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Andy Summers and the Roland GR-300:
Andy Summers - Roland Users Group Magazine - Volume 2, Number 2

Interview with Andy Summers


By Jess Ellis Knubis

Roland Users Group, Volume 2, Number 2

The Police have a different approach to just about everything. In the late '70s, when other new bands were looking for that "big label deal' , the Police released their own single on their own label. When other new bands were looking to support well-known stars on high-profile US tours, the Police were knocking them dead in Hong Kong or Athens, Cairo or Bombay. Instead of demanding the customary huge advance in their US deal with A&M Records, the Police took less money up front for a bigger piece of the pie later. When other groups toured in luxury buses or charter jets, the Police did their first US tour out of a van. And in an era when buzz-saw power chords slugged the listener between the eyes, Andy Summers' clear-toned playing, spare and self-assured, brought a new voice to pop guitar. Like the band, Summers is unique and individual. His interests run to art and photography. His style is a blend of the hard-edged R&B on which he cut his musical teeth and the sophisticated textures of the 20th century composers he studied in college. Content in the publicity shadow cast by Police vocalist/bassist, Sting, Summers here discusses his personal and professional background, his individual identity in an international entity and culture as commodity.

RUG: Can we talk about the early days, your beginnings in England playing with local R&B bands?

AS: NO! (laughs) Well, if you want to we can. I just don't think it's relevant to what's going on now.

RUG: It's just that with the debut of the Police came the appearance of a fantastic new guitar sound. I don't think people are aware of your background.

AS: OK, ask me a question and I'll elaborate.

RUG: Tell me about Zoot Money and his Big Roll Band?

AS: That was the first real professional band I was in, I suppose, which was in London in the mid 60s. That band was primarily a R&B band. Most of the music we did was James Brown and Otis Redding, Ray Charles. We used to play the music of Jimmy Smith as well, mostly Black American R&B. I did that for three or four years, in fact, this was, when the blues boom was happening in London. It's a great music to start off playing because it gives you a very good feeling for rock music, listening to Black artists and R&B records all the time and thoroughly permeating yourself with that style.

RUG: So you were involved in that same English blues period that spawned Beck and Clapton...?

AS: I was, yeah, I was right in the middle of it.

RUG: Which evolved into the psychedelic era. What were you doing then?

AS: The band I was in one way or another turned into a psychedelic band like a lot of people did, we in our early youth, "the flush of early youth." I was involved in that. I was in a group called Dantalians Chariot and we played around England and we were right in the middle of the whole psychedelic thing that was happening in London which was fantastic fun, it was really great. We used to play at a club called Middle Earth and the UFO and the Roundhouse, which were the three main places where everyone would go with all the baubles, bangles, beads, paint, incense and various drugs. It was a splendid time. The group I worked with had an oil light show and we played very psychedelic music, or so we thought at the time.

RUG: Did you have an opportunity to see and hear a lot of group's of that period?

AS: Oh, yeah. I remember seeing Pink Floyd when they were first starting and the Soft Machine, whom I later went on to play with and toured America with actually... , the Pink Faeries, the Action, Tomorrow. Tomorrow was a group Steve Howe was in before Yes. It was a really great scene. I remember one time we went, all of the bands from London, all the psychedelic bands, went to Paris to play a concert there called La Rose Fenetre and we all went on the train together. It was really great fun — If you can imagine all those crazy bands together on one train, going to Paris and was terrific.

RUG: And the early '70s found you in Southern California with the last incarnation of the Animals.

AS: That's right, yeah. That was also great fun. I was living in Laurel Canyon at the time and we spent about nine months in all, traveling. We toured around America, Canada, Mexico and Japan. I made one album with them called "Love Is" which is the last Animals album.

RUG: And you stayed in Los Angeles...?

AS: That's correct. Well, I went back to California. I sort of drifted. The main thing I did in California was go to college and study music for nearly four years. I was involved in acting as well, I was in a number of theatre groups around Hollywood. But I suppose going to college was the main thing I did in California.

RUG: What school was that?

AS: I went to California State University of Northridge or San Fernando Valley State as it was called in those days.

RUG: What was your program?

AS: Well, I studied classical guitar, and music theory, harmony, composition, conducting, a complete formal music course.

RUG: And that brings us to the formation of the Police.

