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Dan Bern - guitarist / singer / songwriter
2002 - On the phone with Donrad

Back in 1998 I went to see a folk legend by the name of Utah Phillips perform in Santa Cruz, California. The opening act was some guy by the name of Dan Bern. I had never heard of Dan and figured he was some local guy who performed on acoustic guitar along the Santa Cruz boardwalk.

I could care less if I heard him perform, especially when I was outside talking to Utah Phillips! Well after a song or two by Dan (we could hear him playing inside but didn't pay close attention to what songs were being played), Utah said, "Let's go inside and check this guy out. I hear he's pretty good." I figured what the heck, that Utah was just being polite to his opening act. So in we went.

Once we entered the place Dan started in on a song I later learned was called "Tiger Woods." The phrase "Tiger Woods" didn't grab my attention, but the first words I heard did... "I've got big balls!" The song hit me over the head like a mugger in the dark as it was funny and well crafted, much like all of Dan's songs. Throughout the rest of Dan's performance, Utah, my friends and me stood glued to him as he blew us away on stage.

Dan is an incredible performer and many legends like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello come to mind when trying to describe him, which is a fair assessment for the major media, but I like to use the reference of the cartoon strip "Calvin & Hobbes," as Dan reminds me of a grown up Calvin.

Needless to say I've seen Dan perform many times since my initial introduction to him back on that hot summer day of 1998 and have introduced many people to his music... no one has ever been disappointed! Dan continues to gain popularity around the country now and all he needs is the control freaks who run radio stations to start adding his music to the playlists. Then again Dan could never be a mainstream kind of guy, he's too talented, has something to say, has a good beat and is a true talent.

For more info on Dan and how to obtain his merchandise, or to contact him, go to his website at: www.danbern.com. After I saw Dan this past Halloween in Ann Arbor, Michigan I asked him if we could do an interview. Dan gave me the name of Brandon, a guy from his record company [Messenger Records] and the rest of what you are about to read is a result of us putting it all together.

I hope you enjoy my trying to pry into the secretive world of Dan Bern as much as I enjoyed doing it.

K2K: Lets start from the beginning. I hear you grew up in Iowa.
Dan Bern: That's right.

K2K: What was it like there?
DB: A small town. Like a one high school, one junior high kind of town. Pretty peaceful.

K2K: Did you have a big family?
DB: No. Just me and my sister.

K2K: So she's obviously the one the song "Oh Sister" is about.
DB: That's right, yeah.

K2K: Will the "NYC911 " song be released?
DB: Possibly. You know it's tough with a so called "topical" song in terms of timing and durability. I'm still trying to figure it out. I didn't have much time to think about that after it happened.

K2K: Who were your influences in music?
DB: Oh gosh, there's so many. My dad was a classical percussion pianist composer, around the house growing up eight hours a day. I branched off into my own discoveries. I heard so much it's hard to even know myself, you know? Obviously great bands from the Stones to Dylan, Springsteen, Costello, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and the blues.

K2K: What about your influences in art?
DB: You mean painting wise?

K2K: Yes.
DB: Well I think probably Van Gogh and Picasso are at the top of my list.

K2K: Were you ever married?
DB: Never.

K2K: I was just curious because of the song "Estelle."
DB: Oh. [laughs] A little loose there.

K2K: Does Estelle exist?
DB: Not by that name, but yes.

K2K: How did you hook up with Ani DiFranco?
DB: I met her at a festival from years ago and then started doing a bunch of opening slots for her.

K2K: Are the any songs you've written that you're particularly proud of?
DB: Well a lot of them really. Songs that I write that stick around you know? On this new album ["New American Language"] "God Said No," and "Thanksgiving Day Parade" are two songs that I feel I was able to capture something.

K2K: What about the song on there called "Black Tornado?"
DB: Yeah. That one I play a lot. It's a good song to start a new set with you know? It kind of warms you up.

