No Neck Blues Band :: (More) Letters From The Earth

In this current era of hyper-accessibility and media oversaturation that the No Neck Blues Band (NNCK) ever existed at all feels like a waking dream. The group appeared in the early 90s from the shadows of lower Manhattan at a time the underground was retreating from anything reeking of grunge and all its spawn to take cover in marginal musics such as free improvisation, 20th century composition, psychedelic rock, folk music from around the world, and music concrète. A singular entity, NNCK drew deeply from varied reference points to meet at a nexus where musical, artistic, literary, and performative impulses intersected. Shrouded in mystery, they championed improvisation as sound/action/thought as well as a seeming desire to perpetuate obfuscation via beautifully packaged records that arrived with little to no information as to the “hows” and “whys”. Anonymity and ambiguity reigned supreme.

The recordings were puzzles unto themselves via the early non-idiomatic AMM meets the Arkestra throwdowns of Letters from the Earth to the melted hoedowns of later recordings that almost approached the blues of their name. Sounds veered from the recognizable to the indecipherable, sometimes simultaneously. Live performances were often unannounced and many times took place outside of the traditional venue system where the band would perform in public parks and rooftops. Like the Living Theatre sitting in with the Magic Band throwing a rave, performances felt like open forums where anything could happen from chaotic confrontation to the opposite with moments of introspective beauty. It was sometimes hard to know what you had just seen even after seeing it.

Once solidified from its earliest activity the band’s line-up remained consistent for 20 years, save for an additional member some years in, along with an exit of one some years out. NNCK existed at the polar opposite of what these days can feel like over-sanitized accessibility and extreme exposure to everything-all-the-time. As longtime fans, we felt checking in with some of the members could not come at a more crucial moment. 

The following was sent to each participant member to instigate a response however they saw fit. Dig in. | Ilyas Ahmed

Origins / Antecedents | Private vs Public performance | Importance of Non-Traditional Performance Spaces | Records as Documentation / Artifacts | Improvisation as Methodology | The Collective vs the Individual / the Collective as the “One”

Pat Murano: We started as a noisy rock band loosely aligned with some of the stuff that was happening in New York City in the summer of 1992. Some of our earliest shows included participation from members of Railroad Jerk and Mother Head Bug in our closing jam.

It’s hard to explain how we arrived at abstract music but once we arrived there, we embraced it completely.  From there, I think our process for the rest of our “career” was often a slow march back towards and around the rock band dynamics that we originally left behind. The mantra for the band, for better or worse, was always “you can do whatever you want”. True Crowleyian Will Manifestation.

Needless to say there is so much freedom to that but there is certainly a dark side. It’s a special kind of prison when you’re trapped and beholden inside of the manifestation of someone else’s will. Navigating this balance required a delicacy and sensitivity that we instead attacked with nihilistic abandon. The most fascinating thing to me was how the “do what thou wilt“ philosophy inadvertently provided no parameters for how each of us responded to the attention of an audience once we started receiving it. This became apparent to all of us very quickly. 

Of course, this happens to any band once they take the stage, but things like songs and instrumentation generally provide boundaries to how the musicians can respond to those external influences. We had none of that. You could hang from the ceiling, throw shit, dismantle the venue, pretend you were dead, take your pants off, maybe play your instrument, turn to the guy next to you and break their instrument while they tried to play it. It was all on the table.

People are often surprised by how rigorous our rehearsal schedule was. We practiced twice a week like we were going to church.There were no guest appearances or rotating lineup. We wouldn’t do a show unless everyone could be there. And we would talk to death about what we were gonna do at any given show. Planning and debating.

Inevitably, once we got on stage everything would go out the window. What you would have instead is seven people reacting, in seven different ways, to the circumstances. What was amazing about that was that once we stripped away all the words and plans that we had made, what was left was all of the instincts and unspoken connections that we had worked on every Tuesday and Thursday for years. Reflex and instinct. Like wild animals. 

As insane as that felt sometimes, there is a purity to that that shows in the music. I’m super proud of that.

Keith Connolly: Origins / Antecedents: I’ll stick to the old Irish riddle of “two legs sitting on three legs, with one leg in his lap,” by which I mean that our proper names and histories seem to distract from the point of it all.

Importance of Non-Traditional Performance Spaces: My initial response would be that’s just how we did it. The sheer unwieldiness of it all was surely a factor, as was that we came to appreciate the results of such decisions, both in the recordings and documentation which resulted and in the reactions of the “audience” as well. From a documentation standpoint, I’d say the proof is in the pudding.

