Silver Jews, whose sixth album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, will be released on June 17, is one of those bands that separates a casual music fan from the true connoisseur. Anyone who calls it a Pavement side project immediately betrays their ignorance, but those who see the band as an exclusive club miss David Berman’s point. While his ex-bandmate Stephen Malkmus might be interested in "cooler than thou" indie-rock elitism, Berman wants to give music back to his listeners.
Tell me something interesting about the new album.
The album exists on multiple levels. I’d say that there’s an interesting thread in the album about the year 1913. I also put together a collection of footnotes to the record that came out with the press kit. There are phrases from Emily Dickinson and Emerson that make it more outward looking than most of my other records. Cassie is also singing more on this album, so that adds another voice to the mix. I think my plan was to bring in more things from the outside and then fold them into these inward-looking songs. That’s kind of dry, isn’t it?
It’s a good answer.
Can I try again?
I think another interesting thing I’ve done with this record is put the chords in with the lyrics on the liner notes so that the songs are easy for almost anybody to play. I’m curious as to why musicians don’t do that more often. Why is that information separated from the listeners? It’s interesting, and it’s not common knowledge. People say most rock songs are three chords, but as a listener, my question was always which three chords I should use. As a musician that doesn’t read music, there was a gap that separated me from being able to interact with songs. I guess some people want to keep it mystifying.
What will people learn from having this information?
I suppose they’ll learn that I used a limited amount of chords but went to a lot of trouble to develop the sixteen that I use on the album. I consciously tried to keep it simple. There are no bar chords or advanced techniques. What I’m doing is inviting anyone who lives with a guitar — you know, maybe a roommate has one or something — to play these songs.
How does this change your role as a performer?
I think that music fans as a whole are a very intelligent, yet passive, group of people. There’s not really an invitation for them on most records to join in as a participant. Folk musicians talk about the song itself having a life rather than their particular version of a song. They assumed that someone hearing the song would adopt it. People also became very conscious of this during the beginning of punk. What I’ve done is a literalization of that idea. I’m sort of saying that I have the ability to write these songs, but that you might be able to do it better. This might be my attempt at humility.
What would be the ideal outcome from this experiment?
I like the idea of someone who buys all these different records will able to play this one. I think that is a much deeper connection for a person to make. As a musician, that’s what I’m seeking.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was recorded mainly with members of your touring group. Is this the first record that you’d say you’ve recorded as a band?
I would say no in that I always bring the songs to the band. It’s a simple core structure, and people write their parts. However, we practiced more in preparation for this record, and we toured, so we’re definitely able to play more closely as a group. This group of musicians was gathered from the people in previous bands who payed the most attention. They’re good students of what I’ve been trying to do, and that makes the process so much easier.
How does having your partner involved in the band work?
She’s always been a musician, so it’s a natural thing for me to see her in that context. It’s been ten years and three albums, and she has had a job and not been around when I’m writing, so there’s not that much close working together. She was going to play bass on this record, which was new, but I didn’t show her the songs before any of the other guys. When we’re playing music, she’s a member of the band. It’s not an issue. On the road, the guys like to go out and Cassie and I like to do our thing, so it does make life easier that way.
You’ve spoken before about your distaste for touring. Has the aggregation of a band changed that?
I did forty-five shows in 2006. I just did fifteen and I’ll do five more weeks in the fall. It’s not bad if there’s an album associated with it, but I don’t like driving or planes. There are worse things that I could imagine, like having to work in an office every day. Going out on stage is a great feeling.
In addition to your music catalog, you’ve also experienced success with poetry. What is more like work for you, writing poetry or writing songs?
I guess since there’s some guitar playing involved, there’s a little more recreational aspect to writing a song. Anything I write requires five or ten days of mental commitment. It’s a matter of sitting down to write a poem or a song. The text doesn’t arrive unattached and then you assign it to a mode.
Do different things inspire poems and songs?
Reading inspires all of my creative work. It could even be the dictionary. There’s that great quote that reading is like thinking with someone else’s mind. I’m a naturally curious person, so that speaks to me. I read everything. I study the Talmud and the Torah extensively. I like to read about country music and a lot of nineteenth-century essayists.
Silver Jews has a long history. If someone is just getting into the band, where should they start?
I don’t know if I’d recommend that you start. I’d warn you away. If you’re persistent, though, I would say to start with the album I just wrote. I never expect someone to buy more than one.
Would you license any of your songs?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve said this many, many times before. Licensing a song is wrong to the people who went out and purchased that record. They have a relationship with that song and should be able to choose how they interact with it. Having the song pushed in their face fifty extra times in incredibly unfair. If nothing else, hearing the song so many extra times will create a huge play imbalance within the album.
If you could attend any concert either playing or as a spectator, what would it be?
I’d probably pick somebody like the Doobie Brothers or the James Gang. I’d guess I’m more interested in the full sounds of my youth. I would totally waste it on something like that. It would need to be something historical, so it would be a one-time event and then over forever. That way I wouldn’t have to keep up with the band and write them cards. I’ve had trouble with that after playing festivals.
Other than your upcoming tour, what are your plans for the future?
I need to sit down and do that soon. To be honest, I’m just so surprised to be here and working in 2008. I never thought I’d make it.