Tony Buck: “The Calm and the Storm at the Same Time.” Interview by Sam Price.


Most people know Tony Buck as the percussionist in Australian improvised trio the Necks. Yet over the years he has repeatedly collaborated with musicians as diverse as Brian Eno or Ethiopian accoridanist Hailu Mergia. He’s created avant post rock as part of Transmit, has a duo Spill, with Magda Mayas on piano and clavinet, works with Lee Ranaldo and David Watson in Glacial, and then of course there are his solo projects. Unearth (Room40) is his first solo release for 15 years. Recorded over several years it’s framed around percussion, though also incorporates guitar, synth and field recordings, that develops a highly textural, highly engaging swell of sound. Sam Price caught up with Buck to find out more.

Sam Price: Unearth leaves me with questions.

Tony Buck: I hope that this is a positive thing. I know I always like it when I am at left pondering or am intrigued by the music and art I see / hear / feel. Hopefully it’s like that for you in this case.!

After listening to it, in its entirety, focused solely on its unfurling narrative, I want to know all about it. It pulls you in…

That sounds good. Wanting to know all about it is nice, but maintaining some sense of mystery can also be good I think.

..and, having also partaken of it in discreet sections, amply rewards the commitment of going from the start to the finish.

I’m happy you feel compelled to engage with it on different levels. Part of the make-up of the piece is that I have tried to work with different layers, (different sections and ‘levels of resolution’ if you like), happening both consecutively and simultaneously. I glad to hear it is a rewarding listen for you.

But there’s little ‘hand holding’ around the release in terms of its provenance.

Well. I imagine it’s pretty clear it is the result of me working with overdubs of various instruments and sound sources that I have combined and shaped into the resulting composition.
Apart from that I can’t imagine what other kind of hand-holding is necessary, really. A group or artist with whom you have some background knowledge helps contextualise I imagine; having some kind impression of where the work might be coming from can be helpful sometimes.. I’m guessing you have a bit of an idea about my background….I would like to think, however the piece can stand on its own without revealing its creation process or without the context of previous work.

This forces one to engage with the recording on its own terms, i.e., with a lack of meta-narrative.

Isn’t this almost always the case with most music.? Perhaps there is a meta-narrative in a vague sense around my background and previous work and then there’s just this piece, which I hope speaks for itself in the way one hopes all art might do.

Is this intentional?

No, it’s not intentional at all. I did however endeavor to shed some light on the sounds with a pretty extensive list of instruments and sound sources that make up the piece, which, ironically, I thought for a while might have been going a step too far in the direction you speak of….defining or outlining details and supplying information about the nuts and bolts of the piece… ‘Hand-holding”… I had hoped however this wouldn’t take anything away from the “poetry” of the music but would just explain enough for those listeners that felt curious for further information.

Would you be willing to shed some light on how Unearth came to be?

Well. In a way it is the culmination of many approaches and interests I have been developing over the last few years.In some ways it represents a direct development and expansion of the ideas I was playing with on my solo “self-contained_underwater_breathing_apparatus”, which is an acoustic drum-kit improvisation from a decade ago or so. Unearth is like an orchestration for percussion, guitar and electronics of the unfolding and expanding ‘narrative’ I was going for with that recording. Since that time I have been thinking about and working on different things, like a way to use specific harmonies and approaches to guitar, for example, particularly in regards to tone colour and resonance that the instrument itself suggests and the relationship I feel with that and the way I like to use cymbals and resonant drums. (I can see that a piece like Unearth is very much like an orchestrated version of things I like to do with the drums, just extended to draw on a wider and sometime more specific vocabulary in terms of harmony or instrumentation..) I did a lot of work with sampling and overlaying sounds in the past and this is also an extension of that way of dealing with lots of varied material. Unearth is the product of all this research and development.

I am equally intrigued in the process as the authorial intent.

My intention as the composer of the piece was to explore, in a more expanded way the kind of musical territory that has always really interested me: The layering of sounds both complimentary and contrasting, Insignificant small sounds and totally immersive noise. I wanted it to move in a way that unfolds and changes from one area to another in a constant state of transition – getting into the areas that lie between – the places between A and B… I also wanted to create a piece that operated at different levels at the same time, as I mentioned, both horizontally and vertically- Slow and fast simultaneously. Paradoxically almost static but inexorably moving forward. Ambient Mood vs. some kind of narrative; Where attention waxes and wanes…..more engaging elements that draw your attention again, away from the background, enveloping mood, without disrupting it. Development where drones become textures become individual events or rhythms…The border where noise can become harmonies and arpeggios become melodic lines… The tensions that lie between these opposites and their perpetual transformation and movement in relationship to each other, often times coexisting as well as in a constant flux. The calm and the storm at the same time.

