September 7, 2006
Silver Jews Singer Polishes Up Dirty Past
What kind of precious metal is shiny, hard as a rock and sings the Shema?
A Silver Jew of course!
David Berman, lead singer, songwriter and head-miner of the alt-rock group the Silver Jews is finding out that the depression of his musical past has been rejuvenated by of all things, hope for his musical future.
Although Berman has always been the primary songwriter, singer and guitar-player of the Silver Jews, a man capable of turning out truthful, yet sometimes painfully depressing love songs to an eager cult audience, he has often been overshadowed in the media by the bigger, blacker shadow of his friend and musical colleague, Stephen Malkmus.
After battling drug addiction, which gave birth to a deep belief in Judaism and moved him to discover a love for playing live on stage, Berman is now stepping into the spotlight with a renewed interest in whatever kind of trouble he can muster up and whatever kind of silver he can make shine.
David Berman was born into a secular Jewish family in Williamsburg, Va., and lived there, until the age of 7, when his parents divorced. In the years before he landed in college in 1985, he split his time between living with his dad in Texas and his mom in Ohio. While in college, he met up with two random guys while carpooling to see an out-of-town band. The passenger on that fateful ride was Malkmus, who would later gain worldwide fame as the singer of Pavement. But while Malkmus was the darling of all the record execs in the early '90s, another group had surfaced with Malkmus as a member, using an obvious pseudonym. Yes, that band was the Silver Jews. And no, the band was never meant to be just a "side project" for Malkmus, it has always been Berman's baby, although recently, Berman has learned to take more control over the artistic decisions than he used to.
"Steve and I were always very competitive as far as music was concerned," Berman remembers. "When Pavement happened, I just sat back and watched. It might've been easy for me to join that band, but in all of my life plans, none of them ever involved being a sideman for someone else. I guess my ego just never saw things that way."
Malkmus, along with scores of other musicians, participated in the making of the first four Silver Jews albums, but all the songs were written by Berman, even though he wasn't as deeply engrossed in determining the final product of those as he was for his fifth offering, "Tanglewood Numbers."
"On this last record, I just decided that after the recording process, I would just take off and force myself to make the decisions instead of just sitting on the couch nodding my head going, 'Yeah, that's good,'" Berman recalls. "I made this record more about me."
Taking control of the album's musical process was one in a line of decisions that have changed Berman's perspective. Berman had little interest in taking responsibility for his life until two years ago, when he suffered a meltdown from purposefully overdosing on Zanax and wound up in a psychiatric ward. After much encouragement fro m his wife and mother, Berman checked himself into rehab for drug addition.
"It took a lot of energy to be a drug addict," he says. "It was work to get drugs every day. I got to a point in my life where I wouldn't do anything that required a lot of trouble. The idea of going on tour was something I would have never considered before, because touring is a lot of potential trouble, and I tried to put myself in environments where I would feel safe. In my own little small crack house of my Nashville community, it felt safe and everything else had become too much trouble."
Interestingly enough, his determination to rehabilitate brought about an unforeseen twist, a renewed interest in his faith.
"In the rehab unit, you couldn't leave the facility except for this one loophole, which allowed you to go to church or temple if you wanted to," he says. "So what started out as a ploy on my part to see the countryside by letting them transport me to a conservative synagogue once a week, turned out to mean more to me than I expected."
This shift in Berman's priorities was engaging, especially when you learn that the Silver Jews were not named as a tribute to the Jewish people.
"That's part of the irony of the whole experience of turning to Judaism for me was that the name had always helped us ensure our obscurity in the music industry, and sometimes I'd thought the name was a burden, because it seemed so serious," Berman adds. "But now it's become an incredible blessing that I accidentally gave myself, something that became fruitful to me."
Berman's new comfort with himself has transformed into an ease with playing live shows. "Yup, the 40 shows of this current tour are my first 40 shows ever," Berman says with a laugh.
Besides temporarily losing the drummer to a bought of food poisoning while playing a show in Wales, the most striking moment of the tour for Berman has been singing the Shema at the tail end of his song, "There Is a Place," while in Tel Aviv.
"It just felt good to sing, 'Hear O Israel'' through the microphone," Berman adds, "especially with what's going on in that part of the world right now." Berman is convinced that more of his faith will seep out into the artistry of his next album, which he will begin after his stint at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 12. With all these positive changes in Berman's personal and professional life, we may yet hear that Berman's band name now reflects not Silver, but Golden Jews.