AS: Well actually, what I've given you is very condensed. Eventually, I went back to England. I went back at a terrible time, at the end of '73. England was in the grips of a strike, half the lights in London were out. It was very depressing after being in California. Ironically I was down to my last ten cents, tenpence in England, and I met Robert Fripp and Robert Fripp, whom I hadn't seen in some time, turned me on to this other old friend of mine who got me a gig with Neil Sedaka. I went on the road with Neil for about four months and that kind of put me on my feet, financially speaking. From there I was doing a number of things, sessions, I played with a guy named Kevin Koyne. I made three or four albums with him and that was a very successful band. We toured all over Europe. Then I played with Kevin Ayres for about a year a a half, Ayres and I were in the Soft Machine together, and toward the end of that period I met Sting and Stewart and, of course, I joined up with them and that was the start of the Police.

RUG: You've said that the playing you did with Kevin Koyne was some of your best work. What style of music was that?

AS: Well, Kevin Koyne writes his own music and in a way, I guess his background was kind of Chicago blues and that's what he'd grown up listening to. He's an incredible lyricist. He's what you might call a true English eccentric, you know, touched by genius. It's kind of hard to describe unless you hear it except to say it's very rhythmic and blues based, fairly simple musically. But there's plenty of area to work in, from a guitarist's point of view.

RUG: Speaking of that, are you stimulated by the freedom you have in the trio format of the Police?

AS: Well, I like to play in a trio because it gives me, I mean, the guitar is a harmonic instrument so it leaves more or less the whole harmonic area open to the guitar. In other words, if there was a keyboard playing as well, then it would be more difficult to sort out. You'd have to start making more and more decisions about what you were or wern't going to play. As it is, all I have to work off is Sting's bass line and his voice. Sting has a great ear, any harmonies I choose to play around the bass line, he can sing. He can just naturally change his melodic line to what I'm playing. So we really play off each other, but we have to do our songs. If, you're gonna do "Roxanne," well, there's a tune that everybody needs to hear, but we improvise a lot in our stage show. So that's the area that I'm talking about when we get into the improvising. There's a lot of freedom there to do more or less what I want. But the other two guys are listening, and I'm sure they'd say the same thing about themselves. In other words, we all play off each other. It's a true improvising group in that sense.

RUG: So the group does allow for freedom of expression even within the context of established material?

AS: Well, we have a bit of both. We go on and we have a set of songs that we work and we play them in the same order, more or less, every night when we're on tour. Then we'll change them again for the next tour or whatever, and then when we have new songs we'll play those. But what you have is a situation where we play the songs but we leave areas open where spontaniety can occur. We always try to leave those possibilities in, for the exciting moments and the spontaneous moments to happen cause that's where we really start growing as a group.

RUG: Is it difficult to achieve the studio sound in live performance?

AS: No, in all honesty, I think we always better our stuff in live performance because I think that we as people respond very much to the live situa-tion. I mean, really, we're primarily a live band. I think that we make good records, but I think our real strength is playing on stage. I think we always do the songs better, we get to know them better. It's the old situation where you go into the studio and you learn it and you play it and then you put it on a record and then you go out and you really start working into it when you start on tour. The great situation would be to have the songs, play them on tour for a couple of months, get really good with them and then go into the studio. But it's always the other way around.

RUG: Does success with the Police impose limitations?

AS: In some ways, it's like anything. You dream for years about wanting to be really successful and to be in a great rock group, most musicians would want that. Then when you get in it, of course, you find that there are drawbacks to it. When you're in the situation we're in, there's tremendous pressure to keep going because everybody likes something that's really successful and we generate a lot of money and a lot of record sales and large concert attendances and employment for quite a lot of people. So there's always that pressure to keep going. Sometimes you feel kind of trapped in it and you would like to go do something else, not that you'd want to leave, but you really need the time to go off and breathe and reinvent yourself. So there are those kinds of limitations, but I think that we're getting to the point where we're all managing to go off and do things on our own. We're not feeling so eaten up by the kind of identity with the group. In other words, we're managing to start to exist outside of the group as well as in it which actually gives more life and vitality to the group. It adds to the groups existence, doesn't take away from it.

RUG: Was your collaboration with Robert Fripp, "I Advance Masked", that sort of effort?

AS: Exactly. Stewart and Sting also do things, but for me, going off and doing that album made me feel good about the group. Not, 'oh, well, I can do something on my own therefore I don't need the group'. It makes me realize that I really love being in the group and it's nice that I can go off and do something else. It reassures me as a guitarist, or as a player, that I can still go off and play with other people. I've seen musicians who've been in very successful groups and only would play in this one group for years on end and then they really can't play outside that group. They kind of lose that flexibility and it's very important to me that that doesn't happen.

