Wow! Andy Summers! I got an email from the legendary guitarist’s publicist saying he was a fan of Guitar Moderne and would love to talk to the mag about his latest record, Metal Dog. When I picked myself up off the floor I contacted her and said, “Sure.”
It would be fair to say Summers was one of the rare players who changed the sound of the guitar in pop music. Echoes (no pun intended) of his style can be found in U-2, Rush, even Nirvana. For deep background, I recommend his book, One Train Later: A Memoir , and movie, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police. A great site about his gear through the years is here, and he also discusses the subject in some of these videos.
With a limited time to talk, I chose to concentrate on the Metal Dog record, as it is a perfect example of everything Guitar Moderne stands for: pushing the sonic and conceptual boundaries of making music with a guitar.
Your time with the Police has been massively documented and readers can find plenty about the movie online. Given that, I thought it would be great to concentrate more on your solo career and the Metal Dog record. But first, you are obviously schooled in terms of chords and notes and playing. But what initially led you to start messing with effects and sounds?
I was around that stuff fairly early; I was in the Soft Machine. In that period there was not much around in terms of pedals. It was the very early days, where you had the vibrato on the amp, reverb, and not much more. My first real opportunity was in the Police. Because it was a trio, and we did not want to sound like anything else, I started to work with the pedals available, which were not very many at the beginning, but it got better and better. I ended up, for most of the time in the Police, with a Pete Cornish pedal board, in which I had things like envelope filters, phasers, chorus, another reverb unit, and the Echoplex. I would try and change the color of the guitar throughout the show, so it was interesting for the audience. I liked it too, not just for practical reasons; I was really enjoying these different sounds.
I have always been very attracted to more edgy classical composers like Varese, Messiaen and Stravinsky; Toru Takemitsu would be another one. I had gone to college for four years and studied music, so there was a lot of stuff like that in my head—very contemporary, 20th Century classical music writing. I was drawn towards all that and wanted to express all those textures through the guitar. I came to a place where the things we can do now with pedals to create these incredible textures became very appealing to me.
I like to think I am non-generic. The genre I play is my own composition. It is not strictly straight-ahead jazz or fusion, and not really rock either. It is based on an accumulation of a lot of different very exotic influences, including a lot of world music and Indonesian music, which I think should be apparent in this record. When I sit in a studio trying to create, the influences all come in on me, and I am attracted to this one or that one. I think, “Let me see if I can do something with this.” I might start with a sound I create through various pedals hooked up—a sonic texture—and then record 16 or 32 bars; loop it, or whatever, and then see if I can build it into an interesting piece. I like the record because I think it is genre-free. It is very guitar-like, extremely textural and, at the same time, somehow friendly.
You are talking about the Metal Dog record at this point?
What influenced the decision to do it all yourself?
I was working with a great visual artist in New York. We have been friends for a long time and have done things together before. The initial impulse was for me to create music for a contemporary dance ensemble, and he was going to create videos to go with it. That is how this whole thing started in the summer of last year. I was visualizing dances for New York stage with these videos behind it. I was trying to put pieces together dancers could move to. As it turned out, I was far ahead of the other guy. I had all these tracks and thought, “Man, I have to put this out,” so I formed it into the record.
It is interesting you were planning to work with visuals because one question I was going to ask was, how photography interacts with your music and vice versa?
I have been very involved with photography. I just had a show in Brazil. We had a massive opening in Sao Paulo where we looped the record all night through several speakers playing throughout the gallery. Music and photography are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. I like to think of them as sort of being equivalent to each other.
Do you think you bring a similar aesthetic to both of them?
I think my photography is very much a reflection of the sounds I have been attracted to. I am not going for a bright, poppy, color photograph; I am going for the darker look. I like a lot of black in photographs. I like to shoot at night. I shot a huge amount of stuff in China. I like to go down in the docks in Macau or the back streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo. I like to go out at midnight and photograph. I find that very stimulating, actually. I find the kind of photography I like to do is in these places.
The pictures themselves tend to be minor key. I get off being in the moment when shooting pictures, the same as I would when playing music.
Do you think that sort of darkness and black enters into your music?
Yeah, I think another good word to use is ambiguity. The stuff is kind of abstract sometimes; you don’t know what it is. That is what I think art is all about. It has got to be layered and ambiguous: you hear it or see it one time, the next time it seems different. I think that is an important quality to get into whatever you are doing.
There are a lot of add9 chords in your music, with no major or minor third in them, which gives it ambiguity.
That is right. In the Police, one of the signature things was the way I play the chords, because it gives the music neutrality. It means you are not stating the obvious, but you are just letting the music be itself. The music has a sort of disinterested quality. In other words, it exists without you, the listener; it is just there. You have to come to it; it does not come to you. In a small way, playing the chords in the way I generally did in the Police, was a gesture in that direction.
