The Necks: ‘The balance among the three of us is just too perfect’

Few things in life are certain. One of them is that there is no other trio like the Necks in the world. It’s been three decades now that Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck have been constantly redefining the concept of a piano-bass-drums trio and continuously pushing the envelope of collective improvisation with their telepathetic rapport and minimalist approach to composing. Before their concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, they look back at their incredible journey and share the secret of their longevity.

2017 was a particularly busy year for you; what aftertaste did it leave?

Lloyd Swanton: Satisfying and gratifying. We can’t believe how lucky we are, to now be playing this music (for which we had such modest ambitions) to passionate audiences all over the world.

We had some incredible experiences last year. Opening for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, having the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra improvising behind us, playing Madeira and Ukraine for the first time, were just a few of the highlights. I’m sure the other boys will chip in with a few more.

Tony Buck: Nice memories of the gigs in Funkhaus Berlin, in December 2016 and 2017. Feeling like a grand event yet strangely intimate at the same time. Berlin seems to have taken us to their hearts. It also seems we’re always at Cafe Oto in London and the crew there and audience make us feel very much at home. Always a highlight.

What was your new year’s resolution?

LS: I don’t make new year’s resolutions. I make them all through the year, to ensure a constant supply of disappointing failures for me to learn from.

TB: If it’s worth resolving to do at new year, it’s worth resolving when the idea strikes.

What are you going to present at the Melbourne Recital Centre?

LS: Two sets of improvised Neckery.

TB: We can’t predict what it’ll be, but chances are Chris will play piano, Lloyd will play bass and I’ll play drums. Although, you never know…

What should the audience expect from you?

LS: The same thing we’ve done for thirty one years. Basically a game. One of us starts (not pre-determined) with some sort of idea, the other two join in, and, taking our time, we see where that might lead us.

Chris Abrahams: We play long pieces that are usually 45 minutes to an hour in length. We use a multi rhythmic autonomy between the three of us to, hopefully, create music the whole of which is more than the sum of its parts. People have been known to hear all manner of strange sounds – sonic hallucinations conjured by the clashing of frequencies; voices, string sections, synthesisers, ocean waves, smaller lake waves… There is also an abstract, narrative dimension that seems to hook people in; this narrative being the story of one thing leading to another.

What do you expect from the audience?

LS: In the early days our music was completely new to everyone, so maybe we had to win the audience over to some extent. Now we know that, even in a city that is completely new to us, there’ll be a fair quotient in the audience who know our music, so there’s a little less pressure in that regard.

CA: If you expect something from an audience, you run the danger of fashioning something to achieve that expectation, which is not really what we’re about. Having said that, I hope that the audience comes along with us. I hope we can show them why it’s important for humans to make music.

TB: It’s just nice to expect an audience.

Who is your ideal listener?

LS: We’re happy to play to anyone who’s happy to listen to us.

CA: Playing in the Necks taught me the importance of listening to what I’m playing; of being inspired by the music as it’s being made and having this listening influence the course of the unfolding. Making music is not about a one-way broadcast from performer to audience – at least not for me playing in the Necks.

How do you prepare for each performance?

TB: We make sure we get there. Make sure everything is working. Make sure we can hear each other well and the sound is good. Do anything else we have to – march, eat, chill, interviews… Wait till the time we are set to play. Play.

LS: On the day there’s just the usual stuff of making sure the equipment is all in order (we’ve never been less than professional about this, but are now finding, with the increasing demands of our tight scheduling, that we have to be even more fastidious about this stuff, because there’s a lot more riding on it), soundchecking (we don’t know what we’re going to play, of course, so for us it’s a process of playing some typical Necks textures and making sure the room and the PA can deal with it all and not feed back, as well as just getting some sort of taste of the acoustic potential of the space), sorting the merch and setting up the display and talking it through with the staff…

In terms of preparing the music, that’s an ongoing process that happens in our individual practise rooms over the years.

Before we go on stage we’re not sitting there meditating or anything. I think we all just try to be normal.

CA: Another important thing is dealing with the quality and positioning of the instruments – the distance between the drums and piano, the placement of the bass amp… The quality of the piano can have a huge bearing on where I will go during a performance. On the whole, there’s no such thing as a bad piano and what might be in most contexts considered weaknesses can be turned to great advantage. The potential effect of the una corda pedal is something I explore during the sound check – every piano is different here.

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If you were to become a quartet, who would you invite to join you?

LS: I know it’s just a hypothetical, but its unthinkable. The balance among the three of us is just too perfect.

Maybe some sort of performing animal? Tony’s got a gifted cat. Dunno.

