The Natvral, Kip Berman Going Solo: “Songs of circumstance, you could call it.” (11/15 at UT w/ Luna)

Although best known as vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for New York indie poppers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kip Berman has spent recent years embracing a different...

Although best known as vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for New York indie poppers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Kip Berman has spent recent years embracing a different sort of lifestyle… parenting, husbanding, but also making a slightly different kind of sound as The Natvral.  Earlier this year, Kanine released his first LP as The Natvral, Tethers, a collection of stripped-down, heartfelt, and also relatively rambunctious folk tunes.  The songs are reflections on both his previous life and his current life and were composed at Berman’s very own home, whenever he got a moment free from his fatherly duties, and recorded over the course of a week with producer Andy Savours.  This summer The Natvral played a number of live shows (including gigs with Tobin Sprout and Mates of State, respectively) and they will be supporting legendary dream pop outfit Luna for four dates this November, including a November 15th stop at our very own Union Transfer.  I recently got a chance to have an in-depth chat with Kip Berman about the process of moving on from being in a touring indie rock band, the everyday life of an indie rock parent, and the kind of indie rock he most enjoys making these days.

Izzy Cihak: Tethers, the first album as The Natvral, came out earlier this year.  Have you had any favorite reactions to it yet?

Kip Berman: Well, it’s pretty nice that Dean Wareham heard it and thought well enough of the songs to offer me some opening slots for his tour with Luna.  I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a songwriter, so a friendly nod from someone like that feels like I’m on the right track.

Izzy: I heard that you recorded the whole album in a week.  How do you feel like that worked out?  Is it something that you felt leant itself to the sound of this project, and maybe something you’d do again?

Kip: I didn’t have time to do it any other way, but that’s no bad thing.  I owe a lot to Andy Savours who recorded and mixed this record and the first EP I did a few years back.  His whole approach for the earliest recordings we did together was just, “Come over with your guitar, sing your songs, and I’ll record ‘em.”  And for Tethers we kept with that idea, just with some more people in the room – Brian Alvarez on Drums, Jacob Sloan on Bass, and Kyle Forester on keys.

It can be dead simple making a record when you don’t have to fuss about with metronomes, endless overdubs, guitar pedals, or too much studio trickery.  Some people try to play up their creative struggle, or the profound suffering they endure while making songs.  And maybe I feel that way at times, and maybe I don’t.  But I’d like people to know there’s another way too – one that doesn’t diminish the artistry, but comes from a more impulsive, loose place.  Not this willful, imposing, kind of creation I see so much of, but something that is playful, prone to accident, and malleable to whatever the moment allows.  Songs of circumstance, you could call it.

Izzy: What were you listening to around the time you were conceiving of this album?  Your press release mentions Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and I think a few of the tracks almost sound like The Replacements as a Pogues tribute band (I mean that in the best way possible, so hopefully you take it that way, haha.)

Kip: Those are kind words indeed if you hear echoes of The Pogues or The Replacements in what I’m doing – great bands, both.  I think of that 1980s generation, Billy Bragg was the one that stood out most to me.  I was first introduced to his music by my high school’s one legit punk, a big-hearted kid named Erik Petersen (The Orphans, Mischief Brew).  The rest of us were still listening to pop punk, emo and all that – but Erik was onto headier things, things that engaged with life, politics, and sex in a way that was somehow both more blunt and sophisticated.  I don’t know how else to put it – he was two years older, that can make a world of difference.

As for what I was listening to before I made Tethers – I think it was older things, mostly.  I always got along well with my mom, so I never felt a generational divide, and enjoyed a lot of the music she’d play around the house – Gram Parsons, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, The Stones.  And when I became a parent myself, I found myself drawn to a kind of lived-in sound – stuff like Richard and Linda Thompson, Shirley Collins, Billy Bragg, and those live recordings of Dylan when he was first playing with a rock band and it was loose and no one was sure of what it was supposed to sound like.  I like that idea of there not being a “right way” yet.  I always want to be in the mindset that there still isn’t a “right way” yet, that I can make my own world with its own ideals, internal logic and way of doing things.

Anyway, I found something really freeing in those live Dylan sets from the mid-60s, which I came across by accident at my local record shop, shoutout to Princeton Record Exchange.  In the used bins there was something that looked like a bootleg sleeve with a faded photocopy of Dylan playing live, and I bought it – not realizing it was a pretty well-known concert, the one he did in Manchester in 1966, but was misattributed to the Royal Albert Hall.  It was just the electric set, and I played it loads while home with my daughter.

Andy’s the one that got into Tonight’s the Night by Neil Young, where he just plays these raw songs of in-the-moment hurt and reckoning in what seems like one very long night.  Perfection – though these records were both perfect in the way that nothing could’ve been added to make them better – was not their point.  So I don’t think I was aping Dylan or Young, but instead I liked their ways of doing things.  They were making heartfelt music fast and loose, without time to second guess themselves.

Izzy: The album came out on Kanine, which is one of my favorite labels.  How is it being part of that family?

