Mahmood: In this episode of the RISING podcast, music curator and radio DJ Woody McDonald hosts a conversation between two iconic Australian drummers, Tony Buck from The Necks and Jim White from The Dirty Three.
Woody: How did you get into drumming?
Tony: I remember playing on my mum's ironing board because it had a sort of grid grill thing under it. And it sounds sort of like a snare drum. So I played along with records.
Jim: I used to play with the chairs. On the floor.
Woody: Sure, everyone loved it in the house.
Tony: You kind of draw on that a lot when you're a little kid. And then people tend to forget it. But I think it's still there. I still find some really interesting things in the kitchen.
Woody: When we were speaking about the music program I made up a narrative about the formation of both groups, Dirty Three, one of your first groups, and The Necks, one of your first groups. My urban myth is that you started as a restaurant band in The Dirty Three, and that The Necks started as a band that never intended to play live. But maybe you can tell me the real story.
Jim: We started Dirty Three. There's a pub in Victoria Street, Richmond, the guy Noel he entered the pubs around Melbourne and Warren knew him from a share house or some kind of something and he needed a band. So we formed.
Woody: So it was a restaurant group initially?
Jim: Art band I guess.
Woody: Yeah to play backing music? Or you were in the foreground and in a rough format?
Jim: Well there was only three people there the first night so I wouldn't say it was foreground or background. The three of us and three friends and 60 bucks and all we could drink.
Woody: And was it improvised the first night or did you write material?
Jim: No we had a few, we went around to Warren's house and just went through a few small ideas and then played, went and played at Inkerman Street and took a photo, he had a vacant lot next door so we drove all our cars up there.
Woody: Tony, you had more of a conservatorium background before the necks at least but a bit of independent underground happening as well.
Tony: Yeah well I mean conservatorium background, it was something that I did instead of finishing school I went to the con as something to do I get to meet like-minded people but I’m in at the same time playing in rock bands and this and that around the place and I guess the necks formed. The three of us were playing in lots of groups together overlapping kind of lineups in different things andI think we decided we wanted to play in a certain way that wasn't being satisfied in these other situations we found ourselves in even though those were pretty varied anyway but yeah we just had this other way that we wanted to play and we decided to get together a couple of times a week and just play for ourselves really, which we did pretty rigorously for about six months before someone that had heard about our little kind of get-togethers sort of suggested we share it with people, yeah and then we did our first concert. People seem to like it and then it went from there
Jim: Did you play. Do you play different material every day, every time.
Tony: Well we don't we've never had any material except the material we sort of remember from you know having played together a lot but we've never sort of written anything or pen to paper or let's remember this or anything like that it's always just walking out and playing.
Jim: When you make the albums and it says like a name of a song, you never go back and go like; play that song.
Tony: No, never.
Woody: Yeah.Makes sense. Tony, you were saying you sort of had the idea bubbling away. Or there was some desire for the three of you to play together? What was connecting, if you can think that far back?
Tony: All three of us started getting interested in other ways of playing like, I guess the references we might talk about minimalism or, like, improvising freely.But then I don't, I think we wanted to do things.It wasn't really like a free jazz thing.Where everyone's sort of soloing at once it was more like an ensemble sort of sound and letting the music take its time so I guess the references we would have had would have been things like African music and Indian classical music and Gamelan and maybe Reggae and like music that sort of trance music I guess in the early days we played kind of in a traditional way like a rhythm section. But we weren't really interested in soloists more like the band playing equally but they're not like all soloing like maybe no one song at all so we had this self-imposed restriction I guess even though we were playing we could play whatever we wanted no one was telling us what to do we wouldn't even talk to each other about what we might bring to a piece of music except through the initial conversation referencing you know minimalism maybe Steve Reich and James Brown and and and we i think we're also because of all the bands we've been playing with pretty high energy and pretty loud noisy and demonstrative in the sort of kind of way of playing and I think we wanted to do something really different to that, so the band when the band started we played very very soft all the time.
Jim: I saw your shout at the tote. That was really amazing. And I saw you like next at the corner. And that was like, oh, that's also fantastic. And that was very, that seemed like a rock audience. Right. Like when everyone was sitting on the floor.
Woody: But I think tony was explaining maybe you're a bit more expressionist and the next are a little bit more minimalist in The Dirty Three at least.
Tony: Yeah well I have this idea that The Dirty Three seem to be too big so yeah sort of you have these sort of songs or the shell of an idea and then while you're playing it live it sort of opens up and it becomes this sort of expressionist kind of opening up with the music from these ideas of songs and The Necks we start with nothing so it's all totally open and then throughout the performance we kind of hone down on to focus on these very small ideas and with this sort of self-imposed kind of limits and so we kind of like where The Dirty Three open up we kind of closed down into a more introspective thing.
