My Obsession With the Necks, the Greatest Trio on Earth

My Obsession With the Necks, the Greatest Trio on Earth


The Necks are not careerists. “Hanging Gardens” was followed by “Aether,” a whole album consisting entirely of variations on four shimmering chords. “Drive By,” with its potential to become a crossover hit, was followed shortly by a difficult double CD (“Mosquito/See Through”). By now I knew how foolish it was to try to guess what they might do next, but “Chemist” broke the molds of expectation in several ways. There were three tracks, each clocking in at a mere 20 minutes, on at least two of which the drummer (Tony) overdubbed surf guitar. The last of these tracks, “Abillera,” didn’t just swing; it rocked. The influence of Krautrock, of Neu! in particular, was unmistakable, but as often happens when the critic spots an unmistakable influence, it turns out that Tony hadn’t ever listened to Neu! The Necks had moved far from the minimalist grooves of the earlier records, from post-jazz to a kind of post-rock, but they were in the midst of a deeply creative groove, releasing masterpiece after masterpiece. The live album “Townsville” had none of the narrative trajectory that made “Drive By” and “Chemist” so enthralling — and that, I realized eventually, was its beauty. To experience “Townsville” properly is to give way entirely to the oceanic sense.

“Silverwater” (2009) followed, an epic reminder that they both were and were not the band that recorded “Sex.” Featuring further evidence of the drummer’s guitar prowess, “Silverwater” succeeded in being both fragmented and cohesive. After about 50 minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking that the record was coming to an end. Everything subsides to a series of low electronic beeps, like a faint message from a stricken space station, picked up randomly, so long after transmission as to serve as evidence of its doom. Except records by the Necks change radically according to the system on which you’re hearing them. On about the 10th listen, through headphones, I detected, so far back in the mix it seemed to have leaked through the inadequate sound proofing of a neighboring sound system, the faint bleed of funk. Scientists are still poring over this discovery, trying to establish if, in the last phases of its existence, a section of the space station was given over to a party.

I was about to start listening to the four tracks of “Unfold” when I was struck by how long it had been since I looked forward to a band’s new album the way I look forward to each new offering from the Necks. This was how I felt waiting to hear “London Calling,” by the Clash, “Slow Train Coming,” by Bob Dylan, or, going even further back, “Electric Warrior,” by T. Rex. So intense was the anticipation generated by the prospect of hearing “Unfold” that I kept putting off playing it. And then there was the nonoptional wait to get into the Lab in San Francisco for the opening gig of the American tour. Just as the experience of listening to an eagerly awaited record by the Necks varies from system to system, your experience of a performance depends a lot on where you sit. So, as we stood in the long and lengthening line, I delivered a rousing address to my troops — five of them — on the need to act decisively once we were inside, how we had to seize the very best nonassigned seats: as near to the front as possible, but not too close to the potentially overwhelming drums, and not to one side. This anxiety threatened to turn what for everyone else was supposed to be a fun night out — going to a gig — into its opposite, but I knew, with the unshakable conviction of the believer whose devotion is a sign not of gullibility but of superior powers of discernment, that we were potentially on the brink of one of the greatest musical experiences currently available on the planet. (In the unlikely event that it didn’t quite happen that night, I was booked in for another two-set helping the following evening.)

We scored great seats, three rows from the front, and I was able to make sure, without anyone noticing (even though everyone noticed), that I got the best seat of all, with the clearest view — of the resting instruments — of any of us. Ever since I went to my first rock concert, Family in Oxford in about 1972, the thrill of what was about to happen was symbolized by the dormant power of the vacant drum kit, the way it sat there like a throne to its imminent rhythmic might. That sense of the instruments lying in wait is even more pronounced with a gig by the Necks as we wait for music to come into existence for the first time.

The gigs the band played immediately before this tour were in large venues, opening for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, in Australia. This brought the Necks to the attention of a new audience, but it’s in places like the Lab that they really come into their own: 150 people, ready to focus on every moment, every note. Typically, bands “tour” an album, showcasing its contents, advertising it. The Necks do not do this, of course, but one track from the new album, “Blue Mountain,” bears a sufficiently close resemblance to some of the performances from the recent tour to permit me to conflate the transient experience of a live performance with repeated exposures to the documentary evidence of the record.

Photo

Tony Buck on drums.

Credit
Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

They take the stage at the Lab, Lloyd looking like a tall backwoodsman with balding head and full beard; Chris, bald, bespectacled, austerely professorial; Tony, white-haired and dressed, by comparison, quite fashionably in a polka-dot shirt. Chris sits with his back to the other two as if cutting himself off, but it’s a setup that enables them to hear one another better — and responsiveness to one another is at the heart of the performance. Tennis players, by the time they come on court, are already halfway into the realm of intense concentration required by the coming sets. Preparation for the Necks involves shutting their eyes for five seconds, waiting to see who will serve. Chris touches the piano keys.

