The universe is making music all the time

Time Has Told Me: The Necks

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“I often visualise music in terms of light. When I play with the Necks, I always play with my eyes closed. I like to face the stage lights with my eyes closed. I can sense this light through my eyelids, I can also I feel its energy. It seems a perfect analogue to the music, especially when things seem to be really building somewhere.”

—Chris Abrahams, The Necks

Words: Mark Carry


Described by Financial Times (UK) as “absolutely riveting” and “entirely new and entirely now” by The Guardian, it’s one of life’s great fortunes to have been blessed by such an extraordinary, innovative and richly compelling band, namely Australia’s The Necks. Releasing their debut record, ‘Sex’ back in 1989, the trio of Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) have unleashed a plethora of shape-shifting records – the other-worldly mid-90’s double-album ‘Silent Night’, the band’s string of colossal live records (including 2007’s ‘Townsville’), and the band’s latest crowning jewel of ‘Open’ containing 68 minutes of raw, intense beauty, is to just name a few – whereupon a revelatory experience lies at the pulsing heart of each artistic treasure.

The gradual music of The Necks is borne from improvisation, where a deep musical telepathy is forever forged between each member of the spell-binding trio as a sacred space is ceaselessly explored. Featuring lengthy pieces which slowly unravel in the most mesmerizing fashion, frequently underpinned by an insistent deep groove, the sixteen albums by The Necks stand up to re-listening time and time again. In short, the music of the Australian trio is utterly timeless.

I recall first hearing The Necks in my local record-store one morning in early Spring where a mesmerizing sound of piano notes, drums and hypnotic bass-line flooded the surrounding space. In a short period of time – moments after the stylus hit this unknown (and deeply mysterious) vinyl – returning motifs of piano patterns forged an imprint on the forefront of my mind. Like ocean waves, the crescendo of piano notes formed ripples in the sea.

With each and every subsequent release of The Necks, this magical sense of discovery and awe has always remained.  An intense beauty, tenderness, solace, hope, pain, and longing is carved out on a canvas of enlightening soundscapes. Not entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz, the music of The Necks defies boundaries and constantly pushes the sonic envelope.


Interview with Chris Abrahams.

[The following are excerpts taken from an interview with Chris Abrahams, the resulting interview here is unedited from the initial interview and is reproduced here all in the words of Chris Abrahams.]

I can really only speak for myself when it comes to the Necks as I think we each have differing opinions as to what the whole thing means. For me, the idea that best describes the Necks’ music and approach to being a band is pretty simple: one thing leads to another.

I met Tony when I was sixteen, at a jam session in the suburb where we both grew up. I met Lloyd about a year later. We all three of us played together a lot, in different combinations, before we formed the Necks. What it was we wanted to do with the group, apart from playing music, was never really overtly considered. For the first ten years of its existence the band played maybe three or four shows a year. Nevertheless, it was incredibly important to us.

The reasons I played music are embedded quite far back in my childhood. My father was very passionate about Jazz – Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman especially. He’d spent time, in the late forties, in the USA and I think the music brought back to him powerful memories of his time there. One pianist whose records he played a lot was Jimmy Yancey. There’s a bar in Berlin called Miss Hecker and they often put Jimmy Yancey on the sound system. The music is very evocative of childhood memories. I remember being about seven and trying to play a simplified version of Five O’clock Blues on the piano.

My teenage years were fairly unexceptional in terms of what I listened to – the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix. I tried to play bass guitar in a rock band I formed with some school friends. I had an upright piano in my bedroom,which I played regularly and on which I tried to write songs. The reason why I became a musician as a career choice came about through listening to modern jazz records, which began when I was sixteen or so.

Up until my early twenties, Afro-American modern jazz, mainly from the sixties, was chiefly what I listened to and tried to emulate – particularly the piano players Mal Waldron and McCoy Tyner.

As a young person, apart from African-American modern jazz, I listened to rock music. I think John Cale was quite an influence on my piano playing, particularly in the Velvet Underground. I was a big fan of the Modern Lovers and Nico albums he produced as well. I also listened to a lot of African music –Fela Kuti, Tabu Ley, King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita. Reggae was also big thing – Lee Perry, Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Yellowman, King Tubby. In fact, Tony and I spent an extraordinary week in Jamaica in 1987 where we met Gregory Isaacs and got to see Yellowman and Pinchers performing live at a drive in cinema in downtown Kingston. I also listened to a lot of soul music and played Hammond organ in a soul group led by the great Jackie Orszaczky. I listened to classical music; the Beethoven Sonata cycle played by Alfred Brendel was much listened to as was Pascal Devoyon playing Ravel; John Ogden and Brenda Lucas playing “Visions of the Amen” by Messiaen was also on high rotation.

In my early twenties I became involved with an Indie record label, Hot Records, in Sydney. Through this association I got to meet and play with many young musicians that were in bands. I ended up playing on Laughing Clowns’, Triffids’ and Peter Walsh albums. I lived in Newtown, an inner city suburb which at the time was a bit of a music area and I consequently socialized and played on quite a few other records – records by Crow, Big Heavy Stuff and Love Me amongst others. I also wrote songs with a singer called Melanie Oxley.

