Geoff Berner, the “avenging angel of klezmer,” is an old friend of Radio Free Canuckistan, and one of my favourite interviews. Though I’m obviously a big fan of his songwriting—his pitch-black humour, his wit, his empathy, his punk attitude and ability to write timeless folk melodies—his albums have been spotty at best. Since the Vancouver performer started embracing klezmer music, Berner’s touring band—percussionist Wayne Adams and violinist Diona Davies—were certainly capable of tearing it up on stage, yet never seemed adequate to flesh out the studio recordings. And though there are amazing songs on every Berner release, his best work is spread out over his discography.
His new album, Victory Party, however, is aptly named and rock solid from start to finish. Berner enlisted Montreal genre-jumper Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, to helm the production, and it’s a perfect match. [Full review here.] Dolgin gets exactly where Berner is coming from and pushes him to be his best, while bringing in auxiliary players (and switching Adams to a drum kit) to colour in all the corners.
I wrote about both Berner and Dolgin for a piece in a recent Maclean’s. Because the editor was more interested in Berner’s klezmer conversion—which took place in 2004—than the details of his new album, the only quotes used in the article came from a previous conversation I had with Berner in 2006. In other words, this entire conversation is a “deleted scene.”
Phone call for tour stop in Bochum, Germany
March 28, 2011
In your ongoing mission to be the avenging angel of klezmer, this record made me think that much of modern klezmer that I’m aware of is not only apolitical but largely instrumental. Is that true?
A lot of it is instrumental. Michael Alpert and Brave Old World have a lot of singing. There are a lot of vocals in a lot of the revival bands like Beyond the Pale, or the Klezmatics, who have an amazing singer. Music that is Ashkenazi Jewish music rooted in Yiddish has all been lumped in as klezmer. You have songs from the massive vibrant Yiddish musical theatre world are lumped in with the wedding tunes that have been played for a couple of hundred years, and even with Israeli folk songs. And they get lumped in with the street political rallying songs of the Russian revolution [one Victory Party track, "Daloy Polizei," is adapted from the latter]. It all gets put under the rubric of klezmer. It’s really just Yiddish culture.
Your mission to write the new drinking songs for the canon—do you feel like you’ve found more peers recently?
Yes. Dan Kahn is doing some great stuff. What Josh Dolgin does is different from me, but I feel it’s on a similar wavelength. There are some other people coming up, and a lot of kids learning klezmer at klez camp and stuff like that who are into what we’re doing. It seems like it’s working. People are requesting songs that I wrote some time ago at the shows and they know the words and are asking for the chords. That was the hope: if I’m lucky, if you have a good run at it, by the end you get a couple of songs into the canon, into the repertoire. You don’t know if you’re going to get there or not.
Would you say that a lot of it is apolitical?
Dan Kahn is even more aggressively political than me in some ways. I don’t know if Josh Dolgin is expressly political, but he refers to political issues in his songs, and his identity as an out gay man is significantly political. The Klezmatics, who are the old guard now, they did an entire album of Woody Guthrie songs. Woody Guthrie’s mother-in-law was a prominent Yiddish poet, and he lived across the street from her in Coney Island in a Jewish neighbourhood. He wrote tons of Jewish political stuff that didn’t really see the light of day because of his illness. They did a whole record of that. There’s always something political about Jewish culture, even if it’s conservative.
You write in your bio that your music is a vision of Jewish culture that is a “reaction to the conservative, knee-jerk pro-Israel, judgmental bullshit that has developed in recent decades.” Is that something you have in common with Josh and your other collaborators on this record?
It’s not something we discuss, because for us it goes without saying. We’re all on the same page. We all have stuff about us that those people hate. Some of us have people in our own families who don’t talk to us, or don’t consider us to be real Jews anymore. We all have that experience. That’s why we bond together.
There’s a song on the record where you take aim at ambiguous lyrics on “hipster radio,” but could that not be applied to any genre of music? The accusation that people aren’t writing about their surroundings or their times?
That’s true, but there’s something particularly irritating about the knowing emotionally distant tone of much of indie rock, because you get vague notions that somebody knows something about the world that they’re not sharing with you, and it’s some kind of weird social capital.
