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?