For over 10 years Dan Bern has been a staple of my listening diet. His music has helped me through more of my life than almost anything else I've heard in my time on this planet. When it became clear that my time as a weekly columnist at the Martlet may be coming to an end (It isn't ending. My column will continue in the fall.) I had to think of someone great to cap off the year with and I'm still so grateful that Dan was so easy to access and willing to talk to me. The conversation starts a bit slow, but really picks up steam part-way in and we covered some fascinating stuff. There was a lot of fan-boy praise involved and I think it made Bern a tad uncomfortable at times, but it was necessary for me to able to continue with the interview. I've wanted to thank him for years and getting the chance to do it properly is something I will cherish as long as I can remember it.
Rags Music: How’s LA today?
Dan Bern: Probably hotter than where you are.
RM: But I bet it’s just as sunny up here.
DB: Aw, I love your town. You’re in Vancouver, right?
RM: Victoria, just across the water.
DB: Ah, Victoria. Just as nice.
RM: A non-Dan Bern question…You’re a Yankees fan, right?
DB: When I’m in New York. <laughs> I kinda go pretty far back with the Giants. I read a book about Willie Mays as a kid.
RM: In the Fleeting Days liner notes there’s a thank you to the Philadelphia Eagles. Are you an Eagles fan?
DB: <laughs> No, my drummer at the time was, completely. So that’s a nod to him.
RM: I’m kind of disappointed. I was all excited thinking you’re an Eagles fan.
DB: Oh are you? I could put you guys in touch if you really need to talk to an Eagles fan.
RM: I may need to do that. Too many Cowboys fans around here. It’s strange. How do you feel about instant replay in baseball?
DB: I don’t care for it too much. They have umpires. They’re fallible, so let them do their work.
RM: You played Cooperstown (Baseball H.O.F.) on 4th of July last year, right? How was that?
DB: We had a new baseball songs record (Doubleheader). So it was a blast to do all the songs there. It was great. It was kind of perfect.
RM: I’m glad it worked out. You seemed pretty excited about it when you told us about it the last time you were in Victoria.
DB: Was that before or after?
RM: That was in April, so just before.
DB: Oh, was that in the basement of that yoga studio or at the club?
RM: That was at Hermann’s Jazz club with the Fugitives. Speaking of that show, those guys seems to have quite a reverence for you. What’s it like to be sort of an elder statesman?
DB: Well, I don’t know. I like those guys a lot though. I would love to do some more stuff with them. There’s not too many perks to having this done for awhile. I don’t think.
RM: Fair enough. Well, what keeps you doing it? Do you have to do it? Does something make you feel personally obligated to keep going?
DB: I don’t feel obligated. There’re just so many things I want to do. A lot of them involve making records and a lot of them involve having music as part of it. I’m trying to expand and do other things to, even though those things probably involve music, mostly.
RM: So all that art is interconnected?
DB: I think so. I think that at any point in your life you’re trying to synthesize a lot of things and maybe at different points more so than others. Right now that’s kind of where I’m at. I have several projects I’m trying to make happen.
RM: Speaking of new projects, I got an email the other day explaining that you’re doing another fan-funded record, so I assume the last time was a positive experience?
DB: Well, we got it made.
RM: What does it feel like to know people are willing to support a record they haven’t ever heard?
DB: I guess if I step back from it, it feels good. It’s such a scramble nowadays to get anything made and to do that. I always seem to be in the mode of “How do I get this to happen?” rather than “Isn’t this wonderful?” I’m rarely able to just sit back it seems and just kind of reflect and take a lot of joy in it all. I hope that at some point I can but it continues to be such a, I don’t know, struggle I guess is the word.
RM: How did you get hooked up with Common Rotation?
DB: Mostly a matter of proximity. I moved to LA a few years ago and we had a mutual friend so I met them pretty soon and then we just start working together. One of them had directed this little independent movie called “Drones” that I watched and wrote some music for. In the process of recording a couple of those songs we continued on and we developed a rapport and started doing some touring just to kind of continue doing something.
