An interview with Dan Bern in advance of his performance at Headliners Music Hall (Oct. 10, 2006)
LEO: When you’re working on a new album, where do songs come from? How do they come about? Do you have some vision for them or do you just accept them when they arrive and then decide what to do with them?DB: Mostly the latter. They are always driven by something, some notion, some idea. A lot of times they are driven by where I happen to be both geographically and just in my own head. A lot of these songs were written in the desert out in New Mexico. Some of them were written on the West Coast. A lot of open space, I think, in these songs, in my sort of consciousness at the time.LEO: What were you doing in New Mexico?DB: Well, I live there. That is, when I’m not on the road, or you know, running around someplace. That’s where I come of late to kind of regroup and get healthy and get my mind back together. I chose that place and it sort of gives me something that not really anyplace else does.LEO: What part of the state?DB: It’s way down south. It’s a couple three hours from any of the places that anybody knows. You know, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Dallas, it’s way down on the bottom from there. It’s two hours and you walk in Juarez, Mexico.LEO: Seen any Minutemen?DB: Minutemen?LEO: You know, the vigilante border patrol guys?DB: Oh, man, we see them all the time. It is just part of life there, you know? It’s like I suppose any border town between countries. There’s a different — that’s just part of it.LEO: Describe the geography.DB: Well, it’s almost like there is nothing in between. You’re close to the sky, to the clouds, you’re close to the earth, you know? There’s not a lot of all those things we come to think of as Corporate America. Even in other countries there’s a lot of that, and down there there’s really not so much of that. It can be 1950 in a lot of places, a lot of streets. There’s this timelessness which I think probably found its way into these songs and then a bunch of other songs I was working on last year as well.LEO: So how are you feeling about yourself right now? Do you feel like you are in a good place emotionally and spiritually?DB: I do, I do. It was tough when we first got out here (on the road). It’s just ’cause I hadn’t been touring much since a year and a half ago, probably — maybe a week here and there, but this was really back on the road, back into that existence, that rhythm. It only takes me a little while. I think I was just fighting it for a week or two. And when you are fighting it, it’s hard, because it just keeps going. But I think I just started to relax into it and I’m really enjoying it now. I’m having a good time and we’re playing great, the songs sound great, and they’re fresh to me. I recorded these songs, and they all were pretty new when I made them. A lot of times in the past I’d have songs for a long time and then record them. But these, I’m kind of learning them now. It’s all pretty good.LEO: When you said when you were fighting the touring, is that just because it’s so grueling, the typical reaction to that kind of lifestyle, or is there something else to that?DB: Something else how?LEO: Was it because it is naturally difficult or was there some other reason you feel like you were fighting it this time?DB: It was probably a lot of reasons. There’s moments where you might want to be doing something else and there’s no time or space for something else. I mean, typically in a day, when I’m at home, I’ll do 12 things that I really like to do. And any one of those things I probably can’t do in a typical day here.LEO: That strikes me as the sacrifice that you guys make. You go out and do this stuff that looks real glamorous to guys like me, but once you leave Louisville and we’ve had all that fun, you go do it again. I find that interesting. It seems like you guys have to have a hell of a lot of commitment to do it.DB: And you don’t think about it until you go out and do it. When I sit at home and think about going on tour, I don’t think about any of that stuff. I think about playing the shows, you know? And then 24 out of the 26 hours of the day becomes about something else. It just does. So there’s two things; one, those two hours that you are on have to be great, just to balance out the 24 hours that you might not be doing exactly what you want to do. That’s one thing. Then the other 24 starts to … you know, you start to forget about those other things that you might be doing. You’re just doing what you are doing, and going down the road becomes OK again.LEO: So here’s a typical cliché question that I’m going to ask anyway. How do you see yourself — folk singer, entertainer, multimedia juggernaut? All the above? None of the above? Folk singer was originally understood as a pretty quaint notion that may now be dated. And, of course, a lot of people don’t even want to hear that term. But I would call you some manner of a folk singer, but just in a different time. How do you describe yourself?DB: I just think of myself — I’m just making music. I got songs to go with it. I mean, all those — I don’t wake up and think, I’m a folk singer, you know, it’s like I wake up and go, There’s some noise outside, and I go outside and there’s a leaf-blower, then I got to tune out a leaf-blower. Then everyone else comes in and says, You’re a this and you’re a that, you know. All those are after the fact that people just put on. When you are all in the room together and the chords are being struck and the sounds are being made, some people are dancing