Jim: Yeah maybe we start with or maybe we start with repetition and then open up.
Tony: But I can see why people, I mean, it's instrumental music. So I can see why people do occasionally, you know, put these bands together, kind of some sort of idea in their heads, maybe the two sides of the same coin, two different sides of the same coin, whatever the expression.
Woody: How did the names come about for both groups?
Jim: I think Mick had a couple of mates he used to go out drinking with and they used to call themselves the dirty three. He just suggested it. Something like that. We had this show, then we had a band photo and we needed a name. That day.
Tony: I don't know if because we formed with not the with the idea of not really playing so it didn't matter if we had a name or not that we decided to have a name. And I remember Lloyd rang Chris and said, I've got a name. And before Lloyd to get it out. Chris said yes. So do I, The Necks. And, to this day, no matter how many times we've asked that question, and we look to Chris to find out where it came from. He doesn't really have an explanation.
Tony: I have a question for Jim did The Dirty Three ever feel like or I mean the whole joke or I guess the question of getting a singer like what you guys need is a chick singer or something yeah did that ever seriously come up?
Jim: I mean people used to say to us in the group people said to us and never came up for us. I mean we were always very clear you know because also there was an idea floated around that we should make a record early on with singers. It was clearly a terrible idea to me and other members of the band but it was yeah you know like well well nothing is around and what you know that we're happy to contribute you know which is nice so yes, yes and no. It was thrown around but it was never taken seriously.
Tony: Yeah I mean there's something very liberating about having I always imagined having a singer suddenly like nails this thing down to someone else and the openness to instrumental music is great.
Jim: Also I remember the day Warren and I were playing at that place a lounge in this other band and we just been around a mix the day before and we are you know in the days earlier making a recording and Warren dropped in on the way to soundcheck and got the cassette you know that mixed you know he had his song EH and you had the window down and the stereo up it's like first time I’d heard Dirty Three on tape and you know it sounded there's so much room without the vocals. There's so much sonic room.
Jim: Sonic, whatever, room sound this is a room you know so the instrument sounds fantastic.
But I mean, there's also, yeah, it will be a lot less room for everything, I think. But yeah. I mean, certainly, there's also a singer. Yeah. Warren wouldn’t be, none of us would be playing in the same way, I don’t think.
Tony: Yeah, exactly. And then though, and for a listener, there's so much more open space to interpret it, how you feel like you their music, you respond to the music in a very personal way. And as soon as you got a singer in words, it nails down what the songs about or what you're supposed to be feeling a dictate a whole lot of stuff. instrumental music just leaves an open mood, which I think is a great thing.
Woody: You're both at home in concert halls, you've played your fair share of fancy environments, but I feel like the next long term residency, I'd say the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, and the dirty three have a similar appreciation for grotty punk rock pubs really, or rock and roll pubs, but you're playing the sort of music that is a bit gentler at times, and do you have an environment?Or have you found those experiences site transitioning from sticky carpets to concert halls?
Jim: The sound of the room has such a big effect. And then the room the rest of stuff is the psychological stuff. And how the audience is feeling. But the actual sound of the room just hugely important
Tony: Yeah, for us, too. I think we've also always played in so many different sorts of places. And that's something because we don't really walk on stage without any planned idea of what we're going to do. The sort of venue does really kind of inform what happens afterwards. Also, it's not really a self-conscious thing. You know, we, if we play the corner, I do think we play incredibly differently, playing in some sort of cathedral somewhere in the middle of France, or the concert hall or the Opera House or something, but you don't walk on stage and think, Oh, this is what we're doing. And it has to be different. It has to, it just does, like from the first sound, you make this whole different kind of, I guess it's acoustic feedback thing happens where the first sound just sounds different and presents a different space in which to let this music kind of unfold. So yeah, it's a constant influence on what's going on.
Jim: You have to huddle. On those big stages, sometimes in the bigger rooms, you have to squat up together to try and get the sound.And feel what's going on more.
Tony: I remember the first band I ever joined, the first rock band that like proper band touring, which was actually that band Ayres rock, which was pretty funny.
Jim: You were in Ayres Rock. Hahaha.
Woody: I'm thinking about Ayers rock and classic rock in the 80s, though, and it is a bit technical. Yes. But the landscape of where both groups came up, and I know you you've had a lot of punk rock activity, Tony, you've had jazz and all sorts of things and playing in a classic rock band, but it's still both time both groups came around. It still must, you still must have been a bit odd. In a way. I think it was the word used to describe Tony, you know, both bands still in the spectrum of you know, I think Melbourne pub rock, or it's, you know, Sydney jazz or, or whatever, both bands sort of remain quite odd.
Tony: I mean, there have been over the years, odd responses to The Necks. But not really any more in the early days than later. Although my sketch of people go and see the band, now they know what they're going to see. But there have been a few weird things. Like, I mean, there was one gig, we all three of us were actually, it's a strange gig, we will play in Steven Cummings band.And then, but the three of us just as his backing band sort of thing. And then but we've made it we did an opening set as The Necks to this crowd that would go and see and Steven Cummings kind of gig. And I remembered somebody yelling out sort of halfway through it “fucking medical students” or something. I don't know, their response to. And it was probably a really weird setting for us to do anyway. I mean, I don't know why we, but you know, that was one response. And we did a gig. I know it was probably 10 years ago now in somewhere in Brighton, I think in England, and somebody some guy, you know, sat through the whole sort of hour-long, first set, and then as soon as it's finished, he sort of came up to the front yelling, this isn't music. This is fucking shit. This is a music festival. Why are you here and you know
I mean, whatever, you know, there was also once again, we played in Sydney and a little pub.I was near some sort of police station or something because the room seemed to be full of detectives and off-duty policemen. And we kind of started the set and played and I guess we weren’t looking around, we had our eyes closed, whatever, and opening them up halfway through. The room was full, but totally with totally different people. So we basically cleared the room of these policemen and ended up with a totally different audience. So that was an interesting response from the Constabulary.
Jim: I mean, you have to get yourself into different situations, right? I mean, to find the audience like I was thought Dirty Three it was very hard to get shows early on, but it was like, apart from I mean, in Melbourne, we went to the residences, and then we would go around, it was always fine, but back into the state. And we would piggyback on other shows that Warren or I were doing or whatever. But I remember we went to Sydney, they provided the first show there. And they just said, Well, I will make sure you never play in Sydney ever again. You know, you can so it was up on Taylor square they run out. They were just outraged, you know that you could call that music. But I was I always thought if we get in front of people, it will go well, and you know it did. Not always.
Woody: Just not in Sydney.
Tony: That I mean, these, these different contexts are fantastic to find yourself in. But I guess the danger is you can always risk really disappointing people a lot. It's fine with the necks I often feel this when we played in audiences that I know have never heard us before.It starts off and everyone's kind of open to what's going to happen. And then in the five-minute mark, where not a lot has happened. You feel the audience get a bit sort of fidgety. And then you can almost it's almost a palpable feeling in the hall at about 10 minutes where they realise Well actually, maybe this is what it is right? And people just relax into it and you kind of then you know, you've got them that there's between the five-minute and 10-minute mark sometimes at a gig for us. You feel this sort of ill-ease in the flight what actually what are we listening to? Expectations can be thwarted somewhat.So then I guess they people learn to listen without expectation, which is great.
Jim: Audiences might be very different now than when, like, not just on our own is individual audiences but the audience might be totally different now than when we first started right? Like the nature of the audience like this. Nature of audiences in general, like, people seem much more open now.
Tony: I think people are more open, but they also they have a better idea of what they're getting into. These hard divisions of what style and what tribe the music is supposed to relate to have broken down a lot. Yeah. So I think people are more open.
Jim: What’s a song? What’s music and stuff? What’s a band?
Tony: Yeah for sure, I don't know if it's a thing to do with the internet and the democratization of music, but maybe people aren't being dictated to about what this thing is and what it means. And, you know, like a band would form with a certain image and be pushed by a record company with a certain, like, belonging to a certain scene. And that doesn't happen so much anymore.
Jim: I guess, maybe, that’s why pop music is so radical.
Tony: The first people who really got into the necks with this guy, Sandro in Bern in Switzerland, who was really the noise music and industrial music and he booked Peril this group of mine a few times. And he was the first person that really got it. And that was totally from the sort of squat scene in Switzerland at the time. And he would make comparisons, strangely, like with The Necks and Godflesh. And bands like that, I don't know why he found these connections. But suddenly, we had a sort of touring circuit, in the scene that I associated with sort of squat rock and all that sort of thing. And it took a long time for the scene that we were involved with in Australia, which I suppose was more people that were interested in the jazz scene, the fact that we improvised, was an interesting thing to them. But that took a long time to get happening in Europe.
Woody: I think both groups keep finding new audience and odd little pockets of music fans. Over the years, it's been something I've noticed that the gigs it's always your newer types of younger people. There’s older people experiencing it for the first time. It's never, it's not particularly linear followings. I wouldn't say genre followings.
Tony: Yeah, for us, I think it opens up. Over the years, it's slowly opened up to new scenes that, like in Europe, it's very different to how it went in Australia. But then now, you know, when we did a tour in Australia, or how many gigs it ended up being not many, but opening for The Swans, which was a lot of people would think, that kind of knew of The Necks but The Swans would like this is ridiculous. Why would a jazz band from Sydney be opening, Swans like bleh, but the musical connections are fairly obvious if you look a little deeper than the surface. So that opens us up to a whole group of people that would maybe not have come across us before. And the same thing collaborating with Brian Eno at vivid in, at the Opera House in Sydney, that opened us up to a whole group of people.
