A Conversation With Andy Summers, 1983
(On July 28, 1983, I met separately with two thirds of the Police, who were in Detroit to play the fourth and fifth shows of their Synchronicity tour. On July 29th, I had a separate phone conversation with the other third, who had apparently been feeling unwell the day before. This encounter was my third with the band; last time I’d seen them had been during an interview at a small Detroit bar prior to their playing at the tiny punk bar Bookie’s Club 870, actually their second appearance there. This time they were lots more famous. –dd)
Last time I spoke with you, you were about to start a set at Bookies.
Were we actually playing at Bookie’s that time? (whistles) It must’ve been a couple of years ago, then.
Well, what’s changed since then?
You tell me. You’re the chronicler of that history. Well, obviously you mean on the outside and the inside–there are two facets to the changes, I suppose. Obviously our success in America has really happened since then. I guess we were on the verge of it then.
Right. That week you’d just had your first No. 1 in England, and you’d played to about five people in Virginia Beach. You guys were noting the irony.
That’s right, I remember that. We were at Virginia Beach, and we were right at the top. It was kind of a strange overlap that didn’t work. But yeah, obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, in terms of commercial success. I guess we’re right at the very top now. Which obviously makes us all feel verv good. It’s like reaching the top of the mountain. It was a long haul, a long climb—it’s taken us five years to get to this point–five years of blood, sweat and tears to do it. And, you know, the success now is based on a very solid foundation, and it’s very gratifying to achieve this–but of course, on the other side, it’s intoxicating. And with the intoxication there are certain dangers, obviously. We have to kind of watch ourselves more closely.
Are you going nuts? I ask because of that thing I read in Rolling Stone about how you couldn’t wait to get on the road because of the girls, and how you’re “better than ever”…
Oh, that piece of shit in Rolling Stone. That piece of shit in that English paper. (resignedly) Well, you know, the way I look at that bullshit is that it’s par for the course at this point; you know, you get so much good stuff, there’s bound to be a bit of detraction as well.
It seemed sort of weird. Incidentally, I liked that piece you did for Musician.
Thank you very much.
Did you have to sweat laboriously over it?
Actually, I did it in about 2 days .Yeah. I mean, there was a deadline to meet, so I was really up against the wall. You know–I had said I would write a piece, just you’d say “sure” to anything, and then, Christ, I was committed to it. But I was very much pleased with the way it turned out. I wrote it on the plaane, frlying from New York to Ireland and then had it posted back to New York so they could get it. It was kind of a sweat, really, but I was pleased, so it was very encouraging, you know? I’d like to do it again sometime.
Now you’ve got two new careers if the Police don’t pan out: writer and photographer.
Yeah. The photography book is coming out in October of this year, that’s all going forward now. It’s published by William Morrow in America; I’m starting to do publicity in August, a few magazines have picked it up already. I’ll come over in the latter half of October and do a little promotional tour.
That’s interesting. For the book company.
Yeah (enthused), I’m actually going to do 8 cities in 8 days or something.
Like the old days, I suppose.
Yeah, but of course it’s sort of a different thing. Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ll enjoy doing that. That was my last project; it was an incredible amount of work to do, because I know nothing about making books, and I had to learn in a very short time. All the ins and outs of it. But I’m pleased.
It’s interesting. I’d say you probably have a lot more time on your hands now…
No, actually the reverse is true, honestly. Why do you say that?
Well, I suppose at one point you had to go out on the road continually, go it there with the band and push, push, push–and now that “need” doesn’t seem to be there.
Yeah, well in fact, our time is–I’m sure you can imagine–actually, being on the road is the easiest part now—this is when we have the most time. I look forward to being on the road, because I can sort of get back into myself, I can think about things and practice the guitar in a more disciplined fashion. When we go home, to London, it never seems to be for more than two or three months ever, now. I mean our lives have changed radically, but this last time, I mean the phone just did not stop, 9 in the morning until midnight. I kid you not. It’s incredible, we’re so, like, in demand for so many things, there are so many issues arid projects going on, that actually, I find it exhausting. I’m happy to go back on the road; our lives are incredible busy–well, mine is anyway–and it seems to be very dense with events off the road. We’re very busy, actually. Although we took more time between the records, in fact we worked very hard. Like, in England, they’d say–you know, their immediate tendency is to write you off and say the Police are old because we hadn’t actually done a tour in England that year. They don’t actually realize that we’re doing incredibly well in America, and we were touring here heavily, and all the rest of the world. Basically we never stopped doing things at all. We made another album; basically we finished on the 7th of September last year, we finished those dates, and then we had a period off, from then until the beginning of December, we were down in Montserrat. By then we were trying to get in really good playing shape, thinking about it writing songs, preparing for it. Going though anxiety.
