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Andy Summers: Guitar Hero
By Scott Kahn



 
 

 

 


Andy Summers

Andy Summers hardly needs an introduction. As the guitar playing third of legendary rock band, The Police, Summers took melodic and textural guitar playing to new heights by incorporating jazz chord voicings and ambient sound effects with rock music that evolved from a ska/reggae vibe to pop, adult contemporary, and prog rock.

In his post-The Police years, Summers mostly stayed away from rock and pop music, recording numerous instrumental albums, working on film scores, and even serving as the house band musical director for the Dennis Miller Show.

Andy Summers has been cited as a major influence for numerous guitarists who have followed in his footsteps—this editor included, so it was a real treat when we learned that he had in fact started a new rock band (and an even bigger treat sitting down to talk with him about the new record)!

Circa Zero is a new band featuring the combined talents of Andy Summers and Rob Giles, a multi-instrumentalist who fronts the pop/alt rock band, The Rescues. Their 2014 debut CD, Circus Hero, is a modern classic rock hit in the making. If you haven’t heard it yet, Circa Zero will treat your ears to everything you loved about Summers’s rock guitar playing in The Police, but without ever having to say, “If only there was little more rock vibe” or “I wish Andy was louder in the mix.”

[We also spoke with Rob Giles about working with Summers in Circa Zero. Be sure to check out Rob’s interview when you’re finished here.]

“We wanted to make a rock album with rock songs.”

MPc: This is your first rock band in decades.

AS: Yeah, it’s been a while, outside of touring with The Police, obviously.

MPc: Your solo work is highly instrumental in nature, and covers a variety of other genres, and there’s soundtrack work as well. Now, for a guy who can probably pick up the phone and put together a band with any superstar musician in the world, what lead you to work with a relatively unknown singer/songwriter?

Circa Zero - Circus HeroAS: Madness, I suppose [laughs]. Actually I think I took it out of the category of famous. I was looking for somebody with a great voice. Serendipity brought me to—and great luck—to Rob, who had the voice. I was looking for the voice, trying to hear a voice. Prior to meeting Rob, I spent about a year in the studio with a number of people I met…  I wrote a lot of songs and made some killer rock tracks.

I wasn’t quite getting it with the vocalists and it was frustrating, but I was thinking about putting out everything I’d done over that year, and at the end of that year, as it just happens, I met Rob. And this was right at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute and I had him come to the studio and we really hit it off. We started playing together and I thought “Oh my god,” you know, “this guy’s voice,“ everything. And actually what happened, I said “Here, sing one of these songs on one of these tracks,” and he went out and he just killed it, you know, did such a great job, so much better than what I had. And I went, “This is the guy.” I think we both felt it and we both knew, so it wasn’t a consideration whether he’s not famous enough to play with me. It’s like, this guy’s great, he’s got all the stuff, very talented. And you know, we hit it off personally, and that was a deciding factor for me.

MPc: You guys are both multi-instrumentalists. Was there a conscious decision to not bring in a live drummer and other players like during the actual writing?

AS: Well, Rob’s a great drummer—didn’t need to. He’s the drummer. I mean, when I first saw him he was playing drums. He started out on drums. He happens to be able to play any instrument. First off, he’s a great singer, but his first instrument was drums—he’s a real rock drummer. He plays great rock bass as well, so between the two of us we basically had the whole thing covered. This record was made by the two of us.

MPc: Now, you know these days, most artists put out EPs, just a couple of songs. Right off the bat you unleashed a thirteen-song album!

AS: [laughs] Yeah. Well, modern times it’s getting confusing, all this [laughs]. You know, EP is something I grew up with as a kid and now you’re hearing people putting that again, it’s something that went away for many years.

We were really planning on making another record, but it might be that somewhere in the middle of between two albums we could put out an EP. We’ve got some new stuff that’s really killer. So yeah… I could see that because in the modern context people seem to listen to one track at a time, and you wonder if they could even get through that, in today’s world. So putting out full-length albums, well of course people are still doing it. But it’s sort of like asking people to read a full-length Dostoyevsky novel when all they want to read is two pages out of People magazine [laughs].

