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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
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.

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