Q&A: Tim Berne On Big Satan, Playing with Nels Cline, How The Internet Fucked Up The Music Business, And Not Being Part of The "Downtown Jazz Scene"
Saxophone giant Tim Berne is one forward-thinking renegade who started altering the landscape of jazz in the mid-1970s by wielding his horn and, in a show of then-unheard of DIY vision, launched his own record label.
A late bloomer, Berne didn't pick up a sax until his very late teens but upon his moving to Brooklyn in the mid-'70s (and where he resides to this day), the fledgling, wide-eyed musician was quickly engulfed in the loft jazz scene and it was there where he connected with his mentor, sax legend Julius Hemphill. In the '80s, Berne enjoyed a stint on Columbia Records while achieving omnipresent force status in New York jazz, collaborating with the likes of avant-garde titans John Zorn, Bill Frisell and Joey Baron. Alas, while he was tight with downtown titan Zorn, Berne was relegated outsider to that vibrant scene but certainly doing his own thing on his own terms and that seems to be Berne's raison d'être.
Berne's aesthetic is the epitome of independent. Since 1996, he's owned and operated his own record label (Screwgun), books gigs and works without a publicist, while remaining busy as ever. Berne leads his own ensembles, supports longtime friends like Michael Formanek and Nels Cline, and plays with young innovators like guitarist Mary Halvorson, Ches Smith and Matt Mitchell.
Berne can let loose with the best of the fire-breathing sax blowers, but it's his melodic phraseology and marathon compositions that has made records like 2011's Snakeoil gloriously compelling and epic. Tonight, Berne will be in full-throttle mode when he converges with guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey for an ultra-rare Big Satan performance at Greenwich House Music School.
Sound of the City finally caught the insanely busy, hilarious and brutally honest Berne at his Brooklyn home for a long chat.
So, you're pretty busy, huh.
Oh yeah, not so much gigs but I'm gonna be on the road quite a bit this fall so I'm just trying to finish up writing stuff and deadlines. There's always a trillion things. I don't really have an agentin the sense one has an agent [laughing]. In addition to being a musician, there's always bullshit.
Do you book everything yourself?
Not everything. But, generally, [I book] everything in the States. But it's just tons of... there's always email shitin addition to everything else so if I get busy writing, then everything kinda goes.
Are you going on tour in the fall with your own group?
Not this fall. Michael Formanek has a new record coming out on ECM. So he has two tours, a States and Europe tour, and then I'm doing this thing in Switzerland where I have this student big band that I have to write for, do a couple of concerts with and rehearse and then a big band tour with [Marc] Ducret. He's got a twelve-piece ensemble that we're touring France with in November.
You ran your own record label in the '70s [Empire] and have been running Screwgun since 1996. Do you do everything independently?
With my record label, yeah yeah, of course. But I have an agent in Europe. But that just means they do half the work and then you kind of coax them along. There's always bullshit, you know, dealing with the band dates. It's amazing how busy everybody I work with is so you're thinking of shit. Ya know, I'm into 2014 already, asking people about dates. Believe it or not, some people can't do shit. They're firing it past, people like Ches [Smith]. It's pretty crazy.
Ches seems super-busy.
He's busy. I think I'm just as bad. 2013 is getting pretty crazy so there's a fine line. It's hard... I tend to take everything but at the same time, you wanna leave some room for, you know, last minute or a little spontaneity [laughs]. But it's hard.
How much time do you put into Screwgun?
Not so much anymore; now it's just the mail order. I sorta cut out on all the distributor stuff. It's kinda of a waste of time, I felt. I basically do mail order and then everyone else who does mail order, I'll sell to them. But it's a one-time thing and it's pretty small. If I don't have a new record, it's pretty much just fill out the orders, which got a little harder because the post office seems to be getting ready to fold [laughs]. Now you have to get customs forms online and print them out and do all this bullshit.
How has illegal downloading affected your label?
[Laughing] Like me or everybody? I think it ruined... killed the whole thingthat and whatever other side products of that. Most people's first impulseif they're looking for somethingis to see if they could get it for free. Yeah, that whole thingI mean, the internetfucked it all up [laughing], ya know, really, because I think everybody got into this instant gratification. I do it too... I'm on the road and I go to iTunes and like I'll just say "I want to hear this Andrew Hill record" and I'll just download. And, even the legal downloadsit still hurts. You don't know what to manufacture. When I make a record on Screwgun now, where I used to press 2000, now I press 1000. I used to be able to sell 2000, 3000 pretty easily. Now, 1000 is good.
