LLoyd Swanton has been a pillar of the Australian jazz and experimental music scene for over 30 years. He is the bass player for The Necks who have just released their 18th album, Vertigo. This interview was conducted at Foundry 616 in Ultimo, Sydney.
David Sullivan: I had a wander before you arrived and saw the Frank Gehry building down the road for the first time, have you seen it?
Lloyd Swanton: Yes it’s amazing isn’t it, I haven’t seen inside of it but it looks great from the outside. I used to cycle past one that he did in Los Angeles which had a giant set of binoculars for the entrance.
David Sullivan: I wonder where he gets his inspiration?
LLoyd Swanton: Yeah he’s quite diverse, I think he first made his name renovating his own house in the early 80s or something.
David Sullivan: I noticed a band you used to play in, The Catholics, had a song called Walter Burley Griffin.. Is architecture something you’re interested in?
LLoyd Swanton: Yeah…
David Sullivan: Perhaps not in an academic way….?
LLoyd Swanton: Yes exactly, I enjoy it, I mean, architecture is the ultimate functional art, I see similarities, in a way music is a functional art, it’s a social experience and that’s very functional. Music also occupies a space – acoustics – and also in terms of composition. In composing you’re often moving blocks of sound around, whether it’s on a page or on your laptop or in real time improvising, there’s a definite architectural aspect to music. A sense of proportion applies to both.
David Sullivan: I have a quote from Burley Griffin – “I am what may be termed a naturalist in architecture. I do not believe in any school of architecture. I believe in architecture that is the logical outgrowth of the environment in which the building in mind is to be located” How much do you take into account the environment you’re playing, whether it be an opera house or a small jazz club?
LLoyd Swanton: Well you cant not do so, I’m a positive sort of guy, I try to find the attractions each time and hopefully not focus on the negatives. In terms of acoustics, the negatives can sometimes be almost overwhelming, but you have to adapt. The social rituals we go through at a small club are very different to the concert hall at the Opera House for example. But it’s all exciting. I really like both.
David Sullivan: What are some spaces you played at when you first started? Are any still remaining?
LLoyd Swanton: Well I grew up in Sydney, and I started playing in the late 70s, early 1980s and The Necks were formed in 86 or 87. There were a lot more venues then… Interestingly 505 on Cleveland Street – I used to play there 30 years ago when it was a really upmarket lebanese called Hunner’s, they had both floors, it’s a brothel now, but they used to have both floors with a mezzanine area, I used to play in a little jazz trio, they had a grand piano there. It’s kind of strange to come back there 30 years later.
Other than that the big one for me was the Paradise Jazz Cellar in Kings X, it was only open for maybe three or four years but I was really lucky to have been right there when that was happening, there were bands seven nights a week, I sometimes was doing four gigs a week there…
David Sullivan: I’m finding Sydney history really interesting at the moment
LLoyd Swanton: Have you read the book Razor?
David Sullivan: No I’ve been told about it before though
LLoyd Swanton: It’s amazing, it’s another generation before this but you just cant walk around Sydney and see it the same way after reading it
David Sullivan: What about the Sydney music scene right now? It seems a little stunted at the moment
LLoyd Swanton: Well I don’t have the opportunity to hang out here much these days, but so many things have changed… Real estate prices… a very different attitude to noise and drinking. I can see the scene might move to the outskirts, it’s not happening so much so far but it is encouraging though, just when you think the whole things gone completely corporatised, you get some funky little guerrilla venue popping up in a space somewhere, no one’s going to make a living out of it, but it’s great.
David Sullivan: True. Talking about spaces and venues, something another interviewer said about The Necks, perhaps disparagingly, was “it sounds like they’re doing what hippies do in the back room of a party” which you somewhat agreed with; listening to the new album Vertigo, I got a sense of that, it sounds very raw, like raw improvisation
LLoyd Swanton: Well we’re improvising in the studio on multiple time spans, we’re basically putting down a lot of parts and then going back and saying ’well actually lets move that over here’, so something we recorded over a particular section may actually get moved to the other end of the piece, so it has a different temporal approach.