Improvisation as Methodology: Ask Derek Bailey, or Eddie Prevost. In the end I don’t think it was improvisation, per se, but something else. I think that we were cosmiscists, each with our own pursuits & distractions, though in coming together we began to perceive something more. Jerry Yester had observed an acute similarity to the latihan of Subud (hence the title “Assignment Subud” from Sticks And Stones), and John Fahey and I would discuss these things. I’m really paraphrasing Cormac McCarthy here:

They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds

The Collective vs the Individual / the Collective as the “One”: I would here point you toward the title The Collective Imaginings of Quantarenius, Cook & Co and to cut and paste an old poem, dating from the time around NNCK’s inception: Arch yr back to the sound at one | Where real assumes the guise of simultaneous | And will cease to be anticipated

Records as Documentation / Artifacts: See above re: the pudding.

And as for the records themselves, this: Know, dare, will, keep silence. Sealed with a kiss.

David Shuford: Private vs Public performance: In private, I feel that we could explore a wider range of dynamics and maintain the threshold of extreme quiet for longer. Live we would approach near silence for segments, but I think the eyeball heat would incite more flamboyant tactics pretty quickly. But of course the more antic performance style was one of our calling cards, so they were both necessary obverse/reverse elements. Private sessions, whether rehearsal or recording, were nearly always very concentrated affairs themselves, as this was the main outlet for most of us at the beginning, although that did change as the years went by. There was an almost solemn attention to the music; we would BS and crack jokes right up until the moment of starting, but then it was quickly ramped up to a rarefied intensity, quite a bit different, (seemingly more demanding?) than most musical situations I’ve been in. 

Importance of Non-Traditional Performance Spaces: There is an interlaced relationship between the contextual sonic and performative possibilities afforded by a particular space and the modality of improvisation as the skeleton key to unlock these potentials. Unusual indoor settings, like the Brooklyn Anchorage or a gallery often seemed to demand atypical setups, in one case spreading the band into the audience area, perhaps another time obscuring the band from clear sight lines. There was a necessary balancing between a layout that would maintain clear hearing/communication within the band, and something that would address the space in a specific, hopefully unique manner. Playing outdoors is a reorientation from the usual reflective environment of a contained music space, as the sound disperses very differently, almost evaporating faster than one would expect, without heavy sonic reinforcement. NNCK most often presented as a self contained system (our own amps and small PA)  so this would create a commotion from afar that was striking and would draw attention from random passerbys, yet way less distinct than a blasting rock festival stage. In the earliest days the atypical concert placement was matched with extended durations, multiple hour efforts that would attempt to exhaust both internal and external expectations, breaking through past routine and habitude. 

Records as Documentation / Artifacts / Improvisation as Methodology: I was a real hardliner when it came to keeping true to improvisation, to the chagrin of some members in certain moments. During the recording of Sticks and Stones, there was some interest in “doing a track again” i.e. try to repeat what we did, but make it “better”

In a nearly reflex reaction, I announced my extreme uneasiness with this approach, saying that it was basically antithetical to the band’s stance for its whole existence. I did accept that people could do whatever they wanted in the next take we did, and others could “repeat” what they did but that I would be bringing different elements and sounds to the table during that. I think the redo attempt was nixed overall but the original track in question made the final sequence anyhow. Even though I harbor no illusions that repetition will not occur from piece to piece, due to the predilections, interests and habits of the constituent members, I just felt that that should be happenstance and motivated in the moment as it unfolds, not overtly premeditated. Improvisation can open the hitherto unknown corridors and chambers that may seem familiar but are yet imbued with a touch of something beyond ourselves: where the music seems to pile up into a spiral staircase, twisting and turning but always lifting the band (and hopefully audience alike) into an airspace that allows for fresh perspective.

The Collective vs the Individual / the Collective as the “One”: Although we were often described as a collective, we were probably something closer to a group ensemble trying to maintain a DIY performance and studio space. In the late 90s, there were also intimations of us being a commune or a ragtag cult. I guess that is what happens when you pose naked for a group portrait when coming down from acid. I’d say the Allman Brothers (the direct inspiration for that specific gatefold photo) had way more of a communal living situation than we ever did. Only a couple of band members lived at the Hint House at any given point, and most of the people that rented living quarters in the building were close friends and collaborators but not NNCK members. Moreover we were focused on our creative endeavors and had no real collective goal beyond the maintenance of these efforts. We did not have aims for social transformation or progressive political goals which are often associated with a collective. We did present a collective identity in that we did not list our individual names on releases, which was part of the “mystery” aesthetic which we all embraced. The intraband functioning was very much a clash of egos at most times, where individual interests were supreme but still subsumed into a group presentation in the end. I think we all supported a concept of the band as a higher good or ideal but each of us perhaps had a very personal vision of what the band should be or aspire to. So conflict was always bubbling just under the surface which made for some difficult times but also contributed to a very particular tension, a sort of poise on the edge of total strife, which was always a defining quality in the music to my ears.

