Silver Jews frontman David Berman embodies a certain kind of indie zeitgeist: His eccentric-genius-in-beard-and-glasses silhouette is synonymous with early-'90s alt-rock, and his rich, incisive lyrics remain required reading for aspiring poets and vocalists. Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, his sixth album with Silver Jews (and his first since he decided, in 2006, to tour for the first time), isn't as scrappy as his early collaborations with Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, but it's no less potent. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Berman (his wife and bassist Cassie briefly chimed in) to discuss Teddy Roosevelt, cataclysms, 1914, Judaism, rock criticism, and indie fashion, among other things.
The A.V. Club: Last year, you had a corneal transplant. It seems like this album is full of visual imagery and that it emphasizes "looking," from the title to the closing track.
David Berman: Yeah. It was more after the fact—so many connections happen after the fact, you know? For instance, the seeing—just unpacking the title, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Which is something like "Two if by land, three if by sea." For a while, I couldn't really tell what it was. I knew it was a play on words, but I couldn't feel what it was. And just the other day, I realized it was Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, which is an address. So that's the play on words. But then I'm also thinking about the word "look," and how the two o's look like eyes. And I'm saying, "Look out, mountain, here I come." But I'm also thinking about looking at a mountain, or looking at Mount Sinai. In a very personal in-joke sort of way, I'm thinking about [Pavement's] Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. And I am also thinking about the idea of uttering a phrase like "look out mountain, look out sea," which I consider pre-1914 language. You know, the kind of language that Ernest Hemingway would write about as being no longer usable.
I kind of position a lot of the themes of the album around the idea of 1913 and that juncture in history. I think it's easy to take the next step—I feel similarities to this time, I intuit that there will be a great change in the social order. And so I'm writing about that time. So you have in Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, a declaration that is not only like the kind of language that was used before we lost faith in heroism, it also is, in 1913, the last time you could travel the world without a passport. You could go anywhere in the world without a passport except maybe Russia.
The CD you probably have has my cornea-transplant eye on the CD. The promo CDs have my new cornea, a mapping of it, inside it. So it's sort of like I'm looking out, and when you open it up, I'm looking at the critic. But the actual CD, there's an image of a woman. It's a drawing of a woman in profile. If you look at it, first it looks like the Eastern hemisphere of the world. When you look again, you see that Eurasia forms her hair, and you can see her eyes—it's a drawing from 1913 by they guy who drew Uncle Sam. Now, going back to "Look out mountain, look out sea" in 1913, the song "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat" has a snippet of Teddy Roosevelt speaking to the Boys' Progressive League of New York City in 1913.
AVC: "Don't flinch…"
DB: "Don't flinch, don't foul. Hit the line hard." And I used to have a Knute Rockne thing in there before that, because when I started writing the song, I was laughing at the idea of bands as high-school teams. And laughing at the idea, well, okay, that's sort of a funny explanation for why bands take on these furry-woodland-creature names. And also that I feel like, this album is the first time I'm speaking to people born after 1980, whereas with the other ones, I feel like if I'm speaking to anyone at all, it's my peers. And so I'm setting up a relationship between, well… When Teddy Roosevelt says that, the irony is that these boys were going to be draft age in 1917. Only after I put this in there did this all come together for me—Teddy Roosevelt is coming from that world that ended in 1913, the world of puffed-up bravado and big-game hunts. And he was an amazing man but a really flawed guy, and his great military victory, San Juan Hill, was sort of a PR stunt. And so he's proffering his wisdom to these young men about how to go out and campaign for the Bull Moose Party. And the irony is that those children are due to be way older than he ever will be. The relationship will be inverse when people who grow up in generations like Teddy Roosevelt's, like the baby boomers, who live through passages without cataclysm, between the cataclysms. So in talking about 1913 and sort of making an analog to 2008, what I guess I'm saying is that it's the same relationship.
The relationship between the baby boomers and the kids born after 1980 is the same type of thing, and here's why, in the most basic way: This generation of adults are in their 50s and 60s and 70s now. Never before has there been a generation that has basically given up the project of long-term planning. You know? Century's changed. I was thinking about harbingers and my friend Jeremy Blake who died last summer. To me, he functions as a harbinger, or at least in the narrative that I'm setting up. And I'm taking liberties at this point with my life and where the art crosses. To me, almost in a John Brown sense, no one in 1858 could imagine how many people would be carrying out John Brown's project. And something about the questions about the way Jeremy died, which inevitably lead to for people—like my parents, their friends, "How would anyone who had a pretty girlfriend, and was successful young artist, why would anyone like that kill themselves?" And this is a question that I think a lot of people are going to have to start looking at. This is what the people who say "Things have never been better!" have to address. And these are people who are excited about the new economy.