I was also involved in the improvised music scene in Sydney. Although not huge in number, there are some incredible improvisers in Australia. In the eighties I played with such people as Jim Denley, Rick Rue, Sherre Deleys, Jamie Fielding and Amanda Stewart. I had the honour of guesting with such groups as Mind Body Split and Machine for Making Sense. There was also the towering figure of Jon Rose, who was very active in the early eighties in Sydney before relocating, for a number of years, to Europe.

Another musician who had a big influence on me was a saxophonist called Mark Simmonds with whom I played in the group, The Freeboppers.

The form of jazz soloing whereby a melody is played and then various soloists display dexterity by improvising over a set of harmonic changes was something I lost interest more or less by my early twenties, possibly because I wasn’t very good at it. I began to think of music not as a display of individual brilliance. I began to see music’s ability to express things more profound than cleverness or hard work.I began, in fact, to see it as something beyond individual expression. Through the Necks I realised that I could be both performer of and listener to the music that we made – and that was an exciting discovery. Maybe we all made that discovery together when we first started playing in the group.



Our approach to making music is not very intellectual. I think its true to say we just play. We’ve been doing it now for thirty years and what we are as a group is a result of us having played together for so long. We’ve developed an identity, a way of doing things, and when we play, a certain music happens.

When we perform live, we never look at each other. Nor do we discuss beforehand what we’re going to play. Some people find this strange, but to me it feels perfectly natural. Our music can’t rely on rehearsal or signals from a bandleader – it has to rely solely on the playing of music, without a preordained teleology. That’s not to say are music lacks direction – far from it. I think there’s a compelling teleology, it’s just that this seems to be there innately. Scores, words or signals would be distracting from our goal.

I think our music requires stamina and relaxation to make. I love the feel of playing the piano, the sense of my fingers pressing down on the keys. I find this to be expressive in itself. In the early days sometimes I’d find myself barely hanging on and struggling with fatigue. Nowadays that doesn’t happen so much. I like sitting very still when I play, I like the sense of focus and relaxation. I like to think that the things I do in the Necks I could do for hours and hours.

I don’t like to think about where I’m going during a performance. I don’t want people to listen to me making decisions. I often find myself carried along in the excitement of the music – its crescendo, it’s ebb and flow – as if I were part of the audience. Sometimes I don’t know what it is I’m playing; there might be a strange melody I hear and I think it’s me playing it. I stop and it keeps going. Sometimes, through the combination of a strange instrument and weird acoustics, I have heard the piano speak words. The same sonic hallucinations that audience members have told us they’ve heard during a performance, we too have heard.

The Necks are site specific. We play and when we gradually start to interact with the acoustic environment, we begin to intuitively shape the music. Every space is different, every instrument is different, and every PA is different. Our music uses these things as structure defining elements.

I often visualise music in terms of light. When I play with the Necks, I always play with my eyes closed. I like to face the stage lights with my eyes closed. I can sense this light through my eyelids, I can also I feel its energy. It seems a perfect analogue to the music, especially when things seem to be really building somewhere.


the necks at the blue whale

I think there’s a narrative dimension to what we do. Seemingly, we are repeating small actions over and over – actions that can be melodic, rhythmical and textural –and this has the effect of being mesmerizing. But these units are all slightly different, largely because they are physically played, and thus, over time, the music changes. A Necks’ piece is normally about fifty minutes long and, by allowing one thing to lead to another, where we end up can be vastly different from where we started. Some sort of abstract narrative is told. I am gripped by the hypnotic sameness of the “repetition” and am being pulled along a slowly but profoundly shifting musical terrain.

I try to express emotion through my playing. I try to express the excitement of the music that I’m playing. There’s a circularity to it.

A very big change happened to my approach to the piano when I bought my first sampler – the Kurzweil K2000. Up until that time, I wouldn’t have known what the term “envelope” meant or what an “LFO” was.

Let me backtrack… I never really had a very good piano when I was young. Neither of my parents was a practising musician. However like many parents, they wanted to give myself and my sister the opportunity of having piano tuition, probably expecting it to be a passing phase after which the behemoth would sit largely unplayed in a corner of the house – a sentimental memento of our childhoods. The instrument I got to learn on was a sixty-year-old Richard Lipp and Son upright – an old warhorse that couldn’t be tuned within a semitone of A440. (In its day it would have been a beautiful instrument) It had an inbuilt chorus effect, which no piano tuner was able to tame. (I discovered that by threading a necktie through the strings, the piano sounded more in tune.)I was in no way a child prodigy and by the age of eleven I had in fact given up on formal lessons. But the piano ended up in my bedroom, so I played it. I think possibly the out of tune-ness of the instrument may have pointed me in the direction of a more textural approach to piano playing, without me actually knowing it.



Let me backtrack even further… I can remember the first time I ever played a piano. I would have been about five years old and we, my family, were visiting another family. They had this strange-looking wardrobe thing in one of the rooms. My sister and I lifted the lid on the keys and began to play with them, with me down one end and her at the other. I remember being amazed that the action of pressing a key down could produce such a loud sound. I recall us both being enthralled by the high notes and low notes. With its simple exploration of lightness and darkness, I’ve often thought there was something about that initial meeting with the piano that’s stayed with me.

