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Artist Interview/Feature Reblog Songs

A Silver Jews Interview (With David Berman & Bob Nastanovich) from COOL BEANS! #4 (Sept.-Oct. 1994) by Matt Kelly.

CB: Where does the name Silver Jews come from?
David: It doesn’t mean anything.
Bob: David’s Jewish. David lived in Green Point, which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn. He lived by himself, and for Brooklyn, it’s safe and it’s great if you don’t mind being around a bunch of senior citizens…Mostly middle European. There were a few guys who would hang out a couple of apartments a couple doors down from him, these very old Jewish men. Basically, their term for blonde haired Jews was Silver Jews. He just got a big kick out of that. He realized he was in a band with two blonde gentiles…He’s a Texas Jew. He thought it was an amazing name for the band.
CB: How did you guys start out?
David: Well, we all went to school together at the University of Virginia, and we started this band called Ectoslavia at school and Steve was in it, I was in it, and a couple other people. Steve was the only one who really knew how to play. We played a few shows in Charlottesville, and Steve was a year older than us, so he graduated and moved back to California. Next year when Bob and I graduated, we moved up to New York and Steve moved to New York and all three of us were living together. We would just basically started out playing into people’s answering machines. We’d just moved up to New York and we’d made a friend who worked at a record store in Hoboken who gave us Sonic Youth’s phone number. We don’t know how she got it, but we’d call them up late at night and play for a long time into their answering machine. They didn’t have the kind that shut off, so you could play like 10 minutes. Then we’d just sort of announce who we were.
CB: You would just say this is the Silver Jews?
David: Yeah, and then we’d just start playing. We’d call other people and basically write songs, you know, 10 a night, everytime we would sit down. We’d record them on a tape recorder too.
CB: So you’d make them up on the spot, play them a few times and then record them?
David: Yeah. Usually it would just start out like “this song is going to be-” to give a specific example, on the first 7″ there’s a song called “Walnut Falcon” and so if I can remember correctly, we’d been watching PBS nature films, and I said “we’re just going to do sort of a song based on a PBS nature film.” Steve just started playing, and I started playing, and then we’d sing right on the spot. Usually we’d just sing almost straight out. We did “Canada” which was supposed to be a song the Canadian Tourist Bureau could use in a commercial campaign; and then just sort of whatever happens straight out.
Bob: All those recordings were recordings of just practice sessions and jams that Silver Jews never intended to put out. We’re one of those bands that never really intended to exist. We were just playing because it was like “oh, that sounds good, we should tape it.” I mean, there are thousands of bands that do that, but Dan [from Drag City] probably has only listened to 20 of them. So he’s the reason why the band exists as far as putting out records.
CB: You’d just have the tape recorder on right at first?
David: Yeah, we’d just usually work out you know maybe one guitar line and then just turn it on… we never had lyrics worked out, we’d just do that on the spot. Which back then worked real well cause Steve and I are pretty competitive, he’d sing something and I’d try to top him and he would try and top that and I would try to top that and it was just one upping each other and something would be made out of that versus trying to hound yourself into saying something in a room by yourself.
Bob: Pavement is mainly Steve’s songwriting. It’s the principal reason for the band existing. Whereas Silver Jews there’s a totally different guy serving the same role. It’s a totally different thing, and Steven is really good friends with David and he’s a really good guitar player. He really enjoys David’s writing, and having the freedom to just jam on guitar and his responsibilities in Silver Jews are absolutely minimal. It’s totally great for him to relax. For me, the best two times I’ve ever been on stage have the two nights we played the Drag City Invitational. There was an intense pressure, and I felt that I was an extremely important part of the band. In Pavement, my role has always been soley live, and pretty much to add spirit and enthusiasm; musically, it’s no where near as important as when I’m in the Silver Jews. I have far greater input in Silver Jews. With the new album, we had 12 sheets of paper with lyrics on them and we basically wrote songs around those words.
David: Exactly. Yeah, now, for the last couple years it’s been mostly songs that either I’ve written beforehand or Steve and I sat down for a little bit and worked something out more clearly. Because none of that stuff we recorded in the house, which came out on records, was… we were just recording for our own pleasure, you know. We all worked really hard jobs and it was really tense living where we did, and it was fun for us at night to just howl. Afterwards, it became songwriting.
CB: So how did Pavement work out of all this? Were the Silver Jews playing together first?
