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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
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.

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