In some circles today the word jazz is often greeted with either ambivalence or distaste. In my opinion, anyone who dismisses any genre of music is a fuckwit, but almost more so with jazz, as it has remained consistently one of the most challenging and inventive genres over the past century. In fact, with out it it’s difficult to imagine music ever having evolved into what it is today. I know that’s a rather empty statement, but as always with jazz, it’s quite difficult to describe anything about it in words.
When it comes to Australian jazz though, it’s impossible to go past The Necks. Having put out over thirteen albums since their formation in 1987, the trio made up of Chris Abrahams on piano, Tony Buck on Drums and Lloyd Swanton on bass, have consistently pushed the bounds of jazz as a genre, while at the same time enjoying about as much success as you can as a jazz band in this country, without going the way of James Morrison. They were even invited to play with Brain Eno as part of his incredibly rare live show at The Opera House as part of The Luminous Festival midway through last year.
With live shows that float on waves of emotion and improvised movements through different moods and textures, while at the same time pursuing a more calculated musical vision on their albums, you never know quite what to expect from these three gods of their craft. As all the members variously follow other projects, bringing back what they’ve learned to the band, The Necks never sit still and never move too fast.
Having just released a new album entitled Silverwater and a tour of The U.S. just around the corner, I caught up with pianist Chris Abrahams to talk about the band, the album, the tour and jazz in general.
Music Feeds: So how have you been, busy I’d imagine?
Chris Abrahams: Well yeah, the tour to America has loomed up in the last few days so I’ve been busy with that, but I was in Europe up until the end of November – I’m sort of finishing off a solo record.
MF: Yeah you all seem to have a few different projects going on. Does it help keep you sane, being able to change things up all the time rather than having to stick with the one project or does having all these different things on the go sometimes drive you mad?
CA: It definitely helps keep me sane, it’s sort of what I do. You know, I’d prefer to be doing it than not doing it, but I suppose at times it can get a bit schizophrenic which is what I think you’re getting at. But yeah, it’s good to have a balance between different things.
MF: Does it help with The Necks, being able to work on different ideas and maybe bring them back to the band?
CA: We’ve always encouraged the members of the group to do other things. We think it’s very important to do that and bring back their experiences to The Necks. I think the group is really enriched by that. Certainly we’ve never had a kind of culture of give everything up and concentrate on The Necks and focus on that only, at the exclusion of everything else, I mean we all take it very seriously but in terms of how much time it takes us, there are definitely other projects that take up just as much time.
MF: You’ve got a new album out, Silverwater, how does it relate to your previous work?
CA: I think it’s very much a continuance, it’s not sort of out of the blue, it’s not very different, but we went about it in a different way than we have our other studio albums. With our other albums we’ve always recorded it to analogue tape and this was the first time we’ve actually gone totally digital. So we recorded it on Protools, which means that moving stuff around and editing becomes much easier than having everything on a two-inch tape.
We ended up recording a lot of different tracks, and we ended up with about sixty overdubs, and no sort of through line. A lot of our other albums, everything that you hear on the record is actually played through the record and it airs it out. But this, recording with digital that is, was a process by which we felt we didn’t need to through play everything, we felt we could actually have little snippets almost and move them around in a way we hadn’t been able to before.
MF: Was it a bit weird going from being restricted to a certain amount of tracks to digital where there are almost limitless possibilities? Was it hard to put it down and say ‘ok, it’s done’?
CA: I think there were many ways of putting the album together. I don’t think there was any one way of doing it, so you actually have to bite the bullet and forge into it and you’ve only got so much time with recording and mixing. We’re very happy with what we ended up with but I think there were an infinite number of ways it could’ve turned out.
MF: Do deadlines help then? As in having that time frame to work in stops you from getting carried away with the recording process?
CA: I’m not sure. I mean, I think you end up with what you end up with, but time is an extremely valuable commodity when you’re creating something. I think these things can have a danger of dragging on for decades, but then with other projects where now you can achieve a lot in a home studio, the ability to take your time is priceless.
A lot of it depends on the project though, obviously we couldn’t spend much more time in the studio and we’re sort of bound to have to record in a good professional quality studio, just by the nature of the music and the instrumentation. We couldn’t do it at home, but the way music is sort of going, so much can be done on site, you know you can carry under your arm a professional quality recorder and go anywhere and record. I think music is sort of going that way, to be able to take your time, and to have unlimited time if used beneficially can be an amazing thing.
MF: Yeah I know what you mean, it can be really hard sometimes to get something to the way you envision it in your mind, but sometimes things just don’t ever get finished you know, some people can just sit there adding overdubs ad infinitum.
CA: I think you’ve gotta edge toward completion, you know, if you want to release it you have to finish it.
MF: So with this new approach on Silverwater is that going to have an impact on the live show?
CA: Not at all really, I mean there will be a sort of ruminative influence in our consciousness or subconscious or whatever, but we’ve always kept our live shows and our studio concepts very separate. You know The Necks live is always bass, drums and piano, and we start and we play and we finish. We’ve kind of settled on a 50-minute organic time period, and we don’t really want to change that.
