When we reached out to lead Silver Jew David Berman — who's now retired from the music industry — he declined with a really long, really interesting email that was entirely off the record (damn). Nevertheless, he pointed us in the direction of fellow Jews founder (and Pavement member) Bob Nastanovich. Nastanovich — who now works at a horse track in Altoona, Iowa, and spoke with me by phone — was as polite and sharp and funny as you'd expect Pavement's spirited percussionist/mascot to be. We talked about the formation of Silver Jews way back in their Hoboken/NYC days, the shoddiness of their equipment, recording songs on Sonic Youth's answering machine, whether or not Berman will ever return to music, the Puerto Rican family that was basically responsible for Silver Jews' formation, Nastanovich's locally legendary post-wedding party at The 5 Spot and more. Read below.
Nashville Cream: I talked to David [Berman] about the last Silver Jews show back at Cumberland Caverns in 2009, and he used the metaphor of the performance kind of being burying the band. So with a project like this reissue, does it feel a bit like exhuming a corpse, or sort of unearthing an old loved one?
Bob Nastanovich: [Laughs] Um, fair enough. That sounds good to me. I think that, first of all, that last show was really sort of a unique occasion, an unusual thing. I think David’s perception of what’s going on in the Silver Jews is probably an accurate one since he was really sort of at the helm for many, many years. I think sort of going back to the inception and those early recordings, sort of, is a totally different thing than how the band ended up. Personnel, style, everything about it. It grew into a pretty interesting thing. And I guess the singularity all the way through is David’s ability to write great song lyrics and sing them in his original way. The early stuff, bringing it back, to be honest with you, I think its sort of lack of availability and continuing interest in Silver Jews and that genre and era of early ‘90s poorly recorded music, it’s sort of still being celebrated — to the point of Drag City and so forth.
NC: So these tracks are primarily from Dime Map and Arizona Record right?
NC: And that was, of course, long before the Jews had even toured, and was pretty early in Pavement’s existence. At that time, was it more you guys just doing a free-form recording project than a proper band?
BN: Oh yeah, totally free form. It’s the kind of thing where you jam with your friends — actually, we were never really that jammy. You know, some people get together and they play music and they try to get into some sort of groove, and then they end up sort of vibing together and then they end up working up some jam for 12 minutes where it sort of feels good. Silver Jews is all about piling up as many actual little ditties and songs as possible and really sort of make it up as you go. But there was always a serious sense of editing, and David really sort of controlled the editing process. There was always — like, before we started recording those sessions — there was always like a positioning of the really low-quality amps and whatever I was hitting. Sometimes I would be really far away from what they were doing because he didn’t want me too loud in the mix. It was just incredibly unsophisticated, and it wasn’t really even a band. It was just like you make up a bunch of songs with your friends, and then you do it for a few weeks or a few months and then you’re like, “Well, we should have a band name,” or that sort of thing.
But there was no conscious effort. It was just guys who worked all the time and loved live music and loved music. And times when we couldn’t afford to go out or there wasn’t anything going on that we wanted to do, you know, we would just be at home and decided that that was the best way to entertain ourselves. That’s really all there was to it. And then David would like sort of always listen back to it the next day, and he would get up and some days and think, “Oh, what we did last night had to have been great.” But then he would listen to it and he would be kind of bummed that it was actually horrible. I think that one thing that sort of happened to him during this era is that he would wake up really bright-eyed and hopeful that when he’d listened back to what we’d done the night before that it had been some brilliant stroke. And he would often be demoralized at how it just really sounded like a bunch of crap.
But I guess in his arduous re-listening to what we’d done — usually the night before or a couple nights before — he would sometimes cull and be able to piece together bits and pieces and then tape the tape and actually make what he thought were songs out of what we were doing. It was just extremely unsophisticated, but we’re dealing with people, like myself and him and Stephen, at this point, who probably would have really had to read the instructions to use one of those Tascam four-tracks.
NC: So was it just a little Tascam?
BN: No, it wasn’t that. We didn’t have $200 for one of those. It was just an old 1980s-style, or sort of ‘70s-style tape recorder with one condenser mic, and it was on top of the television set. And then they would sort of battle for positioning and sing into the condenser mic, and I would’ve been sort of be strategically placed far enough away where I wasn’t going to invade too much with how hard I was hitting. They were just kind of silly, but we did it a lot.
I got Kim and Thurston’s — from Sonic Youth — we didn’t know them at all. But, one of our friends, this girl named Tonya Small who worked at the record store, she made the mistake — she was like, 18 — of giving us their phone number, and we thought Thurston would be interested. It was a home phone. You know, there weren’t cell phones. We thought Thurston, since he was into such obscure stuff, that he would be interested in listening to what we were doing live. So we would do a lot of this into their answering machine. Obviously, if we called them up and they were home — they didn’t have caller ID, I don’t think — we would just call them up, and if they answered we would just hang up. And we would be like, “OK, we’re just going straight to the tape recorder tonight.”
