There are not so many great bands anymore, not like there once were. The other day, I was on an airplane, scrolling through the music available on their entertainment console, and it was funny how few bands there were. A few bands from the ’70s, like the Doors and the Grateful Dead, some Beatles and Stones, but of the present moment, it was all those media simulacra—Gaga and Britney and Katy and Justin—those alleged idols and their finely crafted suites of computerized simulation. No more bands.
For me, it’s not just that we live in an environment in which rock and roll bands don’t have particular relevance. The implications are worse than that. The implications are that we don’t even live in a world in which musical collaboration is possible in the way it once was. Because a band, at its best (as I have said elsewhere), is bigger than its particulate matter, and requires give and take, and though there may be fights for supremacy in the band context, the molecule is at its best when the participants are of equal throw weight in the context of the band. All those bands that are just brands not bands, with few, if any, original members, and one guy who feels great, now that he has gotten well clear of that annoying bass player, the one with the annoying throat-clearing tendency, these are not bands at all. It’s true even in jazz, you know, that there are fewer bands than there once were, and everyone wants to be the leader, not particulate matter. It’s true even in string quartets, that there are fewer of them than before. That, at least, is my hypothesis.
So which are the great, stable band molecules of the day? Well, you might say the Roots. They are a very tight band, and capable of anything, mainly because of the awesome leadership of Ahmir Thompson. Metallica thinks like a band, with both sharp divisions of labor and spooky collaborative capabilities. I suppose some of those jam-band entities still adhere to a band-like modality. Though I don’t really like any of them much. The greatest band on earth, in the present moment, at least for the sake of this argument, might be the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio: Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette. Those guys really do play like triplets conjoined at the skull, they really do know where Jarrett is going before he knows, and vice versa.
With that example in mind, a fine example, let us now concern ourselves with one of the candidates for the other best band in the world, a stealthy candidate, namely Australia’s band the Necks. The Necks consist of Chris Abrahams on piano and keyboards (mostly piano), Tony Buck on drums and percussion, and Lloyd Swanton on bass. They started out nominally as a jazz band, or at least they played in the jazz community in Australia, but they quickly began exploring static, melodic, and harmonic approaches to group playing that had a lot more in common with minimalism as practiced in the ’70s, the minimalism of La Monte Young, or Eliane Radigue, or, e.g., Faust. The intensity of this single-minded approach, the long, slow development model, is breathtaking to behold, challenging, demanding, extremely moving, and it has driven off its share of fair-weather friends. (I went to see them play at Le Poisson Rouge once, and a friend—someone with reasonably good taste—was there, and he said he left because after twenty minutes they had not yet played a second chord.)
But the fact of the matter is that the longer the Necks perform together—and it’s over twenty-five years now—the more singular their collective tone is. In fact, it’s all about the tone. The Necks kind of demonstrate what music is, what timbre is, how melody might come to happen, if indeed it is necessary that melody might come to happen, through the development of timbral material across time, how a sprung rhythm is sometimes more moving than a time signature of some rigid sort. The whole thing (without falling into a sentimental language) hovers in a way that is both calm and full of awe.
It is not the music of yoga class and the office of the massage therapist, but rather something much more stately and full of observational acuity in which a panorama of responses is given ample space to come to pass. It is more like some kind of church music from which everything extraneous has been removed, or jazz played by an incarnation of the Buddha, or meditation music played by someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder and savant tendencies. It’s not really like anything else in the world, actually, and, especially in concert, it’s almost entirely improvised.
The Necks have a new album out called Open, which sounds almost exactly like the title. It starts like Indian classical music, a little bit, but then opens out into something that has hints of dub, and hints of jazz, sneaky around the edges, and it falls in and out of tendencies, without ever having particular songs, just a whole suite of surprises and very gentle transitions to and fro. And this album, Open, follows swiftly on the heels of the most recent Chris Abrahams solo album, Memory Night, which explores further the outer limits of musique concrete and jazz and collage, without the necessity of the rhythm section.
I thought it would be fun to try to get Abrahams, who doesn’t give that many interviews, to try to take stock of his entire enterprise at this threshold moment. And so here it is (conducted by e-mail over many months), an in-depth explanation of where the hell that singular sound of the Necks may have come from, that improbable and mystifying chemistry. Here it is: the legend of the other best band in the world.
The Rumpus: What was your development like before the Necks? A conventional jazz-playing student period?
Chris Abrahams: I can remember the first time I ever played a piano. I would have been about five, and one afternoon my family was visiting friends. My sister and I were shown a room in which stood an upright piano and we were told we could play it. Both of us got on it at the same time.
I was astounded by the act of pressing down a key and causing a much louder sound than was logical to erupt from behind the wooden “wall” that blocked from view the hammer mechanism. We explored making sounds that were high and low, loud and soft, affixing to these sounds broad meanings of “scary” or “funny,” “happy” or “sad”.
I believe I still utilize a lot of what I learned that afternoon in my approach.
That very same piano, due to a relocation—by the owners—to foreign lands, ended up in my bedroom and I was sent to have lessons from a woman living nearby who specialized in teaching kids. I wasn’t in any sense a prodigy and I hadn’t progressed very far with the “training” before, through mutual consent, it was decided I should go it alone. Because the instrument was in my bedroom, however, I kept playing it. It’s important to note that this particular instrument was an early twentieth-century German upright, no longer capable of holding concert pitch and fiercely obstinate to any standard tuning system.
