David Berman and the Silver Jews

Adam Levy

Five musicians playing a familiar opening rift stand in front of a modest crowd. A strange, bearded man enters stage right carrying a couple grocery bags and a Steve McNair lunchbox. He sets them down next to the mic stand, then simultaneously winks and points at the crowd, which immediately erupts into frenzied applause.

The Silver Jews made a stop in Pittsburgh in late August on just their second tour since the band formed in the early 90’s. David Berman has always been at the forefront of the band through its many incarnations and has led them from the University of Virginia to New York to their current home in Nashville. Yet, no matter where they called home or who played in the band, two things remained constant – David Berman and great music.

Berman formed the band with fellow UVA graduates Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (of Pavement fame). After graduating, they “all moved to Hoboken together and began to futz around with art and music.” They released their debut album in 1994 – Starlite Walker. Though the album received good reviews, it was never the kind of release that would make them international rock stars.

The Jews continued writing and recording throughout the 90’s, as bandmates came and went. Their third release, American Water, became their most critically acclaimed album. Yet, David Berman and the Silver Jews would not go on tour. In fact, the band did not play for crowds until after the release of their 2005 album, Tanglewood Numbers. When asked about it, Berman responded, “[touring] seemed like too much of a hassle. I decided to do it once the music was popular enough to make touring easier.”

That first tour took the Silver Jews from state to state, and then internationally from country to country. While in Israel, Berman’s friend Matt Robinson decided to follow the band around with a camera. The result is a recently released documentary, Silver Jew. Even though it has screened to a positive reception, David refuses to watch it. He says, “I still haven't seen a second of it, but I decided to let it go out after hearing some friend's reactions to it.” Berman is overly critical and “[hasn’t] watched any footage of [him]self performing anywhere.” If he did, he would spot things he was doing perfectly fine, and hate them.

Berman had a similar problem when recording his latest album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Every time he looked over his lyrics, he would feel something was wrong. He continually changed lyrics up until the last minute when he went in to record them. Everything else would be recorded beforehand, and lyrics were last. He still laments about specific lines. For example, a line in the song “San Francisco B.C.” that goes “He came at me with some fist cuisine,” that Berman admits he likely would have changed to “he served me up some fist cuisine” given an extra day or two. It’s this level of self-criticism that has propelled David Berman toward critical acclaim.

The Silver Jews’ newest album did not get the stellar reviews of American Water or even Tanglewood Numbers, but it did find Berman reaching out in new directions. Before you hear the song “Strange Victory Strange Defeat” you hear an old recording of a man saying “In other words, don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard.” After asking him about it, I found out it’s actually Theodore Roosevelt addressing the Boys’ Progressive League in 1913. Berman admits that he wanted to branch out more. He says, “It's something commonly done in dance music. It reminds me of the eighties.” He found it an appropriate way to fit something he has always wanted to do into his album because “it breaks up the music and has resonance with the song, the other songs, [and] the cover.”

Additionally, he attempts to take the listener to places they’ve never been before through his song writing. As he introduced the song “My Pillow is a Threshold” to the audience at the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Union in late August, he described the title as “Google-proof.” That is, if you typed the words into Google, you wouldn’t get any results. The opening song they played, “What is Not but Could Be If,” also explores a sound somewhat unfamiliar to the Silver Jews. One could describe it as the narration of an Old Western set to music. It’s a different sound than what most people are used to these days, and it’s very refreshing.

Berman also encourages fans to share his music in every way possible. He even went as far as including “Silver Chords,” the chord progressions to every song, in the liner notes of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. This is supposed to give the fan a more “durable method” of sharing music, as opposed to downloads. Berman says, “My intent is to collapse the passivity of the modern music listener: to make the music not just consumable, but producible.” It’s not something better than passing the CD along to friends, just taking it further - making music a more active product. Something along the same lines as Rock Band and Guitar Hero, only you actually have to have some skills to play these songs.

Of course, the traditional interactive way to share music is to go on tour and perform concerts. David Berman, however, is anything but traditional. His eccentricities were on full display at the concert sponsored by WPTS at the William Pitt Union. From his Steve McNair lunchbox holding his little noisemakers to nonsense stories about his experiences in Pittsburgh, Berman’s display may be compared to that of a little child with a microphone. After showering the audience with candy, he would crack open a Coke, and drink it in between verses. During long instrumental parts, he would wander around the stage and find a place to sit down that was out of the way of the rest of the band. I saw him playing with a set of stairs off on stage right at one point, and, admittedly, did lose track of him a couple times. As the set came to a close, he introduced the last song before their break as “the fake last song,” a promise that made the audience explode as they began to play “Random Rules” off of American Water. It seems as though Berman was performing more for himself than for the audience. We were just along for the crazy ride he took us on.

David Berman blurs the line between musician, poet, and philosopher unlike anyone else who has ever ventured down that path. Asked about his creative process, and whether he intended to make certain songs as they appear on the album, he responds, “You have intent but no creation. Intent and execution form a dialectical method by which to make the song.” In essence, he may never properly execute his intentions, and out of that blooms his great creativity.

SIDEBAR – Silver Jews Band Member Side Projects

David Berman has been monogamous when it comes to his band, Silver Jews, but his band mates have certainly branched out into other projects. Here are a few.


Ectoslavia is one of two projects that Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich collaborated on before the formation of Pavement. This short-lived experiment disbanded following critical comments made by the drummer concerning the lead singer’s vocal abilities.


Often recognized as pioneers of Lo-Fi Indie Rock, Pavement originally featured the three musicians backing up David Berman in the first Silver Jews album - Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, and Steve West. Pavement is noted by many for their level of success despite not being affiliated with a major record label, and was in fact one of the first American rock bands to achieve this accomplishment.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Immediately after the dissolution of Pavement, The Jicks formed in 2000. Malkmus continues down the same path as he had in Pavement, even using some proposed Pavement songs on the debut album Stephen Malkmus.

Marble Valley

Formed in the late 90’s by Silver Jews and Pavement drummer Steve West, Marble Valley’s sound experiments more with synthesizers and samplers than his previous work with Silver Jews and Pavement.