“There has to be a social music.”
For three of the four decades they’ve been musicians, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck, and Lloyd Swanton have played together as The Necks. They return to play Australia each summer, and hearing these annual live performances has become a way of marking time on a long, slow clock. Indeed, their international routine seems to mimic their tacit musical agreements—cycles, simplicity, and patience. I’ve had the incredible pleasure of hearing thirty-two of their improvisations live.
My hippie allergy flared up when I went to my first Necks gig at The Basement [Sydney] in 2002; I saw audience members peacefully standing there, swaying ever so gently with eyes closed in preparation for the concert thirty minutes before they even started. I spent a good half hour of the concert holding on to my scepticism, and then: Bam. That thing happened, I let it in, and it’s moved me deeply ever since.
I’ve been friends with Chris, Lloyd, and Tony since we met through the NOW now festival of improvised music that I was organising about fifteen years ago. Chris and Tony both play in my Hammeriver project (a band exploring the music of the late Alice Coltrane), and Chris and I have a DX7 synthesizer and guzheng zither duo called Germ Studies. I’ve never played music with Lloyd. I’ve always thought of him as the straight-line staple jazz ingredient of the trio—the bread (and maybe the butter) that makes more cautious listeners feel like everything is going to be okay in the end. Things will resolve. But at the concert tonight, it was Lloyd’s timing and textures that rattled me like a Keiji Haino shriek. That’ll teach me.
Our chat took place backstage at the Blue Mountains Theatre between the sound check and the gig on February 27, 2016. I had driven about two hours from Sydney to be there for the concert and to do some bushwalking either side. Much of the conversation was drowned out by a pack of cockatoos arguing at the window.
For those of you who haven’t yet been to one of their live concerts, they (mostly) consist of two one-hour pieces. The music unfolds, slowly, slowly, slowly, and they end. For a while, they would name the tracks just after they had been played—a humorous rarity in improvised music that I think says a lot about their character. I started off by asking just why they stopped doing this…
Lloyd Swanton It was too distracting. I found myself trying to think of titles when I should have been thinking of the music.
Clare Cooper So, hang on, you’d look around at each other after the improvisation had ended and one of you would whisper a suggestion of a title to the others?
Tony Buck If someone came up with one, we’d whisper it to Lloyd—but it was usually just Lloyd.
CC Can you recall any highlights?
LS “Gustav Is Hungry,” and actually also on that same night, “Send Gavin to Tonga”—both memorable ones from Chris. It was an ABC broadcast when we did three tunes, because we were interspersed with a performance poet, I think, and we did “Bad Teeth,” “Bad Hair,” and “Bad Breath”—just a theme that started to emerge. We did a tune called “Bra,” and a tune called “Leg.” I can’t remember many now. “Uncle in a Tin” was a particularly inspired choice of Chris’s.
CC How do you feel about knowing that bands get together and say, “Let’s try a Necks thing”—in a lingua franca kind of way?
LS Very flattered and gratified. I’ve always said I’d love to hear more bands doing what we do, because they would bring a different perspective to it. There are some amazing musicians out there that could do some incredible stuff with our concept, so I’m all for it.
CC So what do you do Lloyd? What’s the concept?
LS I think the most important thing is that sense of patience. There’s no urgency with our performances, and that was a very early discovery for all of us. Once we kept to that, everything else emanates from there. It’s free improvisation without any sense of compulsion to be anywhere at any particular time. We can get frenetic, and if it starts to build, we’ll happily follow it there, but we don’t try to guide it into any position.
CC You’ve mentioned a manifesto before, or tacit agreement. I imagine there are these kind of promises you’ve made to each other—perhaps also to your audience. Tony, you mentioned recently that The Necks “have no obligations” to fulfill, and I was wondering at what point over these thirty years did you feel like you were free from such expectations?
TB Well, my statement about obligations was about improvised music in general. We’re free to respond to what’s going to work in the space or for the occasion, rather than have to recreate something you’ve worked on previously in a previous space at previous time that might not be appropriate. We play to the space.
I personally keep to the thing I feel we formed the band to explore—ways of music-making that exclude certain things and focus on others. There are things I would not do in this group. It’s not free improvisation in the sense that we’re free to do whatever we want. I feel it’s very specific. I think all groups, in a way, should have a reason to exist—and this one is very particular. I never do things in this group outside of cyclic playing, no matter what that means. I’ve given myself that obligation to keep within that parameter.
CC Do you ever hear that one of the band members is breaking that rule?
