Interview with Tim Berne (part 1)
(Reprinted from old DTM; originally posted June 2009.)
Tim is a friend, influence, and mentor. This interview was taped on tour when we were both on tour in Europe with Buffalo Collision. I regret that the tone is not a little lighter: Tim is one of the saltiest, funniest men I have ever met.
Ethan Iverson: Why don’t you say something sort of quietly while I see if this is taping. It’s sort of a noisy situation.
Tim Berne: The manger I was born in had a small, single bed. My whole family slept in that bed.
TB: In 1971 or ’72 I had this big green station wagon. It was a five-hour drive down to New York City from Syracuse, and I had a friend who I forced to come with me so I could stay awake. I’d get the Village Voice in Syracuse and I’d find out who was playing and then if it was someone I wanted to see we would drive up. I would tell my mother that I was gonna stay with this guy and he’d say he would stay at my house. The first time I went it was McCoy Tyner in his Sahara period.
I’d go to everything. I would go to consecutive nights if I could. Sun Ra with John Gilmore and everybody – that was the band – I saw them three nights at Slugs'.
EI: Where was Slugs' again?
TB: It was on the Lower East Side, maybe 3rd between C and B. It was just a little bar. It was like a saloon, with sawdust on the floor.
EI: And they fit a full big band in there?
TB: Yeah, it was wild. Sun Ra would play six hours straight.
EI: Every night?
TB: Yeah. And no breaks.
TB: Yeah, they’d just play all the way through. They’d walk around.
EI: So it was pretty theatrical.
TB: Yeah, it was wild. I mean it was great.
Also Joe Henderson at Slugs' and Sonny Rollins at the Village Gate. I used to see Sam Rivers a lot, later on at Rivbea. That’s when I was in college. I saw the Art Ensemble at the Five Spot. I saw the Cecil Taylor trio with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille three nights in a row. Keith Jarrett with Dewey Redman three nights in a row. Stuff like that. One of the two most memorable concerts I remember was actually in Syracuse: Weather Report, on their first tour. It was in a real little bar that could fit 100 people. It was amazing.
EI: With Eric Gravatt on drums?
TB: Yeah. Rumor had it this was like one of their first gigs, after that first record. Miroslav Vitous was playing... Then I remember seeing Herbie Hancock, Mwandishi with Billy Hart and that band in Ithaca. That was also amazing. Those two gigs kind of stick out.
EI: Those are also bands quintessential of the era in a way, right? Weather Report and Mwandishi were two of the last jazz groups that connected with popular culture.
TB: Yeah, this is ’72 probably. ’71/’72. And then the stuff I was listening to, I was really into Joe Henderson’s Live at the Lighthouse, Freddie Hubbard’s First Light and Sonny Rollins’s Next Album. I was really into McCoy Tyner too.
In the late 60’s/early 70’s my brother had all these Don Cherry and Sun Ra records. I used to listen to the stuff coming out of his room and then he moved on to college and got into Hendrix and I kinda grabbed all his records. Joe Bova, who had a college radio show in Syracuse, played all this crazy music. And me and this friend of mine who lived in this cemetery – his father ran the cemetery – we used to sit in his basement and listen to all this shit. I remember the first Ornette record I ever heard was Friends and Neighbors. And I remember it didn’t make any sense, you know, it just sounded weird.
I only bought records I hadn’t heard before. Like if someone played me something, I wouldn’t buy it. Because I really liked coming home, putting something on for the first time: that was what I lived for. And it was even better if I didn’t “get it,” because then it meant it must be really cool. Like Ornette. The fact that I didn’t hear it, I thought “Oh great, I can listen to this like a million times now, and it will just sort of grow on me.”
Keep in mind I wasn’t a musician. I was just a pure fan.
EI: You didn’t even own a saxophone?
TB: No, no, I didn’t play any music. It was almost like sports was for me as a kid, you know I just sort of kept track of all the names and all those guys from Chicago and Julius Hemphill. You know I bought Dogon A.D. back in like ’72 or ’73. Oliver Lake, all those guys, I knew every record that everybody put out. I had this mail order thing, where I would get records.
EI: Where would you get the records from?
TB: This woman called Mary Lou Webb out in L.A. had M. Webb Discs. I’d call her up, and half the time she sent the wrong shit, but it would always be something interesting and you’d never bother to send it back. But she knew me, so if she didn’t have something she’d just send me something else, and she knew I’d dig it. But I really knew all the weirdest, most remote recordings of stuff. I just loved listening…I was just obsessed.
EI: You were the person who told me to check out some of that very first Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, and Malachi Favors music.
TB: Right, Congliptious, Sound...
EI: Numbers 1 and 2.
TB: Numbers 1 and 2. Reese and the Smooth Ones. Uh, what’s that Art Ensemble with the yellow cover? It’s really mellow. Super-mellow long piece.
EI: People in Sorrow?
TB: Yeah, that’s another one. Those really stuck out. And I remember seeing the Art Ensemble in Philly. This gig where their bus broke down, they were about three hours late. And then they showed up and it was just unbelievable, just an amazing concert. Everyone just waited, you know. We kept getting these updates. And all of a sudden this big Greyhound-looking bus shows up, like a school bus almost. I think Lester bought that bus!
