Andy Summers: Creating Light from Dark

Nenad Georgievski By

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Andy Summers is a renowned modern guitarist and composer. He is also an accomplished photographer and a traveler. While he may be better known for his achievements during his time in one of the most popular and beloved rock bands in music history, The Police, Summers, in his own memoir "One Train Later" and the music documentary which is based on this memoir, titled "Can't Stand Losing You," reveal a career full of great ups and downs, joys and disappointments.

This year marks the 40th anniversary since the band, The Police was formed. During the brief period the band was active, from 1977—until 1986, they released five albums and were the biggest band in the world until they called it quits while still dominating top music charts. Undoubtedly, the band had enormous success which was confirmed decades later when they reunited for a sold-out world tour in 2007, which is the third highest-grossing concert tours of all time.

Ever since The Police parted ways in the mid-'80s, he has been significantly expanding his horizons across a prolific solo career that spans 14 diverse solo albums and several other collaborative projects and film soundtracks. His albums have drawn inspiration from a wide array of influences and styles such as classical, jazz, world, rock, avant-garde, Brazilian, and has easily straddled the boundaries between the genres into his own mélange. His latest album titled Triboluminescence falls into a category of its own. Inspired by his travels, listeners will encounter Summers combining different sounds, moods, and places into something unrecognizable and revelatory, yet beautiful.

Apart from music, Summers is also an accomplished photographer. Over four decades, he has been taking photographs while on the road, capturing stunning shots of people and places. As a result, he has had countless exhibitions and has published several books of his work, most notably I'll Be Watching You: With The Police 1980-1983 by renowned publisher Taschen which chronicled life with the band in its heyday, in a manner that no photographer ever could. He took shots of stadiums, fans, hotels, the band, and even a several selfies. By his own admission, he says his photography may indeed be influenced by his absorption with music and that in a sense the photography he creates is a visual counterpart to the music that never leaves his head.

All About Jazz: The new album is mysteriously titled as Triboluminescence. Could you please describe the meaning of the album's name?

Andy Summers: The name can be easily misinterpreted, but it actually means creating light from dark. It's a scientific word. It's like striking something so that it creates light. I thought that it was a good metaphor for making music because apart from a computer in your head, as you've been working for many years and then you start creating music with nothing. So it's always a blank page, you go in and light the candle and see what you can find. It's the same with this album like the making of any other album. It's one of the things about making art, where you make something, from nothing.

AAJ: Does this term actually describe your creative approach to making music?

AS: It does. Whatever you do creatively, you start making music and you're going along, find creative compositions, but you are really waiting for the muse to strike. It's a phrase actually -it is waiting for me to strike, for the Gods to come and to help you out (laughs). You are hoping for some luck. It usually comes about by looking at it, and I've talked about it a lot, you get into the zone of creativity. However, there is irony in that, I can give a simple example, where I would start working on a composition, and I would play for a couple of hours and I would work to make or compose a piece of music. And then you give up and sort of play something random and then in one second you pop out a better idea than what you were doing in the previous two hours. That's the stuff you are looking for and you get away with that. That's intriguing. You have to have a lot of fortitude, an ability to stay with the program, use what's in your head and hope that some luck occurs and then you tempt your own sense of aesthetics and experience too. What kind of music you are trying to create in fact.

AAJ: To what extent does improvisation play a role in your compositional process?

AS: I'm a great improviser. I've been doing it all my life. I play with a lot of classical musicians and basically, and this is true—classical guitarists can't improvise. It's a very strange phenomenon to me. I'm all over the instrument. It is no problem for me, I can play through anything. I started doing it when I was 12 years old. Classical guitar players and classical players generally can't improvise. They usually have to play from notes on a written page. It's very different. I improvise and I have ideas that I make in my head. It's information that comes from a lot of different places, stuff that has been around all my life. I'm literally looking to create something that is interesting to me, something that catches my eye, I feel fresh. That becomes an important factor to me and we can feel that in terms of Triboluminescence. I'm pushing boundaries of anything that is considered with sort of a standard approach to improvising or structure. I've been playing music since I was six years old and went to university, I played classical guitar for years, I played jazz all my life. My whole person is music, really—I'm definitely a musician (laughs).

