One thing the Necks never have to cope with is audience members shouting out requests. Their fans across the globe understand their recorded works were all one-off improvisations, never to be replicated; that every concert is a new adventure. The band has suffered the odd heckler, however, with one gentleman storming towards the stage at a Brighton show in the UK shouting, “That was rubbish! That was not music!” Thankfully there was someone else in the audience to call out, “Well, what were you expecting? Gracie Fields?”
Their music is not only distinctly unlike Gracie’s, it is unlike anyone else’s, too. Some achievement. They are back in Brighton when I speak to bassist Lloyd Swanton who, with pianist Chris Abrahams and drummer Tony Buck, is now celebrating 30 years of crafting those trademark hypnotic improvisations; 30 years in which they moved from Sydney clubs to world tours, their mutual musical trust deepening all the while.
This is trust like acrobats must have for each other, there being no safety-net of predetermined material as they launch into their slowly evolving improvisations. “It’s a really simple framework, actually,” says Swanton, “but it’s a case of – I almost sound like a sports coach here – ‘stick to the game-plan’.”
That game-plan is to wait in silence on stage until one of them – also never predetermined – starts playing. “I’m not sure who suggested that in the initial workshopping phase of the band,” Swanton says, “but I think it was a stroke of genius, so I hope it was me! It just has this way of winnowing out any distractions.”
The other two members join piecemeal, and the course is set for the next 45-60 minutes. “Over the years we’ve all developed internal clocks that just allow us to have a reasonable instinct for when things need to change and when things are actually in a really nice holding pattern,” says Swanton. “It’s the answers to those options being constantly offered to you that makes the Necks sound like the Necks.”
Initially they intended to keep these improvisations private, and each step since then has gradually expanded the group’s ambit. “First to performing in public,” Swanton says, “then to going on tour, recording an album, doing a live album, touring overseas, and then even once we’d broached all of those in a very gradual fashion there was the question of how many dates we could string together without wanting to tear each other’s throats out! It has been said that the approach to the band’s career is a little bit like a large rendition of our music, which is very, very gradual. They’re intertwined in a way.”
Although they have enjoyed some successful collaborations (including with Brian Eno), ultimately the Necks by themselves have seemingly limitless potential. “What I love about this group is the sheer random element of it means that it won’t be the same every night, even if were trying to do that,” says Swanton. “Also all three of us are very dedicated to keeping each other interested. It is a game in a way, and we want to provide stimulating material for the others to work with.
“But I always say that the irony about the band is that is that it’s come so far and done so well, and yet we had no ambition for it whatsoever. And I think there’s something to be said for that. It’s that old thing about if you just relax and let things happen…”
That, too, is like their music-making.
Three Must-Have Necks Albums
1 Sex. 1989. Of course the title was a masterstroke, but this first opus also established that the Necks in the studio would be a different beast to the band live. Its success bankrolled future efforts.
2 Aether. 2001. Twelve years later they were masters of using the studio and of slow-build patience, creating a prolonged, shimmering eeriness.
3 Townsville. 2007. As good a recorded example of what the Necks do live as exists. They already knew it was worthy of release when they walked off stage after this one.