When I went to college I played intramural basketball and hurt my ankle. I just got bored, and somebody at the time was selling a saxophone, an alto, for like a hundred bucks. And I bought it, and while I didn’t really think I had the discipline, I also thought: well, here’s my chance. I would jam with this Pharoah Sanders record called Thembi. It had all these tunes that were in like F on the alto. I just remember jamming to these records (I’m sure horribly).
But that’s kind of how I started, and then I started playing with these friends of mine in Oregon, because I was at Lewis and Clark College, and we’d have these crazy free jams at night, and that’s how I developed just the thing of playing with people, kind of before I really even knew how to play. I’d do like a really horrifying, bad Braxton, I was really into Braxton. And I could do just like a terrible version of that.
EI: What Braxton would you have heard at that point?
TB: Well, there was For Alto, the solo one. The Complete Braxton on Arista came later. I was in school in Oregon and I decided to come back and go to school near New York, and went to two schools. I went to Sarah Lawrence for a while, which is pretty hilarious, and then I went to NYU. And when I came back, Braxton had just moved back to New York, and my brother knew somebody who knew Michael Cuscuna, who was producing Braxton for Arista. And he was produced a Lester Bowie record called Fast Last and he invited me to that session.
EI: You were at the session for Fast Last?
TB: Well, I was at this overdub session where Howard Johnson was doing a tuba overdub on a piece called “Banana Whistle,” which is this piece Julius Hemphill wrote in the army. John Stubblefield takes a long solo on it. I didn’t know Julius at the time, and in fact I thought it was Oliver Nelson. Because this guy was wearing a suit and I figure: “Okay, this guy’s conducting this piece, he’s wearing a suit, and we’re in a studio, maybe it’s Oliver Nelson.”
Then one night I went to Studio Rivbea and I saw Lester Bowie, the guitar player who played with Miles on “He Loved Him Madly,” Dominique Gaumont, Hamiett Bluiett, and Abdul Wadud. And there was this fuckin’ saxophone player and I was like “Wow, it really looks like the guy who was in the studio that day.” That was the night I figured out that I had seen Julius in that studio.
At this time I was taking lessons and corresponding with Braxton, because I had met him in Paris.
Before I went to college I took a year off and I worked a day job and then went to Europe with a friend of mine. And my ulterior motive was going to Paris to see the Art Ensemble and all those guys. And some of them were still there, like Anthony Braxton. I found him really fast, he was hanging out at the American Center. I think he was practicing there or something and I just started talking to him. I wasn’t really a stalker; he just was very approachable. And we were talking, and he must have given me his address, because I told him I really liked his music. I wrote him a letter, and then he came to New York. I asked him if he’d give me lessons and he said “Yeah, sure.” And we did three lessons. And then that’s when Braxton got really busy, like with that record Five Pieces for Arista, and he said he couldn’t teach any more right now. So,“Why don’t you call Hemphill?”
Braxton was like, “Yeah, yeah, Julius Hemphill's in Brooklyn,” and gave me his number. So then I called Julius and that was it. This was in 1974.
I figured that for me to really take music seriously, I had to take formal lessons. Or else I was just gonna space out. And so those were the formal lessons I took. The Braxton thing was very straight. You know, just C scale, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and next scale, next scale. It was really basic.
With Julius, I got in there, and the first thing he said to me is “I’ve been thinking a lot about magic.” That’s how it started. That was the first thing he said to me. I was like “Whoa,” you know. He was talking about the magic that happens when you’re improvising. It started like that, and the first thing he had me do, I’m pretty sure, was these long tone things out of this book called Top Tones for the Saxophone by Sigurd Rascher. He got me into this obsession with long tones, and the natural overtone series, using those as a long tone study. And I would spend about 45 minutes a day playing long tones in various forms. And I think Julius convinced me that if you have a good tone, you can kind of go a long way with just that.
Of course, everyone I listened to had their own sound. It never really occurred to me that that was unusual. I just thought that was normal. Another thing I thought was normal was that everyone wrote music. It didn’t really occur to me there were sidemen. Everybody I listened to was a bandleader. Most of my role models were composers: Julius, Roscoe, Braxton, eventually Henry Threadgill. So I started writing music almost immediately. I would write these two-part things and Julius and I would play them together and he’d show me little tricks like with dynamics and things. He was just very supportive. In the mean time I was playing scales and furiously trying to catch up to everyone else. I wasn’t playing tunes or anything. I’d write my own exercises because I read somewhere that Sam Rivers did that. When Julius gave me some of his old music books I noticed he would make up exercises too. I would see those things and go “Oh, I guess that’s normal,” so I’d do it as well.
Julius never really gave me a systematic way of doing things. He just encouraged me to think for myself and use my common sense. He’d say, “You know, when you’re playing scales, you should always play all the way down and all the way up, so you’re covering the range sound-wise. Don’t skimp out on any of the range.” He encouraged me to try and cover the horn. (If you go by the saxophone books, you don’t really do that.) The hard thing was that I wasn’t playing with other people yet. I didn’t know how to turn this information into music. Like, how do you apply all this and play with people? That was the big mystery, and Julius didn’t really answer it, he just kept saying, “You gotta play with people, you gotta play with people. Practice, but you gotta play with people, that’s how you learn.”