Regarding which music was influential on me as a young teenager, for the most part, I listened to what most of my friends—those that were interested in music—listened to: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Santana, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles. During my early teens, I played piano and bass guitar—the bass has long since disappeared—in various short-lived bands with school friends.
I would have been fifteen when I first came across the stack of records in the office of the music block at the high school I attended. Amongst the various Deutsche Grammophon and Phillips classics, I found the following albums: Immortal Masterpieces by Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus’s Reincarnation of a Love Bird, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet.
I believe it was Red Garland’s solo on “My Funny Valentine” (off Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet) that caused an epiphany: I had never before heard anything so elegant. I listened to it again and again.
A school friend, James, had an older brother, Azo, who played jazz guitar. Azo Bell lived at that time in a dilapidated mansion—long since demolished to make way for the skyscrapers of North Sydney—that provided a meeting place for quite a few young musicians. Through socializing at the house, I was able to gain access to a small but passionate jazz scene that was happening in the Northern Suburbs of Sydney, a scene whose figurehead was a young saxophonist six years older than me called Mark Simmonds.
Even though I was still at high school, I began to go and see quite a few gigs by many local Sydney musicians. I led a bit of a double life. With the exception of my friend, James, none of my peers shared my interest in modern jazz, and I never outwardly displayed much musical interest or skill until my final year, when I played the piano in the school’s production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
In that final year, I auditioned for a position in the jazz-studies course that was being offered at the Sydney Conservatorium. An expatriate American sax player called Howie Smith had set it up some years earlier. I managed to get accepted into the course, and, much to the surprise of most of my school friends, I accepted the offer.
During my stint at the Conservatorium (I didn’t complete the course), the group of musicians on the North Shore that I was now part of began to refer to itself as the Keys Music Association or KMA. The association organized gigs and festivals over roughly a three-year period, and fortunately, there is extant a double album called March of the Five Limbs, which documents many of the bands and musicians involved.
Also at that time I met Lloyd Swanton, a fellow student in the course and a musician with whom I was to spend a great deal of the next thirty years playing with. Together we formed a group called the Benders.
It was through playing in the Benders that I acquired a lot of the technical skills I have. I think of the Benders as being a little like an ’80s version of the Bad Plus. It was a quartet—sax, piano, bass, and drums—and for the most part, we played original material. It was largely modal in its improvising.
The drummer was a guy called Andrew Gander who was quite phenomenal. At fourteen he could, with a pair of sticks, perfectly mime, his hands working in the air before him, every Tony Williams drum solo recorded with Miles Davis. He, Lloyd, and I developed a way of playing together that I look back upon very proudly. Dale Barlow, who left early on to play overseas with such people as Cedar Walton and Art Blakely, originally occupied the sax-player position. Then Jason Morphett joined. We made three albums and were together for about four years.
It has always been important for me to explore particular sound worlds within the context of groups rather than to acquire a set of skills that I then carry around as a sideman. Right from the start I gravitated toward a “band” mentality and in many ways the Benders operated more like an indie rock group than a traditional jazz quartet.
By the early ’80s, Mark Simmonds had formed a group called the Freeboppers and he asked me to play in it. Mark was a highly original and virtuosic saxophonist. He is one of the most extraordinary musicians I have ever played with, and I feel very privileged to have done so. The music that the Freeboppers played was influenced by ’60s Impulse recordings, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Black Saint records, particularly David Murray’s and James Blood Ulmer’s. It (the music) was also the result of Mark’s strong leadership. Unfortunately, apart from one cassette, recordings of the various line-ups that I was involved with were never released.
At around this time, I was very much into piano players like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, Joseph Bonner, and Mal Waldron. I had the honor of meeting Mal Waldron once: he came to Sydney to visit a friend and played a concert.
I make special mention of Mal Waldron because I feel his album Free at Last, which was actually the first ECM record ever released, was a profound influence on my playing. There is also a release of his called The Call that had a big impact on me.
Joseph Bonner was also a big influence: the piano riffs he came up with for the classic Pharoah Sanders albums—particularly Live at The East and Love in Us All—are hard-wired into my psyche!
You have to bear in mind that in Australia, the vast majority of jazz music was accessed by records. Visits by jazz greats were fleeting—and epoch making; Brubeck in the ’50s was one such visit. Later, in the ’70s, Roland Kirk played a legendary concert at the Sydney Town Hall. In the ’80s, the Art Ensemble of Chicago played a concert in Sydney, which was a huge landmark in the Australian scene.
For local musicians, there were a lot more opportunities to play live in Sydney back in the ’80s. There were at least half a dozen jazz clubs that had music on every night of the week. I was lucky enough to have, for two years, residencies on two nights of the week, playing with both the Benders and the Freeboppers. This was at a place called the Paradise Jazz cellar, an ex–strip club in Kings Cross, the red-light district of Sydney. We could play whatever we wanted to. On other nights of the week, I worked in other people’s groups and sat in at various places.
There was also a healthy inner-city indie-rock scene in Sydney. This was before poker machines devastated the live music scene in bars and pubs. I should mention that nowadays in Sydney, every pub has poker machines and the profits generated by the machines are far greater and easier to come by than those to be had through exposing a venue to the vicissitudes of the live-music scene.
Although at the time I was mainly into modern jazz, I did listen to other types of music—people like the Modern Lovers, the Smiths, John Cale, Swans, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Birthday Party, and Joy Division. I also listened to a lot of classical piano music. A huge acquisition for me was the complete recordings of the Beethoven sonatas performed by Alfred Brendel for Phillips. I also had a box set of Blandine Verlet recordings of Bach Partitas. Pascal Devoyon’s recordings of Jeux d’eau and Sonatine also figured large in my regular listening, as did John Ogden’s and Brenda Lucas’s recording of Visions of the Amen. I listened to these recordings as I would to jazz or rock albums, playing them over and over again, transported by their aesthetics and otherworldliness: I wasn’t so much interested in closely analyzing their formal structures as written compositions.
