|Interview DAN BERN
June 2003 (by E-mail) www.danbern.com
This time I don't need to tell a history of years, in which I followed the artist. I saw Dan Bern for the first time in May this year but of course I had already heard his music on the radio in those wonderful late-night shows. I think Mart Smeets (Dutch sportscaster who also hosts a radio show) was first to play "Tiger Woods" frequently. Yes, funny, but I really started to pay attention when DJ Jan Donkers came back from SxSW 2002 with a live-recording of Dan Bern, including an early version of the "Talkin' Al Kida Blues"! As you probably know by now, I'm a lyrics person, I'm interested in politics and that was definitely the smartest thing I had ever heard. When I listened to "Lithuania", I was deeply touched. Dan describes in beautiful words that strange -and all too familiar- feeling of not knowing your own grandparents and uncles, people who are supposed to be close to you! So it was time to get a hold of CD's and more info about this interesting singer-songwriter or author or artist, what shall we call him? When I finally attended his concert, the first thing I told him afterwards was: "I admire your courage, to say what you're saying!" I consider myself one lucky girl that I could do this interview with him.
Johanna: Dan, are you a messenger?
Dan: Well, that's one of those questions that's probably best answered by others... There's probably something kind of mysterious about the means by which songs come into one's head. I don't think it's a completely conscious or controlled thing. Sometimes I think I have all the answers for the world, but when the world doesn't seem to listen it gets frustrating sometimes.
J: How did you come up with the name of your band The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy?
D: Well, it's one of those phrases that you hear. There is supposed to be this secret group of Jewish bankers that is trying to take over the world. The Nazis, among others, used this as justification for the things they did. So, using it as the name of my band is one of those things-- an attempt to turn things on their head. Instead of saying, "That's not true, there's no such thing", I say, "Yes, here we are".
J: You know a lot about history and politics, did you study these subjects?
D: Well, I don't really pretend to know so much. If I got into a discussion with a real historian or politician, the holes in my knowledge would be quickly apparent. I just use what I do know. I don't think you need to know every fact, or date, or theory, to have a sense of what's going on.
J: How did your parents, a concert pianist and a singer/poet, end up in a small town like Mt. Vernon, Iowa, isn't that more of a farmer's country? Do you have good memories of growing up there? Why did you go to L.A., because of the good art-scene there?
D: My parents ended up there because my Dad got a job as a piano professor at a college there. He had already led several lives up til then-- he studied in Paris, he was a professor in Riga, Latvia, he was well known throughout Israel as a performer. When he and my Mom came to the U.S., they had to find something. And I think they were grateful. Although they must have felt isolated at times. For me it was a great place to grow up-- lots of freedom-- but I think I knew I would leave. I lived in Chicago for awhile, and then when it seemed time to move on I chose Los Angeles over New York. I knew New York and loved it, and I didn't know L.A. at all. So I headed West.
J: When you're in Europe, are you going to see places like for example the Anne Frank house or the area where your family has lived, or do you rather avoid that? Had you been in Germany before or was your first stay there on a tour?
D: I go to museums when I can. On this trip I went to the Picasso Museum in Paris and the Van Gogh in Amsterdam. In the past I have been in Germany quite a lot, and I also went to Lithuania a couple of years ago, where my father's family is from and where they were all killed except for he and one brother. I saw where my mother's synagogue was burned during Kristallnacht in Bielefeld. These are difficult but important things. It is sometimes strange to come to Europe with my American band and play our music, when all this recent history lives with me. But I guess it's good to try to bring the past and present together.
J: Why was "The Swastika E.P." released? Were these tracks not fitting on your other albums, were a few too controversial maybe? Is the "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" based on a true story, is there a real Al Kida?
D: Songs like these-- "Al Kida", "Jail", "Swastika", are songs that sometimes get left behind. They are more topical in nature-- I don't think I'll be singing "Al Kida" 5 years from now-- and in making albums you tend to pass over them. Releasing these songs in this way felt good, that for once such songs wouldn't just get swept under the rug. I think there are a few Al Kidas-- pretty funny, huh?-- but I didn't know it at the time. I just figured there must be an Al Kida someplace, and God help him!
J: You're quite outspoken, did you ever have trouble with somebody, in the audience for example?
