Lloyd Swanton (The Necks): “Throw yourself into that current and just let it carry you where it carries you.” Interview by Zacharias Szumer

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The Body is the 20th release for Australian improvising trio the Necks. They formed in 1987 and continue to create these amazing long form pieces that exist somewhere between minimalisim, jazz, ambient and experimental music. Live they are remarkable, with the trio of Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass) closing their eyes and trusting that the music will come.

To mark the release of Body, Cyclic Defrost writer Zacharias Szumer calls up bassist Lloyd Swanton for an interview, which, in tribute to the spirit of a Necks’ performance, he has decided to completely improvise.

Zacharias Szumer: So, I thought it might be interesting to do an improvised interview, in which I only have one opening question and for the rest we’ll just see where it goes.

Lloyd Swanton: Yeah, it could work. Essentially you’re just going to need to have a question that gives me something to respond to that gives you something to ask, which might not be that different from a normal interview anyway. Rather than having a list of questions, we just kick it off and try to have a conversation you mean?

Zacharias Szumer: Yeah. Inspired by what I interpret a Necks’ performance to be like: you have an opening motif and then you just go from there
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Lloyd Swanton: Yeah. Mind you, we’ve spent 31 years perfecting that.

Zacharias Szumer: (Awkward laughs). Yeah, that’s something I thought about this morning [with fresh doubts about whether the improvised interview concept was a good idea]. And what you get at the end, in a studio album, could be weeks of getting the best improvisation on tape.

Lloyd Swanton: Well, if you just want to have a conversation I’m fine with that. Let’s do that. Just start the ball rolling, I can talk under wet cement with a mouthful of marbles. So, that’ll help.

Zacharias Szumer: Great! Well, the opening question that I’ve got written down is: I read something in the last few months, I can’t remember where, in which someone made some comment about Australian literature as being always suffused with wide open spaces and vast expanses. I wonder if you have anything to say about that in terms of The Necks’ music. Do you feel that your music is in some way inspired by that same embodiment of the Australian landscape?

Lloyd Swanton: We get asked that an awful lot actually, and the answer in a nutshell is yes and no. As one member of the group I can’t not reflect my environment and my upbringing, and I’m sure the other boys would say the same. The trick is ascertaining exactly what those elements are and how they appear in the music. Once you try to get more specific it gets very muddy very quickly. But there’s a few metaphors that we think definitely apply. We’ve often talked about how when you go for a really long road trip in a very vast, flat landscape at any given moment you don’t notice the landscape changing very much, apart from the bushes and the fence posts flashing past you at 100 km an hour. But in terms of the larger landscape, you don’t really notice anything. But then you concentrate on something else for half an hour and when you look up you realize things have changed completely.

I think we’ve applied the same sort of scale to our improvisations. Quite often, at any given moment in a Necks’ piece you could say, “There’s not a lot going on right now,” and we would probably agree. But we would probably say, “Get back to us in half an hour and see where we’ve ended up.” And it’ll be like, “My goodness, that’s very different.” So, there’s that. And also, I just feel as someone who grew up on the coastal fringe of Australia, even if you’ve spent very little time in the desert – and I haven’t spent much time in the outback or the desert – you can’t not be aware of it. You’re aware of it just over the horizon I think. Even when you’re living in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, definitely Perth because you pretty much are in the desert there.

And you could also say that the didgeridoo is one of the most perfectly apt instruments for its environment. I’m simplifying things to say that it plays one note, because it’s actually an incredibly complicated sound that it can produce, but for the purposes of argument you could say: what could be more representative of a flat desert landscape than a single note. Not only a single note, but a single note that never stops. None of us have made a deep study of indigenous music, but again, we can’t help but be influenced by it to some extent. And certainly we’ve always been very amenable to drones.

Zacharias Szumer: OK, I was just about to ask if any of you had studied it, but I guess you’ve just answered that.

Lloyd Swanton: No, not in any formal sense, but we’ve all got some degree of knowledge. Probably not enough. That question does get asked by people overseas. It’s often people who haven’t been to Australia and have a bit of clichéd sense of the tourist imagery of it. And then locals like yourself ask it wanting to know, for good reason, whether there’s elements there. Like I said, there can’t not be elements, but it’s very hard to put your finger on what they are.

