For over 25 years now, Australian band The Necks have been sidestepping conventions and defying classification with their distinctive form of improvised music. Since the late 1980s they have released close to 20 albums, most of which are comprised of a single hour-long piece of music. With their latest release, Vertigo, having hit the shelves last month, they are making their way to Dublin to head the bill at STRUT, a new four-day long, pop-up jazz club at the Peacock Stage of the Abbey. Curated and organised by Improvised Music Company, the weekend will feature a host of domestic and international talent playing a wide array of jazz and experimental music. Ahead of their visit to Ireland, Totally Dublin caught up with Tony Buck, drummer with The Necks, to try to unravel some of the mystery behind their beguiling and delicate craft.
It all began in the early ’80s in Sydney, Tony explains. ‘I guess we all kind of met when we were all studying at the conservatory playing lots of jazz in Sydney, but other sorts of music too. And I think we were all interested in a lot of different music that we weren’t having a chance to get into in any sort of degree in the contexts that we found ourselves playing in. So, apart from playing jazz and rock music equally, we were listening to a whole lot of other music, like reggae and soul, African music, Indonesian music, and contemporary classical stuff. And I think through discussions and things that we worked out about each other, that we thought we would like to get into playing in a way where the point of playing wasn’t to impress an audience or show that you could really play your instrument, but just to really take time and listen to how the instruments reacted to each other with no real grand-standing. And so we decided to form the band to explore that sort of thing, basically privately, and we did it for six months or so, and quite regularly, like two or three times a week for six months. We just played together in a hall belonging to Sydney University where there were some pianos and it was quiet and we could just do it. And I think we all found it really almost like a therapy that we got a chance to have the time and patience to do that.’
Tony had grown up living near pianist Chris Abrahams, where, from the age of 15, they had played in rock bands and jazz outfits together. He recalls how the face of jazz has changed over the years in Sydney. ‘I think it goes in waves. This was the early ’80s in Sydney and there was a really healthy rock scene then, an inner-city rock scene, and sort of a squat scene. And there were a few jazz venues that were putting music on every night of the week, covering bebop to more modern, modal jazz, and it was pretty healthy then. Sydney’s a funny place ’cause licensing laws for clubs are very strict, very expensive, and real estate prices are very expensive. So around the late ’80s, early ’90s, a lot of places started to close down and bars found they could make more money from poker machines than live music, so it was pretty dire after that. At the moment, I think there’s sort of a groundswell of interest in improvised music and jazz again. There still aren’t very many venues. I think Melbourne has the greater focus of creative music venues and activities now, cause it’s much easier to open clubs in Melbourne. So it is a very fluctuating scene.’
Although not easily pigeonholed as jazz, the underlying concept that permeates through The Necks’ music is that of improvisation. Their lengthy pieces begin with a single idea and grow organically throughout, with improvised variations giving life to the impromptu compositions. Buck remembers how they came to be playing these long-form improvisations in the beginning.
‘Well, everything we do stems from the idea that we’re playing spontaneously together and improvising. When we play concerts, we just walk out on stage and play. We’ve sound-checked before the concert so we know that we’ll be able to hear each other and respond to the sound of the room. And we kind of take that approach, in a sense, into the studio except that we use the studio as an instrument in a way, and use what the studio has to offer, which is the ability to overdub, and then make decisions and sculpt a piece of music after the fact. So the way that we arrived at doing these lengthy pieces was straight away, from the beginning, the concept of the band. One thing we really wanted to do was let the music have its own breathing space and let the sounds be, and let what we played unfold in its own time. And being freed from having to be entertaining or impressive, we found that really giving the music that sort of time was really important. It seemed to me that around 45 minutes to an hour was long enough to let the music go on its journey and see where it ended up. Like I say, live, it’s all totally improvised, and in the studio it’s not exactly improvised cause there’s a lot of discussion and rumination going on about how to make something work, or a good combination of instruments, but then again the performances that we draw on are us just playing. Maybe we’ll come up with a part and say, “Oh, I could do that again better”, but it’s always arrived at just by playing.’
For a lot of musicians the idea of walking onto a stage and having to improvise completely for an hour would surely be a daunting prospect. At what point does that kind of confidence arrive for a band like The Necks?
Buck explains, ‘Like I said, we formed the band without the intention of performing for people, so there was no pressure to come up with anything particularly. We finally gave into pressure and played a concert after we’d been together for, I think, six or eight months, and even then we thought, well, people have asked us to play because they’ve heard that we have this project and we thought that maybe if people thought it was boring that well… you know, you asked for it! So, yeah, we kind of play *for* the music. It’s almost as if the music is this entity that we are serving. The one thing we always do though, is somebody starts, which sort of sets, not really the parameters for where the piece will go, but at least the parameter for where it starts, and then the other members who haven’t started will come in when they feel they have an idea that will be in accompaniment, or some sort of comment, or a contrasting idea to what the opening gambit is, and then one thing follows the other and we let it unfold. We just try to keep the ball in the air but let the music, like it’s a living entity, decide where the music wants to go.’
An almost selfless way to perform then, but where does the musician stand in this relationship? When asked, Buck continues to describe the underlying philosophy behind the band’s music and what it’s like to be in the midst of such a performance. ‘Well, I don’t feel like we’re really performing. It’s a funny thing. It’s kind of process-oriented music rather than product-oriented, and I think we just get the process underway, and it’s almost like we’re audience members as well, we kind of watch it unfold. But it’s not like other improvised musics that I play, where there’s interaction and fast reactions and things move very quickly. It’s very much like everything happens almost in slow motion. So, we play in this sort of cyclic way and set something up and keep hammering away at this one thing until somebody changes, or something happens and then that sets the chain-reaction happening. But it’s very slo-mo compared to other improvising, so we can just sit back and listen in much the same way as an audience does, and, yeah, we’re as amazed at where a piece of music might end up as an audience member might be, because we’re not really aiming at starting something and then having a point to get to. You know what I mean?”
