Tony Mitchell interviews Chris Abrahams and Lloyd Swanton of the celebrated Sydney improvisers The Necks in the 25th year of their existence. Tony Buck was unavailable, as he is based in Berlin for most of the year. The Necks play Lizotte’s in Newcastle on Sunday February 10, followed by dates in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Castlemaine and Canberra.
I noticed in the two reviews of your performance in September at the Village Underground in London, both used metaphors – one of a three-way chess game, the other of a soccer match …
Lloyd Swanton: That was more about a football manager watching videos of a game to track our progress. I don’t know much about soccer, but I could relate to that, in that it’s all about the choices we make at various points in time in a particular piece. And there’s so many ways a game could pan out in terms of a choice that’s made at a particular point in the game …
Chris Abrahams: The chess metaphor is a bit misleading, though, I think it’s too rational for the decisions we make, they’re not necessarily based on any long-form strategy. They’re very intuitive responses to what’s happening … maybe when you reach the level of grand master everything is intuitive, but chess moves sounds like we’re being too calculated.
LS: It sounds like we know where we’re going!
CS: I don’t think when I’m playing about what I’ll be doing in three moves time … I presume those who know a lot about chess get pleasure from the way a game develops, but I think that’s very limited in its appeal. I mean I hope we can appeal to people who don’t have a huge amount of knowledge about improvised music as such.
I was reading an interview with (Sydney trumpeter) Phil Slater where he described the Necks as the ‘pushbike of jazz’ … he was talking about carbon footprints, and comparing you guys to an opera production, which consumes a huge amount of energy and uses a lot of technology, whereas you don’t require much in terms of technology …
CA: It is basically a standard jazz piano trio, which there are lots of …
LS: But some jazz groups are defiantly acoustic, like the bass player won’t use an amp at all – they could play anywhere, without any infrastructure… If he’s referring to the level of efficiency of what we can get out of what we put in, fine, but if he’s talking about carbon emissions, there are far smaller and more humble forms of music that impose a far smaller footprint. If he’s suggesting that the bicycle is a really efficient technology, which I think it is, it’s one of the great inventions … I would humbly say that I’m sometimes amazed at what opens up to us from the humblest of beginnings we’ve set up. If that’s what he’s referring to, I think it’s a really nice thing to say.
CA: I think also we take things as we find them, what we’re given. There’d be very few instances of when we turn up to a venue and say, no we can’t play here, the sound isn’t adequate. And we’ll play totally acoustically in certain venues. There has to be a piano, so there’s a carbon cost there. As long as the thing works, I think I’m quite broadminded about what I’ll perform on, I’m not particularly fussed about it. And Lloyd’s taken now to playing almost a different bass every night when we’re on tour – he’s not travelling with a bass any more …
LS: Not overseas anyway.
CA: Tony doesn’t even travel with cymbals. A lot of drummers hire their own snare and cymbals, but none of us are particularly fussed …
LS: I think Tony’s point was they’re just fucking pieces of metal! I think it’s a great attitude. He has his own drum kit back in Berlin, when he plays the clubs there. But when he tours, he decides to turn that into a positive, as Chris is alluding, it’s ‘let’s find what we can make of this’.
CA: Not just a challenge in hoping that we can conquer it, but actually placing ourselves in a sometimes foreign situation in order to see how that’s going to affect us. I think a lot of what we do, when we start to play a piece, we begin to understand the way the sound is working in the room, from the instruments we’re playing, from the PA if there is one, and rather than trying to assert a stable performance, we all work with what we’ve got, and that’s part of the structure of our music, the changes are dependent on the kind of context we play in.
I remember you mentioned once before when you were playing what became the Townsville album you discovered they had this old Bosendorfer …
CA: I was actually given a choice of instruments – a newish Yamaha, which I chose, because I thought the chances of a 70 year old Bosendorfer being in good nick were far less than a Yamaha. So when I tuned up to the gig, contradicting what I’ve just said, I was pretty disappointed when I saw the cigarette burns and brown staining on the keyboard, I thought ‘oh no!’ … but once I started playing it, it was quite an incredible instrument, and it really made me re-think how pianos age – they don’t necessarily become useless after 50 years, which is what I thought.