So I started going to these workshops – this must have been ’77 maybe – that were called “The Sound of Jazz” or something. You pay like five bucks and play Count Basie charts in an octet. I couldn’t read that well, and my jazz thing was pretty weak, so when I got there I could get to solo and learn how to do certain things with a group. Because Julius kept saying “you gotta play with an ensemble, that’s how you learn all this stuff, like playing in tune: you can’t really do that on your own.” So I was kind of chipping away. It got to the point with him where we just became friends and we’d just hang out all the time and talk. After about a year or two, there were no more lessons formally. It was more like we just hung out.
EI: What was Julius Hemphill’s daily practice of music?
TB: Well, when he lived with me, he would just play all day. I mean, when he was practicing, there were days when he would just play for 12 hours. And he would just sit there and it seemed like he was just making up exercises and then playing them. Patterns based sometimes on chords, sometimes just patterns. Sometimes he’d just be blowing. But I remember times in my loft where I swear he was in this room for 12 hours. You know, just non-stop. And I’d sort of be talking to him sometimes, and he’d be just walking around the room playing.
EI: What about his composing?
TB: Usually he’d just sit in front of the TV, watching football with the sound on, and he’d compose, right to paper. Usually transposed parts. I saw him write a chamber piece for harp, violin, bass, cello and alto, a 45 minute piece, like you’re writing a letter to someone. It would take him a week. I think it was real easy for him. He had a really good ear.
His mother played in the church once a week, and she never played at home. They didn’t have a piano. But she could go and lead the chorus in church and play piano, so as a kid, he figured that music was real easy. Because you could just do it, you didn’t have to really practice or learn it. You could just pick up an instrument and play. How true that was, who knows? But he did have that kind of gift and a natural kind of approach. But he was also studied. I know he went to college, and he used to do these workshops with Oliver Nelson and stuff. He and Baikida Carroll, they both could read music really well and he could notate anything. But Julius said he started that way, just naturally. He told me that when he used to go to jam sessions, he didn’t learn the tunes in advance: he would just go and try to learn them during the session. Because he just thought that was much more challenging than actually preparing and then getting up. So he would go there and people would be pissed or whatever.
EI: Classic jazz story.
TB: But he had that kind of confidence and ability, I don’t know how he developed his ear, but I imagine he’s one of those people where it just came to him and he worked on it eventually.
EI: There’s a lot of Hemphill out there, but I wish that there was even more recordings.
TB: Yeah, he wasn’t really documented at all. I saw him once with Bobo Shaw and Abdul Wadud where he just played some Charlie Parker tune, and then they played for like an hour straight. Julius just came out and played the head really fast and just went… you know, and an hour later it was done. And he didn’t stop. It was one of those blues heads, and Julius started by playing the blues, and then it just kinda went!
EI: I sure wish we had a record of that!
TB: It was partly that he wasn’t really a hustler. (It’s still like that now. If you don’t try, they won’t find you. You sort of have to be proactive.) If Julius met some jive-ass record guy, he wouldn’t kiss his ass just because there was an opportunity. He’d just kind of say “fuck you.” He didn’t tolerate those kinds of people.
EI: Well, it’s nice that you put out that two-CD set Blue Boyé on your label. There’s some great music on that.
TB: Well, he put that out on his label first. My sister and I sort of helped him do it. In fact, helping him put out the first edition is how I learned how to make a record. He wrote all the pieces in his notebooks, and then we went upstate where there was some guy who had a little eight-track studio in his basement. It was February and the guy didn’t have heat so it was freezing, Julius had a big fucking overcoat and did the whole record – all in single takes plus overdubs, everything – in a few hours. In a freezing, fucking cold basement. I was there, There wasn’t one thing he did twice. He had never done an overdub record but he just knew exactly what he wanted. And it was a really funky situation and terrible sound!
EI: I think you’ve told me that Dogon A.D. is maybe still your favorite Julius record?
TB: That was amazing. Rumor has it that Dogon was supposed to be a septet with John Hicks on piano, a guitar player, and maybe a percussionist. If you look at the original cover, there’s a black drawing of six musicians on this hill. But only four of them are on the record! Two or three of them didn’t show up.
Abdul Wadud had done a lot of classical stuff. I think he was in the New Jersey Symphony. He was from Cleveland, I think Julius met him at Oberlin...they even did a gig at Oberlin.
Philip Wilson probably hooked up with Julius in the St. Louis/Chicago days. But I remember he went out to the west coast after Philip hit it with Butterfield. I think Philip made some serious coin from Woodstock, because his tune “Love March” was in that movie. Philip bought a house in Marin County or something. Julius stayed out there for a while.
EI: There’s something I really like about Philip Wilson’s playing on Dogon. It’s really funky.
TB: I know, exactly. The fact that he and Abdul don’t divert is kind of what makes it, in a way. It kind of frees up Baikida and Julius. If that was done now with somebody who plays the shit out of 11, it probably wouldn’t be as interesting. It was sort of an African thing.
EI: There’s a tiny, tiny drum intro that is just killing.
TB: Yeah. And it’s recorded on a 4-track… and one of the tracks wasn’t working, so it’s really 3-track. This blues guy, Oliver Sain, it was his studio. He thought they were fuckin’ nuts.
EI: Any other Hemphill recommendations?
TB: There’s also a piece on the Nonesuch big band record called “Leora” that I think is pretty amazing. But you know, I saw it firsthand: very little of his output ever got on record. Almost nothing. Whole pieces like that string piece are gone...he probably lost it. He never Xeroxed anything. Most of the time he would just give people originals or he’d rip them out of his notebook.
