Tony Buck (b. 1962), an Australian globetrotter, gained fame chiefly as the drummer of the Necks trio, which has appeared in Prague several times (the last time being 17 November 2015). He has, however, also been seen—as far back as our memory goes—playing with the German offspring of the Peril band AstroPeril, the hardcore klezmer band Kletka Red (Alternativa Festival 1997), in solo performance (Alternativa Festival 2000), in a duo with an ambient tint, the Researchers, along with trumpet player Axel Dörner, and in the pop duo Asi and Tony (Alternativa Festival 2003), as a member of the Regenorchester XII, led by quarter-tone trumpet player Franz Hautzinger (Stimul Festival 2007), as a guitarist in the post-rock project Transmit (Alternativa Festival 2010), and in the Spill duo with keyboardist Magda Mayas (kontrApunkt Festival 2014). His other activities include the edgy Weird Weapons trio (with guitarist Olaf Rupp and bassist Joe Williamson), the more meditative trio Glacial (with guitarist Lee Ranald and bagpiper David Watson), and the contemplatively playful trio the Fell Clutch (featuring clarinet player Ned Rothenberg and bassist Stomu Takeishi). He has played with John Zorn, Tenko, Tom Cora, Nicolas Collins, Phil Minton, the Ex, and many others, some of whom he speaks of in the following interview, which tracks his career from its very beginnings up to the near future—which includes his appearance at the vs. Interpretation Festival on 29 April 2016 as a guest percussionist with Lebanese musicians playing under the name Rouba3i.
Petr Slabý: What is your first memory?
Tony Buck: I have memories of playing around in the garden of my family home in Sydney. There are some photos of me with toys arranged around me on the grass, so perhaps these are false memories based on these pictures; however, the memories revolve around feelings as much as they do around specific situations or events. I remember a fascination with watching stuff happening in the garden. An excitement from observing the weird actions and interactions of everything there...the ants and bees and flowers and the lawn.
What is your first musical memory?
These early, early memories I just wrote about also had a sound element, with the constant hum of cicadas and crickets and god-knows-what that are a constant feature of suburban life in Australia. Not exactly a musical memory, perhaps, but definitely a memory of sound as a thing in itself.
This aspect of sound in the environment has always been a constant in my recollections of growing up in Australia.
As far as music is concerned, I have vague memories of always wanting to stop and watch bands playing at fetes or local fairs, much to the annoyance of my family, who’d much rather have moved on.
I did receive a toy drum kit as a Christmas present, quite by chance, when I was around five, and I remember being totally absorbed in playing it straight away. I remember what it sounded like and what it felt like to strike the drums. (I have a photo of this as wel,l so perhaps the strength of this reminiscence is influenced by the photo also.)
How was your musical background in your family?
No one in my family was musical or showed much of an interest in music when I was young. We didn’t have a record player until I was at least eight or so, I think.
In our teens, my sisters and I became quite interested in pop music. The Sunday evening broadcast of a show on TV called Countdown became a major household ritual throughout the mid-seventies. I remember enjoying the more “rock” type acts on the show rather than the pop singers. I wasn’t really interested in the new Rod Stewart or Elton John song so much as when a band like AC/DC or Kevin Borich performed “live.”
When was your first public performance?
It was maybe as part of a school musical. A production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—and I had the part of the Pharaoh. I had to sing an Elvis-type song about seven fat cows! We did two performances. The first was okay, and the second was particularly bad from memory.
Apart from this school experience, which doesn’t really count, I remember playing at a party when I was about 15 with a group of friends. I actually met a drummer there, Greg Sheehan, who lived next door. We became friends and he was a real inspiration and mentor to me. He is a great drummer and I still see him on occasion. We interact in similar scenes in Australia.
What was the first instrument you played?
I guess I played drums first, from my first experiences with the toy drum kit. I later learned marching drum when I was eight in primary school. My first formal drum kit lesson actually took place the same day as my first guitar lesson, which was part of an after school activity session. I was 13, I think.
Why did you choose drums as your main instrument?
I think I have always enjoyed the tactile feeling of playing the drums: the way the sticks feel in my hands and the way they react to the drum skin. I also like the way it is possible to play one sound against another or play it like one unified sound/instrument...