So, I mean, I guess when we came to a point where we were felt like we had a good two-minute song, then we’d do like one pass through it, with like instructions given out. And, I mean, Stephen was like a very accomplished musician, or just very talented back then. So he didn’t really even need one pass or anything like that to immediately come up with what he wanted to do on guitar. David had to do a little bit more preparation. I think lyrics that were made especially in this era of Silver Jews were just made up on the spot. And we all contributed lyrics. Stephen and David’s voices kind of complimented each other in some way. To me it’s sort of odd that something that is so poorly recorded would arouse any interest from anybody, but I guess that’s how weird Drag City is.
NC: So, did you ever get much feedback from Kim and Thurston when you would leave these things on their answering machine?
BN: No, no feedback at all. I don’t think they really minded. They would probably get home and be like, “Oh, the weird band that calls us.” I think they probably had, like, I think their answering machine probably didn’t last more than a minute or so. So they probably thought it was kind of amusing. I don’t remember — I’m sure I told Thurston about it, and he made some comment to the effect that we weren’t the first or only people that ever did such things. I mean, obviously we were Sonic Youth fans, but if we would have had other phone numbers, we would have rotated. If we’d have had, like, Gibby Haynes’ home phone number, we would have called him. If we would have had Steve Albini’s, we would have called him. But he might have pressed charges, who knows. It wasn’t harassing, it just made the whole scene more exciting in our own, sort of, fried minds.
NC: You said that with these recordings, David, at least to some extent, would direct it. Kind of put it on one track or another and figure out where it which way it was going …
BN: I mean, do you sort of get the impression from talking to him that he’s kind of bossy?
NC: [Laughs] I have mildly gotten that impression, I could say.
BN: OK, well there you go. He was just as bossy — in fact probably more bossy — back then. And you know, it was something where we were very comfortable having him in control, because, to be honest with you, we thought it was funny and cool, and we thought it was good that he was taking it seriously. He was taking the most seriously. I’m sure Stephen got a kick out of it, and my skills have always been so rudimentary, I just figured what I would be contributing to was just whatever. I was just along for the laugh, you know? Whenever you’re playing music, even if you’re terrible, you’re trying to get some sort of groove.
As the band developed later after this stuff, there wasn’t a huge amount of preparation, but it was more, obviously, sort of rehearsed. You know, there was no standard. It was David — it was sort of his pet at the time. It sort of entertained him and made him feel cool and New York, which was challenging for us, because we were outsiders. People of sort of resented that these guys from Virginia had moved to New York. They didn’t really know us, but people were snotty in that scene. That Hoboken-New York indie-rock music scene — Pier Platters, Maxwell’s, Pyramid, CBGB’s, all those clubs. If you were total outsider, you weren’t embraced like you are in like Williamsburg now, where there’s just like thousands and thousands of them. There weren’t that many people. And then people like Neil Hagerty with the Royal Trux people, when they moved there — they moved from out the way too, but they sort of had a whole New York fashion sense. They looked kind of scary and stuff. We looked like whatever, just guys getting in the way. We always felt like people were just like, “Who are these assholes?”
NC: Well, do you see any future for the Silver Jews? When I talked to David he seemed, a couple years ago, he seemed pretty certain that the Cumberland Caverns thing was it, for good. But then again, along comes this re-release. Is it really anybody’s guess at this point?
BN: It’s just up to him. It’s the kind of thing if he contacted any of the 15 people that have played with Silver Jews over the years — if I could guess in various roles and capacities — I’m sure that just about everybody, including Malkmus, would put down what they were doing and find out a time to maybe do something. But, you know, I don’t know. I talk to him on a regular basis, and he’s seems to be currently ensconced in other nonmusical projects. I think somebody like that, who really just did not enjoy performing live — it was very, very stressful for him — I think that that probably sullied his experience, and he certainly doesn’t want to be put in a position where he’s having to do that again.
But people still care. He’s also talked in the last few years about still writing songs and still coming up with songs and seeing if — I don’t know how actively he pursues it. I think some famous people down there in that country music world — who, to be honest with you, I couldn’t name, I just don’t know — he’s mentioned a few people and people also in rock have expressed interest in him sort of writing them a song. And I’ve encouraged him to do that, because he’s a good song writer and he’s a very unique song writer, and I think that there’s a lot of his songs that would appeal. If they’re anything like as good as, like, his best 20 songs, then I think he could have universal appeal if it was recorded by some huge country star or some rock star. I don’t know whether he’s going to follow through on any of that. He’s a pretty private person.
I mean, I feel like I could call him right now and depending on his mood, talk to him, just like I talk to him once a week. But back then, it was way different. Back then, he was a security guard at the Whitney Museum. We had nothing, and we were living in crappy apartments, like really crappy. One of the reasons why this band exists is because we lived beneath this huge Puerto Rican family. And they were partying, and there were like 12 people at all times, and it was like this tiny apartment. These kids and everything, and they were making so much noise, and we were in the basement. It was kind of an ideal environment for us because there was no way they could possibly complain about us making noise. So Silver Jews probably never would have existed without this Puerto Rican family.
NC: So they're the real ones I should probably be interviewing, right?
