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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
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.

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