In January of 2009, long-heralded indie-rock outfit Silver Jews played their final show in Middle Tennessee's Cumberland Caverns. "I always wanted to go out on top," claimed Jews frontman and mastermind David Berman at show's end. "But I much prefer this."
When the Scene spoke with Berman in advance of that final show, he called the setting "symbolic," elaborating that he intended to "bury the band" in that cave in McMinnville, Tenn. But on June 19 of this year, Silver Jews released Early Times, a 14-track collection culled from two of Silver Jews' now-out-of-print, super-lo-fi recordings, 1992's Dime Map of the Reef and 1993's The Arizona Record. So if the Jews are dead and buried, is putting out a reissue a bit like exhuming a corpse?
"Um, [laughs] fair enough," says founding Silver Jew Bob Nastanovich via phone from Des Moines, Iowa. "That sounds good to me."
Over a decade before Berman settled in Nashville and formed the first touring incarnation of Silver Jews, he and fellow University of Virginia graduates Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus moved to Hoboken, N.J., taking jobs in New York as security guards and bus drivers. Nastanovich and Malkmus would also achieve acclaim as members of fellow seminal indie outfit Pavement, but under the direction of Berman, they made crudely recorded, barely rehearsed Silver Jews songs.
"It was just incredibly unsophisticated, and it wasn't really even a band," says Nastanovich. "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, I guess we should have a band name.' That sort of thing."
While, as Nastanovich explains it, Berman took the songs somewhat seriously, Silver Jews was mostly a way for three college pals and music fans — seen as "outsiders" in the "snotty" New York rock scene — to entertain themselves and feel cool. Having procured the home phone number of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of renowned NYC noise-rock outfit Sonic Youth, the Jews would often play their songs into Moore and Gordon's answering machine. When one of the Youthers would actually answer, Berman & Co. would simply hang up, resolving to instead commit the song to tape using their own equipment — to use the term "equipment" as loosely as possible.
At the time, Silver Jews' recording rig consisted of, as Nastanovich puts it, "an old 1980s, sort of '70s-style tape recorder with one condenser mic, and it was on top of the television set." With Nastanovich providing percussion and "strategically placed far enough away where [he] wasn't going to invade too much," Malkmus and Berman would battle for a position near the mic, strumming at their semi-tuned guitars and sharing vocal duties.
And indeed, Early Times features fuzzy, imprecisely played chord progressions, frequently indecipherable vocals, random stops and starts and out-of-time percussive thumps. At the same time, gleaming moments of singularity cut through the wash of tape hiss and room noise. Made by guys whose visages are now worthy of indie-rock Mt. Rushmore status while they were still in their mid-20s, Early Times displays early manifestations of Malkmus' inimitably skronking but melodic guitar parts and Berman's literate lyric style. "The War in Apartment 1812" is a primordial demonstration of Berman's penchant for allusion-riddled narratives, while the instrumental "Bar Scene From Star Wars" reveals Malkmus' talent for finding absorbing melodies within haphazardly strummed chord progressions.
"To me it's sort of odd that something that is so poorly recorded would arouse any interest from anybody," says Nastanovich, "but I guess that's how weird [Silver Jews' label] Drag City is."
True, while none of the songs on Early Times may have the potential to change your life in the same way that, say, Silver Jews' "Smith and Jones Forever" or Pavement's "Gold Soundz" very well could, it's plain to see why obsessive indie-rock audiophiles would be drawn to such a collection. These half-songs and crudely pieced-together instrumentals are glimpses into the minds of men who would become figureheads of a genre. You'd be curious to see Picasso's first doodle, wouldn't you?
In the years between recording the songs on Early Times and playing that last show in Cumberland Caverns, Silver Jews evolved drastically. Malkmus and Nastanovich would frequently pop up on recordings, but Berman — a notoriously reticent performer — put together a latter-day live lineup that featured Nashvillian players and was significantly more polished and alt-country-inflected.
Nastanovich, now working at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, Iowa, says Berman is still regularly approached about writing songs and collaborating with people in both the country music and rock industries, and is "currently ensconced in other, non-musical projects." Nastanovich explains that he doesn't think the an eventual return of Silver Jews is entirely out of the question. "I'm sure that just about [every former Silver Jews member], including Malkmus, would put down what they were doing and find out a time to maybe do something," he says.
Berman — who has pulled something of a J.D. Salinger on the music industry since burying the Jews —politely declined the Scene's interview request.