“I’m a little bit shell-shocked today,” guitarist Andy Summers said with a laugh a few weeks ago when I called him for an afternoon interview. “We’ve been making this insane video till after midnight last night where we were throwing paint all over each other. That was intense. And we did that time and time again. And every time they said it was a perfect take, we did it again.”
It’s been a hair over thirty years since the release of Synchronicity, The Police’s final studio album, so why is Summers spending his evening hours making a music video? Does he have something up his musical sleeve? The answer is yes, he does. After spending the majority of his post-Police years composing primarily instrumental music for solo albums and movie soundtracks, collaborating with peers such as King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, writing his autobiography and focusing on his photography, Summers has hopped back on the rock & roll train with his new band, Circa Zero. With their debut album, Circus Hero, releasing next week on March 25th, Summers is ready for another, albeit less chaotic, adventure.
So after all this time, content with his musical and personal endeavors, what has spurred the superstar guitar maestro to begin the cycle again? It’s not like he needs another megahit record. He had plenty of those when he was with The Police: “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Roxanne,” “Message In A Bottle,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and the goliath “Every Breath You Take.” He’s already in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, having been inducted alongside bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland in 2003. He’s been on endless tours around the world, earned awards for his guitar playing, exhibited his photographs in Paris, Tokyo and New York City, spawned children, and adorned three Rolling Stone covers.
So why go back to long nights in recording studios, hours answering the same questions over and over for journalists and performing in small clubs on even smaller stages? Because he met The Rescues’ Rob Giles and the chemistry felt too good to let it slip away. Hence, an all-nighter sloshing paint while filming a video for Circa Zero’s first single, “Levitation.”
You produced Circus Hero with Rob. What is the hardest part about producing yourself instead of having someone come from the outside?
Well, you know, in my life, I’ve worked with producers a couple of times and it’s ok. I generally don’t. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve ever needed a producer. I know how to make records and certainly true in the Police, we never had a producer. Rob worked as a producer so we both know how to do this. I suppose I could say the hardest thing is to have perspective but I don’t think we have much problem with that. I prefer to be doing the producing. I mean, you could have other people. What we did do with this was we took it out of my studio, where it was all recorded in my setting, and took it to a mixing engineer. That was a production device but we thought that was a really good thing to do. The guy, literally, had more equipment, more things available to him to process the record and is a very skilled mixer. Then we finally had it remastered, actually, by a guy who is probably the number one mastering engineer in LA. And the sound of it is fantastic, I think, after we did that last mastering go through. Very strong.
Why was Rob’s voice perfect for your music and where is the chemistry for you two?
That’s an interesting question because sort of post-Police tour, I was writing a lot of songs. I was thinking about maybe going back and doing some rock. I had such a good time doing it and I said, well, it’s been really a while since I had done that but I’m not a singer. I can write songs and all the rest of it and I can do it but I need a really good singer. I was working with one guy for quite a while at the end and I basically built a whole album but I think I was looking for something that I thought, you know, how many ways can you say it, it was the real thing, it was the voice that really cut it all in and yet someone that really understood the attitude you need in rock or if you’re going to do some indie alternative, someone who really gets it. I went through a whole process and it was right at the end of that process where I was possibly ready to release a record that I met Rob. And I was blown away by his voice and we got together and I sort of knew within ten minutes that, oh my God, I think this is what I was looking for, this is fantastic, this guy has really got it. In fact, he sang one of the songs I had that someone else had sung and he just sang it so much better (laughs). I said, this is it. And he was into it, I was into it so we said, let’s make a great rock record. And we were both in LA, so we literally saw the process where he started to come to my studio, I had things that I could play him and we revised and we sort of got into the creative process of it, you know. We had a chemistry.
Did you start out knowing you wanted to do a rock record or did that evolve with Rob?
I did a lot of Jazz records. I did records in Brazil. I did a lot of my own stuff. I collaborated with a couple of other guitar players. Not like, let’s sort of do rock songs with big rock hooks and rock guitar playing but like a real guitar player driven rock band thing and that’s what Rob and I wanted to do. But, again it’s a creative thing and you’ve got whatever skills you have as a musician but we really had a very good symbiosis. You know, he plays drums, bass, a great singer. It was pretty easy for us to put things together. The actual process of making demos and then moving on from there was not difficult for us. Obviously, I have a studio so we didn’t have too much difficulty in being together and doing this. But it’s like anything else, we started together and you start to find your voice together and it was good right from the start. His voice is fantastic.
What was the so-called surprise song on Circus Hero? The one that almost didn’t make it or the one that changed completely from it’s original version.
