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Interviews

Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
Alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne's been an enormous presence in improvised music for over twenty-five years. Although he didn't pick up the alto until he was nineteen years old, he had moved to New York City and begun lessons with his great mentor Julius Hemphill by the time he was 20, in 1974. Berne's been notable for his do-it-yourself spirit and his decidedly untimid willingness to get out there and play: he was performing as a leader and releasing records like his debut The Five Year Plan by 1979, effectively doing a great deal of his musical development in the public eye. Berne spent some time recording for Columbia Records and a longer time at JMT (for which he recorded the classic Fractured Fairy Tales in 1989 as well as seminal albums by his revered groups Miniature and bloodcount). This decade has seen Berne run his own record label Screwgun while performing and recording prolifically with groups like Hard Cell, Science Friction and Paraphrase.

The above synopsis hardly covers a career as productive and interesting as Berne's—but read on.

All About Jazz: You're a prolific composer and recorder. You currently have several working bands. You currently record for your own record label, Screwgun, and also for Thirsty Ear.

Tim Berne: Well, I was. I have occasionally.

AAJ: Well, in terms of the last several years, your groups Paraphrase and Hard Cell are on Screwgun and Science Friction and Big Satan are on Thirsty Ear.

TB: Some of them, yeah. I mean, the first Science Friction was on Screwgun.

AAJ: Is there any decision behind what you put out on your own label versus what comes out on, say, Thirsty Ear?

TB: My criteria for doing something for another label, in general, is that as long as I can control the recording turf as well as as much of the visuals as I can, it's kind of like doing it for myself—until the record comes out, at least. So if I can do that, then the decision—and I probably shouldn't say this but it's probably not a big surprise—is usually based on how much hassle I want. It's a money decision—like, can I afford to pay for a studio record at this point on my own? And can I deal with doing the work of selling it? If I'm in a mode where I'm working quite a bit, doing tours and stuff, I might say, okay, I'd rather just do the record for somebody else.

That said, I'm getting closer and closer to not doing that—ever. Nothing against anybody else, but I don't think I've come across anyone who cares as much about what happens after the record comes out, or understands that market as well as I do—coming from being a musician and touring. It's just rare when you find somebody who doesn't buy into the "it's-really-hard-to-sell-this-music vibe. I think we all do it. But going around on tour and seeing these ravenous fans, and seeing the mail order, and seeing all the correspondence I get—just seeing how it works, it's not really that dire. It's easy to just draw that catchphrase, but sometimes it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Thirsty Ear's distributed by a Warners subsidiary, I think; they're not really equipped [laughing] to go underground. And being in all the shops isn't really that exciting to me unless I'm going to be on a label that follows through on that.

AAJ: Yeah, or it's just going to be something that sits in Borders for fifteen years.

TB: Exactly. Having ones in all the Borders really is a waste of time. Or if you're going to do that—if we go on tour you have to follow us around and be aware that we're in Seattle, Portland, Eugene in the next week and take advantage of that. The only label that I see that does that successfully is really ECM. Or at least considers that a priority.

AAJ: They've had years of experience.

TB: Well, it's common sense. I sell more records when I'm on tour. Everybody does, I think. And the whole philosophy—it's kind of like movies. You put the record out and everyone thinks autumn is the best time to do it because of Christmas. They put the record out, it's out for three months and then they're on to the next record. Maybe they give it six months. And then, unless the stores are being provoked by good sales people, they're not going to keep reordering—they're just going to move on to the billions of new records they have. That's what I think; I've worked in record stores so I kind of know where that's at and it makes sense. If someone doesn't call your attention to something, if you're not a fanatic it's not going to occur to you.

AAJ: There's also just the fact that the artist is not going to be as comfortable as the record being over as the label is. The label can just say that the record didn't do so well and they're finished with it.

TB: Yeah, and I know that's not the case. I'm not even guessing—I sell back catalog.

AAJ: It's just a record company concept, I think.

TB: Yeah, and maybe it's a necessary evil, I don't really know. But you always have new fans, and they're going to want to go back and check out the other stuff. And at least it should be available easily. And Thirsty Ear is starting to do that with the mail order thing. But it's hard to go back from being retail-oriented to all of a sudden being kind of underground. But I think a lot of people buy shit online. I mean, I don't buy records, but if I did, it'd be much easier to just go online and do all kinds of crazy searches until you find what you want.

AAJ: Especially if you live outside of the major cities; then you don't have any choice but to go online if you've got any taste outside the mainstream.

TB: Exactly. But the bottom line for me is just that I want to own it. After what happened with JMT and Columbia [Berne recorded for both labels]—you'd have to be pretty naïve to think that all these records aren't going to go out of print eventually. The only way they're going to come back in is if you become legendary or dead.

AAJ: Which usually happens around the same time.

TB: [Laughing] I'd like to die before I become a legend. But I do my label from a position of strength; I don't really see it as, "okay, I'm bitter, I hate these motherfuckers so I'm going to do it myself. It's more like, "gee, this is fun. I own it and I'm selling them and the only downside is I spend a few hours a day putting stamps on stuff.