K2K: What are your best markets or favorite towns to play in?
DB: A lot of them. New York and San Francisco are two places that have always been real supportive. Some obvious ones are Chicago, Vancouver, Boston, Philly, Austin, Tampa and then some places that are out of the way that you wouldn't necessarily think about like Bandera, Texas. A lot of times it's places that you like for other reasons too. I like playing in Eugene, Oregon because there's these amazing hot springs nearby.

K2K: Do you have any hobbies?
DB: I don't really use that concept. You know I have things that I do that I take seriously that are really necessary to stay balanced that I've done all my life like tennis, drawing, painting... stuff like that.

K2K: What came first, the music, the art or the writing?
DB: I think it's really hard to know. These are all things I've done for a long time. I don't know if I drew pictures before I started writing words... probably. Probably drawing pictures came a little bit before making words. Songs may come before being able to write just in terms of singing melodies. All these things are pretty primal to a lot of people. Most people unlearn them, stop doing them.

K2K: What do you fear?
DB: Good question. I fear being asked the same questions (laughs).

K2K: I apologize in advance if I do that.
DB: I'm holding you exempt right now (laughs). I fear not being able to connect with an audience and knowing what to do about it. I mean it's something that disappears when I'm actually doing it because then you start trying things. I think if you're connected you can do anything and if you're not it's pretty miserable.

K2K: How many pair of shoes do you go through in a year?
DB: Uhhhhhhh......

K2K: Because you seem pretty physical live.
DB: Well I don't really know. I generally only have a couple pair of shoes at a time and I'm pretty hard on them (laughs).

K2K: I noticed that, especially without the band. Your shoes are the rhythm machine.
DB: Right. I guess they take a pretty good pounding. They're pretty durable though. I choose my footwear carefully. I have a couple songs that are not particularly complimentary to the Nike corporation. This summer I had a pair of sneakers and they -I was playing tennis a lot - were just killing my feet. I couldn't even walk. I went to the sporting goods store determined to find a pair of shoes that would actually accommodate my feet. I was sort of aghast in there, the only pair I could find were a pair of Nike. I thought "well, it's either my feet or my small part in not buying into the corporate thing." My feet won out (laughs). I've gotta say they make a pretty good shoe.

K2K: Who's the girl with you on the cover of the "Smartie Mine" CD?
DB: Her name's Martha.

K2K: Is that Loudon Wainwright III's daughter?
DB: Yeah.

K2K: Did you date her for a while?
DB: We were seeing one another for a while, yeah.

K2K: How did Loudon go along with that?
DB: You'd have to ask him.

K2K: What is it you wished people knew about you but don't?
DB: (Sarcastically) I think some people aren't hip to the fact that I'm the greatest artist America has produced.

(At this juncture our phone call is cut off... damn cell phones anyway. I hung up and Dan called me back and we resumed the interview.)

K2K: On stage you're a very volcanic performer but after the show in person you're much more subdued. Is that an accurate observation?
DB: Yeah. I mean I think you pick your spots maybe.

K2K: Are you nervous around people you haven't met before?
DB: Sometimes.

K2K: Can you remember your first concert?
DB: I imagine it was one of my dads.

K2K: If you could meet anyone in history who would it be?
DB: I think I'd like to hang out with Van Gogh. Just to watch him paint. To watch him actually put it down.

K2K: How did you hook up with the guys in your band, were they old boyhood friends or what?
DB: Two of them - the bass [Brian Schey] and drummer [Colin Mahoney] - I knew from back in Los Angeles quite a ways back. Will [Masisak, keyboards] and Eben [Grace, guitar] I've know for five years or six years from just playing with them and Paul [Kuhn, violin] I met a couple of years ago in Aspen, Colorado.

K2K: What musicians would you like to perform with if you had the chance?
DB: The Stones. I'd like to play with Charlie Watts and Keith Richards.

K2K: What about Brian Jones?
DB: I'm not sure about Brian Jones. I think I'd be more excited to play with people who really attack their thing. I'd love to play with Social Distortion.

