ANDY SUMMERS INTERVIEW

If you call your solo album `Synaesthesia' you're almost asking for an early-hours knock on your from the Pretension Police. Thankfully, Andy Summers need not fear any such `it's a fair cop' scenario. For one, he's an ex-Policeman himself (although not quite the same variety, admittedly). For another, Summers is rather more articulate than yer average guitar player and actually knows what said `big word' means.

`It is,' he reveals, `Call My Bluff-style, `a fusion of the senses - such as hearing music and seeing colour simultaneously. Some people say each key has a different colour but I think everyone would have a different key for a different colour. I think there's a definite correlation there but it's probably only about one in 500 people who experience it with real intensity. I have known about this for many years and it suddenly occurred to me on this record that it's somewhere I'm always trying to get to. I spend a lot of time working as a painter and in my studio I go from upstairs where I paint to downstairs where I play and record, so I get this thing crossing over. Over the years there have always been these highly sensual moments onstage when you try to bring all this stuff together and try to bring people to this point. On this record - I don't want to get too heavy-handed here - but it's a nod in that direction, saying it's a good moment if you can get that turned on that you start to see colour or just having your senses come really alive.'

As Summers wryly notes in his press biography, his late `60s experiences lying about in West Kensington flats getting the clear white light', `seeing rainbow colours' and `wondering who my genitals could possibly belong to' might have something to do with it, but the heady juxtapositions on `Synaesthesia' are easily enjoyed without the help of hallucinogens. A cursory listen brings to mind the dread phrase `ambient jazz-rock' but in truth the record is much more difficult to quantify. Percussive muscularity is lent by the formidable Ginger Baker and Dave Lee Roth/Joe Satriani skinsman Greg Bissonette and the wily Jerry Watt contributes bass. So, expect no weediness: `Cubano Rebop' is latino grunge sparked by a feedbacking Summers solo. `Monk Hangs Ten' is jazzbo surf guitar music. `Umbrellas Over Java' betrays the influnence of Indonesia's haunting gamelan music, while `Meshes Of The Afternoon' ain't a million miles away from some of Joe Satriani's more reflective, dislocated moments...

`At the start of this record I did a couple of long improvisations at my grand piano where I played everything I could think of. We loaded them into the computer via MIDI and then left it for a couple of days before I came back to it and listened to it. I would hear little bits here and there and I'd mark them with numbers until at the end I had maybe 25 or 30 bits - these would become a vehicle for the writing and composing process to start happening. What I tend to do is work on a number of pieces at the same time, say ten or so, and I try not to burn out on them. If I`ve gone as far as I can I'll leave them and come back later with fresh energy. That way you also keep in mind the big picture and don't get lost in the details.

`The compositions are like paintings in a way - each one starts with a sort of a pencil sketch, then it gets to another stage and it may have completely changed by the end, but it's a slow metamorphosis until it gets "ripe". If you listen to `Cubano Rebop' there's a tune that you faintly here at the back of the mix, like an echo, that I played on mandolin - it's this angular, atonal melody which goes against the main guitar line. When we recorded the track that mandolin melody was the main melody right until the very last moment. But because of the way the track went down and the type of drumming that Ginger Baker put on it, the track came out in a slightly different way than I expected and we found we were having a problem making the original melody sit right there, although we liked the track and the New Orleans march section in the middle, which worked very well. I'd been in the studio for a while and I was very into playing so in the end I just improvised the main melody, which turned out very successfully, and the original mandolin melody was placed at the back of the track, making this counterpoint.

`I'm always looking to create some new synthesis and make it as fresh as possible. If you want to nail it to something with this record there's more of a rock rhythm section than some of the earlier albums I did that were more jazz-based. But what I'm always looking for is fairly quirky, astringent, melodic material and harmonies that aren't conventional. I'm just trying to avoid any sort of generic kind of music - I don't want to do generic jazz or fusion. All I'm interested in is synthesising what I know and I'm the "grid" that it comes out of.'