I am also attracted to the idea of creating a musical context over which other people play. Somewhat like an arranger, creating the musical settings others play against.
What music school did you study at in Australia, and how important was it for you?
After (nearly) completing high school, I studied at the conservatorium of music in Sydney. It was a jazz studies course, but I also took electives in ethnomusicology and composition, which I think was an important part of my studies. The main thing I got out of this study was to be around like-minded people and find opportunities to play and develop ideas within a social setting.
What was your first band?
My very first band was with two guitar players from the area I grew up in. It didn’t last too long, from memory. They were a bit older than me and they found a better drummer, so I was out. (Funny story is that this better drummer, Leon Zervos, became quite a good friend and is now one of the most respected mastering engineers in the world. I haven’t seen the two guitar-playing guys for 40 years, but I see Leon occasionally to this day.)
The first real band I had, that I formed and wrote for, was called Sketches and at one time featured Chris from the Necks, playing electric piano. It was formed while I was studying music at the conservatorium and was basically a Miles Davis-inspired group.
What was the reason why you left for Japan after that?
In 1992, I was asked to work on a project with a dancer, Melissa Lovric, developing an interactive movement: an instrument/dance piece. She was living in Tokyo and suggested we do it there. I jumped at the opportunity and somehow knew that I wouldn’t be living in Australia any more after that.
The strange part of this is that if the project had come up even a few months earlier I wouldn’t have felt it at all possible to leave Australia. When it did come up, however, it felt like exactly the right time, and there was no option but to leave Australia.
How did you meet Otomo Yoshihide and Kato Hideki there, and what led to forming Peril?
When I moved to Tokyo, I was very interested in the noise and improvised music scene there. I went out often to hear music. It was such a different scene to that in Sydney. A journalist I met told me about Otomo, and through seeing his group Ground Zero I met Kato. This led to me doing some playing and recording with Ground Zero. I was writing some music at the time based around various sample collages and contrasting musical styles and decided to try and realize this music with a group that had some elements of ‘cultural exchange’ between Australia and Japan. I asked Kato and Otomo and guitarist Michael Sheridan, with whom I’d played a lot over the years, to be involved, and I received some funding from the Australia Arts council to put together a tour of Japan and Australia. We ended up staying together quite a few years, made two albums and toured Europe quite a bit.
Why did you then move to Berlin?
When my visa for Japan was up for renewal I decided I didn’t want to live there any longer but definitely didn’t want to move back to Australia. I ended up in Amsterdam for a few years but after a while got sick of the grey and rainy weather. Berlin had always been recommended to me, and after having done a bit of playing there, I decided to give that a go for a while. It’s been about 17 years now! The music scene has always been very strong and interesting there.
Can you see any difference between the Australian, Japanese, and European scenes?
Yes. There are very big differences between the scenes in all these places. Not only how they are organized but also in the way people approach playing and writing music.
I think the practicalities of organizing concerts are often influenced by things like the availability of space or the nature of the venues that are available (pubs, dedicated concert spaces, squats, or informal venues) which can in turn affect the type of music that is appropriate for those spaces.
There also seem to me to be other things at play because, in many ways, the cultural and aesthetic aspects of these places are so different. What is it that makes a culture express itself in the way it does? It’s an interesting question.
Can you tell me how the Necks started?
I had known Chris and Lloyd for quite some time, from growing up in the same area and studying at the conservatorium, and we had played together in various bands over the years (the early ‘80s, I guess). I think we found ourselves in a similar situation where we felt the musical projects we were involved with at the time weren’t really satisfying some musical interests we were developing. (We were listening to music like reggae, soul, African and Asian musics, minimal composers, and improvisers, etc., but had no projects that addressed any of these approaches to making music.) We decided to form the group to explore some of these ideas that weren’t being addressed elsewhere.
How did you meet Magda Mayas and what does cooperation with her mean to you?
I didn’t really know Magda but she approached me sometime around 12 years ago to play a concert with her in Berlin, as the drummer from her quartet couldn’t make it. I had heard a recording of her group which fascinated me as I couldn’t really hear any identifiable piano on it.