D: It happens, and it's never an easy thing. Even though I have a bunch of rather provocative songs, I think of myself as, among other things, an entertainer. You don't intentionally want to make people mad or upset or hurt. At least, I don't. There's enough of that in the world already. But I also understand that not everyone will like everything, and IF everyone did, it would probably mean I wasn't digging deep enough. So I accept that.
J: How do you feel about the situation with the Mexicans and the brutal Border Patrol? I've seen things that closely resembled images from World War 2. Woody Guthrie wrote already about the Mexicans, isn't this a good subject for you too?
D: Well, it may be. I just moved to Southern New Mexico in the last year, which is right where the Border patrols are strongly located. It's pretty ridiculous, and it fosters a climate of fear among everyone.
J: You speak up and try to change things, what would be the point where you say: "Now I'm out of here!" (and leave the U.S.A.)?
D: Good question, I don't know. I think maybe it's my job to be in America and see things and say things. But I also feel a desire to speak to the rest of the world, too. Right now more than anything I have been on the road a lot and I need a break. I need to see if I still write songs, and if so what kind of songs. And then I will perhaps know who I need to sing those songs to.
J: "Follow your soul", how far do you think people should take that? Being yourself, not following fads, fine, what if responsibilities get in the way of following your soul?
D: That, by its very nature, is a very personal thing. I mean, what can be more utterly personal than your own relationship to your soul? But I think it's a good thing to remind people (and yourself!) about your soul. About the fact that you have one. I think the soul is a resilient organ, but it can be crushed. I think it can recover but it takes time, sometimes. And when the soul is not being nurtured, it will always cry out, in the end.
J: The first time you were in Europe, seeing all these different things, what did you notice right away? Besides the coffeeshops, what else (from The Netherlands) would you like to have in the U.S.A.? And what should we copy from The States?
D: What I notice in Europe? Red clay tennis courts. Good beer. Good cheese. Good bread. Beautiful girls. People walking. Trains. Canals. Elena Bovina. Many languages. Old things. Paintings everywhere. Restaurants with tables outside that don't throw you out when you've had your last bite. Cobblestones streets.
What should you copy from the U.S.? Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger, Woody Guthrie, Lightning Hopkins, Billie Holiday, Allen Ginsberg, The White Stripes, Lenny Bruce. But you probably knew all that already.
J: Many American singer-songwriters came here during the past years, because they can make a living off music here, in The States they need a day-job. Are you living off your art? Isn't it something for you to reside here semi-permanently?
D: Well, after a lot of years and a lot of touring and a lot of work, I can now live just from playing music in The States. Especially if I play by myself, I can live like Lightning Hopkins-- sit around, write, paint, and when the money runs low I can go and play some shows and come home with a few more months' worth of rent in my pocket. Maybe if I spent more time in Europe playing, maybe it would be the same here. But at the moment, it's still just a little bit that I've played here. I don't have much of an audience here yet. It's like starting over completely-- like 6 years ago in The States. So I don't know. I used to love touring so much-- it was all I wanted to do. I went years without a home, just kept going. Now I might want to write books more than travel around and sing. So I don't know if I'll develop a big following in Europe or not.
J: How do you divide your time between music, painting and writing?
D: In the last year it's been almost nonstop touring. In that time I've been writing a book, loosely based on the tour and the life. I draw a lot also. I dream about sitting down and really painting, but you pretty much have to be in one place to really do it. When I'm at home I do all of it-- I paint and I write songs and I write stories. Probably there's a pretty equal balance between those things. When I have time for all three, they kind of play off each other. If I only have time to sing, the painter starts to get mad.
J: Do you keep diaries? Do you think it's important to write things down, to clear your head?
D: I never used to, it all came out in the songs. As time goes on I find I need more time to write songs, so I do less of it on the road. The stuff I am writing, it's a mix of things that actually happen and things I make up.
J: Do you ever have the feeling "Wow, did I write that?", like it was flowing right through you, from some unknown source?
D: When it's really flowing, it's the best feeling. I don't know where it comes from, but I like riding it.
J: I love this quote about you: "People say, "Why do you write songs?" and he says, "Why did you stop?" You know, little kids make up songs, it's a natural thing... and then one day they stop, some of them."
What would you say to people who kept writing, aren't really bad at it, but it's not going anywhere yet?
D: Basically I would encourage them. I know some people who make it a point to discourage people, they think, well, it's a hard life, and if they don't desperately want to do it, they shouldn't do it. I don't really feel that way. I think this world needs more artists, painters, musicians, writers. Of course not all of it will be "good" by the standards we use to judge it. But who cares? If some guy is going to watch 2 hours of the news or paint a picture of his daughter or his wife or himself, what's the better use of his time? I think it was Thoreau who said "an unexamined life is not worth living". There's a lot of unexamined lives being lived out there.
J: In your fascinating song "God Said No", I understand the first part but I'm a bit puzzled why you want want to go and save Jesus?
D: Well, it's maybe connected to another song, "One Thing Real": "Jesus he comes up to me/ Jesus he sits down/ he says 'take this fucking cross of my back/ I'm going downtown'/ I said 'oh, ain't that your uniform?'/ he offers me a toke/ he says '2,000 years is long enough/ for this particular joke"...
I want him to go back and save him, and ultimately us, from this crazy story and this crazy cycle. If I could take him down from the cross, send him back to work, make sure the sheep get fed, build some nice cabinets, die an uneventful death at age 67 or so, I think we'd be better off.
J: Please, make a statement. Anything important you wish to say.
D: Keep it real. Keep it present. Politics needs to be about love.
Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.
Concert DAN BERN
Q-Bus, Leiden (The Netherlands) May 20th, 2003
The Q-Bus does good programming, so I find myself again in a Leiden street, where the umptiest rainshower flushes me towards the club. Tonight Dan Bern is playing here. I started REALLY noticing him when DJ Jan Donkers came back with a recording from SxSW 2002: the timely "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" and I still think that's the smartest political lyric ever!
Half past nine, the music lovers have arrived from the whole Western part of The Netherlands, there is motion on the stage. "Good evening, this is The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy", that's how Dan immediately introduces the band and without losing a second they start with "Baby Bye-bye". Sidekick Wilbur Masisak plays the keyboards, he as well as the bassplayer and drummer enthusiastically join in with the choruses. Dan, with acoustic guitar and on some songs a harmonica, grabs the attention right away. He has a very expressive face, wears beige combatpants, big black boots and a sweatshirt, which he sheds and throws on the stage halfway the show, he plays on in a sleeveless white t-shirt. "We didn't get stoned before the show this time..." Drummer Jake adds: "And that was hard, we had good pot!"
In the meantime the band rocks in "Black Tornado" and the towards Elvis Costello leaning song "Sweetness", sometimes a little too enthusiastically to understand everything of the lyrics but it sounds totally nice! In "God Said No", Dan wants to be a time traveller and take Kurt Cobain's rifle but God sees through him, he would just ask Cobain for help getting a record deal... The singing is intense, beautiful fade-out on the drums. With "Jail" he comes back to the subject "why Americans smoke so much pot": "It's cool here, it's not cool over there!" Funny line about his release: "The grass never smelled greener." One impressive song follows the other: "My Little Swastika", the wrongly used, stigmatizing symbol that needs to be taken away. Dan declares straight from his heart: "It's mine. I'll take it." After that "New American Language" and a song about the Saviour, for whom jews, christians and muslims are waiting: "I am the Messiah, I wait until next year, build up the suspense a bit." This is all so amazingly good!
Quarter to eleven. The sound of beerglasses bumping on the bar and Dan comes back for an encore. No microphones, no plugs, Dan and Brian play acoustic guitars on the edge of the stage, Wil pulls at the strings of his bass and Jake puts an African drum between the knees. Three songs, among which a long Dylanesque piece: "I'm waiting for Van Gogh to come and paint my street..." Another compliment for our coffeeshops, "where I can write and smoke at the same time, without worrying..." Somebody yells spontaneously: "You stay here now!"
Dan starts once again playing, in the middle of the club, yes: "Tiger Woods"! His musicians join him, the audience swings and Dan goes around like the legendary rat catcher: "Are you gonna follow your soul..." The guitars are being held up in the air, the show has ended.
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, Dutch original of this review previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands