When avant-jazz legends The Necks take the stage, not even the musicians know what will happen. Each live set is a completely unplanned event. There’s not even talk beforehand about coming to a consensus on structure, chords or mood.

“It would ruin it. It really would,” says bassist Lloyd Swanton to Limelight

“The product we’re delivering is the process. In a way, whatever delights people experience along the way is secondary. That’s great, but we’re not actually about delivering anything other than just this process of us trying to work out something on stage over the course of an hour.” 

The Necks

The Necks – Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams. Photo © Camille Walsh.

“Sometimes, I’ll be honest, I get on stage and have absolutely no idea what I’m going to play,” Swanton says. “But, we’ve learned over time that the one thing we can rely on is one half decent idea; that between the three of us, we should surely be able to come up with something.”

At the end of last year, The Necks – Swanton, pianist Chris Abrahams and drummer Tony Buck – wrapped up its first European tour since COVID. While returning was a “huge and daunting” prospect at first, a series of sold-out shows proved the international pulling power of the Australian musical veterans hadn’t dimmed.

“The response was so gratifying and heartwarming,” says Swanton. “I don’t know that our music is something that you’d normally associate with a lot of emotion, but this was a very emotional response. I think people were just so happy to be able to be out and about and sitting, immersed in our music again.”

Now, the trio is about to launch into an Australian tour. From 12 February – 1 March, The Necks will grace Melbourne, Castlemaine, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Byron Bay.

There are unique characteristics to every tour, Swanton says, but he’s reluctant to try and pin it down in words. “After all, that’s why we play music – to express the things that words don’t express.”

Live, the performers like to avoid the prescriptive. They don’t excavate live performances for gems to take into the following night, or into the studio, post-tour; they’re fully committed to the moment and keeping the sound organic and moving. 

“I might have a recollection of certain things that might be worthwhile pursuing, but, quite frankly, I forget the music I’ve played the night before,” says Swanton. “There’s a new task, which is tonight’s piece. You have to make way for the new music. Some people might be able to remember, but that’s not the way The Necks work.”

The band has a strong commitment to keep the sound fresh, though each member is “absolutely not concerned” about falling into familiar musical patterns live.

“Because that, in a way, that gives us identity – that’s one of the things that makes The Necks sound like The Necks.”

The Necks also have a rich and large body of recorded work, starting with Sex, its hypnotic debut 1989 release and currently crowned by Travel, the group’s 19th studio album, released in February 2023. As with Sex, Travel’s opening track, Signal, unfurls over a steady Swanton bassline. In Sex, it was unrelenting, driving; in Signal, it injects a cool groove, a litmus test of how the band has evolved since the beginning of its career.

The early ethos of the trio, however, almost prevented it ever setting foot into the studio.

“There was actually a thought within the band at first that we should just play this music and let it go out into the aether,” says Swanton. “If it was going to be truly spontaneous, it should never be recorded; it should just exist in the moment.”

When they turn to the studio, each musician does it with the awareness that what they create on stage could never be replicated in a recording. They’ll still be The Necks, Swanton says, but they’re trying for something slightly different.

Barring amplification, The Necks “would never” use electronics on stage; the rich, organic nature of their process can shine. In the studio, however, the group will use “anything that’s within our reach”. 

The Necks. Photo © Devin Oktar Yalkin

“The improvising also takes place over a much longer period of time; it might be months. I’m driving in and out of town right now to do gigs, and I’m listening to rough mixes of stuff we recorded last year, and I’m thinking, ‘That keyboard part is really nice, but I think it should come in later.’ I’m improvising on that piece of music in my car, making a decision about how the final shape of the piece is going to be – assuming the other lads agree with me.”

Swanton is a self-professed “inverted conventional jazz player”, who also performs non-improvised gigs. [By coincidence, I’d caught him the week before our interview at the Sydney restaurant/venue Hubert, holding down the fort with standards in the Chris Cody Trio]. Even so, he’s “absolutely engaged” in trying to bring out keep everyone fresh and interesting.

Even after such a longstanding, musical relationship, both on stage and in the studio, Swanton says that he still gets surprised during performances. There ares always things thrown into the mix that are unexpected, and venue acoustics are ripe with new possibilities.

“All three of us have the experience of hearing sounds on stage that we don’t know where they’re coming from, we don’t know who’s doing it. It’s really weird. One of the things we do love to get happening is where there’s just so many overtones clanging around the auditorium that they’re creating the illusion of instruments that aren’t there. That’s fantastic.

“It’s almost like just getting a roaring fire going and after a while all you have to do is step back and poke a log once in a while, and it just carries itself. That’s a great feeling.”

The Necks perform at Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne (12–14 Feb), Theatre Royal, Castlemaine (15 Feb), The Gov, Adelaide (21 Feb), The Street Theatre, Canberra (22 Feb), the Sydney Opera House (23–24 Feb), Brisbane’s Ohm Festival (29 Feb), and the Byron Theatre, Byron Bay (1 March). More information can be found here.

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