Interesting reversal: I was looking at it as you guys having fun, these projects being sort of a therapeutic venture for you, to fill time.
(laughs) Yeah, well, it’s like we come off, go to England and then we have to start thinking about the next album, you know? The writing, especially for Sting, is one part of it, but I always feel personally that I like to be mentally and physically, playing-wise, prepared. I sit and I write, playing with my recorder, so I have lots of things going through my mind, musical ideas are sifting through my mind, I have a great sort of pool of ideas in my mind, of things I want to try in the studio–they may not be actual songs, but they’re actual things that I’m currently playing–so I’m entering the studio with all that stuff bubbling under the surface, and hopefully some of it will come to the surface during the period of making the album.
I like the collaboration you did with Robert Fripp. You’re obviously in very good shape, and you spend a lot of time with physical activities. And you’re working on the brain, I suppose. I’ve talked to Fripp a few times, and he seems to be very conscious of the mind/body duality…
Yeah, I’ve read his theories about–what is it? Mind heart and hips, or something?
Yeah. Guess I was wondering if some of those philosophies rubbed off on you. I’m not even sure how you guys met.
Yeah. Well actually, we are from the same hometown, which is Bournemouth in England–he actually comes from Wimborne, but it’s right there, in the same area. We’re from Dorset, and we sort of vaguely knew each other when we were kids, so we were like rival teenage guitar slayers, and I actually worked in a hotel band there–and finally, when I left, Robert actually took over for me, the same thing, playing foxtrots and tangos, so we had this sort of vaguely common background. We met again in the very early seventies, vaguely. That project came about from me writing him, asking him if he would be interested in doing something together.
Why’d you do that?
Two reasons, really. I thought it was a nice irony for he and I to get together, the two sort of “major” guitar players to come from this provincial town, and after all these years of being very well known, finally getting together…
I imagine the record stores there might’ve said “Hometown Boys Make Good.”
Yeah (laughs), we had all the same guitar teachers we knew, the shop where we got our guitar strings when we were 15–we had a lot of common background and those things are very basic in a person’s life. We had a lot of common ground there. Also, another reason is that I like his playing very much, of course, and having read his stuff and heard his recent playing, especially with Bowie and a couple of solos he played with the Roches, really turned me on with his playing –much more than his early stuff with King Crimson. I was never really a King Crimson fan, I was sort of into a different area.
Interesting. You were in Soft Machine at one point, who I suppose were slightly comparable.
Yeah, vaguely. There were a little differences. Fripp has a very marked way of playing, he’s developed a certain style in a certain musical area, which he plays in very well, which is basically odd time signatures, which he’s brilliant at playing on the guitar on single lines, suggesting harmonies. He can virtually improvise at 11/4 and 13/4–he’s very clever at stuff like that. And knowing this much about him and knowing the way I play, we were pretty diverse as players, I thought–but that diversity, I thought, would blend well and make something else, I thought.
We were pretty different as people, too. Nevertheless, we got on very well. We get on great–I talked to him the day before I left, to talk about the possibility of maybe doing something next year. I think we will–I mean the whole idea for me–well, not the whole idea, but part of it–was to have like a musical partner outside of the band, where we could develop and have an ongoing musical relationship. So I would like to–yeah, I’ll definitely make one with him next year. There are a lot of things going on already, there really isn’t that much time, but I really want to make the time for that.
Was it more fun making the new Police album that it was making the Fripp album?
Hmm. Well, it’s different, you know. With Sting and Stewart there’s, obviously, a lot of camaraderie between us because we’ve been together for such a 1ong time. This is our sixth year. We’ve been through everything together, so we have our own vocabulary and way of dealing with one another and our own little rituals, and in jokes.
That was pretty obvious the last time I interviewed you and all three of you were together at once.
