Andy Summers is a difficult case for an interview – what do you ask someone who has tried out so much in his life? Louder Than War spoke to Andy Summers about the relationship between writing and composing, the fragility of music, the photographic sense of Harmonics Of The Night, the organics of The Police and mental geography.
Going back to the ’60s, Summers has always been an active player. Within the formation of The Police, Andy created one of the most outstanding guitar sounds of the late ’70s-early ’80s. His creativity is not that different now; Summers is still one of the artists I’d call “an innovator”, even though, thinking about Andy Summers the solo artist, most listeners would think about his experiments with Robert Fripp and Andy’s solo-debut – XYZ.
Photographer, writer, composer, improviser and the nicest guy, Summers has just released his newest LP – Harmonics Of The Night.
LTW: You’re one of those people I call a multi-creative person. And the fact that recently, you had a book published, Fretted And Moaning, makes everything even more interesting. As far as I know, some of these stories were written long ago – eight years or something. Did Harmonics Of The Night come about the similar way?
AS: I think of them, a book and a record are completely different expressions. Different mindsets. The book was written to have funny stories, ironic stories that would have a guitar in there. But wasn’t really about the guitar; it was more about people’s relationships. Their lives revolve around the guitar, that was the idea. Obviously, I’ve lived life with a guitar, that’s where all the material came from. I started thinking back over all the situations that had been so crazy – it’s a lot of work to write that many stories, and to get them coherent, really well-written. It’s really a revision of writing. Some of them were written a couple of years ago.
I tried a couple of them in public and people really liked them, and asked me if there would be a book. That’s really what made me go forward and write the rest of the stories. The record is very different; it’s my musical expression at that point in life. This isn’t supposed to be a funny record – it’s a very serious music-making effort. So, I don’t relate the two at all. I write more in my life to photography, if anything. In fact, at the beginning of all this, the beginning of this record (I’ve made two records prior to that that I think in the same sort of vein – Metal Dog and Triboluminescence) and as it happened, I was gonna do a photography retrospective in France, in Montpellier. I went down there a few months before the show was open – beautiful building.
I thought it would be a great place to play music in, to go with the photography. That’s really what the idea was. “This time with this exhibition I really must put beautiful music!” When it happened, I came back to Los Angeles, got back to the studio and I had new guitar effects; pedals that I had just received. I was excited by the sound they made. I improvised A Certain Strangeness, which is the first track, a composition that I felt, where I got inspired in a moment because of the sounds, I could get out of this pedal. I made this track, A Certain Strangeness which is 20 minutes long – that was the point of departure into the rest of the music on this album, that’s what got me into the writing. From there, the rest of the music came.
Yeah. It’s amazing that somewhere recently, it must have been an interview, I said “like a trilogy” and everybody has picked up on that, everybody I’ve spoken with: “It’s a trilogy! It’s a trilogy!” – and I’m like: “Oh ok, if you say so…”
I actually wanted to speak about the opposite thing – obviously, these are three different records.
They are different! This one, Harmonics Of The Night is the slowest, within the compositions and the tempo of the music. It’s possibly more structured, more written and a little bit more introspective. The only thing that unifies all three albums is that there’s no one else on them except me; I’ve made all the tracks, all the instruments. So, it’s very much a process of being alone in the studio and creating these things in layers, sort of building the pictures – very much like painting. Do one thing, keep on the next day, put in that one piece; these all were done that way, only in terms of music.
It’s a very interesting concept, in the sense that you’re composing a score to a story that’s already happened, having only a moment to operate within. Like this photograph you used for the cover art; I wanted to ask you about this shot you took. But honestly, I think the story you’re telling within this record is much more interesting than the reality.
Yeah. Well, with a lot of this stuff, some of it – you feel it. It sounds like a dumb word but you can’t OVERTHINK. You can think: “OK I’ve got this guy now! I’ve got this piece of music! Where would the photograph go then ?” – I have to achieve all this with photography and make music all the time. I decided to call the album Harmonics Of The Night. That shot was the shot I took at night at Beijing, China. I got some amazing photographs, and this one – I thought, it was very unusual photograph that’s kind of, I think the word we might use is “enigmatic”.
It’s fun to have this picture – it has so much mystery in it. Of course, I shot it very quickly; it;s not putting something together, it’s a fast job. Of course, I saw the shot. And that’s the preparation – the years of taking pictures. I was very pleased with it and decided to use it. I could have just done a picture of a street at night or something like that. This has more: “What the hell is going on there?” within this girl and all the audience. It looks like a religious meeting or something.
But again, with your music there is still a story, even though it’s fully instrumental. You have titles, and not titles like Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 – you have visual imagery – the cover. When I listen to the record, it’s like a conversation to me. But what do these songs speak about to you, Andy?
It’s a good question. You used the word “instrumental” which is a very down-word. It’s not instrumental – it’s music. Would you call Bach or Beethoven instrumental music? It’s crazy to say that, fucking crazy! It’s serious music, it’s not an “instrumental” – in other words, it would have been better for it to have words. These are not songs. It’s serious compositions and serious play.
