Fitting for a rock star, Andy Summers has a large palette of guitars, including this Collings 360 ST, flanked by a selection of Gibsons, Fenders, and other models on the rack behind him. Photo by Mo Summers
In a career spanning half a century, Andy Summers, who rose to mainstream prominence in the late 1970s with the Police, has clearly been a sound seeker. The range of tonal colors and atmospheres he’s achieved on Police songs like “Every Breath You Take,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and “Roxanne”—not to mention on a long series of solo albums, beginning with 1987’s XYZ—is stunning.
Summers’ deep mastery of effects is especially apparent on his latest solo effort, Triboluminescence, the follow-up to 2015’s Metal Dog. On the album, Summers uses what sounds like a whole shop’s worth of effects to create instrumentals that by turns reflect guitar-hero antics and non-Western influences, and which seem to exist entirely in their own place.
Listening to a cross section of Summers’ work, one gets the impression that he must be quite the gear head. So, it was a little surprising when Summers deflected questions, in an appealingly grumpy Englishman’s way, about the tools of his trade. (His right-hand man and engineer, Dennis Smith, later filled us in.) Luckily, though, Summers was much more forthcoming about the methodologies and concepts at play in his uncanny soundscapes.
What guitars did you play on the record?
That’s the worst question. Mostly I play a Strat. I have a sort of standard working guitar that’s just always there [in the studio]. I might reconsider the sound of the guitar and use another as the track gets more detailed.
What kind of Strat is it?
The one I usually use is a copy of my 1962 Strat—a great guitar that a friend made for me in 2008.
What are you stringing it with?
What? [Incredulously.] Your kind of questions are ridiculously lightweight. Should we talk about the music, not strings? This is like a classic bozo interview. What strings do you use? Are you serious? I don’t fucking know. Somebody else puts them on. Amazing. I can’t believe you just asked me that. I don’t really want to talk about it. This is insulting.
I’m so sorry to have offended. Yes, let’s talk about music. The title track on Triboluminescence shows a gamelan [a traditional Balinese or Javanese ensemble] influence.
Well, yeah. I’m looking for different sorts of sounds that will conjure up either through looping or guitar pedals until I find something fresh and original. I've been influenced by world music—particularly gamelan sounds from Indonesia. So, I’ve made quite a lot of loops with different setups as a starting point for these tracks.
Can you talk a little bit more about the process of discovery when you’re making these loops?
Well, you get a looping device and plug it in and you start making loops. What can I tell you? You know, that’s what it does. Sometimes you get good loops; sometimes you don’t. It’s all very experimental until you get something that catches your ear and might inspire some good melodic content to go on top of it.
Do you start by hearing a melody in your head or do you arrive at that through experimentation?
I don’t sit there and go, “Okay, I’ve got to get a certain sound.” It’s much more subtle than that. Mostly I’m sitting in the studio, improvising my way around with a bunch of pedals. I do things different ways. You’re sometimes sort of looking for the unexpected thing that suddenly just pops out of nowhere, and you go, “Wait a minute.” It sort of happens by accident—much better than what you were originally trying to do. And the sum of that is you make those judgment calls based on your aesthetic choices, your playing experience, what sounds fresh and unexpected to you. It depends on whether or not you’re a real musician, I suppose.
“Gigantopithecus” sounds vaguely Middle Eastern.
Yes. I had a baritone guitar in the studio and I immediately happened upon the melody—kind of a bass-line melody that’s got a lumbering quality. And that’s where it started. There was a raging guitar solo at one point that I took out and made a sort of quirkier solo instead, which I thought was more appropriate for the slightly ironic humor that’s there. But I took my time. Then I added an instrument called a lavta, which is a sort of small cousin of the oud, and you hear it behind the guitar solo. So, it’s got a very different texture—almost Middle Eastern in character.
Talk about how you layered the sounds on “Adinkra,” which, as the name suggests, has kind of a West African influence.
That’s a good track to talk about because it started in an extremely different place. It started with an environment—I think I’ve still got the original tracks—where it sounded like an Indian orchestra to me. And it was extremely attractive when I first played it, and I did come up with that melody instantly. I sort of stayed with it and had an amazing slide guitar solo in the middle—one of the best slide solos I’ve ever played.
Then, at some point I added one drum track and then another. I like to play drums on my own. And I put down a kind of … what you might call belly-dancing rhythm, and thought, “Oh, that’s really cool.” The more I sat with the track, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly the whole thing sounded corny to me and like crap belly-dancing music.
I had to have the courage to sort of strip down the track, because I knew there was some really cool, good stuff in there. So, I constructed the whole melody and the bridge, and I think there were two things that came out of it. First, I started playing that sort of West African fingerstyle guitar around the melody. The melody informs the trumpet and horns that I added.
I sort of rebuilt the track until I felt it had the right sort of cool quality to it. It’s much more understated, but I thought it had a great feeling once I went through these various changes. But it’s completely different from what I had. That’s the process: You have to be very open—ready to destroy your work that you spent so much time on. That one, on this album, is the classic example. I mean, it’s shocking when you hear what it comes from. Some people might’ve liked it, but that’s the way it is.
You’ve obviously played with some great musicians. What’s it like for you to work alone, as you did on this record?
It’s an interesting thing, because I’ve made many records and am used to working with fantastic players—drummers and bassists, in particular. But I think I’m very happy in this process now of working alone. I’m starting to play the drums better; I’m getting better all the time.
I like to do it on my own because I’ve found that, even with the greatest musicians, they’ll get your music to a point, but they’ll never get it like you do. And so at least the last two records in particular are very personal and, for me, they’re complete artistic statements because there’s no one else changing the way around. I mean, it sounds sort of selfish to work like that, but I really enjoy it, and it’s challenging, and it’s more time-consuming because you’re not just knocking out a track in a couple of hours.
I like the freedom of working out the bass lines alone, then experimenting with the drums and guitars, building them up and layering, layering, layering, layering, until I come to something good. And then there’s, you know, the solos—great, improvised guitar solos because people expect that of me.