The best band in the world: The Necks.
Another blast from the arse production:
One of the first pieces Gary Steel ever wrote for Metro was this profile on The Necks.
I’M SITTING IN a Japanese café in Paddington, Sydney, cradling cups of green tea. Across the table sit two gentlemen from one of the most extraordinary musical groups I’ve heard in my life, the faintly preposterously nomenclatured The Necks. Lloyd Swanton (bass) has just finished dj-ing his regular radio show of “contaminated jazz” down the road. Next to him sits Kiwi-born pianist Chris Abrahams. The other Neck, drummer Tony buck, lives in Europe.
Swanton and Abrahams will join Buck next month in Europe for their second tour there, where the scene is starting to fizz and froth with the unanticipated rapture of The Necks’ inexplicably gorgeous long-form grooves. The Necks are new to the kind of hyperbole that’s beginning to come their way, but they’re familiar with a form of fanaticism that has followed them throughout their low-key 13 years as a threesome.
Since 1987, the group has released seven amazing albums that sound like nothing else on earth, creating a new kind of non-jazz jazz that places them in a parallel dimension; one where the audience have the opportunity to reassess their listening habits, and the way music travels through their aural digestive tracts. Sometimes consisting of just one 60-minute piece, the music questions the whole notion of time, as it happily takes all the time it needs to find its truly hpynotising non-resolutions. “Time takes time,” as Willie Nelson once said, and the longer a Necks track takes to get where it’s going, the more immersed the dedicated listener becomes.
“Before The Necks we’d been playing a John Coltrane kind of thing, but that reached its end in 1986 when I started getting more interested in other sorts of music, like reggae, soul and African,” says Chris Abrahams, who, like the other Necks, has an extensive CV of jazz, pop, and film soundtrack work behind him. “We all found ‘the jazz solo’ – which we’ve all been inspired by – a bit limiting in this day and age, and so one of the ideas was for all of us not to solo.”
It ended up with these great, repetitive but somehow gorgeously melodic ruminations that completely went against the pointless showbiz tendencies of the faster-than-thou jazz-fusion brigade.
Abrahams: “There’s a tendency amongst jazz musicians to try to achieve an easy form of virtuosity, which, at its worst, is simply a veneer of virtuosity that is really just moving your fingers really fast.”
Swanton: “It’s velocity, not virtuosity.”
Abrahams: “There are things on our records that a six-year-old could play, and I’m proud of that. The difficulty comes in maintaining the repetition.”
Swanton: “I have a huge admiration for stamina, when the music’s wonderful to listen to. A lot of the practice I do with The Necks in mind is simply trying to have enough strength to hold the same note for 15 minutes and not get a cramp. Otherwise nature intervenes and you have to change the contour of the music because you can’t hold on to that note.”
Perhaps the oddest thing about The Necks is that they’ve formulated something so radically new out of the classic jazz trio line-up – piano, bass and drums – and that they’re primarily acoustic, to boot. In a performance context, the group is entirely acoustic.
“We can play anywhere,” says Abrahams. “All we need is an acoustic piano. We don’t need a PA or amplification. It’s almost like busking.”
On record, the sound is subtly embellished with discreet use of samplers, electronics, and Abrahams’ sublime Hammond organ gurglings, and they insist that The Necks on disc and in performance should be viewed as almost two separate entities. Live, a performance consists of two hour-long sets. Two hour-long pieces, that is. “We’re staggered with how people get hypnotized by it,” says Abrahams.
Swanton: “We don’t have crowd problems. There are always enough people who know what we’re on about that if anyone’s making any noise they get told to shut up pretty quickly. Normally, you can hear a pin drop.”
But what defines this strange and beautiful thing called The Necks? Is it the improvisation?
No, says Abrahams. “Essentially, we play the same piece each time we perform, and nobody notices! We have developed a kind of language, but within that, the outcome is unknown. We certainly tend to stay very tonal, and rooted in a rhythmic field, in order to achieve an idea of repetition.
“I just get the feeling that we massage a particular part of the brain. In a way we hark back to the romantic notion of music as a tone poem, except that it’s all very abstract and not linked to any real narrative. But it seems to tap into an enjoyment of time passing. Music is a time-based medium, and a lot of people have ceased listening to music for that, or for any kind of consecutive flow of sound that might mean anything more than a nice melody or ‘I’m really sexy’. So in that sense, The Necks provide something unique.” GARY STEEL
* This story was originally published in the June 2000 issue of Metro.