I played the concert, and from the very first minutes I felt we had a very intuitive and deep understanding of each other’s playing; particularly in terms of timing and approach to timbre.
Ever since then, it has been important to play together and further develop this connection. She teaches me a lot about an approach to musical phrasing and syntax and always seems to play just the right thing at the right time. Magda is an incredible musician and improviser, and it’s always an asset to have her involved in any project. I am really only involved in two steady projects with her (in the duo Spill, and she is a member of Transmit). We have various other people we play with in more or less regular line-ups, like with Mazen Kerbaj or with John Butcher, and we occasionally improvise together in ad hoc situations. We both recently took part in some recordings with David Sylvian in Berlin. The idea of contributing our sound and approach to a vision such as his is something we are both very interested in.
Mentioning Transmit, that project used to have a sort of metal face…
Metal face! I’ve never felt Transmit had a “metal face.” The group was formed as a way for me to explore playing the electric guitar and playing my pieces from a perspective other than behind the drums. It also is a kind of homage to rock music in a way, and I like the idea of playing minimal kind of versions drawing on the rock vocabulary. Some pieces are specifically inspired by other groups with the idea of presenting a kind of snapshot or slowly mutating version of the things that resonate with me.
I see direct references to bands like Shellac, Ministry, the Cure, Led Zepplin, the Who, White Stripes, etc. in some specific pieces. That’s not to say I am interested in playing songs like songs of those bands. It’s more like an overall timbral, rhythmic feeling and energy that I feel like drawing on and exploring/expanding.
I guess a steady line-up playing more and presenting a unified program of music at concerts has led to an expansion of ideas and textures/instruments we use, which I guess could be seen as moving away from or expanding the initial material on which we draw.
You have played with many big names in the alternative world. Who was the most inspiring for you and why?
I’ve been lucky over the years to have played with some pretty amazing musicians, on occasion people who have been big heroes to me. The feeling of being part of a sound that has meant so much to me at one time can be nice.
When I was 17 or 18 I joined a group called Ayers Rock, who were a big influence on me when I was 14 or 15, especially their drummer Mark Kennedy.
Playing with Pharoah Sanders and hearing that sound and being part of it was an amazing experience, as was playing with Cecil Taylor and Roscoe Mitchell.
The Necks have collaborated a few times with Brian Eno, and hearing him reference My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was a big influence on me, was quite an experience. He had invited the Necks to take part in a concert he was giving in Sydney as part of the “Vivid Festival” he was curating at the Sydney Opera House in 2009. We played as part of an ensemble of musicians including Brian himself, Karl Hyde from Underworld, Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins. During this performance, Brian was playing various synthesisers and samplers with various controllers, as well as singing and delivering texts and conducting aspects of the playing. During this performance, and subsequently in Brighton, England, a few months later where we presented the project as part of the Brighton festival, Brian, on occasion, would trigger pre-composed groove loops that were distinctly based on similar ideas to those he used on that seminal recording, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. From memory, he mentioned something about re-visiting some of these ideas for the digital age, or at least drawing on similar inspirations.
Mostly these type of experiences are based on some kind of nostalgia for an earlier influential period, which is all very nice, but for me the most inspiring and influential musicians I have played with are those I have known and been involved with in various projects over the years. Chris and Lloyd, Magda…Andy Moor…Joe Williamson, as well as people like Paul Lovens and Alex Schlippenbach, masters and informal mentors with whom I have spent a lot of time over the years. These are the people that are the real inspirations in my musical life in a very practical and real sense.
Can you tell me about your cooperation with Jon Rose?
I’ve known Jon Rose a long time. He was a very important figure in the underground and improvised music scenes in Australia from the mid-‘70s on. My connection earlier was more peripheral, but I was beginning to have more direct connection with him in Australia in the year or so before I left for Japan. We were involved in some festivals in Sydney with people like Jim Denley, Machine for Making Sense, Oren Ambarchi—you know, the Australian improv people you probably are aware of. He had been living in Europe for some time around this period. When I moved to Amsterdam in ‘94 or so I had quite some interaction with him. He was quite instrumental in my working with STEIM with interactive technology…we formed a group together, EXILES, with Joe Williamson and played in various other settings together. He was probably a big influence on me moving to Berlin, actually. He was also one of the first people to promote the Necks in Europe, recommending us to a number of organisers. These days, since he has relocated back to Australia, my interaction with him is somewhat diminished, although I played with him a few days ago in Sydney in an evening of directed improvising he organised.
