Silver Jews' 20-year odyssey has hurtled its tragic hero, David Berman, through honky-tonked bedroom folk, Southern Gothic pathos and country-fried feeling, past the blues and then back again -- all the way to Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Thanks to Berman's bandmate and wife Cassie Berman, this latest record, out now on Drag City, casts a shadow far beyond those made with original co-founder (and later Pavement big-timer) Stephen Malkmus. The formerly fragile Berman has finally produced a sticky cobweb of self-reflection and extroversion that feels less like the last gasp and more like the first of many.
Silver Jews shows are rare, so it comes as a priceless surprise that the band has embarked on its first long tour. With the upcoming DVD release of Silver Jew, documenting the band's 2006 trip to Israel, and a collection of Berman's drawings called Portable February slated for springtime, its fitting to quote a line from "Party Barge," one of the Silver Jews' new songs: "Why not see a legend while it's still being made?"
As is his custom, David Berman checked in with CP from Nashville via e-mail.
I've heard touring allows you to get the message out that your name is David, not "Dave."
In the "id" -- there's my individuality. When you call me Dave, you've sawn off my identity.
On a related note, does Malkmus respond to "Steve?"
He was always "Steve" around the house until about 1998, when he started wearing turtlenecks and going by Stephen.
The upcoming Silver Jew documentary chronicles your visit to Jerusalem and performances in Tel Aviv. What'd you enjoy most about playing in Israel?
It was a dream. What I enjoyed most was being useful to people of another nation. They were really unbelievably grateful, since so few bands go over. I brought some rocks back from Israel. To tell you the truth, I was afraid I would be accused of stealing land.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea conveys a very tangible sense of place throughout. "Open Field," "San Francisco B.C." and "Candy Jail" map out distinct landscapes, with each song working almost like a photographic diorama. How do you go about putting music to these songs where the setting tells the story?
They get made with a tiny bit of lyric and a tiny bit of music. You might make a thousand combinations to find the right pair to meld. You're looking for the one that will be generative.
What inspired the "Silver Chords" [hand-drawn guitar tablature] tucked inside the new album?
I just thought it seemed like a good way to listen to the album. Playing it on your own. For people who might like the songs if they heard them played by another. It sort of sets the songs free. You turn them over to other people. I think the participating listener is understanding things that just hearing can't reach.
And the rousing sample that prefaces "Strange Victory, Strange Defeat"?
It's the voice of Teddy Roosevelt. Giving a pep talk to some youngsters in 1913. To go out and pitch in with the Bull Moose Party.
How in the hell did you come up with the cover art for Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea: crowned elephants conducting a search party and climbing sinister cliffs to higher ground?
I was impressed with some of the same artist's [Stephen Bush] work that was very different. Really Day-Glo, bright paintings. I ordered his book to see if I could find something for the album cover by him. In the back I saw this painting and it immediately won the day. It's definitely the most meaningful cover of all the [Silver Jews] albums. I want to take the elephant back from the Republicans. This is my struggle.
Silver Jews with Cortney Tidwell. 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 30. William Pitt Union Assembly Room, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. $12-14. All ages. 412-361-2262