NEW YORK — After more than a decade of being one of music’s beloved secrets, David Berman is ready for his band, Silver Jews, to get a little more recognition. “If I may kindly say,” he starts, “it remains the media’s grave responsibility to bring the issue of the Silver Jews up before the American people at this time so we as a nation can decide for ourselves whether we want that kind of thing going on or not.”
So, yes, maybe he’s ready for Silver Jews to sell a few more albums — especially its fifth one, “Tanglewood Numbers,” in stores now. But he has his limits as to what he’ll do to make that happen — he’d prefer not to tour or do interviews. Since he started the indie rock band in the late Eighties with collegemate Stephen Malkmus, former lead of Pavement and on-again, off-again Silver Jew, Berman has avoided playing live and usually conducts interviews via e-mail. (This one was split between e-mail and the phone.)
He believes, with almost scientific deduction, that too much interaction with an audience dulls his creative edge — one of his theories being that musicians dry up earlier than other artists because they have constant direct contact with their fans. “Of course positive reinforcement from others regarding their enjoyment of the way you see things creates that ever-dangerous feedback loop that has an artist finally just filling out the outline drawn by his finest admirer,” Berman says.
As for the cyber chats with journalists, he’s simply less self-conscious huddled over a keyboard and his dry, pitch-perfect wit lets loose. Over the phone, Berman is shy and admittedly awkward. “I do feel that all the problems associated with presenting myself just melt away when I’m typing,” he explains. “Ideas and opinions flow easier with my fingers.”
Having candidly laid bare all his faults and neuroses, there are only two subjects that raise Berman’s hackles: his dad and his Texas upbringing. Papa is Rick Berman, a D.C. bigwig who, among other things, lobbies on the side of restaurant chains like Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse and liquor distributors. A liberal-thinking person would see him as a pro-fat kind of guy in favor of lax drunk driving laws. “I don’t talk to him and I don’t really want to talk about him,” the younger Berman says firmly of the elder.
This story first appeared in the November 1, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As for Texas, “It just needs to shut up for like a hundred years,” he rants. “It’s fun to be in a place where people love where they are, but to be reassured of that over and over again, it’s just ego problems.”
His current home base, Nashville, suits him just fine. It’s here that through mutual connection Harmony Korine, Berman hooked up with photographer William Eggleston for the cover art for “Tanglewood Numbers.” Home is also where Berman has created a safe haven for himself and his wife, Cassie, a place to work on songs and his poetry — for which he’s been compared by The New Yorker to a modern-day Wallace Stevens. He’s published one book and assorted pieces that have been printed in literary magazines.
He won’t read reviews or any press about himself. “I’m trying to become the type of person whose estimation of himself is completely independent of other people. After Emerson: ‘The man must be so much, that he must make all circumstances indifferent,'” he quotes the poet. In turn, his label does not send him any Silver Jews press clips. Unfortunately, his computer and the Internet aren’t as sensitive and every once in a while, an item will reach him.
“My wife Cassie was trying to explain to the salesman at Best Buy that she had to get this filter for her husband,” Berman relays. “And he didn’t believe it wasn’t to block out pornography.” So Internet porn is OK, but Googling “David Berman” or “Silver Jews” isn’t? “Yeah, in my house, it’s true.”