In the late ’80s, after graduating from the University of Virginia, Bob Nastanovich and his college friends Stephen Malkmus and David Berman moved to Jersey City, where they moved into a small apartment together and started a lower-than-lo-fi three-piece rock band called the Silver Jews. Eventually Malkmus moved back to Stockton, California, and was never heard from again. Just kidding: He and his childhood friend Scott Kannberg started Pavement, which eventually became maybe the most beloved indie-rock outfit of the ’90s. Nastanovich joined Pavement around 1990; the band’s drummer at the time, Gary Young, was an eccentric hippie whose drinking occasionally got in the way of his time-keeping, so Nastanovich was recruited as a backup percussionist. Young was eventually replaced by the more reliable Steve West, but Nastanovich stayed on, serving as a boisterously weird hype man during live shows and contributing additional percussion, keyboards, and the occasional screamed backing vocal to four more studio albums before Pavement broke up in 1999. In many ways, he was Pavement’s least-essential member, but also its most quintessential — a link to the ad hoc, accidental quality of their early work, and a reminder of the unlikeliness of their rise.
Berman, meanwhile, got an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, published an acclaimed poetry collection, Actual Air, and continued to make music under the Silver Jews name. Over the course of six albums and countless personnel changes, the band matured from a clattering home-taping experiment into an odd and oddly professional-sounding country-rock outfit. In 2003, Pitchfork named 1998’s American Water the 72nd-best album of the ’90s. That same year, Berman, who’d been struggling with depression and substance-abuse issues, checked into the Loews Vanderbilt hotel in Nashville and attempted to kill himself with crack and Xanax. He survived, began practicing Judaism in earnest, went on tour for the first time, and released two more albums before disbanding the group in 2009. In a message board post announcing the breakup, he said he planned to move on to “Screenwriting or Muckraking”; that same day, on the same board, he revealed that his father was Richard Berman — a PR executive and Washington lobbyist notorious for serving as a corporate-funded enforcer for the alcohol, tobacco, and fast-food industries, among others — and implied that this family legacy had contributed to his decision to quit music. “I decided,” Berman wrote, “that the [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused.”
After Pavement split, Nastanovich focused his energies on horse racing. It was a longtime passion for him; he’d purchased a house in Louisville across the street from Churchill Downs back in 1992, and when the band toured England he tried to visit as many British racecourses as he could. (He’s been to 57 of them to date; there are 60, and he plans to see the last three before his 45th birthday next year.) He’s owned, raced, and even bred racehorses; for a time, in the mid-2000s, he was an agent for jockeys. Last month, just before the Preakness, he called me from Altoona, Iowa, where he works at the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino as a clocker and chart-caller, gathering data for Equibase, America’s official thoroughbred-racing database company.
The official “news peg” for this interview is the release of an album called Early Times, which compiles the first two Silver Jews EPs, Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record (but not, for some reason, the amazing cocktail-lounge B-side “Old New York,” where Malkmus and Berman come off like tour guides pointing out the sights of a city they’ve never been to, trading immortal rhymes like “Theater in the round, stop by Howard Johnson’s/Martinis on the house, you might even meet Mick Ronson”). We did get around to talking about Early Times, and the Silver Jews, and Pavement; if you’re skipping ahead, it’s about halfway down. But — this being a website about sports — we began with the ponies.
1. The Part About Horse Racing
There’s this impression that horse racing is sort of your post-rock-band afterlife. But your interest in it actually predates your music career, right?
Yeah. I mean, I watched the sport when I was a kid, started to get into it when I was a teenager, and then by the time college rolled around, I began playing the horses really heavily, as a passionate pursuit, thinking that I was clever enough to beat what can be considered the toughest game in the world to win.
Did you think you had some kind of edge that other people didn’t have?
Yeah, my roommate — Rich Walker was his name — was an incredible math mind. And he thought that just about any game that involved a certain amount of math was beatable. And he sort of proved that, on a few excursions to Atlantic City. You used to have to go that far to gamble. He would go from Charlottesville to Atlantic City and do extremely well playing craps and other games of chance, so I got him to go to the racetrack with me, and he became befuddled, because he could not defeat it solely from a mathematical perspective. Which I was never at all interested in — I was always more interested in the human element, the horses themselves, and trying to figure out and weigh all the factors that go into picking the winner. You start digging deeper and learning more and more, tiny little bits of information, everything you can scarf up. You can never learn enough — and then you end up betting on the same horse as somebody who just looks at the program and says, “I like the name of that horse.”
