The Necks talk to Paul Davies

Text by Paul Davies

Photography by Holimage

The Necks are a band originating from Sydney, Australia. Critics either have a field day, or a hard time categorising their music. It might be appropriate to simply apply a "post-everything" prefix. Their stage appearance as an acoustic three-piece is deceptive. Typically performing one impromptu composition that lasts an hour, they shift from abstract jazz to a wall-of-sound crescendo that is more aligned to techno. And it is certainly why such luminaries as Brian Eno and Harold Budd have invited them to perform. Perhaps the ultimate accolade is that no other band has attempted to emulate their sound - where would they even know to begin?

Paul Davies Do you consider your sound to be specifically Australian or it's not defined by location?
Lloyd Swanton [double bass] Tony, you're the one from Berlin…
PD You're now based in Germany, yes?
Tony Buck [percussion] Yes, since 15 years. When we formed, it was African, soul, reggae, Indonesian music, Miles Davis modality that we listened to. So, not specifically Australian but there's something about the sound of the group that, when you think of the landscape, the light, and the way Australians live, it does feed into it.
LS Also just being remote from the big traditions in Australia gave us freedom to pursue ideas. In Europe, there's the heavy classical tradition, in North America it's a heavy jazz tradition.

PD At its simplest, this involves arriving at a resolution, and that's markedly different to you. For most people listening, there's a build up of urgency, and inevitably, "Where is this going? How are they going to arrive at that point where they all understand, and we, the audience recognise you've reached the conclusion?" Is it fair to say that it's a combination of Indonesian Gamelan and African music, plus the enormous expanse of space you have in Australia?
LS None of us play the didgeridoo but it's part of our sensibility. It's simplistic to say that it's only one note because there are several complexities. By definition a drone doesn't end any time soon.
TB I grew up in Sydney and I've never been to the desert. I have a theory about spending time in places. I play music differently. Europe is a very intellectual place with ideas. America has a weird earthy spiritualism that invades everything. And Japan is a whole other different thing. Australia has this timeless calm. When I moved to Europe, I was drawn to playing improvised music that I didn't like before.

PD The Necks have been a unit for 25 years. Who stays together for that long!
LS And we've made every gig too!
PD No arguments?
LS We have robust discussions. And know not to put too much pressure on each other. When we first started, I remember there was a point we had five dates in a row and we thought, "Are we going to survive?"
TB We formed with the express intention of not performing in public; that came later. We had a different perspective. It wasn't a case of, "Let's workshop this 'til it's ready for the public", it was, "Let's never do this in public".

PD You just wanted to record.
TB No. Just play in a room. No one else was hearing it.
PD For your own indulgence.
LS Totally. We had access to rehearsal rooms at Sydney University's music department. We would play in a pitch-black room, so it was completely sound-focused. We'd then talk in the dark about the piece. A couple of times a week for seven months.

PD Was the improvisation always the origins your sound? Or did that evolve?
TB There were quite specific parameters that we discussed. Things to focus on, things to avoid. 
LS One notion was, that the only thing important was that you were in the moment. So a lot of spontaneous improvisation. 
TB We also wanted to find an alternative to the jazz model that we'd been playing with others with degrees of frustration. We were strongly into reggae, and even Cabaret Voltaire's electronics. We're more interested in the rhythmic aspects of sounds and the interactions between them. And how the instruments blended.


PD Opposite to the established Western notion of, "You got 45 minutes, make an impact." Last time I saw you, you started with plenty of quiet percussion. The bass wasn't plucked for 20 minutes.
LS It might have seemed that long! You're referring to the one convention we have. One person starts and, when or what the other joins in with, is completely up to the moment.

I read Music, Society, Education by Christopher Small, a musicologist who says that process is irreconcilable with product; it's either one or other. He had this model of the jazz group as an ideal microcosm of society. It worked within the conventions of jazz performance, but we were sick of that. We've actually come up with a really identifiable product. We've discovered in the long term that by being true to the process, we can also have the product to offer to the public. It works.

PD In performance, you seem very respectful of each other's parameters, and independently look like you're in your own worlds. I don't see anyone looking at each other for cues…
LS There are no cues, and if someone changes, we can choose to respond or say that works really well against what we're already doing. Sometimes I have an idea and Chris or Tony come up with another just as I'm introducing mine. I'll go, "That's enough change". And store it away or forget it.

PD It's a very gentle evolution that you wouldn't notice unless you were really engaged with it.
TB It's constantly about morphing, changing. It's inspiration, energy and focus. At the same time, it reaches a point that suggests a winding down. In theory, we could go on forever.

PD What preparation takes place before the studio?
TN Because I live overseas, I'm usually in Australia for January/February. We record then. It's every two years because usually we sit on it for the first year and the next time I'm back, we mix it. We just talk about what kind of record it is.

PD Why "The Necks". Is it some kind of Oz humour?
LS No one knows. It just seemed like a good idea and in retrospect we could say it's because you can't really attach any meaning to it, it's not subject to fashion. It sounds the same now as it did twenty years ago, and yet still familiar.
PD It's the cut-off point between the cerebral and the physical… 
TB We don't have a problem with you analysing!

PD You did the Sydney Festival with Eno two years ago. And then the Brighton Festival with him and Leo Abrahams…
LS Yes, we all respect Brian Eno immensely. If he hadn't done what he had 20 years ago, I don't think we would have even started. One reason he is so renowned as a collaborator is because he knows how to bring the best out of people. He was incredibly humble and unpretentious and only concerned with us all being happy.
TB It was improvised, with abstract direction from him or a funny note that flashed on our monitors. Often it fell in the camps of electro-synthesised journey music, spacey-sound or dance rhythm orientated.

PD You've never been seduced by the idea of electronics in a major way?
TB Well, we use electronics on records.
LS It's still grounded to the acoustic sound. We've never built a piece from purely electronic sounds. A lot of electronic really sounds like electronic. Today, people say, "Why not just push a button…"
TB It's actually totally different. When we're playing, there is also the respect for the sound of the instruments. It's how we blend our instruments that work together. Electronic instruments don't blend together like that.

PD That's why people wonder, "How can a three-piece create such textured sound when they're acoustic?"
TB There were musicians, back in the late '80s, early '90s, who were in commercial production and were using a lot of technology simply to save time. They asked, "How do you that?" They thought it only possible electronically.  We use electronics for the sound it creates. We play it.

PD Music critics have described you as minimalist, is that fair? Because you develop into a wall of sound later on…
TB They're referring to the lack of a narrative harmony and the fact that, for someone raised in the classical tradition, a harmonic check occurs every five minutes.
LS Yes, we are extremely frugal. The Guardian said we could "find eternity in a grain of sand". We are really about re-examining the building blocks. I can just shift my finger by a millimetre and everything sounds different. And these are fundamentals of music that have always been there. We're not coming up with a new chord or anything.
TB And we take time to listen to what something sounds like. Rather than it being left behind because of new information being introduced. § 

  • The Necks - Paul Davies