(laughs) All the songs. Well, you know, each song has got a story. For instance, “No Highway,” that is a song that I had sitting around for a while, maybe three or four years, and I had tried and the Brazilians didn’t seem to get it and tried it with another guy and he didn’t really seem to bring it. So I had this song and one of the first things I did with Rob, “Well, I got this song, you know, see what you can do with this.” I had a whole set of lyrics to it but he immediately changed the chorus line and I went, “Oh yeah, well, that’s sort of interesting, kind of not where I was going with it but let’s go with it.” So we put down a little demo where he completely changed the major chorus line in the song but that inspired me to write that big guitar figure under it which really nailed it. And we went on from there and found another little bridge and something I literally discarded turned into a real major piece. So that’s the kind of thing that happened.
Tell me about “Levitation.”
That’s the first song, the lead song. That was one typical of what we seemed to be able to do together. I started playing the guitar figure (singing the chords) and Rob said that was pretty cool and it was pretty easy to get the opening bit and then played the other two chords that lead up to the chorus. Then I said, “Yeah, it really needs a big guitar hook for that chorus. It’s got to have one of those things that is just undeniable and I had that (singing chords) thing and we moved that and then he started playing the bass through some different root notes which sort of changed the harmony. I hope I’m not getting too technical for you (laughs). But yeah, I had that and suddenly, “Man, I think we’ve got one here.” So that came together quite easily; not difficult but we had the stuff to do it. We knew what we were looking for, the right hooks and the right pieces, you know. So that was an early one for us, and maybe a little bit inspirational because we felt like, well, that’s kind of the direction we want to go where it’s edgy and sort of guitar driven but it’s not like, say, as heavy as the Foo Fighters or like that; it’s not metal, it’s just more lyrical but kind of power pop with a lot of edgy guitars.
I think the sequence with “Levitation” and “Underground” and “The Story Ends Here,” follows really well together.
Yeah, they do but that’s all fairly deliberate so it’s just kind of a non-stop ride. They do go well, yeah, I agree.
Are you’re going to be playing some shows?
Well, hopefully. You know, we haven’t even got the record out yet and obviously the world has changed from a few years back, how you promote a record and get out and where you start. I think we have a lot of people working on it. We’re talking to Live Nation to see what’s appropriate because although I’m incredibly well-known (laughs), the band as such is not. So we’re sort of a baby band, with me in it, so I’m not sure what we can do yet but I do, clearly, want to get out this summer. I think the way probably now is the internet and I think we’ve got a lot of hits on this record. And YouTube. So we can get the profile up high fast without spending five years in little clubs.
So why were you ready to jump back into this cycle again of shows and promotion and albums and all the chaos that goes along with being in a band?
Because I’m inspired by what we did together. I was working with some people and I felt like I was teaching them how to do everything and it was like quite an effort for me. When I got together with Rob, I felt like, Ah, I’m with a peer, I’m with someone who is, you know, for instance, me working with Sting. I felt like we’re peers, we worked together at the same level. This person really gets the language and that was the same with Rob, where I felt like finally I had met the right person to do a rock band with, because, you know, I did it. After The Police, I didn’t really want to do that again because how could you compete with that kind of success. You can’t. So it’s been a long time. But it changed with Rob. So really the reasons I’m doing this are because I felt like I found a partner that I really had the chemistry with and inspires me and I thought we made great music together and this is worth getting behind cause it is the real thing. It’s not like me trying to be famous for one last time. It’s just I think this is a killer record and we’re very good on stage. So let’s have a go with it. Also, it’s great fun.
You helped write some of these lyrics, correct?
Some of them. I wrote all of “No Highway” and we worked on “Night Time Travelers.” Yeah, a bit of a mix in there. Basically, what I’ve learned working with Rob, he really likes to write the lyrics and he’s a very good lyricist. He writes songs for other people. I, too, like to do it but in this case I think most singers feel like they need to write and be the lyricist. I mean, the material is not absolutely fifty/fifty between us. Like all the guitar parts, everything usually starts with something I’m doing on the guitar, and then Rob comes in. I think what we’ve found is I don’t say, “Hey, I want you to sing this melody like this.” I trust him now. We’ve built up, cause we’re sort of working on the second album, but I know how good he is and that he is very self-critical and like he’ll do one vocal and go, “Yeah, I’ll sit with it for a while” and then he may come back with another one that’s even better. “Underwater” was a classic example where we sort of had it all set and, “Yeah, that’s pretty good, we like it,” and then he came in one day and, “Ok, stop, give me the track, I want to sing again” and he came in with a whole new melodic line on it that was great and it’s what we’ve got, you know. It’s a process. It’s creativity. It’s not a formula and you don’t know when it’s going to strike but what you have to do is get the process going. And I think we’ve learned to trust one another and we have a process now and we start but we may not rest with it, you know.
