David Berman (born January 4, 1967) is an American poet, cartoonist, and singer-songwriter best known for his work with indie-rock band the Silver Jews.
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David Berman was born January 4, 1967 in Williamsburg, Virginia. He attended high school at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, before matriculating at the University of Virginia. While in Charlottesville, Virginia, Berman began writing and performing songs (often left on friends' voice message machines) with his loose band, Ectoslavia, primarily composed of UVA classmates Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich.
Upon graduation from the University of Virginia, the trio moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where they shared an apartment and adopted the moniker Silver Jews.
Before moving to Hoboken, Malkmus had also founded another band, Pavement, with his childhood friend Scott Kannberg. As Pavement's acclaim and visibility grew, the notion arose that the Silver Jews were a "Pavement side-project," despite the fact that Berman's writing, singing, and guitar playing led the band's music, and, of course, the Silver Jews preceded Pavement. On the band's early recordings, Berman even tried to protect the Jews' individuality by listing Malkmus and Nastanovich under aliases, but it backfired when people learned who "Hazel Figurine" and "Bobby N." really were.
Not long after the success of Pavement's debut album, Slanted and Enchanted (which was named after a cartoon Berman had created), Dan Koretzky, founder of the Chicago-based indie label Drag City, met Berman at a Pavement show. When he heard of the Jews' tapes, Koretzky offered to release them. On their first single and EP for the label, 1992's "Dime Map of the Reef" and 1993's The Arizona Record, respectively, the band held to their ultra lo-fi aesthetic and recorded the majority of both on a Walkman.
After the release of the EPs, Berman entered a graduate-level writing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and met like-minded members of local bands—the indie-rock/alt-country hybrid Scud Mountain Boys and New Radiant Storm King. Writing at the university left Berman time for songwriting; soon, he had enough material for an album, which became 1994's Starlite Walker. The album reunited Berman with Malkmus and Nastanovich (this time listed by their real names in the credits) in the 24-track Easley Recording studios for a more focused, polished take on the Silver Jews' literate, lyrical, country and noise-inspired rock.
Along with writing and working with other performers like the War Comet, Berman recorded the Jews' second album, The Natural Bridge, in the summer of 1996 with members of New Radiant Storm King and Drag City artist/producer Rian Murphy. Originally, Berman planned to record this album with Malkmus, Nastanovich, and the Scud Mountain Boys, but both sessions were scrapped after a few days. The Natural Bridge continued to streamline the Silver Jews' sound and let Berman's rich, abstract lyrics and reflective vocals take center stage. Malkmus returned for 1998's American Water, and his guitar and vocal interplay with Berman places it among the Silver Jews' strongest efforts.
In 1999, Berman's first collection of poetry, Actual Air, was published by Open City Books. The Silver Jews returned in 2001 with Bright Flight and the EP Tennessee, which also features Berman's wife Cassie on a few tracks.
In early 2003, The Houston, Tx.-based theater group Infernal Bridegroom Productions staged a theatrical interpretation of Actual Air, which featured selected poems from Berman's book, as well as three live covers of Silver Jews songs, with Berman's blessing.
Following the release of Tennessee, Berman struggled through an intense period of depression and substance abuse. In 2003, he attempted suicide by using crack-cocaine, alcohol, and the prescription drug Xanax. Berman would later credit this time as "an incredible blessing", because he became more deeply involved with Judaism.
In 2005, Berman reunited the Silver Jews—with a lineup including his wife, Malkmus, Nastanovich, Will Oldham, and Azita Youseffi among many others—for a new album. Recorded in Nashville, Tanglewood Numbers narrowly avoided being destroyed in the electrical fire that engulfed Memphis' historic Easley-McCain studio, where it was supposed to be mastered. Drag City released the album that fall.
Berman surprised fans in 2005 by announcing the group's first ever tour.
Though he is a reluctant live performer as a musician, Berman occasionally does readings of his short stories and poems in both the US and the UK. His accomplished and trademark sardonic lyrics have been compared by some to Bob Dylan, and his poetry is known to examine overlooked aspects of everyday life as well as chance and often hilarious juxtapositions.
Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, the Silver Jews sixth studio album, was released 17 June 2008. It was recorded at Marble Valley (band) of Lexington, Virginia and Lake Fever Productions of Nashville, Tennessee. It was followed by an American tour. The band toured the UK and Ireland in May prior to the release of the album.
Berman currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Cassie.
Retirement from music, 2009-present
On January 22, 2009, Berman announced via the official Drag City message board that he would be retiring from making music (along with the Silver Jews moniker), and would play a final show at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee on January 31, 2009. The caverns are located 333 feet underground, and only 300 general admission tickets were made available. The concert aired on Nashville's famed WSM AM radio station, and was also available via a streaming format on their website. Berman stated that he would play his 15 favorite Silver Jews songs. He also wrote that his intentions are to move to "screenwriting or muckraking." He closed the entry by saying, "I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to 'Shiny Happy People'."
On the same day, he made another post on the message board revealing that he is the son of lobbyist Richard Berman. The two have been estranged since about 2006, when David demanded that his father halt his work supporting guns, alcohol, union-busting and other industries of the like, or else he would sever their relationship. Richard refused, and the two have not spoken since. In the message board entry, he called his father "evil," a "human molestor," an "exploiter," a "scoundrel," and "a world historical motherfucking son of a bitch." Berman ended his post by saying, "I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage."
In 2010, David Berman spoke at the Open City Summer Writer's Conference. In his talk he discussed his difficulties with a book he had been attempting to write about his father. He also revealed that HBO had expressed interest in turning the book into a one-hour series. A screenwriter was hired, a pilot scripted. HBO wanted to begin production but Berman pulled the plug saying he did not want to glamorize his father.
In January 2011, Berman launched his blog Menthol Mountains, on which he posted poetry, essays, and photos/collages. The blog was regularly maintained until July 2014, but has been mostly inactive since that time.
Berman has collaborated with The Avalanches on two songs: 2012's "A Cowboy Overflow of the Heart" (released online as a standalone track) and "Saturday Night Inside Out", which was featured on the band's 2016 Wildflower album.
With the Silver Jews
- Starlite Walker (1994) LP/CD
- The Natural Bridge (1996) LP/CD
- American Water (1998) LP/CD
- Bright Flight (2001) LP/CD
- Tanglewood Numbers (2005) LP/CD
- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (2008) LP/CD
- "Dime Map of the Reef" (1992) 7"
- "Silver Jews and Nico" (1993) 7"
- "Send in the Clouds" (1998) CD/7"
- "Hot as Hell - Live 1993" (1999) 7"
- The Arizona Record (1993) CD/12"
- Tennessee (2001) CD/12"
- Actual Air (1999)
- The Portable February (2009)