Lloyd, sometimes you have a really streamlined-looking bass …
LS: Yeah, that’s my travel bass, which I still use when I’m out of town in Australia, and I was using overseas. But the way the airline industry’s going, it’s just not economical to take that, so that’s why overseas – in Europe at least – I just play borrowed basses or one provided by the promoter. On our last tour of North America I asked our agent to provide us with one, but she said it would restrict the kind of venues we could play at, we were too new to the scene, so I took my travel bass along with me. But generally speaking I’m not doing that any more. Most people who travel with double basses put their instrument into a flight case, which is a formidable object to carry around the world.
When you toured the States in 2009 you got a really bad review in Chicago by John Litweiler, who’s a renowned jazz critic, the author of books on Ornette Coleman and free jazz, and a long-standing reviewer for Downbeat magazine. I think it was a really insulting put-down, which you wrote a reply to, Lloyd. He really treated you like some sort of upstarts from nowhere. I presume you were being ironic when you referred to his comments about how you reminded him of ‘the ad hoc ensembles of conga, bongo and other hand-drum percussionists who play for hours at the 63rd Street beach house here in Chicago on every warm summer evening’. You said the Necks were ‘not unlike a bunch of hippies jamming in the back room at a party. You listen for a while, wander off, and when you come back they’re still playing the same groove, but it’s morphed into something else’. (12’)
LS: No, not at all. I’ve said that in interviews many times, we’re basically doing what hippies do in the back room of a party, we just set something up … That’s maybe a very facetious response, but we were really inspired in the early days by the notion of traditional societies that do all night music sessions, people are coming and going, someone goes off to feed the baby, then comes back and picks up a drum and continues on … We have the same personnel from beginning to end, but there’s still that same basic idea of just keeping something going, and just maintaining some sort of momentum about the thing, so that it can just go where it wants … so I wasn’t, really, being ironic. I should say that I went against company policy in even responding to this review, and I hope Chris and Tony have forgiven me, but we basically have a policy of ignoring bad reviews.
As I understand it, he was actually asked to do the review by SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) and it went onto SIMA’s website. And then SIMA took it down off their website, or only left a small extract of the review and your response …
LS: Obviously the guy has a considerable reputation as a critic, and I don’t know any of his other writing …
CA: He’s pretty hard on Keith Jarrett – I think that’s one of his defining features.
LS: But when you said he was patronising, I think I humbly called him out on that. He’d come to the concert with his mind already made up. The whole notion of writing a time line of what took place in the concert in this trivialising way, if he was literally doing that, he couldn’t have been listening to the music with an open mind. I mean we were at the concert too, and we recall what a great response it was, we actually got a standing ovation, so he was basically saying the audience were idiots, or that he knows more about the music than the audience did.
CA: Doing some research on him, I can see that he’s more into a post-Coltrane, Afro-American free jazz aesthetic. I think this was quite illustrative of a problem that we sometimes have, particularly in Europe, but not in Australia or the UK to the same extent, that it’s difficult to categorise us, and people are always going to say, ‘what is it that The Necks do?’ … I think this happens more in Germany – ‘are The Necks a jazz band?’ In which case, this is what you’re going to run up against, someone who’s going to expect to hear a jazz band, or are we a ‘new music’ kind of thing, and we’ve been placed in that sort of context as well – I think that’s equally disappointing for those people. Or are we a strictly minimal band, or are we a rock band? Once you start categorising us, you end up running the risk of people getting offended in terms of what their expectations are of the genre they think we’re involved in. But I think that here, and in England, a lot of people come to The Necks to see The Necks’ music, regardless of what genre it is, whether it draws from other genres to make a sort of hybrid thing that they’re quite comfortable with, or whether they see it as purely original, depending on what their background is, or how much they know about the music. It doesn’t really matter to us, but that’s more the kind of listener we want to perform to, someone who’s not going to try and find a disappointment in the exposition of a genre that we’re not really that involved in, that we may be influenced by, but we’re not really coming across as practitioners of.
But when he says ‘The Necks are as decadent as gangs of Elvis impersonators or teenaged Charlie Parker imitators’ …
LS: I struggle to find one instance when we’ve described ourselves as attempting to achieve decadence, or anyone else has described that as one of our goals. It’s really strange.
