2. The Part About the Bands
Do you see any parallels between your horse racing career and what happened with Pavement? You were a nonmusician who ended up in one of the most important indie-rock bands of the '90s — or two of them, really.
Not at all.
No. I think that experience that I had in in Silver Jews and in Pavement — those bands started at a time when there was a lot of interest in underground music and indie rock; there was a lot of underexplored territory. There were no rules. The great thing about indie rock at that time is that things were pretty free and easy: People thought you were good, and you went out on the road and had a cheap van or whatever and put out little records. You could build from that. We were dealing with really basic contracts — extremely basic contracts with Matador and Drag City and the English labels and stuff like that, and everything was very, very straightforward and very easy to comprehend. The most significant thing was that we were working business-wise with people that we could relate to, because they were the same age with the same interests, people who had the same passion for certain bands from the '80s, and went on tour, and put out small records. We were all record collectors, and we were all DJs, and some people were in bands and some people weren't.
I was never really in any bands of note, until Pavement and Silver Jews. I'd never really intended to be in any bands. But fortunately I was close friends with some very talented people in college that wanted to try to write songs. I'd never really played music in my life, and still don't, really. I essentially just ended up playing roles in what turned out to be what I'd like to think were pretty cool bands. I think we were very fortunate to have enough talent and have enough exposure to build from scratch. Somehow Pavement and Silver Jews were able to create a buzz in fanzines, you know, with the early releases; Matador and Drag City were cool enough and supportive enough to get behind it. That's really all there was to it. I mean, Silver Jews was just three dudes in an apartment in Jersey City and Hoboken; instead of watching a ball game or going out to drink beer, we're just doing it in our cruddy apartments. It's crude. That record [Early Times] is really crudely recorded. I mean, it's a tape recorder; it's not even a four-track.
I was listening to it this morning — I still have those 7-inches, but I'd forgotten how rough the sound was. It's like a bootleg. I assume from what you're saying about the recording that there was no real way to clean it up or remaster it.
Oh, yeah. I mean, to me it's unlistenable. I love some of the songs — and I listen to them now, and they're cool to me, because I remember what it was like to be there, watching Stephen and David make up songs. Y'know, one thing we did during Silver Jews at the start was, I got Thurston and Kim's phone number, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, from this girl that worked at the record store down the street, Pier Platters. For their home phone. And we would make up songs to record into their answering machine.
Really? Are any of them on Early Times?
No, because we didn't have the tape recorder on. We have the phone, and when their machine would go beep to start the message, we'd start the song. It was prank-calling, basically.
The songs that did get recorded — it's just the three of you in a room, right?
I didn't even have drums. We had cardboard boxes and other things that sounded like snare drums. We had one of those stand-up ashtrays and two sticks or something. And they kept having to move me further away from the tape recorder. We'd play for a minute, and then whatever I was hitting, I'd have to move it further away from the TV set, because the tape recorder was on top of the TV set, and then those guys would muscle around for whose voice would be louder into the tape recorder. And of course Malkmus's voice sort of knifes right through because of his pitch. We'd have to jam for 10 or 15 minutes until we got the mix right, because we're playing into one of those really primitive tape recorders that's just sort of like a small shoebox.
That's what it sounds like, like a tape recorder with a condenser mic on it.
Exactly what it was like, yeah. David probably still has that. You know — really broken equipment. I don't even really remember the amp. I remember the broken guitars and stuff. It was just kind of pathetic. And we would think that we'd done something really, really great. And we would do it all the time — like, five nights a week.
We lived beneath this Puerto Rican family in the basement of this apartment on Willow Avenue in Hoboken, and there were, like, 10 of them up there, and they kind of liked to party. So it was a perfect arrangement for us, because obviously we didn't have to be self-conscious at all about making noise. They could do whatever they wanted up there; we would never complain in a million years, and there's no way they could ever complain about us jamming. Yo La Tengo lived a couple blocks away, and I think they practiced in their apartment, but they had, like, real stuff. I walked by their building, and I'd hear them practicing in there sometimes.
But we were cool in our basement. A lot of times, from when everybody got home at nine or 10 at night until the wee hours, we would try to make up songs, and sometimes we felt like we did something really brilliant, and the next day we'd listen to it and we'd just have to scrap it. You'd wake up and you'd just be like, "Oh, man. That one song has to be — it has to be the best thing we've ever done." And then we'd listen to it, and it would just sound — it would be embarrassingly poor, so we'd just have to record over the top of it on the cassette just to get rid of it. They were so lame.
