Getting My Head Around The Necks

I first became aware of the Necks when I was working as a shop assistant in a ‘classical and jazz’ music shop. The assistant manager was actually foolhardy enough to try and put a Necks CD on in the shop and was thwarted, moments into it, by the shop owner. See, although, as a music consumer, you may think music shops exist to expose new music to music-lovers, they in fact exist to shift units of product. So you don’t actually play new, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking stuff. The only new stuff you play is either what is already popular, or what sounds as safe and accessible as something already popular. The Necks – like, say, Stravinsky – never stood a chance in our shop. Not that the Necks should be considered the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky or anything like that; what the Necks have in common with Stravinsky is an essential non-beingness: you’d never play Stravinsky in the store because it’s not Mozart. Little old ladies, middle aged businessmen who ought to know better and kids who just ought to know something would complain. And you’d never play the Necks because they aren’t the safe, pre-‘70s fusion’ Miles Davis.

So, obviously, I had no idea what I was in for when I was coerced – by my friend Miranda – to go and see the Necks at the Bondi Pavilion one Saturday night. I didn’t know that the set would consist of two hour-long utterly improvised (apparently) pieces separated by a fifteen-minute interval. I didn’t know people would be lying down on the floor in front of the stage. I didn’t know it was okay to start to nod off somewhere in the middle. But by the end of it, I knew I wanted to interview the band, who were about to spend a month doing gigs all around Australia, culminating with a show at the Sydney jazz club known as the Basement.

Tracking the Necks down to request an interview was easy enough – an e-mail address for the band, along with one for each individual member may be found on the band’s website. Getting a reply to the e-mail is a bit harder. No response for days, and just when you’re about to give up hope, two of them will reply within an hour of each other.

A Necks gig is a majestic, magical thing – but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For some, the ‘at least I’ve seen what an improvised jazz show is like’ mindset prevails – justifying it as not a wasted night out because not having the most pleasant of entertainment experiences still provides the opportunity for personal growth. This is probably a valid position – but it also validates a heap of activities that only the truly psychotic or perverse engage in, and I'm not so keen to experience some of those activities just so that I can say that I’ve been there and done that. There’s a valid philosophical argument that justifies the art you have to think a bit about or know a bit more about to enjoy, and although I can’t recite it for you, I know from personal experience that it holds true. Discordant cacophonies and utter disorder – if that’s how you hear it – can be constructed to be beautiful and ordered, even when it’s being made up on the spot, but occasionally you need some theoretical underpinning to appreciate the fact. Like Stravinsky, the Necks produce a rather gorgeous, awe-inspiring noise whose beauty is somehow greater because it isn’t easily recognised by the masses. Besides that, if you are able to lose yourself in a Necks performance, you do find yourself drifting off into what some people describe as “hypnagogia” – “that stage just before sleep when you have brief, surreal flashes of scenes”. After that Bondi Pavilion gig, I heard punters referring to “meditative states”. For me, I was finding myself relaxed and happy in a way that usually costs a lot and leads to munchies, paranoia, a heightened risk of schizophrenia and a two-day hangover. I felt great after the Necks gig.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the Necks, you are not alone. Most of my friends aren’t familiar with them. When I told my friend Damien that I was going to see the Necks at the Basement, he wanted to know if “they’re the support for the Heads!”

Funny bastard.

I can’t even be bothered working out when this interview with bassist Lloyd Swanton was broadcast; it is included here not only because I’m addicted to my blog and it’s been a while since I updated it, but also because everyone should hear the Necks at some stage. They’re incredible musicians.

Demetrius Romeo: Now Lloyd, the term ‘jazz’ can mean many different things to many different people. How would you label the sort of music you make with the Necks?

LLOYD SWANTON: That’s a very difficult question because I feel like I can modestly say that what we’re doing is very different to what anyone else is doing anywhere. There have been terms like ‘improvised trance jazz’ and I'm reasonably comfortable with that.

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Minimalism’ is a word that appears occasionally as well. Are you less comfortable with that word?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are elements of ‘minimalism’ in what we do, but I think that sometimes, when things get particularly frenzied, we’d have to be described as ‘maximalist’, to say the least. It can get very, very physical and ‘orgiastic’ on stage.

