courtesy of Screwgun Records

Thirsty Ear



It is not surprising to me that a creative musician, in this case Tim Berne, has created a creative label, Screwgun ( The first thing that comes to mind is his uncompromising integrity. It is no wonder musicians like Michael Formanek, Bill Frisell, Hank Roberts, the Cline brothers, Mark Dresser, Roberto Miranda (the finest bass player in LA), and Vinny Golia (the finest player in LA) speak highly of him and want to work with him. That is enough said for me and should be enough got you as well. Here he is, unedited and in his own words. Perhaps this will start a groundswell to bring him to Los Angeles.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

TIM BERNE: I guess I got started around '73 and it happened that I hurt myself playing basketball, which is how I filled up my free time in college. So coincidentally there was a guy selling a saxophone and I was into music. I was listening to all kinds of jazz and so I just on a whim tried his horn and bought it from him for a hundred bucks. That is literally how I started. I got relatively serious about wanting to pursue it when I moved back to New York. This was out in Oregon. I moved to New York and started taking lessons. I took three lessons with Anthony Braxton. I found Julius Hemphill, who was living in Brooklyn and I started an on and off thing with him for a couple of years. Then I was going through different teachers and working day jobs and practicing and working up the nerve to start playing with people.

FJ: What were you listening to?

TIM BERNE: Well, actually, in high school, I had a friend in Syracuse, where I'm from, whose father ran the cemetery. His house was actually in the cemetery. We used to sit in his basement and listen to all kinds of stuff. He turned me onto a lot of stuff. I remember hearing Keith Jarrett in Syracuse, McCoy Tyner in New York. I used to drive up to New York and go hear things at the Vanguard because you could get in there underage if you were tall enough. I remember seeing Sun Ra, Joe Henderson. I was really into Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins and stuff like that. I got into some outer stuff, Ornette, Braxton, all these guys from Chicago, the Art Ensemble. This was all early '70s and when I was in New York or near New York, I started to go hear things at Sam Rivers' place, the Studio Rivbea and so I heard everybody, Sam's trio. You name it. They were here.

FJ: Give me a summary of what you learned in those three lessons with Braxton?

TIM BERNE: Well, not much. It was good, but it wasn't anything outrageous. It was pretty straightforward. Learn the scale. Come in and do this. I was a real beginner and so there wasn't much he could do with me. Julius, on the other hand, was completely, insanely abstract and we would talk about everything from magic to working out long tones. It was kind of all over the place, sort of a general outlook on music. It took a while for that to sink in. What he did with me, he taught me how to think for myself and solve problems myself, musical problems. He was such an inspiration just because he was so independent of everyone else. He got me to, instead of hide from my independence to actually view that as a strength, to strive to be somewhat original and to trust my ideas. He gave me the confidence to keep going.

FJ: Let's touch on your Bloodcount band.

TIM BERNE: I was nearing the end on anther band. This band called Total Chaos, which was a sextet with Bobby Previte and Dresser. I had been doing that band for about three or four years and it was too big to keep going and everybody was getting more into their own bands. I wanted to do something that was smaller and more acoustic, more improvisational and that is why I started Bloodcount. I just picked those guys. I had played with Michael for a few years. Jim and Chris, I just got a quick first impression and just decided to hire them.

FJ: That turned out.

TIM BERNE: Yeah, it turned out great.

FJ: And Paraphrase?

TIM BERNE: I started Paraphrase as a reaction to what I had been doing in the past, which was writing a lot of music and having somewhat structured music and not always feeling like my playing was in the forefront. I wanted to have a band that just played and improvised. Tom, Drew, and I have played together a lot just in my house. I just decided to try something like that because I had never done it. I thought it, out of sheer fear, it might take me to some new places and I couldn't lean on the compositional aspect of it. I just really had to deal. It turned out to be great. It turned out to be a lot of fun. So that is all improvisation. I think all of us were a little bit scared, but now that we do it all, it actually doesn't feel much different than the other thing.

FJ: What prompted you to form your own label, Screwgun?

TIM BERNE: After I got screwed for about the tenth time. Well, it wasn't quite like that. I had a relationship with JMT, a German company.