RM: You got me into them after I saw them open for you at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver. It was great.
DB: It continues to get better. One of them has been playing the drums quite a bit. It really expands the thing yet again. Just a lot of talent in that bunch.
RM: When did you first start playing guitar?
DB: I was probably 14 or 15. I had recently quit playing the cello which I started playing when I was 6. I never played it terribly well, never really loved and never really sort of made it my own. Then I started hearing old blues guys and decided that I needed to learn the guitar.
RM: Did you teach yourself or have a teacher?
DB: I mostly taught myself. Anybody who knew any chords I sort of glommed onto. I never really had formal guitar training which is not surprising to people who have heard me play, I think.
RM: See, I have very limited guitar experience so some of your stuff sounds incredible to me. I was listening to Dog Boy Van today and I’m still blown away by the riffs on “Hannibal.”
DB: It’s more about a drop-D tuning than being any kind of virtuoso on my part. But, thank you.
RM: Really, thank you for all your music and for the last 10 years, changing the way I view art and music. I really do appreciate it more than I can express in words.
DB: Well…thanks. So you’re not going to be writing for this publication anymore?
RM: I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I had some connections during the last couple of editor changeovers, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen with this next change. I don’t know if they’ll want to keep me on or not…really just no clue. I’ve been doing it a couple of years now so it’s kind of bittersweet, but hopefully it pushes me into new things.
DB: Do you like doing it?
RM: I love it a lot. All I really want to do is listen to music and talk about it, so writing about it is the next best thing. And really, they let me write about whatever I want and that’s the best thing for me. They don’t tell me what to write so I get to write about just the music that I love.
DB: That’s great. That’s a good position to be in.
RM: I remember telling the crowd a very impactful story about having troubles at the Canadian border. Have we been treating you a little better the last couple of times you’ve come over?
DB: I think it’s been pretty good. I guess the thing is you just never know. It’s been as easy as stamp the passport and “Have a good trip.” And it’s been a lot more trouble than that. I never understood why it had to be a big deal but it seems to be on both sides. I mean, really, I suppose it’s even harder for Canadians coming here.
RM: I get it going into your country and coming back into my own country. So, yeah. Your story, directly, in a long way that I won’t get into, directly affected my ability to even enter the United States. You told a story the Canadian border had brought up an arrest for marijuana that had been dropped. Even though it had been dropped, it was still there. When I crossed the border in 2011 and said I had also been stopped for grass in the past, thinking they would have that information – they didn’t. So I opened up this whole can of worms, even though I’d never been charged with a crime. They’ve given me a form to get filled out by doctors to prove I’m not a dangerous drug addict, etc, before I can cross back. So at the moment I cannot cross in the United States because your story was in the back of my mind when I crossed.
DB: Wow. What can I say? I should have kept it to myself I guess.
RM: Obviously it was a good story because I remembered it.
DB: Well, it didn’t help you much.
RM: On the subject of travelling…I love “Raining in Madrid” (from Drifter) So good, just a beautiful song. Did you write that in Madrid?
DB: Yes, I did.
RM: I’m going to Spain in the fall and I’m going to spend some time in Madrid. What’s one thing you think you I should see in Madrid?
DB: I don’t know how you feel about such things, but have you been to a bullfight?
RM: I haven’t. I have conflicting feelings about it.
DB: I would imagine so. But if you can sort of stomach it I’d say go. It’s a cultural experience like no other. It will bring up feelings. It’s a beautiful bullring. Among other things I saw a Davis Cup tennis match with Nadal, in the bullring which was incredible.
RM: That really must have been incredible, jeez. Do you still get to play much tennis?
DB: Whenever I can. It’s sort of a lifetime sport for me.
