I’ll begin at the ending.
It was around 2 a.m. at the Hint House, the distinguished living space and practice area of the No Neck Blues Band on 131st Street in New York City. I was choking on the smoke of my own cigarette, a warming 32-ounce brown-bagged Budweiser in hand. No Neck were about to play. The show was the 5th anniversary of the bands inhabiting the Hint House, and they had invited some of their closest friends to usher in the next segment of their career. The musicians were situated in an upstairs room crowded with paintings, couches, a kitchen and a staggering collection of musical devices. A photographer had set up a huge 1920’s-era flash bulb tower on one side of the room and would snap blinding photos randomly throughout the night. Boston’s Sunburned Hand of the Man wrestled loose rock (literally, two members of the band going Greco-Roman mid-set!), Gang Gang Dance put in a trance-y, eventually crushing performance and former members of Harry Pussy contemplated their navels and the outer edges of cymbals in an exploratory, too-mellow-to-even-be-called-drone set. Now it was No Neck’s turn. In the previous weeks I’d spoken with one of the only publicly known members of the band, Dave Nuss, seen a show celebrating the release of their newest studio opus Intonomancy and had time to fully digest its complexities. Someone tipped the needle off the vintage record player serving as DJ, dimmed the lights and the band took off. I am, of course, ahead of myself already here. I’d been gradually clued into the bands’ codices and this show, kind of the final realization of my No Neck coming of age, needs some prepping before it can be fully understood.
Properly gaining access to No Neck’s recordings, history and ideals requires some Scotland Yard-type antics. Most certainly the band has musical muscle that backs their cryptic existence; its members’ intentional anonymity (only two band members allow themselves to be identified) and secrecy only add to NNCK’s magnitude. Their greatness is predicated mainly on the unique improvisational approach the band brings to performing and recording. A twisted hybrid of country, jazz and folk, they were, as journalists like to say, “John Fahey’s favorite band.” Nuss described days of No Neck before his arrival as “a damaged guitar kind of rock. Like when the Dead C was big…drone and skronk…and they were listening to the Unsane and Circle X and those kind of people.” Nuss had recently relocated from south Texas, drawn to New York by its free jazz and contemporary classical music cultures. After seeing No Neck for the first time at Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island he said, “Look, I want to join the band.”
So they began practicing at his Suffolk Street apartment and quickly developed a new musical voice. Until this point, the band’s music still showed traces of song structure. Almost immediately after Nuss joined these formalities dissolved. “We put it together and when we started playing and…we scrapped the song stuff right away. Let’s just improv. Improv. Improv. Improv.” They had stumbled upon the inexplicable musical kinship that ran through their jazz and blues forebears. The music gradually encompassed “this extra element that improvised musicians kind of talk about. Not working on things like it’s a craft, like we’re trying to get this part right, and this part, and this change. You are sort of ‘ahh, what is the spirit which is driving the music?’” Thus the chase for the spirit began, and No Neck hasn’t looked back since.
In these early stages the band was a collection of various musical influences. Nuss bringing his 20th century classical ideas, Matt Hayner (also a member of the downtown quartet Test) injecting further free jazz elements and the other members adding touches of American folk and electronic music, as well as Eastern instrumentation and melodic sensibilities. No Neck integrated these influences in a decidedly unique way. When I ask Nuss how the band was inspired by musicians like Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra, which made use of elaborate non-traditional notational techniques, he says, “It actually fell away pretty quickly… I think there’s something about that music and, to overuse the term, experimental nature which is very appealing. And certainly in the context that it’s grown in, but there’s still something a little bit square about it. And I don’t mean, ‘square’ versus ‘hip’ but square rhythmically.”
Other experimentalists’ sounds did manage to trickle into the band’s collective consciousness, however “I remember when, OK, of course Xenakis is out there and there was this CD of his that came out called La Legende d'Eer . We heard this – and it’s just a solo electronic piece – we were like ‘Wow’. It just fucking blew our heads off. So [at the] next weekend rehearsal we’re all playing keyboards.”
Now things are starting to make sense to me. No Neck refuse to be bound by any conventional structures that a musical form might impose, but taking the sounds themselves – and the moods and emotions associated with them – is a viable and more rewarding alternative. Dropping the contextual and formal associations of these aurally intriguing musics, the band can approach them from perhaps their most critical vantage point: pure sound. This keen ability remains an important part of the bands’ performance and recorded output. Intonomancy includes several deep space keyboard and electronics voyages just as parts of their live performance borrow directly from traditional folk songs, ethnic musics and instrumentation of all kinds.