Going back to that Teddy Roosevelt thing, I feel like people born after 1980 are about to get a really raw deal. The people that right now are adults, it's going to take them longer than almost any other generation to let go of control of the world.
AVC: And yet this seems like a really hopeful record.
DB: Right. You know why? Because the people after—that's the crux. It makes me see what's after the collapse, what's after nothing. It makes me admit that the pattern is different. It makes me admit that the pattern isn't strange victory, strange victory, strange victory, strange defeat—which is how the first chorus is, I say it once. The second time, I say it twice. And so when you've heard it twice, you know that the pattern is strange victory—if you last long enough, it comes back. But what happens, and why I think the world doesn't fall apart, is that when there are irrational old people in charge, there is a countervailing group of young, cooperative straight arrows who are great at teamwork and are not seeking to nihilistically shut down the system. They have an investment in repair, and they have an investment in—I guess I'm sort of trying to bring good news, in a sense, and at the same time, cushion the blow of what I feel we're being led into.
And at the same time, it's wrapped with the songs around it, with some mundane expressions of hope. Because all hope is that mundane, or can be, at least. So the record is very Jewish in that way—it's cyclical. The record is meant to be a cycle, just as Judaism is based on the cycle, the festival of seasons. I no longer buy into—there's that old Jewish saying, "Change your opinion, change your luck." I've just decided no longer to opine that things suck. That there's no solution, and how can there be? I've just decided to opine something else, and I moved that muscle in my head. So it's at one time sort of a warning, but also a… I don't want to claim too much for it, but I just feel like the reason it can be fun and all these things can be down in there is because it's variant enough that you don't have to think about any of that stuff. But there's enough stuff in there to set people writing. And I don't know if they told you about this—I had some young kids at college newspapers sort of listen to it, and I challenged them to write, react to it, not with value judgments, but just to engage with what was there. So when the press promos go out, what they wrote is going to be part of the press package.
And to me, that's as much a part of the record, too. There's a lot of talk about music, but the record is also about music writing, because when I put out a record, I like to think, "Okay, I'm not adding to the bullshit in the world. Whether you like it or not, at least it's not more of the same." But what I should have been aware of was how it does have a side effect—it launches a thousand bad paragraphs. I don't think that's a personal indictment of people who write rock criticism, I think it's a lack of models, a lack of challenge. Everybody wants to excel in their field. But it's the one field where almost nobody takes pleasure in breaking away. And so I guess the record is all those things, and it's also just mine and Cassie's story. And there's a couple other things that it is. [Laughs.] Forty-five minute answer.
AVC: You've said in the past that you have ten thousand reasons to not want to tour, but in 2006, you changed your mind. Was it different writing this record, knowing that that people were going to hear these new songs live?
DB: Yeah, it's true. On the last record, I was trying to say, "Listen to me! I have something to say!" I tried to get the attention, but I didn't have anything to say yet. So this is what I had to say after the pop. My voice is raised, but now not in an effort to necessarily awaken someone. I hope I'm speaking to someone who's awake to what I'm saying. But it's more to exhort. So I guess for the next one, maybe I'll fire everyone. The next record, I'll be firing all my listeners. I'll boss them around for the next record, and then the next record, I'm gonna fire all of them.
Cassie Berman: Seeing David on tour last year was so amazing, because usually the audience was his age and younger. Earlier, he had said he considered himself to be writing for his peers, so I wonder if perhaps seeing legions of kids come up to him like, "You mean a lot to me, David Berman!"—maybe then he realized that he had some kind of imperative to say something worth listening to. There's still a lot of, to me, David Berman novelty conjunctions, like "This word and this word you wouldn't think would go together, and isn't that neat?" I think he's got some kind of a wisdom angle going. Like, "I've been around, kids."
DB: I saw these kids in the audience, and they're so open-faced and open-hearted, I couldn't go back to my garret and forget those faces. I also didn't quite realize they existed. Generational lines take a long time to see. And I had been locked away for several years. So coming out and seeing these—you know, the other night, we went to a show at Spring Water, always a place that I fear going to now, because I fear who I'll see. And to a large degree, it's a whole new generation. It's been four years of fuck-ups. But these fuck-ups are—they're better fuck-ups. They're sweet, they dance with each other. They don't have a lot of egomaniacs running around. And so the good news about the record, I guess, is that there's a generational alignment. Even though I feel we're pre-cataclysm, we're set up, we need to be pre-cataclysm, even—I would never have said this a year ago, but, when you get to a certain point, you realize that everything has to crumble. It's too sick. So if that's going to happen, part of the positive was going out and seeing there was—I guess I just assumed behind me were a bunch of cynical people like me. That everything behind me was the same kind of people. And it took me a long time to realize that these people were 21, 22, 23. I knew they were these nice little kids, but I hadn't realized they'd already gotten of age to be working and being out. So it was great. A part of one of the pleasures of waking up was waking up to a better group of people. And I always felt with my own peers, I set them off wrong. Ever since I was a little kid, I've always felt un-trusted.