But no — it became a huge challenge. I started playing, and saving money, and putting money aside, and having sort of a gambling budget. Which at times I’ve exceeded. It could very well be the reason I’ve never had a family. A lot of ways, your horses, the ones you own, are your kids, along with your dog, y’know? You throw so much into it. I’ve met very few people over the last 25 years of my life that are able to completely put down what they’re doing and just play horses. The New York Times Magazine a few years ago had a piece on a guy in Las Vegas that lived in a casino in Las Vegas and spent 365 days a year playing the horses and was able to give up all of his work and just be a horse player. That guy must be very good; that’s unusual. It’s just a very difficult game to win. You can be right time after time, and then luck or some other circumstance could stand in the way of you winning money. What you miss, winning by an inch at the end of a horse race, on certain occasions, can be thousands of dollars. Everybody has their nightmare stories about bad heats and misfortune and stuff like that, but it’s just a magical game. To me, there’s really nothing more exciting than a good horse race.
And they happen every day in all parts of the world. In this day and age we’re able to access racing starting at seven o’clock in the morning in the U.K. and Ireland, and if you want to, still be betting them at one or two in the morning from Australia and New Zealand. So it’s a very good time to be a horse player, in terms of access. You used to have to drive to the racetrack; now, you can just sit in the comfort of your own home and lose several hundred dollars a day.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s made it a lot easier for us. But no, I’ve had some success, or else I wouldn’t still be in it.
How did this go from being an obsession to an actual, paying job?
You start off playing the horses heavily, and then one thing leads to another. I lived directly across the street from the clubhouse of Churchill Downs for 15 years, and during that period, I expanded my interest into owning horses, and eventually breeding them, and subsequently I’ve taken on a wide variety of jobs in the industry. It’s become a heavy-duty pursuit.
Was it tough to break in?
Yeah. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and the jobs are hard to get. Horse racing tends to be filled with a lot of people at a wide variety of levels that were handed their job via networking or, in a lot of cases, nepotism. One of the reasons why the industry suffers, from a proficiency standpoint, is that there are a lot of people holding down jobs by default and they’re sort of miserable. So I started working thinking that I could make a positive impact on the sport at different levels, just because I love it so much.
The first job I had in racing was as a jockey agent, which means that you’re representing a jockey and taking care of all of his or her business, so all they really have to do is get on horses and try to win races. I started doing that around 2004. I did that for a few years. That’s a very difficult job, and so I decided to start charting the races for Equibase. You’re called a chart pol: You go to any racetrack in the country, and basically you’re just collecting data. The main thing that you do is chart where the horses are on the track at certain points during the race, and then that information gets transcribed in the program, and you also write chart comments and stuff. I clock horses every morning, and then during the races I chart the races. On Saturday I worked from six in the morning till one in the morning, because the day ended with me needing to write a recap of the stakes race that we were at. So Saturday tends to be my longest day, but usually I work about 65 hours a week when we’re in season. And there’s seasonal work here at Prairie Meadows, so it’s from, like, April 1 to November 1. And in the offseason, mainly what I do, in regards to racing, is just write whatever the Racing Form needs me to do as a field correspondent. Basically, in horse racing, you have to wear a lot of different hats. Which is fine — they’re all very enjoyable jobs. And I’d probably be at the track anyway; I just get paid extra to do work.
It’s taken me to a lot of racetracks, and it’s been a very interesting educational experience for a huge chunk of time after Pavement stopped, which was a full-time job through ’99. Y’know, I suddenly then needed to reload and figure out something to do, and I was able to assemble enough employment in horse racing to make a living.
You’ve said in interviews before that — given the nature of your position in the band — you always felt like Pavement wasn’t going to be a permanent gig for you.
Really the most significant thing was that I didn’t know how long we’d be able to be successful and feel like we were getting better and entertaining the people that were interested in us. I think if the band hadn’t stopped in ’99, we would have had a hard time figuring out what to do on a sixth album anyways. And Stephen, who I’ve been friends with since 1986 — he’s been one of my best friends since then — I have a pretty good read on him. I gathered that he was pretty frustrated with the direction the band was going and wanted to do something else, and since he was obviously vital — y’know, it seemed sort of inevitable that we’d disband. With the exception of him, everybody in the band has had to figure out different types of pursuits and work other jobs. Obviously he’s gone on to continue to have a successful musical career. The rest of us had to get real jobs. Which is fine.