Do you sell Screwgun records through iTunes?
I don'tit always seemed like it was too much bureaucracy for what it might yield. I may be wrong; I don't even know. I don't do Amazon either because what they pay you is so small and I just figure most people are gonna want to come through mewhich is probably wrong, ya know, since I buy shit on iTunes [laughing]. I probably should [sell through iTunes] because a lot people get the impulse and they're on the iPhone and they don't wanna fuckin' fill out a credit card thing, ya know?
You started your first label back in the 1970s. Where did the inspiration come from for you to do that?
I was studying with Julius Hemphill and he had a label and so I just saw it firsthand and I helped him with his label. So, I met all these distributors. We put a record together of him [Hemphill], a solo record called Blue Boye, my sister did the cover and I handled the distribution. He hooked me up with the distributors. I think he have me the info because he had his label since '71 or something. Then I probably figured shit out and people probably found out about it and wrote me because, at the time, that wasn't such a common thing. So, if someone put out their own record, ya know, these little distributors in Europe would look for you, I think. So, we had a nice little network and that was LP's so I learned pretty much how to do it through that. So by the time I did it [start my own label], it was aImost like I didn't even think about another option because I figured here was, you know, my teacher doing this so far be it for me to think that there's a label that's gonna actually pay me to make a record. So I just went right to it. I didn't even try to have anybody else put my stuff out, for quite a while.
How do you decide which of your records you will put out yourself and those released by ECM, like Snakeoil?
Well, I hadn't made a real studio record probably since I made the record Feign with Craig and Tom and that might have been 2003 or '02 and I wanted to make a studio record and I can't really justify that on Screwgun because it's like spending ten grand versus five grand or three grand, goin' to the studio, payin' people, payin for... I usually have David Torn produce and so I couldn't really financially justify it and be too relaxed about it. And, if I'm gonna be bothered to make a studio record at this stage, I kinda want people to actually hear it because I don't do any promotion [with Screwgun]. I think it's a waste of time if you have your own label unless you have a publicist. And I just can'tI refuse to get a publicist. I just can't deal with that whole thing. I've been talking to Manfred [Eicher; ECM Records founder] for years because I know him pretty well and he goes "Hey, we have to do something" and I'd go "Yeah, sure, let's do it" and nothing would happen. It kept getting closer and closer and finally, you know, he said he wanted to it. There are other labels I'll release things on but as far as going into the studio and doing it all from scratch, that was probably the only label [ECM], I would have done that with where I think it would have been significantly different than doing myself, otherwise there is no pointI'll do it myself. It's fun but it's a lot of work putting out a new record on Screwgun, you know, You have to be around to mail shit out... there's a lot of busy work.
For a label right now, I don't think anybody could be better in terms of that kind of marketing and their idea of promotion is to tour, whereas most of the labels I've dealt with, they think if you send out promos and maybe waste some money on an ad, you've promoted the record. I think touring is the best promotion and they insist on it and that's good news to me because that means the tour is gonna get supported. It was time for me to do a studio record and it was good time to do something for a real label and it helpedit gives you a different kind of credibility when somebody like ECM puts out your record because it's quite an exclusive group. So even though I've been making, what I think, are interesting records for a while, for some reason, this [Snakeoil] got treated differently because it was on ECM. They validate it, sort of. You know how it issubconsciously it does make a difference to writers. They see something coming out on ECM or they see another Screwgun, it just looks like a vanity project to most people, even if the music and the sound and everything else is of a high quality, it still looks like you're doing it because you have no other option, which then minimizes it and I think even though maybe a lot of people may know that's not true, they don't treat it the same way. When I did send out press copies [of Screwgun records], it was kind of a waste because I didn't have anybody following up and I didn't have somebody telling them what to think.
Is your not having a publicist, an agent in the States and essentially doing everything by yourself by choice?
I'd love to have an agent; I don't want to have a bad agent. In the States, there just aren't any good agents that deal with the kind of music that I play.
Did you inherit that sensibility from studying and working with Julius Hemphill?
