Following the Muse on Venice Beach — Andy Summers Makes Art on his Own Terms
By Bradley Bambarger <2018>
As can happen on a summer day in Venice Beach, the perfect weather seems to promise all manner of possibilities, with slow-rolling time and open horizons. Andy Summers has settled on the porch of a French café, a favorite spot not far from his recording studio, which is located a block off the boardwalk in a building the guitarist has owned since 1985, the year before his band broke up at the acme of superstardom. Friends since the mid-’90s, we have enjoyed many lunches here, sharing enthusiasms about music and books, as well as pictures moving and still. On this day, we’re also discussing the creative vitality of his past few years, the latest fruit of which is the evocatively titled solo instrumental album Triboluminescence. As he enjoys his iced coffee and searches on his phone for the contested date of an old Jimmy Raney record, a tolling arpeggio floats toward us, faint but familiar, from the window of a car parked nearby. “Do you hear that?” I ask. “It’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ — again,” the classic song of obsession seemingly woven into the ambient fabric of Los Angeles lately, more than three decades after its release. “Ah, well,” replies the man who recorded those notes. “You can’t escape The Police.”
And yet Summers has done just that, relishing his artistic freedom in the years after the original breakup of the group and then again following the trio’s globe-spanning one-off reunion tour of 2007–2008. Summers was born on New Year’s Eve 1942, and the year leading up to his 75th was characteristically industrious. Along with releasing Triboluminescence — the follow-up to his strikingly individualist Metal Dog of 2015 — he toured South America in a crowd-pleasing power trio with two Brazilian rock confreres. Then Summers had to take three months to recover from a broken bone in his fretting hand, suffered in a fall. “It was a bit frightening, my first layoff from the guitar since before I was a teen,” he says. “But with surgery and physical therapy, it feels stronger than ever — now it goes to 11...”
With the camera having long been his second instrument after the guitar — Summers has published three collections of his photography — he also returned this past year to China to take more pictures for a mooted book illustrating his long-held fascination with the country. In addition, the guitarist developed a one-man show that he premiered at the Grammy Museum, a sequence of his photographs providing a synergistic backdrop to his latest music. And he collaborated with two companies on limited-edition signature instruments, to celebrate his 75th year: with Leica on a guitar-themed M10 camera and with Fender on what he calls a “photocaster,” a custom Stratocaster improbably decorated with a gorgeous collage of his photos from over the years.
So, although he achieved fortune and renown long ago — penning an artful memoir about the ascent (One Train Later, which was then adapted for a funhouse mirror of a documentary, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police) — Summers refuses to rest on his laurels. This veteran rock star would never be satisfied with just watching grandchildren scamper around the pool, even if he works in plenty of that. His mode of life epitomizes a dictum of modernist visual artist Henry Moore: “There’s no retirement for an artist. It’s your way of living, so there’s no end to it.” With Kate, his Ohio-born wife of some 40 years, Summers resides in Santa Monica, just down the road from his Venice studio, so he can pursue his various muses in an efficient flow of ongoing creative impulse. “Making art — self-challenging, non-audience-stroking art — is what keeps me alive, intellectually but probably even physically,” Summers insists.
“Of course, having achieved big pop success with The Police has afforded me the freedom to make art on my own terms, whether it was recording music in a Brian Eno vein during the late-’80s, exploring the works of jazz heroes like Monk and Mingus in the ’90s, or making these personal, artisanal records I’ve done lately,” Summers adds. “I earned that freedom to explore and experiment, yet I also realize how fortunate I’ve been. I think any real artist feels the drive to keep proving oneself. I had a pretty rocking time in the ’60s, but by the early ’70s, I was down and out in L.A. However seductive life in Southern California could be — the weather, the girls, the psychedelic culture — I was living close to the bone. Yet before I went back to England for some years and eventually joined The Police, I did study classical guitar in California, building on my jazz and rock’n’roll chops. That period taught me to always have faith in my playing and my ability to grow creatively, which stood me in good stead once I caught a break, and ever since.”
In the studio and on the road, Summers has long been abetted by the expert, unflappably soft-spoken Dennis Smith, his longtime guitar tech, recording engineer and, in recent years, photo editor. Summers and Smith have “an unusual chemistry,” says the guitarist’s technological aide-de-camp, who’s a decade younger. “I am a quieter sort of person than Andy, but we’re both Englishmen in California who drink coffee instead of tea.”
Summers met Smith in London while he was making his early-’80s duo albums with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, I Advance Masked and Bewitched. “Den was the only guy who could get the bloody Oberheim drum machine to work properly,” Summers recalls. “Then I noticed that everything seemed to work better when he was around. He has been with me ever since, and I couldn’t do all I do without him. He’s always solving problems and answering questions before I even ask them. The thing is that Dennis isn’t just technologically proficient and efficient — he’s a musician, a keyboardist by original trade. That helps give us a symbiosis in the studio. Plus, he’s a really good guy, and we come from the same part of England, so we share old cultural references and a certain ironic humor, which helps when cooped up together for long stretches.”
