Interview: Silver Jews
Wed, 06 Aug 2008 14:26:31
David Berman has long been one of the most quotable songwriters in indie rock. As the leader of Silver Jews (whose members have also counted Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus), he's penned some of the livelier narratives and wittier couplets of the past couple decades, even publishing a volume of poetry on the side. As he's based in Nashville, it's perhaps little surprise that his locale's been injecting a heaping helping of twang into his guitar-based indie rock. In many ways, Silver Jews have been one of the more consistent acts around. But recent years have seen at least one big change in Berman and the Jews: once a relative professional recluse, whose live shows were very few and far between, he's now been trotting out on the road with his last couple records.
His latest, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, features more prominent backing vocals from his wife and bandmate, Cassie, and contains a number of quintessential Berman musings. Almost 20 years in, the “Joos” are sounding as vital as ever.
Berman recently offered up some answers about the new album and his new tour-friendly ways, as well as passing out the award for one of the all-time worst lyricists.
This story is going to out me as the kind of guy who wears band t-shirts, but I was out a few weekends ago (in LA) and emerged from a bar, whereupon I was stopped by a Botoxed waif of indiscriminate age. She saw my shirt and wailed, "Silver Jews! I love them!" Pause. "What is it?" I said something about a band, but I'll take the question right to the source: What is a Silver Jew?
A Silver Jew is something like a Bluegrass Drummer or a Brick Butterfly. I thought it had no referent outside the music until I found out that it is the name of an Australian fish—which is interesting as black swans were discovered in Australia in the 1600s, putting the lie to the old saying "all swans are white". Lately, I say it's a metaphor for people whose fathers were Jewish but mothers weren't. Disqualified Jews.
Lookout Mountain was recorded at three locations by three gentlemen. What inspired the change in scenery and collaborators?
The basic tracking was done at this studio here in town. That was fine, but I wanted to go somewhere else to mix it and do the vocals. I started changing the words. Erasing whole songs lyrically and starting over. The last song was originally called "Sunglasses, Cigarettes, and Keys". Time was dragging on and I was only getting into the studio in dribs and drabs over where we mixed it. Some of the mixing got done in Virginia.
The inclusion of chords in the liner notes is a unique feature that's been getting a fair bit of play in the press. You say in those notes that anybody can play these songs, and it's an interesting way to involve listeners beyond just reading along with lyrics. How long did it take you to get comfortable on the guitar? Did you do the lessons-as-a-kid thing?
I was a fan for eight years before it occurred to me to try. When I was 21, a guy named Joe sold me this teal blue Hondo Les Paul copy for fifty dollars. It took me another couple of years to pick it up and ask a couple questions. A great guy by the name of Zeke Fiddler showed me how to play the F major 7th chord, and that sound got me to try to write.
What's the history behind the stationary collection that bears the album's lyrics and chords?
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