In many ways when we play live, once it’s up and running we sort of steer it places and in many ways we’re sort of buoyed by the music as performers, where as we don’t get that on a studio album. Things change in the studio in a much more intellectual, considered basis, where as when we play live it’s more emotive or feel orientated; things change almost of their own accord.
MF: Now, I was lucky enough to see you play with Brian Eno at The Opera House for Luminous festival last year, what was that like in terms of the music? Was it all improvised or was there a guideline to follow?
CA: Well we’d spent about three days working with Brian in the rehearsal room in The Opera House. The project sort of changed quite drastically from what it was originally going to be, I mean it bore some sort of resemblance, but I think that’s a testament to Brian’s leadership. He lead everyone through what was going to happen and he was open to what people did, but he was also a very strong coordinator and he seemed to have the ability to really mould a project together with a lot of musicians who hadn’t played together before. I mean I wasn’t privy to the process of him making his early albums, but I’d like to think that it bore a similarity.
MF: There was a section there in the middle where you and Jon Hopkins had a sort of minimalist piano duet almost. It was amazing by the way, but yeah, how did that come about?
CA: That came out with Brian in one of the rehearsals. I think I was playing around on the piano and Brian said “What are those chords? You should play them”. They were very different to what actually came out in the performance, they were more sort of angular, then Brian had the idea of Jon playing with me and over the period of two days, with Jon’s influence sort of turning it into a more diatonic less angular piece. But yeah, it was a very special moment and Brian definitely came up with it. It’s a very good example of how Brian can mould things into something.
MF: He almost sounds like a high school music teacher in one of those inspirational Dead Poets Society type films, you know, a caring instructor moulding his students to realise their strengths.
CA: But it never felt kind of like he was arrogant or anything or pedagogic, it was just very organic I think that’s probably why he’s such a great producer, he can get the best out of people.
MF: You have a show coming up at The Metro on the 19th of February, and I’ve got say I was a bit surprised to hear you were playing there. I assumed you’d play somewhere like The Opera House or something?
CA: Well we’ve already played there (The Metro) twice in the past, sort of at the turn of the century. The last two times we played there it was very successful.
MF: Really, are you going to have alter how you would play to suit the venue though, it not traditionally being know for jazz shows?
CA: We do incorporate our surroundings into how we play and it that sense I think it’s important to play in different places, ’cause then it’s fresh experience. You know we play anywhere from sort of very reflective glass and concrete art galleries to… I mean we did a festival in France that was almost an acoustic show on a lawn in front of a house, and, depending on the venue, I think we play very differently and accordingly.
I think The Metro is more towards the rockier end of the spectrum of how we play, you know, like when we play the corner hotel or ATP, you know through a big P.A. and I think we play very differently to when we play totally acoustically in say a church. So it keeps it very interesting, but we’ve never sort of said ‘this is our sound, and if the acoustics of the room are in some way very different to what we’ve experienced before it’s going to be a problem’, there’s just no bad room for us, we just play to the room, and it that sense I guess we’re very architectural.
MF: Now the band has been around since 1987, in that time you must have seen a lot of things change in terms of the jazz scene in Sydney. Would you mind letting us know what you think of the city now from the perspective of a musician trying to play shows?
CA: You know, I think to be honest, the live scene is kind of hard here, even compared to somewhere like Melbourne, where town planners and the state government seem to have been a bit more supportive. I think in Sydney you’ve got the guts essentially being ripped out of the CBD, and you’ve got the poker machines, with the government seemingly finding that a more attractive cultural institution than music, and the Hoteliers Association and their stranglehold on licensing. Then you’ve got the gentrification of suburbs and noise complaints and I’m not saying anything new here, but things are very difficult, and things are very difficult in other major cities like Paris and London.
But there is certainly a lot of interesting music being made in Sydney. I suppose I’m more involved now with the Now Now, the sort of improvised music scene, which more operates in the guerrilla venue scene, sort of the Marrickville warehouse, Cleveland St. warehouse scene. I mean you’ve got SIMA who do a great job with The Sound Lounge and you’ve got 505, Cameron Undy’s place, so there is lot of activity. It’s good that 505 has actually got a proper space on Cleveland St. now, which is great news, and Cameron has done a great job, and there’s another great venue called Serial Space, but yeah these are just examples of a lot of people coming together making something really amazing, so there are a lot of people interested in playing and listening to this music.
MF: Well that’s about it, you’ve got the show at The Metro on the 19th of February, and Silverwater should be on the shelves by the time this goes out, is there anything else you want to mention that our readers should keep an eye out for?
CA: Can I plug my trio?
MF: Of course, go ahead mate.
CA: Well there’s a trio I play with called roil, along with Mike Majkowski on double bass and James Waples on drums and we’re playing toward the end of March at SIMA, on the 27th I think.
If you like jazz, be sure to go check out The Necks, they’re fucking amazing, and from what I’ve heard on MySpace so are roil. To have a listen check out: