"I'm sort of on the way out, so I'm giving my exit interviews," Silver Jews frontman David Berman says.
After nearly 20 years and six albums of indie rock for lyric-diggers and misanthropes, the notably reclusive singer and writer's "exit" has felt more like an entrance of late. The Silver Jews finally emerged from a long, silent stretch—attributed partly to Berman's battles with depression and substance abuse—to tour the U.S. extensively for the first time in 2006, and a chord-chart supplemented seventh album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
, has just emerged as well. "It doesn't seem rational that I passed through all of the bad news that I passed through," Berman admits. Now, his voice has gained a Johnny Cash world-weariness, but still brings the introspection and sardonic wit to entries like "Candy Jail" and "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat."
The 61-and-counting Silver Jews shows, according to Berman's tally, are weighing heavy on him during our phone conversation from his Nashville home. That, and he also had to help his wife and bandmate Cassie get the lawn mower started; he can't mow or even strum a guitar after spraining his thumb in a nasty fall in Ireland. "Separate me from the guitar and the mike stand and it's really a naked feeling to not have that to hide behind." After explaining how his heart goes out to a bluegrass drummer, Berman settles in to discuss the possibilities of fatherhood and drop some knowledge about the inevitable Pavement reunion.
Paste: I heard "Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer," and I'm pretty sure real bluegrass bands don't have drums.
David Berman: That's definitely the twist in the phrase. Think of it this way—a nothing from the point of view of society. Which is how you feel when you're a young man, a dishwasher. A bluegrass drummer is akin to a black swan, an impossibility, a paradox. The female name in the song, Brick Butterfly, is also in a way the same sort of thing. I guess that one of the things that I'm writing about there; that's a case where I'm thinking. There's no scorn for the characters in this who are struggling through whatever world they are in. Whether it's the guy in "Party Barge" or "San Francisco B.C." or "Aloysius." Or the guy who desires to be dead in "My Pillow is the Threshold" or "Suffering Jukebox." Some people say, "your music is funny, but not funny like Tenacious D." The characters in Tenacious D you have no sympathy for. People have affection for them, but if you stop and think about it, they're revolting guys.
Paste: Why did you include a chord chart inside the album's booklet and how does the idea of other people mastering your songs make you feel?
Berman: I'm encouraging it. There are a lot of different facets to it. It's the "folk" thing to do. No one does it and I don't know why. It's strange that people put lyrics in their liner notes and they could just give a little more information, but hold it back. Whenever I'm explaining why I put it in, I always want to say, "Why does everyone else hide it?"
Paste: How does it feel to have some live shows finally under your belt?
Berman: I could see how someone could feel after a decade of playing live that they didn't have much to say. The way that the feedback from being an entertainer, being a performer, puts the writer inside—you've got to put the writer on hold. You don't spend enough years training yourself with discipline where you don't get applause for your rough drafts. Musicians get applause for everything they do. On the positive side of that, going out and playing live, it is the first album that I have knowledge of who I'm communicating with. It's sort of a readjustment. People might say it doesn't seem as intensely intimate and as autobiographical. It's these adjustments you make when you realize people are watching you.
Paste: How do you think touring affects other artists?
Berman: People write less and less over time. You look at people like Willie Nelson, who spend all of their time on the road. You don't ever expect him to write another song again. The history of rock's rhetoric says Lou Reed and Van Morrison are artists, but there's a reality that says they can't write anymore and they haven't been able to write for years and years and years and they'll never be able to write again. Saying that out loud kind of ruins the fun for everybody. It's all well and good, every couple of years, to announce that Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen are important in the present tense. It's all part of something that started way before the Internet. It had to do with the baby boomers growing older and reviewing their own music, which had a long reign from the '60s through the '80s. In the end, they treated us in the '80s to the delights of Genesis and the Moody Blues the second time around as pop artists. We were subjected to this narrative of what greatness means and it's never questioned why musicians don't meet the standards that other artists do. That's the reason why I had feared playing live.
Paste: Even Bob Dylan?
Berman: To me, he's the classic example. I don't think Bob Dylan did any great work in the '70s, '80s or '90s. If we're talking about levels of artistry, he's really set the pattern. I thought his autobiography was amazing, but those songs in that four-year run are what people really care about. You can go to as many Bob Dylan concerts or Lou Reed concerts as you want. No one wants to hear anything from the last 30 years. The first people to really realize this are the generation of bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur and now X. They say out loud, "Nobody cares." Nobody wants to hear X's music after the first four albums. A real X fan can hem and haw about that all day long. Paul Weller, the Clash, everybody, they all lose it after a very small amount of time compared to novelists and painters.
Paste: Now that you are playing live, how does it feel to have a band of your tightest associates making you look better?
Berman: Wouldn't that be great if you could get all of your friends and your wife to do that for you? When you start out, a person isn't necessarily comfortable with everybody in their band. They can't make demands when they start out. People wind up in bands with people like Bob Stinson and they make great records while they try to disentangle themselves from them. People get older and they've had success based upon a band of really confused, fucked-up assholes, and then based upon that success they're able to finish their career out with people who make them comfortable. It's interesting that a person is willing to be in an all-asshole band. When you're young, you'll still do things like that. When you get older, you don't have any patience for that and you want to be with people who are loyal and not chaotic. Hopefully there are people who are still young-at-heart who make the music still fun and not dad-rock.
Paste: How young-at-heart are you feeling right now?
Berman: I feel like I'm trying to live a second act in my life. I feel both older and younger than other people my age. I feel like that rock career that I fear so much, that Bob Dylan Tom Petty situation, Paul Westerberg situation, is a permanent first act. These are people stuck in a young man's job. The scary thing is that they keep aging and the players, the other actors, stay the same age. It's a weird play. I'm trying to do a three-act life. Going on tour was kind of setting myself up with a myth where I could be my own hero in my own life. I found a way to make going out on tour an odyssey for me. I have certain expectations that I'm different now, and I don't indulge myself with things, or I haven't been lately, with things like privacy. I'm trying to be a man. I don't have any children.
Paste: Does that bother you?
Berman: Oh, no. I'm glad I don't have any children so far. It's a choice, but I also am suspicious of the fact that I'm still childish. I don't have a child and I don't have this evolutionary emphasis that gets put on this younger person. It was good, I married this younger woman so that I could delay having children. I never have the experience of seeing someone with a child and feel envy. That's the only way that I can know that I'm happy, I don't feel envy? I don't know.
Paste: What do you know about your associate Stephen Malkmus getting Pavement back together?
Berman: I told him to wait as long as possible. Once you give that up, it's over. He needs to keep that, that's his ammunition. My other friends in the band would really like it to happen. I'm sure it will definitely happen when the price is right. It will make the Pixies reunion look like peanuts. The Velvet Underground reunion was an open-mike night compared to Pavement.