For his first five post-Police albums, Summers worked closely with producer-engineer David Hentschel, their stretch including such early standouts as The Golden Wire (1989, nominated for a Grammy) and Synaesthesia (1995). After one album produced by jazz vibraphonist Mike Manieri, Summers paired with producer-engineer Eddie King for four discs, including peak achievements The Last Dance of Mr. X (1997), Green Chimneys: The Music of Thelonious Monk (1999) and Peggy’s Blue Skylight: Music of Charles Mingus (2000). For all of these recordings, Smith was a key studio associate. Summers points out that one of my all-time favorite examples of his playing — the dark-hued raga-guitar of “A Thousand Stones” from The Golden Wire (a forerunner of such tracks as “If Anything” on Triboluminescence) — was captured on cassette by a quick-thinking Smith when the main studio recorder ran out of tape.
For Metal Dog and Triboluminescence, Summers and Smith have followed what the guitarist calls “a new, autonomous method,” creating these on their own in the Venice studio, with Summers playing all the instruments and Smith engineering, mixing and even mastering. (The place has gone by myriad aliases over the years — Chilean Seabass Studios, Hill of Beans, Haunted Horse, Fool for Love Studios, Shant Hall, Divine Mother/Mother Divine, lately Moving Target — all reflecting the house English drollery.) In his liner notes to the expanded, double-LP vinyl edition of Triboluminescence, Summers writes about ingenuity in the studio: “It’s a case of out-maneuvering your past, frightening yourself before the reward of the magic spark. Well-worn clichés lay traps everywhere — stuff that just falls under the hand, a song someone else has already written, whatever. The studio can be a minefield. But maybe it shouldn’t be easy.” Brimming with magic sparks, the music of Metal Dog and Triboluminescence doesn’t sound like jazz or rock or even a fusion of the two; it’s organic exotica of both atmosphere and edge, whether evoking industrial distress or ritualistic groove.
Topped by a roof deck boasting sun-bedazzled views of the beach, the building includes living quarters and an office for photography work. The 40-foot-by-20-foot ground-floor studio space has an airy ambience, with a high metal ceiling — apt for recording drums with a mix of brightness and warmth. The room has a functional vibe, but it has been decorated with some interesting pieces of art, including a slightly alarming lithograph by film director David Lynch titled Man in Room with a Knife. “I bought several things from him in a Montparnasse atelier in the early 2000s,” Summers recalls. “There’s no filter between that man’s subconscious and his art.” There’s also a rare DayGlo poster of The Police with Summers at the center, as if he were the singer. “That didn’t hurt the sale,” he admits.
There are dozens of acoustic and electric guitars of every stripe around the studio, including Summers’ “work horse” red Strat. With a lead sheet on a music stand presenting Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave,” Summers picks up one of two Gibson Charlie Christian models to toss off a jazz solo. There are electric basses and sundry other string instruments — an oud, a banjo, a ukulele. For one track on Triboluminescence, Summers reached for a latva, a smaller version of the oud, having been inspired by the recordings of Hamza El Din, the late Nubian poet of the Arabic lute. In addition to a Bosendorfer baby grand piano, the studio includes two electronic drum kits, an acoustic trap set and percussion instruments from around the world. Summers took drum lessons over the past few years so that he can create minimalist grooves on his own, then manipulate them in Pro Tools. But there have been therapeutic advantages, too, he says: “I’ve loved learning the drums, the sheer physicality and discipline of it.”
Summers points out some of the handier electronic devices in the studio, such as the Fishman TriplePlay Wireless MIDI Guitar Controller and the Roland VG-99 guitar-modeling and amplifier simulator, which he says “is great for emulating the sounds of vintage Vox, Fender, Marshall amps. I have a music-over-gear attitude. I’ll use whatever tool helps me achieve the sound in my head. I have to say that I don’t miss the old analog-tape days. Pro Tools unfetters your ability to experiment, along with saving headaches and infinite amounts of time. For veteran musicians, all the things we dreamed of as young guys, they’re here.” Even though Summers was famed for his way with guitar effects during the heyday of The Police, he insists the good old days are now: “Oh, we’re undoubtedly living in the golden age of guitar pedals.” The guitarist arrays a dozen or so pedals on a plywood board atop a chair in front of him, so he can sit to play and trigger the pedals with his hands, “like a painter choosing colors from a palette.”
