Pen’s Eye View

Recently, I was flipping through the channels and happen to stop on this video. Not MTV or VH1 but ironically, on “Good Morning America”. The video (which aired on Saturday, December 29) featured viewers who sent in clips with 3-word messages; written down, each in its own unique way. Some spoke of overcoming struggle; ‘I’m Still Here’, ‘I Miss You’ wrote another. The video was a message of hope and optimism for the upcoming year and the soundtrack to this message was Dan Bern’s hit song “Baby Bye Bye”. Referring to the song’s use, Bern says, ‘I think of songs as, you know, like chairs that you make. And you want to see ‘em used. It’s not like the song’s being used to sell trucks.’

It is that philosophy that Bern takes into every aspect of this work. He’s an artist in every sense; musician, writer, painter and even comedian. I know the last one may not fit with the others, but when you lay down practically half the soundtrack for the hit comedy of 2007-2008, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” starring John C. Reilly, you have to have some sort of versatility. An even better example is with Bern’s release, “Breathe”. Bern’s take: ‘There’s something mystical about it I think. It’s the only record I’ve made that I didn’t go completely nuts at some point.’ Luckily for us, Bern is rereleasing his past albums as well which will once again involve me needing more space on my hard drive (iTunes, why do you tempt me so!).

When you find yourself filling your iPod with the Bern collection, song after song, running through your head, into your days and permanently placing a smile on your face, you’ll feel realived. Relieved in the fact that once again, true artists are in this world, alive and kicking. Bern says his influence comes from all corners, ‘I don’t always have control over it. It can be in a car, a bar, anyplace.’ Remember this when you find yourself “out of control” as you let Bern’s message overcome your new year. Check out his XXQs to find out more.

XXQs: Dan Bern

Pen’s Eye View: How and when did you first get involved in music?

Dan Bern: My Dad was a concert pianist and composer. He had a cellist over one time, Paul Olefsky, and they played. I thought it was cool. Up til then I had only been around piano. So I started playing the cello the next year, when I was six. When I was about 14 I quit the cello and started playin guitar. Needed more of a song instrument at that point.

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you told yourself that music was going to be a career rather than a hobby?

DB: Well, I got pretty serious about it in college. After that I went to Chicago and started playing seven open mikes a week. From that point I always put the music first, even though I had a bunch of different jobs along the way.

PEV: Growing up, what kind of music were you listening to? Do you remember the first album you ever purchased?

DB: The first record I bought was called “Tom Jones: Live in Las Vegas.” I got it for $2.98 at the hardware store uptown. Pretty cheesy. Great though. I mostly listened to the Beatles for a long time. And the Monkees. And my folks had the Tom Lehrer records, which I memorized. And then later, when I was about 14, I started listening to old folk and blues and country. And a lot of that is still my favorite stuff to listen to. But when I was falling asleep, my Dad would be practicing. Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, his own stuff…

PEV: Tell us about the first time you performed live. Did you think, then that you would be where you are now?

DB: I was just so scared beforehand, I think I was just relieved to get through it alive. But I liked doing it right away. That connection you get with an audience. Nothing like it.

PEV: What can people expect from a live Dan Bern performance?

DB: I don’t know, I’ve never seen one! I guess it’s different from tour to tour. Sometimes it’s with a band, sometimes not. We used to go to great lengths to involve people, get ‘em to sing, come onstage, whatever. Or we’d unplug and go play in the audience. Or get everyone to leave and go outside and we’d sing in the street. Or make up songs. Anything. Just make it real, make it about that night.

PEV: Your song “Baby Bye Bye” was featured on the “Your 3 Words” segment on “Good Morning America”, on Saturday, December 29. The segment was a tribute to people’s survival of this past year and dreams for the upcoming year. Did you like the way your song was utilized?

DB: Yeah, I thought it was cool. But I almost always like it when my songs are used in different mediums. I think of songs as, you know, like chairs that you make. And you want to see ‘em used. The segment you’re talking about, it had people sending in little videos with little 3-word messages. How can that not be cool? It’s not like the song’s being used to sell trucks.

PEV: Tell us about your work with the new comedy, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” starring John C. Reilly. You wrote and co-wrote 14 of the 30 available songs on the soundtrack. How did you get involved with this project?

DB: Jake Kasdan, the director and writer, has been a good friend for a long time. He used my song “One Dance” in his first film, “Zero Effect,” some dozen years ago. Jake first told me about the Dewey Cox idea a year and a half ago, before there was even a script. I loved everything about it, and started writing Dewey Cox songs right away. Later I got to be involved in the whole collaborative aspect, with Jake and Judd Apatow and John C. Reilly, and Mike Andrews the music producer, and I wrote a whole bunch of songs with Mike Viola, who’s an incredible writer and musician. It was all really fun, and I hope to do more things like that.

PEV: How is your current album, “Breathe” different from your previous works as well as different from other music out today?