The Benders released their albums through a company called Hot Records, which was managed by a guy called Martin Jennings. Martin, originally from Liverpool, had been high up at Warner Brothers on the West Coast of America and had come to Sydney in the late ’70s. He was convinced that every big city had its own “sound” and was determined to find and reveal Sydney’s. He set up Hot Records out of the back of a record shop in Darlinghurst.
The focus of the company was largely independent rock acts such as the Triffids and the Laughing Clowns, but Martin was also very passionate about jazz and soul music, and so we, the Benders, were lucky enough to be included on the label. We released three albums: E (1982), False Laughter (1983), and Distance (1985). I also released two solo piano albums on Hot: Piano (1983), and Walk (1985). As well, through the affiliation with Hot, I ended up playing on quite a few ’80s Sydney independent releases.
Martin was a great teacher of R&B and soul music. He had an enormous record collection and I spent many afternoons and evenings at his place at Balmoral Beach listening to records by such artists as the Meters, James Brown, and Al Green. I consider this to have been a real privilege.
In 1984, I met a young vocalist called Melanie Oxley and became a member of the group the Sparklers. This was a rock group in which I played organ and electric piano. Melanie’s brother, Peter, was the driving force behind the formation of the band. He and the drummer, Bill Bilson, had previously played in the much-loved Australian band the Sunnyboys. However, with the breakup of that band, Peter was looking to form another group: it was a natural step to incorporate his sister into the project and through her, me.
In 1985, the Benders were invited to play at the Montreux and North Sea jazz festivals, and I subsequently spent most of that year in London, putting on hold my membership of the Sparklers. This was my first major European stint.
At that time, there were a number of Australian bands based in London. I ended up sharing a house with “Evil” Graham Lee and David McComb, of the Triffids, in Westbourne Park. They were recording their album Born Sandy Devotional at the time, and I ended up playing piano and vibraphone on a number of tracks.
Also, while in London, the Benders got a two-week gig playing at Ronnie Scott’s alternating sets with Arturo Sandoval. This led to Arturo inviting us to play in Havana, which we did the next year.
Another highlight from this time was seeing Tabu Ley perform at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. I had never before heard rhythm played with the intensity I heard that night.
I returned to Sydney toward the end of the 1985.
Rumpus: So were the Necks what happened next? And did you imagine just playing with Lloyd again? And how did Tony Buck get incorporated?
Abrahams: On my return to Sydney, I rejoined the Sparklers. The Sparklers gave me the opportunity to write songs, including lyrics, and I collaborated with Mel on the second single the group released: So Often Dreaming.
In the first part of 1986, the Benders went to Havana to play at the festival curated by Arturo Sandoval. Performing at the festival were Chucho Valdes, playing with Irakere, as well as a very young Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I can remember taking part in strange jam sessions on the outdoor stage set up next to the hotel’s swimming pool and conversing with veterans from the Angolan War.
Subsequent to the festival, the Benders toured Australia and then broke up.
In 1986, the live music scene in Sydney had yet to be decimated—by the economic supremacy of poker machines over live entertainment, combined with the more or less total gentrification of inner-city suburbs—so the Sparklers could play live in Sydney pretty much on a weekly basis. We also toured extensively up and down the east coast. After a year, I left, just before the recording of the group’s first album. A few years later, Mel and I rekindled our songwriting partnership, and, through the ’90s and early noughties, we released five albums together.
I began to work part time as a laborer for a landscape-gardening company. This was a company whose owner had decided to employ young artists. I was sharing a house with an abstract painter who also had skills in landscaping and who was part of the small network of artists and writers who were able to find employment weeding, turfing, transplanting trees, etc. Interestingly, I found that I had a natural proclivity toward the more repetitive tasks such as shoveling soil and laying strips of turf.
I think it was in late 1986 that Lloyd rang me. It had been six months or so since the Benders had finished up, and he was wondering if I was interested in forming a trio: bass, drums, and piano. I was. Tony Buck was the person we wanted to form it with.
Tony and I grew up in the same suburb of Sydney: Mosman, a place situated around the beautiful Middle Harbour area, north of the CBD. The main beach there is Balmoral, technically an inner-harbor beach, but one from which you get a clear view, through the North and South Headlands, of the Pacific Ocean. In my youth there were a couple of times when big, thick-lipped waves, created by cyclones, battered the beach, breaking against the old shark net (now gone) that ran from the tied island northward—waves that provided viable, if uncomfortable, surfing conditions. On the whole, however, the water there is very placid.
Before the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built, in the ’30s, the divide between northern Sydney and the rest of the city would have been quite extreme, and when I was growing up in the 1960s, there was still an element of this separation.
I first played with Tony at a jam session in Mosman, probably around 1977. Both of us were still at high school. I don’t remember much about the jam session except for some sort of enclosed veranda structure in a house that has probably since been demolished. I would have played with him a few times around this time in other informal gatherings.
Later on, in the early ’80s, Tony and I played together in quite a few different bands. Occasionally, when Andrew Gander was unavailable for the Benders, he sometimes filled in on drums. As well, Tony played in several groups loosely involved with the Keys Music Association.
