“On the last day of your life, don't forget to die.” “Sometimes, a pony gets depressed.” “Pain works on a sliding scale. So does pleasure in a candy jail.” It's easy to let the lyrics of David Berman – him of the road-untested, mother-disapproved seminal rock act Silver Jews – introduce himself. Considering the drops of advice, concern, facts, lies, and details put in those words, it would also be criminally lazy. The Sterling Semites (get it?) dropped their latest – and, I'll be honest, best – record, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, this year.
In preparation for the album's release and their forthcoming tour, I spoke with David Berman via email about inspiration for the new record, his other projects in the works, and “painting the baby's bedroom” (oh, just read on).
What are you reading lately?
I always have 5-10 going at once. This is only possible if you underline the good stuff as you go along, so you can put it down for a while and then catch up through looking back at what you highlighted. Right now, it's Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizenga, various American histories that cover the years 1877-1914. . A volume of Kenneth Fearing poems. Various books by Jewish writers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Larry King. How to talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: the Secrets to Good Communication by Larry King is mindbendingly irrational. I have a book of English profanity from the publishers of Viz magazine. Unprotected sex is called “painting the baby's bedroom.” Are you willing to have sex with an elderly woman when the bar is shutting down? You are open to acquiring some “prunetang” then?
What did you think of fans' general reactions to Tanglewood Numbers?
It was good. If you like the Silver Jews, it's fairly consistent. It's the consistency that makes the changes stand out, I suppose. The songs are good live songs. Good armor for a crusade.
Years back, you and Stephen Malkmus played a show where the two of you jammed over John Oswald's Grayfolded tapes. Even though you tour semi-regularly now, any chance something like that would ever happen again? (That would be fucking awesome.)
If Steve lived in Nashville, we would do that stuff all the time. But Portland is where he has made his home, and I like where I am. I have never collaborated with anyone else though. He's quickwitted on the quitar. You can serve him up an idea and he immediately responds with something effortlessly. He likes playing games, and I think he does better in this action/reaction kind of writing set up than any other.
How's the poetry/prose going?
It's not really going. As the jazzmen say, “when in doubt, lay out.”
Any book/collection projects in the works?
A book of “illustrations” is what I'm getting ready.
Let's talk Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (which, by the way, coming from a massive Silver Jews fan, is phenomenal). There seems to be two distinct halves to the record: a very dark first half (“What Was Not But Could Be If – “Strange Victory, Strange Defeat”) and a more free-flowing, reflective second half (“Open Field – “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing”). Were either of these conceptual ideas your intention?
I thought “Open Field” was like what you hit when you walk out of the dark forest of side one. Side one recapitulates the darkness and dread of the other albums. Side two is operating with a post-hell consciousness. Innocence gains hard experience on Side One, but turns that into some provisional Wisdom on the other side.
It seems like Cassie is taking a very June Carter-esque stance in the band in opposition to your more gruff-voiced Johnny Cash persona lately. Thoughts?
It's just like a school play really. With Cassie, the script can go wider to incorporate the female point of view. It was what made X seem so much broader in scope than anything else in the early eighties.
The guitar work seems to be noticeably different on this record when compared to Tanglewood (besides Malkmus not being on it). I'm thinking about the streaked guitars on “Suffering Jukebox” or the almost-hypnotic run at the end of “What Was Not But Could Be If.” How was the creation of this record approached in that respect?
William [Tyler] and Peyton [Pinkerton] divided up their guitar parts. William is the chimer and Peyton is the muscle. William was the guitarist on Bright Flight and Peyton on the Natural Bridge.
For such a sweet melody, “Candy Jail” seems to be one of the more metaphorically grim songs you've written recently. What was your lyrical intention?
Back in the eighties, all the new wave bands critiqued luxury, consumption, and gluttony until that got old and everyone just stopped fighting it. So it's that and also an elegy for those who got mad as hell and decided they were not going to take it anymore.
Maher Shalal Hash Baz's “Open Field” is a fascinating choice for a cover – how did you come to that decision?
I always admired the minimalist features of that song. I was going to go to the studio and I couldn't find the CD it appears on, but I found the extended CD single which is slightly different and includes The Pastels, and we covered that.
“San Francisco B.C.” seems to be heavily influenced by songs like The Velvet Underground's “The Gift”; was that your intention?
Yeah. I was listening to a lot of Shel Silverstein songs. But amazingly “The Gift” stands out as one of the few rock songs with a good story in it, over 40 years later.
What have you been listening to recently?
Locally, there is some good rock music for a change. James Toth is excellent. He has a great album coming out. Tim Chad and Sherry. Spirtual Family Reunion, Dave Cloud and the Gospel of Power. I think I like JEFF or the Turbofruits. One of them sounds like scrawny DC3 and the other like scrawny Das Damen in my memory. I really enjoyed seeing Howlin' Rain the other night.
What haven't you been listening to recently?
The thing I haven't listened to the most is probably heavy metal.
People of repute always appear on your albums (Steve Malkmus, Will Oldham); are there any non-Silver Jews related collaborations for you in the future?
I have nothing planned. I'm supposed to go to a wedding in February.
Do you, or did you, ever have a friend named Marc with a ‘c'? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
I really did. He loved the Kinks and the Who, but not the early stuff, more like 1978-1982.
How's touring been going?
I don't like the traveling. I would like to do it cryogenic style, but people say I'm already too cold-hearted as it is.