For NNCK, live performance has always been an integral part of the recording process and of the group’s overall evolution. Most of the band’s early recordings were documents of live shows, and the events themselves gained a mythical status. Feeling that there was more to playing live than getting up on stage and “playing at” the audience, No Neck tried to stage concerts in intimate venues where the music and location were intertwined. The band considered rooftops, houses, cafés and all points in between as fair game. Nuss explains, “We did a few gigs…at more rock oriented places. We used to play the Cooler a lot. It was a drag…The guy over there that used to run the place would always tell us ‘You know you guys would have more fans if you would just change your sound a little bit this way and that.’ Fuck that! So that’s why we ended up just saying ‘lets play on rooftops, let play in the park,’ someplace closer to nature.” The band has released countless audio documents like “Letters from Earth” and “Re: A Mr. Fan” of their live shows in limited vinyl runs on their own Sound@One label. Since live performances seemed to find the band at their best, this was its modus operandi for releasing albums in the early days. Despite the fact that shows often ended prematurely when police arrived, the band persevered.
As No Neck now begin branching out to larger venues, closeness to the audience and music remains a crucial concern. The band continually adds extra elements to live performance to shake up conventional notions about what to expect. During one section of the recent Knitting Factory record release show, an audience member began applauding during a transitional lull, and although the rest of audience did not catch on, the band did. Integrating the lightly clapped rhythm into this particular section, they used it as a jumping off point and experimented with the newfound pulse. At seemingly random points in the evening, one of the band members intermittently clicked a flood lamp on and off to provide some visual mood variation. These actions and ideas originate from the early days where practices were more of open-ended art happenings than strictly musical events. Nuss says that in the beginning of the band’s career, rehearsal “quickly became its own thing. Matt [Hayner] would come to the No Neck rehearsals and would set his bass on the ground and start drawing pictures…or start doing a dance…Or stand across the room and throw objects at his bass…just this total open forum.” Even when playing an established venue like the Knit, the band always tries to bring this “open forum” to their shows. Engaging with the audience, reacting to stimuli and being open to changes of direction are important parts of the No Neck ethic – no rules, no limits.
With the release of Intonomancy, the band has decided to play some more traditional venues, opening up to accessibility in ways it had refused in the past. “We want people to be able to see us sometimes. We’d (hear), ‘oh, No Neck played last week in a fucking closet’,” Nuss says with a laugh. “And we thought, well, let’s take it up a different pitch. We won’t do it very often, but we thought, ‘let’s come out’.”
Intonomancy is NNCK’s second proper studio album and a bit more sonically ambitious than their first, Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Words Will Never Hurt Me, which was released in 2001 on Fahey’s Revenant label.
Sticks And Stones, which was recorded when the band staged a spontaneous journey to the Ozarks, has obvious folk and country strains running throughout. Intonomancy retains pieces of that sound, but also finds the band drawing on some of the Xenakis material they often happen upon during their live sets. Intonomancy mixes elements of the cramped and crazed city life with placid, broken jug band dirges. Considering all the interesting music being created in New York City at the moment, I ask Nuss if the feel of the city plays a role in the creation of No Neck’s music. “It’s interesting about New York because it seems like New York is just a hell place to live, but its such a breeding ground for this kind of interesting music. When you get outside the city, you don’t find that many people who really give a shit. There’s this whole scene that’s kind of built around this fundamental premise that you need expansive, creative space to make the music happen.”
No Neck, despite sharing at least part of its musical heritage with Americana and other traditional music forms, remains influenced by their urban surroundings and the community that has formed within the city. Many of the No Neck’s contemporaries have bubbled up from the same subterranean goo, continuing New York’s status as a critical locus for the convergence of creative minds.
In fact, No Neck has been supported by and rallying alongside this community since its inception. When a few of the band members were working and seeing shows at the old Knitting Factory (in a basement on East Houston) they were constantly in contact with people like Byron Coley, Thurston Moore and Tom Surgal (who Nuss eventually played with in White Out). As No Neck started accumulating stacks and stacks of recordings, they were giving out demo tapes and everything just came together naturally. Nuss explains that he had given “Thurston a demo tape and he comes back the next week and says ‘Let’s make a record.’ It’s like ‘What do you mean? Are you crazy? What are you talking about!?’”
Of course, deciding to make the first record was the easy part – the other phases of production provided a crucial learning experience for the band. Whereas most artist-label relationships are tenuous at best, No Neck quickly learned that working with Coley, et al. was a liberating experience. The band had decided on this route because, as Nuss put it, “You have to do it independent[ly] because that way there’s none of the funny business, no obligations.” Coley was supportive throughout the process, providing feedback when the band sought his opinion, but ultimately yielding free reign to the band. “(Coley) just said, ‘Hey you guys, send the tape to the plant and you’ll get the records back. I’m not even going to listen to the tape.’ Just complete trust.” This was eventually tested when the band received the first test pressing of their second record back from the plant. There were a few flaws in the recording, albeit in places that most bands would never even bother to see. “We had this one track entirely of feedback. And we said ‘Aw, Byron, I don’t know, it seems like we lost a little bit of the high pitch on the test pressing.’ And he would just say ‘are you guys, nuts?’ and we’d say “No man, there’s something…’ and he’d say ‘Ok, let’s cut it again.’”
