Innerviews, music without borders

Tim Berne
Resolute refraction
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2012 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Tim Berne has always done things his way. Since the dawn of his career in the late ‘70s, the avant-jazz saxophonist has forged a singular path, from the establishment of his own record label to launch his first album, 1979’s The Five Year Plan, to the prolific, uncompromising output that’s resulted in more than two dozen adventurous albums since. The universe of artists he’s collaborated with is also remarkable. Django Bates, Marc Ducret, Bill Frisell, Drew Gress, Nels Cline, Craig Taborn, and David Torn are just a handful of the performers Berne calls his musical kinsmen.

Berne is among the most inspired composers in his chosen realm, as evidenced by his latest album Snakeoil. Produced by the legendary Manfred Eicher for his ECM label, the disc features intricately-detailed, harmony-driven works that retain plenty of space for improvisation. The pieces are lengthy, complex and full of unpredictable twists and turns. However, Berne isn’t a “changes for the sake of changes” writer. Each composition is a journey with a specific narrative structure.

His current band, also known as Snakeoil, includes three seasoned New York virtuosos: pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and drummer Ches Smith. Each possesses a deep understanding of how to interpolate and extrapolate from Berne’s blueprints. The group has been together for two years and developed a telepathic chemistry that’s well documented on the new disc.

You’ve released most of your recordings in recent times through your own label Screwgun. What made ECM an attractive vehicle for Snakeoil?

The band’s been going for a couple of years and I was determined to do a studio record. In today’s climate, there aren’t that many labels left that make a difference. If I was going to do a studio record for someone other than myself, it had to be a pretty significant opportunity, otherwise, I could just go into the studio with David Torn, blow a bunch of money and make it happen. ECM was one of the only situations where it made sense to do it with someone else. It made a big difference. Just being able to pick out a great piano and go into a good studio and work with someone who has produced over 1,000 records was a good situation. The way ECM actually tries to sell records is also unique. I haven’t come across that too often. A lot of times, people do these records and then don’t know what to do after that. Some of them do the usual thing of trying to get a lot of reviews and seeing what happens. One thing ECM does is encourage you to focus on live performance as the way to market the record. I agree with that philosophy. Reviews are a really small thing these days and probably always were. Going out there and touring is the best way to promote a record.

Was there a sense of the stakes being higher for this album given the involvement of ECM and Eicher?

Fuck, yeah. I was nervous going into it, but once we got in there, it was fine. I’ve recorded a lot and haven’t really bombed out yet in the studio. It’s always been as good or better than I’ve wanted it to be. So, I fall back on that experience. Even though this was with a different producer, the thing we have in common is we both want it to be good. We’re in the same position. He also gets more comfortable as we get more comfortable. There’s tension at first, then a little less tension, and then it’s going great. Everyone, Manfred included, is different at that point. It always works like that. I don’t know any way to get around it.

Describe what it was like to work with Eicher.

The music Manfred started listening to that got him into jazz was people like Paul Bley, so he really likes improvisation and it carries over into how he approaches things in the studio. He’s as loose as it gets, in a good way. I’m sure he didn’t know what I was going to record, because I barely knew until two months ahead of time. He makes his decisions more as a gut thing. It’s when you get to the studio that he hears the material. I was almost worried. I was like “Hey, you want to hear the music?” or “Hey, here’s a score.” But I think Manfred likes going in there with a fresh outlook and it can be a little scary.

I picked six tunes I wanted to record and that’s what we did. I’ve done this enough times that I trust myself in terms of picking material for records. I had something very specific in mind and it wasn’t something I did by consulting with Manfred. Of course, when he gets in the studio, he’s definitely very hands-on and you benefit from all that experience. I prepared for the session and understood that you have to trust him. It’s similar to when I work with David Torn. With Manfred, I decided I was going to collaborate with him and not go in there saying “This is my shit. I’m going to do it this way and fuck you.” [laughs] If you’re gong to collaborate, you really have to trust the person you’re working with. That hasn’t always been the case in my career. I’ve been in situations in which I didn’t really want the input or trust it for whatever reason—probably because I’m stubborn or I didn’t feel it was the right situation. The thing about Manfred is he’s a trained engineer and a musician. He has great ears.

