Since making his return to music under a new moniker, Purple Mountains, Berman’s made it clear that, now more than ever, he’s ready to talk. So he talks, a lot. But he isn’t as erratic as the younger man you see in YouTube videos. He guides our conversation through weight-of-the-world concerns and anecdotal tidbits with the quiet eccentricity of a university professor. A brief question about his music often leads us down many other avenues (living in Nashville and Chicago, loss, failure, Judaism) before we arrive at anything straightforwardly regarding his work.
His first new record in 11 years, Purple Mountains finds him ditching his usual vignettes of surreal Americana for a style less mediated, or as he puts it, “more universal”. “There’s less showing off, less misdirection,” he says. “There’s no question about the fact that, when you hear it, it’s based in personal experience.”
Be it the loss of his mother, lovingly laid to rest on ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’, or the near-loss of his genitalia on the album’s opening gambit ‘That’s Just the Way that I Feel’, Purple Mountains is Berman sifting through the tragedy and the comedy of the last decade out of therapeutic necessity – and financial necessity, too. Having pushed to the “very very very limit” of credit card debt and loans, he admits he’s at least $100,000 in the hole. “It’s always over your head,” he says. “It’s draining to worry about.”
Before spiralling so profoundly into the red, Berman inexplicably found that he was able to sustain himself from old material. “For some reason I was able to just get by making like $20,000 a year on old Silver Jews royalties,” he says. If I learn one thing about Berman, it’s that he’s weary of things that appear miraculous: “It made me very suspicious that there’s some warehouse in Germany with stacks of Silver Jews CDs inside, that some beneficiary wanted me to think I should still make music.”
Wealthy benefactor or not, his return is clearly welcomed by his small but dedicated following. Even more surprising is the amount of glowing reviews he’s received from mainstream publications. It’s fair to say a lot of people really like the new record, I say. He concedes: “Yeah, it’s something that I couldn’t have expected for a 52-year old – coming out and making a record after a decade of disappearing, having been a minor phenomenon to begin with.”
Minor phenomenon? This may have been the case in the early 1990s, when Silver Jews, featuring Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, seemed in the constant shadow of Berman-less ‘side project’ Pavement. But over the course of Berman’s hiatus, the legend of Silver Jews gradually became canonised in the pantheon of indie rock, largely thanks to a younger generation of musicians (artists like William Tyler and Kurt Vile) talking up Berman’s songwriting pedigree. “My favourite thing is people who discovered the Silver Jews after it ended, because to me those people really liked the band,” he says. “It wasn’t mixed up in their personal life or their history. It’s just the music, that’s all that’s there.” I neglect to mention that my own history with his old band includes pretending to like them for hipster cred before I’d heard a single note.
I’m curious about why Berman felt happy to leave music in the first place, when it seemed so much like quitting while he was ahead. “When I started listening to music in 1982, it felt like we were still on the bleeding edge of something that was changing constantly,” he says. “We were part of a historical project. I didn’t understand why other practitioners – my peers – weren’t disturbed by it. They went on and kept making records on a two-year schedule. I was sure that the right thing to do was to step aside and watch, to see what happens.”
I see what he means. When bands like Slowdive and Ride have returned to stages in recent years, it’s hard not to feel like we’re living in frozen time. But does he see the irony here, stepping aside only to return later off the back of his fanbase’s goodwill? Isn’t he culpable too? He’s resolute: “I stopped to make room for other people and no one moved in. I stopped to find something else for me to do, and I couldn’t find anything. I just went back to a place that, you know, houses me” – literally, in Drag City’s terms.