The Necks are one of the greatest cult bands in the world. Armed with a live reputation akin to Nick Cave and the Dirty Three, and as determined as ever to NEVER play the same thing twice, the legendary Sydney trio return to The Street as part of their 2016 national tour.
We spoke to pianist, Chris Abrahams:
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CONCERT YOU EVER WENT TO?
I had a cousin who was a tour manager briefly and he gave my sister and I tickets to a concert at the Hordern Pavillion by the folk rock group Lindisfarne. I don’t remember too much about the night except that, from memory, both Sherbet and The La de das were on the bill.
DID YOU START YOUR TRAINING AS A CHILD? WEEKENDS SPENT AT THE PIANO PRACTICING SCALES? CLASSICAL FIRST OR JAZZ FROM THE OUTSET?
There were some friends of my parents who were leaving the country for a number of years and had an upright piano that they needed to park somewhere. It just so happened that it ended up in my bedroom. I was about five at the time. My mother had played piano as a child; my father hadn’t. There was no experience with music being a career in our family.
As a child, I had piano lessons. I was definitely no child prodigy and soon, through mutual agreement, abandoned my classical training – I believe I made it about third grade.
My father was passionate about Jazz and would play me records – Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Meade Lux Lewis and Jimmy Yancey amongst others. I see this as being very influential on me.
I believe that if a kid has a piano in their bedroom, they are probably going to play it, which is what I did. Playing more or less my own inventions. It wasn’t the best of instruments – an upright circa 1920 that couldn’t be tuned closer than a semitone flat of A440. It had to it a chronic “chorus” effect which could be partially mitigated by weaving a neck tie through the strings, thus dampening some of the more “colourful” overtones. Possibly this set me off in the experimental direction.
My musical taste was pretty conventional in terms of a teenage boy in the 70s – The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa. However, at the age of about sixteen, I borrowed from the music department of the high school I attended a copy of “Cooking” with the Miles Davis Quintet. I had never heard anything as elegant as Red Garland’s piano solo on My Funny Valentine and this was a turning point for me…
WAS THERE A PERIOD IN YOUR CAREER WHEN IT WAS A STRUGGLE TO GET NOTICED? WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN THEN?
It takes a few years, unless you’re very lucky and talented, to make a “living” out of playing music – particularly instrumental music. I count myself very lucky to have started playing publically at a time when there were still a lot of jazz venues in Sydney. I formed a group with Lloyd Swanton (also in the Necks) in about 1980 and very shortly afterwards we had a regular gig every week at The Paradise jazz Cellar. This was a situation where we could develop a band concept, over a couple of years, in front of quite large crowds. Obviously, over the years I’ve been in situations where very few people were in the audience, but the sort of music I play is in some ways not all that audience dependent. I don’t mean this to sound self-indulgent, more that there is enough experimentation and newness in the material we present, that it’s easy to forget about the lack of attendance. As well, we never expected our stuff to get played on commercial radio but, having said that, we have been well supported by community radio and the ABC. I can’t complain.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
“Listen to what you play”. The great piano player Bob Gebert said that to me one night at Morgan’s Feedwell, a club in Sydney, when I was about twenty. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but over the years its meaning has become clearer..
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
I’m not superstitious.
I like to feel as relaxed as possible before walking out on stage – which, with the Necks, is quite easy. The Necks don’t have an organised “bonding” ritual to prepare for a performance – not a serious one at least. Often we will be engaged in unrelated esoteric banter when the instruction to go on stage is given.
IF YOU HAD AN HOUR TO JAM WITH ANY MUSICIAN (ALIVE OR DEAD) WHO WOULD IT BE?
THE NECKS TOUR A LOT, HOW DO CANBERRA AUDIENCES COMPARE WITH OTHER CITIES AROUND THE WORLD?
The shows we do at the Street Theatre have always been special. The size and acoustic qualities of a venue have enormous influences on the outcomes of the pieces we play. We are very chuffed that the room is mostly always full when we play and the response is always very supportive and positive. I feel we play more “emotionally” in the hall, with the pieces having quite climactic anthemic qualities – the other members might disagree.
I would rate The Street Theatre up there amongst our favourite places to play. It’s been a very important relationship for us.
Thanks so MUCH CHRIS!