Off drugs and on stage

Following a stint in rehab, reclusive Silver Jews founder David Berman has surprised fans with his live shows - and forthright talk about his income.

david berman 88 298 (photo credit: Drag City)
david berman 88 298
(photo credit: Drag City)
When David Berman named his college indie rock band The Silver Jews back in 1989, he never thought that one day he'd be a practicing Jew. "When I started the band, the name 'Silver Jews' had no literal meaning - it was just an abstraction," the 39-year-old songwriter/guitarist told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. "I considered myself ethnically Jewish. The irony is that over the last two years, I've gone through a transformation and I've decided to be a Jew. So the name has become something of a blessing. For many years, it was a stone around my neck. People expected it to mean something but weren't sure what it meant. It's just a noun and a modifier. There's not the same literalism there as, for instance, The Rolling Stones." Speaking before for the next leg of a rare Silver Jews tour - the group stops in Tel Aviv July 10 and 11 - Berman credited his renewed interest in Judaism and willingness to perform live to a voluntary stint at a rehab clinic in Minnesota. While at the facility to kick a debilitating drug habit that had led to depression and even a suicide attempt, Berman discovered a way to "break out." "One of the only reasons you could get permission to leave the facility was to go to church on Sundays - or to synagogue on Saturday. I wanted to get away from the hospital, so when Saturday came around, I signed up to go to shul, and … I started to enjoy it," he said with a laugh. "I started going every week. It woke up something inside me, and when I came home to Nashville, I joined a Reform congregation. It's really become a focus. I've been studying with a rabbi here in Nashville. He's Reform, and was a Buddhist for 10 years. He's informed by meditation, non-dualism, those kinds of things. He's a bit ahead of me though; I'm more of a traditionalist." Traditional when it comes to religion, perhaps, but Berman's music has always been adventurous. Described by promoters as a "beautiful mess of indie rock, country rock and lo-fi with lyrics both witty and profound," the Silver Jews were originally a trio led by Berman that included childhood buddies Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. While his bandmates went on to form the more high-profile Pavement, Berman continued recording under the Silver Jews moniker, with Malkmus and Nastanovich still appearing under transparent pseudonyms. The consensual incest among the bands (Pavement's debut, Slanted and Enchanted, was named after a cartoon that Berman created), and the fact that Pavement was always more commercially successful than the Jews, led some to see the band as a side project for Malkmus. But Berman couldn't care less, preferring his modest following and relative anonymity on his Silver Jews tours. "I've never really performed live [during] my music career," he said. "I would do a song here or there. At first it was kind of a policy I had. I didn't feel like a performer, I felt like a songwriter. Even though it's the custom of writers to perform, I decided to go against the flow." "It became very easy not to perform live," he said, adding that he has occasionally given readings of his poetry instead. "From a business standpoint, though, it's hard to increase your sales without playing live. [The Jews] have always sold more or less the same amount. It's always been my dream not to have to work for anyone else, and to the degree that I can survive by making records, I haven't had to work for anyone for 14 years. But I haven't been able to save. Now, as I'm approaching 40, I'd like to sell some more records." The revamped, stage-friendly Silver Jews, consisting of Berman, his wife Cassie, Brian Kotzur, Tony Crow and Willie Tyler of Lambchop, and Peyton Pinkerton of New Radiant Storm King, performed 20 American shows in March, and the Tel Aviv shows will find them near the end of another 20 European shows in support of their well-received new album, Tanglewood Numbers. Of the American shows, Berman said, "It wasn't really so bad, I enjoyed myself. One problem, though, was that I discovered that I didn't know some of the songs so well. Since I didn't play live [in the past], I'd record them, then never listen or play them again. It became obvious that people in the audience knew the words better than I did. That can be depressing, so I've been trying to permanently get lyrics branded into my memory." Berman pointed to another issue that contributed to his chronic phobia of touring - his chemical dependence. "Until a couple years ago, I wasn't physically capable of going on tour. I couldn't leave the structure of my drug intake life. I needed to be around my connections and the life I had built for myself," he said. Berman credits his wife with providing the moral support he needed to perform for live audiences. "For me, it would be impossible without her. She's the missing piece that allowed the touring to happen," he said. "I don't think it would have [happened] without her in the band. I would go off the rails and disappear in a bad neighborhood in a bad city and never be seen from again. Besides that, she's a great musician and keeps my spirits up. I'm naturally depressive, and she's naturally cheerful." For Berman, an unexpected consequence of touring has been seeing the people who like his music - an experience he says has softened his naturally gruff exterior. "I really had become an anti-social person. That's been one of my biggest problems with Judaism - learning to accept the minyan, the dimension of community - but it's so important," he said. "As a person raised in the late 20th century, I'm very cynical and jaded about groups. I think that groups have become so disappointing to everybody. But playing before a live audience gave me an example of a roomful of people I can love back. It was very instructive." It's unclear who's more psyched about the Silver Jews' shows in Jaffa and Tel Aviv next week - Berman or his fans. "It takes a lot to get me excited," he said. "But I can say that I'm very excited about this visit. I read about Israel growing up and have always identified with the David vs. Goliath aspect of its struggle for survival. But I never imagined going there. The fact that I am is an extremely significant event for me at this stage in my life." Looking back, Berman said he feels blessed to have worked as a musician and poet for most of his adult life, and is very candid about the difficulties of making ends meet without a "day job." "I couldn't be happier that I've been able to play music for 15 years and work for myself," he said. "It's funny, but I gave an interview last year to [music website] Pitchfork, that surprised a lot of people - I explained exactly how much money I make. It was the first interview I had given since coming out of rehab, and some people were saying that the most shocking thing about it wasn't that I was a crackhead for all those years, but that I was delineating my income." Berman's candor had extensive repercussions in the indie music world, with chat rooms and websites analyzing his career, income and philosophy. "So many musicians approached me after that to say, 'Thank you, you showed that I can make a living doing this,'" he said. "It's strange that it's the one thing people aren't willing to talk about. But it's helpful for young musicians. Before taking that risk, they need to have some kind of promise that it's possible. All these years, I keep waiting for the floor to fall, but there's always something that comes through to pay the bills."