Instead of the band gradually stretching out and easing into a groove, there is a steady creation and increase of internal pressure. From Tony there tends, at the outset, to be a lot of shaking, rattling, scraping and shuffling. It’s easy to hear this as aimless — a sonic bush through which it will be necessary to beat a path rhythmically. Gradually the impediments to rhythm emerge as its formative parts. Insistently repeated press rolls on the snare generate the need to break out — rhythmically — while simultaneously incarcerating this need. The same thing is happening with the tidal moan of Lloyd’s bowed bass, a sublimated pulse that manifests itself as a refusal to fully express itself. At some point the yearning is answered, at first chthonically, by the bass drum, later by the insistent jump of the high-hat. But the forward momentum remains contained.

So there is a piling up of forces, like the roiling storm clouds of a weather system, already in our midst but continuing to approach. The pressure continues to mount, to bear down and, partly through the immense shimmer of cymbals, to expand. The piano suggests what might remain of the lyrical after all else — including much of what constitutes lyricism — has been corroded. Think of all that aural starlight in jazz (“Stella by Starlight”!). The glimmer, here, is of ruined starlight. Contained in the piano is a scattered residue of jazz, traces of a lost blues. You focus on what Chris is doing, and then your attention is drawn to the drums, then over to the bass and back to Chris, who has jabbed the piano into an off-the-cuff Reichian lockdown. There are no solos, but the ball is being passed back and forth constantly. At some point it becomes impossible to tell who is doing what.

And not only that. There appear, through some weird alchemy of harmonics, phantom instruments. A cello? A human voice? A violin? Hearing such things, wanting to have the source of these auditory hallucinations verified, you look to see what is happening, but there are just these three middle-aged blokes, playing piano, bass and drums, conjuring things that do not exist. There are also moments that make you aware that your attention has wandered. Is this just about refocusing as a listener, or has the band, having drifted into a comparatively slack interlude, done something deliberately to pull you back into the trance? The Necks, these days, do not swing, but there is a constant swelling, an abundance of lateral movement that is manifest also as its opposite: a tightening of the screw, locking you inside the music, becoming part of its rise, its eventual fall and final fade.

At the end of the first set, Lloyd introduces the band and mentions that CDs are for sale. With their minimalist packaging and discreet information (the recent ones don’t explain who’s playing what), the CDs and the new double LP are consummately cool, eminently desirable, but the economic aftermath and interlude are relatively modest given the profundity of the experience that has preceded it. While the merchandise is being shifted, the band is more than ready to mingle, all the while displaying a distinct lack of any wish to be revered. At the Blue Whale in 2016, Lloyd came up to say hello. I was talking to a guy sitting in the row in front who had seen the band the last time they played in Los Angeles. He wasn’t sure when that was.

Photo

Chris Abrahams on piano.

Credit
Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

“But too long,” he said.

“Right,” Lloyd agreed.

“He was actually referring to the length of the set,” I said.

“Yeah?” he said. “I thought he meant your last book. Pretty surprising, since it was only about 150 pages.” In my book, so to speak, this represents the ideal behavior of the artist: You create this very serious work, and then you shoot the breeze as though the whole world is a pub in the Outback where no one cares what you do as long as you get your round in. Until it’s time for the second set.

The Necks are not improvising from existing tunes but creating from scratch, every night. Except now, in their 30th year, they are able to draw on their own history the way jazz musicians have relied on the history of the form, on what has been done — sometimes composed — by others. The idea in this classic jazz situation is not to copy or emulate but to distinguish yourself, to establish your individual identity by reference to what has gone before. The Necks could be said to do versions of — to improvise on — their past (entirely improvised) performances. In other words, they improvise on their own history. Each night is a slightly more familiar exploration or mapping of the unknown. Their career is therefore expressed in miniature in each piece, and each piece is a condensation of their career. The foundations have to be endlessly re-established, otherwise they collapse (into chaos) or cement themselves into cliché or convention.

It goes without saying that this way of proceeding cannot produce amazing results every time. Were they able to produce a miracle every night, the feeling of the miraculous would be lost. The only way to guarantee a superlative gig each and every time is to rehearse and rehearse, to get everything down pat. The Necks, of necessity, do not rehearse; nor are they locked into a monogamous musical relationship. They meet up, play gigs, tour and record, but each band member pursues other projects with other bands. Chris and Lloyd still live in Australia. Tony moved to Tokyo in 1990, then to Amsterdam in 1994, until 1998, when he moved — or, in a very Necksian way, “cross-faded” — to Berlin, where he is still based. So even after 30 years, making music has the feel of a special occasion — a get-together. And despite what was just said about the impossibility of routine miracles, the standard of the average — the frequency of the exceptional — is surprisingly high. At a gig some years ago at the Vortex in London, they were flooring it, going flat-out, and the next instant they stopped so suddenly that it was like being thrown through a windshield into silence. “How did you do that?” my friend asked them afterward. Well, Lloyd said, there were a few little signs we all picked up on. So are there some moves or tricks to which they resort when the alchemy does not occur? Or, as I said when I went to see them at their Airbnb, “Can a great performance result when one of you is having a bad night?”

“It depends what you mean by a bad night,” Tony said.