CA: We’re not going to come up with Beneath the Underdog [the title of jazz bassist Charlie Mingus’ autobiography, and a film about him]… our notoriety is nil. We can’t really manufacture that.
LS: In the realm of disappointed expectations, which there is the potential for us to deliver in spades, if you come to be disappointed, you won’t be disappointed!
On the other hand, you get a review in the New York Times by (UK writer) Geoff Dyer which said you are ‘one of the greatest bands in the world’, and in the UK John Walters in The Guardian called you ‘one of the most extraordinary groups on the planet’.
LS: When we first started to play the UK we were prepared to cop the full brunt of the press there – they can really do a hatchet job when they feel like it. But it just clicked, and we’ve had a really positive response. I don’t recall any bad reviews on the UK.
CA: In terms of negative responses to what we do, one of the responses that’s always intrigued us is the audience member who’s obviously hated the whole show, but still has decided to stay for the entire set, and allowed their anger to build slowly, until the piece has reached its climax, and then just ejaculated effusively. It happened at the Brighton festival once, it happened in Ostend, it happened at the Basement –
LS: Someone shouted out ‘Yeah, but can you play?’ just in that silence at the end of a piece, just before people applauded. It was agony.
CA: As a performer, there’s a moment when you’ve just finished something, before the audience responds to it, and I think that gap is an incredibly crucial part of the performance. That moment, as the last dying sounds of the piece happen, and there’s this suspended breath … If someone busts in on that, it’s incredibly offensive, and it’s an incredibly cheap shot, it’s going to affect everyone else in the room, because some people may have really liked it as well. I think it’s incredibly disrespectful, not only to the band, but for everyone else. The one at the Brighton Festival, we weren’t even playing on a stage, we were set up in a hall on the floor, and this person from about four rows back stood up – he’d waited for the applause to start, but he was extremely angry and said (Colonel Blimp accent) ‘How can you come to Brighton and play such rubbish?’ And people thought it was funny, and we thought it was funny too, but then he started clambering over chairs, and because there was no stage, we thought it might come to blows … He was in his late 60s, early 70s, so it wasn’t actually physically intimidating, but you don’t want to be grappling with an audience member …
LS: Apparently he was at the bar at interval, and spirited discussions were taking place, and the venue owner said he could come back for the second set if he promised not to interrupt it, and his wife was there and saying ‘oh God, here he goes again’ …
CA: I mean I would have got up and walked out. Why anyone would stay to the end – maybe we had some sort of power over him.
Talking about your Australianness, there’s a quote in John Shand’s book, Jazz: The Australian Accent, from Mike Nock, who says groups like The Necks and The Catholics could only exist in Australia. I mean, it’s not as if you go around in Akubras or anything, but it does define you as being from here.
LS: We often get asked if we think coming from Australia has affected the way we sound, or if we have an Australian sound. It’s a very valid question.
CA: I think I would even go higher resolution than that, and say the Necks could only come from Sydney. I do think there was a very big difference in approaches to jazz, for want of a better term, between Sydney and Melbourne. I think Melbourne’s always tended to be much more open to irony, the idea of showmanship, putting on a performance, analysing various performance strategies, whereas I think Sydney jazz musicians have tended to be more intuitive. I think somebody like Vince Jones, for example, would never have been a product of Sydney, he’s sophisticated – Lloyd’s played with him – and sort of inhabits the showmanship aspect of jazz. I think the Sydney jazz scene that I was involved in as a young person was very physical, and involved playing your instrument in a physically, or technically adept way, and being passionate and honest, in inverted commas. These are big generalisations, but I do see the Necks as being a product of that … the influences coming out of that scene are there.
LS: What you’re suggesting, if it’s true, is the absolute inverse of how the two cities are actually seen in general terms, in that usually Sydney’s shallow and glitzy, and Melbourne’s the cultured, deep thinking one. Which is interesting, because there’s a parallel with the Sydney Swans! I mean Sydney’s supposed to be so shallow and superficial and here’s this team that’s really no nonsense, nitty gritty, just a hard working team of champions, and Melbourne has the show ponies – as a city I mean, not Melbourne the club. That’s an interesting theory, I’d need to think it through.
CA: I remember going and seeing a couple of Melbourne bands, and at the time being really appalled in that they appeared to be playing around with the genre of jazz. At the time, as a young person, I was into the pure statement of John Coltrane, or how I understood it.