I like some of the records of the World Saxophone Quartet, especially Revue. But I heard a tape of one of their first gigs, maybe their second gig, in St. Louis, and there were some Julius tunes on there that were fucking amazing. And I don’t remember hearing those tunes again. I’ve often wondered what happened... I remember he sent me the music to Roi Boye and the Gotham Minstrels, the solo thing he did with overdubs. He sent me the scores in this notebook and it got lost in the mail. I felt so bad! But he was like, “Eh, whatever, I’ll just make up some more.” He could write music so quickly and so prolifically he never really thought about it. There are few scores around – maybe! – like that piece “Water Music for Woodwinds” Marty Ehrlich dug up and we recorded for Zorn’s label. The harmonies are insane: it’s for four flutes, clarinet, baritone and alto or something. He’d just knock off these pieces. The music on my album Diminutive Mysteries? He wrote most of that stuff in about five seconds.
Baikida Carroll knows more than me. He has tapes for sure, including a recording of Julius, Baikida, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock. You should really interview Baikida, not just about Julius but also his own music. We played together not too long ago and he still sounds amazing.
EI: Of course, I'd love to meet Baikida. In addition, I want to clear some space on the calendar at some point to really explore the Hemphill discography. Because even though it’s an incomplete record of his artistry there’s still a lot there that is not as known as it should be.
TB: He was really inspiring, you know. He was just so creative and he was a real contrarian. He just took everything at face value. He wasn’t political about it at all and definitely wasn’t a careerist. He never played it safe. Whenever a promoter said, “Oh, why don’t you do your quartet,” he’d go and do an octet and lose money. Or he’d bring in some actors even though he knew people didn’t want to see that shit. He just did it because he wanted to. If there was a budget for a quintet, then he’d do an octet. He would make music stands for the gigs. Every time he had a gig, he’d make Plexiglas music stands on Canal Street and build these elaborate stands that folded up, just for the presentation.
And that really sank in, the whole thing of doing it for the sake of the musical idea, not for the career part of it. I just kind of just filed it all away. Just seeing somebody write music all the time, I just figured that’s what you do.
So at one point I started a band so I could play with people. I met these guys, I dunno even how I met them, a guitar player, bass player and a drummer. Nobody you would know. And I started writing for this band, I wrote about fifteen tunes, and we did a demo, and that was the first thing I ever did with a band. We rehearsed a lot. I had no idea what I was doing. I mean I’d kinda make like these fake funk, fake this, fake that. You know, kinda trying to approximate things that I’d heard. And probably a lot of it from Julius. And then we got a gig with a street fair. We played in the middle of Tribeca, at the middle of the street, at a street fair. Then I got a little tour together. I played in Colorado since my sister lived there at some club. It was amazing. Three nights over Halloween. I brought the guitar player, and then I got a band out there with Jerry Granelli and this bass player Phil Sparks to do the three nights in Boulder. We rehearsed. I can’t even imagine what it sounded like. But, uh… then we went to Portland, Oregon and got a rhythm section. Did the same thing. Then went to L.A. and played with Alex Cline and Roberto Miranda. And then we played duo in San Francisco and that was like the first time I’d ever played any concerts, really. This was ’78 probably. And that’s sort of how I started.
I met Alex ’cause he played with Julius in ’77. He came out to New York. This trio with Baikida and Julius. These L.A. guys were much more supportive. I was less scared. You know, the guys in New York, I was too scared. These guys were much more accepting. They were making records. Alex would fix up a group for me and I’d go out there. And we’d do a concert, and then record. Basically, that was it. I was probably doing, in those days, probably three or four concerts a year. If that. That’s like ’78/’79. The first Empire record was ’79. I was still working a day job, of course.
EI: You are a pretty rare example of someone who isn’t playing music already as a teenager but then has the willpower – because of a love of the music – to like really devote yourself to it, a bit on the late side, and then turn it around. In a few years you’ve made your first record and you’ve got your own voice coming.
TB: Yeah I was pretty strong-willed. I don’t know what possessed me. When I look back on it, it seems incredible, especially considering my overall lack of confidence. The more I learned, the less confident I felt. I would take these jazz lessons and stuff, but I didn’t really ever do sideman stuff. I think the first thing I ever did as a sideman could’ve been the Mark Helias record Split Image, where I played with Dewey Redman for a couple of tunes.
That was amazing. Mark might have given Dewey the music but I seriously doubt he looked at it. He came in from a gallery show, where he’d been drinking some wine. He’s kind of laughing and screwing around. And I’m paralyzed with fear. Not even just about him, but just recording a record in a studio. Somebody else’s music, some of the tunes have changes, you know I’m just mortified I’m gonna fuck up. And, uh, then Dewey just shows up and we play this thing and it’s like "boom." We’re playing this tango of Mark’s, and playing it “correctly” and all this, and Dewey comes in... his solo’s killing. And then we play the other tune he’s on, and it’s the same thing. He’s not nailing the music, but all of a sudden it has a vibe. It’s like this guy is a pro in the best sense of the word. This guy’s been around the block! He just knows how to cut to the music. Get to the music quickly. You put up all these blocks: “I can’t do this, I can’t do that.” I was just fighting myself on every issue. “I’m not as good as these guys,” or whatever. All that shit’s spinning out of control in my brain. And this guy’s coming in like “I’m Dewey Redman. I play the saxophone. It’s just music. I’m gonna play some music.” He wasn’t worried about somebody saying he fucked up letter B or whatever – and if they had, he would’ve done it again, of course. But on the improvised stuff he just sort of killed it.