Jim: But you know, I did. I did a little. I didn't do it. I didn't do the homework I plan to do for this podcast. But I did this morning, read an interview with you.And you said it was really great interview actually. And you said that you felt, which I was surprised me that you felt like you were you know, not normal or something. In the drumming world, like you were saying that you felt like he didn't play right? You know what I mean?
Tony: I guess you're the same like we're kind of quite into the sort of textural tambril way of playing a drum kit, and, and this whole way that the drummer's kind of these days, you know, are these drum heads that just sound like nothing? Yeah. And the sort of this way of playing really tight, and it just, it's something that I'm not really interested in anymore.
Jim: But even when we started, it wasn't like, it wasn't, it was kinda it wasn't really in vogue then was it?
Tony: Yeah, I mean, drums didn't sound like that. I mean, even the drummers the first one, I mean, like Mark Kennedy, or even getting back into, even when I was getting into the like, I really want to be a drummer and like, play this instrument the best I can sort of thing and you listen to who was really happening then. It's like Billy Cobham. The real drummers, drummers were like, they didn't sound like this shitty two dimensional sound. And this, you know, the way the bass drum sounds these days, and I mean, I'm just really it just, it sounds really like two dimensional to me now. yet. I mean, this is within the whole industry of the drumming industry.
Jim: Yeah, with the with the heads and stuff. And yeah
Tony: And also then the worktops by these great drummers, whoever they are these days. And it's just I don't hear any personality or any options sound. So maybe that's one thing about feeling a bit out of the loop.
Jim: You’re a kit player, right. You're always a kit player.
Jim: You like that, right?
Tony: Yeah, I mean, I did a gig once recently, not recently, but somebody and somebody said the way I was playing sound like, I sound like a percussionist and I should just play percussion. But it's really important that it's a drum kit. Yeah, it seems to be. It's almost like this is the office or the workstation. Yeah.
Jim: Even if you change it, it's like that's, that's coming from.
Tony: Yeah, totally. I love that.
Jim: I’m just curious. You know, I love the formality of the drum kit. And, yeah, and it's, you know, it's a very quite modern sound. Do you regard yourself as a late, by playing a 20th-century instrument, like a late practitioner? You know it’s had its day.
Tony: Well the drum kit, I mean I find it interesting because it's like a really great workstation. It's got these resonating surfaces that you can use for anything but it's got this history of the 20th-century development of the drum kit.
Jim: 110 years old.
Tony: And it was also, in one sense, it's one instrument it's the drum kit is an instrument but at the same time it's also a collection of lots of different instruments and I think the psychology of how you think about it approach it while you're playing it can really help get an idea of what you're doing with it like in some ways it's very orchestral like you have the lowest sound in the band and the highest sounds in the band and everything in between.
Jim: So you can make up rules and you can play it like you have rules inside the formal set
Tony: Yeah it's also you playing within the limitations that it sets and then also it's sort of inspires to play outside of that expectation as well I think
Tony: You know and also with the added sort of other percussion instruments and little symbols and shit you throw around on a drum kit it's quite a vast instrument really isn't it? It's almost like a music concrete machine you can almost sort of play anything and I guess dramas in the history of the drum kit they're also the sound effect makers or big bands and stuff so that's still there. I think and yeah I think it does with the history and then the limitation and then the way to overcome the limitations or how the problem solving can really be inspiring.
Woody: You ever met Lars from Metallica?
Jim: I love him. I love him for that album. I love that album he made with Lou Reed.
Woody: Yeah, it's a catchy album.
Jim: Yeah, the drumming is so good on it.
Tony: Yeah. I really like this Metallica record. What's it called? Well, apparently, it was universally panned because especially because of the drum sound. Something rather St Anger or something. And, and the drum sound was fantastic. Let the snare maybe it was getting back to that thing of being bad like this plastic two-dimensional drum sound these days. And that's what's most rock records, especially these big corporate, corporate rock, whatever you call it. But that record had this sort of the snare drum had a tone to it. And I really liked it
Jim: Yeah, I didn't know that Metallica but the Lulu album with Metallica digitally, right? Yeah, it was panned by everyone and put it on. It's just fantastic.The drums, the drums are so so great.
Woody: Thanks Lars
Mahmood: The Rising podcast is created by Litmus Media on the land of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri people. It’s produced by me, Mahmood Fazal, the assistant producer is Daniel Steward and the editor is Eugene Yang. You can listen at Litmus.Media or wherever you get your podcasts.