No Neck has applied many of these early lessons to their ongoing evolution. After recording dozens of records, mainly live for Sound@One, they finally decided to try improvising in the studio on Sticks And Stones. In between Sticks And Stones and Intonomancy, there have been other live recordings. The beautiful Ever Borneo LP comes with one of two bonus 7” records, as well as some other LP culled from performances. Still, the band’s two studio recordings remain, in a way, its most introspective work. Nuss explained that the reason to do a studio album was, first and foremost, to make a record that sounded good. But the group also wanted to separate itself from outside elements, to let the music be created by, and speak for, itself, or as Nuss puts it, “let’s hear what the music sounds like on its own, independent of the environment…Uniquely, ourselves, doing this music.”
Certainly, many of their live sounds crop up on these studio efforts, but there is also room for quieter passages. “We can actually all hear each other really clearly… and I think we just played really quietly so there was no need to struggle to notice or be heard. And so the chemistry just sort of took over in that way,” Nuss says. “People have critiqued Sticks, and [when] they will critique Intonomancy they’ll say it doesn’t sound like the old No Neck when you guys were throwing shit around the room. And the reason for that is we’re in a recording studio with like million dollar equipment!” Whatever limitations the studio imposes are offset by equally interesting opportunities for experimentation. As these studio-recorded documents reveal, the band can play freely in the studio, testing sounds difficult to achieve in live performance.
Returning to the anniversary show at Hint House, I am in this cavernous space (by NYC standards), with the literal and metaphysical history of No Neck built up all around me. Simultaneously clandestine and accessible, No Neck speaks in a strange musical tongue that is left for the audience to translate. After about an hour, the band stumbles on a kind of atonal drone, players switch instruments and one member begins singing from behind a large djembe drum at center-stage. None of this seems out of the ordinary until I realize that the words he’s singing are that of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Christmas having passed a while ago, I am confused by the sentiment, but casually shrug it off – there should be no reason why the band can’t appropriate a Christmas carol if it sees fit. As the singing winds down, focused rumbles permeate the background and the singer rises up from his drums, out into the fuzzy haze in front of the audience. “That one was for John Fahey, Nathan Maddox and Erik Kirk. Thanks for coming.”
Somewhat stunned by this personal admission, I realize there must be several ghosts haunting these walls. Just as Nuss had explained how the spirit of Xenakis could affect the band’s sound, it seemed that this show had conjured up these other influences. These three recently deceased individuals all shared in the No Neck journey. Fahey, championed the band. Nathan Maddox, member of Gang Gang Dance, died tragically in a lightning storm almost one year ago. A constant fixture of the local scene, he had been a close friend. Erik Kirk had played with No Neck at some Hint House shows in the past and also recently passed away. Some of the members of No Neck ushered him off in grand style, playing drums at his funeral, which took place on a boat. It seemed apt that the band gave some indications of the emotions that drove its music, as it provided a rare glimpse into the abstract nature under which it is normally created. It seemed that making this brief dedication provided a fixed point with which one could explore the textures and understand why they might be creating them. In classic surreptitious No Neck style, as fast as this dedication and glimpse into the personal side of the band was made, they played a final brief, meditative coda and finished their set.
In order to bring their music to a wider audience, NNCK has planned some extensive touring this spring and summer, playing at more accessible and less illegal venues. This tour will take them to Europe to play a few shows with seminal Krautrock act Embryo. Additionally, this fall the band will play with the veteran Swedish psychedelic group Trad Gras Och Stenar. Nuss feels that playing with these seasoned pros will allow the No Neck to learn and grow, to feed off the energy of such experienced elders. “We’re trying to get out there and spread our wings a little bit and get out there for the people.” Always cognizant of their physical space, the band is also excited to find out how the European environment will affect their sound.
For most other bands, all these tasks – constant touring, recording new material and trying to link up with some of their musical heroes – might overwhelm their music, but No Neck are quite comfortable tackling these elements. “No Neck is not…it’s not a hobby. At this point it’s become what we do,” Nuss says. “We’re continuing with this in a creative way. Professionally, we don’t make a dime off this stuff…We always want it to be an aspect of what’s defining us as people.”
Since the members of NNCK consider the band to be a unique and defining element of their personalities, the band operates in a deeply personal and flexible manner. This intimate attention to each other, the audience and their music keys us in to how the band, as an organism, creates, dies and is born again.
No Neck play Café Sine at 150 Attorney Street in New York City on May 3.
For information on the European Tour see: http://www.zen14205.zen.co.uk
Forthcoming No Neck Site: http://www.theserth.com
By Marc Gilman