Music

How Indie Cult Hero David Berman Disappeared For A Decade — And Then Returned, Better Than Ever

David Berman

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Back in January, I received a rather surprising email from a man who I knew but had never met. “More often than I’d like to admit, I search Twitter for ‘Silver Jews,’ looking for a shot of courage,” it began. “More than once you were my signal to keep going.”

It was David Berman, an indie legend who had dissolved Silver Jews, one of the most respected bands of the ’90s, in 2009. After that, he promptly disappeared from the public eye. No social media presence, no new music. For many years, there was hardly even a sign of old music — until 2017, you couldn’t stream any of Silver Jews albums, and finding physical copies often required scrounging around at used record stores.

A literate, laconic singer-songwriter who was once associated with the lo-fi scene spearheaded by his friend and occasional bandmate Stephen Malkmus, Berman had over the course of six Silver Jews albums evolved into an artist who resembled the great rock bards of previous generations, like Lou Reed, Townes Van Zandt, and Kris Kristofferson. He was the rare lyricist whose words could stand apart from songs as prose. Every line was quotable, and yet also fit inside fractured narratives shaped by substance abuse, loneliness, and an eccentric outsider’s point of view.

Most artists fade in prominence over time. But Berman had seemingly gone out of his way to make the world forget about him. In the modern music business, stepping away just for a year or two might prompt the media to assume that you’ve either died or lapsed into complete irrelevance. Berman meanwhile maintained near radio silence for a decade.

But for those who love his music, he’s always remained a romantic figure, the quintessential legendary recluse, a textbook underground hero. I’ve interviewed various indie artists over the years who have tried to reach him when visiting his one-time home of Nashville. Usually, to no avail. Berman, it seemed, had little interest in engaging with the outside world.

But now, here he was, in my inbox, looking for some minor validation. I had tweeted a few times about American Water, his 1998 masterwork that signaled an embrace of stoner-friendly country rock. Also, I had quoted one of his lyrics in my first book. (“In 27 years I’ve drunk 50,000 beers,” from the song “Trains Across The Sea.”) Berman told me he had some new songs, if I was interested in hearing them. Naturally, I was flattered, but also trepidatious. Berman hadn’t put out an album since Silver Jews’ 2008 swan song, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, a sinewy psychedelic country record that sounded positively huge compared with smaller scale ’90s records like 1994’s Starlite Walker and 1996’s The Natural Bridge. Would Berman still have the ability to write songs that are artfully composed and yet sound extemporaneous, like a guy telling you his life story over a Miller High Life at 1 a.m. in novelistic detail?

Turns out, the answer was an emphatic “yes.” Now recording under the name Purple Mountains, Berman has made an album about whether it’s possible to find redemption when you’re aware that death lies at the end of every destination. In his personal life, Berman has had to start over – he currently lives in a spare room at the office of his long-time record label, the venerated Chicago indie Drag City. Several of his new songs, such as the post-modern honky-tonk number “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” seems to allude to his recent separation from wife and former bandmate, Cassie Berman. (Most quotable line: “I wanna be a warm and friendly person / but I don’t know how to do it.”)

But above all, he’s obsessed with the big questions, even as the world around him seems both more doomed and more banal. On one of my favorite tracks from Purple Mountains, “Drinking Margaritas At The Mall,” Berman sounds like Warren Zevon reciting Samuel Beckett. “How long can the world go on with such a subtle God?” Berman wonders.

For the uninitiated, this might all seem grim. And, well, it sort of is. After all, Berman did attempt suicide in the early ’00s, via an overdose of booze, Xanax, and crack cocaine. A recent Washington Post profile lingered on Berman’s troubled relationship with his estranged father, a Washington D.C. lobbyist. When Berman broke up Silver Jews, he cited his “despicable” patriarch and how his father’s work on behalf of tobacco and anti-union corporations had possibly “contaminated” his own work.

The implication of the Post article is that Berman’s decision to blow up Silver Jews is evidence of his self-destructive streak. I think there’s probably some truth to that. But when Berman and I finally connected on the phone in May, two months before the July 12 release of Purple Mountains, he insisted that the break was necessary to recharge his creative batteries. A recurring topic in our email correspondence was how great artists tend to peter out creatively in middle age. For the 52-year-old Berman, the solution was to step away for a while, until he felt a desire to record and tour again.