FJ: Which has gone on to become Winter & Winter.

TIM BERNE: Right. And I did nine records for him. I was basically, in some ways, his unofficial partner. I was pretty close friends with him. When he decided to sell it to Japan without really discussing it with anyone, I felt a little bit betrayed and also it brought home again that point that if it is not your company, eventually it is going to end like that. It will go out of print. Someone will sell the label. Someone will get bored and fold. It just happens over and over again. Every label I have been on is like you get all excited about a record and then it comes out and it just fizzles out. Nobody believes in your stuff the way you do. I didn't really want to have a label, I mean, I could have gone with Winter & Winter. He's a good guy basically. I think he is moving in a different direction. I don't think he's really, he wants to sell records. I think he was tired of dealing with people like me who knew what they wanted to do and how it wanted to look. I think he wanted to be more involved in that aspect and more as a producer or director.

FJ: Has it been a trial running your own label?

TIM BERNE: Sure, it takes up a lot of time that I used to spend writing music and I would say when you are talking about relative sleaze, I would say distributors are right up there (laughing). I would say they are in the upper echelon. So you are dealing with a system where basically I make the record. I pay for everything when I make it. I pay the pressing plant. I pay the guy who does the covers. There is no 90 days or consignment. You get something. You pay for it. Nowhere else in the chain does that work the same way. Basically, you start out ten, twelve thousand dollars in debt and then you are dealing with distributors who, most of them, not all of them, pay you when they feel like it. The stores pay them when they feel like it, on and on. You are always owed a lot of money and you always have to call to collect it with the exception of, my American distributors are pretty cool. You have always got to call these guys. You have always got to say, "Oh, it's been four months." You never get anything for nothing. You never know when one of these guys is going to go out of business or just stiff you. You are trusting these people, most of whom you have never met.

FJ: Sounds like a pain in the ass.

TIM BERNE: It's a pain in the ass, but the plus side is that I own my music for the first time. It's really gratifying to put out other people's records that are maybe not so mainstream and have them do well.

FJ: How extensive is your input on everyone else's records?

TIM BERNE: Well, anybody who wants to consult with me on what they are doing, they can. I don't tell anybody what to do. I pick guys I like. Some of the tapes were already finished when I put them out. Formanek wanted me in the studio, so we really worked closely together on it. I didn't tell him what to do, obviously. We had four hours of solo bass. We had to narrow it down to forty-five minutes. He really wanted my input because he wanted an objective ear. That was a great experience. I think that record is amazing. I'm really proud that I had something to do with it.

FJ: The packaging is unique and it is hip of you to use paper instead of plastic.

TIM BERNE: Yeah, the artist, the graphic artist is a guy that I have been working with since my Columbia days. He did all the JMT stuff and he's brilliant. We worked on it together. We were trying to come up with a format that wasn't plastic and that was light and looked different than everything else, just so we would have a chance.

FJ: They stick out in the bins at Tower.

TIM BERNE: Yeah, that's good. Steve was great. I said, "Look, this changes everything. You can't really use photos. It is limited color-wise. Do you want to deal with it?" He said, "Yeah, great, new format." And he totally got into it. I love him and I love the cardboard. The downside is that some of the packages, I have to assemble myself, like two, three thousand CDs. So that is kind of insane, but it works out eventually.

FJ: You also have an impressive resume as a producer.

TIM BERNE: Well that is easier, much easier because I can just sit back and kind of pick the cuts you like. Then if the guys are into having your input, basically my role as a producer is to make sure things keep moving and keep the moral high and take care of all the stuff that has nothing to do with music, so the guys not worrying about the tape running out or worrying about something like ordering the sandwiches for lunch. It's really fun. With guys like that the music is there. It's just a question of helping them focus on the big picture instead of getting caught up in whether there is a bar that is a little shaky. I have to say that the whole cut is happening. Is it worth spending five hours to fix one note or is it more important to go on and keep the momentum? That is the kind of stuff that happens when you don't have much time. If you don't have someone there, then you start listening to everybody in the band and you get indecisive and it kills the vibe a little bit. If I am good at anything in the studio, it's making those kinds of decisions and keeping it positive.

FJ: How is your touring schedule?