Is such an approach surprising? Although the Police will undoubtedly be best remembered for their enduring pop suss, muso observers will recall how Summers was particularly successful in bringing techniques from classical guitar and jazz guitar to the mainstream, such as on the Villa-Lobos-influenced chord pattern of `Bring On The Night' (`Reggatta De Blanc', 1979) and the Lenny Breau-style harmonics in the global hits `Can't Stand Losing You' and `Message In A Bottle'. The charge of being a clever swine hangs over your head, Summers!

`Ah, yes! It's partly subconscious and partly intentional,' he admits. `You study early on and you get in as much as you can - I had covered quite a bit ground on the guitar before The Police. I guess it also depends on who you are and how much talent you have. In The Police, in a trio situation - which I've come back to now - it's just so wide open that it does actually provide this arena where you can play with a certain freedom. All this stuff can find a place and Sting was able to hear all these extra-curriculum elements.'

Shouldering much of the melodic weight in the band, Summers was also at the vanguard in popularising effects as a staple of the post-punk guitarist's armoury; his pond-sized pedalboard and fridge-sized rack even persuaded FX guru Bob Bradshaw that Andy's sound on `When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around' from `Zenyatta Mondatta' (1980) was number 2 in his all-time chart of favourite processed guitar sounds (with Hendrix at first place, inevitably).

`Well, that was a long time ago and it was done with much funkier equipment!' remembers Summers. `At the time I was using a Peter Cornish pedalboard. I don't use it any more... I don't even know where it is! I'm always trying to shrink things down. I had the Cornish thing, then a couple of Bradshaw racks then I shrunk it down. Ultimately I'd like to go in with an amp, which is where we started!

`One of the things that I don't like is as the sounds have gotten smother and quieter you have less of a hands-on operation and I found that frustrating `cause I grew up with one hand on the guitar and one hand on the echoplex, where you were much more in control of organically working your sound. The digital era has taken that away to a certain extent. You can still use old stuff but then you have to deal with the noise factor. We've shrunk this new rack down so that it's very loud with a little bit of echo and chorus. It's now really down to fingers and frets and how well you play. I've also just come off a year and a half playing acoustic shows which is fantastic for the hands, and changes your head a little bit. I'm better for it and I prefer to keep things simple and see what sounds I can get out of my head and hands rather than relying on a sound that someone else created.'

The revisionist policy has even been applied to Andy's guitar setup and he has all but retired his trusty `63 Tele, used on many of The Police's best-known songs. `I got the Steve Klein guitar I used on the album about four or five years ago when he was just starting to make them. Originally Klein had been making them bigger and then David Torn suggested that maybe, for blokes like him and me who are not the tallest people in the world, he could make a smaller version, which he did. Steve brought six over and I picked one out - it had a wooden neck rather than a graphite neck and a Trans-Trem. But on tour I'm actually going to play a 335 because I need to get a little more wood and air into the show. If you're standing there for an hour and a half, if it's just harsh, electronic and solid-body-sounding I think it turns people off. You can warm it up a little with a 335 and it covers the wild-sounding stuff that we're doing but I can also use it for ballads. It still sounds beautiful.'

As a pioneer of guitar synthesis one presumes he still has a few silicon chips to play...

`There's no guitar synthesiser on the album at all! I've tried the Roland VG-8 and it's a nice thing but I couldn't quite see why I would want it. I have a standard setup but I changed things slightly for this album - I used a Mesa/Boogie Triaxis and Mesa/Boogie sealed back cabinets which seemed to make a real difference. I used a little pedal called a Marshall Shredmaster and a chorus and a Lexicon PCM-70. But it's mostly fairly straight. In terms of the guitar I wanted a very strong, fat sound with the right amount of distortion. I wanted to keep it pretty much the same all the way through so the guitar was a strong, single voice; I wasn't looking to get loads of different sounds out of the guitar. It takes away from the writing, which is what I'm really interested in and one really strong guitar sound that unifies the album.'