Not reallythat part I didn't except that I saw he wasn't doing much and he didn't have an agent [laughing]. So I figured something was up. It's nice to get good press and it's nice to get press but I'm not really into making that a priority. I'm just uncomfortable pursuing that myself; I'd rather spend the time playing music or record or I'm just trying to get gigs and, you know, play.
So it doesn't come from a hardcore independent mentality?
Well, it comes from wanting to be in control. I made several records for JMT, Winter and Winter and got to the point where I did make the decision to do it myself and I could have continued with them and I just got frustrated with it. When I did start Screwgun in '96, I was making more money with Screwgun than I was on any label. I may have been selling more records but it's hard to know when you don't get statements. As a business move, it was a good move in addition to having control. Me and Steve Byram, the artist, got into a whole thing with the covers and that was fun. That was a conscious decision, and now I just feel like, "We did it but now you can't sell'em because"excuse the expression"these idiots who think they're supporting the music made it impossible to do that anymore by creating all this free shit and these sharing sites." You do a tour and your concerts are up [on the internet] that night. It's almost like a badge of honor to see how quick you can get a concert up there. I'm talking about a whole tape of the concert on a file sharing site. I understand it but a lot of guys and girls think they are promoting the music but they've basically ended this record shit because I can't do it like I used to because I can't sell'em, ya know? All the distributors have gone out of business, the record stores, people who are not buying hard copies, iPods. It's all related. No one wants to buy a CD if they're gonna end up listening to it on their iPod all the time. In theory I understand it but it's typical that everything now modern and new is just fucking wiping out all this stuffbooks, newspapers, it's all the same thing. Somebody gets a brilliant idea like "Hey, we'll give out the newspaper online!" and people still buy it and when they change it and charge you, everyone stops reading it. I got the New York Times for free forfuckingever online and when they started charging it took me a year before I said "Ah, fuck it." I'm sure there's people worse than me who won't read anything they have to pay for. And who created that? They shot themselves in the foot and I think the record business, when they saw that Napster bullshit and then they tried to co-opt it and then all of a sudden everybody's like "Oh, yeah! Digital downloads!" The next thing you know they've ended the business. There's no more record stores, no more Tower. Where's it gonna end? There might not be any CD's in five years.
When did you start your Empire label?
How many releases did you have?
I think five; one was a box set.
Why did you stop doing Empire?
At some point, somebody put out a record of mineI think it was Soul Notebought a tape from me and then I did that Columbia stuff, these two records for CBS, and once that happened I sort of had a career in music. I was making a living, which was around '87 might have been the first year that I made a living touring. At the time, I was happy not to be doing it myself. Basically, the Columbia stuffI don't know how much it soldbut it certainly made a difference in terms of touring and press and all that bullshit. The Soul Note shit didn't hurt and so I was kind of on my way for a while, kind of enjoying that. I then went to JMT, made ten records and that was all great.
How was your experience at Columbia?
It was great. I was basically doing everything myself; the downside was they could give a shit. They weren't into it. The whole thing was a fluke. It's a long story but some guy talked them into it, led them to believe I think it was gonna be a new age record or something. Then it got so much press, they couldn't really ignore it, they couldn't say "Oh, we're dropping this guy." They just got all this insane press and so I got to do second one just based on the fumes from that. The second onewhich was a great experienceI had a slightly bigger budget to record and I made, what I consider, a great sounding record and everything just went great in terms of making it. But the second I made it, I knew the handwriting was on the wall. I tried to have a meeting with some guy to talk about supporting a tour and he just looked at me like "What are you? Crazy?" So, even though I was touring, they didn'twhereas ECM will support it and do tons of press around the tourthese guys didn't do shit. I argued with them and said 'Isn't that kind of counterproductive?" [laughing]. But I realized they'd rather put out a record and eat it. It's hard to imagine the logic. I guess it was easier for them to just put out the record instead of having a confrontation, get the press, then write it off rather than actually do some work and risk having to do another one. It sounds absurd but I think it's true.
Which venues were you playing in New York in the '80s?