Things were subject to both his tastes and mine, but it definitely clicked. He had a lot of good suggestions. One of the reasons I really wanted to work with him is his experience recording classical music. There’s a lot of stuff on this record that’s pretty delicate. It’s a very transparent-sounding group with lots of detail and dynamics. He was able to help us get more detail out of the music, which was great for me. It was like having a concert master in the studio with us. Whenever we improvise in the studio, we’re not really listening to the room. We’re listening through headphones, so it’s a lot harder to gauge what we’re doing dynamically. Manfred’s input helped quite a lot with that situation.

Why is it harder for you to work with headphones?

They mess with me. I go in the studio and freak out because I’m using headphones. Suddenly, I’m listening to this thing in headphones and I can’t really get comfortable, sound-wise, as I want to be—especially after playing live a lot. The first half-day in the studio always feels weird and I’ll be kind of worried. But by the end of the first day, we’ll have a couple of good takes. By the second day, we’re finished. It’s worked that way with almost every record I’ve done. You look back at the first day and realize “That was great.” It’s just a feel you’ve got to get used to. The studio is a very artificial environment to be in.

What are some examples of the direction Eicher gave you?

For the first tune, we played it and he said “That was okay.” Then we did another take and that was cool. He would say something like “This section could be quieter” or “It could just be clarinet and piano after that or the theme, and then have the other stuff come in to create contrast.” When we play live, I leave that sort of stuff up to chance and everyone’s tastes. But in the studio, you want to be a little more specific. I wanted contrasts on this record. What Manfred said were things I might have been afraid to say, because I don’t want to be a control freak. Having him say those things made it easier for me, because then everyone says “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” The band was great. Nobody got defensive. Everyone said “Yeah, let’s try it.”

It’s nice to have a point person who says “This is what I think” and have everyone look to that person.
I remember Manfred got excited about an improv we created in the moment and maybe he didn’t know it was an improv. But it’s the kind of thing you really can’t recreate. So that didn’t work, but all the other ideas were good, and they worked really well. That especially held true for dynamics and certain instrumental combinations. There are a lot of different things that could have happened with this music and I wanted to exploit that diversity. There’s a nice drum-clarinet thing. There are also a lot of little duos with piano, as well as solo things. When it came time to pick takes and the work on the mix, Manfred left it up to me. Mixing was a blast. We mixed the whole album in three-and-a-half hours. Manfred works fast. He’s very decisive and I am too. I don’t like to fool around and have long lunches. I just like to play and get it over with.

How long did the record take from start to finish?

On the first day, we went in at 11am, started playing around noon, and quit around 5pm. The second day, we got in around 10am, started playing at 10:30am and were done by 12:30pm. That’s pretty normal for me. It takes awhile to get going and the second day is always a breeze. Everyone’s more relaxed and we get a lot of one-take things done. I always finish on the second day, 90 percent of the time. Manfred has a lot of experience in making things happen efficiently. On most jazz records I’ve done, you never get going after just an hour. It’s between two-to-four hours before things begin. You’ll spend 45 minutes on the sound of the drums, and then another instrument, and then somebody’s hungry. With Manfred, after about 50 minutes it was “Let’s go. Let’s play.” I love that.

Mixes are another thing. I’ve been at some really long mixes, including some with David Torn. Most jazz records will be two-day mixes. Manfred’s really interested in getting the dynamics correct before mixing, so it all happens live. There’s very little fucking around with levels during mixing. I think they did very little EQing with the sounds of the instruments.

Tell me about the creative process that informed the new album.

