by Steve Proposch
The Necks celebrate what it is to be a musician, living in the moment of the music, where a single note rings out in space and sparks an idea. Not even the band knows where it might lead, but the possibilities are virtually endless.
The Necks know all the possibilities. Individually they are veteran musos with accomplished careers stretching back to the early 80s. Together they somehow find their way from silence and nothingness through spare bass notes, piano chords and feedback, to nifty riffs, to driving grooves, to crashing crescendos, to some kind of answer.
Lloyd Swanton plays bass for The Necks and is a three-time winner of Best Bassist in the Australian Jazz and Blues Awards. Along with Chris Abrahams (piano), and Tony Buck (drums), he has been lauded in the world press for his work in this band as everything from a genius to some kind of musical shaman-stroke-prophet. The Necks’ performances have been described as “Ecstacy in slow motion … magically euphoric …” (Weser Kurier, Bremen, Germany), and “… a kind of religious experience” (The Australian). We spoke to Swanton in the lead up to their performance at the Castlemaine State Festival in March 2013.
Your music feeds on itself, building from the first note with ideas tried out in the moment… Do you ever play a song the same way twice?
Lloyd Swanton: No, never. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t.
Is that ever a problem? Do you sometimes have audiences requesting an old fave – the ‘play something we know mate’ moment?
LS: Well, people often come up to the merch desk after the show and ask “which one did they play tonight?” No, no-one ever asks for old faves. People just seem to know. For example, our first album Sex sold well and continues to sell well, 24 years later, such that we’d expect to see some of those buyers rocking up to our shows, but although we get good crowds at our shows, it’s nothing like what you’d expect considering how many copies Sex has sold, so clearly people just know that they’re not going to get the Sex experience at the live show (I’ll tactfully avoid the many obvious jokes I could make there). And I’m fine with that. We always have a good turnout to play to, and I think it’s great to know we’ve got a whole other stay-at-home audience.
Did you perhaps start out thinking you might form a straight up rock or pop band?
LS: (Snort.) We formed the band with the specific intention of exploring this modus operandi we had in mind. Incredible that a quarter of a century has passed since.
Do you still rehearse together?
LS: We haven’t rehearsed since the six-month period of very intensive workshopping we did when we first formed, except very occasionally if we have an album recording coming up, and one of us actually has an idea for what we might record (often we don’t). In that beginning period of intensive workshopping we were intending to never play in public.
You all have other projects you work on individually and meet a only few times a years to play as The Necks. Is your time away from the band important to you?
LS: Yes, very. Although playing the music of The Necks is a great release and very therapeutic, it’s still very intense, and all three of us need time away personally and musically. Consequently, 25 years along, we’re still getting on just fine.
Funny, I just read an article today that described us (yet again) as “session” musicians. This seems to be a common misconception, that we need to correct. We’re not freelance hacks. Even if at most, The Necks only play fifty or sixty shows a year, it’s still the primary focus for all three of us. We run our own record label and set up a lot of our own touring. Everything else has to fit around The Necks, not the other way around.
How do you generally spend the time away from the band? Can you name any other projects you are working on currently, or some you have worked on in the past?
LS: I have my own band The Catholics, which itself has been running over 20 years. It’s a seven-piece acoustic jazz ensemble that draws heavily on dance rhythms from around the world. We’re about to release our eighth album, Yonder, on the Bugle Records label through Fuse.
I only ever make enough money from it to keep it alive and performing, but we’re still here, and it’s one of the great joys of my life.
Outside of that, there are other wonderful ensembles I work with when there are opportunities – The Alister Spence Trio, Phil Slater Quartet, The Field, Mara, and I sometimes fill in on bass with The Vampires, a fabulous younger quartet playing a sort of Ornette-meets-Bob Marley blend, which I think is a real winner.
I spend time with my young family, I’m an AFL nut (Sydney Swans) but couldn’t care less for any other sport, I write lots of letters to the paper, I read copious books on World War II, particularly the Pacific war and particularly the PoW experience because my uncle died in a Japanese PoW camp. I’m putting together a musical work about his story.
In reviews your music is often compared to nature, or landscape – “it’s hard not to see their long, endlessly sustained pieces as reflections of the vast Australian landscape” – the Telegraph. Or “it was somewhat like witnessing and hearing the ocean at work” – Brian Turner on WFMU Blog. How do you feel about such descriptions?
LS: I think they’re both apt. The Australian landscape one comes up a lot. I don’t know how much you can prove the link between our music and the landscape. All three of us grew up in the city, after all.
You can’t help but be mindful of that vast desert sweltering just over the horizon, but a lot of music coming out of Norway these days has a similar spaciousness, so what’s inspiring them?
I think the more relevant interpretation of Australia’s influence on our music is more cultural. I think it’s less likely that the three of us would have got together and workshopped this concept if we lived in one of the centres of old culture like London or New York.
And I like the ocean allusion. We ourselves something feel like we’re being tossed around by great waves too strong for us to resist.
“The greatest trio on earth”, according to the New York Times, will return to the Sydney Opera House for an intimate four-night residency in the Utzon Room, celebrating their hypnotic 16th studio album, Body.
The Necks, Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room, 17 – 20 January 2019
A version of this interview was first published in Trouble issue 99, March 2013