AAJ: I listed four different Tim Berne groups earlier and I'm just covering the last few years of your career. You've definitely got this core of musicians that make up these groups. So the individual bands are distinguished by the combinations of these players, the intentions behind what you what each band to do, and the level of collaboration involved—whether you're leader or coleader. I want to talk some about each of these musicians you work with. The one constant besides you on all your recent recordings is drummer Tom Rainey. The two of you have a special communicative thing going on. Tell me what you get from playing with him.

TB: The fundamental thing for me in a band is that I feel like there's a level of enthusiasm or interest in what I'm doing. And that's never changed with Tom—if anything, it's gotten more intense. With that kind of feeling, even when it's not working, you still feel like you both still have the same goals, which are to make some interesting music. I mean, the hookup is great, but it's still nice when we're both kind of struggling, because we're both trying so hard. With Tom, I've never done a gig where I was thought, "god, what the fuck, where was Tom? What was he thinking?—it just never happens. So once it works, that level of interest has to change for me to make a change. Again, it's like movies; people make movies with the same people because why change it if it's working? So with Tom, other than the musical connection, he's really focused—even as much as we work. It gets pretty crazy on tour, but he's still always there and he's always really disappointed if it's not a good gig. He really cares about it.

Playing-wise, I've seen him grow quite a bit over the last ten years. I think starting with Paraphrase, I gave him a much bigger stake in that band than he'd ever had creatively. He's pretty much right in there with the rest of us trying to make decisions and come up with ideas; it's no longer like, "do this here, do this while we're doing this. He became a leader. And at that point, I think his confidence increased and he also just had more opportunity to express himself. After that, he began almost entirely doing just gigs that he wanted to do—he wasn't doing gigs just for money. He was playing with [saxophonist Tony] Malaby, playing with [bassist Mark] Helias—almost everything was a creative situation. I think after that, he couldn't help but get better—playing with people that good that often, doing like 100 gigs a year, playing basically improvised music. The momentum just picked him up, and that was it. But for me it's his focus, his involvement. He's just always there, always present. He doesn't just follow. I kind of get irritated when people just do that—whatever I say, they do it.

AAJ: Tell me about keyboardist Craig Taborn, who plays with you in Hard Cell and Science Friction.

TB: Well, I met Craig a couple times on the street, and I just thought it would work—essentially based on just talking to him about anything, on his personality. I just found him pretty interesting and I just had a hunch. I really didn't know him as a player at all. So we got together and played and it was kind of in the zone I imagined, which was at that time that I wanted to do something electric but I didn't want to have a guitar and I didn't want to have a bass. But I wanted to allude to a lot of that in a not-so-obvious way. I didn't want to do away with groove, or with bass as an idea. I also wanted the noise factor of the guitar, but something that was maybe more orchestral that didn't require two or three more people.

Now, I couldn't have predicted how well Craig could do all that, but I kind of had a hunch. Again, it's one of those things—if you push it too much or you want quick results, it might not work out. We went through a period where it was very uneven; sometimes it was amazing, sometimes it wasn't. Some of that had to do with sound issues—trying to get something pretty sophisticated without having a sound man or decent equipment. That part of it can be complicated on the road. But I just kind of let it happen knowing that there was enough trust between the three of us that it would click, and obviously, for me it did.


Hard Cell: Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey, Tim Berne

I think he's insanely brilliant. The two of those guys together—I'd love to take credit for it, but it's pretty deep. Their backgrounds in listening, too, are not as disparate as you'd think, and it's interesting: the things that they reference are not [laughing] what you'd think they would be! They were both serious Zappa freaks—stuff like that that makes it interesting. Even if they're not trying to do that, it's in their memory banks.

Also, Craig has this ability to write or read or play these really complicated tunes where his independence is really essential. That means that I can write certain things for one person that I probably couldn't write for just any pianist. Craig's really an improviser and that means if he's not feeling it one way, he just won't do it. He'll make pretty radical decisions that can be kind of awkward or feel uncomfortable, but they kind of lead us to new places a lot of times. More than me or Tom, he'll just make these radical decisions and live with them—kind of wallow in them. That kind of reminds me of Frisell—when I used to play with Bill, sometimes he'd just do nothing and you'd just be like, "ahhhhhhhhhhh! He'd just kind of freeze; he wouldn't want to do this and wouldn't want to do that and instead of looking for some kind of safe place to go, he'd just freeze. And that would become the music at the time and how we would react—our level of panic—kind of made for an interesting moment.

AAJ: There's one thing that musicans are unnerved by in any sort of collective improvisation, and that's when someone just stops playing.

TB: Exactly, because there's always a reason. You think, "oh, maybe he hates me. So that's sort of an element; one of the hardest things to do in that situation is nothing. But it can be pretty interesting, sort of a relative nothing. So Craig brings out another area there—I mean, he might be just as freaked out as we are, but he's so determined. You know, your personality just comes out. It's like being at a party and all of a sudden realizing you don't want to talk to anybody—and instead of take the compromised approach and be civilized, you just stop and freak everybody out. There's nothing like not talking in a conversation that flips people out.