Yeah, I remember that–I remember reading that and thinking, “Christ, we sound like we’re in three different groups!” (laughs) No, obviously there’s a lot of diversity in opinions about what we should do about things, and there are certain amounts of fighting and tension–but mostly over musical problems, like how are we going to get to something. I mean, we’re used to it by now, I mean it’s written about a lot.
Yeah, it’s getting to be a bit of a yawn because people want to write about it, but to me, for any of the best groups that are characterized by that sort of tension—you can certainly cite the Who, and I think even now the Pink Floyd possibly, I don’t know about the Stones, yeah. All groups have their sort of problems because it’s like a sort of marriage, and it has its attendant difficulties. Our group has these sort of three monster egos, all sort of battling to get their way. Actually, we’re better at it now–we’re older, and we’ve learned how to work with one another. I think were probably over the hump in terms of being through the most emotionally stressful period. I think with this album, we’re not complacent or resting on our laurels at all. We have to go on and make a better album. That’s always the way it is–there’s no resting, we can’t stay the same.
The new album seems much more polished, more of an “art object” of sorts…
I take that as a compliment.
I mean it as a compliment. The arrangements, especially, sound more carefully worked out and subtle.
Yeah. Well, we’re better at doing it. We’ve learned our own language in the studios as we’ve gone along, there are certain things we can do, certain things we can try and procedures, and how to get a certain thing that we think is characteristic of how the Police sound. But obviously you’ve got to be careful that you’re not just making the last album again. It’s a big thing. I think actually, with this album, we’ve managed to go back to a pretty spare three-piece sound, but it’s evolved, it’s like a spiral. It’s still a three piece, but it didn’t turn out like the first album. But at the same time, I don’t think it lacks age. The first album was more definitely extroverted, sort of shouting, in terms of “YAAA” (makes aggressive face). It’s younger sounding. This album has more of a steely, cutting edge to it. But I don’t think it’s lost any of the edge that rock music should have. I think that’s extremely important when you’re playing. All music should have an edge.
How did the cut “Mother” happen? Did you have a lot of tunes?
I had a lot of tunes, yeah. I wrote a lot this year. I wrote the best stuff I ever wrote, probably, I think. I mean, Sting is sort of way out in front of us as a pop song writer. I feel personally that I’ve gotten much better at it. Trouble for me is, in terms of writing songs, once I get the guitar in my hands, I tend to play. My gross failing there is in the discipline of just sitting down and writing, writing. But I came up with some very good stuff this year.
Are we going to see any of it?
Yeah, I hope so. I’ll see. I’ve got quite a lot of solo material, I’m still writing away. I’ve got my Xl5 tape recorder–it’s like a portastudio, it’s brilliant. But yeah, “Mother” came up. I wrote most of my stuff at the kitchen table this year, during the time off, and I don’t know–it was a 4/4 riff which eventually changed into a 7/4 riff that used Arabic scales…
I sort of drew a blues feel from it…
It is, it is–it’s written, as a blues, but in weird scales. There’s one other weird chord change in the middle, and my feeling is, you know, it’s obviously delivered in a humorous fashion, but I think really it’s a serious song, I consider it to be a song of compassion for man, really. Because I think men have more trouble–generally, most men have trouble in projecting their mother on most women in their relationships. And a lot of men don’t realize it–well, hopefully they do, when they get older and have been through enough relationships and it’s something that one has to deal with in life, you have to sort of symbolically cut the throat of your mother before you can grow up, see? It’s about withdrawing projecti
I read an interview with the band in the past year or so where one of you commented you had to go out of your way not to sound like the Police since so many other bands are now copying that sound.
Well, of course, there is a sort of a trap. Once you’ve sort of created a style which you’re known for, you’re kind of in a position of having to do it, because that’s how we sound. But at the same time, not doing it. The problem is in sort of taking the style, having it be recognizable, but moving it on a bit. Just as with the great painters, say–I’m not comparing us with Picasso, say, but you know what I mean–say someone like Picasso, you can recognize his work through all his various evolutions, there are certain hallmarks that sort of carry on, although they change–and that’s why when you look through all the work, it’s very interesting to see how it all changed. And that’s how I regard it–I hope the sound has really changed, somehow, but…
Do you have any specific goals in that regard? Do you think there any weak spots in your playing?