Drawing attention to a few of his favorite effects, Summers says: “This vintage Centaur pedal makes the signal dirtier but also more powerful, amazingly so. I love how this Glitch pedal doesn’t do anything normal like chorus, but rather produces this whole wave of unique sounds. Virtually all these pedals are better than what I used back in the day. When I was playing a three-minute intro to ‘Tea in the Sahara’ in Brazil recently, I used a Big Sky pedal — and the song never sounded better. I use the Rotobone in combination with the Lo-Fi Junky to get a real ‘street’ sound. Then there’s the Eventide H-9, which is a miniature version of the Eventide Harmonizer, which is the greatest sonic device ever made: the sound of cosmic wonder. Chaining effects together — vintage fuzz, reverb, tape echo, distortion, overdrive — creates sounds that inspire the compositions, especially on these past two albums. I’m not interested in modifying the signal in any stock way. I’m after the kinky extremes.”
To Smith, by far the most important tools in the studio are “Andy’s hands,” he says. “It’s his sheer musicality. Someone picks up a guitar, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good one.’ But then Andy puts his hands on it, and you say, ‘Now that sounds like music.’ The other thing is his quest for the unpredictable, breaking out of formulas. We’re big believers in the serendipity of happy accidents — anything goes.”
Despite certain efficacies in working solo, Summers has been in bands since his teens, so collaboration comes naturally. His post-Police records have drawn on a world of musicians, from erstwhile bandmate Sting (on Charming Snakes and Green Chimneys) to Ginger Baker (Synaesthesia), Indian singer Najma Akhtar (The Golden Wire), Brazilian pianist-vocalist Eliane Elias (World Gone Strange) and Deborah Harry, the Jazz Passengers, Q-Tip and the Kronos Quartet (Peggy’s Blue Skylight). For Brazilian singer Fernanda Takai, Summers wrote and produced the 2012 album Fundamental. He teamed with young singer/multi-instrumentalist Rob Giles to release a rock album in 2014 as Circa Zero.
Summers has also recorded a series of duo albums with fellow guitarists: Englishman John Etheridge, the Brazilian Victor Biglione and American classical virtuoso Ben Verdery. The latter, although professor of classical guitar at Yale University, has been an aficionado of electric players since his teens. When he met Summers at a festival in the early 2000s, they hit it off. “I was always a Police fan — I even stood in the rain to get tickets to see them in the ’80s!” says the ever-ebullient Verdery. “Andy basically invented his own style of playing, creating his own identifiable sound — very few guitarists have done that. As we got to know each other, I was virtually interviewing him about his life — meeting Jimi Hendrix in London, selling Eric Clapton the Les Paul that he played in Cream, then there was all The Police stuff!”
Through Verdery’s suggestion, post-minimalist composer Ingram Marshall became interested in composing for two guitars — specifically the classical and electric combination of Verdery and Summers, inspired by watching the pair improvise together. They performed the resulting double concerto — Dark Florescence: Variations for Two Guitars and Orchestra — multiple times, with the premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2004. That experience led to the two guitarists recording a duo album, First You Build a Cloud, which features originals alongside arrangements of Bach and The Police’s “Bring on the Night.” Many of the pieces came out of the pair jamming together. “We were improvising in the Venice studio, and a song sort of instantly appeared,” Verdery recalls. “Dennis said, ‘Great! Two minutes in, and we already have a tune.’ Andy replied, ‘Yeah, two minutes and a lifetime of work’.”
The joint ventures of these two guitarists “have been a lot of fun, but Andy doesn’t coast,” Verdery says. “He’s a great listener, but also forthright — he’ll tell you what he likes, like digging how I play Bach, and what he doesn’t, whether it’s not going for a tune I wrote or letting me know when I wasn’t getting a jazzy part. I learned a lot from him, including about how to finish things — a tune, a session, a record. With Dennis at his side, he gets a lot done.”
In his autobiography, published in 2006, Summers writes about coping with the disorienting mix of stimuli and ennui on the road with The Police by capturing the scenes around him in photographs: “Inspired by Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander and Ralph Gibson, I begin wandering around at night… dreaming through the camera.”
Reflecting on his visual sensibility, Summers explains: “When I was young, I was influenced by European art-house cinema — Truffaut, Fellini, Godard, Bergman. Then it was photographers from Robert Frank to Blue Note’s Francis Wolff. My head was full of images, like it was full of music when I was learning solos by jazz guitarists like Jimmy Raney, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell. And just as I’m drawn to off-kilter, enigmatic sounds in music, I tend to be drawn to visual scenes that are humorous or sensuous — sometimes both at once, like Monk and Man Ray.”