I can’t remember the exact timing of us acquiring the name “the Necks”: it happened pretty early on. I recall that Lloyd rang me to say he had thought of a great name for the trio: “The Dogs”. I replied, “What about the Necks?” He said, “Okay.” There were no objections from Tony. I don’t believe that I had the name before Lloyd’s phone call. We work a lot like this—automatically. Our album names tend to come instantly, often after many months of trial and error, the sound of the word and its resonation providing its “rightness”—its significance a puzzle to be worked out later.
For the first six or so months after having formed the group, we rehearsed quite a lot. We felt no pressing urgency to play gigs. In fact, there was at one point the idea that we shouldn’t ever play publicly.
In some ways, the formation of the Necks had more to do with what we didn’t want to do. I had grown tired of approaching music as if it were chiefly an opportunity for display: a means to showcase competency among peers or to dazzle audiences with virtuosity. Quite possibly the Necks came along at the very moment I was beginning to emerge from a juvenile artistic period (many people might disagree with me here).
Much of the music I had played up until this point had been built around the classic modern jazz forms—most often the form whereby a written melody is stated over a series of chord changes before each member of the ensemble improvises, often generically, over these chord changes. Although much great music has been played using this structure, I found myself questioning the worth of my attempt at following the tradition. I also remember finding the applauding of solos rather facile and thinking that it broke up the flow of the music—something I was more interested in. (I have since mellowed quite a bit on this subject.) There was a big influence on me at the time coming from soul music, dub reggae, and African pop, all of which I was listening to a lot.
Very early on in the Necks’ rehearsals, I realized that a different part of my brain was being utilized while I played. I felt that I was listening in a way that I hadn’t before. This “listening” was both informing and compelling: it largely determined where the pieces were going, and consequently, I felt as if I were being “transported” by the music that I was also making. This level of “feedback” was totally new to me. Up until then I had seen musical performance as a one-way transmission system—a person on stage, separate from the audience, throwing out ideas one after the other, making conscious choices about the trajectory of the performance. With the Necks, for the first time, I felt that I could get lost in the music. I also felt that I was part of the audience.
This was aided by the anti-virtuosic and anti-clever approach we adopted. We saw the band as a therapeutic tool, a way to play music without having to worry about pleasing a paying audience. (That we had no strong wish to push it into the realm of gigging lent to it a ritualistic aspect that made it seem even more precious.) From the outset, we used muscular stamina, focusing on repeating small utterances over and over again until—through the limitations of human accuracy, coupled with an evolving formal design—the music gradually shifts, becoming a long-form, abstract narrative. Straight away we liked what we heard, and possibly more importantly, we liked how it felt to play it.
This use of mesmerizing faux-repetition that allows things to develop seemingly of their own accord was something we may have discussed cursorily before we began to play as a group. I’m fairly certain, though, that by the third rehearsal we were playing as the Necks—playing in a way that we still might today. (The Necks haven’t outgrown any methodology; rather, we’ve added to a repertoire of things we do.)
It needs to be remembered that by the time we formed the Necks, each of us had many years of playing our instruments. We weren’t a high-school band where the members learned to play while the band developed. I think I had to unlearn many of the approaches I had accepted as “worthy” in order to explore the concept of the group. Technically, the piano playing on Sex, for instance (recorded in 1989), could be played by a non-talented eight-year-old, something I would have been self-conscious of in former years, but something that, after forming the Necks, I felt comfortable with.
The first international gig the Necks did was as the backing band for the Australian singer Jeanie Lewis, who had been invited to perform at the 1987 Cervantino festival in Mexico. The Cervantino festival was an extraordinary festival that spanned weeks. I think we played about fifteen shows, all over the country—in wealthy cities like Guanajuato as well as border towns like Nuevo Laredo. It was an incredible experience.
At the end of the tour, while staying in a hotel in Mexico City, Tony and I decided to go to Jamaica. We spent a few days in Montego Bay before making the fifteen-minute plane trip south to Kingston. In Kingston, we managed to meet Gregory Isaacs at his record shop Africa Museum. He invited us to come with him to a studio in Half Way Tree, where Tipper Lee and Rappa Robert were mixing a record. (He rode a motor scooter while we followed in a taxi.) Watching the mixing process, particularly seeing the engineers pump the bass fader, was quite influential. I hadn’t ever seen such a performative mixing approach.
A couple of days later, we went to a drive-in movie venue to see a six-hour concert headlined by Yellowman. Also on the bill were Pinchers and Lieutenant Stitchie. It was an incredible experience. There were probably about three thousand people there.
During our stay in Jamaica, I bought a lot of 7-inch records (more or less the top forty), which take pride of place in my collection. Yellowman had the number-one record then with a loping, 12/8 version of “Blueberry Hill.” It was an interesting time to have been there—something of a transition period between lovers rock and dancehall reggae.
Toward the end of the ’80s, I began to play with Jackie Orszaczky. Jackie was a Hungarian bass player, composer, and singer who, having defected in the early ’70s, had settled in Australia. With Jackie I mainly played Hammond organ in the soul group the Godmothers. Jack was a wonderful bandleader, arranger, and teacher. I learned a lot about being a professional musician through him and was able to develop my Hammond organ playing.
I went with Jack to Budapest in 1991, where he performed for the first time since the early ’70s. I had little idea of his importance, culturally or politically, in Hungary. I knew he had been in a famous and controversial band—Sirius—but Jack never really talked about it, so I didn’t have much to go on.
