Amplified by the power of three

Oliver Downes: interview with Chris Abrahams, The Necks

Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams, The Necks

Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams, The Necks

Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams, The Necks

Over a 25-year career of music making, The Necks have become renowned for live performances that leave audiences mesmerised and dazed. Although their simple, repetitive aesthetic seems to straddle the minimalism of Steve Reich and the lush musical narratives of groups such as The Cinematic Orchestra, as well as the rhythmic explorations of free jazz, the long-form improvisations that account for the majority of the trio’s work, while often quite tonal, tend to engage with a distinct set of preoccupations: the unfolding expressive possibilities of timbre and texture over extended stretches of time.

The group’s formation in the late 80s came about partly in reaction to what pianist Chris Abrahams describes as the “modern jazz style [where] there’s a melody and everyone takes a solo and you’d impress the audience with your chops.” Although all three musicians have continued to pursue other musical interests, whether with jazz luminaries The catholics (bassist Lloyd Swanton), avant-industrial outfit Peril (drummer Tony Buck) or Abrahams’ solo and session work and collaborations with Melanie Oxley, The Necks, which has only ever existed part-time, has provided its three members with a contrasting vehicle to create a collective music in which “there was no leader, no ego…[rather] the three of us making a sound world together, [with] no piano solos, drum solos and not dazzling people with how great we were as individual musicians.”

From these principles has arisen a form of improvisation in which each member submits to the flow of music as it is created, listening intently to the others to allow the particular trajectory being sculpted to emerge. Abrahams’ idea of an ‘off-night’ is “when I’m [consciously] thinking of where the music should go…I’m not saying that our way is better, but the main thing [is] to let the music itself inform us as to what direction it’s going, as it’s being played. To enable the performer to also be an interactive listener, to use [our] interpretation [of the music] to continue the piece wherever it does go—and for that direction to be a result of the interaction between the three of us, the acoustic quality of the space, the acoustic qualities of the instruments, the PA and the context [in which] we find ourselves.”

This intense attention that the music seems to demand sometimes provokes “feelings of annoyance and frustration and anger” in first-time listeners, according to Abrahams, before they “relinquish [their] preconceptions as they realise that we mean to be doing what we’re doing. [People] tend to simplify things, likeness is thought of as being the same. And we [the band] tend to do this as well, hear the music as repeating the same thing; but of course we can’t be doing that because we’re not machines. Every small difference that we make is amplified by the power of three… I’ll be playing and hearing that a certain note on the piano is bouncing off the wall in a weird way. I won’t analyse it like that, I’ll just hear that suddenly the piano is sounding strange and that’s what I’ll go towards, the piece will go in the direction of that. The repetitious line of what we do, which I think enables listeners to get mesmerised, allows us to move the whole thing almost surreptitiously—I know there’s a movement towards something and that’s what makes it compelling.”

The Necks

The Necks

The Necks

This quality is readily apparent on their most recent recorded offering, Open, a sparse work of bare percussion, tinkling chimes and gentle pianistic gesture. Recorded over a 10-day period at Sydney’s 301 Studios, the material gathered in that time came to be arranged in reference to a recording made by Tony Buck of a monochord, a droning stringed instrument tuned to one open pair of notes. “I’m not sure at what point we decided to start with the monochord,” says Abrahams. “We walked into the studio and the only thing we thought of was that we wanted to make something sparse…We didn’t want it to build too much, we wanted it to flow through a number of different scenes rather than a teleological build-up of crescendos—that was the main brief.”

Open does indeed swell and contract over the course of its 68 minutes, providing in vivid terms what Abrahams calls an “abstract narrative.” The sitar-like rippling of the monochord is answered with harmonically static, yet richly expressive arpeggiated sevenths and pentatonic figures in the piano. At times the texture thins to a trickle, Buck dancing around a snare pattern that more implies than articulates a beat and Lloyd Swanton engaging in rhythmic dialogue with precisely placed single-note thrums. Then it expands into a rushing tributary, Buck building thick, shimmering fields of cymbal and gong over the sustained oscillations of Abrahams’ Hammond, before calming once more, the recurring motif of the monochord providing a foil and unifying device for the piece as a whole.

Although distinct from their live practice, in that motifs are rehearsed, over-dubbed and arranged in the mixing process, the recording is redolent with a fascination for the tactile possibilities of sound. “I think The Necks’ [music] is very physical,” says Abrahams. “The name comes into play there. The neck is almost this characterless functional thing—I’ve never alluded to what the name means and I don’t mean to suggest that that’s why we came up with it, but when you look back over the 25 years at the way the group has progressed, [you see] how like the music many things about the group are. The way we’ve gone about the ‘career,’ how we’ve had no organisation except to play concerts and how we’ve never really pushed things. We didn’t have a gameplan, we’ve never had a manager, we’ve never looked for more than what the next tour is going to be. That’s partly why the band is still together; everything is 33 and a third percent each, the compositions, the income from the gigs—we’ve just allowed things to happen as our pieces do.”


The Necks, Melbourne: 17-19 Feb, Corner Hotel; Newcastle: 20 Feb, Lizottes; Canberra: 22 Feb, Street Theatre; Sydney: 3 Mar, Sydney Opera House; www.thenecks.com

Courtesy of The Necks we have 5 copies of Open to giveaway.

This article first appeared as part of RT Profiler 1, 5 Feb, 2014

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 44

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

5 February 2014