This must be a liberating way to play for any musician, where the line of performance and spectatorship becomes blurred. It’s almost as if the musicians have become vessels for the music to inhabit and conjure its own way into existence.
‘Yeah, it’s good’ Buck continues, ‘and I mean it takes a certain discipline to not want to do something sometimes, that’s the only difficult thing about it, a weird discipline. And physically I guess from an instrumental technique point of view, if you set something up you have to be really able to play it for the next 20 minutes. But even that doesn’t really come into it ’cause, now that I think about it, when we’re playing we don’t really know what the impetus is for change. Like sometimes if somebody else changes, it puts what you’re doing in a different perspective and context, and so there’s often sort of a pull of gravity, rhythmically or harmonically or texturally, where all of a sudden you realise you’ve changed what you’re playing because it just feels like that’s what you *have* to do, or that’s what the music has done. So, in a way, we’re also not even aware of what we’re doing sometimes I think.’
But how do audiences react when faced with hour-long improvised performances? Have they always been willing to stick with it? Buck goes on to relate his experiences with audiences over the years.
‘Now days I think people come to see us and they’ve either been forewarned or they know what we’re going to do, but when we play to audiences that haven’t heard us before, there tends to be, around the five minute mark, a kind of restlessness from the audience, and then if they get through that wall, which lasts a few minutes, then we usually have them, and usually the people, they also forget time, and they realise they’ve been listening intently for half an hour or an hour and they haven’t noticed time pass. Or they focus on one particular passage in the music and then realise something else is happening that wasn’t happening before but they don’t know when it came in. And that’s the usual reaction. Of course sometimes there are people that don’t like it, or don’t have the patience and they might leave, but that’s pretty rare actually. Even in the early days there was this sense of, “once the penny drops we have them” sort of thing. So it seems to work.’
Whatever the process may be, it certainly works for The Necks and the outcome is rarely short of astonishing. Their latest album, Vertigo, is out now and has a somewhat darker tone to their previous outing Open. ‘It’s an interesting record. I guess you make a record and it’s one track, so it’s one thing that we explore, and if you don’t like that thing, I guess you’re out of luck with that record! It’s quite dark in comparison with the previous one Open, which is very open. This one’s called Vertigo and I guess it’s a little bit more disconcerting than some of our records, but it definitely sounds like The Necks. It has a dark drone that runs through it, and things hang off it at various points and creep out of this drone or swallow it. And it’s quite melancholy in a way. I think Open had a much more hopeful feel. Although there’s a bit in this record that I feel shines out like a sort of hopeful sunrise, but it’s generally darker than the last one.’
And that’s quite often the way when you listen to The Necks’ music, you never quite know when an unexpected ray of sunshine might catch you off-guard. That, and the knowledge that when you see them live that you are watching a truly once-off performance, it’s a unique moment in time and a communal experience of a piece of music that will never again be repeated.
The Necks play the Peacock Stage in the Abbey Theatre as part of Strut on Saturday 21st November at 9pm, with tickets costing €22.50.
Words: Dave Desmond
STRUT YER STUFF: THE LINE-UP
Wednesday 18 November, 7pm, €15
This Danish trio comprised of guitar, drums and Hammond organ combine a ’60s good-times swing with elements of acid jazz, blues, and a smattering of Afrobeat and global funk. Having first performed in Dublin at the 12 Points Festival in 2008, the trio have recently recorded their eighth studio album and long overdue a visit.
Blue Eyed Hawk
Thursday 19 November, 7pm, €15
If you managed to catch trumpeter Laura Jurd’s brilliant quartet in Dublin last April, you’ll know you’re in for a treat with another one of her projects, this time teaming up with Irish composer and jazz vocalist Lauren Kinsella. Their debut album Under the Moon was voted best jazz album by reader polls for the Ticket Awards in 2014 and serves up a blend of experimental vocals, effect heavy rock-based riffs and melodic jazz interludes.
3G Feat. Gerhard Ornig
Thursday 19th November, 9pm, €15
A widely respected name on the domestic jazz circuit and abroad, this trio comprises of three Guilfoyles, brothers Conor and Ronan on drums and bass, with Chris leading on guitar. Featuring blisteringly intricate modern compositions, this trio is joined by Austrian trumpeter Gerhard Ornig, a rising star who recently won the Grand Prix for Trumpet award at the Riga Jazz Stage.
Louis Steward & Brian Dunning
Friday 20th November, 7pm, €15
Another stalwart of the domestic jazz scene is world-class guitarist Louis Stewart who together with flautist Brian Dunning recorded an album entitled Alone Together way back in 1979, live on the Peacock stage of the Abbey. They revisit this recording 36 years on with bassist Dan Bodwell.
Gabriele Mirabassi & Francesco Turrisi
Friday 20 November, 9pm, €15
Steeped in the Italian jazz tradition, clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi explores a diverse range of ethnic influences with pianist Francesco Turrisi. Both musicians are grounded in multiple areas of expertise, from classical to world music and jazz, making this pairing a unique chance to experience a whole spectrum of wide ranging influences from Europe to Latin America.