To mark the Australian improvisation luminaries announcing European tour dates in April, we get a look at a full-length video of their set in Copenhagen last October and talk to the band's Lloyd Swanton

Next week, The Necks, the Australian trio of Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck, are heading back into the studio to record their 18th record. "We have no more idea what we’re going to do than you do!", bass player Swanton tells us. 

Likewise, this not knowing extends to each other, when the band walk on stage. It’s hard to believe when you’re in the thick of it – eyes closed, head in hands, lost to yourself – but when asked if The Necks ever rehearse parts of their famed live sets in advance Swanton is categorical: "No, never". Of course it’s no surprise that music that is entirely improvised can be intense but The Necks’ uninterrupted hour-long sets are so seamless and un-meandering – ploughing everyone, by un-pin-downable increments, towards some sort of revelation of spirit – that it does seem freakish that it’s all created on the fly. Freakish and magical.

The Quietus have kindly been given a first look at a concert film, courtesy of Danish music web channel Unseen Recordings, shot at the Jazzhouse in Copenhagen in October last year, to mark the band announcing a run of European dates in April – take a look at the foot of the piece. If you’re yet to see them, you really should. The film provides a good inkling of what the live experience is like for those who haven’t; for those who have, it’s a chance to try, and fail, to scrutinise how the trio make it happen every time. In this interview, Swanton refers to the band’s retirement – yes, he was being flippant and no, it’s not happening soon – but it did gave me a strange little throb of panic to think that one day neither I, nor anyone else, will be able to see them play live anymore.

Have you watched the video of the Copenhagen concert? What is it like, watching – or hearing – a Necks performance afterwards?

Lloyd Swanton: I watched and listened to it quickly, while I was doing other things, just to ascertain whether or not it was something we would want publicised. And as it turns out, it is a very nice piece, so we’re happy it was captured so nicely on video.

I’m not very visually-oriented towards music. To me it’s all about the sound. When someone says, "I’ll send you a video of my band" I always think, "Audio would do just fine, thanks".

Are you often faced with disbelief that Necks’ shows are fully improvised? Why do you think people question that?

LS: Frequently. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about music-making processes in general, so I dunno, I guess they think it would have to involve some sort of psychic powers or something. Which of course we don’t have; just an agreement when we first began to work within one or two parameters – so right away, I’ve contradicted myself – we’re NOT fully improvised! – and nearly three decades of doing this together. 

I always say, after so long playing together, we can almost read each other’s minds, but if we could, that would be boring, and it’s the fact that one can never fully know what is going on inside someone else’s head that keeps us so excited by this way of playing, after all these years.

Are shows based around certain themes, motifs or patterns? Or is it more specific than that – do you rehearse specific parts? Perhaps a certain mood you want to evoke?

LS: No, never. There are certain moods and textures that will appear most nights for a while, because they’re fresh in our minds, but eventually we evolve on and leave them behind, and never revisit them. And it’s only ever happenstance; no pre-planning ever.

You’ve been doing this as a trio for 30 years, touring extensively most years. Assuming there’s different things going on for each of you, at different points in your lives, how do you agree on what mood you want to explore? Is there ever any conflict about this?

LS: We certainly don’t discuss tactics beforehand and if something is appearing in the music that one of us doesn’t particularly like, it behoves that person to artfully suggest an alternative as part of the performance. There would have to be a serious, ongoing misunderstanding occurring on stage for one of us to feel we had to talk about it.

What preparation do you do before a show? Do you have any routines that get you into the right headspace, or does that arrive with the music?

LS: We used to have fun punting an empty drink bottle into a garbage bin in the band room. That’s about it. We’re really all about being normal. Only then can the extraordinary happen. We don’t meditate or anything, and don’t require perfect silence backstage, but on the other hand probably don’t appreciate too many people visiting the band room.

Necks’ albums and shows tend to provoke some extraordinary gushing from critics, some poetic, some florid. There is this tendency with instrumental music generally, but especially The Necks. If you read them, what is it like reading reviews that erect entire visual ecosystems around your music?

LS: I always read reviews. Can’t speak for the other guys. But I find the ongoing, decades-long dance between our music, and the public perception of it, to be a very rewarding area to stay in touch with.

As to reviews that "erect entire visual ecosystems around our music" – I’m just chuffed that our music has that effect on people. We have some pretty transcendental experiences as performers in this band, so we don’t judge anyone for reaching for exotic metaphors when describing it. As I said, I don’t relate to music in a very visual way (I think I’m the diametric opposite of a synaesthete!) A lot of times I’m quite taken by the particular turn of phrase, and glad that someone has taken the time to find such fresh terms in which to couch our music. Certainly I’d never be able to conjure such metaphors.

What tends to be the theme of bad reviews?

LS: We’ve had very few, so it’s hard to discern any ongoing themes. Bad album reviews tend to be along the lines of "there’s not much going on here". Fine. We had a hilarious one for Sex – words to the effect that a cure for chronic insomnia has at last been found. 

There was also a review of Drive By, I think, which constantly namechecked a band we hadn’t heard of, saying we weren’t doing anything they hadn’t done years ago. We did an internet search and couldn’t find a single reference to them. (By way of comparison, we found five hits for my uncle, who died in 1945, and eight hits for my mother, who had been busy raising a family since 1952.) So if we were so influenced by this band, we felt we at least deserve a little credit for discovering them!

Bad reviews of our live shows are few and far between, and frankly, they don’t trouble me in the least because we’ve done thousands of concerts over the years to often rapturous response, so I know the overwhelming majority of customers are satisfied, so to speak.

