Chris Abrahams is probably one of the finest modern pianists I’ve ever had the good fortune of seeing perform live. As part of the trio that is The Necks, his, sometimes, solitary exploration of what you can do with a concert grand piano is a sight to behold.
With the release of his solo album, Play Scar, this month, I had the chance to chat with Chris the night after playing the launch show in his native Australia. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and very few teething problems, we chatted casually about The Necks, his influences and performing live.
You’ve been quite prolific over the past couple of years, both in terms of Necks and solo works. How do you decide whether something is applicable for solo work or something you want to bring to the group?
It’s a bit mis-leading. The Necks record was released in November last year, but we recorded most of it 2 years ago then mixed it the following year. And then I’m not sure why. We normally have a year long argument over what to call the record, a discussion I should say. I guess it gives the impression we’ve been working on things consistently. That’s not to say we didn’t work a lot on the record, but the in the last year we didn’t do any work on the record. So I’ve spent a lot of time working on my solo record. So I might give the impression of being more prolific than I actually am.
Surely that’s a good thing?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s more a question of timing. If the Necks were recording an album I’d put a lot of mental energy into that, and then whatever project is in my face at that time I’d would work more on that. I think that’s a truism.
So, is it kind of “random” what kind of project is in your face at any one time or due you purposefully seek out a new project?
In terms of The Necks, we have to plan a bit for that as we all live in different parts of the world. And we come together, maybe before that coming together, about 4 or 5 months before, we decide that we want to record something. So that takes a bit of logistics. With my own stuff and with this record, Play Scar, I’d be sort of be working away, in one form or another, for about 4 or 5 years, sort of not even knowing I was working on a solo record. Just basically mucking around in the studio, and then one day just deciding to record a whole lot of organ for whatever purpose. There’s the “I’ve got this now if I ever want to use this” kind of vibe. And it wasn’t till about a year ago when Lawrence [Engineer and Room 40 boss] more or less, said, “I’d really like to release a solo record of yours”, did things coalesce into a focus with an end in site.
Do you then piece together these different fragments that you’d collected over the past 3 or 4 years?
That’s definitely a method I use, yeah. But every so often I’ll go into the studio and have something that wasn’t happening in a certain way. And maybe I’d think this would sound interesting with an auto harp section I did 3 months ago. Then, all of a sudden, things start to coalesce. So yeah, there’s a juxtapositional method to a lot of Play Scar.
I’ve got an obsession with notebooks and making notes, and online bits and post-it notes everywhere, it’s a mad selection of odd phrases and interesting articles I’ve come across. I don’t know whether it’s similar to you, and it’s almost how I view you making a record. Is that the case or have I just made that up?
No, I really relate to that. I think it’s something I came to after a while. You also have to have a store of stuff to call upon, and that takes a while. Maybe when I was younger I thought the model of making a record was hire a studio with a set about of time, then what you get in the studio is basically what you get and you proceed accordingly. Whereas technology now really does afford exactly the approach you’re talking about, which I find far more interesting… It’s a way of ending up with a rich and multi-layered object at the end of it.
Do you think that the way you approach making albums now is better than the way you did when you were “younger” or do you think it’s just a very different approach and you make very different records now?
I don’t want to categorically say one thing or the other. But I think, and this may sound disingenuous deep down, but I do think it is. The main, important ingredient in any activity, is time. And if you’re able to spend a lot of time on something, on the whole, that tends to show very well.
It’s funny you should mention time actually, I’ve written a column this week about the consumption of music and how there’s so much out there, and so readily available, that you can drown in the quantity of it. And you can’t spend any time on a record or artist to let it soak in. Do you think the internet revolution has changed the way music is consumed?
I totally agree. But I guess I still have a very large foot planted in the pre-Internet world. I totally agree with you, yeah. The ability to hear about about someone and go on the Internet and BANG you can actually hear a large chunk of that person’s output is quite amazing. And I’m of an age where I find that quite startling. Whereas someone a lot younger than me will take it for granted.
I find myself somewhere in the middle, I do like the idea that I can hear it, but I’m still a bit old fashioned and I like records and albums.
I’m not quite comfortable with the virtual download as a means. I’m very object orientated.
So am I, though I’m not sure my wife agrees as I’m sitting in a room surrounded by CD’s and vinyl.
In terms of contemporary music, do you take much of an interest in “modern” music?
I spend a lot of time in Berlin these days and I feel informed about the experimental scene there. I’m not like Lawrence here, but I think I’m vaguely in touch. As you said earlier, there’s so much out there it’s hard *laughs*
Back to your solo record, what were the major influences and inspiration that went into Play Scar?
That’s a very good question… *long silence*
I don’t know why that’s difficult to answer…
It is an open ended question, I do apologise!
As I said, it was a 4 or 5 year process. I’m frightened to mention one thing as it’ll take on this huge importance. I mean, roughly speaking, there’s a post-rock, Pan America, vibe, certain aspects of Charlemagne Palestine. But they’re all fragments.