DB: Kinda hard to say. It was a group of songs written in a short amount of time, 2 or 3 months. It’s kind of a particular thing–the place the songs are coming from, how they sound, and all that. There’s something mystical about it I think. It’s the only record I’ve made that I didn’t go completely nuts at some point. Maybe because I was living on the beach in Malibu and saw the sun come up every morning and swam in the ocean and heard the waves all night. Or maybe it was the Ativan.

PEV: You recently re-released your 1998 self-released album, “Smartie Mine” and others. What made you decide to bring that back and how has your musical styling changed since that album?

DB: Well, that one’s now on itunes, along with some that never came out before, ‘Macaroni Cola’ from 2000, ‘The Burbank Tapes’ from ’98, to name some. It kind of appeals to me, the notion that people can get music now and there doesn’t have to be anything manufactured, no trees, no oil used up. I was ordering some DVDs of some old tennis matches, like McEnroe-Lendl, stuff like that, and it was all available. No big P.R. thing, but if you want them, they’re there. So I figured, what the hell.

PEV: Out of all your writing, is there that one song that still sticks out as the most special one? Why, yes or no?

DB: Not really. There’s ones that I still play after a long time. Jerusalem, Tiger Woods, Chelsea Hotel, Wasteland, I still like playing those. But mostly, I’m more interested in the new stuff, the stuff that seems more immediate. Or stuff that’s been around that I haven’t recorded yet. I have a couple of batches that are probably 2 separate records at least. So those I think about.

PEV: Who is currently in your CD player or on your iPod right now?

DB: Tampa Red. Big Bill Broonzy. Willie Dixon. The new Springsteen. Mike Viola’s “Lurch.”

PEV: What up and coming artist do you think we should all be listening to now?

DB: The Mammals. Chris Chandler. Janos, out of Las Cruces. Greyhound Soul.

PEV: In all your travels, which city do you think offers the best appreciation for music?

DB: Anchorage, Alaska. I guess not that many people make it up there. For whatever reasons, they make it seem worth your while. I think they think I’m a major star everyplace else, like Paul McCartney maybe. One time I finished a tour there with my band, the IJBC. At the end of “Alaska Highway” I swear there were 100 people on stage, singin and dancing and carrying on.

PEV: How is life on the road for you? Best and worst parts?

DB: When it’s going good, you just never want to stop. When you have a good band and the crowds are good and everyone’s having fun. Then it’s great. Of course, there are the other times too. When it’s lonely and you feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re out there. But you just never know. Lousy gigs can turn into great gigs in a moment. And you just never know what’s gonna happen, who might turn up. I’ve had great gigs with 5 people and crappy ones with 500.

PEV: When you are not traveling or performing, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

DB: I don’t really have a strong boundary between “work time” and “spare time.” I might be riding my bike or playing tennis, and have some lines running through my mind. So, I’m working. But the work is fun, or it isn’t any good. So, it’s all spare time. When it’s good it’s just a flow. Right now I’m reading my tenth Murakami book since the summer. He’s right there in a very short list of my favorite writers. Fante, Hemingway, Salinger.

PEV: You offer a lot of downloads on your site for fans. What is your opinion on the heated debate over downloading and file sharing music off line?

DB: Is that still a debate? Seems like it’s out there now. If you can get a buck a song, great. Sometimes people are gonna get music without paying for it. And, really, that’s probably how it should be. The music is supposed to be spread around. Would you rather have someone not hear your song at all? I don’t think so.

PEV: What’s one thing, people would be surprised to hear about you?

DB: I did the voice of Howard Cosell on a recent monday night football, introducing Dewey Cox. I gave Wilt Chamberlain tennis lessons. I write a sports column for the hot springs herald in New Mexico. I wrote a song with Hunter S. Thompson called “shit on your chest.” I met Gale Sayers when i was a kid. My uncle was a mathematician. My mom saw Kristallnacht happen. I met McLovin.

PEV: When you sit down to write music, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

DB: I don’t always have control over it. It can be in a car, a bar, anyplace. When I’m around home, I have a studio space that I go to. There’s a bunch of instruments, some recording stuff, my painting stuff, a ping-pong table…

PEV: What one word, best describes Dan Bern?

DB: In German, they have these really long compound words that can contain a lot of information. Like “Gitarremundharmonikasangerundliedermacher.” Which means, “guitar player, harmonica player, singer and songwriter.” So maybe that’s the one word. Or else, “Cheeseeater.”

PEV: So, what is next for Dan Bern?

DB: Dunno. I’m hoping someone calls me and wants me to write a bunch of songs for their next movie. I’ve got a fast pen and I’m ready, so…I ‘ve got some records I want to make. Some pictures to paint. And one of these days, I’m gonna play a boxer in a movie. Just like that DeNiro fella. And, of course, I might want to do some bullfighting.

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