We played an open-air concert—a double Bill with Jack Bruce—in front of an audience of about five thousand people. One of the songs was a prog-rock triptych called “Devil’s Masquerade,” which featured a sixteen-bar solo organ intro. I had learned the tune off a cassette, in my living room, and had rehearsed it a couple of times with the band prior. As I began to play the opening notes, the crowd erupted in wild, passionate cheering, and I realized that I had no idea of the significance of what I was playing—a situation that made me very nervous. Fortunately, I made it through till the end of the solo without tanking, but it was uncanny being the conduit for such powerful emotion when I myself had no connection to the cultural moment I was invoking.
In 1993, I was asked to play keyboards and Hammond organ with the band Midnight Oil on their world tour. This came about because Jim Mogine, who plays the keyboards on the albums, wanted to play the guitar unencumbered by having to trigger samples and play organ riffs, so it was decided that they needed to hire someone to cover the parts live. The tour started in South America before going on to Europe, USA, and Australia—all up taking about ten months. I undertook a couple of shorter tours after this. It was an incredible experience, playing in stadia in front of large audiences. The Oils were a great band and a good bunch of people to tour with.
My position onstage when we performed was behind Martin Rotsey (guitar) and to the right of Rob Hirst (drums)—quite a few meters back in the scheme of things. At the concert in Berlin, about eight months into the tour, Peter Garrett decided to introduce me to the audience, and so he requested I join him at the front of the stage. This hadn’t happened before on the tour. As I made my way downstage, I began to become aware of a palpable force coming off the crowd, a force that increased exponentially the closer I got to the front. It was like some sort of collective psychic gale, which I found almost overwhelming. No experience of an audience either before or since comes close to what I felt that night. It gave me an insight into what it must be like being the front person for a big rock band: the pressure to perform, to channel that power, and the necessity of not being intimidated by something that I found very very intimidating.
Rumpus: You haven’t really mentioned experimental music, nor minimalism, as an influence in the sound of the Necks, though I have seen you compared to Faust once or twice. Did you find any precedent for the diminished melodic vocabulary in those sources? In La Monte Young or Terry Riley or Steve Reich?
Abrahams: There are definitely aesthetic similarities between what the Necks do and the minimalism of say, Steve Reich. I need to stress, though, that the early inspiration for the Necks didn’t come from hearing pieces like Music for Eighteen Musicians or In C, great as they are. My chief inspirations at the time of the formation of the Necks were ’60s and early ’70s modal and free jazz, African music, soul, and reggae.
I also think there are two approaches that the Necks adopt: one is a live-playing approach, and the other is a studio approach. The live performance involves spontaneously incorporating improvising with instrument variability, performance context, and spatial acoustics, while the studio recording tends more toward premeditated composition, using improvisation as a building block. I think the latter is closer to the minimalism that you’re referring to. As a result, our studio albums tend to be more static in dynamic form, relying on changes of texture through overdubbing and editing, as opposed to the crescendoing transcendentalism of our live performances. The former is a bit like steering a boat in order to get somewhere, the latter is more like just steering a boat.
This has led us to feel that, in some ways, the Necks is two different bands, one live and one studio-based. In the live context, we never discuss what it is we are about to do. We may talk about it later, which we do often and at length, but never before a performance. In the studio, however, we talk a lot about what we’re about to do—and undo.
I’m not sure which version of the Necks is better known. We have never tried to play live in a way that imitates one of our studio albums. We were once asked to replicate live our first album Sex, but we declined the offer.
I can see that there are definite similarities to krautrock, more so in our studio albums. However in 1986, I hadn’t really been exposed to much of this—apart from the better known tracks from Can, Eno, and Kraftwerk—and so, great as the music is, it can’t really be considered a huge influence on the formation of the Necks.
With regards to experimental music, I think there has definitely been an influence. There was (and still is) a small but active “experimental” scene in Sydney. In the ’80s, I performed regularly with people like Jamie Fielding, Jon Rose, Jim Denley, and Rik Rue. Groups such as Mind Body Split and Machine for Making Sense were also influential on me. (Jaime was a great piano, DX7, and sampler player who died in 1993. He released a number of solo cassettes. In the ’80s, we formed a duo called Audio Services. Jamie’s use of technology was way further advanced than mine—I began to program the DX largely due to my experience playing with Jamie. Rik Rue is a legendary experimental composer, radio feature maker, and manipulator of field recordings. He was firmly established in the ’80s underground cassette scene when I first started to collaborate with him. I have performed and played a lot with both Jim and Jon—in fact, a couple of days ago I played with Jim. Both of them have become important mentoring figures to young experimental musicians here.)
I can also see similarities between my sustain pedal approach and that of Charlemagne Palestine’s, although it wasn’t until the late ’90s that I heard Strumming Music or Schlingen-Blängen. I think, actually, that my approach was more influenced by John Cale’s piano playing on Velvet Underground albums.
Rumpus: I’m interested in this “crescendoing transcendentalism” that you’re describing. Was the bifurcation, the split identity of the Necks, present from the first, or was it something that emerged after the first shows? If the live setting (with its “spatial acoustics”) is different, what causes it to be different? (And why not release every single live show?) And when you say that actual composing takes place on the studio albums, how does that composing happen? Incrementally?