David: Well, we played a lot together in college, but we didn’t call ourselves the Silver Jews. Steve went home and brought up Pavement, just after he graduated from college.
CB: So kind of?
David: Well, in a way, technically, on a time-line, yes, first. But, Pavement’s always been what Steve does and that’s him. Pavement is Steve. Silver Jews as at least until recently, three friends getting together and making music.
CB: So you sort of play the role that Steve does in Pavement in the Silver Jews, you’re more the- David: Well, on this record especially. I wrote all the songs. Steve is good to have around because he’s a complete song stylist and I can bring even a really lame song out and he can polish anything up with what he does. He can make anything into gold. Now, he likes to take more of a backseat, and it’s good for me because I’ve gotten to the point where I have a vision of what I want things to be like whereas before I didn’t. I knew what I wanted this record to be like. I knew exactly what I wanted…
CB: What is it that you are trying to do with this record?
David: Number one, I wanted to make the record that I don’t find when I go looking for records. I wanted it to be a record that wasn’t cynical, which seems like a lot of records that I see in the stores today are. Where you could hear the lyrics, and the songs told stories. I mean, I’m 27, but… I think a lot of bands that I listen to today, you’ve got band members that are in their mid-late 20s and they write music for 20 year olds.. 18, 19, 20 year olds. I doesn’t seem true. When Neil Young was 24 he sounded like he was 40 already. When I’m 28, I hope to write songs about being 28, or that reflect a 28 year old’s life. It’s not like the album is strictly for 27 year olds, but I didn’t want to hide the fact that I’m not 21. I’m not interested in fast music anymore.
CB: So you used to be punk rock?
David: Much more than I am now. I’m just more interested in real emotions now and saying something true. I’m not as interested in saying something funny, as maybe I used to have been or saying something as sharp witted or cynical. I just want to make a record that someone could listen to and feel like there were people in the room.
CB: I asked Dan from Drag City if he wanted me to ask you anything, and he only had one question. David: What’s that?
CB: What are you afraid of?
David: What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of Dan for one. No, that’s a good question, lemme think about that for a second.
CB: Do you think that he meant that in relation to his involvement in your projects?
David: I’m not sure if he meant that as a general abstract question… or maybe he was making a cut at me cause he’s always asking me to play shows and I don’t want to. I’d like to think he’s asking me a larger question.
CB: It could go either way.
David: Yeah, really. What am I afraid of? I’m really afraid of hurting people. I’m really afraid of my car breaking down. I’m really afraid of dying before I get things done. I’m really afraid of my landlord’s wife. CB: Why?
David: She’s a battleaxe, she’s like a lot of people in Northampton. She’s just really really harsh. They live next door, so I always hear her outside. She was yelling this morning at her grandson. Her grandson has this little stuffed owl and she was saying “The owl goes ‘hoot!'” and she asked her grandson “Now what does the owl say?” and her grandson didn’t say anything, he was really quiet. She says “WHAT DOES THE OWL SAY?” and her grandson didn’t say anything and so she said “THE OWL SAYS ‘HOOT!’ WHAT DOES THE OWL SAY?!!”
CB: Yeow.
David: So, she gives me the creeps.
CB: She gives me the creeps too!
[Laughter]
CB: So you’re afraid of dying before you get things done. What do you want to get done?
David: Well, I’d like to have lots of offspring going well into the next couple centuries. I’d like to write some books. I would like to do some records. I would like to earn a living. I want to see South America. CB: Yeah, me too. I was just thinking about that the other day. Have you read much about South America?
David: Only in fiction. I read a lot of Westerns.

CB: Have you done much writing? I was told you’re a teacher.
David: Well right now I’m getting my MFA up here in writing. [U Mass] It isn’t that the degree is offering me anything except it does give me a chance to not really work. Teaching doesn’t take up any of my time, and I don’t have to have another job. So for the three years that I’ve been up here, which is almost coming to an end, I’ve had a lot of time to write. When I leave here I want to put together a book of all the things I’ve been working on and I’d like to write many more. I’m totally committed to writing. I mean, I constantly have a notebook in my pocket and I constantly take that notebook home and enter those notes into another larger notebook. Which I then sit down before almost every single morning and try to string into stories or worlds.
CB: So who are you writing for?
David: Just myself right now. I haven’t had a chance to publish anything.
