Interview with ANDY SUMMERS

November 2021

Composer, author, photographer and, first and foremost, guitarist, Andy Summers could be called a Renaissance man if most of his interest didn’t seem to revolve around art and if what he does wasn’t so contemporary, and “Harmonics Of The Night” – the master’s latest album – is a testament to that. This also means seeing the veteran only as a former member of THE POLICE is a criminal underestimation of Summers’ manifold talents, which was why this scribe tried to avoid digging into the band’s stories during our conversation, a chat lasting twice as long as Andy planned and touching on much more interesting subjects.

– Andy, “Harmonics Of The Night” is based on your photo exhibition…

Andy Summers

Well, not based on it but yeah, I had this exhibition in Montpellier, in the South of France – in a beautiful building! – and I thought it was my opportunity this time, because it was ahead of the start date, to make some music to go with the exhibition. I’d had to many, many photographic exhibitions around the world and usually I forget it and think, “You know I could have special music” – but it never comes to mind, so I usually get not great music. (Laughs.) Nothing to to do with photography. But of course, I’m a musician, so this time I’d worked up to that idea, and when I came back from France I made that first track, just called “A Certain Strangeness” – which is basically one guitar, it’s an improvisation. But I liked the sound of the guitar and everything, and I thought it was a good parallel to the photography, and so I did two things with it: we ran it on the loop in Montpellier, at that show, and I was quite pleased with the effect of the photography and music together – it seemed very natural for me – and it also was a sort of the inspiration to make the rest of the tracks for this album. I felt like, “Okay, this is it”: it had a feeling and an attitude, and an emotional quality, so I could see that we were going to make an album with twelve tracks on it where that was a starting point. I developed it from there – I wish I could say it takes a lot of time, thousands of hours in the studio, and a lot of creativity. (Laughs.)

– With such an inspiration – and the presence of an album "Synesthesia" in your discography – would you call yourself a synesthete?

Yeah.

– So how does it work with your black-and-white imagery? How do you see the world through music and how do you express the world through music with images as its origin?

It’s a good question and it’s a big question – there’s a lot to say about that and I’m writing about that today, about how I was very influenced as a kid of fifteen-sixteen-seventeen by watching all the great art-house movies at the time: Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Waida and so on, and so forth. It made a huge impression on me when I was that age, but I was a guitarist, not a film director. Later, I took up photography – but not like, “Oh, now I’m going to be a photographer!” I just got a camera – I think I bought a Nikon – and I was in New York, so I just started to take pictures – not very well in the beginning but I studied a lot and, you know, I did question it: I’ve gone crazy about photography – where did this come from? And as I thought about it, I thought: it’s because of all those movies I saw as a teenager – they planted themselves in my head just like American jazz did – and so I had this kind of atmosphere, ambience from my teenage years, which really are your formative years. It blossomed later for me, because I was so intent on trying to be a great guitarist; then, later, I was obviously in a different place – actually, I was on the road in the U.S. – and I had to find something to do, and there was photography, so I developed it.

And you develop yourself with it: you develop your photographic skills, you develop your eye, you develop your aesthetic – partly from studying, looking at a lot of photographs, which as I said came to me because I was so crazy about all these great black-and-white movies. That’s why I really liked black-and-white imagery more than color – at that particular time, because colors got so much better in the last few years, and now there’s the incredible iPhone 13 which I’ve just got – and I found black-and-white to be very powerful and more like hyperreality. So I just went along and slowly learned buy just taking pictures of dogs or old ladies and I started developing an aesthetic like “How can you put abstraction and surrealism in your photograph?” And that’s what I did. I started to shoot all kinds of make-up imagery and see if I could create a surreal image, the sort of photographs that, for instance, Man Ray, a great American photographer who worked in France in 1930s, did. All these things about photography crowded into my mind, and because I musically studied everything – played classical guitar for years, listened to a lot of great contemporary avant-garde music and, obviously, jazz – by the time I got to pick up a camera, there was a band called THE POLICE, and I was fully loaded with various aesthetics and was on the road all the time, wandering around a lot of cities in America and Europe, so I’d get out on the street and see if I could make interesting photography. But I’m not going to say that I would get off stage, take a photograph, play the guitar, take a photograph, play the guitar and so on! (Laughs.)

– There’s one image of yours that fascinates me: this yellowish picture of a Ku Klux Klan member – the photo accompanied by a poem about ice cream, a strange combination of this sinister thing and this innocent thing.

