This is one of the last interviews with the legendary David Berman, who passed away on August 7, 2019. It was conducted at the offices of his record label Drag City a month prior to his death.
After a long hiatus, David spoke optimistically about touring and playing music again under the Purple Mountains moniker. He even teased a visit to Australia where he enjoyed a cult following. Sadly, it was not to be.
“I MET failure in Australia/I felt ill in Illinois,” sings erstwhile Silver Jews frontman David Berman near the start of his first album as Purple Mountains.
But as bluntly autobiographical as this wrenching new batch of songs may be, the revered songwriter and accidental indie rock icon has never actually made it to our shores.
“I’ve always wanted to, that’s for sure,” says Berman, earnest and affable while unpacking Purple Mountains’ self-titled debut – and his surprise return to music after a decade out of sight – from the Chicago offices of his longtime record label, Drag City. “I don’t think in the past there’s been enough demand for us to tour Australia. We’re a smaller thing there. But maybe that’ll change, who knows.”
Those last sentences will come off as both glaring understatement – The Silver Jews were beloved enough here to have spawned an all-star live tribute at The Tote in Melbourne in 2016 – and a tantalising suggestion that Berman may yet make his way down here, now that he’s touring again.
THE Silver Jews emerged in the early ’90s as a country-slanted musical outlet for the wry, erudite Berman, who would later release a poetry collection.
The revolving cast included Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich from Pavement, who contributed to the shambling debut LP Starlite Walker.
Malkmus returned as lead guitarist and backing singer periodically, including on breakthrough third album American Water, while entries like the cult classic The Natural Bridge tapped an entirely different lineup. Later albums integrated Berman’s then wife Cassie, and Berman finally took the show on the road a few years before retiring the band in 2009 in a raw blog post highlighting the painful spectre of his father, influential right-wing lobbyist Richard Berman.
Then came a full decade of radio silence, even as Berman’s songbook steadily grew nearer and dearer to listeners around the world. Now rebuilding a touring band with the help of Jarvis Taveniere from Brooklyn outfit Woods, who oversaw the playing and recording of the new album, Berman has plunged himself into a surprise second act.
“I’ve been rehearsing by myself, basically relearning the Silver Jews songs,” he says in the same creased and rumpled low-slung voice so well enshrined on his records. “We did a hundred and one shows total, and those were all the shows I’ve ever done in my life,” he muses. “I was 38 when I played my first shows, and 40 or 41 when I played my last ones. 38 to 41: my live years.”
IN some ways, a new album from Berman shouldn’t even exist.
The past two decades have seen him wrestle with drug abuse, attempted suicide and separation from his wife. There was even an abandoned version of the new album recorded in Vancouver with Destroyer leader Dan Bejar producing, while Malkmus played lead guitar alongside the rhythm section of Canadian ensemble Black Mountain.
When Berman couldn’t finish the words after more than a month of preparation, Bejar suggested laying down the music first. After a couple weeks of recording, though, frustrations came to a head.
“Trying to sing on top of tracks recorded without the vocals was stupid,” he says now. “Which neither of us knew [ahead of time]. And some people can do that, I’m sure. But all the constraints apply to me: I have to be singing and my arm has to be moving [strumming a guitar]. They’re connected somehow.”
After scrapping that version, which Berman says didn’t have the essential tension between depressing lyrics and upbeat music that the final version does, he took another year to get the words just right before putting his faith in Jarvis Taveniere and a new set of collaborators.
Thankfully, the finished album is up there with the best Silver Jews records: constantly quotable but also deep and meaningful in a way that few genuinely funny songwriters could hope to pull off. The backing is clear-eyed and catchy, rifling through the rich past of American music as nonchalantly as Berman appropriated the band name from the “purple mountain majesty” line from ‘America the Beautiful’.
As downright wounded as most of the lyrics are – see “I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been” on saloon-style opener ‘That’s Just the Way I Feel’ – there’s something oddly empowering about them too.
“Of course I’ve been humbled by the void/Much of my faith has been destroyed,” sings Berman on that same song, but that lines shines more brightly with resilience than it does with surrender. And so goes the rest.
On the occasion of his return, Berman reflects on five songs from across his songbook, peppering the conversation with his trademark mix of self-deprecation and profundity.
‘Black and Brown Blues’
Album: The Natural Bridge (1996)
This has some of your fans’ favourite lyrics, like the one about the corduroy suit.
