Silver Jews interview (2008) by Keith Odell

This interview with the late David Berman was conducted by my former roommate and lifelong friend Keith Odell in 2008, shortly after the release of Silver Jews’ swan song Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Keith and I lived together at the time and I worked as his editor at BeatRoute Magazine, where the article was originally published. I remember listening in to their conversation over the phone that day and laughing when they began to poke fun at Stephen Malkmus, who had begun to take on jam band qualities with his 2008 album, Real Emotional Trash.

Re-reading this interview in the weeks following Berman’s passing has a bittersweet quality, especially in the final sentence, but it’s fascinating to learn that his obsession with outlaw country scofflaw Johnny Paycheck lingered for over a decade. To celebrate Berman’s life, words, and music, we will be holding a tribute event in Toronto on Tuesday, August 27th at the Tranzac Club’s Main Hall. More information and tickets are available here.

“There’s a certain amount of fatigue that comes with… …writing five albums about yourself.”

So intones David Berman, lead Silver Jew, and possibly one of the best songwriters of the past couple of decades. The primarily autobiographical outlook of Berman’s material, as well as his sharp wit, has driven the Silver Jews country infused slacker rock over the course of five albums.

It hasn’t all been the most upbeat material though – despite the countless jokes and turns of phrases to be found on any given Silver Jew album – there’s always been a current of dischord mirroring Berman’s well publicized problems with drugs. However, the recent release of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea seems to find Berman looking forward and even, dare I say it, sounding hopeful.

“(With) Tanglewood Numbers, I got a lot of skeletons out of the closet,” Berman explains, “the sort of more gruesome, ghoulish part of our lives.” The release of Tanglewood Numbers did in many ways seem like a cap on the way the Silver Jews approached things, with Berman even declaring he’d taken a “hammer to it all,” and with one final push, it seemed like he had finally exorcised some of the demons that haunted his earlier material.

It should come as no surprise when you realize that at that time Berman got clean, got married, went on tour for the first time and turned the Silver Jews into a real enterprise, a real band for the first time. But with the darker side driving so much of previous Silver Jews material, where would he turn for inspiration?

As it turns out, Berman had no problem. The songs may bear a lighter feel than previous Silver Jews albums but are just as chock full of his trademark wit, evocative turns of phrase and strangely catchy choruses. Songs like “Aloyisus, Bluegrass Drummer” and “San Francisco, B.C.” find the Silver Jews approaching character driven narratives for the first time, while tunes such as “Candy Jail” and “Party Barge” even giving Berman a chance to get a little silly.

“In the past I usually had all the songs done and brought them to the studio,” Berman says, but highlights the difference of this album, explaining, “a lot of the words (were) written after the music – about half, 50% of the language came after the tracking was done.”

So with the band informing Berman’s lyrics and vice versa, as opposed to the holistic approach of the songs being written and then shown to the band, does it create for a better live situation? The thing is, Silver Jews had never embarked on a tour until 2005, and well, how did the Jews fare?

“It’s fun, it’s easy… … I just always imagined it as being a lot more awful than it was actually going to be,” Berman explains, “Also, by not playing live, I was sort of begging for the chance to let the records stand on their own.”

It is a bit odd that Silver Jews had never approached live performance. After all, live performance is so important and integral to country music, and while the Silver Jews have never really been a country band, per se, Berman’s songwriting definitely stretches more in that vein than the indie rock bands the Silver Jews are so often associated with. When asked about the country elements of his music, Berman jumps at the chance to explain.

“I think a lot of where that comes from the less reputable side of country music from the 80s, like Randy Travis or early George Strait.. … or the one that I love the most, Johnny Paycheck – but you find that most people don’t really want to listen to anything besides Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.”

Continuing on, Berman reasons as to why there’s such an aversion to country music by so many people, noting that there’s just as much as lame representations of the blues, “but since country comes out of a poor white tradition it’s easier to write it all off because red-necks are so annoying.”

And like any reliable country songwriter, the end doesn’t seem like it’s in sight for David Berman and his Silver Jews. The title Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea may seem somewhat prophetic, because in this new phase of life for the Silver Jews, Berman seems ready to take on life as a musician than ever before.

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