The picture that’s coming to my mind that I think you’re talking about is a picture I shot about eighteen months ago in Spain during the Semana Santa Festival, which is a holy week there, and that guy is not a bad guy, is not a Ku Klux Klan (laughs) – he looks like it but he’s not, because he’s in black: he’s called a Nazareno. In Seville, they have these incredible processions with a lot of these people, and I have some very powerful photographs that I shot there. I don’t know which one you’ve seen but my best one is of a crowd of them all in their giant hoods: I lay on the ground and I got some incredible photographs! So there was a set of poems that I wrote with photographs – I was doing that on social media for a while, and I posted about seventy of them and I thought about making it into a book – and that’s what that was: a quirky, strange idea to combine an ice cream with a Nazareno.

– And I thought that was quite controversial, although I never thought of you as of one who thrives on controversy. So do you try and avoid conflict and controversy or you find in inspirational?

As a person and as an artist, I don’t think you seek controversy unless you’re doing it for some… unless there would be controversial life: for instance, there was an artist [Andres Serrano] who did “Piss Christ” a few years ago – it was a photographer, actually – and he got some shit for it. I don’t personally need to seek out controversy for the sake of it – I’m a famous guy, I was in a very famous rock band! I mean, if you seek controversy to become famous, I am – I don’t need it: I just want to do my work and do it very well. Sometimes it’s interesting as an artist to do something that’s provocative, which is a different word, that has some shock value – why not? Maybe you can say that about all the images I shot of Nazarenos because they’re religious figures, so you’re starting to stray into that territory there, but seeking controversy just to be famous is kind of stupid. It’s a waste of your artistic time.

– You started as a blues guitarist…

No, I didn’t. I started as a jazz guitarist.

– But what about your work with Zoot Money?

That was the first band I was in. It was a wonderful band, and Zoot was a great performer – still is. That was rhythm-and-blues, because that’s what we did at that time. We didn’t write songs – we copied Ray Charles, James Brown and people like that: that’s all the kind of material we did in those days, and it was very popular.

– Would you say that it’s a natural thing for some guitarists to stay in this rhythm-and-blues framework and for the other, like yourself and Allan Holdsworth, to progress to proper jazz?

Yeah. As a kid I could play it all. I grew up trying to copy Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney, Grant Green… I was interested in jazz – you know, Miles, Coltrane, Mingus – that’s what I was into, and it was a much hipper way, because in England at that time the rock scene had developed rock – we didn’t even call it that; it was rock ‘n’ roll from America; we didn’t use the term “rock” then – and nobody really knew anything about American blues, so the hippest thing, the coolest thing was just try and play jazz. So when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, my ears were trained by listening for hours on end to American jazz guitar players and trying to understand their solos and their lines, and that’s what I developed. And then I was in a band where it was very different, and I was more playing almost like rhythm guitar, R’n’B rhythm guitar. And then the blues scene developed in London, and people like Clapton came out of the woodwork, and the American blues singers took off, but my heart was in jazz – I liked Thelonious Monk, not Howlin’ Wolf! (Laughs.) So I liked American music, but my ear was always more for jazz, and so my chops, my guitar technique is fluid, because I can play anything. But blues is very simple to me and was not that interesting to me when everybody copied Eric back in those days; it’s too much simpler music to play because it’s based on a five-note scales, and I had come way past that, so my natural interest went to more harmonically advanced music than the three-chord blues. That’s just what I was, and eventually I went to college in America where I played classical guitar and studied more and more how to play piano, so I became a different sort of musician.

Where it all came to fruition, if you like, was in THE POLICE, because when I met up with Sting we had very similar backgrounds: we both had been exposed to THE BEATLES, THE ROLLING STONES, British pop music, American pop music, but we both also loved Brazilian music, bossa nova and jazz. Sting came from a jazz-fusion group called LAST EXIT, so when we came together we both had a lot of harmonic knowledge – that was a sort of exterior to pop music per se. But we were rock band, and that’s all we had to do, so all the stuff we knew had to go somehow into the framework of being an aggressive rock band, which was what THE POLICE did. But you can tell that was different by the way we played songs like “Roxanne” which started off as bossa nova and it’s got more interesting chords, or “Walking On The Moon” where the opening chord is not something you do in a pop group, and so on and so forth. In a way it was a perfect blend of musical sensibilities put into another framework, and what you’ve got is a band with soul-centric pop records. (Laughs.)