CB: Tell me about “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads”
Bob: That’s one of those songs that was more a Silver Jews song, but it was almost a Pavement song. Pavement played it for a Peel Session track. David also came up with a cartoon called Slanted and Enchanted. He’s responsible for the name of that album. Actually.. it was like 6 sheets of paper that were on the wall of our apartment in New York.. God knows where they all are now. But David is the kind of guy who’s really anal retentive about files so he may have them somewhere.
David: Yeah, I’ve been writing pretty hard, like every day for about 11 years now, so I have millions of things that are not completed, and I’ve completed some.
CB: Are you more interested in the process than the results of writing?
David: It would be nice to be able to say that because it would sort of excuse a lack of results. But I think I would really be into the finished product. I mean, the process is what I do every day.
CB: How about applied to the band?
David: Well, with the band… I guess it works out well. I mean, I can only do one thing at a time. Like this summer, I went down to Mississippi a month before we recorded to write the songs for the record. I couldn’t write anything else. I just could only do the songs. After the record was done I started writing again and now I’m back up here and I’ve been recording some little things on my four track and I’m trying to do them both at the same time and it’s working out a little easier.
Bob: The split single with New Radiant Storm Kings is interesting because they are mainly David’s friends, and I think the Silver Jews side is something that he did alone. Steven probably played on it, but I definitely wasn’t there. I think everything David does musically goes under the name Silver Jews.
David: No, it’s actually me and West and Malkmus. It just came out a couple weeks ago. It’s on this local label called Chunk Records. It’s two songs. It’s actually called the Silver Jews and Nico. She’s on the record at the beginning. I took it off this Velvet Underground bootleg of her –
CB: Oh, at a party?
David: Yeah
CB: I’ve got that bootleg!
David: Remember the part where she goes up to I think it’s Lou Reed and she says “What are you doing?” and he says “I’m making a record” and she says “What is it a record of?” and he says “It’s a record of us, here.” and then she’s quiet for like 30 seconds and you can hear people talking in the background and she’s not saying anything, and as far as I understand, she’s staring at the tape recorder wondering what to say, and she leans over real close cause it’s real loud and sings “Good morning, good morning, good morning” and some drunk guy in the background obviously trying to make it with her says “yeah, good morning, ehhh…”
CB: So what kind of tape recorder did you guys use when you recorded your early stuff?
David: I have it right here, let’s see. It’s a Sony 1. It’s the first in the series. It’s like a walkman.
CB: Are you familiar with the Mountain Goats at all?
David: Actually, I wasn’t, until about two weeks ago, I was in New York and a friend of mine asked me to come to this bar, and that guy was playing. And, I mean, the guy was amazing. He was so rigid! I could not believe it. I was just watching him and he was great. I loved it! At first it was so abrasive, I couldn’t listen to it and then I just went and sat real close. From far away it was abrasive, but up close it wasn’t and I loved it.
CB: Why was the identity of the Silver Jews secret for so long?
David: I think there’s two reasons for that. I don’t think the secrecy was intentional…

Bob: Yeah, well, I think that’s intentional.
David: … but it was unavoidable because I didn’t want people to think it was a Pavement side project, which it got to be anyway in people’s minds. It seemed like in most reviews though, people focused on the Pavement connection and so it sort of backfired. I told Dan originally to just not say anything about it. CB: But that was the reason that a lot of records were sold right?
David: Yeah, that’s true. But a lot of times Dan has tried to convince me to play with different people, just so it doesn’t become such an issue. I’ve thought about that, but Steve and Bob are my best friends, and I don’t enjoy playing with other people as much. I don’t consider myself to be a musician in the sense that I’ll play anywhere, anytime. I really only enjoy playing with them. The other reason I think it’s seemed so mysterious is because we don’t play live very much.
CB: How many times have you played live?
David: Twice in New York, twice in Chicago. Once was last summer at Irving Plaza, at a Matador showcase and we just came up at the end and played some songs. Pavement wasn’t announced, and we’d been practicing for the Chicago shows [the Drag City showcase] and no one had ever seen Steve West drum in Pavement before, so it didn’t matter that there were a bunch of new faces up there. The other time we played in New York was with our friend Sabelle Firat and it was called the War Comet, not the Silver Jews. Since Bob had move to Louisville and Steve and I played together a lot, out of respect for Bob, we called it the War Comet.
CB: Who’s Sabelle Firat?
David: She the sister of Steve’s girlfriend. She also plays cello and bass.
CB: How often do the Silver Jews get to play together?
David: Oh, every few months. Bob lives in Louisville now. So in between tours Malkmus, West and me get to play together. Actually, I think we’re gonna play some live shows this winter. I’ve gotten over my stage fright.
