Greg Locke: My first Silver Jews show was what was supposed to be the final stop on your first ever tour … this was Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2005, not long after you put out Tanglewood Numbers. I’ve never seen a crowd like that: everyone was in a trance, singing along, floating. You said something towards the end of the show, something like “I have a lot to think about.” You ended up playing a lot more shows. Can you tell me a little bit about that tour, what it meant and what you’ve done as far as live shows since?
David Berman: I just did three weeks in Europe and will do five more here in the fall. I think you have to turn the touring off and on, not just leaving it on standby for festivals and one-offs as seems to be the practice nowadays. It’s sort of thrilling for me, but I also see it as predatory. Musicians are told – and repeat as told – the line about how live shows are the future. That’s cold comfort for people who were not born to be traveling salesmen and need the time and stillness to create. When you’re touring you want to know how much merchandise you sold. And how to sell more. And pretty soon you are in the business of soaking your fans for hundreds of dollars. That gives me the creeps. It’s like date rape. Bands are the frat boys. Their biggest fans are vulnerable freshmen women.
GL: I drove down to Nashville from northern Indiana to see a Will Oldham show a couple years ago; I think I kinda, sorta expected to see you, Todd Snider and other East Nashvillians running through sprinklers together. Sitting in front of the venue before the show I saw you drive up in a pickup truck, sit there for a minute then drive away without ever coming in. What can you tell me about your relationship with Will?
DB: Will is one of my oldest, truest friends. He knows it’s hard to get me out. Good friends don’t make you come out to see their show when you’re feeling strange.
GL: The new album is a bit strange at first. The synths, backing vocals, sound effects. How did this album come together? All your albums have their own unique personality; how would you describe LOOKOUT to someone?
DB: I’d say it needs time to take in. More than other CDs, there is a lot of meaning that is not immediately apparent. I think the hooks are good. Its intentions are honest. There is a high entertainment factor.
GL: All of your albums are like that; they’re all slow-burners that take a while to reveal themselves.
GL: I read in an interview that you often spend most of your days reading. Is there another book on the way? Have you read anything good lately?
DB: I’m plotting some – more than one – book [of my own] for this year. Right now I’m trying to understand the significance of Stephen Mallarme. It’s art at its most removed from life, an extreme that is foreign to me. On the other hand I am always reading essays … Montaigne, Emerson, Orwell. From them I get the sane adult consciousness that is so lacking in public forums.
GL: I get the impression that you have specific ideas about what makes up an album – everything, from the cover art, to the sequencing to the smallest detail. Continuity. Is this me over thinking, or are you a real-deal album maker? Can you tell me about the process of putting together the whole presentation of a new record?
DB: I’m always shooting for the real deal, but it is, ironically, an unreal act and a lot of work to mimic nature and put a new, fully realized and operating thing into the world. I guess I am a student and practitioner of the album form. The visual component has to come from me. It can’t be like a Grahm Greene novel that has seen five different covers. Making a record means scotch tape and glue and markers and construction paper. More authors should come to understand this. Why give up control at the manuscript level? Just because it’s always been done that way?
GL: Do you have a favorite Silver Jews album? Song? Lyric? Cover art?
DB: I have a least favorite in all these categories but I think I should shut up about that.
GL: Can you tell me any secrets from your UMass/Pernice/Scud Mountain Boys days? Joe seems to be an incredibly literate dude; do you guys keep up?
DB: Joe lives in Canada and is one of the funniest people you’d ever want to meet. Neither of us is the pen pal type, so we leave each other alone and keep up through our common friend, Peyton Pinkerton.
GL: You‘ve been sending a peculiar media kit with your new album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. I have to admit that I’m bewildered by the concept of writers – not journalists – writing about your album for a press kit … and, more so, curious how music journalists are going to feel about the whole thing. No offense meant, I’m just curious about how this idea came about and what the process was.
DB: Well, Greg, you must know that how unbearably awful music journalism is – now more than ever. I can’t expect even a tiny percentage of the reviewers to do a close reading, and it’s terribly frustrating. To put so much work into the songs and then see such lazy responses, always couched in that repugnant tone of knowingness endemic to all pop criticism. I thought if I at least provided an overload of information, the reviews would be unable to form around the monotony of the three-fact universal press release narrative. I have never been a critic’s darling in the mold of the Mountain Goats, The Hold Steady, Yo La Tengo and so on. I have nothing to lose, though I realize there is some danger of further embittering the hacks.
GL: The hacks. Great! Are there any other contemporary songwriter types out there right now who you admire? I interviewed Bill Callahan last year and he mentioned you as a standout writer. You don’t have to name him in your response, I just thought It’d be a worthwhile nicety to pass on …
DB: Bill is one. Will is two. The Arctic Monkey’s guy looked good for one album. When I was younger I really thought there would be a whole lot more talent here in the future. If I’d known the ranks would be so thin I’d probably have been happy to stay alive and keep working.
GL: Tell me about your music-, writing- and life-related plans – that you know of – for the rest of 2008 …
DB: There is a five week tour starting in September. Otherwise that is it. I need to make plans now.
DB: It will be nine years for me in Nashville come this fall, which is longer than my parents were married. I love it here. People are kind. It’s not provincial at all. If nothing changed I would stay forever. If it ever started to go Austin- or Atlanta-ward it would be a tragedy. Bright Flight seems like the weakling of the litter. I guess Natural Bridge would be the most important, even though I never took pleasure in it. Looking back it was the one I had to do to get here. It definitely bridges youth and manhood for me.
GL: Lookout seems to be, um, well, happy. Happy-ish. Hopeful? And fun. How’d that happen?
DB: That’s my secret personality. I’m just showing it for the first time.
GL: How’s your eye? Your foot? Your health in general?
DB: My eye is great. I have a dead person’s cornea and I don’t have to take pills or eyedrops. It just stays in there and works pretty good. My health is good. I sprained my thumb in Ireland but it turned out well as I had to put the guitar down and really deal with the audience and just sing.
GL: Do you have any plans to make The Arizona Record available again?
DB: Sometime soon I have to get around to that.
GL: Any new stories you can tell me, either about the album or the road?
DB: In London I made a reference to the Arctic Monkey’s song “Fake Tales of San Francisco” before playing [a song from our new album called] “San Francisco B.C.” I like to give young people a hard time in an affectionate, joking way. That, and the other story song, “Aloyisius,” are stories of youth corrupted. They are both very lively. I don’t know why.
GL: Thanks, Dave. Good luck with the album and tour!
DB: Thank you, Greg.