TB I’ve done three drum fills in thirty years. They all occurred around the ten-year mark. We were at the Corner Hotel [Melbourne] once, and it seemed appropriate. Maybe I was entertaining myself…
Chris Abrahams I probably wouldn’t do similar things to what I do with The Necks in other contexts, unless it was a very different context. But if it was like, bass and drums and me, and the music was sounding cyclic or mesmeric, then I’d find that quite difficult…
CC Would you feel as though you’re being bullied in some way?
CA No. Everything has been done anyway. I don’t think we’ve come up with an original statement or aesthetic by any stretch of the imagination, but not everyone has done everything—and certainly, everyone can have their own take. So, when a certain thing is happening I feel I have to play in a certain way.
CC You feel a Necks coming on…
CA Yeah. I guess if I was playing with a trombonist and a singer, then that would be different. Any kind of trio I’ve found a little bit uncomfortable. I play a certain way with The Necks that I’d prefer to keep with The Necks.
CC Are there moments when you think, This is too Necks? Alarm bells went off for me when people were complaining that the NOW now festival wasn’t sounding enough like itself, and when, being built on the idea of exploring and experimenting, it started to have a “sound.” I was concerned it was becoming a repetitious legacy of itself… that people started to rely on and predict what the sound of improvised music was and was not.
CA We’re not against predictable, but riffing on that idea…
LS If after nights of performing we’re starting to fall into patterns, one of us is just going to go, “I don’t want to do that,” and musically send that message. There’s no denying that over a sequence of gigs we might find ourselves in the same area, and it will be slightly different, and one of us might be thinking, This isn’t different enough. I want something fresh. It’s a bit like the deck of the ship in that Greek myth where they keep replacing the planks until there’s none of the originals left—the Theseus Paradox. The Necks concept is what we’re standing on, but the detail of what we’re standing on is constantly being changed.
TB I don’t worry about it any more.
CC It’s also exciting to get meta and macro at the same time with your cycles. If you are zooming out so much in your tacit agreements regarding cycles and simplicity, you could start to do that in thirty-year cycles, referencing moments that occurred twenty years earlier. There’s not that many improvising bands that get to do that.
LS Sometimes we remember things with crystal clarity. Other times we don’t remember things very well, and they come out differently. It’s very organic.
CC How much of it is muscle memory?
CA Quite a lot.
LS Yeah? But if it was entirely muscle memory, we’d be boring as bat shit. We’d just be hands playing instruments… no control center at all.
TB The other thing I’ve been particularly interested in with this group is being aware of ways of playing outside of our realm, then thinking about what it is I like about them and what it would take to introduce them into the group without diluting our concept. I’ve done that quite a lot over the years.
CC Like the introduction of electric guitar on the records?
TB No, more like the way I might use a pointillist style of improvising, constantly changing what I might do with, say, certain European people I play with, and working on how to bring that into The Necks if it becomes cyclic. Or where pointillist things transform from single events that don’t repeat, to a texture that is in and of itself. In a track like “Mosquito,” we take what might have been an overdub as a background texture. That abstract pointillist thing became the first thing we based the piece on. Those single events were no longer single events. The groove became a texture and not just random planes. I think about these things a lot, and the concept never dries out or becomes the same because of that.
CC Do you have any punitive measures in place, or do you gang up on a band member if they fuck up the piece?
TB Fucking up a piece is a pretty subjective thing.
CA It’s difficult. You need to be in collusion with the sound person, to a large extent…
CC …to get a quorum.
CA Having said that, there’s an organ in the UK with an ophicleide stop on it—the loudest in the world—and should I choose to use it…
LS I think The Necks is the living embodiment of moral relativism. There’s just no “bad.”
CC Can we go backward a little? What music did you first recognize as subversive, and what band posters did you have on your walls or school folders as teenagers? When did you realize that you were attracted to music that subverted whatever the hell was normal at the time?
LS For me it was heavy metal. Mid-’70s heavy metal was sort of baroque, flamboyant.
TB First generation, really?
LS Well, yeah. Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, Purple—they were kind of, after basic happy pop music, my first love. That was my first subversive music. It didn’t last.
CC Nods to Sabbath bass lines in The Necks?
LS No, though I do occasionally put on a Led Zeppelin record. Then it was free jazz: Coltrane, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Monk…
CC Were you just moved by the sound, or did you recognise that “this is messing with something that I see as perhaps problematic or dominant”?
LS All those terms should be taken with a grain of salt, because these artists were exciting! Whether it was out-and-out transgressive is another matter. I didn’t sign up for the counterculture in any big way, but yeah, I was excited by the openness of the free jazz of the ’60s.
