Tim Berne: Superstitious Pragmatist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAJ: They've had years of experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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