Well, it was much better. I did a week at Sweet Basil in 1987I think after the second Columbia record. Two years later, I couldn't get a gig there and we did great business. All of a sudden, it just was like "Huh?" [laughing]. I can't get [gigs there]... it was weird. But at the time, I remember playing there a few times, doing a week there. It wasn't what it is now, which is just a million different door gigs, some of which are fun to play; some aren't as much. But as far as getting a paid gig in New York, I can't get in the door at Manhattan jazz clubs even if I could sell him out ten times over. I can handle a little bit of humiliation [laughing] but I'm not really that good at groveling at this point so I'm not gonna harass these guys. But it's interesting that me and my friends, who really do good business when we play these places like Jazz Standard or whatever, and I'm sure I would do great business at the Vanguard. But you have to get in and I don't need to do it, I guess, at this point but it would be nice to actually to a week in New York. I do shit like that at The Stone where I'd get a week at the Stone and I'll just play every night.
But it was different then. The tours were actually better, like the Europe tours in the late '80s and early '90s, things were rolling. We were doing three-week tours; we were doing twenty gigs in a row and that was unusual then. Now it's hard again and I have to blame the Internet [laughing] because now anybody can send an email to a promoter and email them the music and you got all these bandsyoung bandsselling their shit really cheap to do a tour, just so they could do it. I understand; I was in my twenties and the idea of going to Europe and fartin' around and playing and even if I wasn't making any money would be fun. But that's what's happening and you no longer have to get to the few agents there are and kind ofI wouldn't say pay your duesbut get recognized on how you can just do it yourself if you have the initiative. It's really competitive.
Do you think there is more of an audience in Europe for the music you do than here in New York?
No but I think there's more of a network [there] for promoting concerts. I think it's more organized there. There's an audience here, ya know, I think there's a good audience here. We did a States tour and really had a great time. Your audience is as good as the promoter, ya know? It depends on how they promote this shit. If they say "Ah, free jazz from New York" then you're not gonna get a big crowd. If they actually promote what it is and get into a little more detail about it then you might get more people. There might be a bigger audience over there but I always hate to concede that because I think it's more about the network. We went down to D.C. at this Bohemian Caverns place on a Sunday afternoon and there was probably a hundred people there. Places like that where I've never played so I think these places exist. Chicago, toowe did a gigs, me and Ches, and there was over 150 people. It's not that much different in Europe unless you're at a festival. Certain cities [like] Paris and London, it's always packed, which means 100-150 people. If it's a festival, it's a different story. There's always people no matter who's playing.
Coming up in '70s and '80s New York, do you see a similar vibe and sense of community with the jazz scene now with younger musicians you play with like Ches, Mary Halvorson and Matt Mitchell?
In a way, it might be better now for certain things like, one thing that's nice, if I want to play a session for fun over at my house, there are a million people I can get to come over and they're not coming over just because they think they might get a gig. Some people like Mary or Ches or Matt Mitchell, just a million people who I can call up and say "Hey, you guys just want to play?" and even end up rehearsing some music even though there's no gig. I think everybody's really interested in music and interested and playing with different people. It's not a business, at least with these people that I know and almost every day I could do a session if I wanted to. Sometimes, someone brings in music and then almost always something comes out of it like maybe we'll say "Let's do a gig" which is really nice.
I would say in the '90s, the people I was playing with, like Joey Baron or even when I was playing with [Bill] Frisell, that wasn't happeningat all. You couldn't really get anybody to just come over and play.
Were you living in Brooklyn in the '90s?
Yeah. I've been in Brooklyn since the '70s. I lived in Manhattan for a year. That was in '76, maybe. That part [inviting people to come over and play] is great. I kind of insist on rehearsing if I'm gonna do a gig and play written music. So, that's also a nice thing. These people I'm working with really like to rehearse and see the point. It might be just the sheer quantity of musicians who are in Brooklyn, too.
Were you part of like the, did you play with...
The downtown scene? [laughing]
Yeah, like the Knitting Factory in the late '80s...
Nope. I played there but I definitely wasn't in that crowd with like Zorn and Wayne Horvitznot because I didn't want to be. But I was pretty green and I lived in Brooklyn. I met Zorn when we were working in a record store together and that's how I started playing with him and that was really nice. We started doing these little gigs. One night, we'd play the music of Hank Mobley, another night we did Ornette, another time, Kenny Dorham. That was really fun and John really had that thing going, ya know, what I'm describing now, which is really nice. But I didn't really play with many of the other people associated with that scene.
