Geoff Berner Interview (part 1?)


This week my token whisky rabbi drinking buddy Geoff Berner is touring the Netherlands with his kickass klezmer trio. Don’t miss his show in Amsterdam on Tuesday  1 December  2009 at the Nieuwe Anita.

Ah yes, the lone troubadour… One human. One instrument. And a stack of tunes. Once they were a dying breed but now a renaissance seems to be in full effect where one inspired freak falls in love with a mutant instrument and proceeds to learn how to use it as both a lover and a weapon. Personality helps too — and singer/songwriter/accordion-player Geoff ‘The Whiskey Rabbi’ Berner has that in spades. Already a respected cult figure in Scandinavia (thanks in part to his colleagues Kaizers Orchestra) and his native Canada, his songs have been covered by everyone from ukulele legend Carmaig de Forest to Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Certainly he has the ability to transfix any crowd he’s confronted with since it turns out that everyone’s a sucker for klezmer-based tunes that drip with politics, sex and drink — no Jewish wedding to be found here, just one ‘Lucky Goddam Jew’ (as another song is called) who knows how to play and sing from his heart. Berner’s motivation is simple: ‘I want to drag klezmer music kicking and screaming back into the bars.’


GBthumg_2So once a guy has a taste for it where can he find some more whisky rabbi drinking buddy types? In Odessa a hundred years ago perhaps?

Geoff: Well, contrary to some beliefs, Jews are actually a pretty hard-drinking racial group. Many of My People can give the Irish a run for their money. There are a large number of traditional drinking songs, including ‘Di Mashke’ (‘the whisky’). Most of them put forward the idea that drinking hard liquor is a privilege of adulthood and we should thank G-d for it, and a man who doesn’t drink is basically good for nothing.

My song ‘King of the Gangsters’ is about Benya Krik, a character in a series of short stories by Isaac Babel, set in the Odessa underworld in the teens. Babel makes Odessa sound like a wild and fascinating place. I think that his stories make the point that when a people is oppressed and denied power in society, its men and women of great talent often emerge from the criminal element, for better or worse.


But time travel is a bit tricky (and I can imagine green zero emissions time travel to be REAL REAL tricky). So what would be a more realistic option?

Geoff: I recommend hanging out with Bob Cohen, leader of my favourite klezmer band, Di Naye Kapelye. He lives in Budapest, speaks Yiddish, Hungarian, Romanian, three dialects of Roma, Zulu, and Brooklynese. He can tell dirty jokes in all these languages. He can tell you where the best food is in places that you’ve never heard of. He was once a Rastafarian for 10 years, and was the first American tourist in Grenada after the invasion.

You should read his crazy blog here.


GB_GML765003939_largeSo I’ve basically lived outside Canada for almost 20 years. But I spent a lot of that time writing about the world from the perspective of a Canadian peckerhead. Now I am planning to return to Canada for a longer stretch to write about Canada from the perspective of eurotrash. That’s my plan… And my question is: what went down in Canada in the last 20 years that may have passed me by that I should really know about if I want to write about the state of Canada…   socially, culturally, politically… new flavours of beer… that sort of thing…

Geoff: Canada. What the fuck is it? What’s changed in 20 years?


The gap between rich and poor has widened. So your middleclass friends whose careers are progressing will have more STUFF than you ever thought possible. And also they will be stepping around a lot more homeless people on the streets of the cities.

There are far fewer CanCon Rock heroes for the young. The internet has cancelled out the effect of the CanCon radio regulations. The Tragically Hip are still going strong, but they don’t fill arenas, and there’s no one who’s come up to take their place. Sure, the Arcade Fire are huge, but most Canadian teenagers don’t know they’re from Canada, and don’t care anyway.

People work harder than they did 20 years ago. That is, they work ALL THE TIME, constantly using their iphone/blackberry to check on what’s happening with work. At the bar.   In the car. At the kid’s soccer practice.

It’s fucking WARMER here, man. You’ll notice it. Even in Ottawa. The river freezes later, and thaws way earlier. In BC, we’re used to seeing crocus flowers shoot up in January now.

We’re at war. When I was growing up, everything was about how Canada hadn’t fired a shot in anger since Korea.   How Lester B. Pearson invented peace-keeping and that’s what our army was all about. Now, we get an average of one body bag a week, like clockwork. And have done for several years now. It’s a slow drip, drip, drip in the national consciousness that’s slowly changing our national character, making us more militaristic as a country.

Beer: People with university degrees now exclusively drink decent tasting beer from the micro-breweries. Some of the small Canadian beers are better than even some English ales. Working class people still drink Canadian and Blue. And they think people who drink ‘that fancy shit’ are faggots who think they’re better than everybody else.

Wine: People drink a helluvalot more wine than they used to here. Lots of Australian wine.

Drinking and driving is still practiced far and wide in Canada, to an astonishing degree compared with Europe.

People aren’t living in Canada. They don’t know where they’re living. They’re living on Facebook.

All of Canada is noticeably less white than it was 20 years ago. Canada has done the best job of integrating minorities of any country I’ve ever been to. Sikhs, Chinese, Muslims, Jews, can all wear whatever the hell they like to school, work, whatever, and nobody says boo. We know from experience that in a generation they’ll all be wearing blue jeans, if they’re not already.   Even working class people eat sushi, curry, Ethiopian food, whatever. That didn’t happen in the 80s.

Even the conservative party isn’t immigrant-baiting anymore. They’ve figured out that there’s a huge electoral gold mine in the immigrant community, and that, wonder of wonders, most immigrants believe in traditional families, hard work, low taxes, and long jail sentences for criminals–just like the Tories! That’s why the Tories will win the next election.

Anything I’ve left out?   Oh yeah: Curling is making a comeback.

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Posted in Uncategorized 14 years, 4 months ago at 4:14 pm.


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2 Replies

  1. Michelle Oct 26th 2012

    Seriously, curling is making a comeback?

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