Throughout many years of being so closely involved with music, of course, you develop your own ideas about your sense of aesthetics. You get finer and finer, more and more selective until you come to making a record which is a point in your life and it's gonna be a statement of where you are or what you're currently feeling. So all these things come into play as you are making a record and you say, "It's something I did 20 years ago, I don't want to do it again" or I think that would sound very square in today's world. Many factors come into it as you are all trying to put 10, 11, 12 pieces of music together to make an album that overall has a statement which should be cohesive and clear and this is what you are trying to do. This is what I'm trying to do with this record and the previous one, Metal Dog. So, it's not just going into the studio jamming, I'm thinking about it on many levels. I say that but there is another side where I'm in the studio, where I'm surrounded by instruments and sounds and everything and sometimes they influence me. But if they do influence me, they are going to go towards a particular aesthetic that I'm trying to get this time around.

AAJ:When you mentioned jazz and I know that you played jazz in the early days and the period post Police, and the avant-garde pieces, and there is a variety of world music influenced records that you did especially with Brazillian music. Even the new record also has subtle world music influences. Can you talk about how all that exposure to diverse music has influenced you as an artist?

AS: What has always driven me as a musician and what makes me a genuine musician, is that I am musically curious. This is not a put-down but I can say, a band like Guns N Roses aren't musically curious. I think they are like the dressing that goes with it. I come from a different era and my heroes at the time were always American jazz musicians. My ear became tuned, and I tried to learn all the harmonies they were playing. It was literally like, how I can get that look and people to come to see me. What the fuck is that chord he is playing there? That's what got me interested. That's a crude word to say, but I got musical curiosity which basically never left. I've always been interested in how things get put together, how people achieve certain sounds or whatever. Of course, I studied music all my life, so I understand everything about it—compositions, songs, etc. So for me, it's just the love of music and the curiosity about it and then moving on with it. I never lost my enthusiasm. I never got jaded about it. I'm still enjoying it. But, the thing is, when you 've done it for such a long time and you've made a lot of records, it becomes maybe more difficult to keep pushing into a new place that sounds really fresh. But you can say that's what I've been trying to do with the last two records, and I got recognition for it.

AAJ: There are very interesting textures, colours, and moods on Triboluminescence. It reminds me of soundtrack music. What does the new record portray about you both as a performer and as a composer?

AS: It shows that I've got a lot of very good reviews with that very point, that I'm still trying to push it somewhere new. At least it sounds new to me. I used a lot of exotic instruments on this. Actually, the final album has come out on the 25th of August. There is a double vinyl coming out with tracks made from these sessions. Nine of the tracks and you can see where I was going with a lot of it. Some of it is pretty out there. It's pretty wild stuff. I go to the studio, I get sort of locked down in order to do this and to say, this is what I'm doing now. I've been doing this for a couple of months. I completely get into the zone, I'm in the studio, I know where everything is and I got new devices, pedals, and things that I'm trying and I have a lot of fun doing it. We make a lot of tracks. I made far more tracks for Triboluminescence. I put a lot on this double vinyl. But it's great fun for me. I can do whatever I want. It's my studio. There is someone there recording me and I just feel very free to try things out without being embarrassed, as it happens (laughs).

And I work on tracks to a point when I stop and I when I come back later and listen to see if they are any good. If there is any point in continuing with them. This is an artistic process which is pretty much like painting. You go to the studio, I've got all my devices there, my guitars and so on and so forth, and I have found, at this point, that I really like working this way rather than a whole bunch of musicians staring at me wondering what they should play. I play the drums, I play the bass, I'll play anything. So, I start putting tracks together and I keep playing around with them. It's very playful. It's like a painting a painting. I keep building every day and wiping some of it out and adding new pieces as well. I mean, it is composition. It is a composition but not in a classical sense, where you go with a whole written piece. Of course, that takes a lot of time. These are sort of constructed in the studio. This is one of the ways I do it, anyway, they very much start from a sound sonic quality that I will come up with that will make a statement in itself and then expand from there, to see if I can make something really interesting out of it.

AAJ: What are some of the projects where you feel you took the greatest risks?

AS: Well, they are all risky. The minute you start trying to step out of the side of a standard model. I can make just a straight ahead jazz guitar album. I find that a bit pointless now. I don't really want to do that. What I really wanna do is try to open new areas. So I brought in a lot of exotic instruments and things for this record. So, that's all risky. The risk is not that I'm in danger while I'm in the studio, but the risk is when you put the album together and then you put it out in the market, and you risk what people are going to say about you. That's where the risk is. But that is not something that you should even be in your mind when you are making the music. I don't think about if there is no audience for this. The only person that I'm interested in pleasing basically is myself (laughs). I'm the audience and if I like it I think it's gonna be good. That's the way I look at it and it's a way to do it. You go and listen to your own heart.