You’ve also owned a few racehorses over the years. Do you look at that as a kind of gambling, too? Like you’re betting on them on a larger scale?
That’s exactly what it is. Just betting on them wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to start owning them, because that’s a bigger gamble. I mean, I live less than two miles away from Maggie Moss, who’s a lawyer here in Des Moines and one of the top 10 owners in the country. She’s really famous. She’s been nominated for Eclipse Awards, and she dominates the racing scene at several racetracks across America. And she’ll tell you that she never really bets on horse racing. That she doesn’t even know how to bet on horses. But she owns 80 of them, and so she’s a bigger gambler than anybody I know.
And breeding is an even bigger gamble. You gotta be really a maniac to breed them, unless you’re really rich. I didn’t have the means to start breeding racehorses. I just thought I was clever enough, and knew enough about horse racing and breeding and pedigrees and brood mares and everything that goes into it, to start actually making my own racehorses. Thank God I only bred about 25 of ’em, which was probably 23 or 24 too many. That’s a huge endeavor. You’re paying bills a year before the horse is born, and then you’re waiting at least two or three years before they even start recouping, at least out of the ones that I’ve created. And [in my case] we’re talking about pretty unfashionable pedigrees, so you can’t really sell them. So that’s the most foolish endeavor I’ve ever been a part of.
So wait, you bred how many before you figured that out?
Over the last 15 years, I’ve bred about 25 horses. Actually the last of my homebreds — that’s what they’re called, if you own the horses you breed, they’re called homebreds — the very last one is a two-year-old now, and I was finally able to sell off all my mares for tiny amounts of money, or give them to my farm manager. I have one homebred in training — she’s out of an Irish mare that I owned for years, and she’s about to make her first start. Her name is Finish Your Drink. And then I have a homebred who I also own, called Hula Hoop, and he’s a two-year-old who’s training in Florida. Those are the last two of that project.
It hasn’t been a disaster. I mean, I’ve bred winners. I’ve never bred the winner of a significant race, but I’ve bred horses that have won races. I raced a homebred of mine last year called Hersilia, and she won three races, and I sold her for $5,000. She did well. She paid her way. If they were all like Hersilia, then I’d be fine.
I guess that’s the point, though. That’s why it’s a gamble.
It’s a huge gamble. I mean, it’s a different thing. Like, say you said, “I want to buy a racehorse. I’ve got $5,000; let’s get a racehorse, Bob, and own it 50-50.” I’d go out there right now and start reading the Form and start watching video replays, and eventually we’d put $10,000 in a claiming account, and we’d try to buy the best possible racehorse in a claiming race that we could buy for that much. There’s a number of different factors that would go into that purchase, but I’d say like, within two weeks, we’d have claimed a racehorse, and we’d be in business, and then you could be racing within a few days of that couple of weeks. And generally if you claim one, you want to assess it and have your trainer get a read on the horse and figure out what type of race you want to put the horse in, but in some cases, you’d actually claim a racehorse and buy a racehorse and already have its next race picked out. If the horse came out of the race sound and you thought it was fit to race and doing well, you’d put it in the race that you’d already picked out for it before you even bought it.
So it’s actually pretty easy to get into.
You just get an owner’s license and start throwing thousands of dollars around. The prudent thing for most people to do is to get into a syndicate where they own, like, 5 or 10 percent of a horse, and that way if the horse turns out to be not a particularly good purchase, then it doesn’t ruin them. I wish I’d stuck to that mind-set, because that’s how I started. But at one point, near the end of Pavement, I was operating a 12-horse racing stable. I was insane.
I’m trying to do the math here — what does that run you per month, per horse?
Generally, depending on your trainer, it’s anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 a month, [depending on] whether it’s a slow horse or a fast horse. You can do it cheaper than that. People that own their own and train them, they can probably do it cheaper. But in order to take care of a racing thoroughbred properly, you need to spend a lot of money. It depends; I have one trainer friend that charges $60 a day that’s outstanding, and I’ve got another one that costs about $100 a day. They both do an excellent job; they just have a different way of going about it.
Pavement were one of the biggest indie-rock bands of all time, in terms of public profile, but I don’t get the impression you guys were ever cashing million-dollar checks.
