The Police’s slightly cranky guitar shaman dodges gear questions before expounding on the looping strategies and anything-goes approach on his new solo album, Triboluminescence.
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.
With the Police in 1982, Summers plays the 1961 Fender Telecaster that became his signature instrument during the band’s initial run. He bought it for $200 and used it to play on “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and more of the group’s early hits. Photo by Frank White
You describe the layering process and listening to your work to see how it evolves as you record it. Would you say that you use the studio as a compositional tool?
Well, it is, totally. The whole studio’s like a giant paint box. Sometimes I’ll walk around and go, “Oh, wait a minute. What’s that thing?” You know, some weird instrument. “Let’s try it out. Maybe that will give us something.” It’s very much like that.
With so many tools available—and with what sounds like so many different sounds in your head—how do you know when to let go of a composition?
These things take time. Some days you get three great sets of ideas in one afternoon. It really has to do with perspective. You can’t just sit on a track and hammer away and think you’re going to get it. Sometimes it’s just like, “Okay, that’s enough for today. Let’s do a different style. Let’s do another track.” And then let that one go for a few days, and come back, and you hear it clearly because you haven’t listened to it for a few days. That’s a very important part of the process. It’s perspective that can only be obtained by stopping listening for a bit. Then you come back, focus in it, put up that track and get it instantly. “Okay, I know what’s wrong with it now.” It’s a very creative process, but you have to be vulnerable and ready to know when you feel it: when’s the right time to play solos, when’s the right time to just do sort of construction work, if you like.
On the whole, the record seems to transcend labels. Is that intentional?
I don’t think I’d say to myself, “Okay, we’re going to avoid all labels.” That’s just the way it comes out. This is my music, I don’t think it’s ... The message I got when I was growing up was that my music was not rock; it was jazz. As a kid, I was a complete jazz freak. Later, of course, I played in a rhythm-and-blues band and, obviously as you know, I played in rock bands. So, it goes on. All sorts of music are interesting. It doesn’t matter if it’s heavy metal or Albanian folk music.
The music I make comes from a variety of places, having done it such a long time. And one of the reasons that comes out, I think, is a sort of avoidance of anything generic. That’s clearly what this record and the previous one are about. They’re avoiding standard stuff.
It’s like pure music that speaks for itself. Music should come at you; you should be drawn to it. That’s what great music is. It’s not going to knock you out. It’s just there. That’s the subtle, sophisticated place to get to.
You’ve talked a couple of times about being a real musician. What do you think it takes to be a real musician playing at the highest level?
It can take your whole life. Just like any of the arts, you can learn things to a degree, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s wonderful to be engaged in ceramics, watercolors, violin, or whatever on the weekends.
But the greatest musicians always have the most innate feeling for rhythm and time. After that, you’ve got to be able to play great solos, phrase well, and do interesting timing—change the time, playing in and out of the time. This is what makes a great musician more than anything else. If you don’t have that, you’re never going to be that great.
You recently played solo guitar to some of the photographs you’ve taken around the world. How do your photos and travels inform your music?
Well, I have sort of sub-career as a photographer and have done over 40 shows at this point. I’m just about to put out another book. I’m very interested in the world and have traveled everywhere. I’ve been to Africa, all over Asia several times, and I think I might trek to China again this fall.
I think the two things inform one another. As an improviser, getting ready to just kind of get in there and react in the moment was very helpful for me in terms of photography when I was out in the world shooting. And I suppose in any media that I get involved in creatively, I listen for the condition of music.
Andy Summers improvises on a Gibson ES model at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, standing before a shifting collection of his photographs. You can hear a variety of delays, loops, reverbs, and modulation effects in play.