No, I think for any player, it’s to develop your own sound and your own style. In other words, the way I look at it, you really have to create your own sign language. There are certain things in music I guess you respond to, because they reflect your personality. You connect with them organically. I know that there are certain things I find on the guitar. I play them, and I definitely feel they’re me, they tend to be abstracted chords and certain dissonances, played in a certain way, that I think are much more me than if I’m playing a heavily distorted bar chord, which I don’t really feel reflects my personality. I think I’m in the process of recognizing all the things that really characterize the way I feel about my musical way of saying this is the way I identify with the world, this is my language. I think I’m really zeroing in on my own language, more and more. It’s becoming very apparent to me being able to leave all the influences and not being bothered by sounding like anybody else.
There’s a Chris Spedding album with a song featuring an imitation of you called “Guitar Jamboree.”
Yeah, I’ve heard it. Well, I mean my area is rather different–I know what he did, he took all the people who really originated their own styles. But I’m really trying to 1eave all that behind–like on the Police records, there’s like no heavy guitar solos, for instance, like in the traditional heavy rock vein, and I can play them. It was sort of the thing that identified music in the late ’60s and early ’70s and characterized so much–it’s such a heavy characterization of another genre, which is something we had to purposefully leave out if we wanted to forge an original style.
I think “Miss Gradenko” is about the only song on the new album I hear with that kind of chording.
Yeah–and I play a sort of little quirky solo in that. I think the solo in “Mother” is interesting, too. It’s in 7/4.
OK, so what’s really going on? You’re probably a bit tired about hearing that “so-and-so is going to leave the band.”
Yeah, I don’t think it’s the most interesting thing about the group.
What is the most interesting thing?
Yeah, what would you write about if you were me? Want to do my work for me?
Well, you’d talk about what we’re talking about now, you haven’t really talked too much about interpersonal relationships. I mean, that’s the sort of National Enquirer…I mean, if you become a large public figure, I don’t mind talking about it. I suppose there is a certain amount of interest in that. I think what’s interesting in that area is the way things change in your own life, how you start to regard the world–the relationships, what happens in a larger rock group when they start out as just three guys on their own and gradually more and more people are acquired, and then there’s this huge sort of organism that’s created, and that organism contains a great deal of energy, both creative and destructive, and it kind of eats people as it goes along. And a lot of things happen within that matrix, you know, and they’re not all good. There’s a great deal of good and creative stuff, but on the other side, bad can happen too. People come out of the woodwork, to get you, and as many accolades as you get, you get detractors as well. But in the middle of the maelstrom, there’s the three of us, and we’re probably the calmest out of all of us. It’s all that hysteria, the people around you are much more hysterical, and jumping up and down.
Would you say you’re comparatively well-adjusted to all that now? It seems to me that you could’ve broken up earlier, and yet you didn’t.
Yeah, I think we got over it. It wasn’t very easy, but we did. I think it’s the power of the music. The real strength of it is that we play really well together, and we do seem to have some sort of magic, for want of a better word. And I hope it’s not the wrong word to use. That thing is, I think, what saves us. That actually we’re a really good live band, and the fact that we can play together –that’s the thing that, I think, keeps us sane, that drew us on, the need to play. It’s the real strength of it.
At this point you guys are such hot stuff, I’m surprised you even speak to us.
You don’t have to put yourself down too much, I enjoyed talking to you last time.
Great. So how do you deal with the fact that every female in my office wanted to come along today when I told them where I was going? (pointing out the window) Can you even walk around out here?
(laughs) No. I mean, it ain’t too great out here, walking over to the shopping mall and back. I walked around, and we did get hassled. I mostly just stayed in my room. But it’s nice for any man to think that women are fainting over you, I suppose.
With all the polish and tightness on display on Synchronicity, do you ever miss the spontaneity of just having a good old bash in the studio?
Well, we try, in our discussions this year, I think that we all agreed that it’s pretty important to–I know I cited in my bit of conversation that I didn’t want to just go onstage and play all the hits one after another and leave the stage, because i think one of the great things about the group is that we can improvise, and be spontaneous with one another on the stage–and that we must keep that element in at all costs. And I think, you know, that we are, there’s no disagreement about that. Some numbers lend themselves more to it than others. Our set’s pretty good at the moment–I mean we’ve only done three gigs so far.