LS: So how do you think that then tumbled into the origins of The Necks, what aspects of it do you see?
CA: Well I sense that there was a certain point in time when I just tried to rebel against that … I mean, I had these idols, and I was someone who’d grown up in suburban Sydney, and I shouldn’t be quite this quixotic. I think when you’re a young person, a lot of people tend to idolise people, and somehow empathise and see some vague glimmer of hope that one day you too will … and there comes a point in one’s maturation that you realise that certain things are not really accomplishable. And at that point I broadened my scope about what it was I’d actually been doing. I don’t think I would have gone so far as what the Necks represented in the early days had I not been trying to remove myself from the way I’d been thinking up to that point. So in some ways the Necks’ initial thing was a reaction against the display of virtuosity, the naive display of what I considered to be passion, and much more trying to bring a conceptual element into what I was trying to do rather than just getting up and trying to be expressive.
LS: It’s interesting that Chris says it was his reaction to what he saw as being a Sydney orthodoxy, whereas my pat response to the idea of the Necks as an Australian creation is that the lack of a strong jazz history has made it possible. It wouldn’t have been so likely to have come into being in one of the cultural centres of the northern hemisphere because there’s some pretty heavy boxes that have to be ticked before you can go any further and we don’t have that. It was a real revelation for us the first time we toured Europe (in 2000), we had a pretty substantial tour of 16 or 17 shows, and we honestly just didn’t know what they’d think of it. We didn’t know if they’d just say they had no idea of what these guys were getting at. The impression we got was that they’d never heard anything like it, and it really clicked with them. They understood what we were doing, and that indicated to me that it was waiting to happen, but it had to be in a certain situation with the freedom to imagine it and not feeling inhibited in throwing it out. It did start very much as an experiment, it was an experiment before it became any kind of product or any kind of performance.
And initially you were not going to play in public.
LS: Yes, that’s what I mean. It was a behind closed doors workshop with the expressed intention of not performing. It wasn’t like ‘let’s do this for as long as it takes, and when we’ve got it going we’ll go public’, we were actually against the ideas of playing in public.
You could say there’s a certain affinity with what you do and some aspects of European jazz, which have broken away from the Americo-centric ideas of jazz. I’m thinking of people on the ECM label, particularly in places like Norway and Sweden.
LS: We sniff the breeze. We knew what was around to some extent. We didn’t exist in a complete vacuum.
And just the fact that you play with so many other people in Sydney. The last time I saw you was with Alister Spence. And Chris, you’ve played with everyone from avant-garde people to your group Roil to rock musicians like Midnight Oil. And there’s a sense that everyone who plays in the Sydney jazz scene has to be a bit of a jack of all trades.
LS: That’s not unique to Sydney. If one wishes to be a really specialised exponent of a very minority form, there’s only a very few places you could consider where there might be a chance of doing that. Economic realities are a big part of that, but there are very positive aspects to it too. It’s not just I’ve got to pay the rent, I’d say most of the music I’m involved in I enjoy doing, even though it’s also earning a living for me. The diversification is fairly essential, but it’s all creatively challenging. I don’t think it’s that different to most major cities of the world. There’s very few places in the world where you can just say I’m going to do the one thing. I mean I really respect the people that do that and really struggle enormously economically, they narrow their focus down. Over the years we’ve probably been in a position to start having more of ourselves available for The Necks in terms of our focus, but I think I can safely say that none of the three of us would want to just do The Necks, we do feel a lot of outlet from everything else we’re involved in.
CA: It’s not just for the mental hygiene of the individual members, I think it’s for the music itself, I think there has to be a heterogamy, a coming together of different things for us, I think it’s built into the music we make and the things we do as a group. We all bring to it what we happened to have been working on in the preceding, recent past. It’s very important.
This year Screensound added Aether to their heritage list of Australian recordings. Any idea why it was that particular album?
LS: My understanding is, someone has to nominate it. I think any individual can, I have no idea who that was – it wasn’t me! And then I think it gets vetted by a panel of experts, and I have no idea who they are. People ask which is your favourite release, and I always say there’s nothing we’ve done that I’m not really proud of, but I would have to say that I have a particular affection for Aether, so I’m really happy to see that there, but I’m really surprised because I have this perception that the public doesn’t necessarily think that is our most significant work. I also think it has some significances that some of our other albums might not have. It was just a random happening, and we were really chuffed, but I can’t quite say where that came from.