Were you sort of an outcast?
I wasn't an outcast; I just didn't... I don't know, actually. Good question. I was playing with Joey and I introduced Joey to Zorn and I introduced Frisell to Zorn and that's how those guys got in there.
And you couldn't get in there?
Well, I was in there. I played at the Knitting Factory but, other than Zorn, I don't think there was anybody I was working with that you're thinking about, you know, like the lower east side. Of course, I played the Knitting Factory. I wasn't really too involved with Tonic. I only played there a handful of times. I definitely wasn't in the in crowd there.
You mentioned a record store you work at with Zorn.
Soho Music Gallery, it was called. That was great, that was fun and John turned me on to all kinds of shit. It was nice for somebody to just say "Let's play this music" and then he'd come in and have have twenty tunes and then he'd play it. That was really fun. He had a great attitude and I can see why he is where he is. He loves music and he's a real doer like if he says something, he's gonna do something, he usually doing it later that day. He doesn't fart around and in those days, he didn't have any money but it didn't matter. If he wasn't successful, he'd still be doing what he's doing. That attracts people and I have a little bit of that. People know if I say something, I'll probably do it and I think that's attractive to people. There's something about that.
Did you want to get deep into that downtown scene?
I didn't think about it; I was happy to play. Late '80s on, I was playing quite a bit so I was doing okay in terms of playing. I was playing with a lot of great people.
So you were playing in somewhat of a different universe than those guys were in New York?
Not entirely. I was playing at the Knitting Factory, that's for sure. When I think of the downtown scene, I think of Wayne, I think of Elliott Sharp, I think of John, I think of Shelly Hirsch and I think of all those people but I didn't really do anything with those guys, hardly at all. So, technically, I wasn't part of that scene. I think you get lumped in there if you're white and you played at the Knitting Factory, you know, which is fine, I don't really care. But when someone uses it as a stylistic description, that's where I kinda draw the line. All those guys are different. Wayne Horvitz doesn't sound like John and... it's just lazy. It's like in the days of the '70s, everyone called people like Julius and David Murray, called it loft jazz because they played in these lofts. It's the same thing.
Did you check out shows at those lofts?
Yeah, I was in there. I went to Sam Rivers loft all the time, Early '70s on, I was going to all those places like crazy. Yeah, Yeah. I lived at those places.
What stands out about those days? do you remember?
Yup [Laughing]. Well, oh, god. There was a million... I remember going to the Vanguard and then driving home after the gig or going to Slugs and hearing Sun Ra or hearing Jarrett Quartet at the Vanguard, Cecil Taylor at the Five Spot, Sam Rivers like a thousand times at his loft...
Where was Sam Rivers' loft?
I think it was 24 Bond Street. Now it's probably a gallery or something. That was great and then Tin Palace was great. The first time I saw Julius, I didn't even know it was him. It was him, Lester Bowie, this guitar player who played with Milesthis guy Dominique [Gaumont}, who I think passed awayhe was on that He Loved Him Madly stuff. I don't know, all these guys, and I was like "Holy shit." It was kinda like baseball cards for me, every time I saw these guys it was like "Oh, wow."
I was just a fan; I wasn't a musician. So I just went in there. It wasn't like it is now, where now you finish a gig and like five different musicians come up to you hand you their CD to listen to. I didn't exactly go up to Julius and go "I'm Tim Berne. Here's my, you know, demo." I was just happy to hear the music; I didn't really need to validate myself by telling him how great he was. It's so different. People were nice. I remember Sam Rivers was super. He'd see you and say "Hey." You're all standing in this room; there's no dressing room. We're in his kitchen half the time. He's standing around, his wife's there and everyone is just hangin.' That was as far as that went. I got to know Julius really well when I started taking lessons. I took lessons with Braxton at the beginning. I met Julius the same way. I just kinda saw him and we started talking and he's just a really nice guy. I remember he wrote me a letter. It was pretty wild. Then we took a few lessons. Braxton is the one who gave me Julius's number and that's when I first went out to Brooklyn when I took a lesson with him. I started taking lessons. He lived on Dean Street. That's how I discovered Brooklyn. And everything else, basically. Then we just started hanging out and then of course I'd meet all the people he played with, because I was hangin' with him. I met a lot of people, a lot of musicians.
