Interview – The Necks

Sydney’s finest experimental jazz trio The Necks take improvisation to previously unexplored heights with their gripping and hypnotic pieces often lasting over an hour in length. The band’s transcendental sound has lead some to refer to their music as ‘trance jazz’ and even landed them invitations to perform with Brian Eno as well as a much sought after support slot on Swans’ recent reunion tour. M3 decided to find out what bass player Lloyd Swanton thought about filesharing and the industry, and discovered why social media sites might not be such a benefit after all…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Lloyd Swanton – I’m a professional musician of some 30 years standing. Mainly acoustic bass, also electric. I’m a bandleader, producer, and composer. I have presented a radio show on a community station in Sydney for 14 years and lately have presented some shows on the ABC. I live in the beautiful Blue Mountains, 100 kms west of Sydney but have toured extensively in Australia and to about 40 countries overseas, and at fifty one-years of age and as the father of two young children, I am constantly juggling the demands of a musical life with the responsibilities of late-onset parenting.

I’ve always been a freelance musician and technically still am, but most of my musical time these days is taken up by The Necks, which is the only project I’m involved in which has an international reach. Other than The Necks I have my own long-running band, The Catholics, which blends jazz with worldbeat dance rhythms.

What inspired you to form the Necks? What are your own musical backgrounds?
In 1987, after reading Christopher Small’s thought-provoking book “Music Society Education” I called pianist Chris Abrahams to discuss putting a band together to explore, behind closed doors, some of the ideas it had given me. We discussed the possible configurations of the ensemble and decided a trio with Tony Buck (drums) was the way to go. We called him and he said what we were describing was exactly the sort of lines he’d been recently thinking along.

One big motivating factor for me, derived from Small’s book, was the desire to put myself in a musical situation where the entire focus was on the process of making music, with no concern for the actual product. (Ironically, while holding true to that ideal, I think it’s fair to say we’ve ended up with a very recognisable product anyway!)

With this goal in mind, we were quite adamant that we would only ever perform in private, but after about six months of intensive workshopping, we felt we had developed a pretty failsafe method of generating music spontaneously and decided that the presence of an audience was not going to stifle us, so we “went public”. We’ve been performing in public ever since, but I do believe the key to our unique approach was the fact that the band was originally formed with the intention of never performing in front of an audience.

As for musical background, I was taught classical piano as a child but it never really took. My first musical love was the pop music of the 60s and 70s. Eventually I started playing bass and drifted towards jazz. All three of us met through the jazz scene, but have certainly moved through jazz to something else since.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (e.g.. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
It’s not very fashionable to say it, but I’m a big fan of the CD. I think it sounds great, and is just portable enough to give it an edge over vinyl, without totally losing tangibility and physicality, as digital does. I simply cannot get my head around digital. I have never bought a tune digitally and doubt I ever will.

And vinyl, I have a great affection for it. When The Necks recently released our first-ever LP, getting that big piece of art in my hands for the first time was a feeling I hadn’t had since the 1980s. But let’s be honest, LPs are fragile and cumbersome, and contrary to what many believe, I find the sound quality a little overrated, though I do like the crackles and pops and surface noise.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
I think its hold on the collective imagination is weakening, and I personally would be sorry to see it disappear, but it won’t be the end of civilisation. Something good will always be there. And let’s face it, the idea of an album as a stand-alone entity, rather than a collection of tunes, only really took hold in the mid-60s, so it’s not like it’s one of the ancient traditions of human culture.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
My feelings on this are much the same as for the album. I hope that some record stores survive, as I find it a very civilised and social way to discover new music, but realistically, there’s not going to be many around soon. If we want to do something about that, we may need to call into question the entire economic structure of much of the world, and maybe here is not the place to start that.

Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
Well that hasn’t been our experience. We still see good sales for our albums, through shops, online, and at gigs. Every title in our catalogue is still available (well, a couple have slipped out of print at time of writing but will be reissued soon) because they continue to tick over year in, year out. The question is how much those sales have been eroded by illegal downloading and CD burning. For all we know, our sales ought to be far higher than they are.

Your question is very much the argument put forward by people for illegal downloads of music. I don’t know if that’s what you were getting at. They say that downloading represents valuable promotion for the artist, which will result in bigger crowds at gigs. This hasn’t been my experience, nor that of anyone I know in the music scene, and plus I would have thought it’s a little presumptuous to tell the artist what they can and can’t expect payment for without asking them.

People will say tough, it’s too big to stop, but they never explain where independent artists like us are going to find the thousands of dollars we need every time we want to record an album, if people stop paying for recorded music altogether.

Do you think traditional copyright laws are still enforceable in the digital age, or do you think we will have to rethink the concept of copyright itself?
As I said above, if enough people flaunt traditional copyright laws, it’s probably unstoppable. But is that a good thing? I don’t think so.

Would you say new technologies like the internet have affected how you operate as a band (not only in terms of distribution, but organising tours, reaching out to fans etc), and if so, how?
Yes, indubitably. Here I am typing these responses to you as I sit on a train in Australia. We use digital technology in myriad ways every day. I’m a very slow adopter of new technology because I think once you sign up for it, it tends to take over your life, and all it does is speed up the whole world anyway, so in the end what have we achieved? But certain things just have to be done a certain way these days. (Heck, I may even buy a smart phone one day.)

We’re not interested in social media like Facebook or Twitter. People say we’re missing out on enormous potential audiences, but frankly, we don’t want enormous audiences. We don’t want the whole world liking our music, and realistically, they never would anyway. We don’t want people to encounter our music because their friends’ friends “liked” it on some site. We want people to fall for our music because they somehow heard it and it spoke to them in a different way to any other music they heard. As to what that “somehow” is, I can’t answer that, but we seem to have plenty of new fans coming along all the time, and plenty of old fans who still follow us after two and half decades. Hell, we have people coming up to us at gigs nowadays who tell us they were conceived to our first album.

It’s not as if it’s hard to find us. I just checked, and if you type “The Necks” into a search engine, our website still comes up at the top of the list, and we don’t pay anyone to push it up there.

What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
The sheer lack of live performance opportunities compared to when I was starting out 30 years ago, and following from that, the sheer lack of avenues for making a living wage out of playing music while you begin to construct your career. I’ve always made a (modest) living out of music, as have the other Necks, and in fact it’s only because we had other income-generating activities as musicians 25 years ago that we were able to slowly translate that one great idea we had into an ongoing ensemble with a global reputation. But it’s taken 25 years and we’re hardly rich from it. How a young musician is going to even get to that point, when there’s so little possibility of supporting themselves through those long years, let alone take it beyond where we’ve gotten to, I honestly don’t know. But hopefully we’ve made the path a little easier for someone, simply by example.

Finally, what does the future hold for the Necks?
We’re in a really good niche right now. We’ve always kept the whole thing on the level of a cottage industry and we still do the bulk of the admin ourselves, but as our reputation has spread, technology and air travel have made it possible for us to tour all over the globe and sell our albums everywhere, despite the small size of our operation. We just know that if we take on staff, or sign up for too many overambitious projects, we’ll crack at the seams. So after 25 years, we’re still talking to each other, still great friends, still getting a huge buzz out of making this unique music, and getting better and better offers and more and more press coverage. (They’re even writing chapters on us in books now.) So we’re just going to keep doing that. Performing, releasing albums… not much more to it than that. So long as we keep everything small scale to keep the costs down we’re making a bit of money. So long as we keep healthy so that we’re capable of playing this physically demanding music, I can see us going on for a long time yet.

For more information about The Necks, you can visit their official website.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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