It’s not your most commercial release! Whereas Sex is still a good seller, and I assume you’re aware that it’s apparently a big hit in birthing centres?
LS: Oh yeah. If someone said in an abstract sense which one of your albums would be likely to end up in the National Film and Sound archive I would definitely say Sex, that would be the one. If nothing else, it’s sold far more than any of the others.
Do you have any idea why it’s so popular in birthing centres?
LS: I suppose people are looking back to 10 months previous … the title reminds them of how they found themselves in this predicament! It does key into the new age philosophy of music, creating an environment for you to be in. I don’t think it sounds anything like new age music, I think it had far more oomph. It’s very much an offshoot of ambient music and Eno and that sort of thing, I think the point is totally valid, but I don’t think the end result is as satisfying as one might hope. So maybe it came out at a particular point of time when people were open to that notion of it being an accompaniment to all sorts of rites of passage, significant times in life, and the title was very obvious. It really was just a title we couldn’t get away from once we started calling it that in the recording process. I vaguely recall the engineer saying ‘what are you going to call this piece?’ and as you do, someone just said ‘Sex, and we’ll think about it later’. And then we just couldn’t get away from the name, and it was kind of funny that it rhymed with Necks … I personally used it as a baby-settling record when our first kid was born, to the point where I knew it better than anything else I’d ever listened to, and for a long time couldn’t listen to it, I was just so sick of it. But I know of lots of people who have put their kids to sleep with it, it’s a functional record. And maybe some of the others are too, but I don’t think the others are quite so lulling. That’s not to say it puts you to sleep, but it just draws you in, and maybe – hindsight is 20/20 – maybe we just did get a very nice balance between the soothing and the insistent. Because it does have this pounding underpinning which just goes through the whole thing without any change at all. Tony’s pattern does swell, he brings things in, and then just some very atmospheric sounds cascading and appearing and disappearing over the top of it. It maybe just satisfied a lot of listeners’ requirements in those respects.
CA: We actually recorded that a couple of years before we released it. The idea of releasing a CD at the time (1989) was huge – this wonderful new medium, and we thought it was the only true medium for us – an hour-long piece of music with no breaks. It seems like a long time ago now.
And now you’ve done Mindset – your first vinyl album in 2012! Has it sold much?
LS: Yes – I couldn’t give you the immediate figures, but the rule of thumb was that people told us we’d probably sell about ten per cent of the releases at gigs on vinyl, and we’ve found it to be about half. There’s no denying the object, when you’re talking about an LP, particularly when it’s purchased at a performance, it has a souvenir aspect to it. I can totally imagine going to a particular concert and if I saw a beautiful, big album there, I might be more inclined to buy it if I’d enjoyed the concert. That’s like a really significant thing to take home, as opposed to this endlessly reproducible CD. But it’s an expensive undertaking, and the compact disc – its name says it all – is a brilliant invention. I find it hard to believe now that in the early days of touring we used to take boxes and boxes of LPs with us and put them onto aeroplanes.
CA: Well, The Necks never did.
But groups like the Benders did.
LS: And in those days it was actually nothing to sell several thousand of an LP. Independent groups would sell in their thousands, because there was no alternative medium. And when you think of just the sheer quantity of physical material involved, it’s quite extraordinary. I still find a box of a hundred CDs can be a bit of a pain to lug around, but a hundred LPs is serious back work.
In terms of your studio albums as opposed to the live albums, I think there’s a quote from Tony saying in the case of the studio albums it was really more about the mixing process than the recording process, because there are so many elements involved in the mixing …
CA: I think we’ve progressed a bit from there. The implication from that would be that we record in real time and edit stuff out, but I think we’ve actually moved on. Two albums ago we moved off recording on two-inch magnetic tape – Silverwater was the first. On Silverwater we tended not to play through the whole hour – if the piece was going to be an hour, the takes would often go for an hour, then we’d mix out things we didn’t want. But now we’re working on little clusters of things, which may only be five or ten minute ideas, which will be implanted in a non-real time method in the final product. So I think we’ve moved away even from the temporal recording, that we did up until Silverwater. With Sex for instance, we went in and we jammed. We had a concept of what we wanted to do, and we played as a group for an hour and recorded each instrument separately, then we overdubbed, then we took away things, and mixed things, and that’s how we ended up with the album. With Silverwater, I may have had an idea, and Lloyd may have had an idea, and we do that for ten minutes, and then go on to something else, and construct the album more out of these modules. Hopefully with an overarching idea so that it ends up being a coherent album, but certainly it allows a lot more different elements in it.