MPc: [laughs] So you’ve already continued writing new stuff?

AS: Yeah, because the great fun is for us to be writing together. We’re obviously right now into performing and we’re going to play next week and all that, and we’ve been making some appearances. But we’ve already started a lot of other tracks. I think we’re both sort of chomping at the bit now to get back in and just be really in that zone of creativity and writing together in my studio, which will definitely happen in the next few months. We’ll see how it goes, depends on what comes up with this record, but absolutely want to carry on.

“Right now, I think we’re in the…
golden period of guitar pedals and effects”

MPc: After listening to your new band, at first, part of what blew me away was that so many other musicians who have been around, who’ve had these forty, fifty year careers in rock, they all get mellower. They slow down. They get a little lighter in their music style. And you put out a record that is totally fresh, modern rock and alternative sounding. Tell me about the inspiration for your songwriting on this one.

AS: Well thanks for that, because that was very important. You know, I’m certainly, as a person, and as a musician, I don’t feel jaded or [tired of it] at all. And I always feel with all my records I play to the utmost—I play the very best that I can. I’ve never gotten sort of like, “Oh well I’ll just make another record because I’m supposed to.” I’ve never felt that way. Everything is important and heartfelt. I think you’ve got that on these tracks, but also just surrounding all that we said, well let’s make a rock record, a real rock record, not like some weird laid-back mix or chill record. We wanted to make a rock album with rock songs, which meant lots of guitar and rock drums and all the rest of it.

You know, I think through that whole period we were very cognizant of contemporary rock bands: anyone from Foo Fighters to Pearl Jam to someone like The Grizzly Bears, maybe, or The National. I certainly was interested in hearing what other people are doing, what’s going on, what’s generally around, what are bands sounding like. You know, so we had an awareness of sound and what’s going on these days, so that we didn’t make a record as if it were in an ivory tower and it sounded really old-fashioned when we came out. So it’s a combination of doing what you really feel and sort of commercially being a little aware of the market itself and what’s going on.

Andy Summers and Rob Giles
Photo: William Hames

MPc: Talk a little bit about the Andy Summers sound, style and tone.

AS: Oh, I can’t talk about that, no [laughs].

MPc: [Laughs] Okay, I’m going to start with chorus and delay: two staples, two signature elements in your sound. What, even going back to the early days, what was it about these effects that drew you to them?

AS: Well in the early days, you know chorus was a real breakthrough. Before that, if you sort of look at the history of pedals and effects for guitars in the sixties, probably there’s a little bit of something around in the fifties where you might have gotten a vibrato on a Fender amp. But they were like novelty sounds; I think that’s the best word to describe them, like sort of a funny sound you could make with a guitar. Then in the sixties it started to get a bit better and you picked up things like with a wah wah, which of course has become a classic and is still a great sound. And then moving on a bit we got into—well you always had the Echoplex, which was fun. That was from the old days, too, and I used that in The Police a lot, most of the time. But when I was done in The Police it was a Phase 90 taped to the floor and a fuzz box. It wasn’t very good really [laughs]. It was like three pedals, Scotch-taped to the floor, that was the deal.

And then, sort of, things started to get better, you know in the Eighties. I had a Pete Cornish board. He was the premier guitar board maker and pedalboard maker in England at that time. He made Dave Gilmour’s stuff and eventually we were making enough money that I could get one and I had that, where he stripped all the pedals out of their cases and built them into a board. And then I had an automatic wah envelope filter and then suddenly the Boss Chorus came out which was this gorgeous, shimmering open sound, which was so beautiful. You know, particularly at that moment, no one had heard anything like it.