Among the last but not the least things, what did playing with Kletka Red mean for you, and do you still keep in touch with Leonid Soybelman?
Kletka Red was a very important group for me. I think it was a really great band, for one thing. The initial vision of the group, from Leonid, was very strong, and it continued to grow as a real group vision, incorporating different inspirations, expanding on the initial Klezmer idea to incorporate ideas from Rembetika and African music…and expand on the energetic way in which we performed. I miss the group a lot. I don’t see Leonid at all, really, even though we both live in Berlin. I don’t really know what he is up to. I guess groups have their time, then it’s over.
You also tried to make some kind of pop music in a duo called Tony and Asi…was it a kind of relaxing break you took, switching over to another music form away from the world of, let’s say, “other music”?
The thing with Asi started from the songs she was writing. There was a period when she was writing four or five really good songs a week and we set about trying to record them. At various times we presented these songs at concerts, firstly as a duo, but we also formed a group with Andy Moor, Clayton Thomas and Magda later on. For me it didn’t feel like exploring anything particularly new or out of the ordinary. I have always had an interest in songs and song writing.
Some of the earliest music activities I undertook actually were not playing instruments per se, but writing songs. I listen to contemporary popular music a lot and continue to find inspiration in contemporary producers and songwriters. It is in no way a lesser way to work or any more “relaxing” than playing other different types of music. Getting the details and balance right and making clear, concise statements can be some of the hardest things to achieve in music and are essential in pop music.
What does improvisation mean to you?
Improvisation is to me a tool. It’s not, for me, like a religion or life approach like it is for some people, although I have to say that the social models it suggests and creates are a great and significant way in which to live and realise an artistic life and present one’s work philosophically. I totally get that.
The most important thing improvisation presents to me is the opportunity to respond to the environment and circumstances you are presented with, in real time. When one has no specific obligations to perform, one can shape a musical performance to best suit the situation and take advantage of things like the sound of the room or the feeling and atmosphere between musicians and audience.
At the same time, I am not against presenting ideas or pieces I have worked on or explored before. Sometimes they can be totally appropriate and fulfill the artistic needs perfectly. Sometimes it is just impossible to turn on creative inspiration at the drop of a hat, and I feel there is no problem with presenting something prepared or composed at times like that.
What can we expect from your Prague performance this time?
I’m playing in Prague soon with Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet), Sharif Sehnaoui (guitar), and Christine Abdelnour (saxophone).
I have known Mazen, Sharif, and Christine for quite a while now, and with Mazen in Berlin this year, have actually spent quite some time with him. I played in Copenhagen recently as part of the A Trio because Raed Yassin couldn’t make it. I also recorded and mixed the duo album of Christine and Magda. So I guess I have had quite some connection with them over the last few years.
I find their approach to improvising quite refreshing, as it draws on different qualities to many of the European players I play with more frequently. I can’t really say how it’s different, but in a way it seems focused on different aspects of time and texture, perhaps somehow landing in between areas the Necks explore and the more abstract areas most associated with European improvising. I observe that different approaches to music, culture and aesthetics are features of different geographic areas, and just by looking at a map you see that Lebanon lies at a place that is somehow a bridge between east and west… They are, of course, associated with the European scene because they interact so much with it, and, like for us all, Europe has nevertheless been a major source of inspiration, and, inversely, often some kind of yardstick by which you can measure your differences as much as similarities. It’s always a pleasure to move into those areas with those people.
Petr Slabý studied screenwriting and playwriting at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague. At Czech Television, he worked primarily for the musical magazine 60. He has been devoted to music journalism since the mid-eighties and now writes primarily for the culture magazines UNI and HIS Voice. Slaby and his father co-authored two volumes of the encyclopedia Svět jiné hudby (The World of Other Music). His radio show of the same name has been broadcast on Vltava since 2002.