TIM BERNE: Me and Formanek do about two or three tour a year in the States, short seven to ten day tours. In Europe, I probably do two a year. I am about to go out with Big Satan, which is another trio.

FJ: You have a record out on Winter & Winter.

TIM BERNE: Yeah, yeah, and so we are going out for three weeks. Europe is better subsidized and it is better run, but it is not better. When you do a gig in the States and everything goes right, the guy does decent promotion, it's fun. The audience is there. The difference is that there is a real history of jazz promotion in Europe that there isn't here. Most of the time, you are playing somewhere for some fanatic twenty-year-old kid who works the radio, who has you come and calls you up and doesn't have a clue how to do anything except rave about the music, which is valuable and if you can give them a few tips, it can be great. They are not as business minded, but they are so dedicated that it ends up working out. You kind of have to teach them a few things. Usually it is cool. The hard thing is in Europe, we go on a three-week tour and every venue has drums and an amplifier. Hotels, everything is totally cool. You don't have to fight over those things and you can travel around without any of that equipment. In the States, it is impossible. You go there and you tell them you need a drum set, a decent jazz drum set and you end up with a 40 inch bass drum, no cymbal stands, because there is no network and most of the bands that tour are rock bands.

FJ: What problems do you foresee with the scene here in the States?

TIM BERNE: There are a lot of problems. I mean, I think the whole mom and pop record store thing is totally going out the window. The chains, the internet, everything has become so corporate that pretty soon it will be impossible for anybody to do anything who is not hooked up with a corporation. It's made distribution harder. The big record stores don't deal with this stuff as well. There is like three record companies and there is little scraps that other people fight over. It is very hard to even get it to people that would buy your stuff who are already there. Unless you are a total internet freak, which I am not, it's frustrating. I used to be able to do these fairly big projects for JMT and I'd get decent budgets and document my music. Now, I basically do it out of my pocket. It means I really have to scale it down in terms of ambition. I can't do a seven-piece project even though I have one that I want to do, unless I am ready to lay out ten, fifteen thousand bucks. Economically, it doesn't get better every year. It kind of goes up and down. I make a living, but to do that I become like a fucking combination of George Wein and Glenn Gould. You've got to do everything yourself. I'm not bitching because I'm at a pretty decent place compared to a lot of people. The amount of time I spend doing things that are not directly related to playing is as it was twenty years ago. I sort of had a grace period in the middle, where I was lucky enough to have a label. Now, it's like I'm booking tours. I'm doing all this shit. It's crazy.

FJ: What's on tap?

TIM BERNE: I don't have anything in the can, but I have a couple of new groups. I've been working with this keyboard player Craig Taborn.

FJ: The piano player for James Carter's band.

TIM BERNE: Right. Right, we've been doing stuff with Tom and kind of playing around with some ideas. I think this summer I am just going to record a bunch of things and figure it out later.

FJ: You have a good support base at the college level.

TIM BERNE: Oh yeah, there are a lot of young kids who are really into this now.

FJ: Are you finding the audience is getting younger?

TIM BERNE: Yeah, definitely.

FJ: What do you attribute that to?

TIM BERNE: I think college radio is better. At some point a few years ago, all of the sudden, the indie rock thing and the jazz thing kind of melded together and a lot of people became less concerned with separating different kinds of music and that means they are getting educated somewhere, either by their friends. For all this shit to work, you have got to give people options when they are young. You can't just say that there is this and this and this and the rest of it is fringe. I had a kid that I used to be his babysitter when he was two years old and I kind of kept up a relationship with this kid for years. I turned him onto all kinds of music. He used to come to by gigs because I was his babysitter. And now this kid is running a radio station. He is into everything. This kid has the most democratic music taste. He's like a serious force. He loves all kinds of music. He will go hear Cecil Taylor one night and he'll go hear the Neville Brothers and that is because it was presented to him at an early age. No one ever said that this is avant-garde, you won't like this. This is Beethoven, you should like this. I didn't jam it down his throat. He just happened to be around me. He is into all kinds of shit. That is just one tiny incident. If kids were presented with this stuff in an unthreatening way, it would be very different now.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and voted in the last election. Comments? Email Fred.