“We Don’t Get Protective About the Process. Nobody Ever Gets Their Nose Out of Joint”: An Interview With The Necks

Michael McKinney speaks to Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck of The Necks about creating improvisational music, their newest record's relationship to vinyl, their collaborative process and more.
By    May 25, 2023

Image via The Necks/Discogs

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The Necks may look like a traditional jazz trio, but they play like something else entirely. Their work tends toward the lengthy, minimal, and patient: think free-improvisation turned glacial, or a pile of Steve Reich scores draped atop a rhythm section, or In a Silent Way with most of the players on a smoke break. At the group’s best, a Necks piece sounds like a trust fall in slow motion: someone improvises a motif, and then the band pushes and pulls and prods, stretching it into something wildly different at an uncannily slow pace. They may have stylistic precedents, but The Necks speak a language of their own creation. Given all that, it should come as little surprise that many of their records are one long-form composition: this is the kind of music that necessitates long-term exploration.

The group—Chris Abrahams on the piano; Tony Buck behind the drums; and Lloyd Swanton on the double-bass—embarked on that journey roughly a quarter-century ago. Their debut record, Sex, is equal parts hypnotic and straightforward: Swanton offers a spare bassline, three notes in two octaves; Buck fills the air with the cymbals and the occasional brushed snare; and Abrahams floats in the upper register of the piano. As the groove deepens, it grows more complex: chunkier chords, a grab-bag of smacked and rattled percussion instruments, overdubbed bass moans. But, critically, the group never lets go of that initial pulse. Sex moves with the heft, and patience, of tectonic plates; it is a Thespian ship made with as few parts as possible. If you rebuild a composition in real time, The Necks’s work asks, when does it become something entirely new?

Each member of The Necks has their roots in jazz and free improvisation, but, with the release of Sex, they cast off for parts unknown. In the eighteen records and hundreds of shows since then, they have continued to push themselves into new territories. Their discography houses spiritual-jazz freakouts and horror-flick minimalism; it has room for both long-form drum-and-bass records and starry-eyed post-rock ascensions; and the group is comfortable with both metronomic nu-jazz and breathless, instrument-shattering sprints. The Necks have worked with the likes of Swans, Underworld, and Nick Cave, all of whom work at the intersections of rhythm, repetition, and discordant beauty.

The Necks’s work is defined not by genre or sound, but by systems and frameworks; in each piece, they take specific musical ideas and stretch them until they have been indelibly altered. Travel, the group’s 19th studio album, simultaneously truncates and expands their approach: rather than one uninterrupted piece that would fill a compact disc, they offer four pieces for two discs of vinyl. This approach lets them explore a wide range of styles—depending on the track, Travel is slow-motion jazz for neo-noir nightclubs; it is purgatorial ambience; it is clanky and mechanical and bleary-eyed and joyous. After the release of the LP, we got a chance to catch up with Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton, going deep on The Necks’s methodology, the ever-evolving nature of their live show, and the importance of trust and humor in the recording process.

​​(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

What first drew you to improvised music?

Lloyd Swanton: For me, it was very gradual. I didn’t set out with a passion for playing improvised music. But, as the years went along, I felt more comfortable having a significant improvisational quotient in my music. And now, with the hindsight of several decades, it feels like the most natural way of expressing myself. It’s one of the tools, and it’s one I’m very comfortable with now. But that wasn’t always the case. In 1978, when I left school and started messing around on the bass, I’m not sure I used that word—”improvisation”—very much. I was just trying to play.

Tony Buck: For me, it came out of an interest in learning the instrument and engaging in styles where the drums were used to a high degree of sophistication. I wanted to develop a language. Improvisation, specifically, came out of jazz. If music is about expressing how you’re feeling, then this gave me a way to play where I’d tap into the feeling I was having at the moment without needing to express within specific techniques.

Lloyd Swanton: Five years after I started playing professionally, I probably would have just described myself as a jazz musician as the first term that came to mind. And improvisation is a part of jazz, but it’s not the full story. And, maybe, both of us started to focus more on the improvisational aspect of jazz; after a while, we found ourselves playing improvisation rather than the jazz that we first discovered it within.