EI: It’s so important to be exposed to a few masters. They show you something else. That’s amazing the first thing Hemphill said was ‘magic.’
TB: Which makes perfect sense, because when you’re freely improvising, it’s not like you say “Oh, he played a C, so I’m gonna play a D.” That’s not going through your head, you know? You’re making these snap decisions that are based on just feel, vibe, or what’s in the air. You can’t sit there and go “Ok, why is this working? This’ll work because I just played this against that.” So there’s a lot of magic. And we all know those moments where something magical happens, and you just sit on it until it goes away. It’s unexplainable, just like chemistry between two people.
EI: Did you study with anybody else besides Hemphill and couple early lessons with Braxton?
TB: A few lessons with Arthur Blythe. We’d sit around and jam: He’d play a few chords on the piano and I’d play. I studied with this guy Bob Donovan, who had been a member of the Gerry Mulligan concert band or something. He was kinda like a Phil Woods type. Lead alto player. Serious, you know, sort of beatniky jazz guy from that period. Somebody turned me on to him, and that’s when I probably did the most learning tunes kind of thing. I studied with this guy David Gross who Oliver Lake recommended. (I took a couple of lessons with Oliver too.) Gross’s thing was patterns. A lot of them he compared to things Dexter Gordon sort of invented. And then the idea was to change a little bit each time until eventually you’re playing your own shit. But, you know, it doesn’t really work that way...
And then I took classical lessons with this guy Les Scott who Marty Ehrlich had studied with, I think. He’s from St. Louis, he had taught Oliver and those guys. Really cool guy. That was pretty much a classical thing. You know, looking at some of those saxophone concertos and etudes.
EI: What alto players did you like listening to?
TB: There’s so many that I’ll forget some. Well, I love James Spaulding. I saw an amazing concert he did at Tin Palace with Reggie Workman and Edgar Bateman, where they kind of wove in and out of standards. There were some Freddie Hubbard records that Spaulding was on that were really great.
EI: He plays a role not dissimilar to Eric Dolphy in sort of a more straight ahead context – he’s the guy who’s going to try to bust it open. What about Dolphy, did you check him out?
TB: Yeah, I was into Dolphy. I wasn’t into emulating Dolphy, but I was into Dolphy. Obviously Braxton, Roscoe, Oliver, those guys I was into. I remember that Lee Konitz record Motion, I liked that a lot. (Julius liked Konitz too.) Jimmy Lyons with Cecil Taylor. I saw them with Cyrille three nights in a row. It was amazing. I think that’s the only time I saw them...
I was into Henry Threadgill, probably more as a composer than a player, just because his Sextett at that time was really happening.
EI: Well, what about Ornette?
TB: Yeah, of course. These days I really appreciate the surprises in the trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. Oh, I just thought of loving Sonny Fortune on those McCoy records like Sahara. I remember that.
EI: Not too long ago I saw Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali duo.
TB: Oh yeah, how was that?
EI: It was great. They played “Cherokee” for one hour.
EI: Yeah, that was the whole gig. It was so 1972, man, it was just beautiful.
All these alto players you cite have a certain fire and intensity.
TB: And tone, too. They all really had their own sound. David Gross would have me copying solos, which was fine for a while but made me feel uncomfortable eventually. I remember him saying that only John Coltrane and the real geniuses have their own sound, no one else does…pretty much saying “You’re not gonna have your own sound.” And I remember thinking that’s a strange thing to say, because everyone has their own speaking voice. I was trying to get a good saxophone sound and then I figured my voice would just, you know, organically evolve. Like, I wasn’t trying not to sound like anybody, I just wasn’t trying to sound like anybody. I wasn’t trying to sound original at all, I just wasn’t trying. It wasn’t even an issue until I started copying these things for Gross, and then I thought “Oh, this is a little weird.” It’s a little insidious or something. I admit it’s probably a good idea but it seems like something you do and then you try to forget it. So maybe it’s easier just not to remember it in the first place! I think just trying to get a good sound on the instrument will lead you there.
EI: You hear so many players that never leave the stuff that they’ve worked so hard to learn.
TB: Yeah, it’s hard. If you work all the time trying to sound like somebody, it’s not so easy to forget. And, actually, I got close to that with Julius. I didn’t really know how to try to sound like Julius, but his sound was in my head to a great extent. That’s one of the reasons I stopped listening to records, and especially his records. I just said “Ok, I gotta get my own sound in my head.” Because I was almost hearing him when I was playing. Same with Braxton: when I started, I didn’t understand what was behind it. I was just doing an Etch-A-Sketch version of Braxton. Maybe I was lazy, but I could never spend time trying to really copy somebody.
When I was working with John Zorn I tried to transcribe all those Ornette tunes, but the most transcribing I ever did was about 20 years ago at an art colony. I had a bunch of Cannonball Adderly solos on record and I decided to try to transcribe them just for fun and because they seemed kind of hard to play. That was another thing about Julius: everybody else was into Charlie Parker but he was into Cannonball. He was a big contrarian…everybody was all “Charlie Parker,” he kept saying “Eh, Cannonball, that was the shit,” or something. That’s kind of his nature.