For me, when I look at that line, I wonder if it’s good or not. I know people have held onto that and got a lot out of it, but I still feel the way I did the day I wrote the song, which is, “I like these images and I want there to be a song like this.” But I’m still unsure whether the lines work. And that probably comes from not playing live very much. People get used to reactions to their songs, but I don’t have the sense of my songs being [successful that way]. But I know people love that song – they go crazy for it.
‘Black and Brown Blues’ and ‘Pretty Eyes’ were the first songs I wrote after [1994’s] Starlite Walker. And for Starlite Walker, I had just enough material to call it an album. I had to add in an instrumental passage here [‘The Moon is the Number 18’] and a spoken word passage there [‘The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor’]. ‘Trains Across the Sea’ was the first real song I ever wrote. That one and ‘New Orleans’. [Then] I just had to fill up space. ‘Advice To The Graduate’ is good too, but the rest aren’t really songs.
And so with Natural Bridge, I was really proud that I thought of those two really quickly, in a couple weeks. I was like, “Wow, this seems better. I like them all the way through.” I really lucked out, ’cause those could be bad lines, about the shoes and the corduroy suit. They’re on the edge. [Laughs] I do feel like it works, but I feel lucky that it works.
‘All My Happiness Is Gone’
Album: Purple Mountains (2019)
The new record is much more personal and narrative.
Exactly. There are less ornaments and less detours, I guess. The thesis statement is pretty clear.
Starting with this as the lead single…
That was unfortunate [but] it had to be the first single, just because of the way it sounds and the way it made people feel. But for people who hadn’t heard from me in a while, hearing that as the first thing, it sounds … I mean, we let old bluesmen perform self-pity, but almost nobody else. If you hear the whole album, you realise it’s not a pity party at all. But if you just heard that song, it’s like, ‘Wow, he’s really digging in. Now we’re getting a report on what 10 years of isolation sounds like.’
But for the most part, when you think of the two songs surrounding it [‘That’s Just the Way I Feel’ and ‘Darkness and Cold’], it becomes a whole different deal. It becomes [just] one aspect of isolation.
Album: American Water (1998)
I never checked to make sure that everything in that song world was coherent. They have sites where people try to figure out what a song means, [but] I never played the whole thing out to see the characters and what they were doing. So I just took a shot at the line about the tan line on the ring finger.
I didn’t really realise until yesterday that that’s the guy’s sign that there’s some hope, because he’s seeing this ex in this place and it appears that things aren’t going well: “You look like someone I used to know.” He still clearly desires her, and he says that before he goes he has to ask about the tan line on the ring finger. Does that mean she took her ring off right before they spoke? Which would belie all the attitude before that. Other people probably saw that before, but I never saw it. I just thought it sounded cool.
But do you want to tell a story necessarily, or just have the images work?
I do, I do. And I’ve been more and more like that as I’ve gotten older. I was interested in language poetry – I call the poems that I wrote “miniature dollhouses”, like Joseph Cornell boxes. People used to always ask if there was a difference between my poems and my lyrics. I thought there was, but there really wasn’t as much back then. It was all ungrounded.
So yeah, I want things to mean [something]. There was a time in the ’90s when I was more interested in misdirection. Things were flat and boring to me [otherwise]. All artists try to create this mystique of themselves: autonomous, individualised, sprung from nowhere. And part of the way I ended The Silver Jews was like, ‘I’m gonna do the exact opposite of that and ruin it all.’ But before that, I was trying to create atmosphere and mystique.
Have you written any poetry lately?
Not anything I finish. I mean, poetry is just something you put together or abandon. I have a lot of abandoned writing. It’s the stuff that would go into songs and poems. It makes up the matter of them. But they don’t have purpose until I go into them.
The problem is going into the writing [because] the ratio gets worse and worse the older I get: how many bad lines I have to write to write a good one. It’s punishing, when you get to like 15-to-1. When I was like 27 or 28, I could just write freely and the quality level was really high on average. I think you can do just as well when you’re 52 or 53, but you have to put so much more time into it.
Is part of it that you’re a harsher self-critic than before?
That’s what I mean about taking more time: rejecting more of your own ideas. It’s also humbling to struggle for so long over something that you used to do really quickly. Vocationally, it’s a strange situation to be in. With almost every other skill, people get better as they get older. Or they don’t lose, at such a young age, the facilities that people who write popular songs do.