The other point I’d make as a Neck is that one of the things I love about music as an art form is its unbelievably non-specific nature: the way it can provide such comfort and gratification and inspiration to people without them being able to put their finger on exactly what it is. Or if they can it’s completely different to what another person might put their finger on. Two people can hear a piece of music and both love it for very different reasons, and that’s something I love about instrumental music. I listen to singers all the time, but I don’t really listen to the words. People say, “Oh man, that song means so much to me,” and I say, “Honestly I’ve never listened to the lyrics.” I’ve listened to the song and I’ve listened to the structure and the textures and the production and the way the overtones are combining to create a rich harmonic tapestry, but I didn’t notice what the words were. I’m simply neurologically wired to think instrumentally and think texturally and think non-specific, to allude to things. That’s what I love doing in music and that’s what I love hearing in music. So I’m very reluctant to go, “Oh yeah, on our fourteenth album you can hear that we were 45 minutes from Collarenebri when that motif came into mind. (Laughs)

Zacharias Szumer: And it’s not necessarily specific to Australia either is it, gradually changing landscapes I mean, that could be almost anywhere in the world.

Lloyd Swanton: And it’s not just landscape, it’s the culture and the politics and the society. I think that has very much influenced us. Although I can’t put my finger on what it is that’s different about us, I’m reasonably comfortable saying I don’t think we would have come up with the music we came up with had we been living in a different time and place. In some ways that’s maybe stating the bleeding obvious but I think we are very true to our time and place, I just can’t actually say how.

Zacharias Szumer: And maybe you shouldn’t …?

Lloyd Swanton: I can identify some things though. Before the complete insanity of the neoliberal economics of the last couple of decades, we grew up as beneficiaries of the tail end of the social democracy that gave free tertiary education, when real estate prices in big cities like Sydney weren’t so incredibly punishing that no one had any time or money to indulge in luxuries like thinking about life. You know, which is kind of what it is now. You know, Sydney is like New York now, but back then it was a much more relaxed place, when we were first starting out at musicians. And there was a lot more musical work around, we were able to perfect our craft in so many ways by just playing other people’s music in bands. And yet, there was an unhurried sense. I think that manic energy that people admire so much about New York also has a downside. We were able to key into something much more laconic and relaxed.

A couple of years ago, I read a book about Charlie Parker’s formative years in Kansas City, and it was just so insanely competitive. It was astonishing, in the music scene there you sank or you swam basically. It was a title fight every night and you either got knocked down or you won. It was quite awe inspiring and you could totally understand someone like Charlie Parker who didn’t necessarily appear to have the goods when he started but then he went away and practiced and just came back with this concept that blew everyone else off the stand and revolutionized music. I got such an understanding of the hothouse he came from. But in a way, what we were coming up with was the opposite of the normal sense of hothouse. We were in a hothouse too, but it was a hothouse protected from the outside world, like a nursery you might say. Somewhere you can nurture green shoots and gradually bring them into something.

If we were starting The Necks now and we were all in our mid-20s in Sydney, I don’t think we could do it. So there’s that aspect too. Not just the landscape, but the economic landscape, the real estate landscape (laughs). Every conversation with someone from Sydney you end up talking about real estate in the end.

But that whole thing about real estate prices, you end up with a built environment that is really inhospitable. The example I often give is The Basement in Sydney, a legendary club just a block or two back from Circular Quay that recently closed. I remember in the 1970s when it was first running, the back lane it was in was one of about half a dozen back lanes in that part of Sydney. Quaint little places off the main street, with lots of quirky little shops and funny little establishments, and at least one music venue within easy reach. This is a good example of the Sydney philosophy versus the Melbourne philosophy. Melbourne’s CBD has all those wonderful little back lanes. For whatever reason – whether it was prescience or pure quirk of history – Melbourne preserved them. While Sydney, which at the start of the 20th century had about 110 back lanes, now has about six. And when the lanes go, and when they’re replaced with big buildings, it’s kind of like how environmentalists say not to chop down dead trees, because they’re often home to hundreds of living creatures of various sizes and shapes. In the same way, once you pave over those little back lanes and you’ve just got great big, gleaming sky scrapers, what’s going to survive there in a creative sense? Nothing.

