Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

Paul Olson By

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AAJ: I'm interested in Hard Cell's approach to time. Like on "Brokelyn, which is a great piece with an eerie, gathering beginning with your alto sort of crossing a World-War-I minefield of piano and cymbals. But a lot of it has a real rubato quality, and those sections really contrast with the parts where time gets more definite.

TB: Well, the first thing's in time, believe it or not, but we play it as if it's rubato. It's just two parts written in strict time. It's written to sound like it's floating, so with the slightly rubato approach we take—and in fact, we've played it a lot—it'll work that way. You know, it's just contrast; there's no big, radical thing going on. "Okay, this was floaty and weird so now this should be be in strict or more definite time.

In terms of the written material, I'm just looking to supply enough contrast that it's not boring, basically—and then enough information that makes you want to improvise. These days I don't really want to direct any improvisation; the only directing I do is by nature of the written music. That should make you want to improvise, provoke something to happen. If it leaves you someplace and you don't feel like improvising, it's not working. So when I do use written music, that's as much as I want it to do. And also, you know, just sound good. But I'm sort of going through a transition—I'm trying to figure out in a way how to use less written music and still get something specific.

AAJ: How to suggest something without having as much stated?

TB: Somehow, or just making it more organic. I noticed when we were on tour—by the end of the tour, the last gig, we almost didn't play any of the music. I remember the last two sets we did in England, I think we played maybe two tunes a set. We would just keep playing and if it wasn't going there, we just wouldn't play the next tune; we'd keep going. Which is kind of what I want—but I don't want to say I want that. I don't want to ask us to do it, I just want it to get to the point where everyone's that confident that they're not going to force something if it's not there. When it starts happening like that, it's really cool.

AAJ: It's funny that you put it that way. You say you're so pragmatic, but in not wanting to mention what you want to do, you're almost superstitious—like you're afraid you'll jinx it.

TB: Well, it's true. Because I've been in bands where you say, "well, that song was great but it seems like it might have been too slow—and the next night it'll be ten times faster. Almost invariably. So when you do enough gigs, you have to relax and just say that for every person that doesn't like it like that, someone is going to like it, and you can never please everyone. You have to accept these things as the nature of improvisation. It's going to be slow one night. I just don't want to turn it into a show. Not that that's good or bad; it's just my nature—I'll get bored. There's something exciting about not knowing whether it's going to work or whether they're going to like it. It's almost like cheating when you find something that works and then just keep doing it and it's successful. I always feel like we're cheating when we do that.

AAJ: Well, that's not what you do for a living.

TB: [laughing ruefully] Well, it sounds stupid when you're describing it.

AAJ: Well, it's hard to talk about music. It's easy to feel like a jerkoff.

TB: Yeah, you always contradict yourself—just like the music. The minute I lock into an idea it seem like I go another way and contradict it. That's why I've never liked liner notes. It just ruins the whole thing for the listener; once I say what I think it is, there's no way that someone's going in most cases to not agree or not hear it that way.

AAJ: I think "I Thought You Had It is—

TB: Good title. "I Think I Thought You Had It.

AAJ: That can be your sequel! That song's a good example of another Hard Cell trademark—there's strong convergence, like unison alto/piano, and enormous divergence, where not two but all three musical voices drift apart autonomously. Any opinion on that?

TB: That sounds accurate. There's some things that happen more than once on that record [laughing], I would say. I'd like to say that's not true, but there's a definite strategy in my writing that I can't avoid, so I try to hide it. But I'm aware of it. And, you know, it's honest. When people ask me what's my concept, I say that in a way, I don't have one. I just have taste. I try to keep it as interesting as possible, as different as possible—but at a certain point you have to be honest and say, "this is what I hear. This is what's coming out. If I strive for perfection, I might not make a record. I might never grow; I might just get stuck in that "I'm-not-ready-yet mode. So at a certain point, I just throw my arms up and say, "yup, that happened again. I guess that's me. And it's not like it's uninteresting, but if you want to get superanalytical about it, you can find certain strategies that recur. In the end, everything I'm doing is a reorganization of something else, that somebody else did anyway—and if you put out enough records, you're sort of asking for it.

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.

AAJ: A lot of these recent records we've been discussing—all except the Big Satan one—are live records. Feign is live in the studio, anyway. Is the reason just economics?

TB: Well, I don't see Feign as a live record. It's recorded live in the studio, but that's a big difference. If that was a live concert, those tunes would have been twice as long. Being in the studio definitely adds a certain conciseness—the first Science Friction, same deal when you compare that to the live one. The tunes are much shorter. You just tend to think that way in the studio. Some of those live records are out there because I got inexpensive recordings. I don't think I set out with any of them to make a live recording; they just kind of happened to be recorded. For the Science Friction one, I just happened to get a tape from Swiss Radio. The new Paraphrase one—some kid in the audience was recording it. All the Paraphrases happened that way, actually. And the Bloodcount one. If we we had been trying to make a live record, it would have been a lot tougher. We would have been thinking about it. If we were spending a couple of grand to do it, it definitely would have been on my mind. But yeah, I like live records. I think when it's good, there's nothing like it.