This band has about four sets of music that it plays. I was trying to pick music that was studio-friendly and had a lot of compositional detail, so I could take advantage of the microscope you get in the studio. It took me awhile to figure it out. A couple of months before the recording, I started rewriting and rearranging some older things. Whenever I try hard to have an idea, I usually get somewhere. So, I was cruising along, not making any decisions. Then one day, I said “I’m going to figure out what I’m going to record” and I went crazy and started really mining everything I had ever written or done with this band.

I also went through old score books until I found the right combination. It took awhile.  I would wake up in the middle of the night and go “Wait a minute. What about this?” The process really drives me crazy in a good way. Next, I made sure we had a couple of gigs so we could work through some of the newer things we hadn’t been playing. Some of the material, like “Spare Parts” was a recent arrangement and there were a couple of things I messed around with at the last minute. I’m always trying to set up some little areas that I haven’t gone deep into before in order to get into some more harmonic-sounding territory. By that, I mean harmony and chords that imply certain kinds of blowing situations that are different from some of my other records and material. There’s a lot of meat in the pieces, especially for Matt Mitchell to grab onto. The way he develops chordal things is really interesting and it provides a unique sound that I like to take advantage of.

Elaborate on the group chemistry in Snakeoil.

I don’t think any of us have played in any other groups together previously, so we really developed our chemistry exclusively within this band, which is unusual. In a lot of my other groups, the players have worked together in different combinations. So, we developed this thing together. I think that’s interesting and unique. It was a fresh palette. We were starting from scratch, but there was an obvious chemistry in terms of a group attitude towards developing something. Everyone was open to the improvisatory approach I was looking for. During our first year together, things grew quite a bit. When we finally did a tour, it jumped another level or two. I would say doing the record made it go up another notch beyond that.

How would you describe the development you’ve witnessed?

I’ve seen a lot of confidence emerge. People started taking more of a leader role, instead of just looking to me for ideas or as the arbiter of taste. When band members get really comfortable and confident, there are other people initiating the big ideas and that’s what I’m looking for. I want everyone to take responsibility for the overall sound and ideas. I don’t want to be the only one doing that. I don’t want to be queuing everything. I also don’t want everybody to freak out when I stop playing. That’s a sign of a band that’s still kind of dependent on you as the leader. You’ll be in the middle of an improv and stop, and then everyone stops or looks up and notices. Whereas now, if I stop, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t mean something’s supposed to happen or that I’m not happy.

Tell me about your approach as a band leader.

It’s pretty benign. I write 98.9 percent of the music, so obviously, I’m trying to influence the situation. I just want to provoke something to happen. I’m trying to create some influence, but I don’t say too much sometimes. Sometimes I do. Other times it’s just a few words. It’s a natural thing when you play music in which everything’s not delineated. I don’t tell people when to solo or how long to solo. It’s not about playing over a really concrete form.

Was the name Snakeoil a response to something specific?

It kind of summarizes this whole music thing. It’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s not a tangible thing. It’s so subjective. Why are we doing it? Does it matter? Does anyone care? It’s barely a business, so I kind of equate it with snake oil. I don’t really think this, but you could say it’s kind of like being one of those snake oil salesmen. It’s such a strange thing to do for a living, especially when you play this music. But for some people, it’s a religious experience. I know it was for me as a listener.

Sometimes, I kind of wonder about the whole thing. In a good year, I’m making what an entry-level intern lawyer makes. You might be in your 60s doing this and think “Jesus Christ, this is bizarre.” And the whole business is falling apart too. That doesn’t go just for musicians, but for visual artists like Steve Byram too. They’ve lost considerable work because everyone’s stealing stuff, as well as because anyone can be a fake designer or photographer now. No one cares about artwork anymore. People don’t want to buy albums with artwork anymore. Few listen to music on stereos. So, you have to ask yourself “When’s the whole thing going to dry up?” The thing that’s cool about ECM is Manfred hasn’t wavered for a second. He doesn’t buy any of it, including the download thing. He’s making the records the same way he did 29 years ago. He’s still concerned about the running order, the packaging, and the sound quality. Most people are just accepting the download thing and saying “Oh well, we’ll save money on the covers too.”