You felt like you had to erase the evidence that it even happened.
Yeah, I think when we sent [our music] to the guys from Drag City — Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn and Rian Murphy — I think they were intrigued by it, because they're kind of an extreme record label, and I think it was just like a whole new extreme in lo-fi.
Right. Lower than ever.
That's what it was. I mean, Sebadoh were doing the same sort of fidelity, but they had a four-track. A four-track would've seemed like a high-tech studio [to us]. Malkmus knew how to operate one of those, but he wasn't willing to pony up the cash to buy one, y'know? He probably just didn't think anything of it; he just liked to jam. He thought it was hysterical. It was just a good way for us to think that we were cool and rock on the nights that we didn't go out and see bands. Y'know, you're going to see bands — the whole reason we were living in New York at the time is to be in our early '20s in New York and go see as many bands as possible, so on the nights that we weren't seeing bands, I guess we thought it was important for us to be jamming or trying to make our own songs so when we did go out we felt like we were a band too.
You felt like you needed to be in a band in order to, like, hold your head high when you went out?
There was a certain amount of that going on. In the New York indie scene at that time, there was Maxwell's in Hoboken and there were about five clubs in New York, including the Pyramid and CBs and a few other clubs I can't remember off the top of my head, that we'd go to all the time to see bands. And people looked at us like, "Who are these jerks?" Or that's the impression that you got. We were definitely outside the scene. It kind of ticked us off. After Pavement, and after people started realizing that me and Malkmus were in Pavement, then suddenly people liked us. Because before they knew we were in Pavement they thought we were these spoiled brats from Virginia.
It was a weird time. There was a lot of tension. David's a rebel, you know? If people are rude to him or snotty to him, which they would be, at that time, around there, he would get really, really pissed off. There'd be, like, a revenge mode with him. For me, I would just take it on the chin. Even record stores in the late '80s and '90s, they were filled with people that were so snobby about music. When you were buying records, and they had to write down the record on little pieces of paper that you're buying as handwritten receipts, they'd just be judging you by what you bought, you know? You'd get sneered at a lot. It was kind of fun. I don't know if that really exists anywhere today.
I think all those guys are still around, but they're on the Internet now. There's no physical environment where you can go and interact with them.
I think that kind of elitism — y'know, punk-rock snobs, and indie-rock snobs, and grunge snobs — sort of died during the '90s. Things got real friendly and happy. [Before that] people were mean, y'know? They'd give you mean looks. Maybe it was fiction, maybe it was my imagination, but it felt like people didn't want us there. It gave you a chip on your shoulder, to the point where you wanted to figure out a way to stick it in their eye. Those Silver Jews records, there's definitely some angst and some real disdain for the community in those records. We were absolutely doing it for ourselves.
And with David and Stephen — there's always been competitive tension between them for some reason. Those guys were never really tight. We knew each other in college; I was sort of the guy that bridged those two together. I moved to New York first, and then I got them to move to New York — first to Jersey, really, and then subsequently those guys moved to Brooklyn. They were friends, but they were never close friends; they've never really seen eye to eye, so a key part of the whole thing was that there was always tension between them. There's a certain amount of one wanting to outdo the other. David certainly realized that he needed Stephen's guitar wizardry, which I think has been beneficial to every Silver Jews release that Stephen has played on. But David was also very sensitive about Stephen getting too much credit. He hated that it was considered a Pavement side project. Which it really wasn't.
I never really felt, during that whole era, that I was a full-fledged member of Pavement; I was just, like, a tour manager, and I toured with the band and I babysat Gary Young and I played drums in case he was too drunk to hold his sticks. I didn't really become a full-fledged member of Pavement in my own mind until I got kicked out of Silver Jews, which was rather unceremonious. But with Silver Jews, David said just about anytime he'd pick up anything to read about Silver Jews, he'd be like, "Oh, they said 'Pavement side project,' just because Stephen's on it" — so then he wanted to prove that he could do it all without Stephen. Which he then did. But he's always been very sensitive about Stephen's participation and blah blah blah. Even though I think the best Silver Jews records to me are the ones that Stephen's on. Like, people say to me, "Why don't you jam with us?" and stuff like that, and I say: "I don't like to be in any bands without Stephen." Would you?