Why did you call it Silverwater? It seems to belong more with Townsville, in terms of an album named after a place.
LS: One shouldn’t read too much into this. I was literally driving – as I live in the Blue Mountains, I’m on the M4 a lot, and see the turn off to Silverwater Road. And one time stuck in traffic, I was just thinking … If there’s one thing we like to do with our titles, it’s have a couple of quite different implications in the one word – Hanging Gardens, for example. I just looked at this word and thought most of my associations with that word are fairly negative – as far as it went it was basically a correctional facility and an industrial suburb, neither of which are particularly bright points, and yet the actual word, as one word, is really quite lovely, and I just suggested it to the guys, and they thought it was good. I think I may have mentioned that idea of a certain bi-polarity about it, which I think anyone who doesn’t know Sydney geography would just think it’s just a pretty name for an album, and that was the risk we took. Interestingly enough I drove around Silverwater just to make sure I wasn’t besmirching it, and found a lot of pretty depressing prefab warehouse spaces, but I also looked up the history of the place, and the name seemed to come from the sunlight reflecting off the Parramatta river. But it had been earmarked for what it became at a pretty early stage. I think the first habitation there was in 1812 when a bone crushing plant was set up, so it was never going to be Vaucluse Heights. So don’t move down wind from the bone crushing plant!
I remember joking with Chris that this was your ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ album!
LS: I do know someone who’s doing weekend detention there, and he had some hilarious tales. Not to trivialise the experience, he swore blind that some of the other inmates hated the food so much, which is unsurprising, but missed their MacDonalds so much, that family members had slingshots shooting Big Macs over the walls! It’s so ridiculous maybe it is true.
CA: They’d have somebody’s name written on each burger!
LS: This is weekend detention, so it’s fairly low security … ‘I said no cheese!’ and fire it back. (General laughter).
Another point I wanted to mention is that there’s often a difference between the studio albums and the live albums in that you seem to generate a lot more intensity in live performance, and usually things rise to a crescendo and a climax. I remember seeing you supporting the Swans at the Metro, and it was almost as if I was watching a rock band.
LS: That’s one way we play. It’s not unprecedented.
CA: In terms of discussion of the two different approaches, I think that crescendo, that dynamic arch, once you’ve experienced that once in a piece, in an album it would wear a bit thin to have that amount of excitement or teleology. We felt early on that the studio albums, if they are to build interest or maintain interest, have to rely on other things apart from a big build in volume, because people can really only listen to that once. And also aspects of the sound the band can get live, part of the audience’s interest I think is being amazed at the sorts of sounds that seem to be happening when instruments and frequencies start colliding in ways not even we can predict. But on a record, ironically that magic is untranslatable, because I think people would just assume it’s a studio album, and therefore it had a harmoniser, or overdubs. It’s like going to a live magician or seeing a cartoon magician. We have released live albums, obviously, but there has to be something else in the crescendo that’s beautiful to listen to for it to work. I think a lot of people find it exciting to see things draw to a huge conclusion, and sometimes we do that better than others, in fact there’s probably only a rare occasion when we do that and the recording will have something in it that we feel is actually worth keeping. It seems to be quite a small percentage of what we record.
LS: A binaural recording is where you can only get the true sensation with headphones, and that is indicative of the difference between us performing in a live environment, and us trying to replicate that in a studio. The only way you can replicate that in a studio is to use studio effects, which instantly the listener would just go ‘oh, they’re using studio effects’. The knowledge that something is a live album is very important with us.
CA: It’s kind of ironic that our studio albums have been more successful, but our live shows are successful too. I mean people get different things out of them, but the live recordings we’ve released, although I’m very proud of them, they’re not necessarily the biggest in terms of critical response. A lot of people have said ‘I prefer your studio albums to your live shows’, but I think a lot of people also prefer the live shows to the records. But it doesn’t translate as records of live performances.
