Andy Summers on Improvisation, Looping, and Creating Your Own Genre

There’s an unsettled, volcanic font of creativity that ricochets across Andy Summers’ mind’s eye.
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There’s an unsettled, volcanic font of creativity that ricochets across Andy Summers’ mind’s eye. Whether he’s gazing through the viewfinder of his favorite Leica camera, searching for those strange and beautiful shadows of everyday life, or guiding the music seeping from his heart and fingers, he always appears to seek mystery, artistry, and the delicious tension of the unknown. Perhaps this is part of the reason Summers’ guitar has exhibited a rainbow of colors throughout his career—blues, rock, anti-rock, jazz, classical, and experimental—when most guitarists would be blissfully and forever fulfilled if they were able to forge just one unique guitar sound.

And, at 74 years old, he’s not done yet. For his latest solo album, Triboluminescence [Flickering Shadow/Cargo], Summers once again cleared out his timbral and compositional toolboxes to devise a style he has tagged “New Exotic.”

“It’s a bit of a catch phrase,” says Summers of New Exotic, “but I think it’s fair enough. I’ve traveled extensively—particularly in Asia—and I wanted to take listeners on a global journey with this album. In essence, Triboluminescence is the result of a lifetime of influences and experiences, and I felt the material demanded that I try to search for a new voice, a new genre, and new sounds.”

I don’t know how you do it, Andy. You’re always spinning off into different worlds. What drives that resistance to the conventional?

Well, I’ve never been interested in playing a straight, pentatonic-blues guitar style. A million guys do it very well, but I don’t want to be known for that. I mean, if the Police was about anything, it was not that. It wasn’t punk or new wave, either. The horrible old question persisted for years: “What genre is it? What label can you give your music?” But there was no answer to that question, because Police music was its own genre. In the old days, it was about finding your own voice, and that’s still a great goal to go for today. I’m certainly aware of my relationship with modern music, but I don’t want to be completely immersed in everything that’s going on out there, because I think that’s dangerous for a creative artist. The space you have in your head—not to sound pretentious—is sacred. It’s like your own little temple, and you shouldn’t drown it out with everyone else’s stuff.

Now, in my case, I’ve always felt a certain amount of internal pressure to push the envelope and get a sort of “art quality”—to make something new with the guitar. So I do a lot of experimentation, and I hook up lots of guitar pedals to try and get something that starts my imagination. As a result, most of the tracks on Triboluminescence are styled from a sonic situation, where I’d play around with sounds until I found something. Then, I’d usually record it for approximately 48 bars to see if I could add drums, or coax out another guitar line, or whatever.

Can you give our readers an example of how you go about “making something new”?

In the old days, for example, I’d probably have a keyboard player or another guitarist sort of doing the harmony. But, now, I use loops for that, instead of having someone play all the chord shapes on piano or whatever. Also, while looping, I’ll detune guitars, capo them, and play them using drumsticks. Some of it works, and some of it is terrible [laughs].

So the composition is in flux here, and you’re purely following your instincts as you improvise by plugging in different pedals, playing parts, and making loops?

Well, yes, but you still must have knowledge of composition and structure. I try to build a musical architecture out of it—rather than just have a sonic thing droning on for ten minutes. It’s a combination of aesthetic choice, and what I consider to be hip or cool—not clichéd or corny.

How can guitarists avoid playing clichés?

I come at it like this: The music needs to have neutrality, because I believe the music we’re drawn to doesn’t come at you too strongly. I feel that music has to exist in its own space of its own intrinsic value, and it doesn’t try to reach out to the listener. It’s just there, because it’s a great piece of music. I find that very attractive. There’s also a quality of ambiguity. You think you’ve got it, but you haven’t got it, so you’re always coming back to it. I see all the great music as having a disinterested quality. It doesn’t ask you to like it. I can’t stand music that’s trying to impress me. It stops existing as art to me. Listen, maybe only four people might care about what I’m doing, but I have to create music that I feel is very good and artistically interesting. It’s the only creed I can live by. I’ll tell any person starting out, only do what you believe in, and if you don’t believe it, do something else.