AAJ: And now I'll ask you about bassist Drew Gress, and we might as well incorporate asking about him into the bigger picture of Paraphrase, your improvisational trio with Drew and Tom. The new Paraphrase CD is Pre-Emptive Denial, which is a live set from May 2005 at The Stone. Tell me why Drew is a member of this all-improv group, how this stuff works—is this a band that rehearses? And for the two pieces that make up this CD—was there any planning, any discussion beforehand?

TB: When we started Paraphrase, I think I was doing Bloodcount a lot and I think I just wanted to have some group to play with those guys, basically. Because I was playing with Tom a lot at my house. I can't remember if Big Satan existed by then.

AAJ: Maybe right around then?

TB: Maybe, yeah. And that was fun, but [guitarist] Marc [Ducret] lived in Paris, and I just wanted to have something else I could do with those guys that was different. We used to get together and have sessions, which meant just get together and play. It was always improvised and always really a lot of fun, and different than anything else we did. Somehow we would hit these areas that we didn't hit playing in any other situation. So in most cases with a situation like that, you say, "okay, let's start a band, and all of a sudden you write a bunch of music and it's not the same thing. So I thought about it, and I thought, "what's the one thing I really fear in terms of performing? And for me it's definitely being in an all-improvised situation. Not to mention a bass/drums trio: that's also a situation I have a hard time writing for. So I just said "fuck it; we should just do gigs and play, do what we do when we get together. So those guys were down and we did it and it wasn't the disaster we thought it might be—because we're so used to playing music in all these other bands. Actually, it was really fun, so we just decided to keep it that way, which would differentiate it from all these other things.

So we don't plan anything. We don't talk about it. The only time we talk is after a gig—usually not the three of us, but in pairs. It's almost like it's voodoo to talk about it with the three of us. But me and Tom might be hanging out, going like, "oh, man, I fuckin' died in that first set. It was like I was in quicksand, and Tom would say, "oh, man, I hear you. And I might talk to Drew and he might have dug it. You just have these little conversations that are just enough—it's sort of like this comforting insecurity—just enough so you don't get down on yourselves, but you know that you weren't the only one thinking that these things do happen. And when you're on a long tour, at some point you get to the point where there are nights where you just let the audience be your barometer. You don't want to always be hard on yourselves. We get pretty good audience response with that band, so sometimes it's just nice to say "fuck it, they liked it, it must have been cool. We have to give ourselves a break, because, you know, of course we're repeating ourselves and playing with our own licks. But what's interesting about that band is that with an improvised band, you always think, "oh, all-improvised—there's going to be no rhythm, no harmony. "Open just tends to mean "free. I don't even like to say that, but in the back of your mind, you do think that.

AAJ: People think it'll be a big skronkfest.

TB: Yeah, yeah. Or you think it might be interesting, but there'll be nothing that's even remotely idiomatic. And ironically, I think that with this band [laughing] it's the only band where we even come close to playing idiomatically!

AAJ: The new record is just fifty minutes of what you did on one night.

TB: Yeah, one set. And the other two records are the same thing—just a set, straight through.

AAJ: "Trading On All Fours is the first piece on the CD and it's great. There's some dense improv in it, but I find it very accessible. One reason is that beside the overall group interplay, you're endlessly capable of generating melody. In your own way, you're one of the most straight-ahead horn players around. But when you've got this three-way communication, it's endlessly interesting to listen to who's driving the car, as it were, at each point. In the first minutes it's you, your horn melodies are the rhythmic center besides the melodic one. But after a drum-and-bass break, you can hear the other two taking control at different points.

TB: I think that's what attracted me to that situation. I just noticed I did certain things that I can't recreate when it's my band and I'm writing music. I just don't do it. There are these zones that I love to play in that I can't somehow initiate in my own bands without there being something kind of artificial about it. And that's why I like playing with Drew's band; it's the same thing. He kind of puts me in a whole different setting that I really like, but, again, can't initiate in my own groups. I'd have to really do something that I don't hear in myself. But when Drew does it, it's great; it's so natural. That band's so great for me. But when we do Paraphrase gigs [both Berne and Rainey play in Gress's group] it's so different; it's not the same three guys. Which is hilarious.

AAJ: A piece like "Trading On All Fours has, to me, a great thematic unity. It's a successful improvisation. But when I say that, I'm describing reality after the fact. Is there a notion of staying on topic when you're improvising like this?

TB: Absolutely. I think so. I mean, we all write music. We're all in bands where composition is not just the written music. So I'm always composing. It's not a big mystery what I'm doing playingwise. I'm really playing thematically; even if it's super-abstract, I'm always remembering what we did and where we're going, and kind of relating whatever ideas of composition and drama and tension and release that I do in writing. The thing is, you've got two other people in the conversation, so that's what makes it interesting—how everyone else interprets your decisions. And you're making those decisions really quickly. So it's great when everybody's kind of ignoring each other in a very convincing way. That can be really interesting. The key to it is just being assertive with whatever you're doing. So if you're ignoring each other—as long as it's a convincing argument, I think it's going to be effective.

