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June 19, 2008

Ryan Walsh Interviews Cassie Berman (Silver Jews) and Joe Marrett (Hallelujah the Hills, Ketman)

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Hallelelujah the Hills singer and guitarist Ryan Walsh returns as a contributor to Largehearted Boy, interviewing brother and sister Cassie Berman (of the Silver Jews) and Joe Marrett (of Hallelujah the Hills and Ketman).

With this week's release of both the Silver Jews' Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea and Ketman's El Toro, Ryan thought it the perfect time to interview these talented siblings.

Musician Ryan Walsh interviews Cassie Berman of the Silver Jews and Joe Marrett of Ketman and Hallelujah the Hills:

It sounds like some sort of non-confession: Two people with whom I've had nothing but wonderful, memorable times lately are both bass players. They're also brother and sister. And it's not because one of them plays bass in my band (Joe Marrett, Hallelujah The Hills, Ketman) and the other plays bass in one of my favorite bands of all time (Cassie Berman, Silver Jews) that I'm so fond of them. I've found that it's nearly impossible to conjure a negative experience when you're in the company of one of these siblings. Whenever you think you might be veering in the direction of a bummer mood, somewhere, somehow, a bass line signals the way back to the path.

This past March, during Hallelujah The Hills' journey across a portion of the United States, Cassie led us on a tour of Nashville, mentioning Tom T. Hall frequently and without provocation. Later that night she assured us that it's unlikely that anyone actually stole one of our guitars from the club (she was right, we left it at the in-store earlier in the day) and made us breakfast the next day. She played us records all morning after which her husband, David Berman, handed me a copy of the new Silver Jews album. I left Nashville nearly dizzy with hospitality.

As many people have now realized that album (Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea) is another beautiful, original adventure with the Silver Jews and Cassie's contributions make the album all the more joyous. Likewise, Joe's band Ketman are moments away from releasing a new album (El Toro) and it seemed like a good time to force them both to reveal the secrets of The Family Marrett.

Ryan Walsh: What kind of music listening/playing was going on at the Marrett house when each of you were children? What were your parents' record collection like?

Cassie Berman: Grandma Francis used to dress me up in chiffon confections from her bandstand days and twirl me around the hi-fi to hits like “The Gambler” and “Music Box Dancer.” This lent quite the sense of drama to music from an early age. She was the only professional musician in our immediate family if you don’t count our great-great uncle, the organ grinder. I think the first song I ever wrote was on her keyboard, which I still remember to this day because it sounds exactly like the theme from “The Black Stallion.”

We also dug a lot of cheesy hair-metal growing up. Joseph, angel that he was, got dragged to numerous Kentucky county-fairs on account of the fact that my sister Julie and I loved show horses. This resulted in our mutual exposure to the sticky classic rock and glam that perma-spun on local midways in the late 80’s. Soon Heart, Def Leppard, Metallica and GNR had flying V’d their insidious ways into our upside-down, impressionable little heads. Nothing like some Diamond Dave to get a kid hooked...

Joseph Marrett: I remember a lot of Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Crystal Gayle (who we met once while walking into the Opryland amusement park in Nashville) playing in the car on family adventures. My dad was also way into girl groups like The Supremes. My mom’s personal tastes were rooted in early Dylan and Joan Baez. She also used to sneak me out of kindergarten to see the Louisville orchestra. We’d sit way up in the nosebleed section so I could crash matchbox cars in sweet symphonic truancy and not disturb anybody.

Ryan Walsh: Do either of you remember the first time you may have shared an interest in the same music? Cassie, were you trying to turn Joe on to certain bands? Joe, were you stealing Cassie's records?

Joe Marrett: As a younger brother, I liked most things my cooler older sisters liked. I don't think I stole any of your records, Cassie, but I probably listened to most of them when you weren't home.

Cassie Berman: The first record I remember us both obsessing over was the Chicago Bears “Superbowl Shuffle.” Also my Circus Lupus, Jesus Lizard and Can records seemed to get out of order quite a bit round about high school. More recently we had an awesome time winding down a Smokey Mountain pass while listening to 13th Floor Elevators. That electric jug noise got us so slap happy I almost ran off the road.