Well they’re totally different experiences for the listener.
LS. And when we look at the number of units over the years that Sex has moved, we’re fairly convinced there’s a whole audience out there who’s bought that record, and hasn’t expressed any interest in seeing us live, and hasn’t come back. (Laughter).
Too busy having babies!
LS: Yes, the number that has sold is out of proportion to the two or three hundred we like to play to in the live situation, and I find that very exciting, that we’ve developed at least two different audiences, and with no effort on our part. That’s just the way it’s panned out.
You’ve mentioned the late Christopher Small before, and his idea of ‘musicking’, can you relate that to playing live? Are the audience part of a whole participatory experience?
LS: There is a communality about it. For me, Small’s notions were very significant in the early days of the band starting to form, and then I guess we went off on a tangent in a way. Certainly for my part it was a very significant goal I had in mind. In the live situation, allowing for the fact that people aren’t actually expected to jump up on stage and pick up a shaker and join in, and we’d probably prefer they didn’t (laughter), I still think it has a communal feeling, which I think is really special. We’re not blind to that, and we love the feeling that we get from the audience, and it’s so gratifying and inspiring to be playing to a roomful of people that you know are there to help you to generate this music.
Chris, what about classical influences in your playing? I’ve heard references made to Chopin, Debussy, Scriabin and others.
CA: I’d say Chopin, definitely, Ravel before Debussy, in terms of impressionism, maybe Scriabin … I think a record like (Miles Davis’) In A Silent Way and Joe Zawinul’s organ playing have been influential … with the Necks I’ve often gone towards using a wah wah pedal … I’ve always been fascinated with that sound, and being able to sculpt the frequencies in that way …
One thing you said in another interview that intrigued me Chris, was that ‘the meaning of the music has changed rather than the music itself’.
CA: I think we’ve added to the repertoire, for want of a better word, of what we do, and the scope of things, and I think we’re doing new things, and maybe that’s happened more in the last five years, since I said that. But I still stand by that statement in that I think in some ways we kind of understood what it was we wanted to do very early on, when we started playing in the Seymour Centre by ourselves. I think after about three or four sessions things opened up in a way which basically laid down what we were going to do in the next fifteen years. Possibly there was a kind of reaction to where I’d come from before, in that I didn’t want to play short solos, and there was a definite melodic and chordal structure that you were improvising on, and this classic jazz quartet form of playing where there’s a melody and everybody has a solo, I wanted to get away from that. I don’t in any way wish to cast aspersions on that form, because it’s an organic form that developed for certain reasons, and there are still people who achieve amazing things within that context. I’m not suggesting it’s redundant or barren but for me at the start of The Necks that was something I was trying to get away from, and something that was also interesting to Lloyd and Tony, to find other ways of achieving a group sound. And I think we brought to that techniques and methods of playing that we’d been doing since we were teenagers. So we still had the building blocks of how we were going to do that. So it was more of a conceptual, formal thing that we did. And once we had that, it wasn’t that we had to learn how to play our instruments to do that, in many ways we went backwards in how we played our instruments, and stopped striving for the ‘wow-wee, what amazing chops this guy has’. And maybe that meant, as the music became more repetitive, the way we played the music became more repetitive, and we were happy with that. So what if we did the same thing all the time in a gig, and so what if we played the same gig all the time? But I think the way we thought about it changed, and we started looking at repetition as a form of narrative, and seeing parts of the music as maybe harking back to a kind of 19th century Berlioz tone poem, where music can actually involve an audience in a teleology that will keep them wanting what’s coming next, rather than ‘that’s a nice melody’ or ‘that’s really loud’. To actually logically show them that one thing can lead to another, and music can actually be listened to for longer than four minutes, or however long the popular song form or the jazz form is. Those were ideas that probably didn’t occur to me straight away, we were still playing the same kind of music, and even now we could do a gig, and play in a way in which I think it would be very difficult to tell whether we were playing in 1988 or 2012. I think we still do a lot of things we did, but I think it’s given us a lot more things to talk about.
Would it be fair to say your approach is like early Weather Report and Joe Zawinul was described, ‘No-one solos and everyone solos’?
