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Interview with The Necks

img  Tobias Fischer

If there was ever a band that embodied the ideal of 'open-ness', it must surely be The Necks: Open to the moment and open to epic structures, open to their individual voices and open to these voices blending, open to the most diverse musical styles and open to the most diverse ways of processing them, open to the tiniest idea and open to developing it into grandiose, life-changing statements. In fact, over the quarter-century of its existence, the Australian formation has been so open that it has become hard to see it as a reaction to something else anymore, to think of its members as embedded into any tradition whatsoever, to consider it possible that there could ever be another reality outside of it. Still, the trio have always enjoyed careers away from their collaboration: Chris Abrahams as a sidekick to artists like Burkhard Beins or Anthony Pateras, Tony Buck as a frequent collaborator and technology developer and Lloyd Swanton as a radio host and producer – not to mention the fact that they all constitute acclaimed solo artists in their own right. As much as these personal paths may mean to them, meanwhile, there is undeniably something special happening when they book another recording session as The Necks, when they enter the stage and hit the first note that will indicate a direction to take, a mood to penetrate, a nerve to puncture. As with their latest, appropriately titled full-length Open, which winds itself through discrete sonic spaces occasionally bridged by fascinatingly quiet stretches of floating, almost disemrhythmed percussion patterns, the outcome of these explorations may be impossible to predict -  and yet, you can be remarkably certain that it will result in magic. 

In this interview, we spoke to Lloyd Swanton about the fundamentals of the band, his own approach to the bass and the recording of Open.

You've played in various other bands next to The Necks. What do you personally appreciate about the interaction with Chris and Tony on stage and in the studio?
There’s so much respect; so much familiarity, and yet we can never totally know what’s going on in each other’s heads. So by definition there will always be the element of surprise, which is one of the major things that keeps us interested and stimulated and inspired all these years down the road.
I also have the most incredible respect for Tony’s and Chris’s technique on their instruments. The massive waves of sound they can generate, their endless physical stamina, their constant curiosity about music. They’re both really quite extraordinary.

The title of your latest album together makes for a nice description of your collaborative work. How do you keep "open" after more than 25 years together?
By sticking to the basic principles we established when workshopping the band all those years ago, by respecting each other’s abilities and opinions and contributions, by always trying to evolve and learn more about music and be open to new musical experiences, and perhaps most importantly, by never pushing things too hard too fast, both on the micro scale, when we’re improvising, and on the macro scale, i.e. our career trajectory.

What were some of the considerations for exploring the deep, quiet, intimate space on the release?
For me, I wanted to do an album of great stillness, where at any given point there is next to no compulsion for the music to move forward. I’d conveyed my hopes for the recording in an email to the other boys some months before. I didn’t get a reply from either of them, but I think that’s because they liked the proposition, and without much discussion we launched straight into that direction once in the studio.
The session itself was like pretty much all Necks sessions - we booked a week or so in the studio without any pre-rehearsal, and just started pursuing a direction. This session was different in that we started each morning with a group improvisation with the tape rolling, none of which was intended for the album itself, but possibly for some other release.
There was just the one version of the album. There was one section where Tony and I had different ideas about how things should proceed, so we ran off each of those versions in order to reach a decision. He won. But it was only a period of three or four minutes, not the whole album.

How does a studio situation such as the one for Open compare to one of your gigs?
The long form is the most obvious similarity. The most obvious contrast is the temporal aspect, in that when we play live, there is no opportunity to go back and revisit anything, but in the studio we obviously have the ability to jump back and forth in time through the piece and make decisions about what would best suit a particular section with respect to its position on the timeline of the piece.
Our recordings inform our live improvisations constantly, but only in diffuse ways. We would never directly quote from one of our albums, but the general tone of them often appears in certain moments in concert.

What about the influence of the audience?
It's vital, but subliminal. Because the audience nearly always sits in respectful silence it would be easy to imagine that we’re not aware of their mood, but I assure you we can feel it. I think it’s mostly auditory - we’re so attuned to the sounds we’re generating in the room that we can’t help but subconsciously pick up on the sound of the audience.

Tony was once quoted as saying: "I really, really love playing the drums. I've been doing it for more than 30 years and I enjoy it more than I ever did." How is that for you and the bass?
I would say the same about playing the bass as Tony has said about the drums. The instrument is part of me. I love the role of the double bass in modern music, and I love questioning the role.

So has your own relationship changed accordingly over time?
I don't think so, except that for many years now I’ve not really strived to be a conventional jazz bassist. Partly because I don’t really care for a lot of modern jazz bass, partly because I’m not very good at it and I've learned to accentuate my strengths, which lie elsewhere. I try to keep my objectives simple when playing – to play the bass in time, and in tune. Sometimes I try to see the instrument as nothing but a wooden box with strings pulled taut across it. I would love to make my bass sound more like a Merimbula, or a Ghembri. Just a simple, percussive thud, with its exact pitch not always to the fore.

Going back to the beginnings of The Necks, in which way did the work of particular artists before you “allow” you to take decisions which were vital for your creative development?
I always cite the same few examples, because they were so important for me - the first studio recording of John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”, and “Shhh/Peaceful” from Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, both of which “allowed” me to imagine that rhythm section without anyone soloing on top; dub reggae and James Brown which “allowed” me to imagine being able to sit on a chord or a groove and just be in the moment, and Christopher Small’s book Music society Education which likewise “allowed” me to imagine forming a band which only existed to be in the moment, and not be concerned at all about final outcomes.

One of the underlying thoughts behind the band has been that it is important not to know where you're going. Why is this?
To keep us open to any inspiration. We only ever need one idea, but we have to have a situation that will allow at least one idea to present itself, and we have to be sufficiently on our toes to recognise it and grab it the moment it comes along.

What kind of ideas have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for The Necks over time?
We love to re-investigate the fundamental building blocks of music. Triads, the harmonic series, polyrhythms which allow more than one temporal orientation to the listener. It amazes me how we can hammer away at a D chord for ten minutes and it actually starts to sound really, really different over the course of those ten minutes.

Is there a core to the Necks which should always remain intact?
Yes, there is a definite core which will never be lost. I have a hard time describing it in words, but all three of us know what it is, so there is no danger of us ever losing track of it. Consequently, we are able to bring in whatever outside influences we feel excited by, without any fear that the essence of things is going to become diluted.
We never discuss what we’ve played, except in the most general terms like “that was a good one wasn’t it?” The moment we start prescribing what works and what doesn't, the band will fall to bits very quickly.

The Necks Interview by Tobias Fischer
The Necks Image by Camille Walsh

Homepage: The Necks
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