I imagine I wouldn't, having played with somebody who's that good.
I mean, he's good. He doesn't have a great singing voice, but he knows how to sing. He's a good lyricist. He's a great guitar player. And he's always sort of brought the best out of me from being in a band. I've been in bands without Stephen, but you just feel like he's going to add a certain amount of quality and class to the recording experience or his live show. There are a few people like that. I've played in bands with Jason Loewenstein from Sebadoh, and he's fantastic — he provides the same kind of effect. Will Oldham, I played on a 7-inch with him, and he has, to some degree, that same kind of command. Like, I can't write songs. I can't lead a band. I think David just wanted to prove he could do it. And he did. He found some great musicians. His wife [vocalist-bassist Cassie Berman] is great. Those latter-period Silver Jews records are great.
But those early ones, the Early Times stuff — y'know, reissuing those records is interesting to me. It was a funny little era. We were dirt-poor. I was driving a bus, and those guys were security guards at the Whitney Museum. We'd just get together and get smashed and try to make up songs. I'm still in a state of disbelief that they put them out the first time, so I'm in a greater state of disbelief that they'd put them out a second time. But it's cool to me that people like 'em.
I remember the first time the 7-inch went on sale at Pier Platters, and there was a little bit of a buzz about it, and hipsters were buying it. And then suddenly, some force in the Jewish community in Hoboken was offended by the name. And for a while they ceased selling the 7-inch because they thought that it was insulting Jewish people. Which I never really got — but that was great, too, because, in a little area, there in Hoboken and [in] that sort of hipster community in New York, it was briefly this banned 7-inch. Which is awesome for us, because in the music business, nothing better can happen to an artist than to be banned. I think that the only way we're actually making fun of Jewish people was that our lead singer and guitar player David Berman was a Jew, and his music was so poorly recorded that I guess that could sort of be construed as making fun of Jewish people.
Like because the sound was so terrible, it somehow reflected badly on all Jews?
Yeah, on a whole religious movement. I think Jews have certain quality standards, and the Silver Jews were probably beneath those.
It's just weird to imagine anything about those songs being construed as defamatory. Or even construed at all.
No. And the name's not offensive at all. It's not, like, Suck-Ass Jews. Or Kill the Jews. And it's punk rock, so it doesn't matter anyway. You can call a band Jew Slaughter, and sure, it's going to raise some eyebrows and be in excessively poor taste, but poor taste is what punk rock's all about. But "Jews" is just one of those words. I think it's been used in a derogatory fashion throughout history for so long that it just catches the ear, y'know?
I get why it bothered Berman to hear the band described as a Pavement side project. But I always got the impression, especially early on, that in a lot of ways it was a side project for him. Do you think the idea of being the acclaimed poet who dabbles in rock and happens to make these amazing records was attractive to him?
He wanted to be everything. He was a really unusually talented poet, but he'd always loved music, from the time he was a young boy. He wanted to be a rock star. I don't know if he really actually got around to achieving that, but I guess in some people's eyes, he did.
To a certain group of people, I think he absolutely did.
Yeah, no, he's a pretty big deal. He's pretty recognizable. And people ask me all the time: "Do you still talk to David Berman? He's my favorite." So he deserves his following. There's a lot worse people that you could be a fan of. Nancy Griffin comes to mind. Cassie Griffin. [To someone in the room on his end.] Is that her? That horrible comedian I hate?
Kathy Griffin, yeah. Nanci Griffith is the country singer.
Oh, she's cool. I have no problems with Nanci Griffith. Kathy Griffin. I get the two of them confused, which is very unfair to Nanci.
I'm hoping to talk to David about this stuff, too.
He's impossible to talk to. [Note: He says these next few things affectionately, and cheerfully, in a "That's just David being David" kind of way.] David's so full of shit. He's got this, like, mystique thing, but that's a can of corn. He just thinks it's better to be somewhat aloof. What it is, probably, is he gets off the phone, from these phone interviews, and he thinks he didn't represent himself properly, or he's worried about something he said, because he's self-conscious. So he's had this whole strategy for years where he'd do all his interviews over the Internet, where the person sends him questions and he answers them. I think he feels he's far better at presenting himself in the written word, and he's probably right. And the other thing it comes down to, probably, is that he's keenly aware that longer phone interviews cost him on his cell phone bill. That probably really upsets him. "I will never do another phoner again! It cost me 31 dollars!" I can hear him saying that.