Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist


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Alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne's been an enormous presence in improvised music for over twenty-five years. Although he didn't pick up the alto until he was nineteen years old, he had moved to New York City and begun lessons with his great mentor Julius Hemphill by the time he was 20, in 1974. Berne's been notable for his do-it-yourself spirit and his decidedly untimid willingness to get out there and play: he was performing as a leader and releasing records like his debut The Five Year Plan by 1979, effectively doing a great deal of his musical development in the public eye. Berne spent some time recording for Columbia Records and a longer time at JMT (for which he recorded the classic Fractured Fairy Tales in 1989 as well as seminal albums by his revered groups Miniature and bloodcount). This decade has seen Berne run his own record label Screwgun while performing and recording prolifically with groups like Hard Cell, Science Friction and Paraphrase.

The above synopsis hardly covers a career as productive and interesting as Berne's—but read on.

All About Jazz: You're a prolific composer and recorder. You currently have several working bands. You currently record for your own record label, Screwgun, and also for Thirsty Ear.

Tim Berne: Well, I was. I have occasionally.

AAJ: Well, in terms of the last several years, your groups Paraphrase and Hard Cell are on Screwgun and Science Friction and Big Satan are on Thirsty Ear.

TB: Some of them, yeah. I mean, the first Science Friction was on Screwgun.

AAJ: Is there any decision behind what you put out on your own label versus what comes out on, say, Thirsty Ear?

TB: My criteria for doing something for another label, in general, is that as long as I can control the recording turf as well as as much of the visuals as I can, it's kind of like doing it for myself—until the record comes out, at least. So if I can do that, then the decision—and I probably shouldn't say this but it's probably not a big surprise—is usually based on how much hassle I want. It's a money decision—like, can I afford to pay for a studio record at this point on my own? And can I deal with doing the work of selling it? If I'm in a mode where I'm working quite a bit, doing tours and stuff, I might say, okay, I'd rather just do the record for somebody else.

That said, I'm getting closer and closer to not doing that—ever. Nothing against anybody else, but I don't think I've come across anyone who cares as much about what happens after the record comes out, or understands that market as well as I do—coming from being a musician and touring. It's just rare when you find somebody who doesn't buy into the "it's-really-hard-to-sell-this-music vibe. I think we all do it. But going around on tour and seeing these ravenous fans, and seeing the mail order, and seeing all the correspondence I get—just seeing how it works, it's not really that dire. It's easy to just draw that catchphrase, but sometimes it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Thirsty Ear's distributed by a Warners subsidiary, I think; they're not really equipped [laughing] to go underground. And being in all the shops isn't really that exciting to me unless I'm going to be on a label that follows through on that.

AAJ: Yeah, or it's just going to be something that sits in Borders for fifteen years.

TB: Exactly. Having ones in all the Borders really is a waste of time. Or if you're going to do that—if we go on tour you have to follow us around and be aware that we're in Seattle, Portland, Eugene in the next week and take advantage of that. The only label that I see that does that successfully is really ECM. Or at least considers that a priority.

AAJ: They've had years of experience.

TB: Well, it's common sense. I sell more records when I'm on tour. Everybody does, I think. And the whole philosophy—it's kind of like movies. You put the record out and everyone thinks autumn is the best time to do it because of Christmas. They put the record out, it's out for three months and then they're on to the next record. Maybe they give it six months. And then, unless the stores are being provoked by good sales people, they're not going to keep reordering—they're just going to move on to the billions of new records they have. That's what I think; I've worked in record stores so I kind of know where that's at and it makes sense. If someone doesn't call your attention to something, if you're not a fanatic it's not going to occur to you.

AAJ: There's also just the fact that the artist is not going to be as comfortable as the record being over as the label is. The label can just say that the record didn't do so well and they're finished with it.

TB: Yeah, and I know that's not the case. I'm not even guessing—I sell back catalog.

AAJ: It's just a record company concept, I think.

TB: Yeah, and maybe it's a necessary evil, I don't really know. But you always have new fans, and they're going to want to go back and check out the other stuff. And at least it should be available easily. And Thirsty Ear is starting to do that with the mail order thing. But it's hard to go back from being retail-oriented to all of a sudden being kind of underground. But I think a lot of people buy shit online. I mean, I don't buy records, but if I did, it'd be much easier to just go online and do all kinds of crazy searches until you find what you want.

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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