David Berman, the leader and only permanent member of the Silver Jews, is a candid guy. His dossier might suggest otherwise: A scraggly, lean 41-year-old with a history of drug addiction and a Xanax-assisted attempted suicide, Berman had never toured before playing shows in support of 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers. But in person, he’s warm and garrulous, displaying the same infectious ramshackle energy that powers Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the sixth studio album in the nineteen-year history of the Jews, out today on Drag City. Berman sat down with Vulture to talk about Lookout, his father’s Bennigan’s-inspired book collection, and how he met his wife.
Do you feel this is your best album?
I do. And I hesitate to say it, because I’ve heard R.E.M. say it so many times and they’ve always been wrong! Flagrantly wrong. Long before I ever wrote a song, I wondered about that. I would see that over and over again. So, that’s my qualification. I think it is. But I might be under the Stipe-Buck illusion.
Some of the songs on the album are really playful — they could almost be children’s songs. Was that a calculated decision?
Yeah, it’s something that sort of first started on the last album. I never would have done stuff like that before. When you’re sober for the first time, a lot of what they say is that you’re unfrozen at the age when you got frozen. I started pretty much drinking every day when I was 18 or 19. So part of the last couple years have been springtime feelings that I haven’t had in a long time.
The last song on the album, “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing,” sounds like you and [wife and bassist] Cassie are kind of serenading one another. Is that one based on personal experience?
Specifically I was thinking of my mom and her boyfriend. Older people, when they get together, they don’t care about the romantic aspect, especially after a divorce. It’s a pragmatic decision. So it’s a pragmatic love song. My mom read an interview where I said that, and she said, “I’m so insulted that you said it’s just some pragmatic thing between me and Brian.” And then I sent her the album, and she said, “Well, I just love the last song. Me and Brian listen to it all the time!” [Laughs.]
I read that you were working Cassie into the band slowly out of respect for your fans. I think that’s great, but I have to wonder, does that cause any marital problems?
She was a Silver Jews fan before we met, so to a degree she understands.
Did you guys meet at a show?
No, we met at a party in Louisville. She didn’t tell me [she was a fan] until … well … the next morning, when I woke up in her house, and I looked at her record collection! [Laughs.] And I was like, “I got it made!” She had all the records.
I understand that you have interns now. Is that something you did when you were starting out?
I never did that. I did learn from people, but this is almost like a Meals on Wheels thing, where you’re trying to match people with a car with the hungry person that can’t leave their house. I think it would be cool if there was a program that matched artists of no real success maybe with aspiring artists of no real success. They could help each other.
Were you raised in a religious household?
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, it wasn’t a literary household, it wasn’t an artistic household. My dad didn’t read. The bookshelves were all empty. Eventually he went and got this guy … you know how Bennigan’s, you know how you go into one and they have the old bicycles and the old signs on the wall? So he worked at Bennigan’s, and he actually had the guy who does that for the restaurant come into the house and fill the bookshelves with old books.
Did you ever pick up them up?
They were all mostly Reader’s Digest compendiums.
So how did you end up getting into Judaism?
As a kid growing up I always felt like a Jew. I felt like an outsider. [But] it’s just been in the last few years that I’ve been trying to figure out where I am with it. I’m not Jewish. In a way “silver Jews” has become a category for me of someone who's a fellow traveler of the Jews. Even in the Jewish dream of the messianic era, it’s supposed to be that the nations of the world come to them and acknowledge that the Jewish God is everybody’s God. Well, if that’s ever going to happen, some Gentiles are going to start lining up around Jerusalem. So maybe I’m like the first wave or something. A non-Jew applying for status. —Amos Barshad