Abrahams: I use the term “crescendoing transcendentalism” to refer to the way that, as a piece develops, the instruments begin to combine in a way that transcends their normally understood roles. At Necks shows, people seem to experience auditory hallucinations whereby choirs, string sections, electronics, and all sorts of other things are heard. This tends to happen more when the instruments are played with the intensity that creates enough volume for the various sympathetic resonations and modulations to occur, and thus tends to happen more at the end stages of a crescendo. Because this resonance is very much determined by the acoustic properties of the space, as well as the instruments themselves, a large part of our live performance involves the testing out of these parameters and the discovery of strange properties. I don’t mean to give this an overly scientific- or experimental-sounding description—our aim is chiefly to express human emotion while playing—but when we do come across a strange sound property to a room, we tend to gravitate toward it and incorporate it in the structure of a piece. We play through big and small PAs, both indoors and outdoors. We play in rock venues and jazz clubs, in big churches and community halls, and each of these venue types allows us to present different facets of what we do. The idea that there are rooms that don’t suit the band isn’t relevant.
This “transcendentalism” is a difficult thing to capture on a recording. Firstly, the positioning of a person in the audience and his or her apprehension of the complex reflections that can occur in a hall, are difficult—if not impossible—to simulate in a stereo recording. (We haven’t released anything for multi-speaker set up). More importantly, the whole experience of being at a concert listening to piano, bass, and drums no longer sounding like piano, bass, and drums is conceptually undermined by overdubbing, editing, and other production techniques that people assume are used in a studio. A studio album that attempts to replicate the transcendentalism of a live performance is a little like a cartoon of a magician’s act. Also, we’ve tended to feel that a long-build crescendo may not be something that’s conducive to more than one or two listenings—once the extent of the buildup is known, a vital ingredient of the excitement generated is lost. There are exceptions to this (Godspeed You! Black Emperor comes to mind), and we have of course released live recordings and will continue to do so, but for us, the ratio of releasable live performances to live performances is very low.
It took us a few years to release anything, in fact. We formed the group in 1986 and didn’t put anything out until 1989.
The first album we released was Sex, and this was a studio album with overdubbing. Essentially we went in and, after several days of trial and error, decided to play one long “feel,” with no dynamic development, for an hour. It was decided that I should hold the stopwatch during the take, and with a hand signal, I ended the piece, for some reason, at 56 minutes and 8 seconds. For the next two weeks, on top of this material, we began to overdub. This was the method we used for most of our records until quite recently when we switched from two-inch magnetic tape to Pro Tools, which allowed for a much less chronological approach to making an album.
There is often an overarching concept to our albums. For instance, with Drive By, we wanted to record thirty-two tracks with several different, but related, rhythmic approaches. A large part of the outcome of the record would be determined at the mix, where we envisioned a performance with us all at the desk, in a dub sort of thing. It didn’t really end up being that, but while recording, we kept the idea in mind. For Aether, we decided early on to use a system of conducted cues to create simultaneous cadences that were far apart temporally. These sorts of things, albeit very simple, have never been employed in a live situation.
Having spoken about the differences, I should also say that there are similarities between the studio recordings and the concerts. It’s not as if we never reflect upon our performances; we discuss them a lot. To date, all of our recording sessions have taken place during tours in Australia, and there is a strong relationship between what we record and the way the band is playing live at the time.
For instance: a development in the band’s playing has been the drift toward a multirhythmic approach. In the early days, the band would often coalesce around a generic rhythmic groove, with each member contributing to its creation. Nowadays, the three of us can often find ourselves following our own individual rhythmic patterns, in time or out, creating a much more multi-layered end result. “Rum Jungle” on Mindset is a good studio representation of this. This has come about through many years of playing live together—not through conceptualizing in a studio.
Rumpus: How has your solo work developed alongside the Necks? Is it primarily driven by conceptual approach, like the Necks’ work, or is it simply a catch basin for everything that doesn’t otherwise fit into the framework of the Necks?
Abrahams: Prior to the Necks, I recorded two solo piano records, one in 1984 (Piano), and one in 1986 (Walk). After that, I didn’t record another one until Glow in 2001. I think the Necks gave me enough, in terms of an opportunity to develop as a piano player.
It was also during the late ’80s and early ’90s that I went back to university, and, possibly, I saw my life as not being one totally focused on music and consequently the urge to release solo records was not so great. I still played a lot of music during this period, however, releasing stuff with Mel Oxley, and playing Hammond organ with Jackie Orszaczky two or three times a week around Sydney.
I bought my first sampler in the mid ’90s, a Kurzweil, and that had a profound effect on the way I thought about things. I also began in earnest to explore the DX7 synth that I had lying around. I started to understand the piano in a different way; I began to see the sustain pedal in terms of reverb; I saw the una corda pedal in terms of EQ; I began to see the fast, repetitive hammering technique I had developed as being akin to using distortion. Words such as “envelope” began to have meaning for me.
Up until 1998. The Necks really only got together during the summer months of the year. We would play maybe a dozen shows between January and March and record an album. Then we wouldn’t see each other for nine or so months. Even though it was an incredibly important project, for many years, the Necks’ music accounted for quite a small percentage of the music played in my overall musical life.
How much of my development as a solo musician was due to being in the Necks is hard to calculate. Definitely my solo piano work has been influenced. I’m not so sure about my studio work with electronics and samples. Toward the end of the ’90s, I began to do a lot of soundtrack work, chiefly for television. Up until this time I had written a few things—for friends’ shorts and the like—on a fairly amateur basis. I enjoyed the cross-genre “role playing” that soundtrack composition affords. When I began to get some serious job offers, I had to expand my resources in terms of studio equipment, musical instruments, and technical skill. In 2008, I scored the soundtrack to the feature film The Tender Hook. I mention these things because I think my recent solo work, especially for Room40, has been enabled by these experiences more than by anything else. Prior to this, I don’t think I had the confidence to record, mix, and release a solo album by myself.
