Andy Summers is back in unexpected fashion, with big songs and big riffs. Interview by Michael Heatley. Photos by Dennis Smith and Dylan Knight
At 71, Andy Summers is in the autumn of his life and career – yet the impossibly youthful-looking guitarist who inspired a generation when with the Police still has fields to conquer, mountains to climb. ‘Well, I’m not thinking of getting into the restaurant business!’ he laughs. ‘I’m a guitar player, I’m a musician, a composer, I’ve done all kinds of music, I’ve played everywhere in the world… there’s really not much I haven’t done at this point. I play every day, I practice and I’m still really into it. It hasn’t gone away, and I’m really happy about that.’
Certainly, it can’t be money that motivates him. Despite Sting claiming the lion’s share of the royalties from the band in which they served together – sometimes less than amicably – between 1977 and 1986, a lucrative reunion world tour in 2007-2008 must have boosted the pension fund. And given that he resides in California, there would seem every reason for Summers to put his feet up and keep the guitar purely as a pleasurable pastime.
Instead, he’s forging forward with Circa Zero, advertised as his first rock band since the Police (a description he laughs at). His ‘Sting’ this time around is Rob Giles, a singer/multi-instrumentalist who played with a Los Angeles band called the Rescues. Badgered to make an appearance at a gig by a friend who managed them, Summers saw the band twice; in the intervening year he’d been working hard in his Bowl of Cherries studio in Venice, California, on guitar-based rock music.
‘I had all these tracks, but was getting cold feet about the vocals. I asked if Rob would like to come down to my studio and maybe sing a few songs. We got into conversation and started to play stuff together and I quickly realised that this guy really had something. The chemistry seemed to be there very quickly. I got him to sing one of the tracks that I’d recorded with somebody else, and he completely blew it away – his singing was amazing. It was at that moment I was like “Oh my God, that’s what I’ve been looking for.” Rob said, “Man, we should write a rock record together,” and just like that I said, “Right, let’s do it.”’
Though Summers’ guitar collection numbers in the hundreds – his website offers beautifully photographed but frustratingly detail-free evidence – the two guitars used on the record are a Les Paul and a Strat ‘with various devices. I like to use the Les Paul for solos because you can move a bit faster and get a bigger, crunchier sound.’
It’s a long way from the Fender Telecaster and the Pete Cornish pedalboard that launched the Police’s chart career back in 1978 and inspired a raft of imitators. As the man who brought effects back into fashion, how did Summers approach things when the Police returned to the stage in 2007 and he had to revisit the sounds he created in that golden period?
‘I really thought it out – I was very serious about it. We’re the trio with that rainbow of guitar – what are you going to do? I can’t go out and play through a Fender Twin! I had a big set-up, and I basically reset all my equipment and pedals. I did it with Bob Bradshaw in LA, who had the very latest version of all that.
‘It was interesting because, back in the late ’70s/early ’80s I started doing all the pedals and built that into the Pete Cornish board, which was an early attempt in doing this kind of stuff. Then in the late ’80s/early ’90s everything went digital, which was the period I really didn’t enjoy so much, partly because I felt I lost the really hands-on artistic control I like to have. Then we fast-forward to the millennium and things have changed again. When I went back to Bradshaw to re-do all this, it was a combination of digital and pedals and controlling the pedals through a computer.
‘On the Police tour we were playing stadiums. The shows were huge, so I had six Mesa/Boogie cabs instead of two and I had a signal that was dry in the middle and stereo reverbs to the left and the right. Once I’d programmed all the songs in the board, it was operated from the side of the stage with my guy with a remote. We only fucked up about twice in 150 concerts!’
His go-to guitar was a red Stratocaster. ‘I did have the Tele and I’d play it a bit; that was the period that Fender re-made my Telecaster as a signature model. At the same time they also made a couple of Strats for me that were a copy of my original 1960 Strat that I used for a great portion of my Police career. These were so good to play, so I spent a lot of that tour with them.’
The sunburst maple-neck ‘Police’ Tele, now safely locked away, had had its humbucker installed before Andy acquired it in ’72. He bought it from a student for $200 while teaching guitar in LA between bands. ‘It was all done. That’s why it was such an amazing instrument, a magic guitar. It was a hybrid. It happened to be amazingly great to play. The weight was perfect, it had an incredible back pickup, the overdrive was great.
‘In some ways,’ he continues enthusiastically, ‘that guitar was a precursor of things to come; it was ahead of its time. It was early, crude reworking of what you could do with a guitar before it all really set in a bit later.’ Schaller tuners were his only addition. The other mods – brass bridge and saddles, an out-of-phase switch and 9v actives that boosted distortion and sustain – were all present and featured on the Masterbuilt Custom Shop tribute that, as has been noted, coincided with the 2007 reunion.
Summers’ career dates back to the ’60s and such evocatively-named bands as Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Dantalion’s Chariot and the Animals. The ’70s found him backing artists as diverse as Kevin Coyne, David Essex and Neil Sedaka, while he took the place of a stagefright-stricken Mike Oldfield when Orchestral Tubular Bells did the rounds of British concert stages.
Probably the most famous riff Summers has ever played in his long and varied career was Every Breath You Take. The 1983 Police song was a transatlantic chart-topper, won two Grammys (one apiece for Sting and the band) and, was controversially sampled for Puff Daddy’s equally successful I’ll Be Missing You in 1997. Whenever You Hear The Rain earned its place on the new Circa Zero album because of a closely related guitar figure that came to Summers in a dream.
‘It was one of the previous [non-collaborative] ones I had that we were thinking twice about including…we thought that perhaps it was a bit more commercial than we wanted to do. The thing that actually put it on the album, believe it or not, is the guitar lick that goes all the way through it. We had it, then we re-recorded it from my original and got a similar feeling.
‘The thing that changed it in the end is I came up with a reverse version of the Every Breath You Take lick. I woke up one morning at 4am thinking about this track because I wasn’t sure about it – then I came up with this idea and thought, “That’s it!” I could hear the whole thing. I went back to the studio in the morning, tried it out and it worked. We put it on the end of this album because people will love it.’
On the live front, Circa Zero will probably just start as a trio. ‘We’ve done shows as a trio and it’s gone great. Then we’ll see. I don’t want a keyboardist or another guitar player because I think my playing is individual, and I don’t want to cover it up with a wall of guitar.
‘The whole scene is so radically different than it was,’ he continues. ‘Personally, I’m not interested in playing every little shitty club in the world; it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think the way to go now is basically the internet and YouTube. I think we’ve got a lot of hit songs on this record and what I’d like to see happen is us really build the profile over the next few months and then start to gig. I want to play; we’re going to go to China this summer, and Japan is on the cards.’
Andy recognises that the days when ‘the Police shipped two million records before we’d even finished making the bloody recording’ are over. ‘Now you sell 250,000 in the US and you’re #1 and that’s it. We’re in a very different era.’ But it’s clearly one he’s more than happy to be active in, Maybe the restaurant business’ loss is music’s gain.