CA I was really into Zappa—live at the Fillmore, for instance. And like a lot of people, my first “Wow, this is great” in pop music was the Beatles. It was unavoidable, really. But when I started getting into ’60s jazz, I did see it as a subversive thing—no one else I knew at school had even heard of it, so I guess I felt I was listening to what’s considered to be really serious “adult,” in the mature sense, music. I don’t know if that’s a radical thing. And certainly none of my parents were into it. They didn’t like it at all.
LS That helps.
CA That sort of modern jazz and finding people in Sydney that played it, passionately, and that there was a scene in the mid-to-late ’70s… I’d go to see people like Bernie McGann or Phil Treloar or Mark Simmons, people who really seemed to be into it.
LS They played it with authority.
CA That was exciting to see. There wasn’t this sort of showbiz I associated with the music I was into as a teenager—Pink Floyd, Yes…
CA Yeah, a little bit. It’s not unusual with most youth culture. I think I towed the line up until I heard Miles Davis, then it took me away out of my geographical and social position. It was separate from my daily experience.
TB What about the sounds? And apart from being radical from your perspective in your daily life, were you aware this free music was being made from a political and artistic perspective that was somehow revolutionary? Did that play into your attraction—that they were the underdogs or revolutionaries?
CA Well, yeah—people like Archie Shepp or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. There was definitely a big element of that. As a young person, I found that exciting. It’s possibly not something that you found that much in rock music overtly—a particular human rights or civil rights movement.
TB I’m asking because the romance of that, or the idea that it existed, also fed into my attraction to that music—as well as the: “I’m into this, and no one else is.”
CA Well, I liked the music as well.
TB Apart from that, it was the energy.
CC At any point, in seeking relationships with people you played with, did the thrills from subverting an agenda or form come from, perhaps, this teen attraction to messing with what everyone was used to?
CA I have to say, there’s a kind of journey that I, in particular, ended up taking. It did suddenly dawn on me that I wasn’t John Coltrane. You suddenly realize that you’re growing up in a middle-class, suburban environment, and you can only go so far as to relate to that music. There comes a point where, for me anyway, I just thought I needed to look outside of that. I accepted such music as brilliant, as wonderful, but I got more into the local music that was coming out of Sydney. It’s a natural trajectory to idolize people, and feel that there’s a possibility that they can act as models to progress toward. Then you realize you have to find yourself instead. I’m not a product of the situation that led to Archie Shepp or Pharoah Sanders or John Coltrane—as much as I love their music.
CC That’s interesting if you’re talking about what hybrid or mutated results can occur from trying to emulate something that you’re not—coming back to earlier, when you said you were excited about other groups trying to play like The Necks.
CA That’s a different thing, though, to thinking that you can be in the same context as your idols. If you’re knowingly saying, “Yeah, Joseph Bonner’s piano playing is beautiful, and I’d love to be able to play like that,” and you know you’re imitating it, or your going to use it, rather that not understanding that, or being unaware of that… That’s a very different thing all together.
TB There’s also the lesson you get from this music, rather than trying to play like it. You’re attracted to a lot of the aesthetics and also the political reasons why they made it, so you say, “Okay, I’m drawn to playing this revolutionary, black, American free jazz, but okay, I’m growing up in Australia.” This is culturally really weird. Their playing is related to their culture and situation, but you’re inspired by finding them—because that’s their reaction to their situation. So, you look at your situation, and ask yourself, “What is my reaction, to make an equally personal music, that’s free music, expressing myself?” You’re not inspired by that model to copy it, but instead to find your own voice and new, original way of playing.
CC Do you remember the moment you realized you weren’t Tony Williams?
TB I don’t think I ever felt the way Chris was explaining in his response. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a black American jazz musician. Apart from really enjoying it, and finding it exciting and beautiful, I felt it was a good thing to study. There was a lot to learn. But I don’t think I ever wanted to emulate it all the way. I was finding my voice, using some of those tools.
CC As Australians interested in music that emerged from the Civil Rights movement, recognizing you were drawn to that energy, but not being musicians for explicitly political reasons, just what statements were you making? Coming from an Australian context with such a dark history of genocide and cover-ups, we came into music from a position of privilege, as opposed to one of disadvantage and exploitation. I would assume a lot of Australian improvisers are not tied to a political, social response. Since grappling with that question—“What is my voice?”—have you found a line between the attraction to those transgressive or revolutionary musics and being Australian?
CA That’s a difficult question.
LS I think our isolation made that music even more attractive. In some ways, it was like picking the most left-field thing we could.