K2K: What about the Ramones?
DB: The Ramones would be fun. The Clash would be fun. The Spike Jones Orchestra would be fun.

K2K: This girl I know who's an exotic dancer, dances to your music.
DB: Send her.

K2K: She wanted me to ask you your date of birth, time of birth, place and your sign.
DB: July 27. I'm a Leo, born on a Monday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

K2K: What are your favorite books?
DB: Mostly my favorite book is what I'm reading now. I love the Thurber books. I love the Ring Lardner, Rex Stout, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway books.

K2K: What about Kinky Friedman?
DB: This summer actually I read some Kinky Friedman. It was fun. It wasn't Rex Stout, but it was fun.

K2K: What's your take on religion?
DB: It has its moments.

K2K: Did you ever study the Kabala?
DB: Not really. I've looked at a little bit of what it's about. I can't say I know anything about it... you?

K2K: Dabbled in it a little here and there to satisfy my curiosity, but didn't have the time to invest in it.
DB: After 9/11, the people I know were going to church - like that Sunday after - and asked me if I wanted to go, so I went mostly to be with people. There was some comfort there, just I think in people convening in the same place. Coming in peace and hoping for something better. If that's religion, I think that's good. It kind of helped me approach this tour because at the time I felt, "How can I go out and tour?" But then I thought that's kind of what we do, the people come, they gather, they stay and talk about god or something (laughs).

K2K: I noticed on the back of your guitar strap you had a Christian cross, did you put it there or was it a gift?
DB: It was on there when I bought it. At the time I had a guitar that was called a Silver Cross. The symbol at the top was a silver cross, so I bought the strap, it kind of went with it. Of course the guitar was stolen out of my van in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, but I still have the strap in memory of that guitar.

K2K: What about the guitar I heard you smashed in Santa Cruz, California?
DB: Yeah. Well I was trying to get people to sing along to a song and they weren't doing a very good job of it so I started swinging the guitar like a tennis racket. Then I sort of -ala John McEnroe - kind of let the guitar drop a little bit. I didn't really throw it, I just kind of let it droop. When I picked it back up, it had broken in the neck -which nobody knew - but I realized this guitar has had it. So at that point, what do you do with a guitar that has had it? Quietly bring it to the lumberyard (laughs)?

K2K: Did you save any of the pieces?
DB: No. I think some people grabbed some. I mean hey... I got to be Pete Townshend here for a minute. I mean if your guitar's broken it's an opportunity.

K2K: Do you have any favorite show or music memory?
DB: Well, not a gig but I've met [Bruce] Springsteen on a couple of occasions, which is really cool. Actually after his first gig that he did back with the E Street Band, they did in Barcelona a couple of years ago. I was there because I happen to know Chuck Plotkin - he produced my first album and the new one - and because of him I was at this post show party. I'd met Bruce [Springsteen] on a couple of occasions and he saw me - I didn't expect that he'd remember me - and came up to me and said (Dan imitates Springsteen's voice perfectly here) "I hear you wrote a song about me!" (laughs).

K2K: Had he heard the song?
DB: I don't know that he had, but we talked for ten or fifteen minutes and it was like from the heart about what it was like to have the band back and tour. It was beautiful. That felt pretty impressive.

K2K: I noticed that some of the songs on your album "Fifty Eggs" also ended up on the "Smartie Mine" album, was there a particular reason for that?
DB: I think because when we made "Fifty Eggs" I hadn't toured with a band yet and after that record I went out and toured with a band for a couple of months and then we released "Smartie Mine". I think I just felt like we were playing the songs better at that point, so that's the reason.

K2K: Thank you for your time in answering all these questions and for agreeing to this interview.
DB: Thanks for all the questions.

I had to go my way and Dan had to go his and perform later on that night somewhere in Minnesota. It was fun talking with Dan, now it was time to transcribe the tape... ugh!

Written by Donrad

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