Of course I used it so extensively in The Police that it became sort of a hallmark signature guitar sound for me, and The Police. And you know, on tracks like “Walking on the Moon,” which was a combination of probably the Boss/Roland Chorus and Echoplex. And that’s where it started. Right now, I think we’re in the absolute renaissance, the golden period, of guitar pedals and effects. It’s gotten sort of incredible, actually. They’re marvelous now. They got taken seriously, finally, you know.

MPc: Do you find yourself these days as just a pedal guy or are you also using some rack-based effects?

AS: I am. Well, it’s a bit of a combination. I do have a lot of gear in my studio in L.A. And you know, I’m not a pedal junkie exactly. But it’s sort of become fun with the pedal thing. There’s a great guitar store in Santa Monica called Truetone that I like to drop in at, because they’ve got all the latest stuff and I like to check in, “Oh, is there anything new?” It doesn’t change a lot [for me]. Let me say this: it’s basicly three sounds: fuzz, echo, and chorus. Now within those things there’s all the variations ‘cause you got fuzz, distortion, overdrive, there’s three categories of it now, you can combine them. I combine these things in all different ways. Then you’ve got things like the low-fi junk and tape loops and all that.

But the basic rock guitar sounds have not really varied a lot. I mean, if you’re playing a show with a rock band, basically you’re probably going to want chorus, a couple of different echoes, probably a couple of different distortions or overdrives. And then you can do some funny sounds, some weird shit on top of that, which is what I like to do. ‘Cause I’ve got, outside of the standard pedal board, which I would use with Circa Zero, I’m doing a lot of sort of weird sonic landscape moments [imitates sound effects] for an art project in New York and it’s very different. And I’ve got all sorts of reverse looping things and decaying sounds and low-fi sounds, I use that, but wouldn’t necessarily be right for playing behind a singer.

What it really means, I think, as a modern guitarist looking over the scene is that I’ve got a very broad sonic palate now, much broader than I used to have. And I use them, and I keep trying out new combinations. And you know you’ve got something like the Eventide harmonizer from the old days, which is kind of incredible and it’s never been beaten. And so many pedals try and imitate that one thing, but I’ve got the original rack mounted one, which of course is amazing.

So it’s actually become a lot of fun in today’s world, if you’re into the Sonic side of things, you know.

MPc: And what’s your main amp that you go to?

AS: The main amp I use is a Mesa Boogie 2: Ninety… which is not what I used on the Police tour; it’s the one I’m using and which I’ll play when we do a gig next week. I’ll use that with two Silverback Mesa/Boogie cabinets with two twelve-inch speakers in each cabinet. Live with The Police I used two 100-watt heads.

MPc: What preamp are you using with the 2: Ninety? Are you using the Mesa/Boogie Triaxis?

AS: Yes, I think it is a Triaxis, yeah.

MPc: So you’re really all about the Mark-series tone.

AS: Yeah, I’ve loved that for years, I’ve used that for quite a few years now. I’ve done many, many jazz gigs with it, I’ve done rock gigs with it. I’ve seemed to have gotten everything out of that. To me it’s a beauty. 

I’ve got a lot of other amps as well. You know, I just bought recently…oh, what’s it called, the Magnatone twilight, or reverb twilight or something?

MPc: The Twilighter, I think.

AS: It’s amazing! It just has this one beautiful, sort of slow chorus sound that’s incredible. It’s a gorgeous amp. I just bought one of those. And I’ve got a lot of different Fender amps that I use—old amps.

MPc: Did you use any of them on the Circa Zero record?

AS: Some, yeah, here and there. I’ve got brown-faced ones, I’ve got a couple of tweed, and I’ve got a couple of black-faced amps. And I’ve got a Carr amp that’s very nice with a real bluesy sound—in fact, I can’t even get a clean sound out of it, that’s nice too. So I use those in combination with pedals. I also use the Roland VG-99 quite a lot, ‘cause that’s got some killer sounds in it. Guitar into that and then straight into the [recording] desk.

“I use a technique of playing with the pick and the nail against the string
at the same time so it really kind of screams.”

