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Mandy Nolan

After two European tours and the UK last year, seminal improvisation trio The Necks return to Australia.

Welcome home. Can you tell me some of the highlights of your international touring for 2012?

We played a very nice show at a place called the Village Underground, in London, in September. We also had a good concert on a rooftop in Madrid as part of a series called Soundays en La Terraza. Another highlight was performing at the Philadelphia Fringe Theatre Festival with Back to Back Theatre.

Two tours of Europe and the UK in one year – how do you keep up your stamina moving place to place? Or do you set up a base? How do you guys do it and still maintain a family life?

Our tours aren’t particularly long, compared with many other groups’, and our tour party is very small, so the organisation is fairly easy. We’ve been doing it for so long that most of the pitfalls are foreseeable. We once played nineteen shows in twenty days, but actually, by the end of it I was sad there weren’t more! Once you get into the rhythm of touring, it’s quit easy – made easier if you enjoy reading and are able to do so while travelling.

Tell me what you mean by ‘letting the music take care of itself’.

The Necks have tended to make music in a very non-verbal way. Our method is one that has evolved over decades of playing music together – I’ve been playing with both Tony and Lloyd for over 30 years now, in various lineups. Rather than prescribe – verbally – the trajectory of a piece, we merely begin playing and let one thing lead to another. The resultant music is then a complex mix of spontaneous improvisation and learned activity/reactivity. The music that we have played in the past very much informs what we are doing in the moment.

Also, from the time we formed the band, we very much wanted to create a ‘group’ sound – as opposed to one centred around having a soloist and a backing band. When we play live, we are aware of the clashing and the sympathetic resonances that result from the interplay of the various instruments (this is something that is unique to every performance). When something interesting starts happening in a room, we tend to follow that, instinctively as it were, and at times it can be difficult to know exactly who is playing what in the overall sound being made. Thus, the totality can subsume one’s own, individually perceived, input into the music. It’s a bit like steering a boat.

You talk of reaching ‘emptiness’ when you are playing. In yogic and meditative traditions, this is the goal. Is their a spiritual element to the process of improvisation – that you can’t contrive, but respond, listen and follow?

Personally, I don’t tend to use terms such as ‘spirituality’ or ‘emptiness’ when describing the Necks’ music. I do see, however, that there are distinct parallels between the sort of mental focus we bring to bear on a performance and certain meditation practices. There is definitely the feeling of entering a different subjectivity with regards to experiencing time passing (interestingly, we invariably tend to play for somewhere between 45 and 55 minutes – and this is something that has been the case since the earliest period of the band’s evolution). There is a certain void with regards to the future. When I’m on stage, thinking about where I want a piece to go is something I very much try to avoid.

One of the things that made the Necks such a breakthrough for me was that I had begun to play music that seemed also to require that I ‘listen’ to it – while I’m playing. In this sense, while performing, I am also part of the audience – placing myself in a feedback loop, as it were, whereby I’m playing music that is also being informed and shaped by listening to the music that I’m playing. This was something that I had never really experienced before.

What do you think people take away from your shows? What effect do you think the music has on them? What are the typical reactions of your audience members?

In many ways the Necks’ music revolves around the performing of many small and similar musical ‘units’ that combine together so that, over time, huge change takes place in a way that can be difficult to perceive. This ‘change’ comes about, to a large extent, through the physicality involved in the playing of our instruments as well as the interpretation of (and experimenting with) the context (architectural, instrumental, production etc…) in which we find ourselves performing. In this way, we are not repetitive, but give the illusion of being so. I think this is very important. We start in one place and end up somewhere else and, even though we – the band – may not be entirely cognisant of it, every utterance along the way is unique and crucial to this process of evolution. This approach can render music that is both mesmerising as well as being dynamic and changing.

It may take a while for the audience to ‘lock into’ a piece. We have had numerous instances of people saying that they found our music difficult for ten or so minutes, but then, having ceased to ‘fight’ the music, have had a profound epiphany whereby the mesmeric nature of what we do became apparent and powerful.

In some ways what we do has similarities to a nineteenth century approach to music-making, whereby certain composers, eg Berlioz, attempted to tell narratives in their compositions. Although our narratives are very abstract, they are, nonetheless, a combination of events that can take an audience through a series of dynamic and emotional highs and lows. This is a very different approach to one that allows for an audience to experience a set of short, discrete pieces.

The New York Times described you as ‘one of the greatest bands in the world’. Is it satisfying to get those sort of accolades. How have you seen your music and your process grow and change since the inception of The Necks?

The Necks hit upon something very early on in its lifespan. There are things we did back in the late eighties that we still do today – ideas that we play with in a concert that could have been played with twenty years ago. When we formed the group we were all in our mid-twenties and so had been playing our instruments professionally for many years. The Necks was not the band in which we first learned how to play and at some point to become proficient on our instruments. What has happened over the course of the band’s life, is that we’ve added to what was a strong concept to begin with.

Having said that, I also feel that we’ve moved towards a more autonomous approach whereby the resultant group ‘sound’ is made up of much more polyrhythmic and contrapuntal elements than was hitherto the case. That’s not to say that we no longer join together in recognisable ‘feels’ – rather, the music now has many more options outside of this. As with most things to do with the band, the change has manifested itself slowly over many years.

Can you tell me what to expect for your Byron show?

The Byron Bay Community Centre is one of the best venues we play, anywhere. It has an incredible piano and the sound and the size of the room have always made for very enjoyable shows.

The Necks play the Byron Community Centre on Wednesday.

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  1. I went along to the Necks concert last year at Byron and found that they were very self indulgent without any imaginative playing with substance.I have been a fan of Jazz for 30years and been fortunate to see many great bands during this time.I am astonished that the journalist for the New York times said they were one of the best they had seen?I wonder how many truly great bands the writer has seen? There are bands in the northern rivers who have more ability than the Necks!


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