I try to strike a mood in the album like Harmonics Of The Night – to make it all fit together. Because you’re thinking of one piece at a time and try to build it, to make it into a definite statement. At the same time, it wants to be in its brothers and sisters in the rest of the tracks. The whole album sounds like a piece, from one mind, one musician. So, it all works together. Musical compositions are not rock, not songs. They’re like advanced compositions. It’s sophisticated. It’s certainly not for everybody but it’s what I like to do.
It’s also interesting that at the end of the record, with A Strange Return, you explore the same musical motive as in the opening A Certain Strangeness.
You see, it was one twenty minutes piece I just played. Then my thinking, as I put the tracks together on the album was: “Maybe twenty minutes of that slow, meditative guitar would be too much for some people?” – so I decided to break it into two pieces, Part 1 and Part 2, and put “A Strange Return” as 12th track. I think it gives a nice beginning and end to the album; a certain intentionality.
You started your solo creativity collaborating with Robert Fripp while you were still in the band. Listening to these records now, it seems like you reinvented prog. What was the attitude like at that point, before the band had broken up when you were doing these things on the side?
Yeah. A lot of things were going on there. I think, to some extent, these were pretty forward-thinking records at that time. There wasn’t a lot like that. And I was definitely influenced by the music then. I’m quite proud of those records, the fact that people would always be interested in them. One of the reasons also, maybe, I did them was I was in The Police, which was like the number one band in the world. It was like being in The Beatles. It was an incredible mindset all the time – and I felt, certainly as a musician and artist, the necessity to do something else.
To make sure that I still could play something as well as Message In A Bottle and Roxanne kind of pushed me to do something with Robert, who I knew ‘cause we grew up in the same town in England together. And we met in New York and thought: “Well, we’re recording artists – surely we can come up with something!” – there are two albums of what we came up to. They were quite successful; in fact, they’re being re-released right now in a special box-set again all these years later.
Only in 1987, you released your debut LP as Andy Summers, solo-artist – XYZ – the first one to feature your vocals. Does that mean that you needed some time to accept yourself as a singer?
It was a strange moment. It was very early after the end of The Police and I did make a vocal record because I was so popular at that time. So, I could do anything. And I did do it! I went on tour as a singer – and I didn’t enjoy it that much. There is one review in some paper saying: “What do you think Sting thinks?” and I’m “Fuck you!”. Then I quickly turned away to what seems more natural to me – making music without vocals. I went on tour and started again; that was really the path for me.
While you were setting up the press conference to announce the Police reunion tour, you mentioned that Whiskey A-Go-Go was where the big story started for the band – on your second American tour. But back in the days when you primarily played in London, you were a part of the underground scene that arose from the punk-rock movement. What did you feel when with touring you lost that specific geographical reference, that you were a London band?
That’s an interesting point. I think one of the things we had over every other band around was we really became worldwide. We were number one in every country in the world. We were international. But the first place we really identified as musicians was definitely the U.S., not London.
In London, the punk scene was very narrow-minded and the way music journalists wrote about it was so…religious and so stupid. We came to the U.S, we played at CBGB’s in New York and everybody loved us. We did a three-week tour on the East Coast which was very successful, for an unknown band. And this term was being used then; it was called “a new wave” – like Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and they called it “a new wave”. Not punk! And we said: “That’s who we are! We’re a new wave.”
And we felt much more comfortable being a new wave. Because we could play our instruments very well and we didn’t really fit into the punk scene. Anyway, the rest is history.
One of the most interesting thoughts from that time was from Stewart Copeland, who mentioned that punk artists of that era started incorporating reggae music in order to reach that groove, that they felt they couldn’t get with punk-rock. As a guitarist, as a composer, did you feel that desire or necessity to bring something into what you’re doing as a musician in order to get that sort of effect ?
In a punk scene, one thing they apparently adopted – and I think there are a lot of false statements, like that it was only punk they listened to, which was bullshit because a lot of punks liked the other music too (I wrote a story in my book about the typical scene – music journalists wrote that they were anti-everything unless it was punk) – they actually loved prog music! Secret prog-fans.
Reggae was apparently accepted by punks – big fucking deal. We liked it! Of course, everybody loves Bob Marley. And for Sting, it was very convenient. Because, as the vocalist, he didn’t want to play like this on his bass guitar – eight notes for every song, sixteen notes for every bar of music we played. He spaced out the things on the reggae-bassline. But we weren’t a reggae band. I wasn’t very interested in reggae, I thought it was ok but I’m not really interested in reggae guitar-playing, playing a chord on the off-beat. I’m much more of a virtuoso than that. So, I had not much interest in that. But I like Bob Marley. For us it was a way to find something kind of contemporary at that point.
I guess the process of creation of a record always comes from certain specific rituals. How do you incorporate something that happens in your life, outside of creativity in general, into something as stable as your rituals of being a guitar player for so many decades, still having that sort of routine?
I’m trying to think in terms of a record. I think you separate your mind. Of course, your mind is in your body, your head or whatever. I like the question. Maybe I have a life and I can do something else; wife, kids, house, garden, car, I have to get around, I have to help, I have to make records. I have a structure to be able to do all these things. And then, there’s another mindset which is what’s going on creatively. Maybe it comes out of an environment. But it’s a sort of two-way thing; you sort of put it out there, and then it comes back to you.