Are all the sounds on the record, except for drums, guitar-generated somehow?
Pretty much, I used a few other instruments here and there, as well as my battery of pedals and all the rest of it. I have various weird acoustic instruments around the studio; everything from tenor banjos to a psaltery, that I like to use a lot. I have some Indian instruments and a harmonium. I played bass on it and various drums, but most of it is from the guitar.
Did you work from a click and then play drums to the click, or did you program the drums?
It is a hard lesson to learn, but in today’s world everything is done to a click. You have to in Pro Tools, because if you don’t and suddenly want to change something you’ve got a problem. You can change it, but generally it is much harder to put together. A click can be limiting in terms of total rhythmic freedom. You could do a record completely free and more rubato, if you want. But most of these pieces are done originally to a click. The trick is to learn to play like a human, stretch and diminish the time around the click, but still come out in the right place.
Is the beginning of the opening tune, “Metal Dog” a prepared guitar?
It is natural harmonics on the guitar, but I think it is put through a VauxFlores 23. It bends the notes somewhat. That is one of the delightful things about that particular pedal.
One of the things I do is to note down which pedal I am using at which setting, and how it is hooked up. Otherwise, if I ever go back to it and I have to redo it for any reason it is very difficult to recreate these sounds. On that one, I used a T.C. Electronic Ditto looper to create the basic loop of the track. The solo sound is created with a Paul Trombetta Designs Rotobone.
The solo has that bit-reduced sound you can get out of the Rotobone.
Yeah. Great, great pedal! I am using the Eventide Eclipse as well, which is an amazing machine.
There is a synth trumpet-sounding guitar on “Animal chatter.” It has that early Roland synth sound, like the one you used with the Police.
I used a Roland VG 99 on there. That is a great machine.
How were the chords behind the solo on “Ishango Bone” produced?
I used the Digitech Whammy pedal. I got this typical Police added ninth sound in C# minor. I took the Whammy and tuned it to thirds or sixths, and made this great sound. I put it down and started to play over it. I thought, “I should really do more with it.” I think I doubled it or even trebled it so it really had a thing, like a whole orchestra playing. Eventually, I took out the drums because it was so nice on its own, great to solo over.
Another great sound is the signature line you play through “Vortex Street.”
I think that was done through the Rotobone. That was a bluesy lick.
There is a lo-fi sound on the “Bitter Honey” solo I was curious about.
I played it on a Les Paul and it was done with a TC Electronic Dark Matter Distortion. Also in that chain was a little pedal called a Mid-Fi Electronic Pitch Pirate that makes you lose the pitch all the time, so it was very funky. It was also played through a Z.Vex Lo-Fi Junky, which I use quite a lot. I like the whole degenerating quality of it. I think it is very hip and modern, yet at the same time so warm.
There is quite a bit of stuff that sounds like reverse guitar on the record. Did you play that through a reversing pedal, or would you play the part and then reverse it in post?
There are various things like the Line 6 DL-4, which you can reverse through. You can also drop the octave in reverse. It is always fun to see what comes out, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have to try these things, and it is either, “Okay, that sounds like shit!” Or, “Wow! Fuck! I’ve got to do a bit more with that!” It is very experimental, but in the end you come back to your own aesthetic and your own taste as to whether you like or not, and the musicality of it—if it really works. It doesn’t always work, but the more you do it, the more you get a feel for what is going to work and whether you can build something on it.
I was curious if you had also reversed stuff in Pro Tools.
I do. A lot of times – It is one of the oldest tricks, from the Beatles onward. Like the reverse hi-hat sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows” or whatever it was. I have always liked that sound. Hendrix did it, of course. It has always been a thrilling sound.
There is a sound on “How Long is Now” like somebody running across the tines of a comb. I didn’t know if it was a percussion sound or the way you processed the guitar.
This track has a Balinese flavor. I have been in Bali a few times, and I was going to do a whole film about Bali. I listen to a lot of Gamelan music. One of the things I am using at the start is the psaltery. You can bow it and get a long, very high note, or you can bounce the bow on the string and you get a bright, high, pinging note. I may have done something electronically to it afterwards.
There is also a Stratocaster through the Lo-Fi Junky, reversed through the Line 6 and then up an octave. I played it with pencils. I had the Strat in my lap, and I was playing it like a drummer, with pencils on the strings.
What guitars, amps and pedals did use on the record?