AAJ: No mumbling.

TB: Yeah. Or if you're second-guessing yourself because you didn't come up with the same idea at the same time, then it sounds like that. It sounds like you're following. On the first two Paraphrase recordings [Visitation Rites, 1997 and Please Advise, 1999], which I really liked, things developed a little slower, I would say. On this one, what was funny was that we were making these really incisive decisions really quickly, on the spot—it would just happen. It was a lot more concise than it usually is, and I don't know why. I think it might have been that it was, I think, a one-set gig where there was another band. So probably subconsciously, you don't want to play too long. Also, we had just done a gig with Drew, playing completely different music, a night or two before that, so we were just in a frame of mind where we weren't even thinking. I just remember everything happening really fast. The way we started was just like, boom—we were just right into it. And a lot of times we'll start and kind of hunt around for about five minutes to see where it's going. This one, I just remember feeling pretty comfortable right away—probably because we had just done some gigs.

AAJ: It's because of the way that first piece begins that made me ask whether you talk this stuff over before you play.

TB: Yeah, I know. That was pretty cool. I hate to say it, but that's probably unusual. A lot of times we're looking around like, "who's going to start? I don't want to go first. There's more of a sheepish kind of hesitation.

AAJ: Well, also, for some pieces what's good is how they develop. The second piece on the CD has that coalescing quality and that's good music—but there is something striking about that first one.

TB: And that's a classic case—on the second piece, you're reacting to the first piece. It's only natural to start the second one that way after all that intensity; that's what I mean by thinking compositionally or logically. It's a certain kind of logic—not everyone thinks that's logical. There's another school that might think, well, just go all the way all the time. And if you do that convincingly, that's great. It's not really one versus the other, but that's just the way we think, me and Tom and I think even Drew. We're just superpragmatic people.

AAJ: Tom's drumming is just fantastic in the Paraphrase setting. That second piece, "We Bow to Royalties—I won't waste your time trying to describe the whole thing, but I do like how near the beginning Tom plays this drum part, I think on just his toms, and it's very tympani-like. Later he plays a drum solo, but it feels so melodic to me—he's a really melodic drummer.

TB: Yeah, he's great. And with drum solos—I'm always begging him to take longer ones. I think he always sees it as a transition, not a solo. Which is great, but sometimes it's like, "come on man, go! He never just does these things to get off or get the audience excited; you can already hear him moving to the next section one minute into it. You can see where he's aiming, and I really like that. And the last few years—maybe starting with Bloodcount I was kind of trying—but I've really tried to get into more stuff that's less solo-oriented. To get into this thing where everybody's just trying to accompany each other.

AAJ: That brings me, I think, to Hard Cell, which is a band that demonstrates some of those inclinations of yours. This is you, Tom Rainey and Craig Taborn. There's plenty of improvisation, but this group plays your compositions. The newest CD is Feign, which is all-acoustic—this really means that Craig sticks to piano. On the previous Hard Cell album, Electric and Acoustic Hard Cell Live (2004, Screwgun Records), he plays a mixture of piano and, I think, Rhodes?

TB: Well, there's two piano cuts and the others are—his setup is usually a Rhodes, a computer, a mixer and some other things. I can't remember about that gig; it was a few years ago. I'm not sure if the computer was there yet. I think one of his things got stolen so he figured out how to do it with the computer. The one before it [The Shell Game, 2001], he actually ended up playing mostly Wurlitzer, even though we had the Rhodes set up—just because he felt like it [laughing]. So you never know, but now we do these gigs with [guitarist] David Torn, and it's mostly Rhodes, just because it gives Craig the most bass option and the most range.

AAJ: Whenever I talk to groups that play either acoustic piano or keyboard, it turns out that the gig determines the choice—based on whether the venue even has a piano and whether it's any good.

TB: Sometimes. It's usually pretty conscious here. I made a conscious decision to go acoustic. We did a long tour, and I just got tired of certain things, like going on the road and trying to do the electric thing in a band where we're not successful enough to demand certain things. It's so uneven in terms of the instruments and you hate being sabotaged by the fact that they didn't get a Rhodes or the amp sucks. So I thought, well, I'll get a piano—which is of course, probably ten times more complicated [laughing] to get the sound thing right. Now, on that live one, the piano stuff was kind of an accident. We had to do some kind of little promo thing for some festival and we didn't want to drag in all our shit because we were just doing two tunes and so we did it on piano. That was the first time and the tunes sounded so cool that I said, "oh, man, I should just do that.

AAJ: What a breakthrough.

TB: Yeah. I was sort of avoiding it because I thought the lack of texture might freak me out—because all of a sudden you have these really streamlined pitches coming at you and it kind of scared me. Which is a good reason to do it.