RM: It’s good to have something like that sort of ties the life narrative together. What’s a fact about yourself that myself, your fans, might not know, might be surprised to hear.
DB: Hmm…Let’s come back to that one.
RM: Okay. What’s the last book you read?
DB: I’m just about finished with “A Visit From the Goon Squad”. It’s a new book by Jennifer Egan. It won the Pulitzer prize in 2011 I think.
RM: I feel like I should know it if it won a Pulitzer.
DB: It’s a pretty good book.
RM: Back to music…You’ve been touring and performing live for a long time. Do you still enjoy it? Do you find the things you like about it have changed over the years?
DB: I think in general, in some ways I enjoy it more than ever. I have a little kid now at home and that’s a lot of work and it takes me out of myself a lot. To go out on the road and play music now is just…it seems easy, in a way. “All I have to do today is drive a few miles and play a few songs?” That’s easy. I always felt like if I wasn’t playing music I’d have to pay a therapist a whole lot of money. It definitely gives me a lot.
RM: Has having a child changed the way you approach song-writing?
DB: I make up a lot more songs, daily. In some ways, yeah, when I’m making songs up with her and for her they tend to be quite spontaneous and short. I think in doing that I feel like I’m better than ever at it. Compared to everything else, it seems easy.
RM: I’m sure it is. I can’t imagine how hard it is to raise a child. I assume having a kid has massively shifted your world-view, changed the way you look at the world. How has that happened?
DB: I suppose in some ways it’s narrowed my focus, at least on the daily basis. Trying to get her dressed. What is she going to eat? Let’s get out to the playground. It’s incredibly rewarding. She’s definitely my favourite person in the world.
RM: Speaking of songwriting, you write a ton of songs. Do you ever experience writer’s block?
DB: I don’t think so, the way people talk about it. I don’t think so. There’ve been times when I’ve intentionally decided I’m not going to write a song, on this trip or something. That’s a different thing, I think. I’ve sort of been able to keep my channels open. I don’t know. Other people might disagree but to me it feels like a semi-conscious thing.
RM: Do you ever get tired of playing songs like “Tiger Woods” and “Jerusalem” that I’m sure you’ve played a million times and could play in your sleep?
DB: Sometimes. I’ll put songs away sometimes for weeks, months, years. If I know that somebody wants to hear a song, a lot of times…music and performing is such a communal thing and shared thing, if you know somebody wants to hear a song it feels like a fairly joyous thing to sing it. There were definitely times I felt different about it, maybe more a little bit more antagonistic sometimes with the audience. Maybe having a kid, maybe not touring as constantly as I used to changes that.
RM: Was “Beautiful Ride” written specifically for Dewey Cox? That is a song that is universally appealing away from the movie. I wouldn’t have even known it was from a film…
DB: Thanks, it’s good to hear that. With a lot of that stuff, that’s what we’re going for. It was definitely written for the movie. It’s one of the ones that think has sort of been able to stand on its own. I’ve been playing it a little bit lately and people seem to respond to it whether they know the movie or not.
RM: I saw the movie after I heard a live recording of your singing it, so when I saw John C. Reily singing it I thought, “Hey! That’s Dan Bern’s song!” You seem to write quite a bit for movies, do you enjoy it?
DB: It’s the greatest. It’s such a playground to have a character that you’re writing for to sing a song or two. You’re writing for a character who’s writing that song. It’s just really fun and rewarding and challenging and collaborative. I like everything about it. I wish I could do it every day.
RM: It’s probably nice to write outside your own head-space.
DB: Awww, you said it. When you’re 17 and you’re starting to write songs and every experience you have becomes a song and you start passing. “I don’t need to write a song about going to 7-11, I’ve written that song.” When you get to write for a character suddenly it’s all brand new again and it all tumbles out. I wish I could do it every day.
RM: What was the first song you wrote that you thought, “Wow. This is a great song.”?
