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Silver Jews
Go for the Gold

Get to know Silver Jews. Listening to Silver Jews is a good thing to do. If scrappy guitar sounds, country chords, clever in-joke lyrics, and your little brother banging away at a snare drum turn your tables, pick up a copy of The Arizona Record or the new Starlite Walker in your favorite record store. Silver Jews—comprised of David Berman, Bob Nastanovich, and Stephen Malkmus—cook up a tasty musical stew like a day spent playing touch football, shooting toy rifles, running around about at the family picnic playing Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians, topping it all off with a double-dip chocolate ice cream cone on a hot Saturday afternoon. Yummy yum.

The Jewish claim to fame was the use of handheld microcassette players and four-track basement recordings. Their latest album on Drag City cleans up the ragged static with studio songs. Berman explains.

• •

Why did you use the four track?

Because that’s what we had.

Why use the studio now?

Why? Just ’cause we could.

• •

Easy enough.

“We started out when we were in college at the University of Virginia back in the eighties, before Pavement, so it’s sort of always been around. We never put out any records until later,” Berman said.

Silver Jews recorded many songs on cassette, but they remained a memory of good times until Drag City mastermind Dan Koretzky asked for a few of them a few years later to listen to. How did Silver Jews put out their first seven-inch record, Dime Map of the Reef?

“We had millions of tapes,” Berman recalled. “I knew Dan from putting out Pavement stuff. See, what we always used to do was call up people and play them [the songs] on their answering machines and we’d always do that to him too, just for fun, a joke. He’d always ask if he could hear some of the tapes, so I sent him a bunch of stuff and he put it out. Simple as that.”

Low-fidelity bands like Smog and Silver Jews have caused a commotion in recent years for their rejection of expensive, technological equipment. The results have been both good and bad. Does Berman feel responsible for the multitude of talentless, out-of-tune guitar players out there creating “revolutionary” rock music?

“I don’t know if our talentless, out-of-tune guitar was any better than anyone else’s, so I can’t criticize them. I think that Dan at Drag City has told me many times that he curses us for all the tapes he’s getting sent now from people who now think they have to write songs, so I guess I feel bad.”

One of the more unique aspects of Silver Jews, besides the music, is the artwork that accompanies the records and is exhibited on promotional posters. Collages are salvaged from ancient National Geographics, classroom doodlings, and magazine cutouts.

“I mostly just do it for the records, but I make stuff and put it in frames as presents for people. All of those things were specifically done for the records.”

Would you be interested in gathering a collection for a book sometime?

“Cartoons and stuff? Yeah. I’d like to someday. That would be nice. I draw a lot. That’ll be real nice.”

Most of the next few questions originate from the 1994 Details Music Survey, called “Tune in, turn on, fill out.”

• •

Who would you most like to be for a day?

You didn’t say Chuck Berry, did you?


Chuck Berry.

What is the worst album you own?

It’s a compilation called Masters of Metal.

Do you still have it?

Yeah. I just bought it last weekend.

What is the best album you’ve bought in the last twelve months?

Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and the record is called Last Time AroundFor the … I’m sorry, it’s called For the Last Time—the one he recorded right before he died.

Does music ever make you cry? If yes, which music?

God, that’s so hard … who’s ever done that? I know it’s happened a lot, but it’s not coming to mind.

Was it a happy moment or a sad moment?

When it happened? I’d have to say it was a sad moment. I’d have to say the first time I heard Gram Parsons’s “Wild Horses.”

What’s the single best live show you’ve ever seen?

I’d have to say Scratch Acid at the 9:30 Club in nineteen-eighty … uh … six? 1985 or 1986.

Do you think music was better when you were in high school?

Yeah, I think music was better back then because it wasn’t so fashion oriented. All the bands were ugly, and everyone was upset that was in the music.

Does that depress you?

The way things are now when you go to a show and everyone is amazing looking? Yeah, it certainly depresses me. It used to be you were an outsider when you listen to the music. Now you’re the ultimate insider.

Do you consider yourself better looking now than you were then?

No, I’ve been told I’m much uglier.

Who was the greatest musical talent of the eighties?


Who will be the greatest musical talent for the nineties?

Scud Mountain Boys.

Who is currently the most overrated musical performer?

Lou Barlow, just because he’s a great songwriter and a great musician, but no one can be as great as his rating.

Who is currently the most underrated musical performer?

Jandek. Do you want me to spell that?

No, I have one of his albums.

You’ve heard Jandek and you haven’t heard Sebadoh? That’s cool. He disappeared for two years. No one had seen a record from him. Of course, no one knows who he is to begin with. For two years, he hadn’t had a record and there had been a lot of theories that he had just dropped off the face of the earth, and just last week I was in a record store and there was a CD by him, a new record, but his first CD ever.

What is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time?

The Band.

• •

Be prepared for a Silver Jews media blitz. David Berman completed more than thirty interviews in a one-week period. He said most people were interested in the Pavement angle of the band and not really the music itself. Personally, I think The Arizona Record is a classic, one of my favorite fifty albums.

“That’s great not many people have liked them [the songs]. We didn’t get much positive response from that, so that’s good to know,” Berman said.

I doubt that. The press kit I received contained bucketfulls of above-average reviews of past Silver Jews records. However, don’t scan the utility poles in your town for a flyer advertising a Silver Jews concert. There won’t be one. Berman said the touring aspect of music doesn’t appeal to him, and that the band remains a hobby among the bum jobs he works.

Originally published in Ink Nineteen in January 1995.