The two-gig, one-album band that’s now turning 30

In 1991 Lloyd Swanton was quite content. He had a stimulating career as a freelance bassist, and was one third of The Necks, who were already making waves, if yet to achieve their international acclaim. Then he decided there was another box to tick: the one marked “solo project”. It was to be just two gigs and one album. Thirty years later, that project, The catholics, is still going.

The band swiftly became improbably popular for an instrumental jazz act, catching the ears and hips of people who wanted to dance. When the music scene contracted and Swanton had to prioritise The Necks’ international success, the more occasional nature of The catholics’ gigs just seemed to make them cherished all the more by their fans.

The catholics. Photo (and top): Camille Walsh Photography

It’s a septet of band-leaders, with Swanton and saxophonist Sandy Evans the only survivors from the first rehearsals. “My initial idea was to get more into the textural interplay of the rhythm section,” recalls Swanton, “so it was much heavier in that department, but with just a single horn. After a couple of runs through, Sandy felt that she wanted another horn to dialogue with.”

Enter trombonist James Greening. When I ask Swanton whether the band’s inbuilt effervescence is the upshot of the people or the concept, “Both” is the reply: “You can’t have James Greening in a band and not have an element of that. He’s our secret weapon – or not so secret! You can’t force exuberance, but you can certainly suggest that it’s nice thing to try to generate on stage. I didn’t want a painfully earnest band. I wanted to get back to the ethos of early jazz, which was wild, exuberant, fun and danceable.”

Swanton fancied that spirit, but with grooves that drew on African, Latin and Caribbean music. “What I had in mind for a group sound was much more about a knot of interlocking rhythms, and just sitting on that and letting it slowly evolve. Elements of what we do in The Necks were definitely in my thinking, but more formalised.” Part of The Neck’s magic has been about letting simple grooves become hypnotic, and The catholics’ grooves have an inherent strength, without the need for ornamentation.

Lloyd Swanton. Photo supplied.

The wonder of Swanton’s 30-year stewardship of the band is that despite numerous personnel changes and an army of people who have deputised across the years, the character has remained intact: evolving, but never evaporating. The only significant change of instrumentation came when Gary Daley’s piano accordion replaced Bruce Reid’s slide guitar in 2011, prior to which the band sound had partly been defined by Swanton’s fondness for intertwined guitar and slide guitar. In changing the texture and colour, the accordion allowed the material to blossom afresh in a band completed by guitarist Jonathan Pease, drummer Hamish Stuart and percussionist Fabian Hevia.

Bass-playing leaders remain rare. “There’s really only one strong template for that, and that’s Charles Mingus,” says Swanton, “and I’m not the sort of person that’s going to punch someone if they get a chart wrong.” Unable to provide cues and play simultaneously, Swanton has encouraged a sense of “autonomy and agency”. “It does mean that sometimes I feel a tune isn’t going where I thought it would,” he says. “But part of the development of the band has been a process of me learning to let go and trust the musicians if they’re taking it somewhere that wasn’t quite what I had in mind: to see that as a positive and nine times out of 10 it’ll be a pretty good area we get into.”