TB: Spooky, my cat, tends to excel in more a logistical role – sorting merch, tour liaison, etc.

LS: There is often a fourth member of the band; the space in which we play. This offers us a fresh input we can’t predict till we get out there very often; keeping us both surprised and inspired.

What is it that you most admire about each other?

LS: The way we cover for each others strengths and weaknesses, on stage and off.

CA: I can’t really narrow this down to one thing. There is a huge amount of trust between us. I feel very supported when I’m playing the piano in the Necks. I have a feeling of freedom.

TB: I just really appreciate the fact Chris and Lloyd keep persevering…

What is it that annoys you the most?

TB: Chris and Lloyd keep persevering…

LS: Look, we’re only human…

What is your fondest memory of your time together?

LS: Hard to think of one. But only due to the fact that one of the most sustaining qualities of The Necks is how quickly we forget the highs, because a new high always comes along to replace the current one.

TB: 30 years is a long time. We also spent a lot of time together before that. That’s a lot of memories, some of which we can remember.

How was your first rehearsal as the Necks?

LS: It wasn’t really a rehearsal. More a get-together.

TB: From memory, it was a very pleasant experience.

CA: I actually don’t remember the very first time we played together as the Necks.

What is the secret of longevity?

LS: Not doing anything too stupid. On stage, things can get quite orgiastic, but outside of performing, The Necks is a festival of rectitude.

Giving each other space. Being best friends doesn’t mean being in each other’s faces all the time. And always thinking long-term. People always interpret that phrase in terms of setting five-year goals, and other such control-freakery, but in my case I’d say it means having the attitude that whatever you’re doing, you might be doing it in thirty years time. And seeing that as a good thing.

TB: I think we tend not to push anything too hard, in the sense of forcing things. That applies to the music, the personal relationships, the ambitions of the group. That’s not to say things dont get intense at times – musically, personally, logistically – but never forced or pushed around.

CA: I think another important aspect is that there’s no musical leader; no main composer or lead instrumentalist. Also, If someone doesn’t want to do something, it doesn’t happen. We all respect this.

What keeps you going?

LS: Playing a music that can offer a glimpse of infinity, and the fact that after 31 years, if anything, it’s offering that even more than ever.

CA: Our approach to music making is very open. Whatever the members bring to the group is welcome. We each lead diverse music lives outside of the band and when we come together the things we’ve been doing individually find voice in the overall sound. This is intuitive and encouraged and it means that the sound of the group is changing in ways that keep things interesting. We always sound like the Necks, but we also sound different from tour to tour – in ways that we can’t predict.

TB: Whenever we get together again after a break from touring, I am reminded how great the thing we have is. In so many ways it’s so easy and we all have this intrinsic understanding of what we are doing and how we go about doing it. Playing music with Chris and Lloyd is very much like finding oneself in a very comfortable, trusting and inspiring place. We seem to allow ourselves to enter a space that I don’t find in may other musical situations.

When did you realize that you had created your own sound?

LS: Very early in the piece. After just two or three get-togethers, is my recollection.

CA: When people stay together for as long as we have, an identity emerges. However I think we were all pretty excited by things after the first three or so meetups.

TB: Yes. It seemed to emerge quite naturally and quite quickly when we first decided to see what we might come up with.

Is improvisation a life skill?

LS: I think it’s one key to a good life, although some people around me might say a lifetime of improvising has engendered a fatalism in me that can be more than a little frustrating to work with.

CA: There is an improvising dimension to every undertaking. No set of instructions, no matter how fine the details, can fully cover the human act of carrying something out. It is a means to an end.

TB: You never know what life might throw up to you, so you have to respond the best you can, with what’s at hand, what skills and tools you have a your disposal. This is fundamentally improvising.

What does jazz mean to you?

LS: Jazz is one of the defining loves of my life, though Id be lying if I said I listen to a lot of it right at this point. I’ll surely keep coming back to it, but right now I’m more enjoying environmental sounds – sounds with no deliberate human impulse behind them whatsoever.

TB: It’s a very rich and varied genre of music making – one that deserves to be respected with the greatest of human arts endeavours.

CA: It was while listening to what is generally considered to be modern jazz that I decided to become a musician.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

LS: ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top If Wanna Rock n Roll.

The Necks are currently on tour around Australia

Saturday 03 February –Music By The Sea, Sandgate Town Hall, Sandgate, QLD
Sunday 04 February –Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, NSW

Friday 09 February –Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Saturday 10 February –MONA, Hobart, TAS
Friday 23 February –Music Lounge, Wollongong Town Hall, Wollongong, NSW
Sunday 25 February –Camelot, Marrickville, NSW