Where it sticks in my craw is where a reviewer seems to have decided in advance to not like us, and when they won’t even acknowledge the warm response of the audience surrounding them. There was one in The Irish Times many years ago, and one of a show in Chicago which I took issue with. Of course they’re only giving their own opinion, but I don’t think it hurts any reviewer’s credibility (which is, after all, their most prized asset) to say "but clearly I was in the minority tonight".

There’s always a long moment of silence after you finish playing. How does that feel onstage? 

LS: Yes, it’s a lovely moment. I don’t like it when the audience starts in too quickly on their applause, much as I appreciate the sentiment of their response. 

But although it is very lovely, on a more prosaic note I have to reveal that that moment is actually pretty standard in the improv scene. I think it’s in many ways simply a consequence of the unknowingness of improv. The audience doesn’t actually know if the piece is finished or not, so they wait. (I joke about the ‘improviser’s slump’ – you always know for sure that an improviser has finished when they drop their erect performing posture and sag a little into themselves.)

Lots of bands talk about how they gain energy from the audience – there’s a give and take. Your sets are one long composition so ostensibly that denies the opportunity for exchange. You must often look out to see people cradling their heads, or with their eyes closed! Does it sometimes feel like it’s all give from you and all take from the crowd? Or are you able to pull energy from a room?

LS: No, we are definitely aware of the audience, and constantly picking up on the vibe. It’s just that it’s on a far subtler level than your average public gathering.

You claim to improvise around the acoustics of a given space. What’s an interesting example of this? Is there any particular room or space you’re looking forward to for your upcoming Euro tour?

LS: Yes, we certainly do, and it’s a big part of what we do. We sound out the room acoustics as we create the piece, so it’s very self-referential. But in a good way, I’m convinced. 

You ask for examples – I hate to disappoint you but in a lot of ways I think the places which have the best acoustic for us aren’t necessarily the sort of places that ordinarily strike people as acoustically special. Y’know, churches, big halls and the like. In a lot of those places, the acoustic is stunning for working with high frequencies. So we can spend a great deal of time exploring those registers. But the moment we move down to lower ranges, like, for example, the middle register of my bass, everything turns to a jumble. Because every time I would make a harmonic change, the old one is still hanging in the air. With high frequencies that’s artful. With low frequencies it’s mud.

So I think our ideal acoustic is somewhere with just enough acoustic ‘life’ to provide us with some interesting feedback when we really start pushing the limits of the space. Our least preferred space is anywhere with a really dry acoustic. Everything just stops dead. Interestingly, our pieces in such acoustic spaces are often much shorter than usual.

When I wrote the anniversary piece last year for Sex, I found it hard to pin down acts I could conclusively claim were influenced by you, though bands like Dawn Of Midi came to mind.  If not on individual acts, how and where do you see The Necks’ influence manifesting?

LS: I think the world’s interest in ‘hypnotic’ music (for want of a better umbrella term, and not that it’s the full story with what we do) has changed massively in the past three or four decades – and to the extent that our profile has increased over that time, I feel we’ve played a part in that. How much we’ve influenced others is very hard to say, but from time to time I hear some very flattering musical tributes, intentional or not! 

Interestingly, I spent some time with the Alister Spence Trio doing double bills with the Dawn Of Midi guys when they toured Australia, and they told me they’d never heard our music till writers started mentioning us in reviews of their music, and then they started checking us out, and dug what we were doing.

Chris [Abrahams, piano and organ] faces away from you and Tony [drums]. This seems unusual in an improvising act. Why does he prefer it?

LS: He prefers it because he feels closer to us, instead of having the enormous harp of the grand piano between him and us. And I agree. I’ve never liked the ‘classic’ jazz piano trio set-up so much (drums on stage left, bass in the middle, piano stage right). There is that distancing of the piano as well as feedback issues because my bass amp spills into the lid of the piano (I’m definitely "right-eared" so feel most comfortable with my amp to my right) but it also puts me away from the hi-hat side of the drums, which is where I far prefer to be.

I’ve seen the Necks a lot and often wished I could hear the show again to make sense of how I got sucked in. Live album Piano, Bass And Drums is one of my favourites because, at around minute 34, I can feel the undertow and I think: "That’s the moment!" It seems a shame that unless your live sets are recorded and released, they’re gone. Are you ever tempted to release more live sets, perhaps digitally?

LS: Yes, in a way it’s a shame, in another way I think it’s really beautiful and special that the time we play that music to those people in that room is the only time it’s ever going to exist. Don’t forget we started out intending to never perform live, or to record, and that still informs our music-making.

We have heaps of stuff recorded but one thing we learnt very early on was that just because a piece is great on the night, it doesn’t automatically mean it will be a great live album. So we have to painstakingly pick through hours and hours of live recordings to find the ones we feel work from start to finish as recordings to be listened to repeatedly in a domestic environment. Something for our retirement years, I suspect. I think there’ll be a shitload of Necks live albums coming out if we ever hang up our boots.

The Necks’ European tour dates:


Wed 8 – Paradox, Tilburg, Netherlands

Thu 9 – Sonic Protest at Eglise Saint-Merry, Paris, France

Fri 10 – World Minimal Music Festival at Bimhuis, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Sat 11 – Gateshead International Jazz Festival at The Sage, Gateshead

Sun 12 – Platform, Glasgow

Mon 13 – Muzzix, Lille, France

Tue 14 – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw, Poland

Wed 15 – Stadtgarten, Cologne, Germany

Thu 16 – Village Underground, London

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