It’s no secret on this blog that I am a big fan of the Silver Jews and their sole fixed member, David Berman. As it happens, I e-interviewed Berman for my college’s alternative magazine years ago, but due to our stretched thin organization at the time, that interview has never been posted on the web. As of today, that is no longer true. The following was published in Buzzsaw Haircut’s (now just Buzzsaw) October 2005 issue. I’ve included any errors, such as the dropped article in the first sentence of the introduction, that appeared in print :
Feelings for the Unfeeling: An interview with David Berman
David Berman is musician known for his words. At other times he’s a writer known for his music. In truth, he should be widely known for both. Though Berman’s band, the Silver Jews, began as a stress-relieving collaboration with college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastonovich, it has grown into a vehicle for his truly unique artistic vision. While promoting his first album in four years, Tanglewood Numbers, he was kind enough to answer Buzzsaw editor Matt Corley’s questions via e-mail.
BH: What was the writing process like for this album?
DB: The songs were chiefly written in the mornings and early afternoons, which was sort of a new time territory for me working. It was all written on electric guitar through an amp. In the past I have written by unamplified electric (on the first and third albums) or an acoustic (on the second and fourth albums).
BH: In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that you conduct musicians during the recording of songs by describing the mood of the song and the characters within it. What were some of the descriptions and scenes you set for the musicians on this record?
DB: The descriptors were more basic and blocky, like “play desperate” or “kill,” since I was trying to plan a range of distinct emotional boroughs for each song to occupy.
BH: Were any of the songs on the new album radically transformed in the studio?
DB: Transformed, no. But many of them were transfused with real blood.
BH: Did the record end up sounding like what you had in your head when you were conceptualizing it?
DB: It would be nice to think so. I just wanted it to sound fiercer. I didn’t know how that was going to happen, though.
BH: The Billboard article mentions you wrestling control of the project from producer Mark Nevers. What musical directions were being disputed between you and him?
DB: He wasn’t listening to me BECAUSE we are/were friends.
BH: What wasn’t he listening to you about?
DB: He broke the levees of my patience and I had to tear the bigtop down and put it up in another town, another studio I mean. Fortunately, it had to happen that way for the record to live. Meaning, I’m not just the human that speaks my words, and not always the person who invents what I say.
BH: When the early reports came out about the Easley McCain recording studio fire, it was thought that the tapes for Tanglewood Numbers had been destroyed. What was that day like for you?
DB: I knew I had the hard drive in an 800-pound safe. I felt survivor’s guilt.
BH: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that there is a greater possibility for touring for this record than there has been in the past. Have there been any developments around that decision? Have you spoken to Malkmus, Kotzur, Fellows and the rest of the Tanglewood Numbers band about a tour?
DB: We’ve got a trio that plays dopwn in the basement. Me, Cassie and the drummer, Brian Kotzur. We are working our way out of the basement, honestly. Hopefully we’ll be a local band by January.
(Editor’s Note: While the Silver Jews are notorious for their lack of live shows, the sincerity of Mr. Berman’s statement that they will hopefully be a local band by January is supported by the fact that they now have their first ever booking agent.)
BH: Your lyrics usually seem to have a certain detachedness to them, in the sense that they are clearly stories and characters, and it’s hard to know where David Berman is in them. A recent article in Fader magazine shined a light on some very personal experiences of yours. How has the Fader article affected people’s reception of you and the album? Does it seem like people are reading into the lyrics on the album more than usual, now that drugs and suicide attempts have been made part of your public persona?
DB: I don’t know. It’s too early to say. If the music is great, then it ultimately won’t matter. I’ve lived this band for 13 years in the darkness. I am hardly bothered by issues related to my public persona.
BH: What kind of process do you go through in terms of deciding if something you write is good? What’s your revising process like, for both writing and music?
DB: It just has to keep seeming like a good idea for longer than 48 hours. Everything gets revised many, many times.
BH: Your more country/singer-songwriter albums like The Natural Bridge and Bright Flight opened up some new sonic territory for me, especially in the direction of really listening to strong songwriters such as Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt. I’m still pretty green in my knowledge of good country. What do you think is the appeal of that type of songwriting?
DB: It’s been blues for white people. A setting for realization and a depository of feelings for the otherwise unfeeling.
BH: Who are some artists in that vein who you would suggest checking out?
DB: Johnny Paycheck is the most rewarding country singer. You should check out Out of Hand by Gary Stewart. Frat boys may have ruined the Violent Femmes, but Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua is still the greatest.
BH: Who’s really good in the Nashville scene right now?
DB: Phil Lee. The Mighty King of Love LP on Koch is amazing.
BH: Is it common for other artists/writers/songwriters to come to you for critiques?
DB: No. Just a couple of my neighbors, actually.
BH: You’ve sung the line “there must be a Spanish word for this feeling,” and in the Pitchfork interview you described the way you felt when you first saw a picture of your wife as “there’s probably a German word for it.” Do you find that the English language can’t describe some feelings/emotions? Is this a lacking in English in particular, or do you think all language have flaws in their emotional adjectives? Are there some feelings and emotions that words can’t do justice to?
DB: I don’t have the words to do justice to this question!
BH: In a past interview you described your sense of politics as “an angry relationship with an abstract enemy called ‘rich people’” and the battle of us vs. the forces that lie to us.” The past five years have seen a glaring increase in forces lying to us, especially the forces of rich people. How are you and your work affected by the politics of the day? Do you feel that artists have any kind of obligation to address and engage contemporary politics?
DB: I think everyone has a moral obligation to read a good newspaper every day to remain intellectually in touch with events around the world. Especially in times of war and great suffering, which is just about all the time I realize.
BH: What papers do you read, and have there been any stories in the news lately that you think should be getting more attention then they are being given?
DB: The future can sometimes be seen developing on pages A18, A19 etc. That’s where the rats are doing bad shit. Something very bad happened in Uzbekistan this summer. Nobody knows how many people were killed. Their government is shielding us from knowing what happened. I read The New York Times and The Tennessean every day. The paper versions.
BH: The theme for our magazine this month is the future. In the sense that there will be a moment after the current one, a day after tomorrow, and so on, how has the concept of the future played into your life and work?
DB: Working with the subject of the future requires one to be either more idealistic or alternately pessimistic than I want to be as a writer. I like to say “everything is going to be okay” in the hopes that saying it will make it so. I would like to help console anyone who is currently scared of the future.
BH: What is the interviewing process like for you? We’re both strangers, though I can read interviews and look at your wok in order to forma picture of who you are, but you must have no idea who I am other than that I work for a magazine, and you wouldn’t be able to find out much more through a Google search. I can only imagine that talking to strangers who think they have some kind of conception of who you are is really weird, especially since they are likely to have an incorrect conception. How has the shift from unknown Johnny Anybody to quasi-celebrity poet and musician affected your life?
DB: I think because I don’t play live, I don’t meet Silver Jews fans, like touring bands that must feel their “celebrity” and “specialness” wherever they go. So my life is relatively unrocked by strangers. Every couple of years I do a round of interviews, but that’s it.
Matt Corley is a senior politics major who would tell you that the Uzbek government claims 187 people were killed in a clash between the military and civilians while human rights groups say it was closer to 700 people.
Proof that this interview truly did get printed: