In one of David Berman's final interviews, the first and last questions were self-indulgent ones.
I way over-shared with the songwriting wizard behind Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, as you'll see below, about the fallout from my year of dead friends and personal woes innumerable. But Berman, who died unexpectedly at 52 on Wednesday, seemed happy to indulge me on Tuesday as we touched on humor, joy, politics, my own bullshit, and even rap phenom Lil Nas X.
Losing Berman hurts like hell. There's been an outpouring of love and mourning from peers like Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, the college buddy/eventual indie-rock great who helped Berman launch the Joos in 1989, plus the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, rapper El-P, and fellow rocker/poet Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. Accolades will surely pour in as well from the poetry world, where the native Virginian won similar cultish devotion from his 1999 collection, Actual Air.
In both his songs and his poems, Berman snugly fit dazzling imagery, razor-sharp wordplay, effortless humor, and world-weary melancholy into deft couplets, all delivered through his drawling, unmistakable deadpan growl. The musical arrangements that showcased his lyricism ranged from cowboy shuffles to mournful twang to herky-jerky psychedelia.
After Silver Jews split in 2009, Berman, who suffered from depression and drug addiction, mostly retreated from the public. But he roared back last month with Purple Mountains, the eponymous debut of his new project. Critics, including this one, gobbled it up. He comes out with lyrical guns blazing on the opening track, "That's Just the Way That I Feel": "Well, I don't like talkin’ to myself / But someone's gotta say it, hell / I mean, things have not been going well / This time I think I finally fucked myself / You see, the life I live is sickening / I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion."
I was only able to chat with Berman via email, which is something he greatly preferred.
"I think reporters think that they can get something extra out of a person face-to-face, but in reality people just give stock answers because there's a social situation going on," he said in the 2007 doc Silver Jew. "In an email... like I did 100 interviews, and I never repeated one story. That's impossible to do when you do face-to-face interviews, because your brain locks and you say the same thing over and over again. You notice when somebody's record comes out, if you read music magazines that month, you'll read 20 articles about the guy, and you'll learn nothing new about that person."
Here's what we learned hours before we lost David Berman.
David, hello. I’ve been super depressed for most of 2019, so Purple Mountains is hitting me at the perfect time. How are YOU doing?
I'm having trouble playing a lot of the songs without weeping and it is very embarrassing as the band are diligent thirty-somethings I just met two days ago. The band was organized by Jarvis [Taveniere of Brooklyn band Woods] who produced the record.
Tell me how you balance such lyrical bleakness while still bringing the yuks. Also: How important are the yuks to you?
They're important. Just the way I signal resilience. It undermines potential accusations of wallowing in self-pity... I don't know how I find the ratio betweeen drama and comedy. But it keeps me out of either realm and maybe that is what I'm adjusting for.
My favorite songwriters are able to toe that line between emotional heft and humor. Do you have a favorite lyrical one-liner or turn-of-phrase, from your songs or someone else’s?
A line I'd wish I'd written is: "I ain't as good as I once once was / But I'm as good once, as I ever was."
[Editor's note: Folks, he's talking about the song below.]
What’s the best feedback you’ve received about the new record? What’s the most annoying?
Best: The reactions have been the best of anything I've done. On that note, I suspect I'm the beneficiary of a bias I have decried many times over the years.
Worst: A Spin review by a writer who only now is coming to realize that, in his former life as a Silver Jews fan, he displayed and benefited from white privilege, and this record reminds him of how thoughtless and unjust it was to have made a hero of me once.
Not yet. We're just practicing for it now.
What brings you the most joy?
My backyard in Nashville.
What’s the biggest difference, for you, between this project and Silver Jews?
Silver Jews was always a coolection of old friends. Uncoolection. These band members are 20 years younger on average.
You a fan of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X?
It bored me. I hear luxury brand names, I cringe. I wanted the protagonist to dismount and do something more exciting than shop.
Have you contracted Election Fever? If so, how is it manifesting?
I am immune. I spent 16 years writhing in agony over the fate of the nation, and when 2016 came around I said, "let them [all my friends and acquaintances who were previously uninterested] worry about it."
Do you enjoy answering email interviews? Give this one a letter grade so far.
Final question: Think I’ll ever be happy again?
I am certain of it. It's going to be such a surprise.