Demetrius Romeo: Ninety-five percent of actors don’t actually make money from acting. How does it compare for jazz musicians?

LLOYD SWANTON: I think there are a few more opportunities in the music scene to make money out of music, even if it’s not doing your own beloved project. A lot of musicians I know make their living out of teaching, or out of freelance music, doing their own projects when they want to, or when they get the chance. I guess I'm really fortunate that I get to prioritise my beloved group the Necks, and everything else I do is just money for beer and pudding.

Demetrius Romeo: You actually play in a number of other bands as well. How do they interact, and what is your approach when you're playing with each one?

LLOYD SWANTON: The way I see it, you have a whole spectrum of work posibilities from your very personal projects at one extreme through to other people’s very personal projects that you're involved in, all the way to the other extreme which is just ‘take the money and run’, doing weddings, parties, bar mitzvahs and the like, where people call up and you say, ‘where’s it on at, how much do I get paid and when do you want me there?’ So it’s a constant juggling process because the scene just isn’t quite big enough for us to totally focus on our personal projects, so it’s a constant give-and-take.

Demetrius Romeo: What’s your role in the different bands that you play with?

LLOYD SWANTON: In the Necks I’m a co-leader; the three of us are equal leaders. In the Catholics, I’m the leader of a seven-piece ensemble. In every other band I’m in, I’m a side-man.

Demetrius Romeo: Does your approach differ markedly depending on which combo your playing in at the time?

LLOYD SWANTON: Stylistically, often the bands are often very, very different, so as a professional musician, I'm always trying to provide what is most appropriate within those stylistic bounds and yet still try to come up with something creative and stimulating.

Demetrius Romeo: Now you’ve described your work in the Necks as being improvised trance jazz. When you play live, is it a hundred percent utterly imrovised, or are there bits of what, if you’ll forgive me, I’d describe as ‘musician’s shtick’, that you can bring into play whenever a phrase or a circumstance warrants it.

LLOYD SWANTON: Well, after sixteen years of playing together, obviously we’re going to fall into a few familiar routines. It’s unspoken; we’ve certainly never said, ‘let’s do this every time!’ and obviously the band, even though it’s free improvisation, has its stylistic parametres. I think the fact that our pieces are so slow-moving and repetitive is a framework that we always work within. Having said that, all three of us have a pretty high standard of performance and I can speak for myself and say that I wouldn’t want to get up on stage and fall into some familiar routine and worry that Chris and Tony are going, ‘oh dear, Lloyd’s doing that again!’ We try to keep each other stimulated, we try to provide fresh ideas. The other good thing about the band is that it’s essentially a brain-storming session on stage, so there are occasions when you do feel quite uninspired, but there's a fair probability that at least one or both of the other musicians will have an idea, so we're rarely lost for words.

Demetrius Romeo: When I was watching you live, because the music begins slowly and is a bit repetitive, I found it easy to drift off and get into that state where, when you're just starting to fall asleep, you have funny visions. Now, I never actually fell asleep, because nobody elbowed me in the gut to stop snoring, so you’re safe there, but when I came out of the gig I heard other punters saying that they were getting into a meditative state as well, and I did see a few people down the front reclining, lying down on the floor. Do you have people who fall asleep in your gigs? Does it matter to you? What is the reaction that you normally get from your average punter?

LLOYD SWANTON: We certainly have people falling asleep at our gigs; I’m one, particularly if I’m jet-lagged and we have a heavy schedule overseas and in Australia. We're not at all offended if someone falls asleep. We are trying to conjure that trance-like state just before you do nod off. I believe it’s known as the ‘alpha state’, where the normal barricades between the different parts of your brain start getting broken down, and so you make all sorts of connections wouldn’t be made if you were alert. That’s actually a very rewarding and rich state to be in, so if people can hover there, that’s fantastic. I know as a performer with the Necks that my mind goes off into all sorts of bizarre directions. It really does trigger something. I don’t know how it works, but that's one of the things - not the only thing, but certainly one of the things - we aim to conjure up when we're performing.

Demetrius Romeo: Lloyd, thank you very much.

LLOYD SWANTON: It’s my pleasure, thank you.