AAJ: Especially with music that features improvisation and people listening.

TB: The audience is huge. It makes a big difference.

AAJ: Are your audiences usually pretty good? Ever get a bad one?

TB: Definitely. We've played in places where the place isn't oriented to having music, or our kind of music. It happens once in a while. In Spain, I remember recently, we had a gig and nobody really wanted to hear it [laughing]. They just all walked out. But I don't play a lot of club clubs. Most of the clubs I play, people come to listen. I can't say I enjoy it when people don't like it—but I've gotten better at blocking them out, that's for sure.

AAJ: One thing I like about your recorded product is its artwork. It's very sly and humorous—kind of black-humored at times. There's bleakness and beauty coexisting—like the Jesus-cow-pig-soldier figurines on the cover of Feign.

TB: That's 'cause I let my boys go. Steve Byram. I just say "do it, and that's it. Then I get it and that's what it is. He's a collaborator on this and I kind of want to give him as much rope as possible. And Robert Lewis, the photographer. We're all really good friends. Usually with Steve, I'll just say, "do it, and I'll see it at the end. He and Robert will just see how fucked-up it can get. Every once in a while, I might say, "let's not do this. Let's try this direction—which might just mean let's go photo instead of art. But 99.9 percent of the time, it's Steve at the controls. He's amazing. I definitely couldn't do the label without him. With him, I have an art department, basically.

AAJ: That's a luxury.

TB: It is, and I definitely don't take it for granted. Plus, it's fun. It's like working with Torn—it's not my area of expertise. It makes a big difference, too—it's a lot harder to sell packaged CDs now. If it was just some jewel box with a cheap cover, I think a lot of people would prefer to get the downloads for cheaper. There's got to be a reason to want to have it besides the music.

AAJ: You're not one of those five-years-between-records guys. Do you have anything new recorded? And if not, what are you going to do in 2006?

TB: That's a good question. I was thinking about that yesterday. I actually don't want to do anything—I kind of want to not plan anything, because nothing's jumping out at me. I have one idea, but it's just too expensive to think about. I kind of want do a record of just really slow stuff that's kind of lush. And that's as far as I've gotten. I wouldn't say ballads, just slow.

AAJ: Not Tim Berne with strings?

TB: Well, maybe. But not what you're used to. Maybe electronics and strings—I kind of batted something around with David [Torn]. But I'm hoping I don't do anything for a while; I just don't want to force anything.

AAJ: You don't mean you won't even gig, though?

TB: No, no, just plan a project. A lot of these tours you have to think about a year in advance. But in terms of bands and writing, I honestly don't know what I want to do. I'm kind of happy about this stuff with Torn, because I think we'll have some gigs and it's so much fun. And Drew, Drew's got a lot of work. So I'm hoping I won't have to think about it for a while.

AAJ: Right, you're off to Europe with Drew's group.

AAJ:Yeah, we're touring in January with Drew. Then we're doing a Big Satan, then I'm touring with [trumpeter] Herb Robertson. I have a bunch of tours coming where I'm a sideman and I'm [laughing] really happy about that! I just want to play and I don't think I need to make a record right now. I'm hoping to get this download thing going at Screwgun of just live stuff and cool weird stuff. Whatever thing I'm going to do, I don't think it's there yet.

Selected Discography:

Paraphrase, Pre-Emptive Denial (Screwgun, 2005)
Hard Cell, Feign (Screwgun, 2005)
Hard Cell, Live (Screwgun, 2004)
Big Satan, Souls Saved Hear (Thirsty Ear, 2004)
Science Friction, The Sublime And (Live) (Thirsty Ear, 2003)
Science Friction, Science Friction (Screwgun, 2002)
Tim Berne, The Sevens (New World, 2002)
Tim Berne, Open, Coma (Screwgun, 2001)
Hard Cell, The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear, 2000)
Paraphrase, Please Advise (Screwgun, 1998)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Saturation Point (Screwgun, 1997)
Big Satan, I Think They Liked It Honey (Winter&Winter, 1997)
Tim Berne's Bloodcount, Discretion (Screwgun, 1997)

Related Articles
Tim Berne's Screwgun Records: By Him, For You (2005)
Acoustic Hard Cell, Ottawa, Canada (2005)
Expanded Science Friction Band, Victoriaville, Canada (2004)
A Fireside Chat with Tim Berne (2004)

Photo Credits:
Color Photos: Juan-Carlos Hern

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