CB: Are you gonna hit the road for 9 months like Pavement?
David: No, I don’t think it’ll be like that. But I think we’ll play some shows this winter. I’m more into the idea of playing some open mic. nights where you actually have to win an audience over instead of where you before you even start playing everyone is gonna walk out and go “oh, they were great” for whatever you do.
Bob: I don’t know if he would ever tour with the band. Unlike Pavement, I think it’s really important for the Silver Jews to feel really naked onstage and instead of when things fall apart, I think we would rather just feel complete humiliation. If things weren’t working out we should just leave the stage ashamed. Go for the full circle of emotion. If you’re going to be awful, then it’s ok. You know. There’s no pressure on Silver Jews at all. Any pressure that we have would be completely internal. David finishes school next May, and it really depends on what kind of job he gets and he’s sort of in a pre- marital situation. He’s been in the same relationship mostly, for the last seven years. It would all depend on really what we could convince him to do.
CB: So you produce music now, are you still a large consumer of it?
David: I don’t know that I listen to many noisy bands anymore.
CB: What about other Drag City bands?
David: I honestly mean this, I think that Drag City is putting out the most amazing music, and I don’t know if that’s recognized, except in a smarmy way by people. But I don’t think anyone really understands that if Drag City disappeared tomorrow everyone would be talking about how it was the greatest collective of music in a long time. What the Palace Brothers and Royal Trux have done in the last two years is amazing! Those are the two bands that I listen to more than any others of people who are recording today. I think it’s because their music is like the first R.E.M. albums which I’ve been listening to for 10 years and I’m never gonna get tired of them. I know that I’ll still listen to the Palace Brothers in 10 years and it will still mean something to me at any age. I feel that way about Royal Trux too. Even when I think Dan is finally out of ideas, he’ll pull something out of left field like this new single he just put out by this band Plush. This new single Plush is just incredible. It’s one of the most beautiful records I’ve heard in years. I just keep getting surprised more and more by what he manages to find.
CB: How does he find bands?
David: I think he’s just got weird luck. He’s a weird guy. He’s one of the best people I know, but he’s living in a dream world. He comes up with these plans that no one else would think of. Half of them there’s a good reason why no one would think of them. They’re horrible ideas. The half of ’em are just amazing and he found ’em. I mean, he has these awful ideas like he really dreams of moving to Orlando. If you ask him why, he’ll give you this really vague answer of “Well, because they have two police forces and two fire departments.”
CB: He’s fascinated by Disney World?
David: Yeah, like he claims his dream would be to live in a hotel room. He loves the aesthetics of a hotel room.
CB: Like a new car thing?
David: Yeah, the eternal new car. But he’s a genius, he comes up with stuff and I don’t think people in Chicago take him seriously. I think that’s to his advantage. You know that book The Art of War by Sun Soo [sic]? He says something like “Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. If you are effective, appear to be ineffective.” That’s how Dan is. He just comes out of left field, no one takes him real seriously and he comes up with this brilliant shit. He wants to bring all the bands to Cuba this winter and have a big show. He’s been in touch with the Cuban consulate and he’s trying to get a flatboat or a fishing boat to drag everyone over and we’re supposed to wash up on shore like marines or something.
CB: That’s amazing. How did he find you?
David: I guess he came to a show in Charlottesville once when Pavement was playing, they were on his label still then. We were just talking and I mentioned all the tapes I have at home and he asked me to send them to him. He’s always been a big supporter. Sometimes I’ll wonder, “people who are helping me, are they just trying to get to Pavement through the back door?” But Dan doesn’t even give a shit about that. He’s always trying to convince me to play by myself or with other people, so I’m really grateful to him for that. I’ve never known anyone who’s as interested in what I’ve done.
CB: He’s obviously been interested and been a big fan and taking chances like putting out records that I think a lot of people can’t listen to.
David: Exactly.
CB: It took me a while with the Silver Jews stuff, because there are parts of it you just have to tune out in order to hear the rest of it.
David: Exactly.
CB: To me, that’s a step beyond what most music is like. To have to sit down and really commit yourself to listening to something. You know, it’s like reading something you’re going to write about instead of just reading.