It’s a difficult question to answer, actually. Because I definitely know I have a head full of art, music and literature that I refer to. And then I have my hands on the guitar. I know I’m doing it – if I’m trying to create some new music, I’m writing to hear something, I’m waiting for something to come out of the air that may become something alive as well. I think it sort of builds itself, in your interests. Maybe a lot of it comes from what we call procedure by negation: I don’t like this, I don’t like that, what am I left with? This is what I like, I like these things, and I’m gonna try and make art from what I’ve got left.
Writing and photography are based on the idea of fixation. You’re writing a book and, even if it takes some time, you still refer to some of the moments in your life – even if it’s fiction, there are still some things the author takes from his life. But here you are in a studio, you record a song and twenty years later it can be performed in a completely different way, with the addition of improvisation parts or long guitar solos. And it proves that music can be a totally different thing; fragile. How do your creative tasks differ when you’re working on photography or some writing or some new music?
Well, it’s a good question. I think what I’m always looking forward to is the sensibility that I feel I relate to. My sensibility; it’s the only thing I’m interested in doing. I don’t want to do anything for money, or because somebody wants me to do it a certain way. I only do what I want to do. And I think, with the photography I do now, the place I’ve reached and with the music, they go together!
I think it’s one of the reasons I did A Certain Strangeness piece for the photography that was on display in front. Initially, I wanted them to be two sides of the same person; this one versus photography. But you see how they relate to the music, it kind of goes together. That has become fairly important to me. If I do photography, it’s like a visual version of the music. I’m aware of it, and I consider and think about it. Right now, I started making videos for the tracks from the album.
There’s one of these out that you might have seen – Chronosthesia. It’s a nice example of me trying to do something to fit with the music. I was quite pleased with how I did that. And I’m doing more of it; I’m doing on every track on the album. But I have to try it because I’ve got one media – photography. I’ve got the track already recorded, so right now we’re trying to make a visual counterpart to the music that was recorded. It’s a lot of fun to do. We’ve done five tracks so far.
They’d all be released on YouTube, and because it’s that much fun I’d go on and would do more. I was just looking for some of them this morning. Literally, it’s like film-making from a musicians’ point of view; it’s not like actors and a director who knows nothing about music, which is the usual case and always horrible for musicians. It’s coming from the musician so the music is very strong – not let’s see if we can build a visual to go with it.
The Police as a band always had a bit of a difficult relationship. And in a lot of those situations, that affected your music. I’m talking about the fact that you could have songs like Mother or Every Breath You Take on the record. Or It’s Alright For You and Walking On The Moon. In this sense, Ghost In The Machine seems to be the most organic record. What helped you to achieve that?
With any of these things, with The Police, we worked out our way of playing together, obviously very quickly. It was unique and a very lucky band; very lucky that three of us made it, because we weren’t an obvious choice for three people to put together.
But somehow, the music that came out was very unique and original. And as we spent more time being together, just like any band, you know how to react, you know what a guy is gonna do – will he play some beat or whatever? And so we got used to working together. The longer we had the more difficult it was for some reason, but it’s a price of fame, I think. I guess not completely – sometimes things are completely organic, when you just play and you just hit it very quickly. Other times you just really have to work it out.
There was nothing organic at all about Every Breath You Take, for instance, because Sting, Stuart and myself could not agree. When we first heard that song it was very different from the one that it became and became famous. The only thing that solved that song was the guitar part I put on it; otherwise, I think, we’d have thrown the track away.
Over the years you’ve tried so many things; starting from your experiences of recording and touring in the ’70s, playing jazz guitar later on, some of the experimental music, photography, film-scoring, and writing. With all these, were there ever a self-searching process involved, like: “What I do in this situation?” or that kind of thing, or have your instincts purely led you through these numerous experiences?
Well if you’re a working musician – and for most of my life I live in Los Angeles, I have a studio, I have a very accomplished assistant – in between us it’s team-work and we’re ready to do all these things. Because I can’t do anything! I’m principally composer, photographer – I can direct, but there are certain aspects of the technical world that are too much to me. I think most of these things must be done with more than one person; you have to create a team. Just like making a movie, it’s teamwork. So, you’ve got to find someone you can work with.
When you are on the road and you’re someone like me, there are all sorts of situations: I’m playing! I have to have the mindset; I’m very vulnerable, very sensitive. And when I go on stage, I want to feel everything is gonna be harmonious. If the conditions are right then I can really play. You’re travelling, you go through all sorts of situations. But I think you learn to deal with it because you’ve done it for a long time.
Can you imagine what it was like being in a band like The Police? It was completely insane! Because everybody wanted the piece of the action – there were people pulling us all the time – so you have to develop mental toughness to get through it all, and know where your limits are, and what you see in other people. Otherwise you get into trouble. So you have to learn; if you’re successful and you’re a person with a profile, you have to learn how handle it.
Harmonics Of The Night is out via Flickering Shadow Records/Cargo Records.
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archivehere.
Photo credits: Andy Summers, Mo Summers