As a member of The Police, Summers bucked the rock guitar trends with an instantly identifiable, distortion-free sound that combined chorus and echo effects. And while Sting was always the main songwriter of the band, Summers contributed to that effort as well, offering up at least one song per album, including the Grammy winner "Behind My Camel" and the delightfully zany "Mother."
Speaking with Summers, it becomes clear that his music is driven by feeling, with an irregular approach that leads him to rather unusual instruments and song structures. An exceptionally erudite conversationalist, he let us in on this creative process and talked about the Police songs where he made his biggest mark.
Andy Summers: It's very different, but if it's a category of "instrumental" - what kind of instrumentals? I'm not writing like, surf-guitar instruments. This is very cutting edge, more experimental.
With rock songs, like I did last year with Circa Zero, you think about song form. Songs have forms: you have an opening, an intro, a verse, then maybe another verse, then you're going to go to a chorus, then probably come back to another verse, and then you may go to a C section. So there are certain forms that writers are building within songwriting, which I'm very familiar with.
This album, instrumentally, is not that at all. This is coming from a very different place. I was thinking about dancers, and I wanted more cutting edge, avant-garde, experimental. So these pieces all started from textures. But even within that, I build up a whole thing - you're getting in a cloud-like feeling with textures and sounds and weirdness, but then probably at some point, you're going to want a release of some sort, which doesn't really make it "song-like," but is the classical tension and release that is in all good music. So at some point, you listen to a different thing. But I was trying to think outside of any standard A-B-A-B-C format from normal songwriting. It's much freer altogether.
A piece like the last song, "Mare Imbrium," is a couple of chords, but the whole feeling of it is built out of texture and sound. But if you're going to do it, you've got to have some kind of empathy for this style, which I did many, many years ago. It's not the first time I've done this. I did the albums with Robert Fripp back in the '80s [I Advance Masked (1982), Bewitched (1984)], I did Mysterious Barricades [Summers' 1988 solo album], and for a while, I did pretty jazz-oriented albums. This is going back to more textured, cutting-edge, experimental music. But I don't think it's a difficult album to listen to.
Songfacts: Is guitar your primary instrument for songwriting?
Sometimes, it can be a really bizarre texture: I'll loop something or reverse or drop it an octave, and you get some very weird moaning sound that repeats, but becomes sort of hypnotic. Then I'll find out how I can play over it, and build it into a whole piece. It's more akin to classical music. If you listen to avant-garde classical music of the 20th century, it's more in that vein.
Songfacts: On this album, you play an interesting Indian instrument called a paloma.
Andy: I use other things as well: I've got all sorts of weird, plucked, African and Indian things you hear, all kinds of little boxes that you can get tones out of. Wooden things.
My palette is various, bizarre textures, and a lot of it sounds very degenerating and granulose - like decaying, dying sounds. And I pair those up with different, usually plucked-string instruments that I have acquired over the years. I've got everything from a charango to a paloma, so I have a collection of these things that you can sort of bang and pluck and create the sounds out of all of that.
I live in Los Angeles, so I go to McCabe's. It's an old, great, folk guitar store, and they've got quite interesting things in there that make very bizarre sounds. I might see what they've got. I once went in there, and they had this paloma, and if you put that into reverb or tape delay and do something to it, you get something very different, and no one knows what it is, but it's very effective. So, it's very experimental in that sense. I like to play around with these sounds and see how I can build them into something, thus getting a very fresh approach to the music.
Songfacts: In The Police, were the lyrics a factor in how you did your arrangements on the songs Sting brought in?
Andy: Yeah. I mean, this is pop song music - the lyrics are very important. Generally, he writes pretty good lyrics, and you've got to fit the music to fit the mood of the lyrics. If it's a moody kind of introspective lyric about loss or a breakup situation, then you can't drown it in fucking fuzz boxes - you've got to have some sensitivity to it, and build an atmosphere that goes with what the song is about. A very different thing.
So many guitar players miss this: It's not all about sitting in your bedroom and being Joe Satriani, for instance, but learning how to accompany, be sensitive in a musical situation. There's so much to being a really good musician.
Songfacts: Although "Every Breath You Take" is credited to Sting as the sole songwriter, your guitar work is a huge part of the song.
We had a vocal - a rough vocal, probably - so everyone knew what the song was, and finally, Stewart [Copeland] and Sting agreed on the drum and bass pattern. But no one could agree on anything else until I went in and just played that guitar part - almost in one go, one take. Everybody was thrilled with it, and that was it. That's what put the icing on the cake and made the song. It sure didn't start off like that.