– You mentioned that you studied classical guitar. How important was that to your development as a musician?

That was pretty important because I started to develop right-hand technique – before that I’d played with a pick and not a lot with my fingers, and I liked to play sometimes with no pick at all, with just fingers. That gave me a lot! Harmonic knowledge, composition, technique – playing nylon-string guitar… I think for me it fused very well with my love of jazz guitar, so it worked perfectly for me. I mean I never became a full-on classical guitarist – it’s very difficult to make a living that way – and my life went differently, but again, even in THE POLICE Sting played a little bit of classical guitar, and that was another thing we had in common, as he really liked it. But I like to play electric guitar and nylon-string guitar, I’m not much of a steel-string guy: that’s me, and I don’t really feel like doing anything or trying for anything else anymore. If you go through your life playing the guitar and go, “Oh, I should be playing this! Oh, I wanna do that!” I don’t really feel like that – I like my own playing now and I’m comfortable with it. (Laughs.)

– How did your work with THE POLICE enrich your understanding of pop music?

Andy Summers

THE POLICE

I don’t think it’s necessarily enriched it – that’s not the word that I would use. Pop music is pretty simple stuff, and we had three musicians together that made something very special – not an unusual combination of people but the magic came out of that. Of course, I know what a good song, a good tune is – I grew up with THE BEATLES and everything else – and Sting had a very strong gift as a songwriter, and so that’s the way it went: “Okay, now I’m in this band, and we’re doing pop music, so let’s see if it all works together” – and we put all these songs together.

– Did you ever feel that you were wasting your talent on this great, but still pop, music? It brought you fame and fortune, sure, but what about purely musical angle?

You can’t answer that, you can’t say, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done it!” because it wasn’t like that – that would be just sour grapes. Man, I was playing with great people! With a fantastic, talented singer and songwriter, and a great drummer. It was a very exciting band, a great band to play in. I didn’t sit around and go, “Ooh, fuck! I wish I was doing jazz, not this shit! I’m not doing that!” (Laughs.) We were the most popular band in the world for years! You can’t imagine what that was like, for sure. We had hit record after hit record. Once you get into something like that, you keep trying to make it happen, to keep it going because it was such a success. After that, after the end of THE POLICE, I started returning to the stuff I was growing up with, and happily so – I played all over the world doing it.

– While we’re on a subject of three, what with that band being a trio: why do you consider your latest albums a trilogy if you had instrumental records before?

You know what? The trilogy thing is bullshit! I said it to some journalist – or it didn’t even come from me, and some journalist said that – “Oh, so it’s a trilogy,” and I went, “Well, if you want…” Then, it’s somehow been picked up and repeated: “Trilogy, trilogy, trilogy,” and I was like, “Right, fuck it, it’s a trilogy.” But I wasn’t actually thinking that. It’s a nice, a kind of a neat thought, but I wasn’t going, “Oh, what now? I have to make a trilogy” – it wasn’t my plan. I just tried to make my music, but one thing that must be said is that I made all these records alone, with no one else; I played all instruments, so these records move in a nice way from one to another. “Trilogy” as a word is flag of convenience – people and media like that – but I can write something different next time: maybe it’s going to push me into not doing that sort of layered tracks that I do and doing something very simple.

– Did you, while working alone, miss the dynamics that interaction with other people brings – or did you feel liberated on your own?

Oh, these records are complex – there’s a lot to this, and it takes time: you can’t knock this out in one afternoon. There are quite complicated compositions, with lots of layers and little electronic sounds, and this, and that, and it takes time to find all the parts. You have to be in a certain place to do that, so they don’t come in one minute; and most of these were sort of composed in the studio – it’s not like I wrote out a manuscript, went in and then just played it, it wasn’t like that at all. The approach for me is to usually start a track by finding its sound, a fresh sound where I go, “Ooh, that’s kind of inspiring! Give me a tempo, give me 32 bars of a click” – and then I listen and try to play on it, and something starts to happen, you know: the brain starts working, the fingers start moving. And then, “Okay, I’ll try this. Um, no, I’ll try to put this over it,” and you build it until something seems to hold, and then you’ve got the first building block, and then you proceed on from there and try and create a composition that has parts and the structure. There’s almost like… yeah, it’s not composing on the spot, but it does take time. That’s why the typical way of working for me is to get a number of pieces going – say, five or six – and I work on one for a while and then I go, “Okay, it’s not for today on that – that goes somewhere else,” so you don’t burn out on the track. It’s a very simple studio technique: don’t burn out! Don’t listen to it for three days, and then you come back and you go (clicks fingers), “Got it! I know where to go! Now I’ve got it!” It’s a creative process.