Kip: Kanine put so many of my friends’ records out over the years, that it just made sense.  Jacob Sloan, who played bass on this record, had a band called Dream Diary that Kanine released.  And my best friend, Danny Taylor (who records my stuff from time to time, even played some drums with Pains) did a record as Zaza for the label.  And I get on great with Nicole (Nicole Yun, Eternal Summers), Jess Weiss and Daniel Falvey from Fear of Men, and Drew Citron (Beverly).  And my old bandmates Kurt Feldman, Christoph + Anton Hochheim did two records as Depreciation Guild for the label, which are now rightly considered classics.  So even though this is my first time working with Kanine, I’ve known enough good people who have done things with the label that it seems I’m in good hands.

Izzy: I know that this project kind of started as a way for you to still do music, while also starting and carrying on, like, an adult life.  How has that been going and how are you liking having parental and familial responsibilities?

Kip: After 10 years in Pains I decided I just wanted to do the parts of music I liked, and not do the parts I didn’t. And I liked playing guitar, writing, and singing songs for people, so I just did that.  Truth be told, I also like sitting at the merch table, driving, free hotel breakfasts where they got the waffle machine, futzing about with album covers, seeing old friends that live far away, and 2 free drink tickets.  But, perhaps it’s better if I just say, “writing songs and playing songs for people.”

As for being a father and a husband – that suits me well, I think.  I like being a part of lives and feeling those lives be a part of me.  I may write songs, and some people might think there’s something to them, but I’m mostly content going to the public pool, sneaking in a couple drinks, and splashing about with my kids till dusk.  I want the fullness of life, and I think being with them, seeing life as they see it, doing breakfast with Santa, little league, or dance recitals— that feels essential to what a full life is.

Izzy: You just played a handful of live shows.  How have they gone so far?  Does it feel back to normal, or is it still a little weird with the pandemic?  I’ve heard and seen a lot of different things in the past few months.

Kip: Tobin Sprout was awesome, really still on top of his game.  His kid, Turner, was even with him on the tour, driving the van and genuinely just reveling in getting to see his dad out there being a legend.  And seeing Mates of State live again was surreal.  I saw them at a house show way back in 2000 (?) when I was still in school – and it was one of the best shows of my life.  So getting to share a stage with them felt like life had come full circle.

As for performing post-covid?  I’m not super worried. I got my vaccine (and will get the booster shot when I’m eligible), I wear a mask when I’m not playing, and just try to do the best I can to keep living my life.  I essentially ended The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in 2016 around the time my daughter was born to stay home with her (we officially disbanded in 2019), and then when I was finishing this record my son came into the world (2018), and I stayed home with him too.  And when the record was done for real and ready to go in Spring 2020, there was the pandemic- so I stayed home with them both when their schools shut down, and I eventually put out in April of this year instead.

So even though I’ve been putting things on hold and pushing things back for 5 years now – it’s actually been good.  Being home with my children created such a genuine bond – they call for me in the night just as much as their mother.  It feels (almost) good, being woken up at 3am to refill a glass of water or offer a back scratch.  And the actual tragedy of a global pandemic – where so many people died, lost people they love, or had their livelihood decimated- was not, “some guy in New Jersey couldn’t play rocknroll for a bit.”

Izzy: You’re going to be playing a handful of dates supporting Luna in November, including a stop here at Union Transfer.  What can be expected of the live show on these dates?

Kip: I saw Luna in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1999 at a venue called The Middle East and they were superb. Sadly, I was staying with a cousin that summer in Dorchester, and had to catch the last train home so I left halfway through their set. So, as I’ve long been a fan of theirs, I’m looking forward to *finally* seeing them play in full for a bunch of nights. From what I remember, they were really good live, so anyone on the fence should come out. In Philly I’m bringing my full band.

Izzy: For that matter, do you have any favorite works of Luna’s, whether particular tracks, or albums that you’re particularly fond of?  (I actually don’t think I realized they had eight studio albums until I sat down to write this.)

Kip: Luna were one of the first “cool” bands I ever got into, maybe from one of those Columbia House 1 penny stamp catalogs? I remember having a 3CD stereo, and there was always a Luna album in there if friends were coming over and I wanted to seem “sophisticated,” hahaha!

It’s funny to think about, but Dean Wareham always exuded an unmistakable NYC savoir faire, the kind of person who just seemed to know what was cool, in this timeless way.  I know he gets “Lou Reed” a lot – but it’s more like those two were driving towards a similar ideal.  The unflappable, wry, street poet of the small hours, wound tight and not prone to frivolity.  One came later, sure – but they are brothers, in a sense – and both remarkable people of their own invention.  It’s hugely cool to get to be a part of these shows.

Luna always lived in their own world.  They were out of step with the lo-fi “indie” music of the 90s, and ahead of the curve with the “New York Rock Revival” stuff of the early 00s.  But I definitely had and loved at least 4 of their records, which was a pretty massive commitment in those days: Lunapark, Bewitched, Penthouse, and (I think) Days of Our Nights.

Izzy: Finally, are you hoping and planning to do more with The Natvral in the near future, beyond these dates?  I kind of get the impression that it’s a project with which you’re definitely digging and getting comfortable.

Kip: Last summer (2020), I wrote a bunch of songs in the basement.  I called them “songs from the summer of no light,” a nod to the summer that Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, when a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia blocked enough of the sun that Europe was remarkably cold and dark.

I’m going to try and record some of them in October with Andy Savours again, with the hope that I can get a new record out next year.  But sometimes my plans… ha!

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.