Zacharias Szumer: Or do you think it just gets packaged in a different way and becomes less organic?

Lloyd Swanton: Well there’s that. What creativity does exist seems to exist for much more venal purposes. Or it gets shoved further out geographically and it loses that sort of intensity. Somewhere like Circular Quay was fantastic, because there was pedestrian traffic. It’s a busy, bustling part of Sydney, and so if you had a bunch of back lanes there with quirky little establishments they could thrive on that. But no, in comes the big Godzilla foot – splat – and that’s all gone. Less-commercial music needs a little bit more TLC, a little bit more tolerance and nurturing, and the economic model that we’ve signed up to –well we didn’t sign up for it, our leaders did – for the last 30-40 years is very hostile to that.

Zacharias Szumer: In relation to what you were saying about how economics structures how much free time people have, and their attitudes, like how frantic they are, how frenetic their lives are, do you think that our social environment has also created an environment that is not conducive to the kind of immersive listening that perhaps is required to appreciate long-form performances of a band like The Necks?

Lloyd Swanton: That’s hard to say. There’s no denying that short-duration is a big characteristic of most pop music, because it’s basically a monetized art form and the more tunes you can cram into an hour of air time the better. And you want to grab people’s attention as quickly as possible. Pop Music is not about saying, “Hey, we’re just gonna set something up and feel the vibe and see where we go” and yada yada yada. But it does get interesting, in that we’re not mega-stars, but we’ve somehow managed to carve out an economically viable niche for ourselves playing such unbelievably un-commercial music, on paper anyway.

There’s probably some free improvisers that think we’re a total sell-out, but on the broad scale of things I think we tend to be at the non-commercial end of the spectrum. But here we are, getting really wonderful offers and responses from all around the world. Our next European tour doesn’t start until mid-October, but already our London shows have sold out. That’s amazing for something that’s so un-commercial on the face of it. It’s ironic isn’t it, that of all the bands I’ve been involved in, the one with the least ambition has actually turned out to be the most commercially successful. And I’m really, really proud of that, because I don’t think it’s ever coloured our music, we’re still Chris, Lloyd and Tony, getting on stage and doing what we did 30 years ago with no intention of it going beyond the room it’s played in. So I’m very proud that we’ve opened up people’s eyes and ears to that sort of thing. And hopefully turned some people on to different ways of hearing music. I should also say too – getting back to the thing about duration and pop music – that we have also been the beneficiaries of a worldwide increase in understanding of trance music. I don’t know how old you are …

Zacharias Szumer: 29

Lloyd Swanton: So you’ve probably listened to trance. When we started playing music that was unheard of as a musical genre. There were people in the early days who would go, “Look, I like what you’re doing, but do something different now, change it.” And we were like, “Why?” The whole notion of a piece of music that doesn’t change is much more accepted now than 30 years ago. And we have definitely been the beneficiaries of that. I wouldn’t say we did much to bring it about, but we certainly benefited from the fact that other people were grasping that, so it wasn’t so strange for a band to do what we did.

Zacharias Szumer: That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of trance of being a reference, or point of comparison for you.

Lloyd Swanton: Yeah, there’s trance the genre, and then there’s the general trance-like element of a lot of music you hear nowadays, that is intended in an immersive sense rather than a dramatic or narrative sense. Even your three-minute pop tune tends to be like an opera in many ways. It has a narrative, it’s set out somewhere and makes a few points. It has a little change of viewpoint with the bridge, then it comes back. Not unlike an opera, or a symphony with its various movements and sections. But the idea of a piece of music that’s essentially just a ribbon unravelling, that’s probably much more what I’d call trance-based music. And it gets complicated, because the literal definition of trance, when people go into a trance, they often convulse and are possessed by a mad, physical reaction, which is not necessarily what our music is either. Maybe hypnotic and mesmeric might be a better description, because we tend to make our audiences very still, not vigorous.

