Andy Summers on Gear, Being a Well-Rounded Artist
As one-third of The Police, Andy Summers was a huge part of one of the biggest bands of all time.
Summers’ success as a guitarist though, preceded his time with The Police, as the virtuoso player had already toured and/or recorded with the likes of The Soft Machine, Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, David Essex, Kevin Ayers, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and Eric Burdon & The Animals.
Nowadays, Summers seems to record a new solo album every few years. His latest is 2017’s Triboluminescence, which began as a single-disc release and recently got a double-LP vinyl reissue via the Flickering Shadow label.
Summers is also a prolific photographer, having hosted dozens of exhibitions over the years. He is currently working on combining these two creative outlets with live performances that feature him playing in front of projections of his photographs. As if that was not enough, he is reportedly working on another book.
Guitar World got the chance to ask Summers a few questions about gear, his new album and his role in the Police.
Your artistic output goes way beyond your albums as you have put on dozens of photographic exhibitions. Did you study art before you started playing music?
No, not formally. It was always music for me. I have to say any artist should be cultured and should be taking information from all the great artists in different media. I think it’s very important to be a widely-cultured person if you’re going to be in the arts. I didn’t really start photography until later on, but I did go to college in America and study classical guitar for years, so I was very much into things outside of rock music.
In my teenage years, I was a complete movie buff for European art-house films. That was something that was very formative for me. Some time later I embraced photography in some sort of slightly-unconscious desire to recreate whatever that thing was that thrilled me in my teenage years. You come to a point where you’ve taken in a lot of different aspects from culture, that you start to form your own person from all of that.
Your guitar playing has always been incredibly unique. In the early days of The Police, did you know that you had a unique sound between all of the atmospherics and swells in your playing?
It’s a funny question. I don’t think you stand there and go, “This is really unique.” At any moment you’re the sum of all this information you’ve taken in, natural talent, whatever personal growth goes through to come out.
One thing I’ve often said in interviews, I think what you become is by subtracting out all the things you don’t like. It’s like procedure by negation. “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I don’t like this, I don’t like that either. So what am left with? This. So I’m going to do this.”
You kind of try to regress forward as an artist. “I don’t have to be good at everything, I don’t need to be good at anything, I’m just going to do this. I’m going to put my whole effort.” It’s a complex situation, It’s very nuanced and complicated.
How do you become an artist? There’s no formula. It depends on your personality, your slant on things. Why are some people really great? Other people are okay, some are mediocre. Art is not created in a vacuum, you have to take a lot of material in and then you find your way through it in sort of syncretic movement. Eventually you find a voice that hopefully is yours.
Did gear play a big part in your evolution as a player?
No, I’m not a gearhead. Although a lot of people if they came to my studio would probably disagree with me because I have a lot of it.
It’s never been about gear with me, it’s always about music. Music first. However, in the early days of The Police, I was about to start being sort of antithetical to some of the music that was around at the time, like heavy punk and very simple barre chords and their heavy sound. I went into another area by coloring the sound with various guitar pedals and playing with different voicings on the guitar.
Very simply, I felt, “Okay, I’m the guitar player, I’m the only harmonic instrument in the band.” I’ve got to support this great singer and he’s got the ear for it, so I’m going to do something completely different than what’s going on in the punk movement of the late 1970s. We were loud, we sounded like a rock band, but I was playing different stuff on the guitar.
Partly out of negating and wanting to be more original than everything that was around me, and naturally reacting to the people I was with, where my natural impulses were. I sort of started my professional life in London playing in a rhythm and blues band, but my impulses were always towards jazz and classical music.
I’ve read that it was a struggle for you to choose songs to cut in order for your album to fit onto a CD. Where did the idea to make an extended vinyl release come from?
Vinyl has become kind of a special thing again. Our previous record, Metal Dog, the record company wanted to make a double vinyl. It would have never occurred to me, “Oh, I’ve got to make vinyl.” They encouraged me to do it and the idea took hold. Of course, it came up again this time.
These days you should make vinyl as well. There’s a definite buying public for the vinyl. For me, it’s sort of thrilling because I get to take the package, the actual art package, and open it up more and do something creative with it. It’s like the old days, making an LP you can have a lot of fun. Back to square one with the artwork.
Do you have any film scoring projects ahead? Or is the focus on your solo recordings at this point?
Yeah, I’m not really interested in pursuing a career in film scoring at this point. I live in L.A., it’s a very difficult scene to be in. I found at a certain point that I prefer being a solo artist, making my own recordings. I find it much more genuine and that’s where my soul was.
That’s another thing that can be great, but most of the time it can be awful. I like being a solo artist, I like writing my own material, recording my own material, sometimes collaborating with other people, playing, go on tour when it suits me and the conditions are right.
You were in one of the most respected and most successful bands of all time. Is there anything you’re still hoping to accomplish?
Obviously we weren’t some band that had one or two hits, we were a phenomenon. It’s hard to find anything that will match that in terms of a popular profile. It forces you back into a position of “Do you really love playing music? Yes.” “Are you prepared to suffer much for it? Not as much as I used to be.”
I’ve done all the suffering. I like collaborating with people, I’ve been out playing this year. I’m about to go back to China, I’ve been out to Brazil. There’s more playing coming up in the coming months and it’s pretty full already. I like to pick and choose what I do. There’s a certain amount of comfort I expect. I’m not ready to rough it. I don’t have to prove anything.
I’m in a very privy position, obviously. The Police was an amazing platform for all of us to do basically whatever we want. I can do whatever I want, or nothing if I want to. I have a studio, I work all the time at music, and I’m just getting started on the next album I’ll personally make. It’s music all the way.
So finally, Andy, any last words for the kids?
Do what you believe in, and make sure you have a good manager. (laughs)