My albums for Room40 have been constructed using juxtapositional techniques, whereby recordings of solo performances—on synth, sampler, piano, organ, guitar, etc.—are combined with each other to form pieces whose final form is unknown during most of the assemblage. Once a piece has more or less taken shape, an extensive period of fine tuning takes place. This is often more time-consuming than the actual tracking; consequently, the time frame for my albums is pretty open ended. With the Necks, there is a definite window of opportunity. Our albums normally take between a week and ten days to track, and then the same to mix.
Rumpus: Okay, two questions then, the first of which is perhaps easy to answer: Selfishly, I am interested in the appearance of “guitar” in the list of studio options here, and I was sort of delighted when I was listening to the last two albums and noticed that that instrument made a guest appearance. It’s totally absent in the interview so far. So what kind of guitar player are you? Did that develop alongside the keyboard playing? Do you play “jazz guitar,” or how do you think of your guitar playing?
And: Both Play Scar and the new album, Memory Night, push the envelope on music to such an extent that there are moments where I wonder whether “music” is the right term for them. They sound sometimes like field recordings, or are related to field recordings, or they sound like highly experimental music (our collaboration on the John Cage project, e.g., taught me a bit how to listen to the more recent studio recordings) of a sort that I associate with sound art. In short, they are totally demanding and fascinating listening that is, at least as I hear them, well out of the realm of the crescendoing drama and band chemistry of the Necks. How do you hear them? How much of them is brought about by digital editing? For example, “There He Reclined” on Play Scar has a piano track on it that seems, to me, to be edited well out of its former playable shape, so that the studio as an intervention seems as important as the acoustic origins of the sounds. The new album eschews acoustic piano for almost its entirety. People who like Sex by the Necks would perhaps be hard-pressed to imagine that the same composer was involved in each recording. What is guiding how you approach what you do in the solo work now?
Abrahams: I am not a guitar player. At various points in my life, I have owned guitars and have learned some of the basic chord shapes. Once I owned an electric bass, which I attempted to play (with little success) over a period of a couple of years when I was a teenager. I feel that I should be better at conventionally playing guitar than I am, considering the amount of exposure to it I have had over the years. About six years ago, a friend helped me to buy a reasonable Telecaster copy and the guitar you hear on the records is this one.
The approach on John Cage: A Question of Genre was also, in many ways, new to me. I had never before used such a stochastic method.
I also like to blur the boundaries between field recordings and performed instrumentalism. A lot of people have thought that at the end of “Leafer” on Memory Night, there is a field recording. The sound is actually a Waldorf Q plus synth, and the reverb on the synth somehow gives it a subterranean car-park vibe. I was intrigued by the artifice. I had spent a while programming this sound, tweaking it as I played the keyboard, and at some point, the scenario of a metallic filing cabinet, a lonely and cavernous concrete space, and an angry man began to influence proceedings. I like the way the sound appears very gradually, by way of a track-length fade in, until it reaches an intensity that I still find unnerving—every time I hear it, I still get a sense of not knowing how much louder it’s going to get.
Much of the use of field recordings on my albums involves the compiling of small samples which are then placed on a keyboard and played using my pianistic technique. I hope that this gives to the timing an organic and personal compulsion.
Having said that, “Twig Blown” off Play Scar is more or less compiled on a computer screen—not on a keyboard—by placing sound files in a Pro Tools session and moving them around with a mouse. This track took ages to finish. For many months, it sagged in places, and when I would fix one problem, another part of the piece would be adversely affected. It was only through trial and error that I could get it to move properly.
The use of the flying-fox recording in “Strange Bright Fact” (off Memory Night), made by Sherre DeLys and myself, represents the most unadorned use of a field recording on any of my records. Here, it’s its context—where it sits in the form of the piece—that’s important. I wanted it to be like a place or destination that is reached. It’s also an example of an aesthetic that I’m drawn toward—a rasping chaotic microtonality. I think it’s very much in keeping with the stuff on Thrown, my first album on Room40.
The piano on “Running Out” uses a small fragment of a solo performance. With a program that slices into the sample and then plays back the slices randomly, the track becomes glitchy without departing from the emotion of the original performance. I first got into this technique while working with Sherre on her radio program Uskollisuus (2001). The program used scratched recordings as a central theme, and as part of the music score, we applied a glitched editing technique to the small, melodic piano pieces. I guess it represents a dialectic of sorts between the machine-made and the human, but it displays machine error and somehow the emotion gets amplified—a certain sentimentality is allowed. I’m interested in expression, yet wary of assuming sole responsibility for the expression: techniques that can problematize without destroying emotional content tend to be ones that I prefer.
I have a small studio, as opposed to the studios where the Necks record or in fact to most of the studios I worked in when I was younger. It’s important for me to have a small studio, a space that doesn’t dwarf me or overwhelm me with its options.
It’s important for me, when making a solo album, to try and do things that don’t sound like the Necks. This can be tricky at times, as there is a bit of an overlap. I think I’ve got quite a recognizable “sound” on the piano, and so comparisons with the band can be hard to avoid on a solo piano piece. I don’t think my solo albums for Room40 utilize the same physical, subconscious approaches that the Necks do. The approach I have tended to use when on my own is collage-like, where I amass a large amount of disparate recordings made over a long period of time, and I construct something. I listen and listen, moving things around and tweaking levels until I feel it’s “right.” I don’t prioritize methodology over aesthetics—I want things, above all, to sound “good” rather than be the blind outcomes of dazzling processes. That’s not to say, however, that I know what the pieces mean.