and some people are crying, and some people are trying to listen for the next rhyme. All those things are just going on, and that’s what’s great, and that doesn’t have a name, that doesn’t have a label, I don’t think.LEO: I do think it’s interesting though, having listened to you for a long time now. Your sensibilities are — you’re certainly blessed with this awareness, this curiosity, and a sense of humor. And not everybody really gets it. Not that it matters, because there’s a lot of choices in the world, so if everyone doesn’t get it, there’s a lot of people who do. I wanted to ask you about this explosion of YouTube and MySpace and all that and how there’s all these celebrities, many celebrities, just because there’s 15 people watching their video on YouTube. Do you think that’s interesting?DB: I think it’s interesting, yeah. Warhol once said that everyone was going to be famous for 15 minutes, and that was a wild, revolutionary thing to say at the time. But now it’s like, we passed that point a long time ago. And now everybody is famous all the time, but because everyone is famous all the time, nobody is. And it’s all going on at once. There’s people whose entire lives you can watch.LEO: It’s strange, I have to say, but funny. Another theme I wanted to get into, and bear with me here — I’ve never seen you as a person who wants to be a superstar. But you are in the entertainment field, and so I’m thinking about the notion of staying who/what you are without being too weird. Because if you are too weird or angry you can get marginalized. How do you personally strike that balance between staying true to yourself and, such as it is, trying to fit in and be heard?DB: There’s a balance for sure, because on the one hand you want to be a person. You know, for me as an observer, my prime objective a lot of the time is to be invisible. You know, the way a detective would, almost, who’s trying to look at something and not affect it by the fact that it’s being observed, right?LEO: Right.DB: So that’s one hand. And on the other hand, it’s like I come to a town and I want there to be posters up, and you know, I want people to know that I’m coming in to town, so there’s that. I mean, if I bother to show up, you hope other people show up too, just ’cause it’s more fun. And then in those two opposing urges, there’s all the crazy stuff.LEO: Do you think your thinking has changed on that since, say, your first Sony album (in 1997)? At that time, you may have felt more defiant, like screw them if they don’t get it. Have you changed at all?DB: Oh, I think probably I’ve changed a lot. At that time I thought I might sell 27 million records. I mean, I had nothing on which to base the fact that I might not. I’d never not sold 27 million records when I put a record out. I’d never put one out! If I put one out, it might sell. Now I put out a bunch of them and I have many reasons to expect that I’m not going to sell 27 million records. So that changes and you have to deal with it, deal with the fact that it’s likely that you’re not going to, and what does that mean? And how do you feel about that?LEO: How do you feel about that?DB: Well, I think it’s still evolving, you know? I think I’m still sort of figuring that one out. There’s times when I think I want to do something else, ’cause maybe it’s an archaic form, you know, pounding on the guitar and singing songs. Maybe it’s an archaic form. Maybe I’m playing tennis with a wood racket or something. But on the other hand, I still continue to feel that songs like this reach a primal urge that we all have. And it’s one of the most important things, even as important as dancing, and breathing. There’s cave paintings and there’s aboriginal song and it goes way deep. And if we lose that, I think … Even when I hear a great song like “No Woman No Cry” or something and I’m sitting at the beach in a little place and I’m alone with my thoughts and the waves are going and then this “No Woman No Cry” comes on really loud. And I’ve heard it 50,000 times before … We have that, we have a lot of that song in our life. But we don’t really have a lot of aboriginal equivalent. Maybe that is the equivalent, I don’t know. Maybe I am playing with a wood racket. I don’t really know. I struggle with that.LEO: I saw Springsteen’s tour with the Seeger Sessions Band, and he said Jackson Browne once told him that “one of the great things about good songs is that once they’re written, they stay written.” That really hit me in a good way, because people bash things because they’re not new or whatever. I think it’s a big waste of time. Tony Bennett comes to Louisville and he is deified because he’s a classic. The Stones come to town and people make fun of them because they’re too old. And I’m thinking, you guys are missing it somehow. But anyway …DB: Yeah, it’s all song, right?LEO: It is. When you said you struggled with it, do you have any kind of methods for talking it through? A confidante or a yoga class?DB: Oh, yeah, that and trying to spend an off day at the beach so the water can throw you around. Hitting tennis balls, riding a bike, playing with other people, muddling through, who knows.LEO: Tell me about the band.DB: Right now, playing with these guys … it’s like it is a band, it’s some kind of a band. We don’t have a bass and a drummer right now.LEO: Really?DB: But it’s the whole front end of a band. It’s all the vocals, the two lead instruments that weave in and out of each other. We had a bass and drummer for like three shows — the guys from The Slip just jammed in and they were great and