How did the two of you initially connect? My understanding is that you met through Australia’s local jazz scene; is that right?

Lloyd Swanton: Yeah. The first time we played together, I think we got paid—what was it? $4 each and a pepper steak? Even in 1979, that was particularly poor.

You mention that you started in jazz and moved towards improvisation. That makes me think of the conversational motif I’ve seen around your work: folks not knowing quite where to place you. What is your relationship, either individually or as a group, to contemporary jazz or “avant-garde” and “experimental” music?

Tony Buck: There are things that we don’t do in our music; there are parameters we’ve decided to work within. Different groups that I’m in concentrate on ways of playing that might exclude some ways of playing. Within a jazz context, there are functions that you’re required to fulfill, especially in the rhythm section: soloing, accompaniment, and all that stuff. So within free improvisation, everything’s on the table and nothing’s off the table. I don’t think that’s what we do. I think there are things that are relatively off the table.

Some of the things we do, especially with regards to creating and improvising around a framework or mood, is something that we share with a strain of modern jazz. There are things that we share with avant-garde music, new music, and “world” music where improvisation is a major feature. I think we also have a relationship to rock music—that’s a big influence. We have a relationship with other styles, too: Indian music, dub, reggae.

Let’s dig into influences. Aether reminds me of Terry Riley’s work, and Hanging Gardens sounds like golden-era drum-and-bass. In several of your studio records I hear dub, insofar as you’re using the studio as its own instrument. Your music is indisputably Necks, but it’s pulling from wildly unpredictable places. That’s what strikes me about you casting the Necks as a band concerned with framework: it allows you to fold in all sorts of aesthetics and ideas. Does that track? How conscious is that?

Lloyd Swanton: We’ve always been magpies: we pick things from everywhere. When we first got together to experiment with this way of playing, we were all expanding our listening; we were listening to a huge range of different music after emerging from some fairly intense jazz listening. Even though we have certain parameters, there’s no musical style that is automatically excluded. There’s some that we haven’t touched on, but that doesn’t mean they’re anathema. It just hasn’t happened yet.

Tony Buck: Our self-definition, as a band, is based on how we use material; the sources themselves are quite open. So we bring ideas that we’re attracted to and ask, “how can we use this?” And then we deal with the material in our own way. Take Aether, for example. It’s not quite like the totally free-improvising group that The Necks are live. I’d call that one a good example of systems composition. At the beginning of that, we had five “sound events” that were queued in the studio, and we developed a strategy for dealing with them. Then that, at an almost imperceivable slow pace, coalesced into a rhythm. We also used a click track, which was set to a different tempo, to add other material. That half, over time, merged with the opening material to form the second half of the piece, which has always reminded me of Steve Reich for some reason.

So this all emerged from a strategy: two tempos, queued events, slowly turning space into a solid pattern. It’s not really improvisation at all. There are parts that emerged when we mixed it later; we’d make decisions then, to put transitions in, that sort of thing. As for Hanging Gardens, that’s exactly right: at least for me, I was drawing on drum-and-bass rhythms. So we’d make that piece, keep adding to it, and then sculpt it.

If your work is built around bringing sounds to a framework, I’m curious: what else do you bring? Is there any other art—music, literature, painting—that stretches into what you do as The Necks?

Lloyd Swanton: Well, Tony is very much a synesthete. You don’t always have a great dividing line between the aural and the visual, do you, Tony? You see music in very visual terms.

Tony Buck: Yeah. It’s about things like balance, symmetry, and asymmetry. That’s applicable across art forms. If we’re making a piece in the studio, we think about its form: its length, but also how its forms change and mold around each other. There’s a sense of making something that feels beautiful.

I don’t know if this is because of the physicality of playing the drums, but everything I do is built around cycles. This doesn’t necessarily mean repetitious rhythm, but cycles, and maybe different cycles happening at the same time. So, over time, I become more and more aware of the influence of gestural flow—my gestalt. That plays into my relationship with my instrument quite a bit.

Lloyd Swanton: There’s humor, too. That’s not necessarily apparent in the finished product, but it goes into the process. The studio can be an intense environment; we need to puncture the tension at times, and that may filter through. After we did Aether, we did Mosquito / See Through. I suggested that we use silences as a building block, but much bigger silences this time. My recollection is that Tony and Chris were thinking much bigger silences than me: I was thinking 30 seconds rather than 5. We decided how many silences would go into the piece, and I asked them how long those silences should be. And they were possibly a little tongue in cheek: they pretended to really consider it.

And then one of them would say, “three minutes.” So, okay, three minutes. And I’d say then, “what about the second silence?” And they thought long and hard: “four and a half minutes.” I’m not being exact; we all knew we were just having a laugh. But if something was really stupid, I think we would have said, “hang on.” We essentially used humor as a way of generating the length of those silences, which is absolutely the center of that piece.

Tony Buck: I remember having discussions about the balance of where a longer one should be, and if the silences should be real silences: should they be almost inaudible, a continuation of a shimmer or something? It’s funny that you should mention misremembering. I think memory also factors into the group. When you’re in the middle of a piece, do you bother to remember where you started? If we had a very successful piece two days before, does that factor into what we do now? That all might change how we respond to each other in the moment, and it helps to keep things fresh. But it’s also an awareness that two days ago is not today; we’re in a different room, and different things might succeed or fail.

How does this idea of memory impact your live show?

Lloyd Swanton: Over the course of a tour, there’ll be certain themes we return to, but we’re not taking stage with the intention of picking up where we left off. Over the course of doing these big pieces—because they are really big—your mind might start casting back to similar situations you’ve been in quite recently. And you might think, “let’s try it again.” And it probably won’t be the same anyway. If it doesn’t work, then you start investigating elsewhere. But if it does work, that’s wonderful.

Tony Buck: And each tour is going to be different anyways, because we’re all doing other work besides The Necks. When we come together to play, there are certain things that we’re into at that time. So, on some tours, the pieces might be pretty spacious, because we’re all in that frame of mind. Or maybe they’re even more intense. I think we used to be really concerned with making every set different. But now it’s not as much of a concern: if we’re in that sort of mood, that’s cool. Every time we walk out to play a new piece, I settle into my headspace: what do I feel like playing that feels honest to how I’m feeling? It might be relatively similar to another show, but that’s okay.

That has to be balanced out with our musical interplay, too. Lloyd and I, for example, might be playing patterns that are related to, and reliant upon, each other. There are devices to break that, like additive or subtractive rhythms. If we’re playing in 4/4, one of us might start playing a similar pattern, but in 3/4. There are musical devices to play with, and I’m sure Chris and Lloyd play with harmonic devices in a similar way.

To take memory in a longer view, it’s possible to break your discography into typologies: live recordings where you’re in a gradual crescendo; long-form compositions, where you take one idea and stretch it as far as it can go; and records made up of several 20-odd minute pieces. It almost feels like your work has come into conversation with itself. Does that track?

Tony Buck: The 20-minute pieces are us in conversation with popular media formats, which is a vinyl record versus a CD. Coincidentally, the band formed at about the time that CDs offered the option to put an hour-plus piece of music out in one go. To put our first record, which was 56 minutes long, on an LP, you’d have to break it up, like the classic free-jazz records with long pieces. We didn’t want to do that, and we had this media that was just developing at the same time. So that was really opportune.

But records are nice, too; there’s something to them. So, in that context, we make 20-minute pieces where we feel we could still do what we want to do, or at least get it somewhere. So we also explored that. As for the live thing: we know that, live, the band is a different animal. I think that the way we made the two double LPs recently—Unfold and Travel—was also a bit of an acknowledgement of the live vibe of the band, albeit in twenty-minute pieces. But we can also avoid the pitfalls of live recordings, make it sound really good, and release some vinyl.

Lloyd Swanton: And we may be, as you say, going into conversation with some of our earlier works. I know some of us have stated in interviews that we try to make each new record sound different to the previous one. But if you do that enough, you can’t help but sound like a record from a lot longer ago. If we did two records in a row that sounded very similar, it wouldn’t be that we’re running out of ideas; it would be that we’re trying to develop some sort of body of work, a movement in a particular direction. And that’s just not what we do. For better or for worse, we’ve always seen each of our albums as a standalone statement.

Tony Buck: I would also say that if you’re deciding to make a record that is different to the previous one, you’re in conversation with that one. But it’s funny you should say that: we actually started our second record with the beginning of the first record. That was, I guess, also a humorous thing. It starts with the first 30 seconds of our debut album!

Lloyd Swanton: It doesn’t start with the end of the previous album; it starts with the beginning. I don’t think anyone’s done that.

Tony Buck: I guess we wanted people to put it on and go, “Ach! I’ve already got this record.” [laughs]

Other than its relationship to vinyl, I’ve seen Travel framed in relation to how you tend to warm up in the studio. Can you walk me through that? Where did this practice come from, and why did you decide that should be the basis for your next LP?

Tony Buck: That’s a bit of a myth, that it’s warming up in the studio. We set out to do 20-minute pieces that we could look at and think, “Oh, that’s good,” and maybe put one overdub on it—very little intervention. So, again it does reflect how we sound live. It’s not like we warm up in the studio with our form of calisthenics.

Lloyd Swanton: Any suggestion of a morning raga or something is not accurate. We did hit upon this practice: we’re in there working on a large album, and we had this idea to play something really different at the start of each day. But Tony is quite right; to see it as a warm up is not correct. We saw it as a chance to get out of the mindset we’re in and put something down that we could consider later on. If we’re in the studio for several days, we’re coming up with quite a lot more than four of those pieces. Many of them didn’t really work, and that’s fine, but it was very fruitful. It’s not like we’re offering an opener to the main act; it’s an entirely standalone practice that we’ve managed to shoehorn into the expensive studio time.

Tony Buck: It may have warmed us up, in a certain sense: getting cobwebs out of our heads, or, as Lloyd said, putting us in a new frame of mind and pushing us towards new ideas. But we wanted to find another way to use the studio and make it more productive. So we made some twenty-minute pieces that we could use for vinyl.

Lloyd Swanton: It’s funny: nobody has asked us, “what’s the big piece you’re working on?” There’s two, actually, but I don’t want to say much more about it than that. We will be working further on those pieces when Tony’s in Australia for our tour. So there’ll be a lot of material there, and we’ll sort that into forms, take a look at those, and make some choices with them.

How does distance affect your collaborative process?

Tony Buck: It slows down our decision-making. But it’s good to be slow, because you’ve got to reflect on options. But as far as the music-making is concerned, we’re in agreement about our processes. We make music together when we can. Before COVID, that was quite a lot: a couple of tours of Europe each year; I’d be in Australia twice a year.

Lloyd Swanton: But we’ve never had so much compulsion to get an album out that we would start recording in separate time zones and sending files to each other. We just don’t operate at that intense of a level; we’d prefer to wait until we’re all in the same room. Occasionally, one of us might do a bit of a rough mix and send it to the others, asking, “what do you think of this?”, but we really feel we work best when we’re all in the same room. So if that slows down our output, we’re comfortable with that. People go, “Oh my God, you’ve done all these albums,” but we’ve been together for 35 years or so. It’s not that many! But that’s the pace we work at.

Over those 35 years, how have you noticed shifts within the group’s dynamic?

Lloyd Swanton: I think it’s changed, but I think all three of us would prefer not to put labels on it. We’re getting on all right, and that’s the bottom line that we care about. I think we would all agree we’re very, very different human beings to what we were 35 years ago. Yes, the relationships—personal and musical—have changed. But we don’t want to get too analytical. It fills me with wonder, actually, to look at what we are now compared to what we were then. And you could say that about all aspects of one’s life as one ages. You get to a certain age, and those issues become quite bright in the forefront of your mind.

The world has changed so much, too! Look at the internet. We started in a very different world to the one we function in now. It’s interesting: at this point, we’ve spent more time in The Necks than not.

I’m curious about the idea of influence. The band has been around long enough to speak to new movements in aesthetics: improvisational music, “hypnotic” music, jazz. Do you see a long shadow for The Necks? Do you hear the band in the outside musical world at all?

Lloyd Swanton: We see many manifestations, some quite overt. People will get in touch and say, “your music has really influenced me; here’s the stuff that I’ve done.” That’s very gratifying. But we can’t really be very objective about it. For a trio from little old Australia to sell a few thousand records in America is amazing. That was way beyond anything we ever imagined when we started—in fact, we had no intention of doing that. We kept our goals very, very small. But now, we hear back from musicians and listeners all over the world, and that’s really hard to quantify. In some ways, I don’t think we’re the people to ask; we’re too close to the source.

Tony Buck: I did a tour recently, and the sax player I was talking with said a friend of his had seen a post about our gig. He said, “that guy looks like the drummer from The Necks.” I don’t know if my friend Ben, as you said, yeah, it is. The other day, a friend of mine got a call from a friend in Perth saying, “you’ve got to come visit us. There’s a fantastic trio playing!” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll have to come and see them, but I’m playing with the drummer next Tuesday.”

Lloyd Swanton: Maybe it’s a bit like that story of Charlie Chaplin at the height of his fame. He’s traveling through a small town in America and saw that they had a competition for who could walk the most like Charlie Chaplin. He wasn’t wearing his customary outfit, and people didn’t recognize him. So he entered it, and he came in third.

When I play jazz gigs in Sydney, though, I notice it. I can hear some of the pianists and drummers referencing things that Chris and Tony do, and that’s lovely. I don’t know if anyone’s troubled to do the same with my bass playing. [laughs]

Do you mean motifs, approaches, something else?

Lloyd Swanton: Both. But it’s more than that, it’s a general approach. If we’re talking about ways of playing jazz, I think some people have started taking some of the freneticness out of jazz, taking the more patient approach of The Necks. This doesn’t mean they play endless solos; it just means the pacing is possibly different to what is more customary in jazz.

Tony Buck: It’s funny to hear these things, to think you hear these things. In the back of your mind, you’re like, “who the f*ck do you think you are?” I’d also hear it in groups in Europe, and I’d say, “I don’t know if they’d be playing like that if it weren’t for The Necks.” But, you know, come on.

Lloyd Swanton: Remember our first gig in Detroit? A large ensemble in the vein of the Sun Ra Arkestra opened for us, and they played a long piece. About half an hour into it, they started jamming on the bassline from Sex, which was really nice. We weren’t quite sure what to say; we’d look really stupid if we said “were you quoting from our album?” and they said “no.” They actually came up and said, “hope you didn’t mind.” We were flattered.

How has your relationship to the studio changed over the years?

Tony Buck: When we started, we were interested in documenting a moment: that came from our experience in jazz. But we also had lots of experience with rock bands, so we knew the power of multi-tracking, editing, and doing retakes. So, very early on, we thought, “let’s not limit ourselves to just documenting what we do; let’s use the studio for what it has to offer.” We’ll do a part and refine it: we’ll improvise something and then listen back, and say, “I can do that better,” or maybe move things around a bit. We still try to do the same thing we do live, where we’ll make a long piece of music that goes somewhere based on decided-upon material. But we’ll use the studio for what it has to offer, just like we use the room for what it has to offer.

Lloyd Swanton: And a studio is a very different thing now than it was in 1987. We’ve never overtly referenced classic recordings, and we’re probably not going to suddenly go really lo-fi. We tend to use the recording studio as the venue for making the sounds that we make and recording them faithfully. And then we might mess with it a bit, but there’s not a huge amount of treatment. We’re not audiophiles; we’re not suddenly going to try to evoke an ambience of 20th century recordings. I respect people that do that sort of thing, and I like it a lot. But that’s not what we do.

Tony Buck: Chris has a really good sense for this kind of thing. If we’re going to lay three or four piano tracks on top of each other, the EQing appears at a certain timbre; it might be very glassy, which lets it sit next to a more natural sounding piano.

How did your work with Underworld come about?