MPc: There are a lot of great sounds and effects that you used on this record. Let’s briefly run through a bunch of songs and talk about what you tracked with.

AS: I’ll try. You know it’s very hard for me to remember track by track, but what I can do for you actually is—I’ve been asked this before and here’s one of my little things that I do when I’m recording because it has gotten complicated and sometimes, you know, you have to go back to the tracks and recreate something or whatever, and I record in Pro Tools. We actually write down in Pro Tools everything that I did. So if I can’t answer your questions exactly, coherently, believe me, I can send it to you [laughs].

MPc: Awesome. Let’s talk about the song “Underground” to start. There’s a cool background effect and I was trying to decide if it was a Rotosphere or what kind of—

AS: Yeah, there is, I know what you mean. I can’t think—actually we were rehearsing and I was trying to remember what I did and I don’t know if I played that somehow—I may have done that through a Pro Tools plug-in, possibly, not a guitar, ‘cause I know it was difficult to get quite the atmosphere I wanted, and I know I was trying around with a lot of the pedals. I might have done that through Pro Tools, I’ll have it written down though. Yeah there’s sort of the atmosphere-y, airy, kind of weirdness going on as [Rob] does the first verse, yeah.

MPc: On “Say Goodnight,” did you know you were paying an obvious homage to “Walking on the Moon?”

AS: [Laughs] You’re probably referring to the C-sharp minor seven chord that begins the verse, right? [laughs] Well I just like that—that chord is great on the guitar. No, I wasn’t thinking, it never occurred to me, but thanks for pointing it out. It’s in a slightly different key with more open strings, but it is, it’s a minor—let’s see is it now? It’s really a minor seventh chord, it’s not really a minor eleventh. It’s the seventh chord but it sounds unusual because it’s got sort of a… it’s a C sharp minor seven with open strings as [Rob] starts to sing.

MPc: Certain songs like “Gamma Ray” really show off what I consider to be your signature style of rhythmic playing. But a song like “No Highway” was one that struck me as really not being a typical Andy Summers kind of track, being such a traditional-sounding big rock guitar song.

Andy Summers jamming on Circa Zero MaterialAS: Well, I think—I will take credit for writing that killer guitar line underneath the vocal chorus. And that way that happened was that I already had this song, pretty much, it was something I had written before I met Rob. And as we were sort of tentatively trying to find our first few steps together, I said, “Well I got this thing, here are the lyrics, here’s this chorus line,” and I was sort of showing him the chords. And he started singing the lyrics that I had but in a completely different melody. And I went “Ok, well, you know that’s different than what I was imagining, but that’s pretty cool, let’s go with it.”

And we put it down and after he left I came up with that guitar line, you know [imitates guitar], which I thought was a great line. And that became the signature for the song. No, it’s not typical, it’s something different. It just seemed very appropriate for that.

MPc: Tell me a little bit about the song, “Light the Fuse and Run.” There were some funk elements and it’s a lot of different vibes. It was very prog, very prog-rock.

AS: Yeah, well that started with that sort of heavy metal-ish kind of guitar line that I had. I had the first three parts of the song—you know the line, and then it goes to this kind of weird open B seventh chord with a chorus and then that little almost piano-like thing that I play. I had gotten that far with it and then was wondering where to go with it. And then Rob sort of came up with the next part and we built the song.

It’s a great one to play live, ‘cause it’s almost kind of got a metal feel to it, playing that line. You know, live, I really kind of do a bit more of it than here on the record. I get it to really squeak. I use a technique of playing with the pick and the nail against the string at the same time so it really kind of screams. That’s a good guitar technique, when you’re playing that loud with some sort of distortion, you know, it really puts a nice edge into it.

MPc: Yes. What are the delay and chorus effects that you’re taking live on the road to get your sound?