CB: That was exactly what happened. I've seen that.
DB: People younger than me trust me. People my age do not. They think I'm up to something. And I've often felt this. So, the reason, I guess, I think, I've talked to friends of mine who are down on their luck in their 30s and 40s, people who've kind of been through the grind. And they feel like they missed out on having a kid or whatever. I tell them, "You know, I don't think that your time has come. I think that you might be—every time there's a disaster, there's a group of people your age who, for the first time, are asked to do certain things." And I feel there's a lot of soulful, maybe wayward, grunge guys working in convenience stores in America, around 40, and they're just, "What happened?" That we're gonna need, and that are gonna feel the leadership, the one sort of missing thing from this generation, which is a willingness to lead, and to be that cocky bastard. Me and my peers seem to be a bit more outspoken. I wonder why there's such a system of respect for these older people. And I don't know, it seems—
CB: Like who?
DB: Well, like Malkmus and Sonic Youth, you know. Believe me, we did not have anything to do with what 4-year-olds were thinking about the music we were listening to.
AVC: The culture has become so accelerated that it seems like indie rock, especially, eats itself. No one spends any time with records any more, so no one develops that kind of reverence.
CB: Yeah, yeah, it's true.
DB: Because they have to get their education. You have to learn so much to be able to think about it. You don't have time to give repeated listenings. I think it helps for there to be an era like the '70s, where you could just write off huge sections of music, like the top 40. It was a good thing for music. That's what kept serious music alive, and it kept music that wanted to be higher up, like high art. And that was always sort of the thing, was that music wanted to be high art. It didn't care about the market. And if you paid attention to the market at all, you were a fool. You weren't one of us. So the destination wasn't the market, it was more—people were open, The Minutemen were open to being an art form, of course, they wanted to be in there, they wanted to be high culture. And so now I find myself in the position where I don't want to go to high culture, I want to bring high culture down here. I want to make the songs mean more. I want to challenge the low culture to be smarter. I don't really feel like we need to—I'm not fighting to get into the museums. That's not my project.
AVC: There's a great line in 'Strange Victory' about good-looking bands: "What have they done with the fat ones, the bald and the goateed?" Do you think indie rock is considerably more image-conscious now?
DB: I think the smart people in culture hopefully are allotting for a feature that will allow for ugly geniuses. But right now, as far as the new thing, there is a filtering out on the personnel level of these things we call rock groups. And the kids are clearly so competitive, they almost feel like they can't afford to lead—and because everything's a decision, it's not just the three guys on your block. There are so many people. I get the feeling they feel under pressure to be as good-looking as they can—the things they can control. Because they cannot control what they're writing, what their subject's gonna be. So yeah, it's a strange phenomenon. And it has to do with fashion and commerce.
AVC: There are a lot of haircuts on this record.
DB: Yeah, that's all going on. I definitely am comparing to my time, when I was a handsome grandson. But back then, no one was looking for handsome grandsons, I'll tell you what. There were no jobs for handsome grandsons back then. People were seeking Mr. Goodbody, they weren't seeking Eddie Haskell.
AVC: Silver Jews' lineup is in a semi-constant state of flux. Have you ever thought about nailing down a more permanent stable of players?
DB: Hmmm. I wonder if I wasn't forced into the state of flux by The Natural Bridge. Circumstances forced me to record the second album with new people. At that point, my aesthetic was 'committed' to the pattern. Since two was not like one, three could not be like two.
AVC: In "What Is Not But Could Be If," you talk about how "What was not but could have been / Was my obsession way back when." Your life has changed considerably over the last five years. Has letting go of regret or conjecture been part of the change?
DB: You know, it's funny, you have made me confront the fact that that line does not come from my life, but from a character's perspective. I have always had a blank spot where my regret is supposed to be. I guess the speaker is not really me.
AVC: What do you think it is about songwriting that makes most people presume a certain degree of autobiography? It's like debut novels, in a way—it's very natural to assume that songwriters write about themselves, exclusively.