Lloyd Swanton: That was through Brian Eno. There’s a festival in Sydney called Vivid—we’re performing at it in a few weeks, actually. Brian was the artistic director at the first one, and he had this concept called Pure Scenius, which was about the collective genius of a group of people. We were invited to be part of that, and it was amazing. We did three concerts at the Sydney Opera House on the same day, and they were all about two hours long; we started mid-day and finished well into the evening. Karl Hyde, from Underworld, was also performing then. Tony, in particular, stayed in touch with Karl, since they both live in Europe and they cross paths a lot more. Eventually, they invited us to take part in Drift, and we were delighted. Is there more to that, Tony?

Tony Buck: There’s the process of recording with them. It was not unlike what we do; they had some material pre-planned, and we played with that. Then they took away hours of tapes and mixed them to come up with the final pieces.

Lloyd Swanton: If memory serves, they set up loops that we played along with. And gradually, we took a different path; eventually, the thing we were playing along with was no longer there. It was like a slingshot, in a way.

Tony Buck: They’d play loops, but they’d also respond to us playing live. Sometimes it would be just them, and sometimes it would be just us; they’d add or remove instruments as they saw fit.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Lloyd Swanton: Well, we’ve got this Australian tour, and we’ve got some recording and mixing to do. And then we’re intending to tour Europe at the end of the year. We’re looking forward to getting back to touring after three years or so; COVID turned out to be a bit of a wily adversary. But we can’t say anything too concrete yet.

Speaking of touring: is that creatively generative for you? Do you ever take what you do on the road and say, “let’s explore this in a record”?

Tony Buck: I think that does happen, with our playing as a group and individually. You see that in how we put together Travel. Back in 2011, when we did Mindset, “Rum Jungle” was us taking ideas from live shows and exploring them in the studio.

Lloyd Swanton: It may be there in hindsight, but it’s unspoken at the time. I mean, we speak a lot to each other, but we don’t feel a compulsion to overtly discuss our musical approaches. I actually think “Unspoken” would be quite a good name for a track; we’ve used “un-” a couple of times as a prefix. We simply know that we’re on the same page at this point. We just get on stage and let it start to happen. And it’s more or less the same thing in the studio. There’s some spirited discussions about particular sounds and techniques, but it’s always respectful. And, sometimes someone puts a track down and the others listen and go, “I’m just not hearing it,” and that’s fine. On we go. We discard an awful lot.

Tony Buck: There’s also an openness to that; it’s a very safe space. Even if something doesn’t work, we might can it, and it might feature on a later record. Given time, you hear things differently. If any of us have a certain approach that developed out of playing live, it doesn’t have to be articulated. If I’m doing something live based around physical movements and necessary compromises, I can explore that idea in the studio, using overdubs so I don’t have to make those compromises. In the studio, I have more than four limbs.

Lloyd Swanton: And critically, none of us have musical babies. We don’t get protective about the process. Nobody ever gets their nose out of joint.

Tony Buck: We’re involved in many different projects, which keeps anything from getting too precious. We all love and respect this group; we want to do what’s best for it.

Lloyd Swanton: Some amazing music can result from that preciousness! Some people have a vision, and a zeal, which they spread to their collaborators. But that’s just not how we do it.

Incidentally, the piece that became Sex was a composition that I had written for a band called The Benders. Chris and I were in that band, and Tony sometimes played with us. That original recording had a melody, but with The Necks, we didn’t record that. We just took the groove and the general atmosphere. Afterwards, I recorded that piece with my own group, The Catholics, and you’d probably hear some similarity there. I just thought the piece had more legs, so I redid the piece as it was before The Necks got to it. There’s always ways to rework a piece of music if you think it needs that.

Tony Buck: It’s rarely that overt, though. Again, we rarely talk about this stuff. We’ll walk out, play a concert, and leave. Maybe one of us has something we want to play, but the other two don’t know about that. We feel that we get the best results from tapping into what’s happening as soon as we walk on. It comes from a shared trust: nobody’s going to say “what the f*ck are you doing?” It all comes from a good place. It might be uncomfortable, or unusual, but we all try to give our ideas space. The central question is: how does this fit into what The Necks are? Maybe on the surface, it sounds like that’s not what we do. But I’m sure everyone will bring something unusual and new to the group. It’s all built around trust.

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