The Necks are one of Australia’s contemporary musical treasures. Founded in Sydney in 1986, they ply a unique style of music, sometimes referred to as ‘trance jazz’. The three master musicians will typically begin a piece with a few simple musical ideas, then will organically grow and weave the various vines and threads through improvisation into something ornate and magnificent to behold some 20 to 60 minutes later. They are a thrilling act to witness, and have just released their rather exceptional, 21st album, Three (out on the Fish of Milk label). PAUL DOUGHTY caught up with pianist Chris Abrahams ahead of their two shows for for Perth Festival at The Rechabite in Northbridge next Wednesday and Thursday, February 19 and 20.
So to jump straight into it, in what sense are the albums a snapshot of what you create live, and also the converse. I mean, how do you work the approach live, and how is that distilled into the recorded product?
Well they’re very different, but linked in certain ways. When we play live it’s more or less always piano, bass and drums. Acoustic instruments. And a big dimension to the live performances is the coalescing of all the elements while we’re playing to kind of create other… kind of sounds. So the sustain of the piano mingling with the wash of the cymbals to make a kind of audio hallucinatory thing. To make sounds that don’t appear to be possible, or coming from the three instruments.
And I don’t think we really do that in the studio. Because if you want to give the impression that there’s an organ playing or there’s a choir or cellos or whatever otherworldly kind of noises, or music that’s not you… If you want to do that in the studio or on a record then people tend to hire a cello or a choir or use samples.
Also when we play live we basically we kind of very much just follow where the music takes us. And so there tends to be much more dynamic crescendos; they don’t tend to be as static as the studio records which concern themselves with particular ambiences, and the highs and the lows and the peaks aren’t necessarily as pronounced.
So we tend to keep recording and playing live kind of separate. When we start a studio album it’s basically us and Jim Whitten who’s been our recording engineer and a very important part of the process for making our studio albums for the last almost two decades. Basically we just set off. I mean, day one we just kind of intuitively start and… go. And it’s kind of similar to what we do live, but it’s a much more drawn out process. And in the studio, we will edit and we will overdub and we will construct a piece over a period of several weeks. And go back over things and redo things. And of course that’s very different to playing live.
So by the time you hit the studio are you working with kernels of ideas that you’ve trialled on the road with live audiences and amongst each other?
I wouldn’t say ‘trialled’. I think part of the ethos of the group is that we try to not get in the way of the music. And I know that that sounds kind of like a weird thing to say but I would say “getting in the way of the music” would be trying to pre-meditate what we’re going to do at any given time. Because we don’t try to do that. We try and make things unfold while we’re doing it, without a kind of – you know – “OK I did this a few weeks ago and it sounded really good and I’m going to do it again.” Like that kind of idea would not be what we would want to do.
But the concept of The Necks is to not really know where we’re going. To have the music unfold while we’re doing it. And for us to react to that unfolding while it’s happening, and for that feedback to happen. And so the music is being constructed whilst being informed of itself as it’s happening, so to speak.
I mean, we don’t ‘trial’ things really. You know, we play. And I guess we would gravitate towards stuff that we enjoyed playing. So in that sense a ‘trial’ would take place, but it wouldn’t be thought of as a rehearsal or a trial.
I mean, everything The Necks tends to try to do is built for enjoyment on our part (laughs). If it was otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be together still. And I think we were very aware to make the music as open as possible. And that was kind of the founding philosophy that we really feel comfortable in doing it, or we really wouldn’t do it.
You guys have been doing this for a long time, and you seem to get along really well. Was it sort of luck that you three found each other, or have you had to work at this like a lot of other long term relationships, avoiding meltdowns and tantrums or whatever?
I think definitely much more of the former. When I first met Tony I was still in high school, and I first met Lloyd the year I left high school. And we played in a lot of different groups. When The Necks formed we knew each other pretty well – we were friends. It wasn’t “if you want to join a free improvising minimalist trio then please apply in the newspaper,” you know (laughs). Lloyd rang me up after the group we were in kind of finished, and Lloyd said, “I’d really love to form a trio with you and Tony.” And I said, “Great!” And that’s how it kind of happened.
And I think the way we set about doing it, and this might be the same with every group, but we felt that the music was a new way of playing music. That was about not necessarily showing or displaying individual virtuosity, whatever, but about achieving a group sound and being comfortable with what that entails. A kind of coalescing of three individuals.
My piano playing on Sex, our first album, it was not virtuostic (laughs). And that was a new thing for me: to make something that sounded good or nice rather than that you’re a master of some very difficult musical thing that showed that you’ve practiced hard. And we were trying to get away from that and create like a music that was not to do with the individual, so to speak.
Because the modus operandi of The Necks’ way of composition is this thing in motion that’s open and free form, and long form really, I was wondering as a kid or even in your adult life, are you drawn to these longer or meditative activities? Like, do you like reading Proust?
I think The Necks is a particular thing in my life. And that’s kind of how we do it. I think it’s been a while since I’ve read any Proust (laughs). When it comes to literature I tend to like and enjoy quite complex sentence structures, which I kind of think is a bit anathema to what The Necks do. And in my writing I don’t really see a similarity of that repetitious [style]. You know I enjoy Chantal Ackerman’s movies but I don’t see that I’m drawn to that minimalism and repetition per se.
On the new album Three, the track Lovelock was named after the late Celibate Rifles frontman Damien Lovelock. Did you know Damien well?
We were friends, and I was incredibly sad… He was a person with such incredible, positive energy. I mean he was someone who would try everything: with writing, the frontman with the Celibate Rifles, he wrote a cookbook, he was a soccer expert, he was very big on yoga. He was someone who was just really positive and full of energy. And many nights I just recall being in a room listening to Damien talk on any number of topics…I mean from the IRA to the prison system.
And he was a really big Necks fan as well. He would talk about the music and I guess we were all kind of in that Sydney scene. We knew of the Celibate Rifles, because the group that Lloyd and I were in, The Benders, were on the same record label, which was Hot Records. So I think I first met Damien in the early 80s. I played a Rhodes on Spaceman in a Satin Suit, a Celibate Rifles album, and a couple of solo albums I played with Damien.
Are the ARIAS and last year’s Richard Gill lifetime award justification for your vision? And more generally how have these awards impacted you, and the other fellows as well?
It just came out of the blue, and we were very chuffed and honoured to have won it. I mean we’ve always felt very secure in Australia and other parts of the world where we have a small but very dedicated following of people who are really into our music and have supported us all along. So it’s not like – you know – “finally we get some recognition”. I think we’re very lucky getting recognition for our career.