No, no. You shouldn’t be participating in owning racehorses with the kind of money that I made in Pavement. Or in any other endeavor. I mean, there were a few years with Pavement in the ’90s where I made over 100 grand. And if you’re on your own, and it’s all your money, and you’re just a dude that bets on horse races, which is what I was — and I guess to a certain extent, even though I’m married now, it’s what I still am — then you can afford [to bet.] But breeding, the expense of breeding, is what really bottomed me out. And then, y’know, I made good money in 2010 [when Pavement reunited], so it let me jump back in. I’ve maintained owning horses through some really lean times. Now I’m down to four of them. To cut my costs, I’ve sold shares for cheap over the last few months to interested friends of mine, who know the horses and know what’s involved with it, and are taking the same gamble that I am. My mother owns 10 percent of one.
Obviously there are also super-rich people who own racehorses. Does being in it with the resources you have kind of feel like being the guy at the poker table with the short stack of chips?
That’s a very good analogy. That’s what you feel like. You’re competing against sheikhs of Dubai. I mean, the guy who won the Kentucky Derby last week, J. Paul Reddam, he owns Cash Call, which is a huge money-lending corporation. He’s an incredibly rich man. But what gives us little guys hope is that he’s bought horses that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he won the Derby with a horse that cost $35,000. So technically, you, me, and eight other guys could throw in $4,000 and buy a horse for $35,000 who ends up winning the Kentucky Derby. So that was a particularly great moment for people with smaller wallets, when a horse like that wins the Derby, because it makes people think, “Hey, I can own a Derby winner too. I don’t have to be a gazillionaire” — even though it was a gazillionaire winning. And then the year before, Team Valor, which is one of the oldest horse racing syndicates, won it, with Animal Kingdom — so that horse essentially had 20 owners.
But, yeah, that’s a perfect analogy, the short stack. For a long time, I considered myself the poorest owner-breeder in Kentucky. I was probably pretty close. I was definitely in the bottom 5 percent. A lot of my friends that have a lot more money than I do, who play the horses all the time, think you’re absolutely crazy to own horses, and I probably am. But good things do happen. You work with great people. My trainer, she’s great, her name’s Susan Anderson. Her staff is great. You’re supporting a lot of people — grooms and hot-walkers and exercise riders. And you savor the wins. It’s extremely exciting to win a horse race and see your silks carried to victory at racetracks. At the end of the day, you get a framed photo on the wall. And you get the money that you get.
Last year I won a race at Keeneland, which is one of the most prestigious racetracks in the country, in Lexington, during their 75th anniversary; it’s the first time I’d ever won a race there, and I was particularly proud of that. It felt like that was a huge accomplishment for an owner of my size. Even though it wasn’t a big race, it was a huge race to me, and I sort of felt, after that, that if I never owned another winner, that at least I feel like I accomplished something. So that was a good moment. I mean, obviously I would love to have a good horse who ran in stakes races someday; I just haven’t really gotten there yet. I’ve won some good races, but I haven’t had anything that you would call a great racehorse.
You’ve raced horses and bred them; you’ve been an agent for jockeys. You’re a chart caller and a writer for the Daily Racing Form. It seems like you’ve tried to get involved in this at every possible level, short of, I don’t know, becoming a jockey yourself.
I wanted to experience everything there is to experience in the sport. And with the exception of winning big races, I feel like I’ve done a lot. I would never try to train horses, because I feel like there’s more than enough people qualified to do that, who’ve been doing so from a very young age, and learned that craft from their ancestors, in a lot of cases. When I started getting into it heavily in my late teens and early 20s, I was already behind in terms of actually working hands-on with horses. I’ll walk a horse, but I would never pretend to train a horse. But no, I don’t ride them. I’m actually allergic to them.
Yeah. Just your basic, standard allergy to horses. It goes away after about two weeks, but I haven’t been around too many horses the last few months, so it would take me at least 10 days of real misery, like incredible itchiness and sneezing. So I don’t work hands-on with the horses. I’ve spent enough time in stables, and on the backstretch — you’re always working around horses. But I have enough confidence in the people I hire to train them; they’re far better than I would ever be. I like to do everything I feel like I can do on my own, self-taught. That’s the same way I was when I was an athlete. I played tennis when I was a kid, and I didn’t have any lessons or clinics. I could’ve, but I didn’t want to. So I’ve sort of applied that same egomaniacal strategy to horse racing. With a minimal degree of success.
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.