DB: I think part of what’s kept me doing this so long and what’s kept me doing it even though there’s seemingly very little outside encouragement was a kind of blinders where I think I thought they were great from the very start, even when looking back objectively they probably weren’t.
RM: It’s just great to get one finished.
DB: It’s a great feeling. You sort of float for a while when you finish a song.
RM: I’ve been trying a little bit but I have a problem with words. Funny because I’m a writer. But words in a musical framework seem to elude me. Maybe I’m just trying too hard to write the perfect song, but it’s fun to play around with.
DB: I really trust the randomness more and more. I feel like human beings are meaning-machines. We create meaning whether we want to or not. Sometimes you’ll just grind it out and you get the end, look back and say “Oh wow. That’s pretty cool. I didn’t even realize that was happening.”
RM: I was just talking with another fan of yours, 10 minutes before I got on the phone here, and we were trying to describe the feeling we get listening to your music. There seems to be something that touches something innately human in the listener. You’ll have something sad and funny in the same line. Is that something you do consciously? Does it just happen? Is there just something inherently silly and absurd about sadness, and vice versa?
DB: I think, yeah, all of that. If you don’t get in the way all that stuff comes out. I’ve thought from the very beginning “Song” is such a big playing field and most of the time people make it much smaller and have ideas of what songs can be about and what is not appropriate and appropriate for a song. It has to rhyme, has to have certain kinds of words, has to be about a certain subject. All that can be fine and can work but it can also be very limited. If you start to take the limits off it just opens up. All our great song heroes were playing on a big playing field.
RM: That human feeling seems to come from an inquisitive, inward-looking but outward-looking approach, like you’re trying to find your place in the universe through your (personal) songs. Do you feel like after writing and playing so many songs you’re any closer to figuring that out? Is it even possible to figure out one’s place in the universe?
DB: I don’t know. It’s a big universe and our lifetimes are relatively short. Given that I don’t know if it’s possible. Do I feel any closer than when I started? Sometimes, maybe sometimes. I feel like in many ways I’m just getting started. I feel like everything I’ve done so far is just groundwork. Whether that’s true or not, that’s how I feel.
RM: That’s probably a good way to feel. Something to look forward towards. It feels like some people around me have lost the ability to look forward and that’s something I get from your music that I enjoy coming back to time and time again.
DB: I get a lot of amnesia too where I forget stuff in the past and I feel like I have to make it up again.
RM: That’s a great thing. You strike out and you’ll forget it next at-bat. So, we’re at an optional part of the interview here. I made a list of some of my favourite Dan Bern songs and I’d like to do a word association thing where I say the song title and you just say the first thing that pops into your head. Is that cool?
DB: I’ll try.
Fascist- Tennis lessons
Party By Myself – Homeless Mission
RM: Have you seen the guy you wrote that with since?
DB: No. It’s been a long time. I tried to make some inquiries and talked to guy at the mission who set up the program when we did the song. I still hold out hope to see him again.
Feel like a Man – Institute of Noise. Most of my word associations are just when and where I wrote ‘em.
Fly Away – New Mexico
RM: That’s one of my favourite sets of lyrics ever. I love the way it looks on a page. I love the way it sounds. Everything about the lyrics in that song is incredible to me.
DB: Wow, this is good. You make me wanna go relearn it. I haven’t played it in years.
RM: I’ve seen you 10 or 11 times and I’ve never seen you play it. I would be most excited to see you play it live one day.
DB: Well, you may have made it happen here.
Suicide Bomb – Suicide Bomb or Room, Suicide Room? Train in Italy.
RM: That’s a beautiful ride. I didn’t particularly enjoy Italy but I loved those train rides through there. Those Italian Alps.
DB: I never want those train rides to end. I just want to stay on, read the Herald Tribune and eat bread and cheese. I could Groundhog Day on a train, just every day.
Thanksgiving Day Parade – Great night in New York.