Considering Summer's consistent exploration of differing musical avenues - as a John McLaughlin of the the rock world, if you will - it came as a surprise to this author when Andy recently claimed that his best playing ever was his bluesy rock lead work in the mid-`70s. `Did I say that?' he exclaims. `I actually think I play better now than I've ever played. There was a period when I'd just come out of college where I'd been playing classical guitar and I suddenly realised that it wasn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I suddenly came back to electric guitar and I don't know whether I was fuelled by intense practice for the last four, five years but that was a period when I was just wailing in that style which was prevalent at the time. My playing has changed since then and I do for different things now. Actually, I think my hands are in the best shape they've ever been in terms of what I can do. It accumulates over the years and I've led so many bands of my own now and forced myself into new situations... You would hope that you play better and better - until you just get too feeble to do it anymore [laughs]!

Collaborations with Robert Fripp and John Etheridge have helped take Summer's playing into previously unexplored territory. The `I Advanced Masked' and `Bewitched' LPs, recorded in `82 and `84 with the former, witnessed more noodle than the average Chinese restaurant sees in a year, whilst `Invisible Threads' (1993), an acoustic guitar duo project with the latter (a fellow Soft Machine alumnus), proved an entrancing, jazz-based but never jazz-bound diversion.

`I like to play with someone who can cover a lot of ground and someone with whom you can discuss the language at a reasonable level; otherwise it gets a bit frustrating,' Summer expands. `I'm not really interested in sitting down and doing some "jamming" - that just sounds moronic! With John I was interested in working out interesting harmonic stuff and seeing how you can make two acoustic guitars increase in size by the way you use the qualities of an acoustic instrument - open strings and stuff like that.

`The thing I like about the acoustic and liked about playing with John was that we were able to play through all kinds of stuff and make modern acoustic music without making it sound like be-bop at all. We really tried to use the guitars to their fullest and use certain voicings so they sounded big and ringing and really acoustic rather than like a be-bop approach... Although the music was more towards jazz and certainly grew out of that.

`With Robert it was different. He's not a jazz player and doesn't have much interest in that at all. He really has his own thing and that's really it - he does his own thing to the exclusion of everything else. I found with Robert that what I had to do was find a way to marry our two rather disparate styles. It seemed he was going to do what he did and that provided a certain skeleton that I could put the flesh on - weird analogy there! Robert's thing in particular is playing these single lines with polyrhythmic figures and displaced octaves. He's very good at that - brilliant at it - so we tried to build that into a compositional structure. I found I had to play around it and sort of weave in and out of it to build a fuller picture. It was interesting and it gave one a definite position to start from. Let's face it, Robert was unlikely to suddenly start playing the blues! But there was a great strength in one area which we could use to advantage and then try to make it seem different by adding different colours around it. But it was definitely not a jamming situation - it was one much more of constructing music.'

Summer's naturally disciplined approach proved a boon when he began to venture into the celluloid world, penning as he did the scores for the mid-'80s films `2010' and `Down And Out In Beverly Hills'.

`With soundtrack writing you have a very specific given - like playing with Robert, yes! - in that you obviously have the film and you have to enhance it however you can. "However you can" is perhaps a bit of a loose phrase because they may have very specific ideas about how they wanted it scored - "we want it to sound like Ry Cooder" or whatever. Or they may want a more contemporary, orchestral approach or they might want a lighter, poppy orchestral approach or something, darker, film noir and piano based. It depends who you're working with. But you can take those elements and then start trying to apply it.

`I think there are a couple of ways you do that. The way I've gone at it is to find a key scene somewhere in the middle of the film then radiate out from there, building a musical narrative throughout the film and you find a motif or melodic line that fits with the characters. You don't want want to overwrite it - you want a couple of strong themes that you can work from.'

The past has a habit of catching up with you, of course, and last year Andy found himself mixing the `Police Live' album (1995) and recently had a lesser involvement with a proposed `new' Police album. `I think it's the "Greatest Hits" that they've repackaged for some reason,' he comments. `I guess enough people didn't buy it the first time! The only involvement we had was looking at various covers which are always disappointing to me.

`It's the current stuff I'm interested in, of course. It's hard to avoid the past but one goes forward. I've just signed a new deal with this record company (CMP) - this is the first record and I'm looking forward to a really good run. I've got four or five records in my head at a time that I try to work on and I would like to do a guitar trio record next - since The Police I've mostly made records with keyboards. But we'll see...'


This interview was originally published in `The Guitar Magazine' Vol 6 No 3, February 1996.

Douglas J Noble 1996