DB: It is like debut novels. The songwriter is trapped in a careerlong bildungsroman from the audience perspective. In "New Orleans" from Starlite Walker, with "I'm trapped inside the song," I was working this issue like a good postmodernist boy.
AVC: Why did you include the guitar tabs in the liner notes of the new record? It feels like a return to folk tradition.
DB: Yes. They're the 16 easiest chords to play. Even if [someone] sells the CD, the little piece of card stock will hopefully get to the great number of people who live with a guitar in their house, but have never picked one up. To the degree that the learners will be Silver Jews fans, I have some interest in dissolving the music into the body of the fan. It's a trip I've never been on as a songwriter. Past their ears and brains and into their fingers and throats.
AVC: Do you think the songs on this record are more self-contained, in terms of narrative?
DB: Yes. I hope there is very little bleed-over from song to song. Within each song, I tried to make every word contribute to a single end. To kill the sense of arbitrariness I've given to my own work in the past and sense in others' songs day to day.
AVC: What was the editing process like for this record?
DB: The editing was very intense. Whole songs had wholly different sets of completed lyrics in some cases. "We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing" was a more narcissistic tune called "Sunglasses, Cigarettes, and Keys," about a guy holding it all together. Once I wrote "Party Barge," I no longer needed one of these songs, but I did need a love song, so I started over, which is difficult. You are done with the song. No one cares if you re-write it or not. In fact, people may be telling you it's great as is. You have to make yourself.
AVC: The seagull sounds in the background of "Party Barge" are reminiscent of the seagull-esque sounds in "The Boys Of Summer." How did you decide to incorporate found sound?
DB: Tony Crow. He gets me. My sense of humor. He just ran with all that stuff. For three albums in a row, I would have to say he has been my most valuable asset. He is an incomparable man. One of the funniest people you'll ever meet. He is my art of noise.
AVC: How much does your sense of humor play into your songwriting?
DB: I don't know that I've created anything that doesn't have some sort of comic aspect. Maybe that comes from growing up in a household where art was not appreciated. Everything was predicated on humor, because that was what was valued in my family. My grandfather's CB [radio] name was "Good Humor." It helped him get around a lot of Long Island traffic.
AVC: There's a lot of food imagery on this record: Swedish fish, chicken-fried pigeon. Any significance?
DB: I think the characters are making it through corrupt worlds that I wanted to represent without falling back on drugs, crime, and sex, which are rather beside the point in a greedy, fat-sucking time. So gluttony takes the cake. Nothing makes me squirm like medieval evil.
AVC: To what extent do you think place affects your writing? Nashville seems like a tremendous place to be a songwriter.
DB: I think it is, as long as you have a place to retreat to. I have some friends who live the real deal, going around to all the writers' nights. For that kind of songwriter, trying to make it is very hard. The Nashville bus station is called a Landport. It's a Landportal through which people come and go.
AVC: You've said you were more assertive in the studio this time around. Are there compromises on the older records that you regret?
DB: I wish I'd been more rigorous with my own self during Bright Flight. I was puffy and smushed.
AVC: When you're writing and recording, do you need to back off of books and records? Do you need to be in a vacuum?
DB: I'm usually reading stuff tangential to song topics. This is a habit all writers should have. Just as a gatherance of vocabulary. Gatherance?
AVC: There are a lot of literary references on the record. Do you consciously take inspiration from other artists?
DB: I don't know if I actually respect other artists as people as much as I should. I look at their work as excellent data that feeds my mind as nature feeds my body. I introduced myself to Robert Smith after a Cure concert last year. I find it hard to make the connection between the artist and the art.
AVC: What happened when you met Robert Smith?
DB: It was after a concert at Starwood, the outdoor pavilion thing. Mogwai was opening, so we were at this afterparty in some kind of large log cabin behind the stage. While onstage, he presents a pretty ratty-mussed-hair-and-sloppy-lipstick fronting, but this is after the show, and he has showered, put on an expensive suit, hair pulled back, and complete white makeup over his face and perfect red lipstick, like a geisha. I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and smiled and looked up at me, but didn't say a word. I started to speak; my friend Rachel was by my side. I was nervous, and I rattled on about a show in Dallas in 1984 at the Arcadia Theatre, and he looked up with an open expression the whole time as I sputtered and muttered—the music was loud, and I couldn't lean in toward that face—but he never said a word. I just realized that he could have been acting as a mime, so as to be able to meet people but not have to speak. That never occurred to me. I was very embarrassed, and have been much more sympathetic to autograph seekers since then.
AVC: Do you still get nervous before you perform?
DB: I just always want it to be time to perform. I hate the waiting. It's too big a future event to put out of your mind, so it tends to make other activities bothersome.