Divided Heaven may be based in Los Angeles, CA, but Jeff Berman’s heart and soul are rooted firmly in Lancaster, PA. He grew up in Mount Joy where my old band, Skaliosis, practiced. He even booked a show for us, and only after doing this interview did I realize just how young he was at the time. He embodied the DIY spirit then just as he does now. He started out playing in local punk band, The Statiks, before moving onward and outward to play in The Boils, VPR, The Rites, and Protagonist.
Divided Heaven tours the east coast often. After a few missed opportunities, I finally saw Jeff play in August 2013. He was pulling double duty on that tour playing solo as Divided Heaven and guitar with Protagonist. A few months ago, I saw Divided Heaven as a full band. I cannot say one is better than the other. I liken it to when my wife and I saw the Smothers Brothers as a duo and again with the backing of the National Symphony Orchestra. If you’re lucky enough to see both, you’ll enjoy it all the same. It’s clear Jeff is a creative force and has enough musical outlets to keep it interesting and energizing for himself and his listeners.
Thanks to Jeff Berman for sharing memories of his early days in Lancaster and talking about the new Divided Heaven album, Youngblood.
SoCenPA: I love the thank you list on your first album, “A Rival City”. Instead of people or bands, you thank the cities where you lived throughout your life so far, with Lancaster being the first. What part did Lancaster’s music scene play in your introduction to punk music?
Jeff: The simple answer is CI Records, when it was located on Manor St. That store gave me a place to not only buy records but also hang out and learn from the scene vets and abundant misfits hanging around. CI, and later Angry, Young, and Poor, and of course 12XU/YipRoc–which gave my bands a place to play consistently–all played a critical part in introducing me to punk music and more importantly a punk scene that had been vibrant for quite a long time before I came along. For being such a small city Lancaster kicked ass (and still does).
SoCenPA: What was the first local band you heard? What was the first local show you attended?
Jeff: My first show was the Queers at the Chameleon but there were no local openers. My first local show was Caramel Sun from York, Dutchland Diesel from Lancaster, Sleepasaurus and the Bouncing Souls at the Water Street Studios in Lititz in 1995, promoted by Rob F.U.N. If I remember correctly, the first local band I heard was Dutchland Diesel, their first self-titled 7″, which I still have. I can not stress enough to people reading this just how incredible Dutchland Diesel was.
SoCenPA: Who inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Jeff: Motley Crue, Poison, Guns N’ Roses. C.C. DeVille is still my favorite guitar player.
SoCenPA: What was your first band? How and when did it come together? When and where did you play your first show?
Jeff: My first band was the Scourged, which means whipped, I think. Terrible name. Alas, we quickly became the Cursed which later morphed into the Statiks. The first show was in Marietta, PA in the Spring of 1997 at the J.C. Center opening for this hippie band called Blue Box Agency (their drummer Greg Rogove now owns a high-end breakfast spot down the street from me in Venice, CA).
The Cursed came together when Charlie Fink and I started playing Exploited covers together. Charlie is still one hell of a drummer, a natural talent. Matt Hample was the singer and Sarah Brandt was our bass player. The first song we wrote together was called “Too Bad It’s Chaos”.
SoCenPA: What was the first release you recorded on (self-copied demo tapes included)?
Jeff: The Cursed had a demo tape that we recorded on a boom-box in 1998. However, in 1999 the Statiks released a 7″ called Bombshell Baby which I regard as my first release. I still see it around, in 7″ bins, all over the country, so it served us well, considering we pressed 500, glued the covers together ourselves and toured in support of it.
The Statiks, “Bombshell Baby”
SoCenPA: What other Lancaster-area bands/projects were you involved with?
Jeff: My friend Taki Skiadas and I promoted shows in 8th and 9th grade, making our parents drive us around to flyer/pick-up the PA systems. We even booked Skaliosis! Besides that…The Statiks was my thing, I didn’t play with anyone else. When the lineup settled on Tim Schock on vocals, Jill Fulford on Bass and Matt Kiem on drums we were playing all the time; Baltimore, Philly, York, Reading, NYC, DC, Pittsburgh, etc. Hell, we even played shows in California when I was still 17. So we were focused and not involved with other bands. The Statiks were a gang determined to play everywhere.
SoCenPA: What is your favorite memory of playing in Lancaster?
Jeff: The final Cursed show, before we revamped and returned a few months later as the Statiks, was a packed room at 12XU. Sweaty, emotional, chaotic, cathartic…it still makes me smile.
SoCenPA: For what reason(s) did you leave Lancaster, and what eventually brought you to Los Angeles?
Jeff: I left Lancaster to go to American University in Washington, DC. I lost a taste for Pennsylvania after a few years of being away. I still loved Lancaster but felt my calling was to live and thrive in bigger cities. After college I moved to Brooklyn. My four years in NYC was an education in itself. Eventually, I reached a point in Brooklyn where I had a good life with great friends and felt like it was time for another move. I have always been attracted to Los Angeles and have some family history here as well. In the early 1930s my grandfather moved to Hollywood to open a fur shop (back when fur was a fashionable, not faux-pas, hip clothing style) and ended up convincing one of his customers–the young up and coming actress–Helen Erickson to marry him. They moved to Chicago, settled down, had my Dad and so on. LA is a difficult place to transition into as an East Coaster but I was up for the challenge and liked the idea of roaming the streets my grandparents did many years ago.
SoCenPA: After playing in bands, what led you to write and perform as solo artist?