AAJ: So now the group is playing acoustically pretty much all the time.

TB: Except when we play with Torn. Then we play electrically, but that's a different thing. In terms of Hard Cell at the moment, it's acoustic.

AAJ: That makes sense. The Hard Cell records do give the impression you're more and more interested in the acoustic side.

TB: Yeah, you know, I go through phases. When I get tired of something, I do something else. I'll probably come back. It's nice that with Torn we can do the electric thing, but have this other option to go the other way.

AAJ: I know Torn's recording and mixing work on Drew's and your records, but I don't know his own music.

TB: He's an amazing guitarist. That's what he is—the other stuff, he just does it because he likes to do it. He has a little studio in his house. But he's just an incredible guitarist. He was doing a lot more in the early eighties than he is now in terms of his own stuff, but he's kind of coming back. He's got an ECM record coming out in the fall with the four of us which he's mixing right now that's incredible. He's incredible; that's a whole 'nother conversation.

Working with him in the studio has really changed my life, in a good way, in terms of recording. It's just nice to have somebody that's not on the record that has the same interest and creativity and good taste. Someone who understands the process. I guess the first one that he mixed for me was the live Science Friction [The Sublime And, Thirsty Ear, 2003] and he just kept saying that he'd love to just mix each one of the tunes for a week apiece. He gets into these levels of detail. But he took that record and spent a month mixing it, and if you heard the master and then that—the amount of music he brought out that wasn't there, and not by doing anything weird with the sounds, just by making it sound good, was amazing.

He mixed the Big Satan record [Souls Saved Hear, Thirsty Ear, 2004], he mixed Drew's record [7 Black Butterflies, Premonition, 2005]; he spent three to four weeks on these things. And that's a big difference from the usual one day, two days at the most, that we would spend on these records. The other end of it was that when we did Feign, I wanted to do it live to two-track; I didn't want to mix it. And he's totally into that—he and this guy Hector [Castillo], the engineer, just sat there and mixed it live, without even having heard the music beforehand. So he's totally capable of that as well. It's like having another—it is having another musician in the group, and it frees me up. I don't have to worry about all that stuff, which I don't understand anyway.

AAJ: The Feign CD starts out with a short piece, "I Do It, which has your alto working a melody that sort of travels and progresses throughout the piece; at times it acts in duet with Taborn, the two of you playing simultaneous melodies. This song to me seems pretty through-composed.

TB: It is, completely. Obviously, Tom's making up his part, but the song's composed. It's this piece that I had that I kept trying to attach to other tunes. I didn't know what to do with it; I kept thinking, "how can we improvise on this, how do I want to arrange it? So when we starting the session, it sort of hit me: why don't we just record it as it is and not improvise? It was also a good tune to warm up on and record without any major improvisation so we could just focus on the sound. Ironically, it was the hardest one to do—it took forever. But I was glad we did it.

AAJ: It's a good way to start off the record.

TB: Yeah. Then it kind of made sense. It's different.

AAJ: "Time Laugh is one of my favorite songs of yours. It starts with a sort of paranoid piano ostinato with your alto on top of that, then goes through a variety of sections and sort of builds tension. I especially like Craig's spooky chords. This song doesn't seem built around a theme-improv-theme structure, but it does end with a couple written unison themes. You and Taborn do a fair bit of unison stuff in Hard Cell.

TB: Well, all the music, he's playing both parts so he's always playing my part. Sometimes you can't tell, but we're always playing the right-hand stuff together. I think that was the other difficult piece. We were having a hard time. Everything went really easily the first day, so I thought we might as well stop—we'd have the whole next day to fuck around. It'd be really easy. And that was [laughing] not the case and the next day was like starting over. We were trying to do "Time Laugh and it was just hard for some reason; the improvs weren't very interesting. I think we were just trying too hard or we'd done so much the first day it was hard to avoid certain things: sometimes you just try to avoid what you've played already and that becomes the improv. But I remember we had one that was okay, so we were ready to kind of just say, "ah, fuck it, this is cool.

And then I think it was Tom that said, "let's do another one. Why not? And we did one of these really exhausted ones where me and Craig were just shot. And that's how it hit that total space-mode after the head. I just didn't even try to play—I felt I had nothing to say: "I'll just let these guys worry about it. And Craig probably looked up and said, "oh, shit, Tim's not playing. I've had it. [Laughing] But Tom really was fired up; he tends to do well in the multiple-take thing. He had a really wild thing going and then Craig jumped in—I thought, "wow, now this is amazing! I don't want to come in and wreck it!

It was really one of my favorite improvs and I think it just came out of this exhaustion and not knowing what to play and so you can hear us not trying too hard. Because you know, some of the written things are so specific that it's hard—it takes a while before you can ignore them and not be a slave to whatever vibe they set up. Because we did so many gigs that month, we got to a point where we could do that and not think we were just playing anything. It's kind of a fine line between doing what you want and still making the written stuff have a point in being there.

