The Necks’ most recent release is the rather intense (even for them) Mindset. It may come as a surprise to some but it was also the band’s first foray into vinyl. Up until this year, all of their releases had been on CD, a format more capable of handling their extended song durations. The limitations of vinyl meant that each side had to be kept below the 23-minute mark. This limitation was always part of the plan though, and Swanton finds the new format throws up some interesting questions for both the band and the listener. Some musical, but more physical. “I guess it’s funny having established a reputation over the years as a band who do these one hour tracks then to turn around and do an album with two twenty one or twenty two minute tracks on it,” he says. “We really like the idea of investigating how framing things in a sense can affect what we play. I also think, obviously for the LP version rather than the CD version, that the act of having to get up and turn the LP over actually adds an element in the middle of it. Someone might not actually play side B, the vinyl could be on the turntable for days, gathering dust. That’s not something unique to our recordings! It’s true of every vinyl ever made, but I don’t know if people have necessarily thought about it before. I think it also works well because it’s a very intense album and some people might take a little break between the sides, a little breathing space. The LP gives you that option, obviously you have it on CD but you don’t really notice it so much. It’s not like people hit pause for half an hour and then say, ‘Now I’ll come back to it’.”
This breathing space offered by the two-sided record is something that is mirrored in the band’s live shows which often consist of two individual sets, with a break in the middle. Swanton acknowledges the similarity and explains why they approach their performances that way. “We’ve always liked doing two sets,” he says. “If there’s no one else on, if it’s just us, we’ll do two sets but if there’s another band on the bill it makes it too long a night and we’ll do one set. It’s just really nice to know we’ll have a couple of cracks at it and we can come at it from a different angle. I guess that’s something to ponder, but usually the band and the venue will have a say! I would think that usually our second set is defined by out first set, whether that’s defined in opposition or similarity. It’s just a fact, you’ve just played a set and you can’t forget that. Sometimes we might make a subconscious decision to begin in the same mood but I think more often we make a decision to do something different. So they’re usually quite contrasting performances.”
While their live sets remain entirely improvised, such an approach is rarely used in the studio. There things take longer and are more considered, though never losing that edge or tension created with the improvisational heart. “I guess when we’re dealing with the hour, we’re tending to look at it horizontally but when we’re dealing with the week, we think more vertically. We start adding layers, providing the draw by thickening rather than lengthening,” says Swanton of the differences between recording and playing live. “We’ll go in and improvise until we get to a sound or a texture that we like and that’s when we’ll stop and so ‘Ok, that’s what we’re going to put down’. So we use the improvisation as a way to find out what we want to do. So the first twenty minutes or half an hour might not be used until we get to our texture and we decide to play that for an hour. We edit a lot less this way and we’ll spend a week on it. That’s nice because it gives us time to grow with the piece and the directions that are emerging and whether we want to pursue them or not. We use very little sequencing and everything is put down in real time, so it’s very labour intensive, but it gives our records a certain aliveness they would lack if they were all sequenced. I think the listener is aware they are hearing actual human beings.”
So with twenty five years of hard work behind them, what is it that keeps Swanton and his partners going? “It’s really hard to say, I think I’m still a child,” he says. “I think I’ve still got a sense of wonder about the world. I mean, I’m a cynical adult or maybe sceptical adult might be a more positive way of putting it, but there’s still something that excites me every day. I think I just know that music is really good for my health. I can’t believe how good I feel at 51, so I think playing music must be a big part of that. My head feels good and my body feels good, though it could do with a little work! So to me it’s actually just living.”
If the music wasn’t enough to convince you, Swanton says himself that he is not the excitable type. He makes no apologies for it, preferring to play a long game, letting everything sink in slowly and deeply. This honesty reflects back on the music; what at first is sheer and unresponsive becomes blood in your veins, opening up in ways you never imagined. Where once was scary is now a place to get happily lost in. “Nothing really gets me really worked up. You’ll never see me in tears or beside myself with excitement about music but in the long term it’s just integral to life for me. It’s just that music and life are one and the same really. Short term passion, knife-fights in a back lane over a girl, doesn’t really impress me. I think what’s really romantic is doing the same thing for 30 years because you still love it. I really like the longevity side, I love looking at people who have been married for fifty years and are still clearly so in love, I think that’s more inspiring. Musically, that’s kind of where I’m at. Tenacity and longevity.”
The Necks will play two 50 minute performances in Whelan’s on Sunday November 20th.