RUG: That album is very ethereal and unlike anything you've done with the Police. Was that a conscious effort to break away from the pop/ rock format?

AS: Well, yeah. In all the music that I have in me, I don't play everthing in the Police. I don't feel at all restrained about playing whatever I feel in the Police. I'll play whatever I feel no matter how off-the-wall it is. I think that's always characterized the Police, especially in live situations. But on that record, it would have been pointless to go off and make another pop record 'cause I'm already doing that with the Police. I'd be competing with the Police and myself. So to me, I definitely wanted to make an instrumental album that's, how do I say it so it won't sound corny, that's farther out than what I normally do, more abstract. Though I do feel that a lot of music on that album is very accessible.

RUG: Does that reflect your interest in contemporary instrumental composition?

AS: I would say so. I studied 20th Century music in Los Angeles and I've always been interested in it. There are a number of composers of this century that have influenced my thinking and my inner ear. I like the compositions of Takamitsu, who's a Japanese composer, a classical composer who's also written a great number of film scores. Also people like Messian, Oliver Messian, who's a French Composer, and people like Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemouth. I have a lot of these records at home and this is a lot of the music I've listened to as well as listening to various Eastern musics and contemporary pop music. Personally my tastes are pretty eclectic and I'd like my records to reflect that.

RUG: Do you play differently on an instrumental album than you would on a vocal album?

AS: Well, there are specific differences. Accompanying a vocalist, you have more freedom, in one sense. On an instrumental album, you have to retain, the music has to have a coherence. It's different in the respect that it's not like the usual structure of verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge. It's much more elliptical and open-ended. A lot of the things that Fripp and I did together were like a moving fabric of sound with lots of melodies going on at the same time rather than a vocal line with an accompaniment. So the whole approach is really quite different.

RUG: What are your thoughts on the guitar synthesizer?

AS: The guitar synthesizer is a fairly new instrument. The one that both Robert and I use is the Roland GR-300 and it does open up a lot of possibilities that weren't available to guitarists before. You can create washes and broad sheets of sound and you can also play in different intervals at the same time. In other words, on the actual instrument, apart from the original note that you generate, you can add an additional note as well. From one string you can play entirely in fourths or fifths or thirds or whatever. So it creates a lot of possibilities for interesting voicings. What I got into on the album with Robert was using two of them together and tuning one down an octave and one up an octave and putting them through different amps in stereo which created a huge orchestral sound. In fact, just using that sound alone generated the idea for one of the tracks, in fact the title track of the album came from doing that.

RUG: How do you see the future of Pop music?

AS: Wow, that's difficult. It's going to be dictated, I mean, it's always been dictated by more insidious things, it's dictated by commercialism to an extent and radio formats. I'd like to see it go beyond that. I find that's a hard question, because what I see, I tend to have a more cynical view of it. What you always seem to get is a huge movement with too many people just being like each other. Forgive me for saying this, but I think that probably the trends will come from England in Pop music where they always seem to come from. I found what's happening in England musically probably more exciting than in America at the moment.

RUG: Is tomorrow's band going to have a more global approach?

AS: I think so, yeah. That was the area I was working into. Certain people like David Byrne have introduced, I can't say he's completely responsible for it, but he's made a record with African influences and I think there's a lot more of this kind of thing creeping in. I just hope it doesn't become diluted by becoming too trendy . But I think that music is going to start blending more and more as the world shrinks because of media and everybody starts to find out a lot more about things. The danger is that a lot of primitive musics and cultures that are really beautiful and rich will gradually get diluted in time with the encroachment of Western culture across the world. You can only predict so far, but this is the sort of thing that Alvin Toffler talks about. I hope I'm around to see what happens and that I'm not too bored by it all.

RUG: Does the artist/musician have a commitment to express a socio-political viewpoint as well as an artistic one?

AS: That's an individual thing. If you feel that way, then you should do it. I don't think it's an obligation. I don't think it's a moral duty that the artist necessarily express a political viewpoint because sometimes you can have more of an effect and say more to people by avoiding that sort of thing and just letting your art follow other directions. It can elevate people more and probably do more for them as individuals and therefore change the world in that respect rather than coming on with some heavy-handed political thing. Though there are times....


Andy Summers and the Roland GR-300

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