AAJ: Well, it's fortunate when you reach that point around the time that you make the record.

TB: Yeah! It's hard because it just doesn't ordinarily make sense that if you've done a lot of gigs, the record's going to be good. One of the things from the last several years I've been in the studio—I just don't use headphones. I just can't do it, I don't want to do it. So we had to figure a way to set up and get good sound while being all in the same room, really close together—especially with the piano wide open. So: David and Hector spent like four or five hours with us playing until they figured it out. That's the nice thing about Torn: if I say, "we want to record this way. We want to record live, it's going to be loud as shit, no separation, can you deal with that, he'll say, "okay and then figure it out. You know, most sessions, the engineer's going out of his way to separate everything so he doesn't have to work too hard.

AAJ: Yeah, some of them will just tell you it's impossible.

TB: Exactly. But it's an adventure to Torn too. And you do compromise on the sound, but what you make up for in performance is always worth it—I mean, that's the way we play in concert. So it felt really good because we were facing each other and not using headphones.

AAJ: I'm interested in Hard Cell's approach to time. Like on "Brokelyn, which is a great piece with an eerie, gathering beginning with your alto sort of crossing a World-War-I minefield of piano and cymbals. But a lot of it has a real rubato quality, and those sections really contrast with the parts where time gets more definite.

TB: Well, the first thing's in time, believe it or not, but we play it as if it's rubato. It's just two parts written in strict time. It's written to sound like it's floating, so with the slightly rubato approach we take—and in fact, we've played it a lot—it'll work that way. You know, it's just contrast; there's no big, radical thing going on. "Okay, this was floaty and weird so now this should be be in strict or more definite time.

In terms of the written material, I'm just looking to supply enough contrast that it's not boring, basically—and then enough information that makes you want to improvise. These days I don't really want to direct any improvisation; the only directing I do is by nature of the written music. That should make you want to improvise, provoke something to happen. If it leaves you someplace and you don't feel like improvising, it's not working. So when I do use written music, that's as much as I want it to do. And also, you know, just sound good. But I'm sort of going through a transition—I'm trying to figure out in a way how to use less written music and still get something specific.

AAJ: How to suggest something without having as much stated?

TB: Somehow, or just making it more organic. I noticed when we were on tour—by the end of the tour, the last gig, we almost didn't play any of the music. I remember the last two sets we did in England, I think we played maybe two tunes a set. We would just keep playing and if it wasn't going there, we just wouldn't play the next tune; we'd keep going. Which is kind of what I want—but I don't want to say I want that. I don't want to ask us to do it, I just want it to get to the point where everyone's that confident that they're not going to force something if it's not there. When it starts happening like that, it's really cool.

AAJ: It's funny that you put it that way. You say you're so pragmatic, but in not wanting to mention what you want to do, you're almost superstitious—like you're afraid you'll jinx it.

TB: Well, it's true. Because I've been in bands where you say, "well, that song was great but it seems like it might have been too slow—and the next night it'll be ten times faster. Almost invariably. So when you do enough gigs, you have to relax and just say that for every person that doesn't like it like that, someone is going to like it, and you can never please everyone. You have to accept these things as the nature of improvisation. It's going to be slow one night. I just don't want to turn it into a show. Not that that's good or bad; it's just my nature—I'll get bored. There's something exciting about not knowing whether it's going to work or whether they're going to like it. It's almost like cheating when you find something that works and then just keep doing it and it's successful. I always feel like we're cheating when we do that.

AAJ: Well, that's not what you do for a living.

TB: [laughing ruefully] Well, it sounds stupid when you're describing it.

AAJ: Well, it's hard to talk about music. It's easy to feel like a jerkoff.

TB: Yeah, you always contradict yourself—just like the music. The minute I lock into an idea it seem like I go another way and contradict it. That's why I've never liked liner notes. It just ruins the whole thing for the listener; once I say what I think it is, there's no way that someone's going in most cases to not agree or not hear it that way.

AAJ: I think "I Thought You Had It is—

TB: Good title. "I Think I Thought You Had It.

AAJ: That can be your sequel! That song's a good example of another Hard Cell trademark—there's strong convergence, like unison alto/piano, and enormous divergence, where not two but all three musical voices drift apart autonomously. Any opinion on that?

TB: That sounds accurate. There's some things that happen more than once on that record [laughing], I would say. I'd like to say that's not true, but there's a definite strategy in my writing that I can't avoid, so I try to hide it. But I'm aware of it. And, you know, it's honest. When people ask me what's my concept, I say that in a way, I don't have one. I just have taste. I try to keep it as interesting as possible, as different as possible—but at a certain point you have to be honest and say, "this is what I hear. This is what's coming out. If I strive for perfection, I might not make a record. I might never grow; I might just get stuck in that "I'm-not-ready-yet mode. So at a certain point, I just throw my arms up and say, "yup, that happened again. I guess that's me. And it's not like it's uninteresting, but if you want to get superanalytical about it, you can find certain strategies that recur. In the end, everything I'm doing is a reorganization of something else, that somebody else did anyway—and if you put out enough records, you're sort of asking for it.