I’m not sure our approach for this album was actually that different, I guess every album we just try and do a different album to the previous ones and over a long period of time the sheer weight of numbers mean people see connections, like Drive By, a lot of people say that’s the one that most reminds them of Sex, I don’t think so myself but I can see the certain links.
In terms of raw improvisation, i think we’ve always just gone into the studio and if we have a plan, that’s great, but if not we just look at each other and go ‘what do you wanna try’ and we’ll just experiment with a few things.
David Sullivan: Do you feel like you have to progress from the last album or do you think that being a different album is progression in itself?
LLoyd Swanton: Well I’m not sure I like the word progression because it’s a bit close to progress. I think anyone who listens to our first few albums then listens to a chronological sequence of albums after that then they’ll hear an evolution. They could say they hear the same band but it’s really changed, it’s been nearly 30 years so you wanna think it would have evolved!
We have a strong sense of not repeating ourselves too overtly, and certainly not repeating ourselves from the previous album.
David Sullivan: Listening to Vertigo, I felt it was almost abrasive in some ways, was that intentional?
LLoyd Swanton: I certainly would agree it’s not as overtly soothing as previous albums, but we’re not just about soothing and I think there’s some extraordinarily beautiful moments in there, in fact I still am quite astonished that the three of us with no particular game plan can actually combine textures in the studio, because a lot of what you’re hearing there was put together in the mix. I would have put down a particular bass part, Chris would have put down a keyboard part, or piano or Hammond organ and likewise Tony on his instruments but those combinations often didn’t occur to us till we’re in the mix. It’s amazing what you can do now.
David Sullivan: That’s a beautiful thing to be able to combine the improvised with then meticulously patching it all together
LLoyd Swanton: That’s when you become a composer really. Also, one of the themes of the album is what Tony liked to call his “intrusions”, they were his little composed improvisations where he played drums or guitar, and basically made these smashing, collapsing textures, sometimes they’re a trigger for a whole new section, other times they just happen across whatever’s happening. I don’t think there’s anything preferable about a soothing album, Open for example is so soothing and beautiful, so if people want a soothing Necks album, I’d say try Open… For Vertigo I wouldn’t say we’re deliberately trying to provoke but we’re certainly not going out of our way to not hurt people’s ears. It’s a turbulent kind of album.
DS: Do you come up with the title after it’s made or…?
LLoyd Swanton: Look if we have it in advance that’s fantastic, this one actually took quite a while, I think maybe Tony had suggested it while we were still recording. Open was really traumatic, it took us ages. Silverwater, I think I actually suggested it in the studio because I’d see the turn off to Silverwater Road on the M4 and I just thought, for a place name that doesn’t have a lot of super positive connotations to the locals, that’s actually a very lovely word.
David Sullivan: Personally, I have found with improvised music that I can find doing it less rewarding now than when I first started it, do you ever feel like you are going to run out of steam with music? How do you find inspiration to keep making albums after all these years?
LLoyd Swanton: I’ve always tried to take the long range view, sometimes you’ll have situations where you didn’t really enjoy it so much, but I guess the question is whether you decide if that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back or whether you’re just going through a bit of a slump.
One thing I’ve found is places like the Paradise, where you’re doing an awful lot of gigs, is when you get that repeated chance to perform in public, you find that you get a really good sense of not taking your own perception of yourself too seriously because you realise the people you’re playing with often hear what you’re doing very differently, often better than what you thought it was, or sometimes worse… What that really taught me is that you cant take too much out of one single performance; if you thought it was fantastic – great, but don’t kid yourself that that’s where it will be from now on, and if it was a really shitty performance, then again that’s probably not the pattern forever.
I’m loving playing music. In fact I’m getting older and I’m worried about the day when I cant play music. It’s not an immediate thing, as if I’m getting to a gig and I just radiate joy, but it’s something that sustains me from week to week and it’s something that I’ve always done and it feels very much what I am.
Lloyd Swanton is playing the Wangaratta Jazz Festival On 31st of October with his Ambon Project, which feature 12 of his compositions for a 12-piece ensemble. They will be releasing their new cd on Bugle Records. He also has a couple more shows that we can’t talk about yet.
More details about The Necks, and if you want to purchase Vertigo go to their website.