Have you seen a significant decline in Screwgun label sales in recent times?

Screwgun sales are half what they used to be. I used to be able to sell around 2,500 copies of every album. Now it’s down to 800-1,000, mostly through mail order, because all the distributors folded—not that I miss them. If I want to do a studio record, I have to lose money, or do it for someone else. Those are givens at this point.

Somehow, everyone decided it was okay to steal music. You can’t easily steal money. You can’t easily steal paintings. You can’t download a painting. But music? That’s nothing. Why not just steal it? It got really devalued. And the labels did themselves in, I guess, unknowingly, through those Mega-bullshit sites and Napsters. They played a part in creating this monster they can’t stop. Whether you’re paying for music or not, why go through all the trouble to package something if it’s just an MP3, or even if it's lossless? I do believe the labels were definitely involved in their own demise. It won’t stop me, but I think the whole thing is stupid. Sometimes, I’ll read something a fan says like “All music should be free.” They’ll also justify stealing the music because they’re just ripping off a corporation. They even say that about ECM because it’s a legitimate label. They’ll also point to pop music because they believe everyone who makes it is rich. The ECM stuff is sometimes out on Bit Torrent sites before they even come out.

On your Facebook page, you’ve posted a series of hilariously scathing parodies of Spotify called Rectify. What’s your take on what the streaming services offer to musicians at this point?

The musicians don’t make any money and people are getting the music. To me, that’s interesting. It’s another way of making things more difficult. It’s not just pop people that lose, it’s everybody. Maybe the pop people can afford to do it by calling it promotion, but it’s another thing that’s just killing the industry. You’re seeing it with movies too. People bemoan the fact that there aren’t as many weird movies as there used to be. How could there be? Why would you finance a movie if you knew it was only going to be on two screens? There aren’t that many people just blowing their money on financing art anymore, especially if it’s part of running a business. So, the whole streaming thing is stupid and shortsighted. Few people think they’re destroying things, but that’s what they’re doing. Other people go to jobs and get paid, so why shouldn’t musicians? We make records and we should get paid for them. Everyone should get paid for what they do if what they do is valuable.

You once said that a glut of recordings are being made and released as a result of anyone being able to record anywhere, anytime these days. You’ve also said you wished there were “fewer opportunities to record.” Elaborate on that.

What I meant is it used to not be so easy to record. It used to be a special thing to go into a studio to make an album. It was risky and it meant something. You really had to think about what you were doing. Now, every month, you can make an album and put it out there. If you have a bunch of friends who will play for free, and record for cheap on your computer, then get your friend to master it, and then set it up as a download, you can make the whole thing for $200. It’s too easy now and that means some of the music doesn’t mean as much. If it bombs out, you can just say “I only spent $200. No big deal.” Now, I’m trying to wait more and more between records so each album is more special. It seems like that’s the only hope in terms of the business stuff. I used to get so caught up in having a new record every time I toured. Now, I’m just making records when I have something to say.

In December 2011, I caught your residency at The Stone in New York City. One night, you performed a killer one-hour composition called “Revenge of the Intro” with a group comprised of Ralph Alessi, Marc Ducret, Ches Smith, and Matt Mitchell. Tell me about the piece and what it’s intended for.

I’ve been writing all of these crazy-long pieces that take a lot of rehearsal and time to get together. It was meant to be something I could play with a million different people and instruments. When I wrote it, I didn’t want to dwell on it like I usually do when I write. I wanted to put it together quickly. I went with the first things that came to mind and didn’t revise them. I wanted it to be a loose thing in which anyone could play any part. It was even constructed so the different sections could be played in a different order. We only rehearsed for 40 minutes for the gig you were at and it worked like a charm. With the right guys, it’s really fun. As far as recording it, I’m not in a big hurry to make another record right now. I’m enjoying touring for the Snakeoil album. Who knows where it will end up?