Did you guys practice together much before the tour?
No, no we didn’t. Actually, to tell the truth, we did have some rehearsals together, we had a period of five or six days in LA where we had the gear set up, and we played, we worked on some of the material from this album, most of which we played very easily, because we’d practiced it a lot in the studio, as well. So it wasn’t a problem.
You didn’t find it hard getting back in the groove?
No, and this time we had something like a period of 2 1/2 weeks of playing before we started this tour. We had three sessions. We had one at Stewart’s house, which wasn’t very organized. It was great–really raw, with no effects. Then we went on to the middle stage, where we had the effects–and that was pretty dull. Then we got into a big hall, because we had to arrange the lights, and then it started to sound really good. And our last show was really good. A lot of the old nuances started to surface–you know, where you’re playing along and it started becoming inspirational. First show was a bit stiff, for the first three numbers. But when it’s really happening…it’s like if you’re improvising all night long, you’re playing off one another more than playing off on your own. You’re working under a response situation.
Has there been an LP that you rushed to put together and now you’re much more satisfied with the onstage versions?
I think every album. We always better them on the stage, I think. I mean, I think we do good records and all that, but I always think once we get out on the stage and start playing them a lot–and you’re in a situation where truly you can react and respond–that ‘s where all the best stuff occurs, that’s where all the real color gets into the songs and the arrangements, I think.
You were talking last time about a live album. Not sure that’d be the wisest career move, but it would be nice to hear some of that stuff documented.
Yeah, well in fact we took two weeks in Canada– I don’t know if it was last summer, I think it was the summer before, and we put a live album together, and it was great. It’s still sitting on the shelf. We put a double-live album together, I don’t know when we’ll dust it off and release it; we may well do it next year. I think maybe what we’ll have to do is have Volume One, Two & Three or something–because there’s a lot of tapes now, and out of five albums?
Maybe you should go with the Talking Heads live album approach, documenting phases of their career.
Yeah. It was very exciting, and I think the way we feel about it is to make it a little bit different. Not just put out live versions of the hits, with the crowd going on in the background, but really put out an album that just contains all the improvisations, the stuff you don’t normally get— that’s what I think is interesting.
An instrumental LP would be great.
We could almost do it with some of the stuff, it’s pretty amazing and exciting…
Not to get too heavy, but what do you see as your eventual future? I remember seeing Charles Mingus before he died, and he was well-respected and well-loved, but he wasn’t exactly a rich man, say. And then take someone like–oh, say Billy Joel. Who would you tend to identify with more?
The reason I bring it up is this: I was at the Seven Dials Club in London…
I know the place
And I saw the Elton Dean Quintet…
He’s a great player…
It was great, but there were only about 15 people there. And I wonder if the Police hadn’t happened like that to you, do you think you might’ve ended up like that, playing in some small jazz club to nobody?
Maybe. I don’t know. You see, I always had the ambition to make it big, I suppose, I always wanted to…
Did you think that while you were playing with people like Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne that you were going to make it big? Or were you just…
I was trying to do things, I was writing songs and taking demos around. I had a lot of ideas, I probably hadn’t crystallized them enough. But when I was working, the thought was always there, and I was sort of preparing myself for the opportunity, which obviously presented itself when I met Sting and Stewart…
You were playing with Gong then?
No, no, no. I was with Kevin Ayers then. We did a gig with Gong together. Well, I don’t know, what can you say? I don’t identify myself as an underdog. I guess my background’s too middle class for that anyway, but I do identify myself with, you know, the pure artist. I don’t think you have to be born starving to be a great artist, I think that’s bullshit, I really do. Often you can create the best art when you’re living comfortably. I think that’s a kind of romantic myth, and I don’t really go along with it. It’s inside you. I recognize all the trappings that are around me, I don’t indulge particularly in that, you know? I mean, I worked my balls off in New York this year, doing that photograph book and just living like anybody else. And I wasn’t walking around like some huge star or driving around in limos to do that–I was going down from the park to Soho every day on the train just like everybody else, and I enjoyed it. It didn’t faze me. I like all the attention and the trappings and all that, right? And I think I deserve it and can handle it. And I think Sting and Stewart can. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve lost sight of where I came from, or what my artistic goals are. Because those are the only things that keep me sane, really–the work and what’s inside me. Those are the things I cherish rather than having two rooms in the hotel.