Summers’ books of photography include two from his global travels in The Police: Throb (1983) and the epic tome I’ll Be Watching You (2007). In 2009, Summers published Desirer Walks the Streets, a collection of black-and-white photos that are like visual echoes of the rich, darkly shimmering chords that mark his guitar playing. To Summers, taking pictures is similar to performing music in that “it’s a combination of preparation and inspiration,” he says. “I drew on the discipline and practice habits I learned in music when it came to photography, particularly in the analog days when it was all about technique and aesthetics, not digital tricks. You need to manage the technical aspects, but it’s also about human spontaneity. You have to improvise, take advantage of the moment.”
In the early ’80s, Summers got to know one of his artistic heroes. “Ralph Gibson has been a mentor for me when it comes to photography, helping me sequence that first photo book, Throb,” the guitarist says. “He has always been one of my favorite photographers, and he’s also a guitar player, so we have a lot in common.” The two collaborated on the 2004 book Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar, with Gibson’s photographs accompanied by lyrical text from Summers. In Gibson’s 2008 book State of the Axe: Guitar Masters in Photographs and Words, Summers received the pole position among 81 featured guitarists, pictured playing both acoustic and electric. “Andy is an encyclopedia of the guitar — he really just is the fucking guitar,” Gibson says. “I’d say that he has a wider palette than any of the world-class guitarists, playing steel strings or nylon, electric and acoustic, as he ranges from rock and jazz to Brazilian and classical to music that’s utterly individual, unclassifiable.”
Gibson appreciates the “English wit” in Summers’ photographs from the road and his Police days, as well as their shared sense of the sensual in images. “Desirer Walks the Streets is a fine book,” he says, “but I’m waiting on his China book — his documentary sensibility is especially valuable, I think. He takes me to places I’ve never been and probably can’t go. I don’t want to sit in a village in Szechuan and basically eat bugs, but Andy has done that to get the shots he’s after. He’ll get twitchy and hard-to-please in four-star restaurants in great cities. But put him in little villages in the Amazon, and he’s totally at ease, as long as he has a book to keep him company on his travels. That he still has his wanderlust after all these years says a lot about his abiding curiosity. He has the soul of a troubadour.”
Summers has been drawn to Brazil for decades, soaking up the sound and sensibility of the place and collaborating with native musicians. He has performed with bossa-nova icon Roberto Menescal, and the power trio he has with bassist-vocalist Rodrigo Santos and drummer João Barone plays Police songs to tens of thousands across South America. “It’s like The Police on steroids, basically,” Summers says. “I feel a lot of pride in that material, and I get to play longer solos and really rock out with those guys, which is a lot of fun. That said, nostalgia is like chocolate cake — it’s great, but you shouldn’t live on it.”
The Police were a formative influence for Nick Millevoi, a Philly-based avant-rock guitarist. But Summers solo has also been an ongoing inspiration. “My mom was a big Police fan, and when she was pregnant with me, she went to see the band on the Synchronicity tour — so you could say I first experienced Andy’s playing in the womb,” the 34-year-old explains. “I can’t remember a time when the records weren’t playing, but it was when I started getting into the guitar in my teens that Andy struck me as such a hip player. His chord shapes and voicings, with all those suspensions and ninth chords, seemed exotic compared to the classic rock I had been playing. And his solos felt really out compared to what was on rock radio at the time. I also dug his compositions — weird instrumentals like ‘Behind My Camel’ or a jazzy thing like ‘Murder by Numbers’ really opened my mind.
“By the time I was 19 or 20 years old, Andy’s album of Monk tunes was a whole other enlightening thing to hear,” Millevoi adds. “It was jazz played with a rock attitude and really creative arrangements, not worried about genre formalities but totally authentic for both Monk and Andy’s personality on guitar. Similarly, these newest two records are so interesting in the way he hasn’t settled for just doing ‘the Andy Summers thing.’ How many so-called rock guitarists in their 70s are still experimenting? You can hear him further developing his sound, with the effects part of the writing, it seems, and the tones not necessarily what you would expect from him. He’s still moving forward, exploring — it’s impressive to hear.”
At 75, Summers might look 60, but then when he was 40, he looked 25. “I’ve been blessed with good genes,” he says. “Most days, I don’t feel so different now than I did at 30, honestly. But I never fucked up on drugs and alcohol like so many of my contemporaries, and my home life has been stable and happy for many decades. That frees up my mental energy to be creative. California life keeps you young, too, I think. I do gyrotonics and yoga, along with Tai-Chi. And I always have more projects coming up — one-man shows on both sides of the Atlantic, some recordings I’ve made with Armenian cellist Artyom Manukyan. I love playing, making records, taking pictures. I mean, why stop? It’s not like I’m going to take up fucking golf.”
(Article originally published as the cover story of the January 2018 issue of Mix magazine.)
PHOTOS: Mo Summers.