LS: More like no-one solos!
CA: The early Necks were this mesmeric, hypnotic group – a rhythmic feel would kind of come out and we’d all jump on that, we’d all morph into playing something that cumulatively made it something that it wasn’t before and it would slowly change. And I think we’ve gone from that to a much more polyrhythmic approach where each of us individually, a priori to where the piece is at, starts improvising, and somehow we’re able to lock in, in a way, and the three autonomous parts of what we do start to lock in rather than say, I start playing a motif and Tony then starts playing in time with me, and then Lloyd, which is possibly something that would have happened early on. That doesn’t happen so much now, it’s more like I’ll play something and Tony’ll play something that’s probably very different, and Lloyd will play something, and gradually the piece will evolve in a way that has three distinct voices in it rather than three people. We still create a whole which hopefully is bigger than the sum of its parts, but within that there’s a much more varied and autonomous approach from the three of us.
LS: I think in the early days we did play in time a lot more, quite understandably, and although we were very pleased with what we’d discovered, perhaps we were a little hesitant to totally jump into the deep end and let’s say just dispense with any notion of that straight away. It gave some sort of framework to build things on and let’s face it, it’s hardly a redundant concept that you put something into a rhythmic system, and build something over the top of it. That’s still a totally valid way of doing things. We didn’t discuss it, but it just seemed the logical point to start, in the early days.
You’ve got 16 albums and you’ve been going for 25 years, and your output is like a continuum, it’s all linked together. There’s an evolution, there’s a development, but you can see an ongoing pattern in it, perhaps more than a lot of other groups. What you could refer to crudely as a formula.
CA: I don’t know if this is relevant to that, but one thing that’s always struck me is how the band goes about doing things as a band. It’s very similar to the way we make music. You’ve got to have a few years behind you before a pattern starts to emerge, but if you want a very basic concept of what the group’s about, it’s just one thing follows another, and that’s almost the atomic level of what it is we do. It sounds like a truism, but I don’t think we’ve ever really pushed things. I’ve shied away from this idea that you can predict what’s going to happen, or you can make things happen by planning ahead. If you’ve got ambitions, you’ve got to be very careful about having a strategy that’s going to put you somewhere in the future at some point. And I don’t think the band has ever operated like that. Not only was the reaction against the formal structure of the music I was playing before the Necks, but also having been in a couple of projects that went cactus (laughs) … I mean at the end of a particular project that you might have had a lot of hopes for, you start thinking about what you’re going to do, and there’s a certain disheartenedness or fear. And I think part of the Necks wanting to play and not perform in public was possibly based upon the idea of ‘Let’s not push this too hard’, ‘Let’s forget about wanting to be the most successful band’, or whatever dream you had, ‘Let’s just get back to enjoying playing music, and not worry about an audience’. And I think that still lingers … Obviously we have commitments, people offer us gigs, and looking into the future, to say that we’re not without ambition is possibly being disingenuous, because it takes a lot to make albums, and clearly we are ambitious, but this idea of whatever happens, happens, just let it go and don’t worry about it … the Necks has been the most successful thing I’ve been involved in, and possibly the most haphazardly managed.
LS: One other element too is with all of us coming from a jazz background, I think I could safely say that all three of us are very influenced by those artists that continued to evolve, particularly like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That to me seems the natural way to play jazz, to continue searching, not just in the solo that you’re playing, but in the broader context of moving the music forward. That always struck more of a chord with me than the notion of setting up some sort of classic model that is then just worked within, so I guess it was second nature to us that it would evolve over time, because that’s what we expected.
That’s more or less what Richard Williams is saying in his book The Blue Moment, where he’s looking at the way jazz has developed since Kind of Blue, and you’re mentioned very favourably there.
LS: It’s remaindered now, so I can go into lots of bookshops and say ‘that’s me in the index there – ten dollars!’ Its a nice book, I really enjoyed it. Apart from being a music writer, he’s the sports editor for the Guardian, and he comes to our gigs and says hi. And he interviewed us for the Guardian a few years ago. You can imagine all the events he goes to, like the Grand Prix, and Formula One, and he goes to the World Cup – imagine getting a press pass for the World Cup for the Guardian. He might be worth getting pretty chummy with! Ascot! (General laughter).