AAJ: Well, no one group—whether they're the world's greatest or not—never does everything and never repeats themselves. So are there actual "Hard Cell compositions, meaning songs you compose specifically for the band? "Van Gundy's Retreat and "Fraction were done by Science Friction as well.

TB: All the ones on Feign were written for that record. Those were all new, for that group. I don't think I've played those with any other group.

AAJ: So you do write for specific bands.

TB: Yeah. That stuff I wrote for piano, definitely. Not that I couldn't adapt them, but I definitely wrote those for this. Hey, you might want to ask about Ducret, since I still do a lot with him.

AAJ: Yeah, let's talk about Big Satan, which is your group with guitarist Marc Ducret and Tom Rainey. The newest one is Souls Saved Hear, from last year. This is a group where you're not the only composer; you share songwriting with Marc Ducret. Rainey contributes one on this record, too. This isn't a traditional jazz band. It's not a traditional rock band either, although some of the tunes kick rock ass. I think your stuff might be a little more accessible in this group.


Big Satan: Marc Ducret, Tim Berne, Tom Rainey



TB: On that record, anyway.

AAJ: "Ce Sont les Noms des Mots is sort of a theme/solo/theme piece. That's Ducret's, though. But no matter whose tunes, compared to Hard Cell, the tempos are always really crisp and distinguishable. Is there a different philosophy with this band?

TB: There is, again, no philosophy. I've been playing with Marc since '88. He was in Science Friction, he was in Bloodcount. He's another one of those guys, like Tom—everything I do with him, he's always hyperprepared and hyperpositive, which is so great. Even though he's doing his own stuff, he's got his own bands, he's doing tons of gigs. He's always present. He's never thinking of about his band or how he's got this tour coming up with somebody else. I like having a band where I'm not responsible for all the writing. I like Marc's writing. It's like Drew's; it kind of puts me in another zone. Rhythmically, he writes some pretty interesting stuff. And he and Tom have an amazing hookup.

But it is definitely—I don't know if this is the right way to say it—kind of more blue collar [laughing] in the sound. I think between me, Marc and Tom, we're pretty direct about what what we do when we're playing. We don't screw around too much; it's more like, "okay, we're going here and then we're going there and that's what we do. I would definitely say that it's not cerebral. And so I think we do have that in common. There's a certain practical approach to improvising. There's not a lot of [laughing] high concept about it. It might sound like that sometimes, but there really isn't. It's really fun. Marc's great because he's really good at staying even; you might be on tour and if it's a shitty gig, he'll just say, "I suck, and that's the end of it. He won't sit and wallow in it. He's just superpositive about playing music, and it's really nice to be around that kind of energy. And he's an amazing musician; he's so precise rhythmically.

AAJ: He is. He's crunchin' and crisp.

TB: It definitely makes me play a certain way. It forces me to have my shit together. And those tunes are so naked. Like, with the piano [in Hard Cell], with Craig and me doubling one of the voices, it has a certain unity. Whereas with the guitar thing in Big Satan, if we're playing something contrapuntal, you've got to be so on it. You can't really float or skate or get inside someone else's sound.

AAJ: A lot of Marc's writing is particularly contrapuntal.

TB: Yeah. It's a great kind of relief from doing some of these other groups. It's always nice when we do a Big Satan tour because I know it's a little less pressure—there's someone else taking the blows and doing some of the writing. In a way, we don't take it as seriously, which is kind of nice. When a collaborative works—when it's not caught up in any kind of ego shit—it can be really relaxing, because it's like no one needs [laughing] to take any responsibility!

AAJ: It's only one-third your fault.

TB: Yeah, you just show up and play. It's nice. We all get along really well. But Marc's a deep guy. I mean, that Science Friction and Bloodcount stuff—there aren't too many guitarists who could play all that music that doesn't have forms or specific harmony and deal. Especially that Friction stuff.

AAJ: Besides, with the Science Friction stuff, he's got to make room somehow for Taborn, and vice-versa. There's some density there.

TB: Marc never tries to play the way he thinks I want him to. I have never had a situation where Marc was trying to figure out what I wanted him to do. He was just himself and I surrounded him with what I thought would make it work. And now he's ten times more confident than in the beginning. In the beginning, I think he thought, "why is this guy hiring a French guitarist when there are all these guys in New York? But there was something I saw in him that really appealed to me. I can't imagine I won't be playing with him for another twenty years.

AAJ: A lot of these recent records we've been discussing—all except the Big Satan one—are live records. Feign is live in the studio, anyway. Is the reason just economics?