CA Back when we were really passionately getting into music, most came by record, by vinyl, and was so much more difficult to get—not just in expense, but some records just weren’t available here. When all you’ve got to go on is this piece of black vinyl that has this weird inscription on it, all sorts of imaginary things can come into play. I recall thinking Sun Ra was basically this purely high modernist expression, coming from a particular tradition that he wasn’t. I didn’t understand the context or how it was made. All I understood was the surface aesthetic, and possibly thought of it in the same way I would have a Stockhausen record—again, a product of the tradition that he wasn’t the product of. I was fortunate enough to see Sun Ra play once, but even in that one performance, suddenly what I’ve listened to for the year previous took on a whole new meaning. I understood how much theatricality and humor I hadn’t heard on just the record. That’s not to say it’s not a powerful thing, but it’s very easy to deify things and make them more metaphysical when you’re not involved in the social scene that creates these products. But this idea of being passionate about a particular aesthetic or method, seemingly dogmatic or whatever, has to a large extent broken down now. When I was younger someone who listened to Keith Jarret would be ridiculed by someone who listened to Thelonious Monk, which would be ridiculous now.
TB Imagining things onto that abstract object of the record, hearing the sound and imagining not only where it came from culturally, politically, or aesthetically, there’s also how they played it. Technically, as an instrumentalist, if you don’t get to see the people playing, you just imagine it. Sometimes, when learning an instrument you might come up with different ways to emulate a sound or technique, then you see that person perform and it’s really different.
CC So, our geographic isolation is an opportunity. Only the lucky get to move around with music, but those imaginings and mistranslations, mishearings and misinterpretations, create a unique music here in Australia.
CA Yeah! I’m not making a pejorative remark. I just think it’s equally powerful to try and bring it into the Australian social context. There has to be a social music.
TB The thing with interpretations, learning things differently, and doing your version is that it ends up mutating into different things. And that’s really healthy. Australia was probably like that more when we were coming up than it is now. Now, you can see people playing, whether it’s live or on videos. I remember Lloyd once going to see the Thelonious Monk film, all of a sudden things dropped into place because of seeing the physicality of this playing. He said “Wow, now that makes sense,” even from an ergonomic perspective.
LS I was lucky to hear Monk very early, before I heard most jazz… but still, seeing how he played the piano was an amazing penny drop.
CC The three of you have played with hundreds of other musicians in perhaps hundreds of diverse musical projects. When you have collaborated with guests, Evan Parker for example, are you concerned that your concept will be diluted in any sense, or that the extra person might just be a decoration on a Necks cake?
CA There’s always a dialectic between The Necks, and then there’s Tony, Chris, and Lloyd. Questions of “Would The Necks do this?” are fair enough, but it’s kind of a breathing, porous thing. We do a certain thing, but outside of that, personally, I want to play as much and in as many different contexts as I can. The Necks has always been a kind of subconscious, where one thing leads to another, and it just keeps going, rolls on of its own volition. And that’s probably my overall philosophy of music, therefore I’d like to do another project with someone that rolls on of its own volition in a direction that’s not the same. One of the philosophies of the group is to be open to that, which is probably why it’s still going.
TB We’ve always done everything ourselves. We don’t have a manager. We started a record company. We don’t tour with a touring agent. We make all our own records. We just do it ourselves, like a cottage industry—keeping it between the three of us. It’s the relationship between the three of us as this entity. It’s simple.
CC Lloyd includes grand press quotes in the promotional material for The Necks. Even in the way he back-announces the band, he brings a formality and perhaps a celebration of the band from within the band that I have not seen in any of either of your non-Necks projects. I wonder how contagious his professional formal enthusiasm is, and if it has propelled the band into the sphere it’s now in?
TB Lloyd does the stuff that I can’t imagine Chris and I doing to the same degree. But there are things we bring to it, too, I would hope. It’s interesting and un-talked about—this tacit aesthetic or musical structural way, where we just have this thing that we’ve agreed on somehow. The functions we fulfil seem to have also come about organically, made themselves known without having to talk about them.
CC From the musical all the way through to the functional?
TB Yeah, and the career of the band and how it operates musically is sort of a macro-micro kind of thing.
CA Maybe there’s an inevitability about that. The way something conducts itself in the real world, there’s a fractal inherent in the music as well. There’s a spirit within both, and they have to be…
TB …in concert…
CA …or of the same substance.
The Necks will perform March 24–25, 2016, alongside composers Alvin Curran and Arnold Dreyblatt, at The Whitney Museum of American Art.
Clare Cooper is a harpist, festival organizer, and designer. She has been an active member of the Australian arts community since she co-founded the NOW now festival and experimental music series in 2001. Cooper’s research into amplifying context, futuring, and design fictions play out across her live performances, scores, and community projects. Among a bunch of other bands, she co-founded Splinter Orchestra (Sydney), Splitter Orchester (Berlin), Smack/Bang Live Film Soundtracks Festival, and most recently **Frontyard**—the only dedicated arts futuring space in the southern hemisphere.