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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
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.

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