Interview: Lloyd Swanton (The Necks) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The Necks are an Australian jazz trio consisting of a grand piano (Chris Abrahams), upright bass (Lloyd Swanton) and drums (Tony Buck) who have been building their cult-like status for 33 years. Intense and improvised, their live sets are an otherworldly experience that hypnotises, lifting you off your feet like some kind of audio obsessed Bisto kid, before carrying you helplessly into the waves of euphoria. 
 
Lloyd shares his six of the best ahead of the band’s performance at TUSK festival on Sunday 13th October.
 
BOOKS ON MUSIC: Music Society Education by Christopher Small
I can’t not cite this book (in fact anything written by Small!). It has had a greater impact on me than any piece of music has. 

Small is usually described as a musicologist, though he went to great pains to point out that he had no formal training in that area. He was that rare thing, an outsider, a maverick (though that is far too dramatic a word for such a gentle soul) who spoke a truth that all could relate to. That some appear to be deaf to his conclusions is no slight on the soundness of his logic.

The two main points I took from this book (which he further examined in his subsequent books) were firstly that the glories of the Western classical tradition mustn’t blind us to that fact that it is but one of many rich musical traditions around the world (and that even seeing Western classical music as “the best” is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and use for music in much of the world) and secondly, that music reaches its greatest human potential when it is understood as an activity in which to participate, rather than as a statement to be consumed passively, hence the gerund he coined in the title of his final (and some say greatest) book, “Musicking”.

I came across this book in a bookshop in Ealing in 1986. At that time, I was coming to the end of an intensive period of classical double bass tuition, which not only taught me invaluable approaches to my chosen instrument but also that I absolutely did not want to spend my life playing classical music. So I was primed for this book, and I devoured it. Just over a year later, ideas that it sowed in my mind led me to approach Chris Abrahams and Tony Buck about forming the ensemble that became The Necks.

BOOKS ON ECONOMICS/POLITICS: Econobabble by Richard Denniss
This Australian writer probably won’t be well known to British readers (though he does write frequently on Australian matters for The Guardian), and many of his references will be unfamiliar, but Denniss is well worth seeking out for his witty and forensic arguments, which utterly demolish the hypocrisy and sheer illogicality of Neoliberalism. 
 
In a system that seems increasingly like something out of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, it’s enormously heartening to learn that there are indeed still some people out there who understand that two plus two still does equal four.
 
MUSIC: Within You Without You from The Beatles’ “Sgt Peppers”.
An older sibling received “Sgt Peppers” from our parents for Christmas in 1967. He was in his teens but I think I, at seven years of age, was even more overwhelmed by it than he was. I played it obsessively on our old pink and grey vinyl portable record player. It’s amazing, listening to the album now on CD, how much of the soundscape of that album got through to me, despite my youth, despite the decidedly lo-fi reproduction of our record player.
 
I can’t think of a track that didn’t grab me and hasn’t stayed with me for over 50 years, but the Indian instrumentation on George Harrison’s “Within You Without You”, and George Martins’ canny, sympathetic arrangement held a special enchantment for me. The music of the subcontinent has bewitched me ever since, and surfaces more than occasionally in what we do in The Necks.
 
…McCoy Tyner’s piano solo on John Coltrane’s, My Favourite Things
I was at a party in my early 20s, wedged quite close to one of the stereo speakers in the living room, when someone put on “My Favourite Things”. Jammed so close to the speaker, I was utterly enthralled by McCoy Tyner’s solo. I don’t think he’s ever done another solo like it. Although Tyner is more than capable of tearing into it, on this outing he shows quite extraordinary restraint. I’ve no doubt Coltrane told him to work with subtle variations on the melody, to develop hypnotic riffs; and I even suspect at one point, that Tyner goes to end his solo but Coltrane gestures at him to keep going. (Normally one sign of a less-than-perfect performance, but this time at least, it seems to only add to the unique mood that Tyner conjures.) 
 
No other musical moment set my mind thinking more towards the concepts we built The Necks upon, than this one piano solo on this famous recording.
 
FILM: Federico Fellini – La Dolce Vita
It’s funny, I’ve watched a lot of movies in my time, but as an art-form, it never impacts on my life in the long term in the way in which music does. I can think of half a dozen pieces of music which have had a pivotal role in my development and which abide with me decades later.  And then on the other hand, while I can walkout at the end of a movie just devastated, and it will bounce around in my head for several days afterwards …. and soon after that, I pretty much forget I ever saw it. 

Having said that, Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” is one film which resonates within me, decades after I first saw it. (It’s probably one of the few films which I have watched multiple times.) Too long, and ultimately not as deep as it seems to want us to think it (can an artist make a valid point about shallowness by making a shallow artwork?), it’s still just the most extraordinary art object.
 
My first encounter with it only added to its mystique. After years of my hearing about it, a local repertory cinema procured a copy and I eagerly went along on the day, only to find there’d been a mixup and the film distributor had sent entirely the wrong movie. 
 
A few weeks later, they re-screened it, but this particular screening was distinguished by multiple breakdowns of the projection equipment; long periods of waiting in the cinema in dark silence. This legendary film was staying tantalisingly out of my grasp! But I saw enough of it on that day to know it was like no other film, and eventually – maybe a couple of years later – I got to see a quality print of it, uninterrupted.

CERAMICS: Kathie Winkle
Kathie Winkle was a designer working for James Broadhurst and Sons pottery in the 60s and 70s, a period where the manufacture of the company’s domestic tableware saw a blending of mass production and hand finishing. 
 
So, geometric designs were machine-stamped on the items in black, and then a team of painters added a vibrant splash of colour by hand, meaning every set was unique in subtle ways.
 
Winkle’s designs such as Safari, Mikado, Newlyn, Viscount, Compass, Kontiki and Capri captured the exuberance of the era. Over the years I have built up an extensive collection of Winkle ware. I don’t have a full set of any particular design so my family and I set the table every meal with an eclectic mix. I don’t know much about the science of colour therapy but I can say from experience it is profound. Seeing the riot of colour laid out on our table never fails to delight me. 

ART: Australian Urban Aboriginal Art
Many people around the world are aware of the extraordinary flourishing of Australian Aboriginal painting in the last three or focus decades. Not so well known is what sits slightly uncomfortably under the term Urban Aboriginal Art, referring to artists who not only display a mix of traditional techniques along with contemporary western methods but often play actively with this mix to interrogate the question of living black in a dominant white culture. 

Some of this work shares ground with Conceptual Art; in other cases Outsider Art.

An incomplete list would include artists such as Lin Onus, Robert Campbell Jr, Tracey Moffatt, Judy Watson, Gordon Bennett, Arone Meeks, Blak Douglas and Jason Wing. 

Tony Albert is a young indigenous artist noted for re-appropriating and re-examining 60s Aboriginal “coffee table kitsch” in his work.

Although not of indigenous heritage myself, I find the work of these artists exciting, provocative, and contributing to an intensification of my sense of what it is to be Australian in the early 21st century

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