May was an amazing month for live improvised music in London, with three contrasting events highlighting the range and diversity of the music. Over the holiday weekend at the start of the month, the third annual Freedom of the City
festival was a showcase for the home-grown style of free improvisation, with the London Improvisers Orchestra providing one its of many high spots. Steve Beresford is one of the orchestra's leading lights and regular conductors, specialising in concerto pieces. As he has observed (when writing about Cranc) "Free improvisations are always, if they are any good, liable to capsize. But that capsizing potential is what makes free improvisation the genuine theatre that it is, a real time drama where people don't pretend." A new release on Emanem, from last year's Freedom of the City festival, The Gathering for John Stevens
is another fine example of this. As its centrepiece, it features three John Stevens vocal pieces, performed by an ensemble led by Maggie Nicols. As the pieces demonstrate, the late lamented Stevens was certainly no stranger to the risk of capsizing, nor is Nicols herself.
On May 14th and 15th, The Necks played two nights at Pizza Express. The Australian trio's music is all improvised, but its slowly-evolving, sensually-textured dynamic is in complete contrast to the music produced on the London scene. On the afternoon before the first show, I talked to The Necks, bassist Lloyd Swanton, drummer Tony Buck and pianist Chris Abraham, about this and other matters. The interview is below.
When the Midnight Sun tour arrived in London on May 28th, we were presented with another contrasting take on improvisation in the guise of Supersilent. The Norwegian quartet - Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) on electronics, Stale Storlokken on keyboards, Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Jarle Vespestad on drums - only meet to play concerts or to record; they don't rehearse or discuss their music. Their music makes heavy use of electronics, notably treatments and delay of Henriksen's trumpet. (A brief solo set from Henriksen - during which he single-handedly built a multiphonic, layered tapestry of sound, left one craving a much longer feature.) As with much improvised music, its direction is unpredictable; at the gig, Supersilent produced an adrenalin-charged noise storm that owed much to rock music. (At times I was reminded of late sixties Soft Machine) This contrasted dramatically with the more subdued, atmospheric mood of their latest CD release, Supersilent 6 (Rune Grammofon), one of the year's best so far.
Three versions of improvised music, all very different, all very good. Lucky us!
Interview with The Necks
All About Jazz: For a gig like tonight, what preparation do you do, if any?
Lloyd Stanton: A good night's sleep. It is completely improvised, so there is nothing to talk about.
AAJ: So when you go on stage, what happens happens. It is totally improvised.
Tony Buck: Whoever starts first, whoever gets the idea, kind of sets the agenda a bit for what's going to happen, but it is kind of good not to know. Having said that, we do go on with fifteen years of preparation.
LS: It will always sound like The Necks. We are not reinventing the wheel every night. Certainly we get into some familiar areas. But if that starts happening too much, we get bored with it and one or all of us will start pushing it in another direction, without having to say anything. It is just clear that, "We are not going to go there tonight, we are going to do something a bit different."
TB: We are always pushing the envelope, adding different approaches or techniques, timbres and stuff. We all do so many different things outside of this project that there is plenty of source material to be applied within that template or framework that is The Necks modus operandi.
LS: I feel that some of my other involvements are falling by the wayside over the last few years, as this band has been increasingly time-consuming. Certainly, it is not just other bands we play in; just the listening we do is always informing the direction of the music. I am certainly listening to different things now to what I was sixteen years ago, when the band started. I'm sure the other guys are the same.
Chris Abrahams: Yes. We're the same.
LS: We do have a framework, an approach, that doesn't depend on the material we use or specifics about music, even the style of music, in a way. It is just a framework into which to place all these different things. We don't dilute the concept at all, but it is really open to anything. There are infinite possibilities to add different approaches.
AAJ: But you only need to hear a few seconds to know it is The Necks. How do you explain that?
LS: I think to some extent the patient approach we have of not trying to force the music. The actual rate of change is very distinctive of The Necks. I think that does dictate the way things sound. We generally work with repeated motifs. Less so lately, we have been getting a little bit more rhapsodic in some of our improvisations. But they are a couple of elements, the rate of change and the repetition. And we have all developed a particular sound on our instrument, which may together combine to make a unique sound.
CA: It was always like that. We sounded like The Necks when we first started playing together. It hasn't changed a great deal.
AAJ: It sounds like it emerged fully formed when you first played together. Is that really how it was?
LS: It more or less did. We talked on the phone about some ideas we wanted to pursue, did some experimental playing together in private and it was pretty much happening straight away. When we started, we had no intention of it being a public band; it was just something we were doing for our own enjoyment. I think our method had very pure musical reasons. We got into world domination later.