It’s a reasonable question, but actually I hadn’t thought about it! *laughs*
As it was made from fragments recorded over a number of years, when you assembled it, was there an underlying theme you wanted to convey, or did you put the songs together because they all sounded nice, which probably boils it down to something a bit too simple…
Well, I don’t work particularly intellectually, I work intuitively as a musician. It tends more towards the latter. I’m lead by what sounds nice to me. Of course, within that, there’s a rack of influences there buried in the sub-conscious. I’m trying to ruminate on people I could mention. There’s certain Merzbow, yeah… *laughs* There’s a rock aesthetic, [with the] use of the guitar, which was quite new to me.
It certainly seemed more song orientated than your previous record.
Thrown seemed a lot more improvised and experimental.
Thrown was almost a radio piece, where this was much more a collection of individual tracks. I’d been listening to Captain Beefheart, and that raw, rustic quality like a track like ‘Jelly Crown’, it’s probably hard to see that connection aesthetically, I don’t know, but I think there’s a kind of roughness and boisterous in that that’s been bolstered by other deeper influences. Kevin Drumm as well.
He’s the master of creating droning soundscapes.
Burkhard Beins has blown me away too, and I guess that means they’ve influenced me.
Do you think this more song orientated approach is something you’ll continue or do you think you’ll go back to the improv stuff. Do you see yourself on a path?
I really enjoyed the process of making Play Scar. I really liked the idea of working on something for that long. One interesting thing is that I kept going back to it. Particularly in the last 6 months of its development before it came out, I was burning CD’s and listening to it then changing it, even down to the track listing. I spent so much time on every aspect, in a way I’d never done before. And yet there was one Saturday morning where I played it and I just knew it was finished. I can’t verbalise why I thought that, there was just a closure that suddenly happened. And that was a really great feeling, and I’d like to get back to that. Realising things can be open ended, and that things can just take a long time to finish and to have confidence to not despair how long things can take. That was a very empowering feeling.
I’d like to continue on this path, whether that’s with songs or on one long piece, I’m not sure. I do see Play Scar as a step in a direction, rather than a cul-de-sac. I’m confident it’s going to lead me somewhere, I’m not sure where, I’m still scratching around to find that *laughs*
Do you think it’s your most complete solo work to date?
I feel happy with other things I’ve done. Maybe not musically, but certainly writing. But if you work on something for a long time and then you finished it. Then you feel you can exercise some self control. I don’t want to get into a council session though *laughs*. But being an improvising musician, it’s not a feeling you get very often. I’m not going to abandon improvisation, I’m definitely going to continue. You can make a record in the real time it takes to play it. I’m not saying that’s bad. But this other approach that Play Scar shows allows a positive feeling for me.
Do you think you’ll ever get tired of the way, say, The Necks approach their live sets with complete improvisation? Do you ever just want to “play something off the album”?
I don’t think so. There’s the music part of The Necks, and I don’t know if I can extricate from this, but there’s a physical part to The Necks as well. I mean, there’s the pleasure that someone gets from running round an oval! *laughs* Or someone likes to meditate. I don’t think people are going to say “I’m going to stop meditating as I’ve done it too much”. And I think there’s a dimension to that with the way The Necks plays that’s like that. It’s something we can go back to each time we play.
And it keeps it fresh for you three as well…
It keeps it fresh for us, but whether the audience will get sick of it or not isn’t up to us. I think even if they did, I think we’d still do it. We actually enjoy the process of playing music like that.
So will you be doing some live shows on the back of Play Scar?
Last night was the launch in Brisbane, I live in Sydney, I came up to play. I’ve got another show in Sydney, but they’re not particularly related to the album. Fans who come and want to hear ‘Twig Blown’ are going to be disappointed because there’s no way I can play it live! I’ve started to think of ways I might be able to play it live, but I don’t know if I could really ever perform the material live. And I don’t know whether that’s really something that’s worth pursuing.
Normally my solo shows are solo piano or solo DX7. When I say that, it’s often met with kinda of intriguing disbelief. The DX7 is an instrument that’s very dear to my heart, even though it’s one of the most maligned synthesisers ever made, I’ve sort of specialised in it *laughs* So it’s either a Concert Grand or a DX7!
Two extremes! So do you primarily see yourself as a pianist then or as something else?
In terms of a live performer, I’d say yeah, I’m a piano player and a fledgling DX7 player. I wouldn’t say I was a sound-artist or, I don’t think I’d call myself a composer either. The implication of those terms I don’t, personally, sit very comfortable in. Last night, here, I just played solo piano. And I certainly find it very satisfying, I never feel like I want to bring in other things to play, I’m actually very happy on concentrating on getting the piano to do things. There’s so much complexity to that. Solo wise I’m led to areas that possibly, with The Necks, would get obscured a bit. I think it’s a different thing. I go to areas I wouldn’t go to with The Necks.