What kind of frustrations have you met? What are you frustrated about right now?
I’m not overly frustrated. I mean, I’d like to do more, I wish there was more time to do other things, but I’m not moaning about it. I love being in the group, and I’m really glad we’re on the road playing again, because it’s what I do best probably out of all the things I do. So I’m pleased about that. I don’t know if frustration is the right word. It’s more…wanting to go on, to achieve things…
Anything you really want to do? Like that Fripp thing, you managed to do that…
I didn’t really have time, I managed to squeeze out two weeks to do that, and that was it, as you know. It was very difficult–I mean we wrote to each other, agreed to do it, and it took us a year to get together, it was difficult. The time factor has always been a problem. I mean being in the Police is sort of a devouring organism. It demands a lot. A lot of time and feeding.
If you decide you don’t want to play, you’ve let down a whole lot of people in the organism’s hierarchy. That’s a heavy responsibility. Do you think you’re carrying it well?
Yeah. I mean, it’s not only me, it’s Sting and Stewart as well. And I mean we all really—the main responsibility we have is towards the other two all the time. I mean, I do care about all the people around us, because most of them I like very much. We’re very lucky to have a great team of people with us. Our roadies are great–we’ve got three great guys that we’ve had for the last three or four years, we’re very fortunate in that respect. They’re all sort of hand-picked, and we’ve got great guys with us there. On the human level, you don’t want to let them down anyway, but you have to look after your own life. I mean I don’t want to go on ad infinitum if I’m going to suffer, so that someone else down along the line can get paid. You have to try to see an overall view of it, and see in broad strokes, I suppose. Yeah, there is responsibility. I’ve never missed a gig yet, in nearly six years, and I don’t intend to. You take it as it comes.
What do you plan on doing in the next 18 months? Is that mapped out for you already?
There are several things I could do–a major one for me, actually, next year is…I’m doing a movie which is going to happen, I hope, next April. I mean that’s underway now. It’s going to take place in Ireland. The book–it’s a novel–is written by an Irish author, it’s sort of like a Hitchcock thriller, it’s a dramatic film, it’s not a comedy or a rock ‘n roll movie or anything like that. There are three main characters, one of which is me. An
d I guess I’ll probably do the music for that—so we’re waiting to see the screenplay at the moment. So that I’ve been offered….
(A whistling noise is heard from the door connected to the next suite, and in walks Stewart Copeland)
Stewart (interrupting): No, it’s not true at all.
Andy: Should I continue?
Yeah, please do.
Stewart: I’ll just listen to what he says to make sure it’s still right
Andy: Oh, go away, Stewart, this is embarrassing for me. Because I was talking about you.
Stewart: Oh, you were talking about me?! Well, in that case, take your time. It’s twenty-past; I’ve got to redefine the universe and then get ready to go to the gig.
Andy: Just give me five minutes.
This is the embarrassing part.
Andy (as Stewart walks away, still in earshot): So, Stewart’s prick is about 10 inches long.
They’ll be mad at the office when they read this.
Where was I?
About the movie…
A lot of offers have come in to do movie scores, and I’m kind of thinking about that, which is very nice. One of them—a lot of them are like rock ‘n’ roll movies, where I read the script and think “this is a piece of shit, I don’t really want to be involved with it.” I’m not leaping at them, but there’s one coming up, which is a short story by Paul Bowles, which I would like to do—the other thing, I just had a long conversation with Jack DeJohnette…
And I’d love to do something with him, I think he’s great, I’m hoping very much to do something with him.
Would that be for ECM–well, perhaps it’s too early…
Yeah, it’d probably be on ECM. I don’t know. I think that would be a very good marriage. I would definitely like to do that, and I think that’s going to be my first musical priority of next year–maybe the end of next January or so. He just flattens me, the sound he gets, his cymbals…
Well, clearly you’re not just sitting around getting rich and happy!
No! I’m doing my Jane Fonda exercises every day.
So one day you’re going to be 90 years old with hundreds of soundtracks under your belt…
It keeps you young.