There was one incident with Stanley Crouch where Stanley was putting down Mitch Miller and the arrangements on Charlie Parker with Strings, saying that it just wasn't a good record, which was a common opinion then. And Julius was like “Man, listen to the way he plays those melodies,” you know. He just liked to fuck with those guys.
It’s very hard to listen with your ears and not with your prejudices. I always wondered what those writers would write if they didn’t know what they were listening to. If you just got the music, and then you got the information after you wrote the review.
And myself included! My listening is really colored by what I expect from somebody.
EI: That’s a great point. I have this problem where I’ll hear somebody and I won’t really like it and it’ll really color my relationship to their thing for years. Even though I know everybody has bad gigs or whatever! And then years later I’ll hear something else they’ve done and I’ll say, “Oh this guy’s really good, actually.”
TB: Think of all the gigs you’ve done where you just pray that no one heard you. I’ve done gigs in New York where all these musicians show up and it just kinda sucks. That’s the one gig they come out for and you want to apologize.
EI: Boy, has that happened to me, too.
What about your first efforts of putting pen to paper and writing something?
TB: Because I had Julius, I’d write duos. Then when Marty Ehrlich stayed with us, a three-part thing. That must’ve been like ’77/’78.
I’d write exercises. I remember Oliver had me write some whole tone exercise. I wrote some kind of tune. I think I started writing things right when I started taking lessons.
EI: Did it come pretty natural to you?
TB: I don’t know. I guess it sort of did. I would just write on the alto, and then I’d kind of try to imagine the harmony and write another line. I’d looked at Julius’s stuff, and I’d noticed that when there were two lines, one would be going up and the other would be going down; they’d never be going the same way. I just assumed that was a good thing. In fact I became maniacal about making sure that the two parts never went in the same direction. If this line was going up, the other one had to go down. And then I’d kind of just sit there and try to imagine the two things together. The way I heard the harmony was horizontal: two coexisting melodies that sounded good together. And then eventually there was a bass part. I always made sure my bass parts sounded good by themselves, as if they were melodic – like if you just played the bass alone, it’d work as a tune.
EI: I think almost all the tunes on all your records – with the exception of the Hemphill disc Diminutive Mysteries – have been your compositions, from the very first.
TB: I called my first record The Five-Year Plan as a joke. “In five years I’m gonna make a living in music.” Just some bullshit. I’d say it ended up being more like an eight-year plan – which is still astounding to me!
EI: The first few records were on your own label, Empire.
TB: I got that idea from Julius, too. His label was Mbari. He kind of showed me the ropes. And since I didn’t think I was gonna get a label anyway, I just went right to it. And it was just quicker, too. I’ve always been into this “Ok, you make the record and you put it out.” It shouldn’t take long, and it shouldn’t be super-expensive.
EI: Right now, more and more artists have their own record labels. But you’re done it pretty much from the first time you were a professional musician.
TB: Zorn was doing it. And I remember I was working with him at a record store… we were kind of almost doing it at parallel moments.
EI: What record store?
TB: Uh, Soho Music Gallery.
EI: You were both working there?
EI: My god.
TB: It was pretty funny. And Vinny Golia, I remember, started a label a little bit before me. So it wasn’t unheard of. And it wasn’t that big a deal, really.
EI: I bought the Empire disc Songs and Rituals in Real Time in Eau Claire, Wisconsin when I was in high school. I dunno how it was there, but it was just there and I bought it.
TB: I had a distributor in Chicago. I’m pretty sure the writer John Litweiler hooked me up with somebody.
EI: You’re the young Tim Berne, you’ve got a band and you’re gonna make a record on your own label. And you call the label Empire. That’s just awesome.
TB: Don’t read too much into it.
EI: No? But there’s something I want to try to get across here: something that was important to me and I think pretty important to Dave King too and many other people. Something ironic, or self-deprecating, or some aspect of the style which was really fascinating...
TB: Well, I don’t take myself too seriously. Part of doing it myself is how I can thumb my nose at authority or whatever, do things the way I want to do them. Five years earlier I was a rabid fan, so I knew what I liked. And I liked weirdness. I bought Julius’s record because I didn’t know what it was. It didn’t have liner notes and it had some weird cover. Everybody had weird names. And that’s why I bought it. I didn’t buy it because I knew what was on it. I had no idea. The artwork meant something to me, in terms of presentation.
EI: I just think that having a record label where you produce your own music on a small scale but call the label Empire is genius. But beyond that name, there was something in your music’s presentation that doesn’t come from jazz so much, I think. It comes from something else, from rock or punk or some kind of non-jazz presentation. Even Julius’s music is presented as jazz, but yours isn’t.
TB: I was lucky enough to have some great designers. The first one was Alan Kikuchi, then later on I had Steve Byram, and they make a big difference.
EI: Were bands like Captain Beefheart important to you?
TB: Yeah, I like Captain Beefheart. But I don’t know that I modeled anything after him... You talking musically or just vibe-wise?
TB: I think what you’re getting at… I wasn’t a jazz musician. I was just somebody who sort of fell into music because I didn’t want to just be a fan. I wanted some kind of involvement. And Julius was the only person I was really, personally involved with, who was doing it. So my role models were just weirdos, who didn’t go along with the company line. I don’t think you’re ever quite sure what’s seeping in, but obviously I was into Beefheart somewhat. I was into all the Ornette, Art Ensemble, all the Chicago stuff, Braxton, Cecil. All these guys. And most of them either had their own labels or were on very independent labels. So, maybe that had something to do with it. It’s a good question, I’m not sure that I was smart enough to know at that point how to present it. I just lucked out. I knew a designer, and he did stuff for incredibly reasonable prices, because he wanted the exposure...
