Ritual Improvisation

An Interview with No-Neck Blues Band

by Jennifer Kelly


Every week for the last decade, the anonymous group of individuals that makes up the No-Neck Blues Band has met at a location in Harlem. It is the same individuals every time—seven of them now, though a member who left to join Excepter is still counted among the eight founders. They meet at the same place, and for the same reasons.

“It’s not to create recordings, it’s not to prepare for concerts. It’s simply to do what it is that results in those things, when we choose to record or when we play live. But we do the same behind closed doors once a week and have been doing so for 10-plus years now,” said one band member during a recent phone interview, insisting, as NNCK members have always done, that no names be used. And though this particular band member emphatically rejects terms like “philosophy” and “spirituality” to describe these meetings or the creative process behind his band’s wholly improvised compositions, he will admit that the once-a-week meet has all the elements of ritual—regularity, seriousness and carefully-considered purpose. “There is nothing casual about these meetings,” he said.

It was out of these secretive, self-contained weekly events that the No-Neck Blues Band evolved, and in the early years, the band maintained its anonymity by refusing all interviews, almost never touring and releasing its recordings in very small runs on its own label, Sound @ One. Then musicologist/blues guitar innovator John Fahey named NNCK as his favorite band, releasing their first studio recorded album, Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Names Will Never Hurt Me , on his Revenant label in 2001. The Wire called Sticks and Stones “a trance masterpiece” and Sonic Youth named NNCK “the greatest band ever in the history of the universe”. Intomancy followed in 2003 on Sound @ One, and two years later came Qvaris, the band’s first on 5 Rue Christine.

As NNCK’s reputation spread, an interesting tension developed between its members’ historic refusal to talk to the press and their desire to bring their music a wider audience. Any interview with a NNCK member will be guarded, prickly, occasionally antagonistic, and, if you get past all that, fascinating. “We historically don’t do interviews,” said the NNCK member, “but because we have made something of a move toward the consumer culture by doing a record with this record label [5RC], we…[decided] to do a little bit and see what happens. We haven’t really been pleased with it. So this may be the last one.”

Naming Otherness

Part of the reason NNCK is talking to reporters now is the same as for any other band. The band’s members want to reach more people and sell more records. The other part is more difficult to define and has to do with a need to let the dark, perhaps dangerous energy behind Qvaris out into the wider world. There is a wildness, a weirdness, a sense of separate reality to its slow-tempo’d dirges, which feel like they are more discovered than composed.

For this reason, it would be wrong to say that Qvaris was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, the early 20th century horror and fantasy novelist whose writings kick off the NNCK web site; the music emerged whole and a recognizable entity out of recording sessions from March 2005. “ Qvaris revealed itself pretty early in the playback process to us,” said the band member. “We were like, ‘There definitely is something that’s here that’s in every track, and we know what it is.’ So therefore, as we sculpted it, we knew that was what we were trying to articulate. So it was a matter of how best to give it form and to allow it to play with some sense of variant or give the person listening on the other hand a sense of the same thing.”

Yet though Qvaris came of its own accord, band members found that Lovecraft and likeminded writers including Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany were useful in understanding it and communicating about it. “A lot of the stuff that I found in there, Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood were things that made sense,” said the band member. “They gave us some food for thought. Gave us a way to portray our release… They would talk about this type of otherness that I felt could be contained and named, that specifically in some of Blackwood’s stuff. Each of those authors in their own way talk about the naming and the mental recognition of otherness as giving something power to exist on its own, by acknowledging it.”

“I think that’s what I was trying to do with Qvaris, was to give it its own will,” he added. “We knew what Qvaris was instantly. As soon as it appeared, we recognized it. But it couldn’t leave the room until we gave it access to the world.” He further explained, “We all felt that if we didn’t vent it somehow, it would be harmful to us. These things… I don’t think they would necessarily be good for the people involved if we didn’t have some sort of way of performing and releasing records. That notion, this time around, to be able to give this particular project, this batch of music and the imagery surrounding it, what, perhaps, you are perceiving as the philosophy surrounding it… freedom to be what it needs to be, to go and contact the listener… if that makes any sense.”

