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Summers' Coming

Andy Summers

A new band, a new album, and a new year. Planning ahead with the Police behind you.

While pundits argued over the on/off future of the Police, guitarist Andy Summers managed to keep busy. Not much, just a new album, a new band, two film soundtracks and the Police singles LP. Paul Colbert listens.

HE SPENT a substantial chunk of 1986 in Los Angeles. Now that we were staring at the snow besieging his London home, it seemed a good idea. A very good idea.

LA has a strong musicians' scene and for Summers it centres around a studio run by the descendants of Devo, the... er... ground breaking American band. It was there that he worked on one of those soundtracks — "Down and Out in Beverley Hills" — aided by Devo-ist Bob Casale.

So it seemed a natural spot to commence work on his own LP which was to be a distinct break from the instrumental angle of the previous "I Advance Masked" release. It would need a producer/workmate who eventually turned out to be David Hentschel, known for his production on many Genesis albums, among others.

"I'd asked A&M records for suggestions on producers, and David's was one of the resumes they'd sent me. Album credits," stresses Summers, "as long as your arm. And good people."

A swapping of demos transpired, and the two met, managing to form a Black Hole of Englishness in the centre of California. "A constant giggle the whole time. David hadn't been in LA for very long, and most of our time in the studio was like Hancock's Half Hour. Very English. I don't think Bob Casale knew what we were talking about most of the time."

What they were doing was thrashing out material for the LP, brought along by the guitarist in forms as diverse as 24-track first runs made at Arnie's Shack (the Bournemouth studio that tended to do most of the Fripp/Summers output), Portastudio demos and acoustics thrashed into the nearest cassette recorder.

"It was the usual procedure. Some of it fell away and some went on. It took about four months of consistent work, and I think it's come out very well. To write really good songs which are commercial but not... er... shitty, that's the hardest thing to do. To reach that point of sublime simplicity is hard, but when you reach there, it seems so obvious. Those songs are the best when they're simplest."

The album — tentatively scheduled for a March/April release — is at a tangent to the instrumental guitarings Summers developed with Fripp.

For a start, he sings.

And the tracks have their roots in pop — more entwined than Police material, and with a thicker production which is strong on keyboards. "Definitely a centre field shot for me."

Hentschel and Summers were the basis for the 'band', the former handling keyboards and programming, the latter dealing out the guitars, bass and lead vocals. Three other bass players were drafted in for certain tracks, plus a girl singer "for semi-duets", two groups of backing singers and a highly recommended LA percussionist called Michael Fisher. "No major names, as such.

"David knows his stuff inside out, a great musician, and of all the people around I met who claimed to be producers, he really deserves the title.

"In a way we worked fairly closely to how the Police operated. We got the basics down, then the most important steps were the vocal and the melody.

"I like," says Summers, measuring his words not to sound too elevated, "to be able to talk on a fairly high level about music. I do feel comfortable working with people who really have a very high knowledge of music — a great reference to draw on. That was true of Robert Fripp as well. I started off being self taught, then ended up having a formal university education in music and I've studied really hard in my life. So it's nice if you can talk that kind of language with someone else. From Bartok or Elgar to Chuck Berry. I think the best modern musicians have to have that."

Most of the album's drumming was by machine — they used a Linn, plus the British Greengate system (based on the Apple computer) for recording live samples. "The studio had a Fairlight I, and I had my usual ten guitars." There's little guitar synth this time, just some background textural colouring (Hentschel is an excellent keyboard player so the guitar synth exercise seemed a bit pointless).

Amps were a different matter.

"I brought a couple of Rolands but didn't use them at all this time. The studio had a couple of Dean Markleys which I tried, but mostly it was down to two beaten up Music Man amps with mismatched cabinets left in the corner. They really did the job." The team would experiment but invariably end up coming back to the warm Music Mans, or for brutal break-up stuff, there was a near-to-expiring Fender Princeton.

The Summers' effects used to live in a flat, ground-hugging Pete Cornish pedalboard, but have now been promoted to an upright, fan-cooled, castored version with a remote batch of footswitches. Each unit has been rehoused in a vertical mini-rack, which will unscrew and slide out for maintenance. A separate department at the base of the box switches in different routings, and a few standard, commercially available rack units sit in between.

The grand total of effects now includes (in the vertical racks) a Dynacomp compressor, MXR chorus, Mutron III filter, Electric Mistress flanger, 01-2 octave divider, HM distortion, DD2 delay, CE-3 chorus (the last four all Boss), and a separate VCA. Partnering them are a Dynamite stereo compressor, Boss CE-300 super chorus and a Korg SDD-3000 digital delay. Up to five guitars can be connected to the system at any one time, selected by a bank of pushbuttons at the top of the case.

