The Guardian JUNE 10, 2010 - by Richard Williams


Meet the remarkable Australian trio making it all up as they go along.

One starts, the other two join in. No one knows what will happen, except that over the next hour or so the music will find a way of organising and developing itself. That's the way it has been for The Necks since they first started rehearsing together almost twenty-five years ago: as effective and durable a process as any in modern music.

"It's important that we don't know where it's going to go," Tony Buck, their drummer, says backstage at the Brighton Dome, while the Australian trio are rehearsing with Brian Eno for performances of This Is Pure Scenius!, Eno's sci-fi musical adventure. "By the time we're well into a piece, it's really hard to imagine even how it got there from where it started."

Which is why, when the producers of an Australian series of "classic albums" concerts came calling, they had to refuse a request to recreate their own much-loved debut release, Sex, from 1989. "That's not how we make music," Chris Abrahams, the group's pianist, points out. "It would make no sense."

To the often spiky disciplines of minimalism, systems music and free improvisation, this remarkable trio bring a satisfying sense of long-form development based on the repetition, superimposition and gradual metamorphosis of small "cells" of musical information. Ascetic in outline, but suffused with a warm humanity, their pieces are studded with minor epiphanies on the way to a larger sense of emotional fulfilment. And while the closest scrutiny is always the best rewarded, they have a rare ability to accept a variety of attention levels; as John L Walters remarked in these pages, listening to The Necks can be like taking a stroll through a beautiful contemporary art gallery, in which you don't feel you have to stop in every room or examine every piece.

Live, The Necks present a deceptively conventional facade: the keyboard, double bass and drums of the jazz trio. That, however, is simply the point of departure. When Abrahams, Buck and the bassist Lloyd Swanton started rehearsing together in 1986, they were already experienced and versatile musicians embarking on individual careers that would take them in many different directions. The Necks represented a search for something new.

"We wanted to find a music where we were totally in the moment," Swanton says. "That's a phrase used by a lots of people in all sorts of performing arts, but to us it was a thing to work towards right from the word go. It was the goal."

They were familiar with each other's playing from other contexts, Abrahams said. "But when we started rehearsing, we began to make a sound that made us think, 'Let's develop this.' I don't think we ever really verbalised it. Intuitive is the best word. Before that, I'd operated on the concept of developing what you did to a level of competence and then presenting it to an audience. But for me, The Necks brought an understanding that things can find a way of becoming other things while you're performing. That was such a big breakthrough for me that once I'd crossed the line, I had a whole different way of playing."

For Buck, The Necks offered an opportunity to explore a shared interest in the structures of other types of music, particularly from Africa. Eventually, he said, their music began to function not through the traditional jazz method of players making instant responses to each other's decisions but through a more gradual, fundamental process. "It's like the music is constantly shifting through different meanings and contexts. The centre of gravity is changing, and the meaning of what you're doing changes with it."

Public performance was not part of the original intention. "It was a private experiment," Swanton says. "Possibly, that's how we hit upon the modus operandi quite quickly, because there was no pressure to come up with anything for public consumption. It was only after we'd been doing it for quite a while, and felt really confident that most times we could create something out of nothing, that we dared to suggest that maybe we could play in public."

In conversation, their complementary qualities are obvious: the reflectiveness of Abrahams (who talks about the music's "therapeutic" qualities), the intensity of Buck, the enthusiasm of Swanton. All were born in the early 1960s - Abrahams in New Zealand, the others in Australia - and had established themselves in Sydney's jazz and rock scenes when they played their first notes as The Necks. But the group remains just one strand of their lives, as they set aside individual projects to meet three times a year for gigs and recording. Last year, they toured for the first time in the US, performing at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and Princeton University. This month, they return to the UK.

"The important thing is that we don't do this day in, day out, fifty-two weeks of the year," Abrahams says. "There's a lot of stuff in between - releasing records, looking after the website and so on - and we're constantly in communication, but for the first ten years we'd only meet up in December for a handful of shows, so we're used to having lots of time apart. And the concept of the group is that the more each member does outside the group, the fresher it will be when we come together. I think that's worked."

After so long together, a vocabulary and a syntax have evolved. "Although the sort of things we do have broadened a lot, I don't think we've ever diluted the basic concept," Buck says. "But we play lots of different music outside the group, and we bring in elements of those approaches, fitting it into this context, this way of working. It has happened continually throughout the life of the band. So we can still sit down and play something we might have done twenty-three years ago, but we can also do something that wouldn't have been possible even a couple of years ago."

Swanton sometimes has a musical idea on the way to a gig. "But quite often by the time I've got on stage I can't remember it," he says. "We like to focus on anything but music when we're in the band room. We talk about anything else. Then they tell us it's time to go on, and it's only when we're on stage and the place is silent that we start getting focused on the possibilities. One method we developed early on is that one person starts. That's a really good way of simply giving the initial impetus. Whatever direction that is, that's what we go with."

Silverwater, the most recent of their eleven studio CDs, is notable for the absence, throughout its unbroken sixty-seven minutes, of a common pulse. The absorbing mesh of asynchronous rhythms, created by the members of a group whose early music was rooted in familiar regular metres, seems to symbolise their extraordinary evolution: the further apart they move, the closer they grow together.