Joseph Marrett: God bless the electric jug!

Ryan Walsh: Cassie, please tell me more about the time you saw Joe rapping in a pizza shop.

Cassie Berman: Oh that was great. Cómo Está was the name of the band. Think Beastie Boys circa “Pass the Mike” as interpreted by a 10th grade Spanish class. Pizza joints play a large role in Louisville rock iconography. One of Slint’s most rare pre-breakup, pre-reunion shows happened with pepperoni before either of us was old enough to drive. Somehow this covetous knowledge made Joseph’s live debut before my eyes all the more auspicious. And his ability to inhabit total character status in a room full of 14-year old cutie-pies impressed me too. Though I have to admit there was something vaguely “Peach Pit After Dark” about busting rhymes by the salad bar, correcto?

Joseph Marrett: Muy correcto.

Ryan Walsh: Is the fact that both of you gravitated towards bass guitar proof of the power of DNA, fate, or some kind of pagan allegiance to all things low end in Louisville, Kentucky?

Joseph Marrett: I think it may be the result of early exposure to Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad. And endless stories of the crushing undertow of the mighty Ohio River.

Cassie Berman: Middle children are supposed to play well with others as bassists inherently must. Might be a bit encoded. Same way people’s eyes lock in on a ball sailing back and forth in tennis, my fingers fall in line with ambient rhythm subconsciously. When I was a kid I did not understand why I was forever drumming my knees in neat, mechanical rotation or tapping out mindless Morse code colloquy until I saw Kim Gordon on MTV over cereal one morning.

Ryan Walsh: Joe, I remember the night that your band Ketman opened up for The Silver Jews last year fondly. Cassie, I remember seeing a gigantic smile on your face. What was that like to play on the same bill for the first time ever?

Cassie Berman: Like seeing your life in a funhouse mirror.

Ryan Walsh: Joe, your parents came to see Hallelujah The Hills in Louisville last summer. Is it easy or difficult to play music in front of your folks? Have they seen Ketman?

Joseph Marrett: They dig Ketman. “Good energy,” my dad says. And that’s high praise from a sports fan like my pops. Having the folks at shows does lend itself to fantastic bizarro mental snapshots. Last time the Hills were in town, my old drunk friend (ever hear that Freakwater song?) met my folks and pulled off his best Eddie Haskell. We all spoke the common language of college hoops (the big game in Kentucky).

Cassie Berman: Have you ever seen the Andy Griffith episode where Opie joins a local group whose members coach him on how to act like a real musician? First off, he has to ditch the kid talk like “nifty” and “oh boy.” Then, much to the horror of Aunt Bee, he begins staying out late, getting F’s and trying on party lines like “I think I’ll split over there and get some of those cool potato chips.”

Personal dichotomies that collide tend to spoil one’s aplomb like a buzz handshake. At our wedding, after watching David and I hoot’ n’ holler throughout BR549’s set, his grandfather Shep asked if we were planning on “getting off the needle” anytime soon. Sans punch line! So, while I truly love when family can come see us and their presence notarizes the occasion forever in time, if the commingling ideas of Mom + dive bar are an odd jumble, just be prepared for potential embarrassment to ensue. Go ahead and maintain that surface sheen of cool if you can, but also accept that while you’re up there making guitar face, your family might be adding it to your dorktastic highlights reel.

Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea is out now on Drag City Records

Ketman - El Toro is out June 21st on Lifted & Gifted Records.

Hallelujah The Hills - Prepare To Qualify EP is available for free download.

Cassie Berman links:

Silver Jews website
Silver Jews MySpace page

Joe Marrett links:

Ketman website
Ketman MySpace page
Hallelujah the Hills' website

Ryan Walsh links:

Hallelujah the Hills' website
Ryan Walsh's Largehearted Boy Note Books essay
Ryan Walsh interviews Jami Attenberg at Largehearted Boy
Jami Attenberg interviews Ryan Walsh at Largehearted Boy

also at Largehearted Boy:

previous musician/author interviews

Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)