BN: Yeah, it some ways. Because there was no way they could complain about noise. And it was perfect for us, because we didn’t care. If those people would have cared — I mean, obviously sleeping was not a big issue when you’ve had a lot of cheap beer and you’re going to bed at midnight and getting up at five in the morning to drive a bus in New York, but you can get away with because you’re 23 or something. [Stephen and David] had it a little harder to work with a hangover because they had to stand in like museum galleries all day. They were teamsters. But, you know, the real fun part about it was that we were just breaking even in New York City. We were making enough money to do whatever we wanted to do. We were just young guys in New York, and we saw a lot of bands. I’d say between two and five shows a week. I don’t remember there being that many weeks — I mean, there were like 15 different venues, and there was a lot of good stuff going on. Bands had to really tour constantly then just to keep from doing real jobs. You know, the calendar for a 30-day period, in most of those clubs, you’d be going to like 10 things at most of those places. It was pretty happening.
There was like a lot of times where we were like, “I’m not going to pay 12 bucks for that,” and it’s like, “Well I’ll go buy beer then.” And then at a certain point, we’d be like, “Are we going to do the Jews thing or not tonight?” And then it would be, like, 11 o’clock rolls around, “Let’s go ahead and do it for an hour.” It wasn’t as planned as that. David would be like, “I’m in the mood.” It was cool. I just never really thought anything would come of it. I guess Drag City does deserved a lot of credit because they showed interest in it, and then they developed a relationship with David, and David has played a huge role in their label, and they played a huge role in his career. I mean, David has been used effectively by them as an advisor, in terms of music and stuff. And, you know, he’s a big part of their team since like Will Oldham days. Nobody would have saw anything in these tapes that the Silver Jews made. You know, nobody, I don’t think.
You still there? I don’t want to bore you.
NC: No, this is awesome. And this was all pretty much at the same time Pavement was getting together too, right?
BN: Yeah, but Pavement was also a project, and Pavement was based in Stockton, California. It was sort of based out of Gary’s garage, and I didn’t know Gary then. Well, I did. The first time I met Gary was in August of ’90. Pavement played its first week of shows in August of ’90, and then we did it again in August of ’91. We didn’t quit our jobs until ’92, and it was during that era. But those Pavement records were made over like a few days when Stephen would go home for holidays and stuff. Stephen was living out there — he finished college a year before me and David — and he spent like several months traveling around the world, mostly by himself. He went all over the Middle East. And then he came back from that trip and he was just hanging out in Stockton because he was broke. I moved to New York in September of ’89 and within like two or three months, David was in Austin — David immediately went to Austin after he graduated — and I just convinced those guys that they had to be in New York. Stephen was an easy convince because he was in Stockton. David was harder to convince because he was in Austin. They moved and then it was great. You know, I was there and I didn’t really have that many friends. It was great to have two of my best friends move up there. It’s just good for the whole camaraderie and saving money. I convinced them to move to New York, and I’m happy that they did and I think they both are happy that they did also.
NC: OK, well I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but are you still living in Iowa? Is that right?
BN: Yeah, I live in Des Moines. Yeah. I work at the horse racetrack here. It’s called Prairie Meadows. Yeah, it’s cool. Racing jobs are cool because it’s racing, you know. It’s always a good laugh.
NC: I think I was actually technically at what was your wedding party at The 5 Spot? That thing that none of us I guess were invited to, but …
BN: Yeah, there were like 90 people at the wedding and the place was just too small. Weddings are weird, I don’t really like weddings. I think that it’s sort of annoying to like say, “Hey, look at us. We love each other. We’re getting married.” To me, it’s like, real, total self-aggrandizement. It’s kind of nauseating.
NC: Like, “Give us presents and pay attention to us.”
BN: Yeah, all that stuff. I don’t know, I had a good time and I’m happy that I got married. I’m still married and stuff like that. Just the whole rigmarole, I think it’s just kind of self-indulgent. I don’t know, I felt kind of bad about it, but we tried to do it sort of a down-to-earth fashion. But that whole mindset of “celebrate our love” is a little nauseating. If anything, when you go to weddings and you’re sitting there and you’re like, “These people definitely won’t make the first year. This is such bullshit.” You know. It kind of makes you do that. You have to. “There’s no shot. No shot. He will definitely get laid by another woman within six months.” That’s the way I feel about it. But no, that was a weird night. It was weird. It was a long, I’ll tell you that much. It was a long night. I had a good time. The most important thing is that Whitney had a good time. At least she said so.
Good talking to you. The only way that you’ll ever see David is if you sit outside of his house and maybe catch him going to his mailbox.
NC: Well, [I’ve seen him out] with Cassie …
BN: He’s the old, decrepit guy that Cassie married, but don’t put that in the article. This might be the only one he reads. I’ve done like 10 or 12 of these, and this will be the only one he reads. Do me a favor and …
NC: Stop at "decrepit"?
BN: Well, if you think that I’m saying anything that would offend David, go ahead and put it in there. Fuck it, I don’t give a shit. He could confront me with that. In fact, if you want to switch around what I said to offend David then blame it on me and make it look like it was totally me, do that. I don’t give a shit.