AAJ: The documentary Can't Stand Losing You was based on your own memoirs. Both the book and the film show both sides of your world—the enormous success and popularity, and the strife it imposed on your private life. What prompted you to write the book and to make this documentary?

AS: The film was obviously a bonus that I certainly wasn't expecting to get. I was amazed when we made the film. I certainly felt that I had a book in me that I could write very well. Back in the early 2000s, I think it was in 2002 or 3, was when I started really thinking about it and as I was doing a lot of writing. I literally started to write without any real organizational principles. I just started to write, and once I got going, it sort of took over. The process was interesting because obviously, I wanted to write a very good book and I really didn't want to write about The Police at all. I just wanted to write about music. But of course I talked to people and they said: "you got to." That was the most difficult part and the way I got to that was to do some research about the band, to get all the facts right. We did this tour and then we had a #1 hit in Belgium, then we were #1 in America, then we did another tour, then we made the third album. I literally constructed the scaffolding of the whole history and put it on the wall, so whenever I was looking at it I was trying to remember where it was so I can get the facts right and once I've got that, I started to do the real writing, like writing about the inner landscape, the emotional landscape of being in the band and the whole trip. That was very difficult and then, of course, that's the second half of the book.

The first half of the book was about growing up, being attracted to music, the tough times that I went through to get there. It took me about two years. I literally did not sit down while I was on tour a lot. And it was in the last five months and I just went and wrote for about four hours a day, to get it to the end. Then it got sold in New York and I got an agent and the rest of that. People seem to think it was a fantastically cathartic process, but it wasn't necessarily so. What was interesting to me, was to see if I can write well and write a whole book. Then the book won the "Best Book of the Year" award and then, very quickly it got picked up to be a movie, that surprised me. Most of the film was kind of a nightmare. It took basically 6 years from the beginning to the end to get it out, because the other film company had lost its distribution. It went through all kinds of tribulations and I gave up on it completely at one point, but finally, it came out in 2015 all over the US, but it never came out in England which is sort of incredible. The whole film was very difficult. It's all to do with money and power.It's very hard. What kills me is that it didn't come out in the UK. Incredible. It's just no one wanted to pay enough for it. The ultimate film company wouldn't let it go. But I had some fun with it. I traveled with it around the US -New York, LA, different places where it was promoted. A lot of people came. It's fun for a while.But it's a good film -it shows the mixture of the bitter with the sweet (and vice versa). It's not a superficial biography.

AAJ: So to what can you attribute the longevity of those songs that The Police created at the time, we still talk about it. It's been exactly 40 years since the band began.

AS: It is kind of amazing that the music of The Police never goes away. I travel all over the world and I hear it in elevators in Bangkok even. It's kind of amazing. I think it's because the songs are very good. The playing is great and the simplicity of most of the tracks is guitar, bass, and drums. They are not overproduced and they sort of exist outside of any source. Oh, they are very unique. Anybody can sound like the Police except for the Police (laughs). They are fresh and they never get sort of old sounding. You can put "Roxanne" on now and it still sounds great. It's kind of magical actually that the music has continued. I just played in Brazil early this year and I played to huge audiences. Everybody sings all of the songs. It's amazing. They are very famous songs.

AAJ: Can you describe the chemistry in that band during those songs?

AS: It's a big subject and I can't give you an insight in five minutes except to say that I've written about it. I have said this before. Any really good rock band has to have a certain amount of tension. If everybody is sort of happy and mellow guy, I don't think you're gonna get really great music. You need that kind of chemistry. We certainly had it. I don't think we all necessarily were meant to be together, but we made that band. The music is the result of a lot of strong compromises with one another. Musically, to make these tracks sound the way they do. The band is unique. You could not come up with a band like that where you've got a drummer like Stewart, a guitarist like me and Sting with his voice. There just isn't another one and none of us can leave it. It would be insane. You can say whatever you like but it really is the chemistry of the three individuals involved that made that. We're very lucky that we met. One guy different and it would never be the same.

AAJ: Is the door open for another reunion tour or a performance?