EI: Well, you’re right to cite Steve Byram as an important part of the puzzle because…
TB: He’s huge. I couldn’t do this without him. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
EI: I vividly remember getting Fractured Fairy Tales on JMT. The music is phenomenal, but the whole experience of that record with that dense fold-out insert was so avant-garde, really. Total Byram! What was the first record Byram actually art-directed for you?
TB: Fulton Street Maul. That’s where I met him, he was working at Columbia. He did a Lutoslawski cover that I saw that was fucking amazing. It looked like some Cubist shit. And I said, “Oh, that’s the guy.”
Byram and I just really hit it off personally. On the first record I kind of fucked up: I picked the photographer. It was just kind of lame, what I did, but Byram saved it. And then Sanctified Dreams was all him. And every record after that, it was almost 100% him. In fact, Columbia rejected the Byram cover that I wanted to use for Fulton Street Maul, so we used it for Herb’s record X-Cerpts: Live at Willisau. This guy’s head exploding. It was really amazing.
EI: Cover art is so important. I cannot believe that the Winter and Winter reissues of the JMT catalog did away with all the original artwork. That was a terrible aesthetic decision.
TB: I couldn’t have done Screwgun without Byram. I have an art department, basically.
EI: Maybe for the general readership you could give us a bit of history of being on Columbia Records in-between Empire and JMT. You also did a couple of Soul Note discs, and of course now Screwgun has been your label for many years...but you did record your uncommercial music for a major, an unusual occurrence.
TB: Well, there was this guy Gary Lucas, who’s from Syracuse. We grew up together. He used to come into Tower Records when I was working there and say “hey, wanna be on Columbia? Blah blah blah.” I really didn’t believe him. And he just talked these guys into doing it. I think he probably led them to believe it was gonna be a New Age record, because at the time that was sort of a hot thing. He grabbed three minutes of something pretty me and Frisell did and played it for them. He pitched it to them that way, and it was cheap enough so that they were like “Yeah, whatever.”
And we went out to L.A. and recorded Fulton Street Maul, and really Nels Cline produced it. I gave Nels a thousand bucks so he sat there and basically produced it with an engineer Nels knew.
EI: And there was a two-record deal? Sanctified Dreams was next...
TB: Artie Moorhead produced Sanctified Dreams with Tim Geelan engineering.
EI: That’s a great record.
TB: It was cool. I knew what it was: I didn’t expect being on Columbia to change my life in terms of being a recording artist. But I knew it was gonna change my life in terms of working, and it did. That was when I was able to quit my day job and work. Writers, whether they would admit this or not, take you more seriously when you’re on a label than they do when you send a promo from your house. And so all of a sudden everybody reviewed my music. Especially for Fulton Street Maul, I got so much press. And it was enough good press where they had to do another one. And then I did another one, and that got great press, but by the time that record came out, I had already done a record for JMT, because I knew it was over.
But it was great. It basically started my career in terms of just making a living, not so much from the records but from touring. But I had no relationship with anybody at Columbia. I mean, it was like I wasn’t there.
EI: And those Columbia records are lost now. Basically, they own them and you can’t really get them, right?
EI: It’s funny how that happens. Like, I wouldn’t have thought that my CD copy of Sanctified Dreams would be such a rarity now.
TB: I tried to get them back and they wouldn’t even entertain the idea.
EI: Why wouldn’t they sell them back?
TB: No idea.
EI: Tell me about a longer fling with JMT and then starting Screwgun.
TB: Well, I was on JMT and Stefan Winter sold the label, and the way it went down was kinda weird. But I did another record with him for Winter & Winter, and then we kind of fell out. To make a long story short, I just said “I gotta just do this shit myself, just like I used to.”
I wanted to own everything, and I had this idea that my fans really like bootlegs. And so – for the first records at least – I started putting out authorized bootlegs. Find the best live gigs, package them in an interesting way, and make them sound as good as I can. Also, with Stefan, everything was going this direction of incredible quality studios and immaculate recordings. I just wanted to go the other way, to kind of rebel. And then put really stupid shit on the covers that we like: Food recipes on each album. Just do it the way I would want to see it if I was a fan. Disregard all the rules: all the copyright shit you have to put up, Bar code, whatever, I didn’t want any of that shit on the package.
I used to go to record stores like Other Music to just browse and look at covers. And that’s how I found the idea of the cardboard and the hand letterpress thing. I found this guy in Chicago, Fireproof Press. And he did our first cardboard stuff. He was great. Sometimes it would take forever, sometimes it would be really quick. Sometimes he’d ship ’em to the wrong place. It was like a comedy of errors. But it was really worth the effort. And for Steve, too, doing the letterpress was a whole new thing. And he was totally into that.
Back then, there wasn’t too much mail order yet. If it wasn’t in the store you didn’t buy it. So, I thought, people come to the gigs and want to buy the record, in fact they are ravenous for the record – what if there was just one place where you could get the record, from me? Maybe that would work.
As it turned out, that first record sold more copies than anybody else had done selling my music for me. It worked best at the very first, before I got distributors and that wrecked the vibe a bit. I’m back to the basics now: everybody knows I write the address on every package.