During our 90-minute interview, Berman never mentioned his dad. He did, however, speak adoringly of his mother, whose death inspired him to write “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” the most emotionally straight-forward track from Purple Mountains. It was the first song Berman had written in many years, and it gently put him back on the path to making another record.

“I don’t have religion or culture. I don’t have anything I can believe in when I’m really scared,” he said. “When I play the songs, I feel the fear disappear.”

At the beginning of our phone call, Berman was tentative, his voice a little shaky. He claimed not to care about whether the public remembers him. “I’m not the type to demand affirmation or to worry that I’ll be forgotten,” he said. “I’m more the type to dare the world to forget me.”

I couldn’t help but note the contradiction between this sentiment and his decision to email me several months earlier. Surely, he cares at least a little about connecting with an audience. Sure enough, as we settled into our conversation, he gradually grew warmer and funnier. Maybe the inconsistencies in his persona aren’t wholly his fault. Perhaps it also has to do with how others perceive him. Take the opening line from “How To Rent A Room,” from one of his celebrated albums, The Natural Bridge. “No, I don’t really want to die, I only want to die in your eyes.” Is that morbid melodrama? Or a self-mocking quip about self-pity? Many would say the former. I’m inclined to hear it as the latter.

This sensibility carries over to Purple Mountains, helped in no small part by the vibrant production of Woods’ Jeremy Earl, one of Berman’s many acolytes, who teases out the melody and wit that’s latent in the songs. (Berman had previously tried to make an album with Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and then Jeff Tweedy.) Even a track as superficially miserable as “All My Happiness Is Gone” has a catchy bounce and Berman’s knowing, crooked-smile delivery.

The Post article ends on an ominous note, with the writer expressing concern about whether Berman is truly ready to return to the semi-public life of a semi-famous indie musician. But when I spoke with him, he seemed genuinely eager to re-engage with his small but devoted following. As hard as it might be for old fans to believe, the famously tour-averse Berman — who didn’t play a live show with Silver Jews until many years into the band’s career — says he is excited to get on the road again.

“I can’t wait,” he said before we hung up the phone. “I’m ready for my solitude to end.”

The first song on the record, “That’s Just The Way I Feel,” includes the lyric, “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion.” I feel like every record reviewer will probably seize upon that line. Should it be taken literally?

Totally literal. It’s totally literal.

Is it scarier to be remembered than to be forgotten?

Yeah, in a lot of ways, because you’re frozen. And it’s scary to see people frozen at their peak or reaching their peak. It’s a Gen X thing to be okay with going unnoticed or unrated or untouched. To be free from strangers’ expectations, or anger. People got angry at me when I stopped making music because it seemed I was devaluing everything.

Your reputation as a recluse built a mythology around you. I’ve spoken with various musicians over the years who have stories about reaching out to you during your hiatus. I know Kurt Vile did that. And you’ve had a pretty public collaboration with Dan Auerbach. Are there other examples of famous musicians trying to connect with you?

No, no. No one in that time. That’s kind of when I was looking for people to help with the record. No one in that time.

I really like Dan. We don’t talk anymore. I don’t know why. He just stopped talking to me. Neither of us were probably a fan of the other’s music. We were pushed into writing together. We were having Hanukah at my friend Harmony [Korine]’s house and Dan was there with his father. And his wife was a Silver Jews fan.

She gave me a title, and I liked it. And the title was, “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me.” And I wrote words for it and I sent them to him and he wrote back and everything was fine. And then — this is how it is with people who are big time, they just cut you off. You have no idea why. Maybe I’ll do this to someone someday. But he just stopped talking to me. It was right around the time he was getting divorced with his wife. I’m like, there’s no way that he just was doing it to please his wife and now that he’s getting divorced he feels he doesn’t have to do it anymore. But that’s what happened.

We worked on 10 or 12 songs and they were great. And, again, he just stopped talking to me one day. I think it was when I told him I was going to make a record and I was going to use “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me.” Maybe it pissed him off. I don’t know. [In the Post article, Auerbach claims that Berman stopped communicating with him, not the other way around.]

Aw man.

It was such a shame because then he converted to doing this Nashville old timer’s record which was so bad. I mean, it was just terrible. I was furious. How can you do that to yourself? You really, people really don’t know what’s good and what’s bad a lot of the time.

When we were exchanging emails, you talked about how hard it is for songwriters to produce good work after a certain age.

I guess when I was younger I always wondered, why do they always suck after 30? After 40? I don’t know if I know the answer, but I know the solution, which is just you have to put in a lot more time.