AS: I would be surprised if we ever play again. I don't think so. Sting said he wouldn't want to do it again. You know, times change. People change. That reunion tour (2007) was one of the biggest tours of all time. It was incredible. It's a lot to think about. If the conditions are right it would be possible. The world has changed since we had our tour. We did that tour at exactly the right moment before the world and the US was hit by a financial recession. It was like a golden moment and we got it. It was incredible. I don't know if we could do it. We wouldn't want to go back and tour much smaller places. It would be embarrassing. We played every stadium in the world on that tour and now to go back to playing in clubs. (laughs) I wouldn't do it.

AAJ: Maybe more like Cream did it in 2005 with shows in NY and London?

AS: That's what I think actually. I think we can do something like Cream did. Maybe a week at Madison Square Garden. That could be fun. But not two years on the road.

AAJ: The introduction to the book was written by The Edge of U2. It's now part of history that at The Police's last gig, you had handed him over your guitar. The gesture is symbolic. Wasn't that a prophetic thing to do when you look back from now?

AS: Well, U2 just kept going. The Police were a really great band. U2 were coming up, they were popular and we got out of the way. Then they were able to take the whole thing.

AAJ: The documentary also portrayed your interest in photography. Over the years you have done many exhibitions and have published several books. Can you talk about your passion for photography and how it started?

AS: It started basically out of boredom. I was in New York and obviously like everybody else I had cameras and took pictures. But I got serious about it. I think it happened in 1979 when we were in New York, playing. At the time we were living in hotels for several years. We were surrounded by photographers all the time and I felt "I can get into photography seriously." I bought a Nikon camera and I started to practice and take a lot of pictures. But it was natural for me. I enjoyed it completely, I took to it. I took it seriously. I began studying and carrying all kinds of cameras and lenses around. That's why I started and it became very obsessive. I practically photographed my entire career with the Police from the inside which was published in various books. But I carried on. I've got seven shows lined up now in the next two years. There is another book coming. I became really quite involved with it. It's an important sort of second career I have. I have had 45 exhibitions at this point. I look forward to doing more shows this year. I'm going to Mongolia next and do some work. Yes, I carry on. I've got a lot of shows coming in the next two years.

AAJ: Did you receive any formal training in photography?

AS: No, nothing formal like that. I was basically mentored by Ralph Gibson, who is probably the greatest photographer in the world as far as I'm concerned. He is in New York. We've spent an awful lot of time together. We've done a couple of projects together, so he has taught me a lot and I've always been around photographers. To some degree, this is like music if you have sort of natural ability for it. I seem to have it. It's not for me to say that. My thrill is to be somewhere out in the wild usually. I've been everywhere in China about ten times over. I like the experience.

AAJ: What are some of the most memorable shoots to day?

AS: I've been transferring all of my photographs from one program to another, so I've been through all of my photographs since I started and there were so many amazing ones like Morocco. I had great fun in Morocco. I went to Tibet and that was great. Some of the best I've done is in the last five years—all in China. I'm going back there in October (2017) because I have a photo shoot and I'm playing at a jazz festival, all in the same week in Shanghai. I'm very involved with it.

AAJ: So how do these photographs and travels influence your music?

AS: I think it completely goes together. I can make little parallels if you want to. I'm very used to improvising on stage and having to like play a solo or getting support. You can say there is a parallel to being in a Chinese village in Western China. You are surrounded by something and you start thinking fast on your feet, and start making photographs out of it, you are not only shooting wildly but you also have the information to make a comosed photograph. So, I think music trains you which I'm going to quote "All Art Aspires To The Condition of Music." For me, the overriding thing is whether it's writing, language or photography, is that it has the condition of music.

AAJ: What's your perspective on the current state of the music industry and the challenges of monetizing music?

AS: It's very difficult. You sound so old when you start talking about that. To me, it's not as much fun. If you are 16 or 17 year old kid and you love all the downloading and streaming and that's what you will know. That's what you'll grow up with. But there seems to be a pull back to what we used to do. Why is it that every record company wants to make vinyl records now. I've got this fat, juicy double vinyl sitting here. It feels great and it looks like an art object. There seems to be a pull back to the old days. I grew up going to record stores and looking through racks of records or in book shops looking for books. Now we've all got of that. Some of the romance has gone out of it—the act of discovery. I don't think it is there in the same way. On a much harder, tougher level if you are a musician and you are 18 or 19 and you want to be a musician, how you are going to make money? You can't sell records anymore not like it used to. You might sell a few at a gig, but you are not going to be selling millions. Those days are over. The only people that sell millions are Lady Gaga or Beyonce, but for the average guys in a band, it's very difficult.

Photo credit: Mo Summers

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