Ian Maleney spoke with Lloyd Swanton of Australian improvisational trio The Necks who play Whelan’s on Sunday night.

Ian Maleney spoke with Lloyd Swanton of Australian improvisational trio The Necks who play Whelan’s on Sunday night.

The Necks are a well-kept secret, surprisingly well-kept considering they’ve been around for a quarter of a century or so. But then, Australia is an easy place to keep things under wraps and hidden from prying pop culture eyes. The Necks were never destined for mass appeal anyway, with their confrontational belief in constant improvisation and daunting, single-track albums. As ever though, once you begin to dig a little, you see that there’s an awful lot of people out there who hold the Australians in high regard with one New York Times critic going as far at to call them “One of the greatest bands in the world”.

Their story is relatively simple; three friends meet up in the mid-Eighties and play together, with no prior constrictions or limitations beyond the abilities of their three instruments. Piano, double bass and drums – the classic jazz trio – are transformed into something else entirely, something monolithic and intense, with an ear for the sublime. One member starts, the others join in at will. Moving together they find a rhythm, a pulse, and they stick to it. Slowly it changes and grows, a musical idea threaded through time, taken wherever feels natural at that given moment. The formula stuck and after 25-odd years of this, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton have gotten pretty damn good at it. At the moment though, they’re doing something a little different.

“It’s hard to describe but there’s an amazing show which we’ve worked up the music for and we just do our improvising like we always do and it works really well,” says bassist Lloyd Swanton of their work on ‘Food Court’, a theatre production that the trio are live-scoring in Berlin. “It’s all about body image and bullying and we provide the kind of provide the alternative narrative from the orchestra pit.”

Performed alongside members of the Back To Back theatre company, it represents a different challenge for a band who have always sought them out. “It is very different because there was no guarantee it would work,” says Swanton. “It was actually the vision of the director who heard us live and thought maybe he could build a theatre piece around us improvising and it was very difficult for the performers to know that they were going to have music every night. Of course, they’re quite accustomed to basing a lot of their acting cues on musical cues and we couldn’t offer that because we’d be doing something very different every night.”

Having a full set of actors, light crew, stage hands and most obviously, the dialogue involved would surely make for an altogether different type of experience for the band. Does it become more difficult with external interjections rupturing their usual trance-like states? “I guess we’ve been doing our thing for so long that we can deal with input from a variety of sources,” says Swanton. “Yet if there was too much it would be a little distracting. It doesn’t totally dominate what we do, if it did we’d have to have a re-think and maybe not do it that way again.”

Does such a visual element affect the musical mood of the night, whether it comes from a full theatre performance or from simple on-stage projections? “Only in a broad sense because the way we go about making our music, it’s about pursuing an idea to its logical conclusion and allowing it to unfold in real time,” he says. “So if some stimulus occurs up on screen, we can’t drop everything we’re doing and respond to that instead. We have to finish the idea that we’re on, we’re like an ocean liner. The general feeling that the visual stimuli are providing can certainly influence the overall tone of what we’re doing but we certainly don’t respond to any one image.”

Structure has always been a key element in the music that seems to inspire The Necks. From jazz to modern classical, they draw comparisons to such structural innovators as Steve Reich, Brian Eno and Xanakis. In the end though, they are separated from these composers by their casting off of structure until it becomes as loose a term as it can be. Nothing is pre-defined except the instruments, with the time-frame ranging from twenty minutes to four times that. Swanton agrees that they’re approaching things from a different angle. “I guess we’re a little closer to the John Cage, aleatoric end,” he says, “Even though from what I know about John Cage, he hated the concept of improvisation and he loved chance. I guess maybe we’re throwing open the structures to chance more than most composers do and there are certain structures over the years that I think we have subconsciously developed but obviously a one-hour improvisation is not the place to start trying to control things. You’re looking for a different set of goals, it’s more a case of setting out and seeing where we get. That’s what we’re all saying, though maybe not in so many words.”

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