When I do these records, I like to be very much in the studio mind set and stay with it until I come out the other end. I bring my guitars, my gear, my effects – and I know what I’m doing. I have someone to help, I have an assistant and an engineer, but that’s what it is: it’s very lonely, very lonely… So I do! I miss playing with a band! I’m so used to it. And I’m thinking, as we talk about trilogy and being in the studio, one of the things that I found is: say, I write a composition and then get some guys, like a bass player and a drummer, come in to play it, they may not interpret it the way I want it interpreted and they change the shape of it – and I don’t like that. I’ve experienced it a few times, and I go, “Eh, it came out differently than I was expecting. It’s not quite what I wanted.” But I play the drums, and of course I can play the bass, and I have got a great feel, so I can now put it all down myself, but I do think that maybe I would like to try doing a record that I can do in two days: work out all the compositions up front, tune in and put it down quickly, with a great bass player and drummer – there’s a couple of guys I’m thinking of – so I might go a different route. There are so many ways you can do things when you’ve got many ideas.

– You say that every musician interpret your music differently to what you envisioned…

They do!

– …but still you invite to work with you such bassists as Abraham Laboriel, Jimmy Haslip and Tony Levin, who always sound like themselves, even though they play for the song. So you do want their individual input, don’t you?

I do! That’s why I would ask for these guys – because I know they can play on a very high level and they may add something to it. So I teach them the song and say, “This is what we’ve got, and I’m thinking about this kind of a feel for it,” and they would absolutely be able to do it and they may bring something extra to it, because they’re inspired players. I only want to play with the greatest players, but I am thinking, “Okay, I’m going to have twelve tracks on the next record, and I’m going to know them very well, and then I’ll get the guys in and we’ll see if we can do it quite quickly.” But I’ll have to make sure that the writing is strong. You don’t want to have… not really, say, expensive musicians come in and to go, “Well, I’m not sure what I want to do” – you want to be prepared, you want to have everything ready, and then, “Let’s try it this way.” You need you to do two or three takes and be very much into your playing. The records we’ve been talking about are, as I mentioned, layered and complex, but I’d like to do something that I could just play with a trio, something very open.

– With a trio – or as a part of a trio?

I’ll be a part of a trio but, obviously, I’ll be the leader. I found that I really like playing in a trio, as you know, because I like the openness of the guitar sound with a double bass and drums. When there are keyboards, you’ve got a whole other set… it’s usually in conflict with the guitar.

– Everyone is exposed in a trio, so it pushes you to the limit, right?

Yeah, you’ve got to be out of cover, but I’m used to that because I played for years in THE POLICE and other bands as a trio – I always went out on my own in a trio.

– Still, you have an array of duo records, starting with the two that you laid down with Robert Fripp. And maybe it’s my mind playing tricks, but I see a link between “Image And Likeness” and “Painting And Dance” from those albums and your photography and the current album. So can we say that you’re continuing what you started way back then?

Andy Summers with Robert Fripp

Yeah, I think it’s who I am. Even on those early Fripp records, you can see the sort of sensibility that was there – that was outside of THE POLICE because I felt it very strongly, and by the time I got to whenever I made those records I was feeling not like “Ooh, I can’t stand playing this music anymore!” but sometimes I thought, “There’s more. I have more than just playing behind the singer.” When I, for some reason, chose to make those duo records with Fripp, it was a way to get out some of that more arty kind of music – not just pop music but instrumental pop. There was the opportunity, and those albums were very successful and ahead of their time.

– You said, “opportunity”: so it could have been not Fripp but somebody else?

Maybe! I felt like I wanted to, but Fripp and I go back a long way – we’re from the same town in England – and I’ve known him since I was fourteen. (Laughs.) Of course, he’s a famous guitar player, and I was very famous too, so there was an attraction. Our first record [1982’s “I Advance Masked”] got into Top 60 in “Billboard”: for a weird instrumental record like that it’s amazing. In fact, right now they’re bring them out again, as a box set, so they’ve got a new life at the moment.

– How different was working with Fripp to working with John Etheridge a couple decades later?

