Tim Berne Interview


Tim Berne took a moment from his busy touring schedule to talk to New Music Circle about his ongoing project, Snakeoil. The group has just released You’ve Been Watching Me, their third album for ECM. The Guardian described Snakeoil as a group that ” ingeniously joins intricately multi-voiced music, lyricism, contemplation, and rugged avant-funk.”

Can you tell me about your current tour?

Yeah, we are playing about 15 cities in the States, as well as Europe and South America. Right now we are in the Midwest route of our tour, which includes Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. I Believe our last visit to St. Louis was around 1997 with Bloodcount. Actually, we released a live cd of that concert.

What are your thoughts on touring and the current state of touring for you in the US?

This tour, audience-wise, has been way above average…really good turnouts. I would say lately it’s been better than usual. It’s always hard work, at least for me, because I always book the tours myself, and the transport is difficult because of the great distances. But as far as playing the States goes, I love doing it, and in terms of this tour in particular all the audiences have been really amazing and enthusiastic and fun. People always ask what the difference is between playing in the US and in Europe, and I would say the shows might be easier to get in Europe, but audiences are better here. For instance, our show the other night in Berkley: It was on a Sunday, and I was told to expect a slim audience…but it ended up being completely packed and people were excited about the music…

…the Snakeoil project has been continuing for awhile now, which probably helps a bit too…

Yeah! We’ve been together for a while now, and I feel like maybe we’ve built up some momentum in terms of folks latching onto the project. The thing about Snakeoil is that every time we go on tour the music changes pretty significantly, and that no one in the group is playing it safe. Even though we have tunes, the musicians rarely approach it the same way – (drummer) Ches Smith is playing a lot more vibes now, which changes the dynamic. Also, with Snakeoil, we rehearse more than most groups and have a level of commitment because of the consistency of recording. It helps that we’ve been working on a record about every year and touring every year…I think all of this keeps everyone motivated. Seeing the response we’ve had from the recordings and live sets makes us want to keep doing it…

Can you tell me about the recent Snakeoil release on ECM, You’ve Been Watching Me?

The recording process has been pretty similar to the last few, as David Torn, who recorded our last one, produced this one as well. The way David mixes sounds is really three-dimensional. He knows how to get every detail out of the music. But recording-wise, after spending lots of time preparing, we go to the studio and then it happens super quick…usually in one or two takes. This one we made in about a day. Not to compare, but this may be one of my favorite of the Snakeoil series so far. The whole collaboration with ECM has worked out really well.

Something new for this group is the addition of guitars…

I try to throw a new thing into each album and I really wanted to bring something new in without messing with the chemistry, so there’s guitar on this one by Ryan Ferriera. Ryan’s worked with Matt Mitchell (Snakeoil pianist) over the last few years, and when he started working with Snakeoil it really worked out.

What is the writing process like for this group?

When I’m focused I can write a bunch of music in a few weeks. Then it takes rehearsals and gigs to work it all out. But I really try to think about contrast, and exploiting all the combinations between the instruments…taking shape as duos, trios, quartets, between the five of us. I’m looking to create some drama, so it doesn’t sound one-dimensional, “oh here’s the solo…” – that sorta thing.

Tim Berne and Snakeoil will be performing at 7:30 PM on Friday, May 8, at The Stage at KDHX.