AS: Uh… God, I can never remember the name of my chorus pedal I’m using at the moment… You know, for echo I mostly use the [Lexicon] PCM 70. That’s mostly what it is. I’ve got one or two little other pedals on the board, but the main sound is really the PCM 70. It has been for years and that’s the one I really like. I change it, you know, ‘cause we have many, it depends on the song. It’s pretty much the same but on some songs I have to kind of reprogram it. You know, like, for instance on “Gamma Ray,” I’m using three different settings on the PCM 70 to make all the different sections.

The first section, where he’s singing the verse I’m doing this kind of tricky figure but I set up the echo in a way so it sort of doubles itself. It almost sounds like you’re looping. In fact I’m playing it, but it almost sounds looped. I think on the track I did three guitars to get the effect and I obviously can’t do that live, but I can get pretty close to it by setting the echo in a certain way.

MPc: It’s funny because when I listen to the song “Levitation,” I was listening to your solo and I was thinking, “Okay, I wonder how he’s going to pull this off live.” [laughs]

AS: [Laughs] Yeah, now that’s a funny one, because… I think that one we’ve got written down because I really wanted—for some weird reason I think I was thinking about Mick Ronson and David Bowie when I did that solo, and I was searching around and straight guitar—with distortion or overdrive—just wasn’t cutting it enough for me. That’s got quite a pile of sound on it, it sort of sounds chorused out and weird, it’s sort of a big sound. But I know that we made quite an effort to get it. I think it was a combination of the VG-99 and something that we put on through Pro Tools to create that effect. Mind you, live, I probably play it with chorus and overdrive and it’s enough. You don’t really miss anything.

MPc: When you play live do you do a lot of improvisations during solos or do you really try to match the recordings?

AS: Oh, yes! Completely improvised, yeah. It’s always that way every night. The solos are totally in the moment.

MPc: Reflecting back on the distant past and the not so distant past, one of our editors pointed out that back in the ‘80s the Telecaster was a big part of your live performance rig, but on the Police reunion tour you played a Strat.

AS: I played the Strat more, yeah. It was sort of an accident that it happened because Fender at the time, they recreated my Telecaster as a signature model and sold it for an incredible amount of money. And of course I’ve got one, in fact I’ve got six of them [laughs]. But you know, they made of couple of Strats for me and gave them to me, which was a recreation of my 1961 red Strat, which I did play in The Police. But the Strats came out so well that I just loved playing them, and—a bit sadly for Fender—instead of just only playing the Telecaster every night, which is what they wanted, I ended up playing the Strat more, because the whammy bar was so great and I like to use the whammy bar. I don’t know… I just felt more comfortable with it. [laughs]. They made two great Strats, unfortunately for them.

MPc: [laughs] So now that you’re back in the business of rock and roll, what are your thoughts on the differences in terms of what it takes to break a new band today verses what it was like back in the ‘70s and ‘80s?

AS: Yeah, well, I think it’s much harder. We did a big radio show last night talking to the DJ about that because it’s sort of daunting now. For start, it’s mostly the rock [radio] stations are all classic rock. They won’t play anything new! And [Circa Zero] is like new classic rock. These songs fit completely into that mold. You know, I’ve got to say, it’s a bit of a pisser, really, because you’ve been playing The Police for years. When we came to the states at the beginning of our career, no one would play us! It was all formulaic and kind of classic then. And now they could be playing incredible tracks—there’s some great rock bands around, and they don’t play them. And a band like Circa Zero, it’s just made for radio.

So, it is daunting. It’s very hard to sell millions of records like we used to. It’s got to be YouTube and the Internet and try to get out there. I think, to me, it’s a lot harder. The old model was you signed your record deal, you got probably five records, and you had a career path and you had a lot of people promoting every record, and you had the ability to go out there and do it. Now it’s [makes funny whistling noise], I don’t know... We’ll see what happens. You know, our job was to make a great record, which we did, and now the hard part is the promotion.

 

Want to know more about the gear and effects Andy Summers used on Circus Hero? Andy went back to his tracking notes to give us the scoop on gear that he used, plus some comments on his current, favorite toys! Check it out here!

 

   
             
             
             
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