Big Satan Speaks
by Simon Hopkins
Early in 2000,
Tim Berne's Big Satan - a trio featuring guitarist Marc Ducret, drummer
Tom Rainey and Berne himself on alto - played a one-off London gig. motion
caught up with the trio and chatted to them about New York in the 80s,
running your own record label and the terror inherent in performing improvised
I'm a guitar player,
self taught; I don't play any style in particular - I have a tendency to
like them all. I play with my own trio, I play solo gigs, I play a lot
with Tim Berne's different circuses..
I'm Tom. I play
the drums. I took drum lessons. I play with Tim Berne. I've played with
a lot of other people: Mark Helias, Tony Malaby... and I'm happy to be
I'm Tim Berne; I
play mostly with the circus now - my own circus. I've been playing with
Tom for 18 years or so. And, despite several attempts, I'm still self-taught.
I've played with a million people. Mark Helias comes to mind; Drew Gress...
And I'm also happy to be here, drinking coffee. I met Marc in Germany at
the Baden-Baden New Music Meeting in 1988; it was a collection of Europeans
and Americans brought together to make music. Unbeknownst to him, I hired
him for a tour! I've been playing with him ever since. Tom and I met in
New York - in an opium den! - in the early 80s and we've been playing together
at least since 1982.
Now seems to be
a more fecund time in New York. At the time there weren't so may venues
to play. It was hard for a lot of musicians, especially drummers because
a lot of clubs couldn't have drums due to an old law called the Cabaret
Law. Now's a richer period because there are more places to play. The Cabaret
Law dated back to before the turn of the century. In order to have more
than two musicians to play at a time you had to have special licence which
was very expensive to have. So in the early 80s there were a lot of places
in New York where you could go and hear piano and bass duos - famous clubs
like Bradleys - but there were very few places except for the major jazz
clubs where you could actually hear drummers play. Now you can have any
combination of musicians play at a venue. So it's opened up quite a bit.
That law's been gone for quite a while now, but in the early 80-s there
really weren't that many places to play.
How would you describe
the music you play as a trio?
I don't thank I
ever think about it, except when I'm asked. We don't sit around and decide
whether we're going to play a jazz tune or play some rock or discuss what
it is we're going to do at all, because it's difficult for us to classify
it as one thing... it's pretty impossible. Titles are very limiting. At
the same time they can be very provocative. So just calling it jazz or
rock ot thrash or improvisation doesn't really tell you anything. What
it boils down to is that in most cases we play a lot of written music that's
meant to provoke and stimulate improvisation which is really the heart
of what we do. An improvisation means having a conversation in front of
people - having a musical conversation. We're sharing ideas, we're relating
to each other, we're listening to each other. It's all that stuff at the
same time. I don't know what to call it, though...
Is this group substantially
different from others in which you all play?
Whenever you really
get into the music and try to honest with it every group is single. People
are really unique; they have their own way to speak to each other which
cannot be related or compared to another way. Yes, according to the line-up
there are some things you can or can't do. Part of th game is ignoring
the rules. Just because there's no instrument playing the bass [in Big
Satan] I'm not going tohave to play the bass. or to not play it...
but the situation is about questions as much as about answers.
Music changes between
groups as much as relationships change. When the three of us play together
it's a certain relationship we share. Tim can go off and play a duo with
somebody else or play with a larger group and those groups will be as different
as the relationships. It's about chemistry which gets stimulated by bringing
different individuals together. Sometime, like in this case, it's a successful
chemistry. Other times, even though you might be able to put four amazing
musicians on stage together, it won't necessarily result in any special
chemistry that makes everyone want to continue. But in this case, at least
for a few years now, we've stayed interested.
The basic thing
we all share... the thing we're all really interested in a certain growth.
Over the next three years we don't want it to stay the same. It's not a
'show'; we're as surprised as anyone else when we play. An that element
of surprise is what makes it interesting or not. You can't try to remember
what you did the night before. Often you have a great night and it's almost
depressing because the next night it's so much harder, 'cus you can't duplicate
it. There's no road map of how to get to that point again. What I enjoy
about these guys is that they never do anything for their own gratification.
It's always to make the whole thing sound better. And that could mean stopping.
That sounds like it shouldn't be such a big deal but it is; it's rare.
Yes, we all have moments where we get off, but 99.9% of the time - even
when I'm screwing up - I trust they'll have the goal in mind and will make
Tim, can you tell
us a little about running your own label, Screwgun...
I've always been
a control freak. With all the labels I worked with I don't think there
was ever a time when I didn't have some input into the cover design, or
some interest in the whole presentation. I'm just one of those people who
likes to be involved in all those aspects, and I have strong ideas about
them. So it was inevitable. I had a good relationship with one label for
quite a long time, in every area up until the records came out. Part of
the problem was that there was a big company - I think it was called Poly...