How much music have you written that remains unrecorded?

I have a lot of music. More than I need. [laughs] Snakeoil could play five sets of different music. When you get a band that likes to practice, it’s fun to write music, because there are people who can actually play it.

Are you constantly writing new music?

No. Sometimes I just want to play and won’t write music for a couple of months. But when I have to write music, say for a commission or project with a timeline, I will. I think I’m determined. I’m patient and I want to write badly sometimes. I don’t think it’s inspiration. I’m creative, but it’s work. It’s not play when you’re writing music. You have to sit there and make decisions. I’m good at making them and deciding when something should be done or when something needs work. I don’t let my ego get in the way and say “Oh, I wrote it, so it’s got to be great.” If it sucks, I’ll revise it. I won’t settle for something if I don’t like it.

How do you go about initially capturing ideas for compositions?

I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and work on it. I’ll still have coffee before I do it. [laughs] That’s the best way to do it—wake up, drink enough coffee and start. I also have to get away from all these machines to do it. I usually write on a keyboard and I compose by hand, using a scorebook with a mechanical pencil. I don’t like computers. They’re necessary, but I’m not a fan—especially for music notation. I hate using computers for that.

You’ve been described as one of the most anti-Internet musicians around. Is that true?

I pretend to be, but I use it just like everyone else. I don’t ignore it. It’s a necessary evil. I spend all this time doing email and screwing around on Facebook, but it took me a long time to get there, that’s for sure. I do think it’s a waste of time during the day. I waste way too much time on it. I’ll be in the middle of working and check my email and there goes the day. It spirals out of control. Always being in touch hasn’t really helped in a lot of ways.

How do you look back at your 1979 debut album, The Five Year Plan?

My conceptual approach hasn’t changed, but I’m getting better at it. That album was a good outline for what I kept doing. I hopefully don’t sound then like I do now, but it was what it was. I think I was a better conceptualist than a player for quite awhile. I was better at coming up with ideas and organizing people than I was as a soloist or someone generating music. I was undeveloped at that time, for good reason. I had no experience at that point, really.

What was the “five year plan?”

That was kind of a joke about the idea that I was going to make a living in five years, which didn’t really pan out. [laughs] I came close. I missed it by two years.

How have you evolved as a writer since?

My ideas are in the ballpark with those early ideas, but things are more sophisticated. I’ve learned more. I’ve been exposed to more rhythms. My ears are different. I’ve had more experience through playing hundreds of gigs—sometimes 150 a year. I’ve played with all these different bands and worked with great composers like Marc Ducret, Michael Formanek, Drew Gress, and Matt Mitchell, so I’ve been exposed to all kinds of stuff that seeps into what I do. Those friends are the people I steal from. [laughs]

It was unusual to put out your own album in the late ‘70s. How did you pull it off?

I was studying with Julius Hemphill and he did it. I saw him do it and helped him do it. He was doing it as far back as '72, so it didn’t seem like a strange idea to me. It seemed perfectly natural. I didn’t think anyone else would do it, so it wasn’t even an issue for me. I never sent tapes around. I set out to do it myself until the fourth or fifth record. It never initially dawned on me to do it any other way and I was perfectly happy. I wasn’t ambitious in the sense that I needed to be on a record label. I was quietly getting my shit together and not looking for publicity or some kind of quick shot. It was a different atmosphere back then. I was inspired by people like Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton and Julius. They were doing their own music, had their own personalities and did things their own way. They’re all still basically doing the same thing, but better.

I think post-Zorn, with people seeing how successful Naked City became, resulted in all these people looking for little tricks or ways to become a little more successful in this thing. For some, it’s doing tribute records or how they talk about themselves. There are all these little ways of getting ahead, but I’m just not interested in that. There are people who really calculate things these days and think “I’ll do the music of Joe Blow” and get a festival date. The festivals have also bought into this in a big way. A lot of the bands at festivals aren’t really bands. Instead, they’re tribute-like things or “special projects” as they call them sometimes. I think that’s way less interesting than just seeing a good band that’s been playing together awhile. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m sure if you hire a private investigator, you’ll find cases of me not doing that. [laughs] But I don’t get tempted when people say “Hey, why don’t you do a so-and-so kind of record?"