Jeff: Two things: one, I couldn’t find band members in NYC, and initially in LA. So by default I was performing solo. And two, I really wanted to. I loved the challenge, the nervous energy and the risk.
SoCenPA: Just in the last year, I can tell you keep a busy schedule – Divided Heaven solo, touring guitarist with Protagonist, HeartRacers, and Divided Heaven full band. What was the process like writing and recording Youngblood?
Jeff: I have read countless interviews where bands state they wrote 50 songs for a new record and then narrowed it down to 12 or so for the album. I had just come off of a very busy 2012 touring schedule and had the time to write, re-work songs from my vault, and properly demo over 30 songs. A Rival City was simply a collection of songs. I wanted to challenge myself to write the best record I possibly could. When I completed the demos we (myself, Manager Peter Marullo, Protagonist axe man John Marullo, and Producer Charlie Stavish) sat with the demos for one month before turning in our list of 15 favorites. I compiled the lists, calculated the popular songs and determined 15 songs (which grew to 19) to record with Charlie Stavish in order to make what would become Youngblood as good as it possibly could be.
The recording sessions were great. Charlie and I worked well together and we really took our time to make the songs feel–not just sound–right. Ironically, a few of the songs we recorded and had very high hopes for turned out to be lame and paled in comparison to others which came to life as we recorded them. Charlie and I allowed ourselves to not be rushed despite my busy schedule with all my bands. This calm process really brought out the best in me and the songs.
SoCenPA: Besides playing in a full band, what sets this album apart from A Rival City?
Jeff: The obvious differences are the sound and quality. I’m a better singer, a better songwriter and a better musician. I’m always working on my game and I think it shows in the new record.
But also, you have to look at life experience. The time I spent on the road for A Rival City was great and vast. Ultimately, it led to a number of rather uncomfortable yet necessary life decisions that I had to make. Youngblood feels more urgent and emotional because, quite simply, I went through a lot in my personal life while writing, demoing and recording it. Without trying to seem like I’m fishing for sympathy…I will share that I was sleeping in my car for most of the first month of the recording. And while I wasn’t homeless or broke…I couldn’t stay in my apartment because I had just left my girlfriend and I disliked staying with friends (of which I am fortunate to have many) because I just needed to be alone. The relationship emotionally drained me and I couldn’t stand to talk about it anymore with anyone. So, I’d record in East LA, grab some dinner, explore Chinatown for hours, sleep in my car, wake up and enter my apartment after my ex left in the morning, shower and head back to the studio. I was an emotional wreck and I needed two things: my space and to create these songs.
The songs on A Rival City all say something definitive. I am extremely proud of that record. Youngblood is collection of songs in which I am wrestling with issues, admitting defeat, embracing victory, being present in a mourning process, and understanding my regrets/mistakes/emotions as an adult.
SoCenPA: At a show I saw last August, you closed your set with a great cover of “Clean Sheets” by Descendents. How did you connect with Stephen Egerton to record some songs on the new album?
Jeff: Thank you, that is a great song. Protagonist recorded their States EP with him in 2010 and put us in touch. I stopped in Tulsa, OK for a few days in November of 2012 while on tour and Stephen was my producer and backing band for a few songs. It was a great experience working with him.
SoCenPA: How did Say-10 Records get involved with Youngblood?
Jeff: Adam at Say-10 Records and I were in touch as I started recording the record. His enthusiasm towards it was awesome and we agreed that Youngblood would be a Say-10 Records release.
SoCenPA: As I just mentioned, I saw you play in Baltimore as a solo artist last August and with a full band in January (thank you Feed The Scene). What are your upcoming tour plans?
Jeff: April I am touring solo through Florida and Georgia. May, I am touring solo the West Coast with Bobby Meader Music. End of May, we are doing a SouthWest full-band tour. After that, a solo tour in Europe with Joe McMahon and Mark McCabe, some dates on the Vans Warped Tour and much more.
SoCenPA: What lessons learned (positive or negative) from your early days in the Lancaster music scene have you carried with you into Divided Heaven today?
Jeff: You know, I’m still wrestling with Pennsylvania’s influence on me. I have great memories from growing up in the Lancaster scene. I also have bad memories, or lasting impressions from the negative, uber-conservative, self-defeatist imbeciles we grew up surrounded by. I have conversations with Peter and John from Protagonist about this all the time. They were born and raised in Downingtown before moving to Florida in High School. We often lament the negativity in Pennsylvania.
On his Republican Primary campaign stump Rick Santorum spoke with pride about his Pennsylvania-utopia, where families work hard, communities support each other and Christianity holds us all together. It made me sick in how aloof he was as a candidate but I recognized the bullshit he spoke of was just negativity cloaked with a veneer of positivity. The underlying Christian influence in PA is a reason to rejoice for many, for me it’s not. It’s negativity, and it is a resonating characteristic I see in too many people, including some friends, in PA.
At a young age I felt driven because I wanted to prove to people that it was ok to be different. Punk music made me want to challenge myself, make music, and see the world. Punk music made me want to challenge the negative conventional wisdom surrounding me. I think Divided Heaven is my natural extension of that feeling.
SoCenPA: Do you ever see your music coming full circle back to Lancaster, and how might that happen?
Jeff: My music is Lancaster, to me anyway. There’s a whole new scene there I love sharing it with. Maybe one day, I will move back to Lancaster. I think about it regularly and have seriously considered it a few times. No promises, but it might happen.
Thanks again to Jeff for talking about the past and present. The new Divided Heaven album, Youngblood is available NOW! You can order it through Say-10 Records, download the album on iTunes, or pick up a copy at one his shows.
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