Qvaris is bound together by four, closely related “Qvaris theme” tracks, all built around the high-pitched, keening interplay of guitar and other altered string tones. These tracks may give listeners their first inkling that Qvaris is, in its inscrutable way, a concept album, returning again and again to its central musical idea. Interspersed between these cuts are others that are more rock-oriented and accessible, such as “Live Your Myth in Grease”, “Boreal Gluts”, and “Lugnagall”. The diversity of sounds was intentional. “The record was recorded in two days, pretty much the entire day, as much as 15 hours a day. So those are just different places that the session would go,” said the band member. “When we were in playback, we realized we had the potential to make a record that was all rock-oriented, but we thought, ‘What was the point of that?’ It would just be too simple. And, conversely, we also thought, maybe we will make an entirely abstract record, but we thought that—it was just very simple—sales would be very disappointing. If we did that, there only are a handful of people that would get it.”

Defined By Improvisation

Like all NNCK recordings, Qvaris is 100% improvised from start to finish. Its 11 cuts had never been played as you hear them on the record before, and they will never be played in exactly the same manner again. “It actually would be formally impossible for us to repeat one single thing,” said the band member, although on further reflection, he added that all of NNCK’s compositions are part of the same larger creation. “It’s like if you back further out into space, all of the sudden you perceive all these balls in space in motion, and if you plunge far in with a microscope, you’re going to see the same thing,” he said. “In that way, everything we do is the same. It’s the same thing that we’re doing every time. It’s just that with the proximity that you have to a given album or a given listening experience, you’re going to get a variety of sounds.”

All the sounds you hear are created live in single takes with overdubbing used only for cross-fading between tracks. (An argument about whether the band could “fix” a recorded track by adding other sounds in post-production nearly caused a schism in NNCK several years ago; the verdict was that it could not.) The band uses a blend of organic sounds—many different kinds of percussion, violin, keyboards and guitars—and electronic effects but no computers. “It just seems to us that there should be a balance between those two things or at least a give and take between passages of electronic music,” said the band member. “The difference between the electric and acoustic stuff, it’s not really premeditated. Although with some recordings, we have said, after we’ve done a 20-minute piece of layering electric swill, we will say, ‘Okay, let’s use the fiddle this time.’ You know, simple things like that. Usually, it’s a mix of the two. We have both things happening at once.”

Although NNCK’s all-improvised discipline sets this collective apart from many bands, the representative I spoke with said that he saw similar experimentation going on among a few other bands. In particular, he cites Embryo, a long-standing German experimental project that incorporates indigenous musicians from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East into their recordings and live performances. Embryo’s latest collaboration is with a certain improvisatory collective from Harlem; Embryonnck,NNCK’s double LP collaboration with Embryo will be released on Staubgold Records in early 2006. “Christian Burchard, the leader of Embryo [and ex of Amon Duul]... seemed to see us as if we were also this kind of indigenous urban music phenomenon,” said the band member, “in the same way that different styles of Middle Eastern or Turkish or African musicians that he kind of catalogues in the Embryo experience.”

Like Embryo, NNCK draws on a variety of traditions. You can hear bits of jazz, rock, and ethnic music in their work, and even, from time to time, a bit of the “blues” contained in their name. Asked about the band’s connection with this traditional artform, the band member said that both his collective and the band’s friend John Fahey had had a more expansive definition of the blues than many, equating it with music that expresses longing and melancholy, rather than with 12-bar progressions. “Fahey was really scholarly about the differences between guitar players—never mind the differences between a Japanese three-string guitar player and a six-string guitar player, but he really could tell the difference between two very similar six-string guitar players and why one was one way and the other another way. It was great to be around him and to experience his understanding of that stuff,” he said. “But I also think that he and we agreed that there was something that was bigger than style as far as the blues is concerned. And that’s the blues that’s in our music.”

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