"I've started using two compressors together for extra attack, and yes, I still use the Echoplexes..." Apart from the hardware, the songs themselves underwent a remarkable number of transformations in the studio, brought about by different moods, different gear, and the established musical tradition of 'pissing about'.

"There was one track 'Nowhere' which started as a sombre sounding Russian thing, then it went black funk but the vocal didn't work, then it went reggae, then I changed the key...

"At the end of the album I was coerced by Miles Copeland to do one more up-tempo track, as managers will invariably do." There was a 6/8 riff left over from experiments on another song which was uplifted by the introduction of Abraham Laboriel, "an incredible bass player from Mexico City, he did some fantastic parts, we changed the chorus chords and suddenly it took off and became a song called 'Scary Voices' — all these little things happen. The way tracks can change is phenomenal. It goes to show what you can do, now, working with machines to keep your options open rather than the old approach with a band where you try to get in and get out as soon as you can."

The album was finished last September, but has been delayed by the usual wrangling over deals and release times.

"The next phase is to form and rehearse the band and go on the road around May." So Mr Summers will be back on the boards again? "Yes, and I am looking forward to touring again, going out for a long time and giving this album a really good shot. It will be three years since I've been on the road — the longest gap in my entire life.

"I'm hoping that once we get rehearsing all the flaws will be ironed out. I did consider whether I should get in another guitarist — there may be one or two things I can't cover if I'm being vocalist as well. But there didn't seem to be much on the album that I couldn't manage. You do have to gain a certain degree of independence. And anyway, I want to do a lot of playing on stage, I want it to be a real blowing band."

If the band and tour work well, they may stay on the road for six months and go straight back into the studio to record a follow-up while still hot. But even so, that's only one of his musical options.

Another recent string to Summers' recording career has been writing film soundtracks. He now has two under his belt, the most acclaimed being 'Down And Out In Beverly Hills'. An experience summed up in two words. "Fairly dreadful."

"The actual political situation was intense. I was working for Disney who are not the most fun people in the world." How bad? "Well, think of Germany in the 1930s..."

The work itself is wonderful if you're eclectic by nature. He relished the opportunity of writing in so many styles to express various points of the story, and no, labouring to the discipline of a stopwatch wasn't infuriating. It does make releasing a soundtrack album an interesting challenge, though — all those bits of music 30 seconds long.

"But basically the problem is, once you accept the money, you're doing a job for someone else. I found that difficult to swallow — compromising to please a lot of people."

Still, he was pleased with the result, and there are more soundtracks on the way. Anyone contemplating a similar path should be warned about standing firm on their musical integrity, and snatching a look at the script before accepting.

"I must have turned down 15 movies after 'Beverly Hills' because they were either very stupid or very violent. You realise there are not many good writers out there."

And he can now be embarrassing to accompany to the flicks. Having done the job himself there's the danger of laughing at the wrong moment when he recognises something the soundtrack composer did to get himself out of a hole. "Music has an incredible effect on film, but it can be very corny — all those dramatic bursts when someone gets hit.

"Really it's a privilege, in some ways, to even have the work. Years ago I would have dreamed about it: now I'm actually there, there's more to it than you might imagine.

"I feel quite good about things at the moment. That's two film scores, an album, I did a bit of acting on American TV shows before Christmas, and I've been collaborating with someone on writing a script. Yeah, things have gone well." And I thought I knew what busy meant...

The Remaking of 'Don't Stand So Close...'

"It was something we'd always talked about, like in the Jazz world with someone like Thelonious Monk. He basically had 20 tunes he'd written at the very start, 30 years ago, and that was it. All his albums were only those tunes reworked with different combinations of musicians.

"Ideally I think certain pop songs should have that same strength — a test of a good song is that you can go back to rework it.

"At one point we were talking about re-recording all the hits which would have been an amazing thing to try, but risky in some ways because certain songs were hits and 'classics' because of the way they were. Not everyone liked the '86 version of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' as much as the original, but I did. It had a kind of sadness and melancholy, and certainly sounded more modern.

"I remember when I returned from LA, Stewart and Sting had already gotten together. Sting had changed the key from F to A flat, going higher so he could sing lower, and he had a simple drum rhythm worked out on his Synclavier. We went into RAK Studios on the first Monday night, he put up the rhythm track with a simple bass line, sang the song, and I improvised a completely new guitar part with a capo on to get the open strings.

"And that was basically it.

"I had one or two goes at it and that was the guitar part, done in an hour. Then we spent three weeks pissing about with the rhythm track and the vocals.

"The original version had been written while we were on tour in Australia. Sting had the guitar riff and I remember him messing around with it in the hotel room. At that time it was more down to how we could construct the song... getting the right approach. The new one was different as everything started from scratch.

"We should have done more but that's a whole other story. It's endless what we should have done.


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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Feb 1987

Interview by Paul Colbert

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