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Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

By Published: January 23, 2006
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.

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