AAJ: Did you know it would work before you got together?
CA: We played a lot together before The Necks. Lloyd and I played together in The Benders. (We played a season at Ronnie Scott's in 1985.) And we'd played with Tony a lot beforehand as well. So we knew how each other sort of played before we formed the band. But what we wanted to do was very conceptually based. I don't think we would have done it with any other drummer apart from Tony. This was going to be the band, and we knew these were the people we wanted in it. If one of us were to leave, that would be the end of it. I can't see us getting a replacement.
TB: We got the idea from different conversations and ideas that we expressed to each other at the time, while being involved in all these other different projects, that we were having similar frustrations or similar ambitions in musical terms.
LS: Sixteen years ago, we were all much more involved in the modern jazz scene. It has taken on a life of its own now, to the extent that we sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with being listed on the jazz chart. I know a lot of people hearing it wouldn't think of it as jazz. But I think you can trace it back step by step, and definitely there is no clear break anywhere in the link; it does actually go back to jazz originally, but...
TB: Music's about what it sounds like. In a way, The Necks sound like jazz but it's not really jazz to me; it just sounds like it.
CA: I don't think we have any problem being called a jazz band. Except we do sometimes feel that people who are very much into modern jazz and a tradition of soloists and rhythm section and ideas of virtuosity - the individual pitted against a rhythm section in the background - would be sort of disappointed. We feel that people who are more into that sort of thing, we don?t provide them with the kind of entertainment they are after. So the term "jazz" may be misleading from the audience's point of view.
LS: The modern jazz players in Australia that we have grown up with are all very supportive and enthusiastic about the group. I think some modern jazz musicians who may have read about us and come along would think, "When are they going to start? They've been playing for over an hour now! Where's the head?" But we do have a few fans in the international jazz scene, which is nice. Some people have really clicked with it.
AAJ: You fit the description "beyond category". There is nothing like The Necks. Do you see yourselves in any tradition?
CA: It comes out of jazz, sure. I think the way we go about it and what comes out of the way we go about it are possibly two different things. Sometimes we can sound very much like modern jazz or sometimes we play things that people can hear as reggae or soul influenced or European improvisation. All these kinds of things we are capable of producing out of the method that we approach. So, in a sense, we can do a lot of different things. In terms of being in one particular genre or tradition, it is quite hard to say really, the way we go about it. We go about it very simply. There are a lot of non-Western ideas of playing music that we tap into - not necessarily known to us. There is a very ecstatic dimension to the way we play. We all get lost in the music. We don?t tend to think about it or talk about traditions of music as such except that we subconsciously bring whatever we have been listening to.
LS: It is impossible for us to be objective about our own playing. If it is the case that there are few parallels then I'd find that very inspiring, and I would think that others would too. We are just three ordinary Joes. We are not tortured geniuses. I have been reading a biography of Hector Berlioz; there is a man given to extreme emotions on a day-to-day basis. I think it is really encouraging if we have come to a music that people are really connecting with and are saying, "I've not heard anything like that. I can't put my finger on where it's coming from but I really like it." That is great because it does show that ordinary people can still do those things.
TB: If you think about the elements that make up a style of music, say the nature of riffs or chords or repetitive patterns that make up a style like soul music, if we played that for eight bars, you'd say these guys are playing soul music. But if we play it for twenty-eight minutes then it's The Necks. If we play a very smooth jazz in a Miles Davis kind of way, but then differ the duration, then that is one thing that makes it quite Necksy. (Necksy?) There are certain touches on our instruments that are quite original. You can tell it is us playing which also adds to the sound, the weight of Chris's touch on the piano, or the way that I use cymbals, the timbre of the bass. That also contributes to The Necks thing.
AAJ: Yes, Chris's solo album sounds like The Necks without bass and drums, instantly recognisable.
LS:As far as the modus operandi goes, I wonder if the closest parallel is a bunch of people jamming in the back room at a party, those endless tunes where you go away and stand out on the terrace, come back in half an hour and they haven't stopped playing the piece they were playing but it has evolved into something else.
TB: One decision we made was about keeping at it and not trying to push it anywhere. I think a band like The Doors is a much more applicable to our way of approaching music than Charlie Parker is. (pause) Unfortunately. (laughs)
AAJ: At home, I have your stuff filed with minimalists like La Monte Young, which is partly to do with the duration of stuff and the slow evolution?
CA: ... and the experimental nature of it is something we haven't touched on here, but - particularly live - part of what we are doing is trying to work against the generally conceived sounds that an instrument like piano or double bass should make. We try to work against the role of that, without going into electronics, synthesisers, sequencers or whatever. We are all influenced by using that technology. We all use that technology outside of The Necks. But The Necks is a way of relating to that technology in an acoustic sense.