Out of laziness, I play almost everything on the Strat I have had since 2007. It is a copy of my 1962 Stratocaster; Fender made a couple for me. It is a great guitar. It is just very convenient; I have it sitting there on the couch in front of all the pedals. Occasionally, I start to put everything down with the Strat and then go, “Well, maybe I should try another guitar.” Often I like to do solos on a Les Paul. It can be a combination of pedals straight into the desk [board], or sometimes I will use a certain setting on the Roland VG 99. Sometimes, I set up an amp. I have got several amps sitting around. I like the Carr at the moment. Occasionally, I will use something like an old tweed Fender.
When you are going direct, or are you using some sort of modeling?
The closest to that would be the Roland VG 99, which is a modeler. I find that to be a very good box. There is a fantastic lead guitar sound on it that I really like. I completely reprogrammed it to my own specifications. I use it a lot.
Do you have a hexaphonic pickup on that Strat?
No, I have another Strat with a hex pickup on it for when I am doing that kind of stuff. Most of it is straight in with the guitar. You don’t need a hex pickup with the VG 99, except for a couple of things that require it.
It will do signal processing with the regular pickups, but if you want things like individual pitch shifting or instrument modeling you would have to use it?
How has your attitude towards gear changed over the years?
I am not a huge tech guy. Because it is such a rapidly changing landscape, I have somebody who works with me and between us we stay on top of it. You can drown in all this stuff. Right now, I am enjoying that we are in the golden age of guitar pedals. People are starting to get hip to these degenerated sounds now, crumbling guitar sounds like the Vaux Flores 23. I am very much into that very sonic, textural thing that is anything but straight-ahead fuzz lead guitar because I like to get these textures and to play them backwards, drop the octave, or layer one on top of another.
If you go back to the old days, the guitar effects were sort of a joke, like a novelty, like a funny sound. They got better and then were sort of okay. When everyone went digital it wasn’t so much fun. Now, the guitar pedals have come back in full force—there are a million guys making them.
I regard it as an incredible sonic pallet that has become available, particularly if I am not on stage, because I cannot take 500 pedals on stage. But in the studio, it is very much like being a painter, where you have this incredible pallet of colors that you can keep changing around and working with until you create a beautiful abstraction. That is what I am into now.
All this is based on your playing ability, of course. You have to be a great player; you can’t just have a lot of funny sounds and make a lot of shit with it. You need an aesthetic and a philosophy, which takes all your life to develop. I still like to play solos and all that, but I like to get it to a place where it is new sounding. I think some of these pedals are affording this opportunity. I like the freedom of doing instrumental music. It is wide open; you can do anything with it.
Someone asked. “If you went on stage or if you had to choose one guitar, one pedal, and one amp, what would you pick?”
That is pretty limiting. I would probably play a Strat, which seems to be my guitar of choice. I like to use the whammy bar; I find it to be the guitar that covers all the ground one way or the other. Probably some sort of reverb, I suppose.
Is the Carr your current favorite amp?
Well, that is the one I use in the studio a lot, but it is not always that. I have a couple of old Fender amps, including a Vibroverb that is great sounding. I have an old Fender Concert I use too.
Sometimes I do a solo or whatever and think, “Let’s play through an amp.” I record a little bit and go, “No, this doesn’t sound right. Let me try a different guitar over there,” until you get something that inspires you to play better. I am always looking for something that is going to kick my ass so I can get the best solo, or whatever it is I am trying to.
Do you find playing through an amp is more inspiring?
Yeah, I like to get out there and put headphones on, but have the amp sound in the track. I run the track a few times to get into it. I explore the territory until I feel I know where to go with it.
Something else asked, and I would ask also, “Are there any new guitarists you have heard that you see as coming out of your influence or just a new guitarist you find really exciting?”
There is one guy whose playing and approach I really like called Anthony Pirog. He is one of my favorites at the moment. He feels music the way I feel it: a melodicism, slightly “out,” but not so out that it is unlistenable. He is lyrical; he plays very well. I thought the record he did with the cellist was beautiful. He is bold and starts a new territory. Nels Cline is interesting to me; that would be another sort of kindred spirit. Also David Torn, but Anthony Pirog is definitely my current favorite over the last few months.
What happened with Circa Zero?
It is tragic; we put a lot of time into that. I thought it was a killer rock record, but the record company—despite a contract for huge amounts of money—wouldn’t spend anything on it. It got very discouraging. We went into it with great enthusiasm. I loved working with Rob Giles, the singer. We had a great time. We had real chemistry. I think it was the reality of the music business in today’s world and what it takes to really build a rock band—I thought we were going to go straight to number 1! You just don’t know; nobody buys CDs anymore. So, “Hello!” That was a bit of wakeup call.
What is next?
I have a photo show in Tucson, Arizona coming up and a couple of possibilities to direct films. I want to get back into recording another record soon.
Similar to Metal Dog?
Oh yes; only this time I want to take it farther out.