- that ultimately owned it and so there was always going to a problem with
how to 'market' this kind of music. We all tour all the time. We do all
the things you're supposed to do to sell a record. No rock band has anything
on us in terms of how we promote ourselves by playing. So I never felt
like that was being taken advantage of and I just decided to do it myself.
Even if it takes twenty years, at least I know where the records are going.
If I do a gig, at least I know the records will be there. I can guarantee
that and it makes me feel better. I don't really enjoy doing all the busy
work but it just seemed like that was the only way I was going to document
what I was doing, keep it preserved.
Are you as hard
on yourself as you would be on a large label?
It's a different
thing. I don't have the kind of money those guys have, so I don't get hard
on myself, but I do get frustrated. I'm a perfectionist, but there are
things I just can't do. Sometimes it's about money, a lot of the time it's
just about time. So I've accepted the limitations of doing it myself. But
I really like doing it. I really like recording other people as much as
I like doing my own records. It's very gratifying to make a good record
that someone else might not have made. That's the best feeling - putting
out Marc's record or Michael Formanek's, Django [Bates'] - even though
I didn't produce them. Just being able to present those records in a way
they're happy with and not getting in the way...
Could you talk a
little about your influences.
As much as anything
it's about my friends, and not just the work they do, but maybe the things
that they turn me on to musically. When I was learning to play the drums
I was ravenous for everything. So I could list a hundred drummers' names
that were an influence. But really, over the last ten years, it's been
the things my friends are doing. We all go out and hear music together...
so, yes, I'm really influenced by my community. Outside of music, I like
to watch sports on television!
I was a professional
musician by the age of 17, playing in dance bands, singers and stuff ;like
that. I was very greedy; I really wanted to play everything I could and
with everyone I could. And still I'm interested in all kinds of musics.
This most;y made me aware that I was not interested in doing certain things.
Of course, you're influenced by all these incredible creative people who
have achieved so much beautiful music. But I was much more influenced by
what I didn't want to hear from myself. And I still am - as much as a composer
as a musician or guitar player. There are certain things I don't want to
hear from myself, so I try to stay away from them. that's all, basically.
Mine would be similar
to Tom's. There was a certain period in my life when I was a fanatical
record collector. I was always looking for new things. I was particularly
stimulated at one point by these guys from Chicago: Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton,
Julius Hemphill, Lester Bowie... this whole school of musicians. At the
same time I was into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Sam rivers, but not
as a musician, as a fan. Then I got to a point where I like it so much
I had to play, I had to participate. So I got into playing. Almost synonymous
with that I stopped listening to records. After that, every experience
I had playing with someone, working with someone, reading an interview
with them or listening to them play... this was the education. I was always
picking up information. I have a real hard time learning these things on
my own, in isolation. there has to be a context. Like, for me to sit at
home and learn to read music I had to know how it felt not to be able to
read and get clubbed over the head... and I was like 'Oh, I gotta do this'.
But if someone tells me 'You've gotta do this', it doesn't register. So
everything I've learned I've learned through some massive failure or humiliation.
I always tell people, you have to fail, it has to be a regular thing. You
have to have a bad gig once in while to get better. It's not interesting
to me to work out what works and stick to that formula. That's a show.
I've had to face that this wasn't always going to be fun or successful.
That's OK. Sometimes people will hate it; sometimes you're going to play
bad. The trauma of that is intense. Especially on tour; every day, two
hours before you go on stage you worry about how you'll play. At the same
time, we're our own worst enemies because we're not going to do the same
thing twice. That fear and anxiety feeds what we do.
What's coming up
I don't really know;
I was very disappointed not to get the Julius Hemphill record Dogone
AD. I'm reeling from that, and also trying to sort out distribution.
There's a general fear that the internet is going to take over; record
companies and record stores and some distributors are backing off from
anything they deem risky. This label requires fanatics, people who really
love music and believe things can better, that music can transcend its
business side. I'm just waiting to see who's real and who's not, because
some of the distributors I have were into it for a while, and now they've
burned out on doing anything that's not easy to sell or that they have
to talk somebody into. I believe in this; I'm going to do it for the rest
of my life, somehow, some way... Maybe it won't be as frequent as I'd like,
but I do believe that at some point it will get easy. Or easier. So...
what I want to do and what I'm gonna do are two different things. I'd like
to record Marc forever, I'd like to get Tom to record for me, |Herb Roberts...
these are all people I'd record like that [clicks fingers] if time and
money weren't a problem, if I didn't have to worry about selling a certain
We're doing great
compared to most people, but it would be nice if people who control the
business, which is like two companies now, learned how to do their jobs
as well as we do. Then things would probably work better.
"l'ombra di verdi" and Michael
Formanek's "Am I Bothering You", both out on Screwgun.
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