There may be one afternoon, Wednesday afternoon at 3:00 after we’ve been to Starbucks (laughs). If the muse strikes and suddenly, “I got it! I got it! Check!” We worked really hard on what we had before, and this is typical. Suddenly you get this moment of inspiration and you just drop all those hours of work instantly cause you suddenly got a better thing and you recognize it. That’s the process. You just have to embrace it. You can’t get too, “Oh I love it, I can never live, I can never throw that away.” Well, sometimes you know what? Throw it away cause you got a better one (laughs)
You’re someone who creates predominately without words, with your guitar. How do you find the emotions in the notes to convey what you’re feeling?
Good question. Well, every song has to have sort of an attitude. That’s what I think about it. And how do we really make that so the song doesn’t sound the same, all in the same place. It’s got character, it’s almost like an actor. I certainly know that when I play the guitar solos or the guitar breaks, I’m looking for an attitude before I start. Obviously, I have all kinds of sounds and things I can do but when it gets to the actual playing itself, I’m trying to strike an attitude that somehow, in a way, let’s say in the guitar solo, which usually happens in the middle of the song, will kind of sum up the whole song in the solo. It’s that release point where you get the whole song and everybody goes for it. So it’s a sort of instinctive response to what is already on the track. But then the track itself, you’re kind of building those things into it. This is a real creative process where you do something and then you react to it and maybe your reaction’s right or you live with it or you abandon it for something stronger. It’s based on being vulnerable and being experienced and trying to be smart about it at the same time. It’s a combination of things, really.
Now that you’re older, how has the way you play guitar changed physically and creatively?
Well, like most players, I play every day cause it’s completely physical. As they say, I keep my chops up. It’s like going jogging. I play every day something on the guitar. Sometimes I will really practice or I will practice pieces. I am sort of a master guitar player, there isn’t anything I can’t play, so I can do like assiduous practice like running scales or that kind of thing. Or I just play. But I do play. And in terms of how I approach things, like, “Ok, we’re making a record, what’s the approach?” You know, this record is a rock record so I’m keeping my attitude, you know, keeping my head in that place. I listened to quite a lot of rock, young bands to see what is out there, just to be cognizant of what’s going on. I don’t want to live in an ivory tower but I pay attention somewhat to the guitar scene. I don’t slobber over it but I kind of know what’s going on with people and guitar players generally and I sort of prepare accordingly. I’ve got all the pedals and guitars. But in some ways it hasn’t changed at all and you still got to get a great sound. You still use fuzz boxes and echo and all that and I’ve got a battery of guitars but it mainly comes down to playing a Les Paul and a Strat on most of the tracks. That’s what I do, you know. That seems to serve most of it but I feel like my studio and all my equipment is a vast palette where I can pick all kinds of colors out of it. But I have to be pretty organized about that because we have a lot of equipment and I have books now that lay out all my equipment so I don’t forget what I’ve got, you know, and I can put things together (laughs).
Since February was a big Beatles anniversary month, as a guitar player, what do you think was George Harrison’s greatest moment on guitar during his time with The Beatles?
That’s an interesting question. My God, I must know them all (laughs). I can’t say “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” cause that’s Eric Clapton (laughs). George did interesting stuff. He wasn’t like a virtuoso guitarist. He was a good player within that context, but of course that whole guitar scene developed so much to The Beatles, but I think one of my favorites would be, I think, the solo he did on “Something.”
You’re also a wonderful photographer. What do you think is your greatest triumph in capturing something on film?
Obviously, you’re always looking for that, just like in music you’re looking for that gold moment. Again, there’s a lot of emotion and instinctual kind of reacting to things, you know, especially the way I photograph. Sometimes you find yourself in front of a scene that is just, oh my God, that’s really inspiring in every way, so many ways. A recent one for me, to be honest with you, but one quite thrilling, I was in western China back in October. I traveled right across China and I went to a place called Lijiang and I found out that in this beautiful untouched Chinese village, there’s an orchestra called the Naxi Orchestra and they play every night in this little Chinese theatre. It is so sweet. It was kind of awesome and I went there and these guys came and all the guys were in their mid-eighties, really old Chinese guys, and they all had incredible costumes on and they played ancient and authentic Chinese instruments and they played a whole show. You’d probably find it kind of, eleventh century Chinese folk music, really quite strange but it looked incredible and I was shooting with a Leica Monochrome and I managed to get some amazing images. They were just sitting there playing, for me as it were. It was incredible. That was a thrilling moment where I felt I got some great ones, you know, that were so off the charts.
What still excites you about playing music?
Playing music is a reward in itself. I play music. I don’t care whether I get paid or not … well (laughs), but I’m happy to play at home every day. I still love being a musician and I love playing music as being my life and I’m very happy about that, you know. It still thrills me. Making this record with Rob Giles was a thrilling experience cause I thought we’re doing some really good stuff. So it’s a real privilege. It’s great.
So how many more years are you going to keep doing it?
Until they drag me off the stage to bury me (laughs)