you know I've always felt that ever since then Frank Black's career has gone down the tubes. It was after his second album came out and I liked that. I had gone backstage to ask him to produce something of mine and he'd been this total bitch, you know I hate people who treat you with contempt who're like 'who the fuck do you think you are coming backstage into my dressing room?' and such and so what I'd done was I'd taken the CD and had brought it to give it to him to listen to and I like just went phssssss..." David takes a Josh Rouse CD off the table and imitates throwing it. "Right at his head like a Chinese throwing star and it went tchhhh and kinda glanced off the top of his forehead and his manager just freaked out and called the police and was like 'I want this man arrested for attempted assault on Frank Black, and I was 'oh god, bullshit man!' I was like, 'you're such a pussy, Frank Black, you're gonna have this guy arrest me for that? Come on.' So they handcuffed me and took me out to the police car. All the bouncers in the club and the police were like, 'god this guy's been...' they probably were basically saying behind my back, 'this guy's a fucking complaining New York Jew' you know, bitching da da da and they finally came back and said they'd decided not to press charges."

David deflates as if the story was air trapped in his chest. I nod, agree with him. "It's all so under the surface here." David gets up, reaches over to the phone.

"Yeah. Like could there ever be a Jewish PM here? Well there was wasn't there, Disraeli wasn't he Jewish?"

"They made him convert first." I say, watching David struggling with the phone. It's absolutely hilarious. For reasons known only to them, the hotel management have glued down the little piece of plastic that slips up and lets you plug in your phone. David valiantly wrestles, but it is futile. He gives up, sits down, breathes a sigh of relief. He's done with this publicity junk for now. He lightens up, stretches, smokes and postulates that the only reason David 'Papa M' Pajo's joined forces with Billy Corgan in Zwan is his proclivity for pussy. A far more high class strain than he'd get at Tortoise gigs, I'm told. I nod, not having much experience with post-rock chicks and that's it. Over. For now.

And so it's back to the street, back to the cold, the wind that cuts like a chainsaw through these small alleyways. It is fully dark now but I can see the man who has been following me all day.

He is standing under a lamppost, grinning. His beard glistens in the moonlight. I grab my bag, hit my stride, never once looking back.

CWAS #10 - Spring 2002