Zacharias Szumer: Have you ever had anyone have any cathartic or ‘possessed’ sort of response when you’ve played live?

Lloyd Swanton: People have told us all sorts of things. You’d think if someone was that moved by the music they wouldn’t be able to control themselves. They wouldn’t have much say in it. But essentially our audiences are quite passive and receptive. They’re absorbing our music like a sponge. We’re getting some sort of response back, but I think people are aware that if they really started to let themselves go, it would be to the detriment of the experience for everyone else. People have a respect for their fellow audience members that somehow seems to override any kind of deeper response to the music that could get a little too vigorous for everyone else. It tends to be manifested mostly by people coming up to us afterwards and telling us what they felt rather than actually physically responding at the time. We get some lovely testimonials you might say.

Zacharias Szumer: When you say trance, do you mean, trance the electronic genre, or trance as in more traditional forms of trance music?

Lloyd Swanton: Well I was trying, probably in a very convoluted way, to make that distinction. On the one hand there’s trance, the electronic genre, on the other there’s a lot of music that has some kind of trance-like identity to it. And, neurologically speaking, you can talk about people listening and responding to music and going into a trance, which normally involves a fairly possessed sort of state. And a lot of very vigorous physical movement. So yeah, they’re related.

Zacharias Szumer: Do you think it’s interesting how trance, the electronic genre, emerges around the beginning of the neoliberal era in the 80s, but then how it often functions as a sort of ritualistic, cathartic release at the end of the work week?

Lloyd Swanton: Oh very much. And of course, that’s something that goes back since time immemorial. This is something I’ve been banging on about for thirty years or more. That so many traditional musics of the world are about an immersive experience, about a release. About a communal experience of music-ing together. About a bunch of people coming together and making music and not about delivering a product. You just throw yourself into that current and just let it carry you where it carries you. That’s one of the major functions of music and it’s probably only been in recent decades that in the West we’ve started to grasp that, but humans have been doing that for thousands of years.

Zacharias Szumer: And like you were saying earlier, due to the amazing non-specific nature of music, 10 people can be playing together, all losing themselves in the music, but it might be different things in the music that are causing each person to lose themself in it.

Lloyd Swanton: Yeah, the funny thing is that we often get asked is what we are experiencing in the more ecstatic moments of our live performances. And to some extent when you’re a performer, as the old cliché goes, someone has to stay home and mind the baby. We can’t allow ourselves to go quite as far off the end of the pier as our audiences can. We do still have to play our instruments, and we do still have to honour the integrity in whatever it was that we have set-up up to that point, we can’t just let it fall in a heap. But we do still have some pretty extreme experiences ourselves. Those clichés about not feeling like you’re playing your instrument anymore; you’re just experiencing the vibrations but you don’t have a conscious awareness of making any decisions anymore. But somehow you must be. And I’ve also gone to great pains to explain that that state isn’t necessarily always the best state for making great music in. I’ve done gigs with The Necks when I’ve been absolutely exhausted from days or weeks of touring, I’m so distracted I feel physically exhausted before I even get on stage, and actually I’m quite preoccupied with how inadequate I feel to present music and yet something magic happens, and I’ll hear a recording later and go, “Wow, that was good I was so distracted.” It can work to your favour.

Zacharias Szumer: Have you ever done any research into the neurobiology or the psychology of what’s happening in those musical trance states? Or is it something you’d rather leave undefined?

Lloyd Swanton: We haven’t experimented on ourselves. I’ve read a few books over the years on the neurological aspects of music and probably forgotten 99 percent of what I’ve read, but I found them very interesting. But no, we’ve never formalized it in any way. There’s other people who are doing research into that sort of thing. But for us, we just do what we do.

(Call-recording app malfunctions and last five minutes of the interview in which we talk about the new album are lost)

You can find the album here.
photo credit – Camille Walsh Photography

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Zacharias Szumer is a young writer and musician currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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