Rumpus: All right, you have mentioned Sherre, who perhaps at this point in the process it should be noted is your partner and has been for some time. She is, I would aver, one of the most creative radio producers in the world, and a very creative thinker in sound herself. Is there a way that Sherre’s considerable skill set in this area ever has an effect on a Chris Abrahams solo project? I know you guys have collaborated a bit, but is it Sherre’s gift with field recording that results in some of the field recording vibe on Play Scar and Memory Night, or is it just chance?
Abrahams: The flying-fox recording would not have been a part of Memory Night without Sherre, literally—it was her idea to go to the Daintree Rainforest in the first place! Before I met Sherre, I had actually never made a field recording.
Also, my forays into radiophonic work, which I see as being very influential on my Room40 releases, owe much of their existence to my coming into contact with Sherre. She brought me into contact with the world of The Listening Room (a sound-art, radiophonic program on the ABC, no longer in existence).
Thrown, my first album for Room40, was built along the lines of a radio piece and was conceptually a breakthrough for me. My solo albums up until then had followed the method of studio-based recordings of musical performances: with an album like Glow, for instance, I recorded many versions of a small number of pieces and chose the “best” ones. By the time I got to Memory Night, I’d departed significantly from this way of doing things. A lot of things that end up in radio programs are not recorded in a studio, and the final result is often constructed out of many layers of sound recorded at different times, in different places on different technology with different sound quality. I listened to records by Negativland and Nurse with Wound, which I loved, but I didn’t really know how they did what they did—or, more to the point, I couldn’t see myself working in such a “mixed media” sort of way. Collaborating with Sherre really opened up possibilities. I’ve been very lucky over the years to be able to observe Sherre making stuff, and there is a definite influence on me.
Rumpus: When you look back on your substantial recorded legacy now, what do you see? Are you satisfied with the balance between the Necks and the solo work? Is there anything you wish you had done that you have not done?
Abrahams: I don’t tend to listen to records I have made. I listen over and over to a recording during its production, but once there’s no longer the possibility of changing anything, I find that the urge to listen seems to evaporate. Of course one has to check a product for any faults once it arrives from the factory, but once that’s done, I tend to look toward the next release. I don’t have a strong overview of past albums. I remember making them, but after a while, I’m not overly intimate with the music, particularly if it was made over ten years ago. I have had the experience of being in a cafe and hearing a piece of music that sounds sort of familiar but I can’t quite place it…
I’m still very much into the process of making records, and it seems nowadays they’re a lot easier to make and release—somewhat counterintuitive to the state of the industry. I’m not yet at a phase where regrets about having not done things figure all that strongly. In the past two years, I have released a lot of albums, both solo and in collaboration with others—more than at any other time in my life. I would like this to continue.
To a large extent, I’ve never had experience with the “commission” approach to making music (being commissioned to compose something). I understand how it happens, and I can see that great things are possible by it, but I personally have never operated within that framework. With the exception of my film and radio work, I’ve never had to make music to deadlines. Nor have I had to wait for record deals in order to make albums. To a large extent, my output hasn’t been market driven—I have tended to make things because I feel that is what a musician does, regardless of whether or not there’s an audience for it. Because of all this, I don’t really have a feeling that there’ve been any missed opportunities in my career, nor do I feel I’ve ever been pressured into releasing something that I didn’t want to release.
I’ve always felt that the mood in the studio strongly relates to the outcome of a recording. Making records with the Necks has always been largely stress-free and very enjoyable. We’ve been working with Tim Whitten for the last ten years and have settled into a very comfortable routine. I think we’ve been very lucky with this.
The ratio of solo albums to Necks albums isn’t something that I’ve given much thought to. For many years, the Necks was enough of an outlet for my piano playing and I didn’t need to make solo records. It’s been something that’s happened quite late in my career—the making of the Room40 albums—but these required a number of skills to be acquired and I can’t see myself as having been able to make them at a younger age.
Rumpus: Can you speak to what is next?
Abrahams: I’m very much into doing another solo piano release. I’ve been trying to record something for the past five years and have amassed over a hundred hours of recordings, from various studios. I don’t think I have something quite yet, and at the moment, I’m really trying to move that along. I’m thinking of doing something related to counterpoint, not in a generic, tonal way, but more freely chromatic. I don’t think it will have as much of a minimalist aesthetic as my previous releases. It’s all a bit hazy at the moment, however I sense I’ve hit upon a way of working toward something.
I spend a lot of time these days in Berlin. Over the last fifteen or so years, I’ve built up a number of collaborations with people there, mainly involved in the Echtzeit music scene. I play in a group called Sink, which has been together for about seven years. It combines minidisc playing with DX7, guitar, and drums. I play the DX7 (a much maligned but, in my opinion, exceptional synth). I also have projects with percussionist Burkhard Beins and with vocalist Alessandro Bosetti. I have an ongoing duo with guitarist/singer Mike Cooper. Earlier this year, I released an album, Gardener, with Magda Mayas. Another recording is with Sabine Vogel, a flute and church organ record called Kopfüberwelle. I also released an album with clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski (under the name the Dogmatics) called The Sacrifice for the Music Became our Lifestyle.
There are musicians I work with regularly in Australia. I have a group called Germ Studies with guzheng player Clare Cooper—we released a double album about three years ago. I play in a free jazz trio called Roil, and I also play in a group with Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi called AAA. Last year, I made a record with Dave Brown (under the name The Culture of Un) called Moonish.
I see myself continuing to develop these and other projects.