‘Punks in the Beerlight’
Album: Tanglewood Numbers (2005)
Your records have these great opening lines, like the one in ‘Random Rules’ [“In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection/Slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction”]. I love how the opening line on the new record [“Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself”] references the one from Natural Bridge [“Well, I don’t really wanna die…”]. Another callback I like is in ‘I Love Being My Mother’s Son’, about loving her “to the max,” which takes us to ‘Punks in the Beerlight’.
I hadn’t listened to any of the Silver Jews albums after I made ’em – until this recent drive up to Chicago [from Nashville], when I listened to them all in a row. I had listened to certain songs [before that], and [1998’s] ‘Night Society’ was one of those instrumentals that I’ve listened to since then. I was like, “Wow, we were really rockin’!”
Then I tested it against ‘Punks in the Beerlight’ because that sounded so much bigger, it was like the [car] stereo was shaking. The end sounds like a heavy truck braking really hard – it was like heavy freight to me. I would say that when I came out of the car, those two songs pleased me the most. Maybe I should have tried to rock harder earlier.
Your stuff often gets compared to country, but that one sounds more like some basement band taking a stab at New Wave.
I know. Malkmus did such a good job with his guitar playing. That one and ‘Random Rules’ and ‘Wild Kindness’ are the songs I think he did the best guitar solos on.
I love the songs he sings on, on the first and third albums.
I’ve told him in the past that we should do more songs together, because he always serves the song. Most bandleaders, with their big egos, never do that [on other people’s songs]. Or don’t do it well. I always bring up the example of Robert Smith, when he played on the Siouxsie and the Banshees album Hyena. I’m surprised more people don’t do that, but it looks good that somebody can sit back and serve the song and not have it be about them.
The funny thing is that in ‘Random Rules’ I erase myself by having the singer reveal that his name is Steve. I’ve just recently got on Twitter, and one of my first disagreements was [with a fan who said,] “I’m pretty sure that song was written by Steve Malkmus.” I never thought someone would think that was Steve’s song, but I was trying to erase the difference between us.
I was learning the song ‘Sleeping is the Only Love’ [again], and there’s a line that’s, “Give a box of candy or a foot massage/Some people don’t take the time.” I totally feel like I was imitating Steve on that line right there. His temper and his bemusement.
When you’re relearning these to play live, are you tempted to change any lyrics?
There has been temptation to not play a song because of lyrics maybe. None of the ones that I really care about have anything that I feel bad about singing. They really choke me up because I haven’t heard ’em in years. It’s pretty heavy, but I like it.
Album: Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008)
I mentioned the country thing before, and this is such a country song.
That’s one of my favourites, but I don’t think we did a good job of putting it across. I want to figure out a good way of doing it with this live band, and make a real version of it. Before Nashville became what it has become in the last seven years – it’s become intolerable – from like ’98 to 2008, let’s say, it was paradise for me. I loved it. One of the great things was being able to, starting at 10 in the morning if you cared to do so, go sit in a bar and listen to an amazing live band play covers of the greatest country songs ever made, down on Lower Broad.
Now, of course, you can’t do that. There are a hundred bars like that, and they’re crammed with frat boys and sorority girls and bachelorette parties. They have hot tubs on wheels now that they drive around. But going down and sitting at those places when they were empty, at sunset or in the middle of the day, and watching those guys play, [I came] up with that metaphor for a person like that.
I did that when I went to Nashville, around 2005. There was such a purity to what everyone was playing, and the bars weren’t too crowded.
It’s amazing to me that such an incredible public benefit exists in this one city. From the time that I moved there in ’98 to whenever Jack White came in and put his copyright on it, it was like nobody lived there from the world that I came from, except Lambchop. So for like 10 years, Silver Jews and Lambchop were the [Nashville] rock bands, if you call them rock, that people knew in Europe, but there were no others.
In those bars you got to experience some amazing music. So why wasn’t it flooded with people? Something kept people back – I don’t know what it was. There were people seeking to leave San Francisco and Austin and all these places, but they didn’t go to Nashville.
It had this reputation as a music industry town.
And a second-rate industry town. That made it so much more interesting to me. To be able to make art in a place like that was really interesting to me. And the times you did rub elbows with the suffering jukeboxes, what that was like.
How’s Chicago going for you?
Well, I’m stuck here. I’m going home to Nashville and I’ll be there for two weeks, then I’ll be back up here for two weeks. It’s not where I wanna settle. On tour I’ll definitely be thinking about where to go live. Where could that place be that I could live and never move again? That would be ideal.
It’s like a scouting mission.
Exactly. At my age, I would like to find a perfect place and just stay there.
You have moved around a lot.
Yeah. Time to stay.