What was one of the sillier projects a label asked you to record?

Somebody at one of the labels asked if I’d make an authentic funk record. [laughs] They wanted me to make a record with Steve Cropper and other guys they had barely even heard. I looked at the guy who asked and said “Wow, why don’t you just get Steve Cropper himself to do his own album? Then it will be an authentic funk record. You don’t really need me to do that.” [laughs] But that wasn’t an interesting enough idea for them. It wasn’t post-modern enough. That kind of shit cracks me up. Why don’t you work directly with the guys who the tribute is about? Labels and festivals should just go with the originals.

During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s you did a lot of other things to keep food on the table. Give me a snapshot of that period.

I did quite a few things back then. I was rolling croissants. I worked at the Soho Music Gallery record store with John Zorn. I also worked at Tower Records and Barnes and Noble. Working at Bagel Buffet was another highlight. [laughs] It was no big deal. I shouldn’t have been playing music for a living at that point and it didn’t bother me to do that stuff. It was like “Great, this is how I’ll do it. I’ll work nights, so I can practice during the day.” It was fine. No-one was making me do it. My parents didn’t raise me and say “You better play avant-garde jazz or we’ll disown you.” [laughs]

The record store scene in New York City was a pretty transformative environment to be around back then.

Definitely. I met a lot of musicians working at record stores. I met Ralph Moore, Melvin Gibbs and Brandon Ross working at Tower. At Soho Music Gallery, a very cool record store, I met John Zorn. He was there longer than me and probably got me the job. It was a cool and fun era. It had its place. We were all still in our 20s and 30s. Learning how to make an international call at Tower without paying for it was very helpful. [laughs] I’d use their phone to book tours in Europe.

I presume the area was a more affordable place for a musician back then.

Oh yeah, it was easier. I had a big old loft for $250 a month. Even with minimum wage, you could live in that situation. I was in Brooklyn. It was possible back then.

David Torn is one of your key, occasional music-making partners. What makes that relationship so unique for you?

I just love him as a person and musician. It’s wide open territory with him. I also love hanging out with him. I’d go on tour with him even if we weren’t playing together. It’s so much fun and so interesting to be around him. As for playing, I can’t say enough good things about him. Working with him in the studio is a blast. I’ve learned a lot. I want to do more. I want to get him out of the film score business. I want to do an intervention. [laughs]

David is totally non-judgmental when you’re playing. He’s one of those guys like Bill Frisell that just plays music. Both David and Bill don’t play an instrument or a style. No matter who they play with, you know it’s immediately them when you hear it. Craig Taborn is another guy like that. There are just some people who can play with anybody and they sound like themselves.

Torn said when he improvises with you, the end goal is a “sense of form that is intentional, yet occurring spontaneously.” What do you make of that?

Perfect. I couldn’t have said it better. It’s what we’re always trying to do. We’re always trying to play with form. I want it to make sense. It may not make sense to other people, but at least it makes sense to me. I’m trying to build something and organize it. But it is totally spontaneous.

A streak of cynicism-laced humor runs across all your output. How would you characterize the persona you’re trying to project?

I like a good laugh, and so does Steve Byram, the designer I work with often. So, when we get together, it’s dangerous. [laughs] It can be a little childish sometimes and a little funny other times. I share that sort of thing with David Torn too. I’m just trying to not come across too much as an “Artist” with capital letters. I don’t want people thinking “Oh, this is art. I think I’ll stick with this other stuff over here.” I don’t think of the music that way. I don’t sit down and think "We’re making high art here." I want to demystify the whole thing so people aren’t afraid or intimidated by this music.

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Tim Berne