TB: Also I think there is a hidden influence of that technology in the way we make records. Even if we are not using samplers or whatever, when we make a record we sculpt it in a way that it is informed by the traditions of dub reggae, or even using a twenty four track tape like a sampler?
CA: In some ways La Monte Young or Gordon Monahan or people who were experimenting with different timbres out of acoustic instruments, at the time when they were doing that, at the height, people would say, "Well, I've never heard anything that sounds like that." but the next generation responded by saying that it sounds like a synthesiser. In a sense, that is similar; we are a generation removed from that. Rather than have nothing to compare it to, people have a technology to compare it to, which we are playing around with.
AAJ: You said that you are listening to different stuff now. What are you all listening to at the moment that is forming the future sound of The Necks?
LS: No one thing springs to mind. I find that I chew through an awful lot of music. I do a radio show once a week [ Mixed Marriage on Eastside Radio in Sydney] for two hours. Stuff flies by my ears there and I often don't have time to go back; a lot of the stuff is just in the library and there is little opportunity to hear it except when you're playing it on air. I find the sounds around me, through being a musician, are constantly rinsing through me and leaving a residue. So there is no one artist that I would say has opened me up that I hadn't heard sixteen years ago. At the time when the band started, dub reggae was looming pretty large for all of us and the time aspects of that, the concept of getting lost in time and lost in space, was what we really keyed into.
CA: We have played quite a lot in Europe over the last five years. I have started listening more to new European improvisers and electronic music. There are people in Australia that are very interesting, like Tim Alderman, an electronic musician who I think is very inspiring. And I really like that Fennesz and Polwechsel album [ Wrapped Islands (Erstwhile Records)]. I think that is really beautiful. And people like Radian [http://www.radian.at/]. That is the latest kind of music I have come to, from listening to reggae and jazz music.
LS: We also, of necessity, have to listen to a lot of our own stuff. It is all so bloody long. We are constantly discussing what we want to release and what we want to mix and so on. And there are only twenty-four hours in a day?
AAJ: So you record everything, every gig?
LS: Yes. We have done for quite some time now. Who's got time to listen to it all? The four disc live set [ Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab (Fish of Milk)] was distilled down from a shortlist of about thirty pieces that we had started looking at over a year before the album came out. We gradually whittled it down to a shortlist. That is thirty or so pieces from maybe another hundred and fifty or two hundred that we haven't really looked at yet.
AAJ: You've got your own website and you do your own selling. Is there the Necks equivalent of Deadheads, dedicated fans?
LS: As far as we know, no one has set up a Necks website. We don't actually have a fan club?
TB: There are a couple of independent radio stations, student radio stations, in Australia that have annual Neckathons, midnight to dawn playing all the albums. That's pretty strange! (laughs)
LS: We're not in the Grateful Dead league, but with e-mail and so on, we get a lot of feedback from the fans.
AAJ: In that respect, you are very accessible. I have e-mailed you a couple of times and I was astonished to get a personal response the same day. That is practically unheard of!
LS: That's the time difference! Sooner or later, we may have to get someone in to handle all of that. We run our own record label, and it has worked out really well. The bottom line is that you just get a much bigger chunk of the pie. You don't have to sell nearly as many as if you were signed to a big label.
AAJ: The reason I started off on the Deadhead route was because of the multiple disc live set. If you have an archive of live stuff, presumably there would be a market of people wanting that, like Dick's Picks? If, say, you put out a ten-disc set.
LS: We have been discussing that and maybe the Internet is the way to go. Even the four-disc set, because of the bulkiness it is just not practical to take too many of those on tour. Yes, there will have to be some way of making them available through channels other than traditional releases. I'm not sure how that will happen yet. There are a few that I'm sure we wouldn't want anyone to hear!
AAJ: Your first album was called Sex. Why that title?
TB: It just sounded like it.
LS: That was a working title in the absence of anything else. I am pretty sure the engineer was just marking the tape off and asked us what we were calling it, and one of us said to call it Sex. It just stuck. That is possibly our simplest, most unchanging album, from 1989. It does sometimes occur to us that someone who'd come along and heard some physical outpourings might wonder if they had got the right band. As I said before, the modus operandi hasn't really changed but some of the textures we are coming up with now are very different to Sex. It is actually our most popular album.
AAJ: Related to that, what are your audiences like? Particularly, what is the gender balance of your audience?
LS: It is about fifty-fifty in Australia. On the continent, at least, it seems to be a lot more blokes, say 80%.
TB: Which may be because we tend to do improvised music festivals.