it was explosive. For three nights it was like the best band I’ve ever had. We’re probably going to do that again sometime, but right now it’s just these music makers. It’s so much music.LEO: How many in the band now?DB: It’s just me and two guys.LEO: Who are the two guys?DB: Well, both are them are people I’ve played with before but I never played with them both at the same time. So, that’s really cool and they’re working off of each other right now, which is really cool. One guy plays a guitar and bass, a couple guitars and bass, and the other guy plays this thing that he invented, and he plays it real good too. It’s like half guitar, half bowed instrument. And also they’re both crazy — you know, like certifiable. Like I had to get them out of the institutions that they were in.LEO: So you brought them out to make you feel a little more normal?DB: Exactly.LEO: Just kidding. What are their names?DB: One’s Paul and one’s Garrin.LEO: Who’s opening for you?DB: It changes in the various sections of the country. When am I playing Louisville?LEO: It’s October 10.DB: I’m guessing it might be this kid Priestner. LEO: That’s the information I saw.DB: Colin Priestner, right. He's from Edmonton and he’s young. He started out when he was 16 and he just took everything that was currently going on and just made it his own. He’s like all of us when you’re young and you’re good, you know? And he’s starting to put it all together, and who knows — just like that, he’s pretty good. And he’s a great tennis player, too, like high level.LEO: Better than you?DB: Yeah, he’s better than I am. He’s been playing pretty big-time college tennis of late.LEO: That’s an interesting mix. I noticed that Wil Masisak is not on the new record. That surprised me. Everything cool with you guys?DB: Oh, yeah, we’ll always be friends, but you know, he was on a lot of stuff for quite a while, and I may be done playing with those guys. I don’t know, it was just time to give it a good break, you know? The only one of those guys that played on the record was Eben, who played all the guitar and sounds good. He played great.LEO: Do you feel sad about that or is it just evolutionary?DB: I think I felt sad about it at one time, like how it is when you’re a gang and it starts to crack and fissure and break up. There’s those times when you feel sad, but now I just don’t really think about it all that much.LEO: So here’s the obligatory baseball question. Where can I get some of that stuff Barry Bonds was on?DB: I think Mexico, pretty cheap.LEO: What do you think about all that?DB: Uh, I think a lot of things about that. What part of it? Did they do it? Like, are they doing it?LEO: Yeah.DB: Well, yeah.LEO: Does it bother you at all; are you a purist about it?DB: No.LEO: So you don’t think an asterisk is required?DB: I think an asterisk is required on the entire country.LEO: Is that what’s on your forehead on the self-portrait on the cover of your new album?DB: Yeah.LEO: I was curious about that. It could have been a bullet hole … DB: Yeah, it was just an asterisk. Right where the bindi should be.LEO: Is there anything else you wanted to say that I didn’t ask you about?DB: Where am I playing at in Louisville?LEO: You’re playing at Headliners, which is a larger venue than you’ve played here in the past.DB: Is it a good sound system?LEO: It is.DB: Cool.LEO: And they’re now doing no-smoking shows.DB: Ugh, too bad!LEO: Yeah, do you like smoking at your shows?DB: Yeah.LEO: We’re having a lot of discussion around here about a smoking ban.DB: Yeah, they’re everywhere now. I don’t like them.LEO: You don’t like smoking bans?DB: I don’t, no. You know, like it’s like, how far do you go to dignify everything? It’s like everything is for the kids, you know? I don’t know. I just think it’s so pristine. It’s Puritan, is what it is, it’s Puritan! My God. It’s like the history books will look back and show how on the one hand, all around the world we were these religious crusader butchers, outraged that someone else was a religious crusader butcher in another name, and maybe had some of the butchery down even better than us. And wasn’t that outrageous? And as long as we butcher technologically, it’s not anything to be aghast about. At the same time, it’s like you can’t see a nipple on TV or go to a bar and have a smoke because you might hurt somebody.LEO: It’s hard to keep your sanity with all of that contradiction. You know, what’s going on in this country now is just mind-boggling to me.DB: Yeah, you know, people are worried about fucking cigarettes.LEO: I’m waiting for what’s next from these guys. They still have two years.DB: I know. What do they have planned after this election …? That’s the thing, there’s no elections left after this one, and he’s a lame duck, da da da, and no elections left and, you know … NO ELECTIONS LEFT! And just two years, and no elections left to trip us up or worry about. They’ve got two fucking years to just lay claim and wreak havoc, man. It’s gonna be something.LEO: In our name.DB: Always in our name, man. Pay more tax and you’re paying for it.LEO: The liberals are going to have to be ready to break some noses or something.DB: I think it’s going to … I don’t even want to say what I think is going to start … LEO: Then they’ll come after you. They got Willie Nelson. You know, the guy who started this paper here, LEO, is running for Congress against Anne Northup. So that’s interesting. It’s hitting us pretty hard and our paper is getting attacked. DB: God bless him. I wouldn’t run for Congress anymore. I wouldn’t even run for president.