John Fell Ryan: How I Joined The No-Neck Blues Band: We were super young when it started. I first met Keith and Jason sometime ‘92-’93. I was a sophomore at Columbia. They were fresh dropouts from SUNY. We’d grown accustomed to seeing each other in the front row of whatever show we were going to, somewhere along the Maxwells – CBGB’s axis. I’d like to think it was either Unsane or Unrest, but probably something more after-wave like Six Finger Satellite. I peddled my zine to Jason. He said, “I’m going to buy your zine. Wanna know why?” I said, ”Why?” Jason said, “because it’s Indie Rock.”

The fact that none of us can remember which show we all met at is indicative of the state of post-Nevermind Indie Rock in ’92, ’93. The year before, all the heavy players hit NYC, played mind blowing sets, got signed to majors, and left the circuit. The underground went mainstream. For young people like us, we were not done with the underground. We were sensing a lull, with a stage left there for the taking.

I started running into Keith at Kim’s Underground in the Village where he worked as a record sales clerk. He sold me on all those great early Harry Pussy 7”s and the revelatory Destroy All Monsters box.  We’d talk up each other’s bands and I arranged for us all to play a show together on campus. They were called NNCKBLS at the time. The “Band” part would come later. The instrumental guitar trio of Keith, Jason, and Pat stood apart from our music by not being rooted in any genre. We were playing various permutations of punk rock, and NNCK were playing something else.

Everything began to accelerate the spring of ‘94. My rock band was recording in the studio, with summer plans for a west coast tour, split single release. Kurt Cobain died. One of my roommates went psychotic and had to be institutionalized. I spent the summer in Olympia WA trying to turn scenesters on to Masonna. When my bandmate showed up for our tour, I fessed up that I did not find us a drummer as planned, and we’d be using a borrowed drum machine and noise tapes instead, and that all our old songs would be jettisoned for high concept pieces. We got into a fist fight live on the radio in California. Tensions were high.

I returned to Columbia in the fall to find NNCK playing live on WCKR. Over the summer they had gained a new member, David Nuss. I sat in the studio corner for the session and witnessed the huge explosion of energy he brought to the band. Gone was the careful guitar interplay. Instead there seemed to be no working instruments whatsoever. A neckless guitar on the floor just feeding back idly. Percussion and broken bits of junk flying around the room and into the piano. In the ensuing extended chaos, I entered another state of consciousness and began having visions of flickering torches, cave paintings, and animal spirits. A break into a new reality, an ancient reality.

My still barely together rock band had a show booked with the newly christened No-Neck Blues Band opening up for Blonde Redhead in a Soho loft. Just like the Sex Pistols last show, we played The Stooges’ “No Fun” then broke up on stage. No-Neck followed with a sublimely austere set. An entire drum set had been carefully and artfully suspended from the ceiling by rope. They started the show by cutting the line, sending the kit smashing to the floor, with the band just letting their unplayed guitars feedback for 20 minutes straight. Totally abstract, totally at odds with everything else on the scene or beyond. (A few years later, the recording of this performance would end up on one of the twin albums, A Tabu 2.)

I immediately started attending Nuss’s “This Other Music” series at a small venue on Avenue B called the Unconscious Collective. (The record store Other Music admitted they took their name from Nuss.) I saw a Nuss solo set where he silently played Jenga with his kit, with no music at all. I saw Keith play a set of amplified water bucket with shovel accompaniment. There was a thrash guitar combo called Cocaine Kills with plastic bags taped around everybody’s heads to ensure a short set. In this scene, there wasn’t a band. There wasn’t an audience. Instead there were ideas, put into action immediately.

I pitched to Nuss my concept for A Black Lotus, a seven hour drone concert inspired by my reading about La Monte Young in a Velvet Underground bio I’d picked up. (It would be years before I’d actually hear any of Young’s music, or experience The Dream House.) Nuss booked the night, gathered the troops, and it was on. We started out, seven of us in a circle of amps with each guitar placed on the amp to the right of the one it was plugged into. All treble was cut, just low frequencies. We meditated and waited while the drone took root and the curvature of the Earth became apparent. I’d bought a length of chain from the hardware store next door, and used it to knock out the rhythm. Glass was broken and rolled into smashed bananas. Everyone was bleeding. Dozens of other players came and went, shadows in the night. After it was all over, I turned off my amp and to my surprise, the drone was still ringing on. No electricity and nothing plugged in, but still blasting full volume. That drone would keep ringing inside my mind for three days. A door had been opened and it was staying open. And I wasn’t even in the band yet.

