Image via The Necks/Discogs
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Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”.
The Necks may look like a traditional jazz trio, but they play like something else entirely. Their work tends toward the lengthy, minimal, and patient: think free-improvisation turned glacial, or a pile of Steve Reich scores draped atop a rhythm section, or In a Silent Way with most of the players on a smoke break. At the group’s best, a Necks piece sounds like a trust fall in slow motion: someone improvises a motif, and then the band pushes and pulls and prods, stretching it into something wildly different at an uncannily slow pace. They may have stylistic precedents, but The Necks speak a language of their own creation. Given all that, it should come as little surprise that many of their records are one long-form composition: this is the kind of music that necessitates long-term exploration.
The group—Chris Abrahams on the piano; Tony Buck behind the drums; and Lloyd Swanton on the double-bass—embarked on that journey roughly a quarter-century ago. Their debut record, Sex, is equal parts hypnotic and straightforward: Swanton offers a spare bassline, three notes in two octaves; Buck fills the air with the cymbals and the occasional brushed snare; and Abrahams floats in the upper register of the piano. As the groove deepens, it grows more complex: chunkier chords, a grab-bag of smacked and rattled percussion instruments, overdubbed bass moans. But, critically, the group never lets go of that initial pulse. Sex moves with the heft, and patience, of tectonic plates; it is a Thespian ship made with as few parts as possible. If you rebuild a composition in real time, The Necks’s work asks, when does it become something entirely new?
Each member of The Necks has their roots in jazz and free improvisation, but, with the release of Sex, they cast off for parts unknown. In the eighteen records and hundreds of shows since then, they have continued to push themselves into new territories. Their discography houses spiritual-jazz freakouts and horror-flick minimalism; it has room for both long-form drum-and-bass records and starry-eyed post-rock ascensions; and the group is comfortable with both metronomic nu-jazz and breathless, instrument-shattering sprints. The Necks have worked with the likes of Swans, Underworld, and Nick Cave, all of whom work at the intersections of rhythm, repetition, and discordant beauty.
The Necks’s work is defined not by genre or sound, but by systems and frameworks; in each piece, they take specific musical ideas and stretch them until they have been indelibly altered. Travel, the group’s 19th studio album, simultaneously truncates and expands their approach: rather than one uninterrupted piece that would fill a compact disc, they offer four pieces for two discs of vinyl. This approach lets them explore a wide range of styles—depending on the track, Travel is slow-motion jazz for neo-noir nightclubs; it is purgatorial ambience; it is clanky and mechanical and bleary-eyed and joyous. After the release of the LP, we got a chance to catch up with Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton, going deep on The Necks’s methodology, the ever-evolving nature of their live show, and the importance of trust and humor in the recording process.
(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)