I’m also very interested lately in ways to deal with different tempi or cyclic material. Approaches that allow these different pulses and registers of activity to coexist in their own space in terms of frequency and density. There are passages in the piece where there are also attempts to evoke particular feelings inspired by visual imagery or emotional states, both abstract and, in certain cases, more specific. I don’t think drawing on inspiration like this is in any way unusual for a musician (a certain synesthetic imperative, one might say!). However, I think it would be more of a distraction and not helpful to describe in detail or to outline or list these particular inspirations or points of departure. Music to me isn’t a verbal or literal thing. Some impressions and feelings can’t be described any other way but in the expression of the music itself. At the end of the day, these techniques, interests, compositional elements and endevours I’ve outlined above don’t really go very far in gaining a fundamental understanding a piece of music, per se.

That bass at the beginning; so heavy and beguiling.

Ha.! Well, that sounds like a good response. I wanted it to act as a kind canvas on which the piece was built. Almost like it was silence, while also creating a sense of forbidding or engaged expectation – where those little insignificant sounds could be uncovered or discovered or what have you. The ground on which the piece grows, in which it digs deeper as it unfolds or the place from where it takes off…. (….in a manner of speaking…not wishing to extend the “Unearth” metaphor to breaking point of course ; )

You mention Unearth being the result of research and development with various techniques and sonorities; is this a research a constant feature of your practice?

Yes. I feel like I am always searching, researching, practicing and thinking about approaches that increase my vocabulary and palette as a musician/composer; working on ways to elicit sounds that I connect to and ways of incorporating those things into my playing or recordings. It’s a fairly organic process and, while I am constantly engaged in this kind of work/research, I don’t feel like I’m a workaholic about it at all. Aspects of my practice are somehow always slowly changing and developing I hope, a little bit like the music.. a slow moving development and expansion. There are things I am drawn to and start working on that don’t seem to be the result of R&D though, of course. Sometimes there is the sense that I am simply compelled to do something; an intuitive inspiration that seems to have no origin in my intellectual or artistic work up until that point. It’s often really quite instinctual and subconscious.

To what extent does an electroacoustic approach to composition facilitate the development of new vocabulary for you as a player?

Ever since I first started to play around with early drum-machines and samplers in the mid-80s I’ve been influenced by the interactions, in terms of sound and inspiration, that such an engagement with electroacoustic instruments and approaches suggest. For example; how the over layering of textures, loops and parts I used with my sampler could be incorporated into my approach to improvising and performing on an acoustic drumkit, in realtime, using limb independence and different small instrumental sound-sources, or equally, by finding ways to reproduce electronic type sounds using only acoustic elements of my instruments. Equally, I think I take inspiration in a similar way from the real world, from the environmental sounds around me. Perhaps dealing with sampling all the years ago also contributed to a heightened sense of engagement in this way also.

Any plans to play Unearth in a live setting?

I started to work on ways to present some of this music in a live setting around the time I was mixing the record in LA last year. I’ve again started using and developing some machines and sounds-sculptures that I first played around with in the late 90’s and explored some ways of incorporating the drumming and percussion with these machines and with guitar playing and video. I’m not really interested in trying to reproduce an exact version of Unearth for live performance, more taking the recording as an inspiration and starting point for a more open solo set. I’ll be doing a few of these solos in the coming months here in Europe.

Having just released Unearth, is it too early to be thinking about your next solo record?

I’ve given it some thought, but probably too early to think in terms the are too specific. Working on ideas for the live solo set is taking a lot of my creative energy at present, researching approached to performance, how it might work in the space, the sense of spectacle or non-spectacle, ritual, casual and/or theatrical presentation are things I have been thinking about. The ways in which I can incorporate these spinning machines, the ways in which the video might be used. Things like this. All these aspects feel like the live thing is also the culmination of many of my interests from over the years, from childhood on really.

Great stuff Tony, the videos are an apposite mix of exposition and keeping the mystery. And they visually refer to the relationship to determinism in your practice much better than language would I feel.

Determinism in my practice is an interesting point. While improvisation and letting the music itself and the situation at hand determine the flow is something I try to allow in both performance and recording, to a degree, there are also aspects of clarity, articulacy and precision in the execution for ideas that I have always strived for.
I guess this is just another one of those dualities, in the sense of fast/slow, static/expanding that I seem to be drawn into exploring. Go figure!

You can find Unearth here.


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