When I got into sampling and synthesisers, I found that I had a whole lot of new words and concepts that could be applied to the various sound elements I explored on the piano; I could, for instance, understand the sustain pedal as a form of reverb; I saw the una corda pedal as a form of EQ; I saw that these pedals could be used in such a way so as to produce a Low Frequency Modulation effect; by rapid striking of a single string, I could overload its vibration and cause a distortion effect; and I became aware that as the string struggles towards stasis, the pitch produced gets higher with the concomitant frequency increase. All these ideas were directly a result of my self-guided explorations into the physics of sound production that the sampler opened up for me.

I made two solo piano records in the mid eighties and then didn’t make another one till “Glow” in 2003. My approach to Glow was one of developing pieces over a period of time, booking a studio and then doing take after take of each piece until I got something I liked. My next solo album “Streaming” had different approach. I chose to work with performance techniques that eschewed the idea of “mistakes” or difference in the quality of performances. Here the pieces were longer. I’m quite proud of the track “Christmas Island” on Streaming. It’s a piece that involved placing my hands above the keyboard so that they readily played a tonal “mode” and moving my fingers so as to brush against the keys. Although I had control over the note range, how many of the notes would “sound” was to a large extent unknown. The piece is therefore personally expressive but very much uncontrolled, left to chance – an authorial stance I most prefer.

Since “Streaming” in 2005, I haven’t released a solo piano record. However I’ve finished four solo albums on the Room 40 label – “Thrown”, “Play Scar”, Memory Night”, and soon to be released “Fluid to The Influence”. These have elements of piano solo on them, but are much more electro acoustic in content.

The Necks are two different entities. On the one hand there is the live Necks, which is nearly always acoustic piano, acoustic bass and drums/percussion. On the other hand there’s the “studio” version of the group, which uses anything – guitars, synths, organs, samplers, field recordings, electric bass – even other musicians.

With the live Necks, we don’t really ever discuss what we are about to play. Intuitively our pieces last for around fifty minutes – this was a time frame we hit upon within months of forming the group. I have the feeling it’s a natural human length of time. I feel extremely safe on stage with the Necks, I am never nervous or stressed. Although there is a strong identity to the music we play, I don’t feel I have to consciously force myself to play that way. It’s as if it’s impossible to play any other way; impossible to do something that’s not “the Necks” – even not playing sounds like the Necks. Somehow we all know when the piece is over. I don’t know whether this is telepathy or music, I suspect it’s the latter. I think we’ve been doing this one thing for so long that we can communicate with each other through music. The fact that it’s incredibly enjoyable helps too.



We all met when we were still teenagers. I met Lloyd during my brief attempt at attending the NSW Conservatorium of Music. We shared a similar sense of humour and quickly formed a group – a jazz quartet called The Benders comprising piano, bass, drums and saxophone. The group stayed together for five years and we released three albums. I think playing in this quartet was responsible for me developing technique on the piano. The drummer, Andrew Gander, taught me a lot about time and tempo. It ended in 1986.

Tony and I met while I was still at high school. It was at a jam session in the suburb we grew up in. I played in various groups in the early eighties with him. He had his own group, Sketches, that I played in and he sometimes played with the Benders.

There was also a musical collective called “The Keys Music Association” which organised concerts and festivals. All three of us were a part of this and played in various groupings. I guess, like in most scenes, in Sydney everybody played with everybody else.

In 1986, some months after the Benders finished, Lloyd rang me with the idea of forming a trio. We both thought of Tony. We began “rehearsing” in a room in the compounds of Sydney University and straightaway hit upon something that felt new to us. We actually had no intention of rushing into playing gigs – in fact we enjoyed the idea of performing stress free in front of no audience, well away from the “industry” of music making. We wanted to free ourselves from the desire to play music that we thought people would be impressed by.

Previously I had toyed with the idea of playing music where there was no “soloing” as such; where the ambience remained static and non dynamic. The early Necks’ sessions took these ideas to a far more meditative stage. I felt a relaxation hitherto unexperienced; a contentment in letting things unfold of their own volition. Possibly this is merely the crossing over that every musician/artist has to make in order to become a mature artist – the relinquishing of the self, the using of a skill to create a third-party “thing” that’s not just the representation of individual desires. I think we all discovered this together then, whilst playing music in that room, but I can really only speak for myself.

Silent Night ranks up there with my personal favourite Necks’ recordings. I like the doom quality it exudes and it’s unrelenting feel – Lloyd’s bass playing and Tony’s drumming swing! Conceptually it was a breakthrough for us. We used samples of movie soundtracks – bits of sound design and snippets of half-heard dialog – to create an abstract narrative. It feels like there’s a film there, but what’s being projected is black. It was the album that got us the invitation to write the music for “The Boys” – an Australian film about abject male violence. For a while there our music would crop up regularly behind television reports about horrific crimes.


—Chris Abrahams, in conversation November 2015





Written by markcarry

November 21, 2015 at 3:23 pm

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