God, in those days I was dealing with checks: I’d get like 30 checks in the mail and have to go the bank and deposit them all. We’d send out postcards to people; it was crazy. Then the records themselves were very labor-intensive. I’d have all the parts and have to put them together. Formanek was there the first day, when we had to assemble the packages, putting the CDs in the letterpress envelopes and folding them just so, then making up the packages and everything. We did 150 that first day. Later, sometimes I had five people around the kitchen table and I was like a fucking Hitler or something, making sure everybody did their jobs just right. It was hilarious.
EI: I didn’t know you had to assemble them yourself, Tim. Christ!
TB: Well, for a couple of them before I gave up and found a company to do it for me. No shrink wrap: that was important.
EI: I’ve noticed that you’ve also never had liner notes on any record, other than the Soul Note records?
TB: That’s no accident. I don’t like to give it away. The traditional liner notes where you describe, “And then it goes into 9/4, then there’s the blues, then so and so,” just ruins it for me. Because it limits what someone’s going to get from it. Most of the time, people believe what they read. “Oh, here comes the blues”… Nat Hentoff wrote the liner notes on one of those Soul Note records, and he identified the instruments wrong. He called Herb Robertson a trombone player.
The idea of having a musician write the liner notes on a record appeals to me more, and I wrote something for the Screwgun edition of Blue Boyé. One reason the rest of the Screwgun catalog doesn’t have notes is that I want as little type as possible on the records.
And then I started working with David Torn with the Unwound record, he mastered that. And then we started working every year on something. David produced the electric records, which is really important.
EI: All those records sound really great. He really impressed me with how he mixed and mastered Duck, the Buffalo Collision disc. And of course you’re on Torn’s record Prezens with the Berne family of musicians, basically. How many records are there on Screwgun now?
TB: Duck might’ve been twenty. I think we forgot to put the number on this one, actually. I’m curious. [Finds copy of disc in bag] I don’t think there’s a spine, is there? Man, no spine. We’ve taken it all the way. Does it have a number on it? Nope. We forgot. There you go. It’s twenty.
EI: There’s a few non-Tim Berne records on Screwgun, right?
TB: Sure. There’s Django, there’s two Ducret records, solo and a trio. There’s Formanek solo. There’s the Julius. Um… Buffalo Collision. But yeah, I think that’s it. So five or six out of the twenty.
EI: You’re not planning to expand, really?
TB: You know I never say never. Who knows what’ll happen. I mean the reason I don’t do it now is because I don’t have the time to work the shit. And I can’t sell as many as I used to, so I’m not as confident about making the money back.
EI: You told me that you didn’t give promos to critics.
TB: I give out maybe four or five to people who I know will review it. I used to send out a lot and about a tenth of them would review the records. And a lot of the ones that didn’t review it would’ve reviewed it if I had a publicist or if I was on a real label. And that bothered me. And they all wanted the records. But I was talking to someone in the record business and they said, “You know what, man? Just tell these guys they have to review it before you send it to them. If they aren’t gonna do it then don’t send it to them.” Because you’re not obligated. I mean God knows, most of the jazz critics I know live off selling the records, or used to. So I don’t wanna just send them because on the off chance they might. By now they all know me, anyway, so they’re gonna do it or they’re not. I kept running out of things. And I was thinking “I wish I had those 80 promo copies I sent out,” because I’d rather have the money than the no press.
I haven’t really learned that much from reading my reviews. There’s a handful of guys who actually take it seriously and write in depth, and those are the people I send it to. Whereas most of them, it’s like the Tim Berne catchphrase club. Basically their review ends up saying, “This is really difficult to listen to but it’s good.” Let somebody else decide what’s difficult. Like, what’s difficult about it, exactly? Judging from the audiences, it’s not really that difficult. It seems like most of the guys who are reviewing records don’t come to gigs, so they wouldn’t really know what’s going on anyway, really. Just to see an audience might change their opinion. If these guys had come seen me play more than once in twenty years, I would say “Ok, that’s an interesting opinion, maybe.” You know what I mean? But most of these guys I know haven’t come to any gigs.
EI: The Bad Plus has a pretty good relationship to critics. However I can think of at least two major New York jazz writers that have never seen us live, not after almost of ten years of playing several times a year in New York!
TB: Even live reviews can be so misguided. I remember somebody reviewed a Prezens thing recently, and we did this gig where the audience went crazy. It was like a church. And the reviewer made this sort of offhanded comment about the difficulty of the music and implied that the crowd wasn’t really that fired up. It really kind of annoyed me.
EI: A lot of the time, this music is talked about as if it’s hard to understand. But I think that in the best improvised music and jazz, there’s always been elements of it that were truly accessible. It’s inspiring that you’ve produced a body of work as an independent, avant-garde artist that has the kind of charisma that says, “If you are interested in cool stuff, you might want to check this out.”
TB: You can tell from the audiences. You see people afterwards and they’re like, “Wow.” They liked it.
EI: Your music has a lot of quality, and you’ve managed to have a career doing this quality music pretty much self-produced. You’re really ahead of the curve in terms of what a lot of people are going to have to do, whether they wanted to do it or not. They’re going to have to use this model that you’ve already been doing for so many years. You did it before you were on Columbia, and you did it after, you know? It’s just what you do.