Songfacts: Are there any other Police songs where your guitar part put it over the top?
Andy: Well, I think there are many, actually. Obviously, "Walking on the Moon," "Message in a Bottle," "Bring on the Night" - they've all got these parts.
"Roxanne" is so identified by that guitar at the beginning - the first verse before he starts singing. It's immediately identifiable.
I'm very happy with what I did in The Police and all the guitar parts and all the rest of it. It's very significant and had a huge impact on guitar players.
Outlandos d'Amour (1978):
"Be My Girl – Sally" (Sting, Summers)
Reggatta de Blanc (1979):
"Reggatta de Blanc" (Summers, Sting, Copeland) [won Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1981 Grammy Awards]
"Deathwish" (Summers, Sting, Copeland)
Zenyatta Mondatta (1980):
"Behind My Camel" (Summers) [won Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1982 Grammy Awards]
Ghost in the Machine (1981):
"Murder by Numbers" (Summers, Sting)
Andy: The idea of the lyric is a sort of "end of the world" lyric. The inspiration for that was the movie Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, and that kind of idea. The lyric is not exactly like that, but that was the original inspiration. It was based on the feeling that was in that film.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind "Mother"?
Andy: [Laughs] Well, my mother, of course. We all have our family situations, and I had a pretty intense mother who was very focused on me. I was sort of "the golden child," and there I was, sort of fulfilling all of her dreams by being this pop star in The Police. I got a certain amount of pressure from her.
It's not heavy - it was written kind of ironic, to be kind of funny, but crazy. It's inspired a little bit by Captain Beefheart. It's something that's really off-the-wall.
Oddly enough, at that point, Sting had certainly established himself as the principal songwriter, and he was really only going to sing his own songs. But he loved "Mother," he thought it was great.
It was very bizarre - I think it freaked the record company out. When the album came out, we had all the press in the world watching us and talking about it. The reviews came in, and that song got written about so much because it was so off-the-wall and so ballsy to do that, because the band was having so much commercial success. Weirdly enough, it was so bizarre and weird compared to everything else, that people really liked it.
Songfacts: And what about the instrumental, "Behind My Camel"?
Andy: I was thinking about something that was sort of edgy. Like a horror movie. [Laughs] I wanted something with a lot of atmosphere.
But it wasn't jazz, it was almost like movie music. I wrote a lot of music like that. It was almost like a blues in a way. A Middle Eastern blues.
Songfacts: Do you have an image in your mind when you create an instrumental track?
Andy: You start with just music or sound in the beginning, but I think you're trying to find a place you're going to connect where the music is, or an identity. It's like finding an active role, and this is the attitude of this whole track - it's got a very definite sound. It's not just some song, especially in this kind of atmospheric instrumental music. That's what I'm looking for: a place where you're like, with someone.
By the time MTV went on the air in 1981, The Police had amassed an extensive collection of videos and became early stars of the network. A few years later, Sting delivered some wry commentary when he sang the line "I want my MTV" on the Dire Straits hit "Money For Nothing."
Andy: I don't really like our videos, because they're all too... I don't know which one I even like, actually. I'd have to think about that. We were coming out of an era when people hadn't really made videos. We sort of got going with MTV in 1983, which was almost like the height of MTV, but as the years passed onward, with MTV and the prevalence of music videos, the videos actually got way better, and were a lot more daring and arty.
I was always saying that it would be great if the videos were influenced by European directors like Truffaut, Fellini, and Godard, and I wanted all of that. We had a couple in there that are OK, like "Wrapped Around Your Finger" or "Synchronicity II." Generally though, for me personally, in our video era, they're not that interesting. I think it's too much band and not enough forward-thinking techniques.
Songfacts: Lastly, I recall reading an interview with you a while back, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you are a fan of King's X.
Andy: A few years ago I discovered them, and God, this is a great band! They've got an incredible feel. They've got the best kind of bluesy rock - they've got so much feel. They rock and they really swing, as well. Great voice, the guitar player's great. I don't know why they're not huge, that band. I guess they've done OK.
But I ended up buying all of their albums. There was a period where I was so into it, some of these tracks like "Lost in Germany" were wonderful. Fantastic riffs and very talented. I think they're easily one of the best rock trios anywhere. I don't think they've been equaled. They should be much more famous than they are. Tremendous players. Complexity in their riffing. They took that kind of rock and do it better than anyone - if not the best.
August 11, 2015
For more of Mr. Summers, visit andysummers.com
Photos: Dennis Smith (1), Andy Summers (3)
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