TB: Well, I don't see Feign as a live record. It's recorded live in the studio, but that's a big difference. If that was a live concert, those tunes would have been twice as long. Being in the studio definitely adds a certain conciseness—the first Science Friction, same deal when you compare that to the live one. The tunes are much shorter. You just tend to think that way in the studio. Some of those live records are out there because I got inexpensive recordings. I don't think I set out with any of them to make a live recording; they just kind of happened to be recorded. For the Science Friction one, I just happened to get a tape from Swiss Radio. The new Paraphrase one—some kid in the audience was recording it. All the Paraphrases happened that way, actually. And the Bloodcount one. If we we had been trying to make a live record, it would have been a lot tougher. We would have been thinking about it. If we were spending a couple of grand to do it, it definitely would have been on my mind. But yeah, I like live records. I think when it's good, there's nothing like it.

AAJ: Especially with music that features improvisation and people listening.

TB: The audience is huge. It makes a big difference.

AAJ: Are your audiences usually pretty good? Ever get a bad one?

TB: Definitely. We've played in places where the place isn't oriented to having music, or our kind of music. It happens once in a while. In Spain, I remember recently, we had a gig and nobody really wanted to hear it [laughing]. They just all walked out. But I don't play a lot of club clubs. Most of the clubs I play, people come to listen. I can't say I enjoy it when people don't like it—but I've gotten better at blocking them out, that's for sure.

AAJ: One thing I like about your recorded product is its artwork. It's very sly and humorous—kind of black-humored at times. There's bleakness and beauty coexisting—like the Jesus-cow-pig-soldier figurines on the cover of Feign.

TB: That's 'cause I let my boys go. Steve Byram. I just say "do it, and that's it. Then I get it and that's what it is. He's a collaborator on this and I kind of want to give him as much rope as possible. And Robert Lewis, the photographer. We're all really good friends. Usually with Steve, I'll just say, "do it, and I'll see it at the end. He and Robert will just see how fucked-up it can get. Every once in a while, I might say, "let's not do this. Let's try this direction—which might just mean let's go photo instead of art. But 99.9 percent of the time, it's Steve at the controls. He's amazing. I definitely couldn't do the label without him. With him, I have an art department, basically.

AAJ: That's a luxury.

TB: It is, and I definitely don't take it for granted. Plus, it's fun. It's like working with Torn—it's not my area of expertise. It makes a big difference, too—it's a lot harder to sell packaged CDs now. If it was just some jewel box with a cheap cover, I think a lot of people would prefer to get the downloads for cheaper. There's got to be a reason to want to have it besides the music.

AAJ: You're not one of those five-years-between-records guys. Do you have anything new recorded? And if not, what are you going to do in 2006?

TB: That's a good question. I was thinking about that yesterday. I actually don't want to do anything—I kind of want to not plan anything, because nothing's jumping out at me. I have one idea, but it's just too expensive to think about. I kind of want do a record of just really slow stuff that's kind of lush. And that's as far as I've gotten. I wouldn't say ballads, just slow.

AAJ: Not Tim Berne with strings?

TB: Well, maybe. But not what you're used to. Maybe electronics and strings—I kind of batted something around with David [Torn]. But I'm hoping I don't do anything for a while; I just don't want to force anything.

AAJ: You don't mean you won't even gig, though?

TB: No, no, just plan a project. A lot of these tours you have to think about a year in advance. But in terms of bands and writing, I honestly don't know what I want to do. I'm kind of happy about this stuff with Torn, because I think we'll have some gigs and it's so much fun. And Drew, Drew's got a lot of work. So I'm hoping I won't have to think about it for a while.

AAJ: Right, you're off to Europe with Drew's group.

AAJ:Yeah, we're touring in January with Drew. Then we're doing a Big Satan, then I'm touring with [trumpeter] Herb Robertson. I have a bunch of tours coming where I'm a sideman and I'm [laughing] really happy about that! I just want to play and I don't think I need to make a record right now. I'm hoping to get this download thing going at Screwgun of just live stuff and cool weird stuff. Whatever thing I'm going to do, I don't think it's there yet.


Selected Discography:

Paraphrase, Pre-Emptive Denial (Screwgun, 2005)
Hard Cell, Feign (Screwgun, 2005)
Hard Cell, Live (Screwgun, 2004)
Big Satan, Souls Saved Hear (Thirsty Ear, 2004)
Science Friction, The Sublime And (Live) (Thirsty Ear, 2003)
Science Friction, Science Friction (Screwgun, 2002)
Tim Berne, The Sevens (New World, 2002)
Tim Berne, Open, Coma (Screwgun, 2001)
Hard Cell, The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear, 2000)
Paraphrase, Please Advise (Screwgun, 1998)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Saturation Point (Screwgun, 1997)
Big Satan, I Think They Liked It Honey (Winter&Winter, 1997)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Discretion (Screwgun, 1997)

Related Articles
Tim Berne's Screwgun Records: By Him, For You (2005)
Acoustic Hard Cell, Ottawa, Canada (2005)
Expanded Science Friction Band, Victoriaville, Canada (2004)
A Fireside Chat with Tim Berne (2004)

Photo Credits:
Color Photos: Juan-Carlos Hern ndez
Black & White Photos: Robert Lewis



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