That by holding it back they’re maintaining that social capital?
In a way. Maybe that’s part of why there aren’t any overt expressions of political ideas in those songs, because it would blow the mystique. It’s mysterious.
The Dan Bejars of the world?
Are you asking me to take a shot at Dan Bejar [of Destroyer]?
No, because I’m a huge fan despite feeling that way about him.
There’s something oddly compelling about the new Dan Bejar record [Kaputt]. It has an aggressive decadence that evokes Thatcher’s England from the other side of the fence. He’s making this weird wine-bar music and yet there’s something just off enough about it. It’s like what Agatha Christie said about the nature of horror: you take the familiar and you make it just different enough that it’s uncanny and strange.
I await your record review of that album.
(whispers) The saxophones. The saxophones!
What do you have against saxophones?
Sorry, I was just trying to do my Apocalypse Now routine.
I was watching the surprisingly watchable Juno Awards last night…
Did the good guys win?
Many did, actually. Neil Young was given the Humanitarian Award, and one of the things he said in his speech was that musicians should focus on their art first, that the songs are the most important thing, and from that you can do other things. It made me think of a lot more didactic artists who don’t last, or who give a visceral thrill in the moment. You put down the newspaper and put on their record and you get the same immediate sensation, but you’ll never put that record on again two years later. Which is the challenge with political writing.
It’s tricky, but that’s also the challenge with all songwriting, to not to write a shitty one—because most of them are shitty. There’s a spectrum of goodness. Neil Young wrote his share of really crap songs, and some very of-the-moment songs—some of which turned out to be classics, and some were totally forgettable. But he keeps working, that’s the great thing about him. He goes to work.
How do you approach editing yourself or assessing what’s working?
It’s usually good with political stuff to have an element of humour to it. I don’t like slogan shoutiness. If you can pull off a purely political song like “Just Deportees” by Woody Guthrie or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” by Bob Dylan, or even “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” by Billy Bragg, that’s pretty good. But I like the dark humour songs. I grew up listening to Tom Lehrer and his satirical songs. They have a laughing-at-the-horror thing about them that I’ve always liked.
You finally revealed your religious agenda, which took you a while [on the track “Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religious Agenda,” which argues that the Bible is a test, that God wants you to do the exact opposite of what He prescribes there].
Yes, I’ve been working on that.
What was your aim with that track?
It’s more or less historically accurate depiction of the Frankish heresy. Here’s a funny thing: some people say [the heresy] was a harbinger of the Reformation, the beginning of the end of respect for the Church and powers that be and God at the centre of the universe. There was a large movement of people saying, “What if it’s all bullshit? What if we just did whatever the hell we want?” And it influenced Christians who witnessed this. “Oh, running around in the forest eating bacon—that doesn’t sound so bad. Why can’t we do that?”
Purification through transgression.
I’m always trying to relate Jewish culture to the general culture, and there’s a reason why they call it Judeo-Christian values: most of the shit you goyim think, we made it up!
Wasn’t Frank open to elements of Christianity as well? Didn’t he borrow parts that he thought were appropriate?
I’m not aware of all the aspects of Frank’s crazy, Jim Jones-esque religious plan, but the key to Christianity’s appeal—according to Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—is that it is Judaism unchained. You take the fanatic zeal of the Jews and you say, “Actually you don’t have to follow these dietary rules or do that thing to your dick or any of that other stuff and you still get into heaven.” And Frank was an unchainer.
Don’t the Hussites predate Frank?
Did they do that too?
Centuries before Luther, they were the Czechs who rejected the Catholic Church and in many ways were the first Protestants.
Right. Then there were the Gnostics. There’s a lot of fun stuff there. I like the vibe, and it’s just so funny.
What does the Golem mean to you? [A Victory Party track is called “Oh My Golem!”]
In different versions of the Golem story, it gets out of hand. Frankenstein was clearly a descendent of the Golem. In my song, the Golem is Israel. The whole idea of modern Zionism was invented by left-wing European Jewish intellectuals. Now those guys don’t give a shit what we think about them.