Almost any average teenager can rhyme better than me. Just on the spot. It’s just because hip-hop is so full of rhyme. Their minds have been trained on it. They’re really good at it. My solution is take a long, long time. On this record, I think that the only way I was able to come close to working at the level that I did when I was younger was by putting 10 times the time into it.

My theory on the “why do great artists start to suck?” question has to do with motivation. Writing a great song is extremely hard. When you do the first time, the feeling of accomplishment must be incredible. But when you’ve done it 50 or 100 times, I imagine it doesn’t feel so special, especially if you’re now rich or have a family. Other things enter your life over time. The drive to be great naturally subsides when you’ve already been there, done that.

You’re right: When you realize you got a song, it’s an incredible feeling and it’s out of nowhere. It’s not even an arbitrage. It’s just out of zero. And I think that other events happen in the writer’s lives, like having kids and things.

I think the combination of taking a break and not having anything else in my life — as far as kids, relationships — those two things made it seem exciting to me again. I’m pretty solitary.

What prompted you to make another record? It seemed like there were many years when you weren’t interested in making music again.

It was exactly a week after my mother died. Just hanging out at the house. Just playing, not trying to write. I hadn’t written in a long time and I wanted to just play the guitar, just to play one chord, over and over again. The vibrations were very soothing.

Eventually, I came back that chord progression, which became a song about my mom [“I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”]. That’s what kicked it off. I needed something to hold on to. There’s a Hebrew word for the loss of hope, of parents, or a loved one which is a mixture of the word “sudden” and the word “forever.” And that terrible feeling, to me, has expanded in songwriting, which also is a kind of suddenness that can last forever.

It was as simple as that. Just being really surprised and being hurt and afraid. The feelings you feel, and songs are a good version of that. Well, I guess they’re birth as opposed to death, but they become … I don’t understand immortality or the desire to try for it. Because to me, death is death. Why would you care once you were gone what anyone thought? I guess there was a stronger desire to be immortalized back when people were part of a culture or a history or a timeline they believed in and they interacted with. “Well, I’ll be a part of this.” And that must have been some consolation. But to me playing the music was just a reaction to death.

Death is a recurring concern in these songs.

I had a lot of friends die in my 20s, and I always just seemed to try to write a song about it. On this [album] I have a song about my mom. The song following that, “Nights That Won’t Happen,” is about my friend Patsy. Someone who I stayed with when I was making American Water. She was a really, really great friend of ours, me and Steve. There was a lot of commotion around the house when we were in that place in Brooklyn when we were making that record. I was doing a lot of drugs. She was doing a lot of drugs, and she didn’t do well in the following year. She had a complete breakdown. She had a psychotic break, and she swallowed Drano. She lived, and then just died recently. And I’ve always felt guilty about that. I’ve always felt guilty about being there in the chaos, but not being there when she broke down.

In that song you mentioned, “Nights That Won’t Happen,” there’s a part where you sing, “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.”

It’s kind of an angry thing to say. It can be seen as a positive. It could be something reassuring you’d say to a child, but it can also be said with incredible bitterness.

I feel like that song is a good example of how you’re able to leaven the darkness of these songs with the lightness of the delivery. As heavy as this album is, it’s not a laborious listen. I actually feel like it’s one of your most accessible records. It’s really musical and almost breezy at times. I hope you take that as a compliment.

I do.

Indie music has changed dramatically since the last time you put out a record. How do you feel about being a Gen-X rock guy in a millennial and Gen Z world?

I’m the rough-hewn presence, if I’m a presence at all. I feel rougher than ever. But in those ten years, I never lost touch with what was going on in music. I’ve always been very aware of it. And I didn’t feel I’d be moving in on anyone’s territory. I felt the kind of place I used to work in, the field was still relatively empty.

I want so many artists that I care about to go away and grow up, and have been amazed at how hard that is for some people to do. I feel really fresh and energetic. I look at a lot of my peers and they seem exhausted. I don’t feel that way. No one’s confronting the “why did music stop changing?” question really outwardly. Most people are just trying to get away with “how long can this go on?” When I was making Tanglewood Numbers, I didn’t understand why we were in this sort of holding pattern. And I kind of had to go away for a while to make sure that it was real or that it was going to allow something to happen. Maybe if I go away something will happen and I’ll notice.

But coming back I feel really optimistic. I feel interested in touring. I feel interested in playing music in a way that I haven’t in the past.

Purple Mountains is out on July 12 via Drag City. Get it here.

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