“Like a heart attack?” Chris said.

Lloyd mentioned a gig in Perth at the start of last year. The commitment to improvisation extends even to the instruments — he travels without a bass, preferring, like a piano player, to put himself at the mercy of what the venue provides. (Two weeks later, when I bumped into him at a noodle bar near the Blue Whale, he looked slightly stressed because, an hour before the show, he still had nothing to play.) The bass provided for the gig in Perth was diabolical. “The variability of the instrument is one of the things I try to get excited about. As long as the bass is playable, that’s quite exciting. But this one was an absolute dog. I said to the others, ‘There’s about five notes that work on this, so I’m not going to be contributing a whole lot.’ My bass part was really disciplined because I didn’t have a lot of options. And it was an amazing piece of music.”

Photo

From left: Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton, and Chris Abrahams.

Credit
Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

“But you have made whole records where you’ve only played one note,” Tony said. “So you were spoiled for choice.”

“It’s actually remembered as a virtuoso performance,” I said (sitting in, as they say in the jazz world, improvising with the Necks!). “O.K., I get what you’re saying. But how about if two of you are having a bad night? You can see where I’m going with this. How about if all three of you are?”

“You could get a perfect storm of negative elements,” Lloyd said, before it occurred to me that there was a corollary to my line of questioning. If they are all on good form, it still does not necessarily mean that it will be a great gig by the Necks. And needless to say, what they do is not to everyone’s taste. I reminded them of a gig in Brighton, England, in 2002 — the second time I saw them, before my conversion — when, the moment the first set ended, a member of the audience leapt to his feet and started hurling abuse, telling them and us what a bunch of crap it had been. (The guys took it with surprisingly good grace, seemed entirely unperturbed.) For the record, and to prove that I am not a mindless devotee, their discography contains a few duds: “Silent Night,” “Photosynthetic” and “Vertigo” do nothing for me. And a member of my little group at the Lab, having prepared for our evening out with a noseful of cocaine, was less than enthusiastic. “He does everything with those drums except play them,” he remarked of Tony, rather wittily. I was unsure, when he went on to say that seeing the Necks was just like seeing the Grateful Dead, whether he was joking, trying to make a serious point or testing the limits of my tolerance. Either way, coke is a wretchedly inappropriate drug for experiencing the Necks.

Impatience prevents you from seeing — hearing — that what you are waiting for is already happening (not a bad test-definition of the avant-garde). But there is scope for anxiety on behalf of the participating listener, because the gathering intensity is underwritten by the potential for dissipation. And any given performance makes you wonder how any part of it could be different. This is the possibility that the performance has to raise on the way to becoming that which it was. So the answer is always, Yes, it could have been very different, at almost every stage. Could it have been better? In retrospect maybe, but there are long interludes — sometimes lasting the entire length of the set — when you are left to reflect instead on how much was latent in that first note or chord or rattle of percussion. To what extent did that note — by Chris, say — determine what they all went on to do? The sense, in this genealogy of the moment, is of unanticipated inevitability.

Each set of the San Francisco gigs was extraordinary, as were the two closing sets of the tour at the Blue Whale a fortnight later. But how would these shows sound if they were released on CD? I’ve no idea. Some kind of bootlegged video of part of the previous year’s gig at the Blue Whale exists, but I’ve avoided watching or listening to it. I don’t want to have to measure my experience of being there — superlative! — against a transcript of what occurred. Setting the record straight can sometimes distort it. A performance by the Necks is all about band and audience being utterly absorbed in the process of creation. Whether to release recordings of live performances is therefore a fundamental conceptual issue. In the course of any performance of continuous improvisation lasting for the best part of an hour there are going to be lulls — substandard stretches that are left behind, that evaporate and are forgotten as a show progresses, but that can fatally contaminate an entire recording. And as Lloyd points out, the orgiastic bits — which are so intoxicating live — can seem crude. More broadly, a record becomes a statement or template — this is what the Necks do — whereas it is merely a record of what happened that one night. Even without the problem of releasing live albums, it’s important that the band is not overly concerned with analyzing their live shows; the quality of performance depends on this relative indifference. The kind of post-mortems they go in for after a show typically amount to something along the lines of “That was pretty good wasn’t it?”

They have to feel uninhibited, to be free of the judgments that we listeners often feel bound to make. Was the first set on Saturday in San Francisco better than the second? (My little group of six was split straight down the middle, three and three.) Was Sunday better than Saturday? This is not a problem for the band; they have trouble remembering what they did on a given night.

In the course of thinking about — which means listening to — the Necks and their recent concerts, I’ve often remembered that idea of John Berger’s in “The Moment of Cubism”: “The moment at which a piece of music begins provides a clue to the nature of all art.” But it’s the moment after each piece of music, each set from the Necks, that I think of now. As the music faded into silence, instead of a rush to applaud, the audience waited, respectfully acknowledging that the altered silence was itself still a part of the performance. The silence meant that, on behalf of the performers, the audience wrapped the gift of the music they had received. Only then could the applause begin. That’s when we stood up and applauded.



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