Up To Our ‘Necks’

Article by Anthony Plevey

The Necks—Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums, percussion) and Lloyd Swanton (double bass and bass guitar)—have been together for over 35 years, won multiple ARIA and APRA awards and a National Live Music Award, and have released 17 studio, plus five live, albums.

They regularly tour Europe, the US, and Australia playing their distinct “first time – only time” hour-long improvisational pieces which, The Necks’ Pianist Chris Abrahams explains, “are an alchemy of science, philosophy, and art”.

Looking, at a glance, like a standard acoustic jazz trio, their work is amplified to sound like a mighty stereo, deftly tuned to the resonance of each performance space. This is achieved by The Necks’ long-time studio sound engineer Tim Whitten, reflecting a fundamental of the band’s ideology; that time and place make each occasion they play distinctly different. 

The performance space may have a 50m high roof, concrete walls, padded floors, be the size of a bar’s backroom, the expanse of a concert hall, and everything in-between. The PA will sound a certain way, on a certain day.

“When we play live, it’s not about trying to impress the audience with how well you can play,” reveals pianist Chris Abrahams. “We play with emphasis on crescendo and the building up of suspense, using ostinato, sympathetic resonation, modulation, and frequency modulation, the harmonics, the additive, the subtractive, and the sympathetic vibrations; expressing ourselves through those.

“I can understand the physics,” Abrahams continues. “But we want to go beyond the individual instruments, and perform together to a transcendence. To reach a point where, suddenly, you start to hear all these weird, almost hallucinatory sounds emerging from within the space, picking up all sorts of enharmonic or in-harmonic information. Clashing frequencies and waveforms. 

“When we get a piece up and running, we start to play with those.

“We play, and then we are being played, and we can’t not do what we do at certain points. We want to express our excitement at hearing these things.”

And how did The Necks collective explain such a distinct manner of sound creation and performance?

“It’s like in cricket,” Abrahams muses. “I don’t think anyone can say why a particular bowler swings the cricket ball or why, on some occasions, it won’t swing. We know the physics. There’s a shiny side, and the humidity, but that doesn’t fully account for it. The experience is beyond conscious decision making.

“If I am making decisions consciously, when I’m playing, that’s a sign that things aren’t going that well. I try to remove myself from that state.

“In our approach to improvisation, there is also a two-way thing between the performers and the audience and, importantly for us, the performer is also an essential part of the audience.”

All of these aspects are part of the curious chemistry of The Necks’ real-time compositional practice. There is no leader of the group, no songwriter, nor are there any team meetings to decide which direction the music needs to go. It’s a gradual process of evolution.

This particular approach, and the fact that listeners, as Abrahams acknowledges, need a level of trust to access “the weird stuff”, has seen the band and its fans referred to as a cult. With inescapable connotations.  

“We’ve been described that way for decades,” Abrahams says. “It isn’t likely to change, given the ideology of the band. Not to mention the aesthetic of the music that we make; unique, improvised, and site-specific.

“We haven’t got a major record company. We’re not going to sell out huge stadiums or have massive hit records. There’s no set-lists, no songs from the new album, or hits and distinct memories. There are people who love that, and I guess ‘cult’ deals with those aspects of the band and our music.”

However, Abrahams rejects the description of The Necks’ music as experimental. 

Photo by Ken Leanfore

“I wouldn’t say we’re experimental,” he says. “The outcome of an experiment is something that can’t be predicted.  The Necks’ work is honed by a long trajectory of technique development. Specialising in repeatedly undertaking a complex activity over a long period, like making improvised music, of course has some unpredictability about it. But that’s not the overriding reason that we make music.

“There isn’t an experimental attitude or approach,” he continues. “The Necks want to make music that is “good” rather than conduct amazing experiments. That was there from the formation of the band.”

This compelling soundscape is, of course, far from radio-friendly.

“There are limitations commercially,” Abrahams admits. “It’s incredible that we can mount tours in so many different places and attract an audience for it to be viable. We think it’s because our audience really appreciates the fact that we are just trying to make music.

“And that… how can I put this without sounding a bit arrogant?” Abrahams muses, in closing. “We are really grateful for the audience, and love playing in front of an audience. But it’s like there’s an audience for music that is not necessarily made for an audience.”

Mind. Blown.

And you can be in the same time and space as The Necks when they conjure their next ‘once in a lifetime’ soundscape on Sunday, 7 May at 4pm at The Street Theatre. Tickets are $39 – $49 + bf via the venue.

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