Bob: On nights that we didn’t go out, we would sit around and he would try and make songs. I was actually just sitting there all the time trying to watch tv. Usually like Rangers hockey…we had cable. The drank a lot of red wine…This was sort of at the same time as when Pavement was getting going in a way. But Pavement hadn’t ever really been together as a band, while Silver Jews was an opportunity for Steven to play, and David to just explode. His musical experience is about the same as mine. We’d never been in a band together before. But we’ve been college radio dj’s and record collectors and guys who would go see bands. Finally, we started hitting things. He bought a guitar for 50 bucks and a practice amp. If you listen to music and are buying it for 10 or 15 years, you’ll probably think about how to do some yourself.
CB: When does a band become a band?
David: You have to understand.. that every time you go to a show, out of every hundred people or so, a couple of 14 year olds will be on a stage at some point. I don’t know where the transformation takes place. When I was in college, listening to music was my whole life. When I was in college, the Butthole Surfers to me were more to me than anything else in the world. Except maybe my girlfriend. But you know what I mean.
CB: I do. I felt the same way about the Butthole Surfers.
David: It was like a religion, and I know a lot of other people who felt the same way. I think it’s strange now, I don’t even think about them anymore. I put on their records every once in a while and I’m reminded of the power they used to have, and I wonder where it went. They were an audience at one point, and then they went on to become these amazing performers, and now I don’t know what they are.
CB: They’re a really good example. Because it used to really draw the audience in and be this amazing experience to see the Butthole Surfers and just get all caught up in all of it. But now they’re just like the more traditional rock band or something.
David: Yeah, there was never a time when I would go see the Butthole Surfers back then when I felt that I was only watching. It seems like it would be the opposite, with a band that strange and to look and listen to, you would be the most distant from. Where you would feel like you were watching a freak show.

CB: Yeah, I always felt like I knew them, even though I never talked to them.
David: I’ll never understand how music that was so incredibly frightening could be so human and comfortable.
CB: The last time I saw them was in 1989, and that was when it really started to change for me. David: Yeah, exactly. 1989, that was the year when something happened.
CB: They didn’t have their dancer anymore, and they only had one drummer, and their audience had just like doubled or tripled cause everyone knew how good their shows were. It’s weird, cause that’s something that a lot of people give me a hard time about, but when a band snowballs into something so big that I feel this huge gap between me and them…the whole experience is just different. I start to feel like the situation is consumption oriented instead of experience oriented.
David: I think that’s especially true with bands that you see in that phase. I mean, bands like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers were always meant to be stadium bands, I’m sure they’d sound great in a small club, but other bands, like the Rolling Stones, when I read about them playing in small clubs even in the 70s, I realize that would have been amazing.
CB: So do you have any heroes?
David: Yeah, I have heroes. Well, let’s see. There are the historical heros, like Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston and then musical heros I’d have to say would be people like Jerry Lee Lewis and David Yow. Well, David Yow is Jerry Lee Lewis. Then there are other people I just totally admire like Cormac McCarthy. Then there’s the people I know.
Bob: He’s my best friend, so it’s hard for me to be away from him for large stretches of time. You know, you move into the latter part of your 20s and you start doing way different things. David is a lot different than anyone else I know. He’s someone I feel a great sense of attachment to. He’s a tremendous source of entertainment. We love him. I think Silver Jews would be more of a band if he was more comfortable playing live.
David: In a lot of ways Bob has been, even though he’s a close friend.. I look up to all my friends, I look down on them too. But Steve and Bob are constantly inspiring, and I guess that’s what a hero is. CB: Yeah, exactly, not that you aspire to be them, but that they motivate you to work on your own stuff and to stay alive. Now why Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson? Because of their myths?
David: Yeah, well, I wouldn’t ever separate them from their myths; although any biography could do that for me. But yeah, there seems to be some assault right now on great men. I guess those two were both generals, Indian killers and blah blah…but I admire the strength in each one of them…and I like when they lived and where they lived. I like that they were able to do so well in those times. So if you feel close to an era, you may feel close to someone who thrived in that era. And of course Robert E. Lee.
CB: Wow, all these Southern men, where did you grow up?
David: Dallas, Virginia, and Ohio. [click…! tape ran out.]

Matt Kelly

(Note: I am reblogging this interview, originally done in 1994 by Matt Kelly in the fantastic COOL BEANS!, The Vima Tresna in the spirit of preserving a more complete historical record/archive of the artistic life of David Berman, in this case with a quite seminal Silver Jews…I claim no ownership whatsoever of this interview and will gladly remove this from my site and/or pass it on to a worthier archivist…) P.E. Tottenham, 07/30/2021