LS: We are rather groovier in Australia. It is the sort of thing for rock and pop fans to go along to when they want to see something they haven?t seen all year, without feeling intimidated. In the UK the balance is more fifty-fifty.
AAJ: Your music is all improvised. The London improvising scene is like chalk and cheese compared to your music ? people like Evan Parker, for instance. In London, improvising generally means playing without memory, with no hint of repetition or anything.
TB: I live in Berlin, and I play a lot with people like Burkhard Beins, John Butcher, and they are quite supportive of us. I remember Burkhard or somebody saying to me, "Great idea. I wish I'd thought of it. It's really so simple." It is just another approach and people have respect for that. I think the timbres we use are influenced by them but also they get stuff out of it. I've never talked to someone like Eddie Prevost about it. I know his ideas on repetitive rhythms and their socio-political implications. But at the same time I think he might appreciate the slowly changing timbres, the Rothkoesque tableaux we set up sometimes. It is not totally foreign. I don't think they look on us like Martians.
LS: Some who are very dogmatic might consider that to have any system of commencing a piece, which is what we do rather than all playing at once, is too much pushing it into a box. But if they do think that, they can hear that is simply a mechanism for getting things going and bringing some ordering to it. A lot of the stuff we are coming out with is textbook free improvisation.
TB: Someone might say because it is structured it is not improvisation. It might not be free improvisation. But that would be like saying that Indian musicians don't improvise. They have a basic framework and structure and they improvise within that. We are much the same.
AAJ: Could you foresee a situation where you might collaborate with any of the players we have been talking about, like Burkhard or John Butcher? Is there a situation where that would work?
TB: We have recorded with guests. I can imagine, for instance, recording with Axel [Dorner] with whom I have worked. We have never talked about it. Andy Moore, from The Ex, has expressed a real interest in playing with us, which would be better in the studio.
LS: And yet, there is also something very balanced about what we've got between the three of us. There are that many permutations that it is exciting without being completely out of control. If you start introducing too many people, there are the possibilities of losing a bit of...
TB: We are pretty reticent about diluting this or doing projects outside of it. If we did, it would be a special thing for some reason specific to our relation to that person or their approach.
AAJ: What happens next, projecting five years on? Is it slow evolution?
LS: Yes. A lot of it is stepping stones, particularly with our album releases. Each album is a slightly different aesthetic from the previous one. We've got a few new recordings in the can that we'll gradually release onto the market. We'll probably get some bright ideas in that time. By the time we have released that backlog, we'll probably be ready to try something else again too. I am sure we could go into the studio again tomorrow and do another couple of albums that would be something else different again.
TB: The career of The Necks is much like the music. We kind of set it going but it troops off on its course and the best thing we can do is to keep out of its way.
AAJ: Why is your label called Fish of Milk?
LS: You really want to know? My flatmate had a gravy boat in the shape of a fish; you held it by the tail to pour. We used to use it as a milk jug. For some reason, within the household, we used to call it fish of milk, not the fish of milk or the milk fish. I suggested it to the other guys as a name for the label. It is much the same as the name The Necks, which had no significance of any kind. That was what we liked about it. We were fairly confident that there wouldn't already be a record label called Fish of Milk, that those words had not been put in that order before.
AAJ: So it was an actual thing. How mundane.
LS: Then we gave it to a graphic artist and said to do some groovy lettering. He misunderstood and thought we wanted an actual logo, and came back a few weeks later and showed us the logo in the shape of a sperm cell. So we said, "Fine." It certainly wasn't what we were thinking of at the time.
CA: For the name, we each went away and thought of about thirty names. One of mine was The Necks. It just seemed to click. It wasn't originally meant to mean anything but since then people have imbued it with various meanings, the connection point between the brain and the body, the mind and the physical.
LS: At the time we were going to be very formal in our approach and I thought that The Dogs would be a really good name for us, for a band that in every other respect was very formal. I rang up Chris and said I had a great idea for the name of the band. He said, "Yes, so do I, The Necks." So I said, "OK. Fine." I never got a chance to suggest The Dogs.
TB: Would we still be here if we'd been called The Dogs?!
Distribution of The Necks CDs is patchy, around the world. The quickest, easiest way to get them is directly from The Necks themselves by mail order at: http://www.thenecks.com/pages/cds.html
Photosynthetic, 2003 (CDLA)
Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab, 2002
Hanging Gardens, 1999
Piano Bass Drums, 1998
Music for the feature film ?The Boys?, 1998 (Wild Sound/MDS)
Silent Night, 1996
(All on Fish of Milk, except where indicated.)
Next month: Rhodri Davies interview