Back to studies to wrap up my degree. By chance, all my classes were clustered Tuesday through Thursday, leaving me a four-day weekend for the whole of the final semester. Keith began showing up on campus regularly for all-night spliff and coffee indoctrination sessions. Lots of intense listening and research. We were listening to stuff like Hijokaidan, AMM’s The Crypt, and Xenakis’ Legende D’Er.  My dorm room was kind of an art project, the walls covered with a pattern I’d made from duct tape and tin foil. I had an overhead projector, strobe lights, and whatever cheapo psychedelic effects I could find wandering around the junk shops of Canal Street. I had a black leatherette transistor organ, which could be opened up and each cluster of three tones could be manually tuned or detuned as the case may be. I found an 8-second digital delay which had manual pitch control and loop hold ability. Radio Shack mixers. A giant, broken Maestro fuzz box. A big, stupid Peavy with gain boost switches and built in plate reverb. My roommates wanted to kill me.

I joined up with Matt Moses’ noise band Malta. Matt had booked NNCK at WKCR so became a fast friend. Along was Dave Shuford, like myself, a future NNCK member. Matt got us a gig at a fraternity house “battle of the bands” type thing. So there we were, noise band Malta, sandwiched in between Gin Blossom clones at a frat house, and not even the “cool” one. Matt played electronics through a small amp. Dave played his giant acoustic double bass. I made a magic circle with paper and candles, took a straight razor and sliced open a duct tape egg and released 500 crickets into the circle. The crickets chased the audience out of the room. But then the brothers came back to defend their territory. This is when the psychedelics I’d taken a few hours before really started to take hold. The gig was up, I shook hands with everybody, thanked our host, and disappeared into the night before the Tiger Balm I’d smeared over everybody took effect. We got invited back.

February 1995, NNCK had a gig coming up at The Cooler, a Meatpacking District club for Free Jazz and experimental music. Keith told me if I felt inspired midway through the set, I should “get up and do something.” A challenge. An initiation. Matt Heyner had joined the band at this point, playing his double bass. Keith had whispered to me that Matt had been kicked out of music school for playing his bass too fast. And that he almost never spoke. Nuss had taken up the cello. Keith played drums instead, with a kit made up of an African skin drum, a broken washing machine basin, cymbals on a length of rope, and other bits of wood and metal. Pat and Jason on prepared guitars. The music had shifted from the high energy chaos and aggressive drone of the previous season and now into sawing strings and percussive clatter. At a high point, Keith stood at the lip of the stage, bleating like a goat with a drum over his head. This was the time. I jumped up on stage, grabbed a fallen drumstick, and hit Keith across the face with it. We both hit the stage floor and that was it. I was in the No-Neck Blues Band.

The band practiced at Pat’s apartment on 13th Street, the building Travis Bickle had his climactic shootout in Taxi Driver. The East Village was still a bit of a war zone even then. I saw NYPD with machine guns drawn marching down the middle of the street to do battle with the squatters occupying the buildings further east in what was still called Alphabet City. I brought my transistor organ down on the subway, carrying it over my shoulder in my long black leather coat. We’d be crowded in Pat’s tiny living room, equipment everywhere, going for it for hours. Everything we ever did was taped on a Marantz field recorder. A section of my first NNCK practice would end up on vinyl before the end of the year, on Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s Ass Run label series. 

NNCK had a lingo. If you were inspired, you’d be “on fire” or “burning.” If you were playing at a high level, you were “out” or “in the zone.” High praise was given to “low technique,” the practice of playing without virtuosity or skill. Scorn was given to “Dr. Beats,” or any regular repeating rhythm. By the time I joined, we never had any expressed plan, score, or songs. Even playing “with” other members of the band was treated with suspicion. Better to play completely independently, following the lead of a non-personal, cosmic intelligence. “Never tell a man how to play his ax” was an ethos we borrowed from Free Jazz. On the other hand, we were intensely self-critical. We’d listen back to the recording of our practices and performances immediately after, analyzing high and low passages. You might get a dressing down for “wrong” playing, or you might get a dressing down for praising the “wrong” playing. I remember getting physically slammed on the floor by Nuss for saying that one of his own drum passages was good! We were beyond serious.