Oh, very different! Robert is not a jazz player at all – he plays the way he plays, KING CRIMSON style: that’s what he does – you wouldn’t play blues or bossa nova with Robert; that’s not his thing – he has other things. But John is a great guitar player, a virtuoso who really is a jazz guitar player but can play everything. We’re really good mates; we went all around the world together doing fusion, a different kind of music.

– Both John and you worked with SOFT MACHINE, at different times, but you never recorded with this band, correct?

I never did, no. John is in SOFT MACHINE now, but I came to America with SOFT MACHINE [in 1968] and then left; they dropped me in New York, and I came to L.A. and joined THE ANIMALS. So that’s a different life story.

– Speaking of jazz: of all your records, there’s one that stands out. So what’s different about “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”?

I’m playing the music of Mingus on it. This was a difficult record to do, because it was a such a big set-up: I had Debbie Harry on it, I had this JAZZ PASSENGERS group from New York, I recorded with THE KRONOS QUARTET from San Francisco – I did a lot of different things on there. That was a kind of a big project to handle for me. And I had a very good recording engineer/producer [Eddie King] with me who helped me get through it, because I had to be the player and a peer with all these other people, so it was complicated. For instance, to do something like that with THE KRONOS QUARTET, I had to find this guy [Sy Johnson] in New York, which I did track down through Sue Mingus who’d been married to Charlie Mingus, and he agreed to write the string quartet [arrangement] for the piece called “Myself When I Am Real” which was, in my opinion, semi-successful – partly because of the way KRONOS wanted to record and the way I would have preferred to have done it. That was a great, but complicated, record to make – it took time flying around the United States. (Laughs.)

– Another jazz classic you covered, with Etheridge, was “Nuages” by Django. I seem to hear the Reinhardt influence on a few of your compositions as well, but you didn’t mention him among the artists you love.

No, we all love Django – no question about it! – and there’s a school of guitar players who all are Django freaks: gypsy jazz guitar is eternal – it would just go on and on – and there are all these maniacs who just want to try and play like Django. Of course, it was incredibly impressive when I heard him as a kid and thought, “Oh my god! How could you play like that? With just two fingers! That’s phenomenal!” But I liked American jazz guitar playing, and I liked the looseness of American jazz drummers, while Django – (imitates vigorous strumming) thrum-thrum-thrum-thrum-thrum – had very tight rhythm, which I found I don’t really like, I find it kind of square, kind of corny, and it’s pushing you all the time. He was a genius, and it’s incredible what he played, but I never liked that strumming style, that rhythmic accompaniment.

– You prefer something more ethereal and abstract – if these are the right words?

Yeah, American jazz feel… I mean why play that gypsy jazz rhythm when you could play with a wonderful drummer like Kenny Clarke? That’s where I felt comfortable when I listened to all these records by players like Kenny Burrell, Wes and Grant Green. It’s bebop that came out of American ’40s and ’50s and into the ’60s when it started to change, and that was the feeling I like to play against. I like (imitates midtempo playing) ding-ding-ti-ding-ding (laughs). There’s a feeling!

– But “Metal Dog” was rhythmically rather tight and heavy – much heavier than “Harmonics Of The Night”! So intensity feels good sometimes?

Oh no, you want it! You want dynamics: sometimes you want to hardly be playing any rhythm at all and other times you want to be pushing, pushing it, because it’s more exciting. When you want to take off and try and play with fire and passion, that’s exciting, and you want to see the musicians do it – it’s almost like a great athlete that you can actually play at speed.

– Do you find that instrumental records are evocative enough? I mean you had vocals on “XYZ” and then started to progress towards pure instrumental music. So you can fully express yourself without words?

Andy Summers

Yes, I do feel that. I think words get in the way. I’m not a big pop song lover; pop songs sound corny to me. There is some great stuff, but I feel like I’m an instrumentalist, and that’s what I want to be, and that’s what I am. I don’t feel like I need to start singing – I’m a bit old for that now anyway: it’s too late.

– Looking back at your creative life, do you see highs and lows – or there was a climb and then a plateau?

(Laughs.) I would say that I’m probably all insecure about it… I feel like I’ve made a lot of great records, but I don’t think they necessarily all have gotten the recognition they deserve. But I try to push into fresh territory and make my own music that doesn’t sound like anybody else: that’s what I’m interested in and that’s what drives me. That’s very satisfying to write a great piece of music and then to construct a track; all these records I’ve made were done with great care and attention, and they’re important to me.

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