Back then, were there any venues or any place to play in Brooklyn?
No... I remember Julius did a gig at BAM really early on and there were like two people. It was an afternoon concert. I don't think there was [any venues], certainly not for the kind of stuff that's going on now. But there were clubs, I'm sure there were jazz clubs. I remember this place, The East, that existed. It was in East New York and Pharaoh [Sanders] used to play there and McCoy and there was a few records "Live at The East." I never went there but that was supposed to be a pretty heavy place. I think that probably shut down in the '70s.
Back to the present. You've been playing with Formanek for a long time and he has a new record [Small Places]. How'd that come about?
Well, it's his second record for ECM. Manfred was really happy with the first so he wanted to another. I've been playing with him since '89 or '90. We met a couple times through Joey, I think at the Vanguard. I heard him with Ira Sullivan and then Mike called me. He was putting together a band and he kept calling me and I was too scared [laughing]. I was like, "Uhhh." I wasn't really sure I could hang. Then he came over and we played some of his tunes and he was pretty happy about it. So, I joined one of his bands and then I think I played on three or four of his group records, all of which are fantastic and probably out of print. I then hired him for Bloodcount, we started doing duo tours and we've been playing steadily since. So, I'm thrilled to be playing with Craig and Gerald [Cleaver]. Mike's writing I think is fantastic. I think this record [Small Places] is even better than the first one.
The Big Satan gig tonight is a rare occurrence.
Very rare [laughing]. We've probably done two or three gigs in the last 10 years, I think, if that. I've played with Marc a ton and Tom and I are on a new record of his that came out last year. We play in his Quartet and now we're playing in his big band thing. So I play with Marc quite a bit and I hire him a lot. But Big Satan is exciting; it's a really fun band. I think Marc is God. Superlatives are kinda stupid but I think as far as guitarist, composer, there's just nobody better.
How did you meet Marc?
I met him in '88 in Germany. We were at this Baden-Baden New Music Meeting, which people are invited from all over the world, twelve musicians to meet and play. Me and Herb Robertson went and then there was people from all over the world and Marc was one of them. He was really quiet, really shy. I just loved him from the get-go and he couldn't figure out what the fuck we were doing. I mean he couldn't figure out why we were so interested in him. He was amazing. I remember me and Herb wrote these really long pieces and Marc memorized both of them during the week. After we did that, I started a new band and I asked him to be in it, he flew to New York to rehearse and then going on tour in Europe. He told me afterwards he couldn't figure out why I was calling him and why I couldn't just hire somebody in New York.
Had you played with a guitarist before?
Yeah, I think so. I'm sure I had. Well, I played with Nels [Cline] in the early '80s. We've known each other since '79, '78. Then I played with Allan Jaffe a bit. I loved Marc and I just loved his attitude and, you know, I was definitely right [laughing]. He's evolved quite a bit. He's an amazing composer. He's my favorite. After that, I just started playing with him all the time. I love playing with guitar players. I play with Torn, I play with Nels, I play with Mary, I play with Marc. I'm really lucky. And Ryan Ferreira, I've been playing with and he's fantastic.
You played at Shapeshifter Lab this past May with Nels and drummer Jim Black.
We played a week ago at Saalfelden in Austria. We had a really good gig at some big festival. It's great. I'm really lucky. I love tourin.' Tourin's the greatest. Ya know, just lucky.
How did you meet Nels originally in the '70s?
I was going out there to make records in L.A. and I knew his brother, Alex. His brother was a drummer. I met his brother through Julius. He was playing in Julius's trio. I met Alex when he was like 21. Nels is really good at production so he would always help out. We did these five-hour recording sessions in a big room and Nels was always there to kinda make sure it sounded good. He's really good at that.
We hadn't played for a long time but then we started playing doing little gig here and there when he was in New York and then this thing came up a couple years ago with Jim. We would do it more if he wasn't doing Wilco. These last two gigs [in Austria], I think, were probably our best.
What about Tom Rainey?
I've been playin' with Tom since 81, '82. Like thirty years. He used to live around the corner from me in Brooklyn.
And Big Satan is playing Greenwich House.
It's a beautiful room. It's great. Should be good.
Big Satan [Tim Berne, Marc Ducret & Tom Rainey] play Greenwich House Music School tonight.
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