Gearing up for the release of his first new album in ten years, David Berman has granted Aquarium Drunkard a rare interview. Berman discussed making music with his new band, Purple Mountains, and looked back on past work with Silver Jews and his old college pal Stephen Malkmus.
Asked about sourcing “Purple Mountains” from “America the Beautiful,” Berman waxed poetic about his relationship to the new moniker:
…Purple Mountains is so plain on one level. It’s so easy. You just have to think about all the times I had to explain what I did for a living. It’s like, going to get a haircut, I can say something normal now, at least. I thought of [the Purple Mountains name] while I was driving out West, obviously, straight toward the purple mountains. And when I was out there, working, trying to make the record, there was a huge purple mountain right behind the studio, and there was a story about [Katharine Lee Bates], the woman who wrote “America the Beautiful,” and her severe clinical depression, and her trip out West, her own personal situation. And me wanting a facade, knowing that I was not going to come up and be David Berman. The funny thing is, no one in any of the interviews I’ve done yet has asked, “Why didn’t you just play as David Berman?” And it was so clear to me—it would never, ever be a question that I would do that. Number one, I hate my name, because it’s my father’s name. But also, it’s not about me. I can’t imagine putting my name on a t-shirt. For someone to wear my name? Me? It’s ridiculous.
Berman went on to share his perspective on written poetry (he released a collection via Drag City back in 1999), and reflected on the kind of quotidian verse he sees all around him: “… I feel like maybe people aren’t reading more poetry than ever, but people are writing poetry all the time, whether they know it or not. And certainly, to me, as long as there’s language and people are speaking, I’m not too worried about it.”
If critics were harder on the musicians that they love, there would be better songs. But as they grow older and they lose their talent, critics refuse to let them know that and protect them, and they get to the point where they put out music that just isn’t up to the levels where they’ve already been. It must be very strange to live in the world of Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam. I don’t know what kind of handle they have on their own loss of talent. Obviously Willie Nelson understands that it’s been forty-five years since anyone’s really cared about any song of his, but I feel like I don’t see very much vocational unhappiness. I heard Springsteen was an unhappy person. I don’t know, I haven’t read his biography. But a lot of people in my field should be a lot more unhappy than they are. They go to press with bullshit.
That Bruce Springsteen’s latest album has garnered such acclaim might be to Berman’s point, but I’m skeptical.