One Dance – Elevator in Toronto
Jail – Jail <laugh>
RM: That was playing through my head as I was waiting to be turned away and sent back to Canada.
After the Parade – Just anger.
RM: That sounds about right. That’s the feeling I get, what emanates out of the speakers. How are things down there politically these days? It’s hard to get a real sense with all the media distortion.
DB: It’s hard to get a sense of it here too. Unless you read the New York Times or listen to certain media outlets. If you just read a regular old newspaper it’s just a bunch of mush. It’s hard to see through. I get a sense of what’s happening in this country when I leave. I get a much clearer picture. When I’m here it’s almost impossible, I think, for me. It’s also something to do, very personally, with my current life which is more about playing in the sandbox. There’s this whole budget and sequester thing but you hear very little about it unless you’re going after it or maybe if you live in DC or something.
RM: I find I out as much about some of the shady dealings up here when I read English newspapers and opposed to Canadian newspapers. It’s kind of scary because our country is basically following what you guys had done during the Bush years. It’s really scary.
DB: You got such a great country there too.
RM: And we’ve given it over to these very conservative, against-science sort of people. It’s a strong conservative tide with a crazy person at the front. It’s very strange.
RM: The last one on my list is Hannibal – I think it’s mostly about that riff. It all kind of came out of that riff.
RM: Actually, I’m going to add Lightning Jazz – Driving in Missouri.
RM: A surprising fact about Dan Bern is…
DB: How different I am when I’m off stage vs. on. Maybe that’s not surprising at all. Maybe that’s completely expected.
RM: I don’t know. I wonder how people…I’m never surprised anymore. Some people are very close to their stage presence and some are miles away from it. But I guess that’s just the way it goes.
DB: I’ve talked to people that have been surprised when they hang out with me that I’m not just like I am when I’m onstage playing. I guess I thought that was surprising, but maybe not.
RM: What’s a common misconception about Dan Bern?
DB: I think they change. I think, back when, I think everyone thought I was angry all time and I don’t think I was. Now I think people would be surprised how well I would be received in the South.
RM: I’ve spent a little bit of time in the South and I have dark skin and I didn’t know what expect in the South, but I had nothing but great times in the South. I love the people I met.
DB: They love music and they love the kind of music that I love. They just relax in a different way.
RM: They have their own speed. It’s very nice.
DB: Yeah, I agree.
RM: What do you listen to when you get to listen to music these days? If you get to…
DB: A lot of old country. I listen to more George Jones than anything else.
RM: I’m 28. My friends and I grew up in this age where country because Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson and such. So much of the early country before that has been tossed aside because of that. I keep telling people “No, dig this stuff up. Country is great!”
DB: Actually I’m surprised sometimes when I hear modern country and there’s thing I like. I recently learned “Amarillo by Morning.” It’s just a great song.
RM: I really appreciate you talking with me and how flexible you were with the time. It’s made my life very easy. It’s been awesome.
DB: Well, we aim to please. I really appreciate your interest and your time and your thought. Anytime if you continue working for your current publication or you write somewhere else, you have my number.
RM: Do you have any words of advice? Any wisdom you’ve picked up over the years, doing all kinds of things?
DB: Well, you’re in Canada so…appreciate your chocolate. It’s better than ours.
RM: It is good chocolate, isn’t it?
DB: Your Kit-Kats kick our Kit-Kats around the block.
RM: And Japan kicks our Kit-Kat around. Apparently Kit-Kat is some kind of chocolate delicacy over there. They have all kinds of crazy flavours and such.
DB: See, I’m so provincial. I didn’t even know.
RM: Thanks again and come up to West Coast again sometimes. Even if it’s Vancouver I will take the boat across to find you, as I always do.
DB: Alright, well, let’s hang out.
RM: Let’s do it. You can play “Fly Away” for me.
DB: That’s right.
Support good music. Check out Dan Bern's site here.
Check out the article that came from this interview, "The Art of Song" here.