The Golem track sounds unlike anything else you’ve ever done, and you’re obviously stepping outside your comfort zone here. I love the way this record sounds compared to your others, and I assume it’s Josh’s doing. Sonically it’s much better, but the arrangements have more space. In some ways it reminds me of your first record, when you were primarily a solo performer, and the arrangements there weren’t just a replication of a live band.
We could bring things in, cut them out, try things out. Josh would muck around a lot and try things different ways. A lot of it is the quality of that studio, which was amazing and the engineer was killer. Bringing in the bass and clarinet and the piano, there’s less accordion on it, but it comes in when it’s supposed to. I’m glad you heard it that way; that’s what I was hoping Josh would do.
My impression is that it would have been easier for Josh to dig deep into klezmer, living in Montreal, compared to you in Vancouver. Is that true?
I went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. Klezmer and sacred music and Israeli folk songs were played there. I had a grandfather and great aunts and uncles who spoke Yiddish with each other. There is enough of a community in Vancouver; if you want to learn Yiddish, you could do it in Vancouver. A lot of what Josh knows, he learned picking through record stores or finding stuff on the Internet. And he’s been to the klez camps and hung with old people in Montreal and New York. I just started buying CDs and listening to them, buying songbooks and looking them over. I got some immersion from hanging out with Bob Cohen and driving him around Romania in 2004. But there were only one or two Jewish musicians there; these were elderly gypsies who played in the pick-up bands. Now I hang out with Dan Kahn and Josh and Daniel Blacksberg out of Philadelphia; I’m getting more and more immersed in it. Being on the road and doing this has been an invitation for other people to reach out.
Are you doing Germany extensively on this tour?
I do well here. The money is good. The anchor date is a four-city festival that happens once every few years. It’s a Jewish culture festival in the Ruhr valley.
Why do you think Germany in particular is so receptive?
I do well in Northern Europe where I opened for Kaizers Orchestra; I did two major tours with them. Now I do well in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Scandanavia is really good. That’s what really broke things open, how I got an agent and stuff like that, when those guys took me on board. The climax of this European tour is their 10th anniversary spectacular show at the Oslo Spectrum Arena, capacity 9,000, and I’m opening for that.
How long have you been going to Europe and how often? Twice a year for 10 years?
That’s about right. Sometimes more.
Musically, obviously there’s a strong connection, but for me half the appeal is the lyrics and double entendres and satire. Why do you think that plays so well there?
Anybody under 45 is English proficient, especially anyone who is a music fan. The Norwegians speak better English than we do. The rest of them are really pretty good. It might be tougher in some of the smaller towns in Germany or Austria, but in the centres, it’s embarrassing because you laze out and don’t learn the local language because you don’t have to.
Right now politics in North America seems more polarized than ever. Do you think the climate is different than it was 10 years ago when you’re performing?
It’s hard to say, because 10 years ago I was trying to win over strangers in little bars, where they had their arms crossed and were wondering why the hockey game got shut off. Now people show up and they know all the words—and for some of them it’s their second language! I’m in a weird satire bubble of people who are totally into it. But the culture in general? I don’t know. When I pissed off the sponsors at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the audience loved it.
What did you do?
I did that thing where I was playing “Maginot Line” [a song about a key strategic military loss by the French in WWII] and I had a giant VW sign behind me, so it just occurred to me in the middle of it to say, “You remember Mr. Hitler, don’t you? He’s the one who brought you—the Volkswagen!” Which is true, he did. He ordered it into being. But apparently that was a no-no.
But surely that didn’t stop anyone from buying a Volkswagen.
I think people were already annoyed with Volkswagen, because they had paid to have a special parking lot closer to the campground, where if you owned a Volkswagen you didn’t have to schlep your gear as far. Everybody was pretty mad already.
So you do still play festivals where strangers don’t know what to make of you.
I think the culture in the past 10 years has moved somewhat to the right. The success of the American Idol stuff has reinforced the idea for some people in mainstream culture the idea that if you’re not No. 1, then you suck. And when you’re not No. 1 anymore, you’re ripe for the trash heap. Now that the brass ring—except for Arcade Fire, and the weird parallel universe they live in—the brass ring has been removed and less and less people care about going after it, which is good.