My first performance with NNCK as an official member was at the “old” Knitting Factory on Houston Street. We were pulling asshole power moves like refusing to use their PA, refusing to use their stage, setting up on the floor, along one side of the room, starting to play immediately after the act before us finished. I threw a bunch of metal ducts and junk around. The audience didn’t know what to do with us. We were such dicks. We didn’t have any contemporaries. I don’t remember us connecting with any other NYC band our age. Any other “experimental rock band” like The Tower Recordings would be treated with absolute contempt. (The first NNCK 7” would feature a recording of the band getting into a shoving match with a rival band on a bill, name-calling and everything.)

The only other musicians we truly fraternized with were Jazz players a generation older than us, like Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, who had formed a band with Nuss and Heyner. Weekends Keith and I would hang out after hours at 55 Bar in the West Village where Cecil Taylor would be holding court, dispensing advice to young musicians, as well as other stimulants. We’d go see jazz players like William Parker, Arthur Doyle, and Charles Gayle at The Cooler. We caught Gayle’s radical transformation into Streets the Clown. In full clown get up, he’d mime being cold, starving, and eating out of garbage cans while exaggeratedly shunning his saxophone, refusing to play a note.  It was explained to me that Gayle was a professor at Bennington, which was the most expensive college in the country.

As for my own college education, I managed to graduate with honors from Columbia May of ‘95, despite all these extracurricular activities. My thesis was an unfinished screenplay based on the apocalyptic visions I was having late night solo wandering around the labyrinthian underground tunnel system that connected the buildings on campus. Very “back rooms” and “liminal spaces” before they were cool. Malta had a few shows that spring, doing a live extreme noise score to a screening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and climaxing with another fraternity party gig during which I set the floor on fire with rubbing alcohol. Graduation morning, in an attempt to “look normal” for my parents, I shaved off my “punk” haircut, and weighing in at 118 pounds, ended up looking like a liberated prisoner of war. 

For my post-grad plans, I’d make a series of bunts, stumbles and diversions in trying to figure out my immediate future. I was presented with a pretty amazing opportunity to join Blonde Redhead as a bassist for their summer stint on the Lollapalooza tour — not a bad thing to tell the folks back home. During the audition I found I still had the ability to learn songs and play straight music, but found myself fascinated by the clicking sound the bass made when I contacted the string to the pickup, and the out-there rhythms I could make with it. The NNCK virus had taken hold. I refused the Blonde Redhead offer, reasoning that it’s better to be the pop side of a noise band than the noise side of a pop band. I didn’t really want to play other people’s songs anyway. Not a canny move in retrospect — why not play other people’s songs for the summer, tour the country, and live a professional musician’s lifestyle for a bit? But I was young and idealistic. Or confused — it’s not that I even stayed loyal to NNCK. I moved back home to Seattle and then moved in with my girlfriend in Olympia. I thought I’d go and work for a record label and start my own awesome improv band. I ended up a sandwich delivery driver, feeling completely alienated, and wondering what the hell I was doing leaving New York City and the No-Neck Blues Band in the first place. I didn’t last two months.

I broke up with my girlfriend, said goodbye to my parents, and drove with my brother east. We drove all night through the strange, alien mountains of eastern Washington, Idaho, into Montana. We passed by Old Faithful, Mt Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower. We snaked through the Dakota Badlands, through the dreary Midwest, and back through the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan, to Pat’s old apartment on 13th Street. Nuss was waiting there, and upon my late afternoon arrival, demanded $100 for practice studio rent. I dutifully paid, and we loaded my equipment into the new NNCK spot on Chrystie Street. (Though we didn’t know it at the time, the same building that Blondie and the Talking Heads practiced at in the ‘70s.) 

I would be at NNCK practice twice a week, every week for the next four years, barring exceptions like when we practiced for thirteen nights in a row. Despite the myth, there was no communal living, unless you count Keith and I splitting the living room futon at Pat’s old apartment for nine months. There was no “loosely affiliated collective.” Once Michiko joined that fall, membership in NNCK remained fixed until I left in January 2000, and no new members joined after. 

It’s a rare thing to find yourself in a great band with great players. It’s rarer still to find yourself in a band with a challenging ethos and culture and society around it. It’s extremely rare to find yourself in The No-Neck Blues Band. Only eight people on the planet have done it. 

Further investigation: Web archive | Recently released archival recording of a session from Marseille, 2009 |

Each member who contributed to this piece continues to make music very worth your time: Pat Murano as Decimus, Keith Connolly with Gray / Smith, David Shuford as Theoxenia, John Fell Ryan with Excepter

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