During the sessions for Triboluminescence, when did looping enter the compositional process?

The loops came in fairly early—they’re the instigators. Sometimes, I loop percussion to get something going, or the loops might be melodic and generated from the guitar. If it’s a good loop, I might start playing drums to it, or come up with a bass line. The icing on the cake, of course, is the melody.

How did you typically find the melodies for the pieces?

A lot of the melodies come from absolute instinct—from being in the moment and jamming on the track. You do it a few times, the mists start to go away, and the melody will start to appear. Then, I’d leave it for a couple of days, come back to it with perhaps a different perception, maybe change a note here and there, and get it better.

Did it take a lot of jamming to find something you liked?

No. I didn’t jam extensively on anything. I might do it for ten minutes one day, and ten minutes on another. There’s a certain amount of luck to it, like, “That’s it. It just popped out.” Obviously, you can’t plan, schedule, or force these things.

Earlier, you mentioned the importance of structure. At what point during the improvisations did your “producer’s mind” kick in to arrange all the parts?

Photo Credit: William Hames/Atlasicons.com

After the initial inspiration, it would typically happen pretty fast. I was sort of constantly monitoring mood, melody, and structure as the parts unfolded. For example, on “Elephant Bird,” the melody was being difficult. Everything I did made it less, or too conventional. So I started to mess around with the guitar signal, and a Z.Vex Lo-Fi Junky gave me this wonderful warped quality that inspired me to play the melody using natural harmonics—no fretted notes. Suddenly, I started getting into this thing where the natural harmonics and warped signal gave me what sounded like a muted Miles Davis sound from the guitar. The melody came out very positive, which is unusual for me. It was like Miles in a good mood.

Any other stories of creative challenges?

Absolutely. “Adinkra” had an incredible history. I had found this sound—I think it was on the Axe-Fx—that sounded like an Indian orchestra, and I loved it. I immediately came up with the melody, and I played one of the best slide-guitar solos I’ve ever done in my life. I let a drummer play on it, and he did this belly dancing-style rhythm. Then, I started to hate the track. I thought had I lost the whole thing, and I hated to give it up, because I had already put so much work into it. So I started stripping it down. I replaced the drums myself, and it started sounding better. I replaced the bass line. Finally, I replaced the sound I loved with a horn patch on the VG-99. So the Indian orchestra went bye-bye, and, suddenly, the track had this African vibe. I played what I felt was a sort of Highlife fingerstyle pattern on the Strat, and I softened the tone. Now, the melody is getting soulful. It’s all working. The song went through an enormous change, and it became so much cooler. I like to say that it went from “Please like me” to neutrality. I had thought the original version was the greatest track I had ever made. It wasn’t. And so you progress…

What was some of the critical gear during the sessions?

I basically started with a Stratocaster through a Roland VG-99, or a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx, or, in some cases, a Carr amp. Once I had the whole architecture in place, I’d kind of detail the guitar sound. Is it good enough? Should I use the ES-336 or the SG, or switch out the amp models? I used a lot of pedals—in addition to the Lo-Fi Junky there were some BOSS pedals and other things. I know I have this all written down somewhere [laughs]. Loopers were the Line 6 JM4, the Roland RC-505, and probably a couple of others. I used Spectrasonics Omni-sphere for all the wild cinematic sounds, and my drum set was a Roland TD-20.

Do you think it’s difficult for a musician to seek high art without having people scream about the music being pretentious? Should we care?

That’s a good thought. I guess that fear is always there—especially if you’re in the U.K. They’ll call you a pretentious wanker just because you tried something new. “Well, you know what, man—you do it then!” [Laughs.] It’s human to be defensive in those cases, but you can’t stop moving forward. And, in a sense, pretension often comes with youth and pomposity. Later on, you cool out a bit. But I think it’s all part of the effort to make something. With any artist who has had a long career, you see the effort to move forward in their early work, and, for some, the early stuff is not that good. Of course, if you don’t get past the pretension, your music is going to sound grandiose, and it won’t be real.

Then, there’s the curse of one’s early work—which, in my case, is the Police. No matter how far you evolve, no matter how complex and sophisticated your stuff becomes, some people will just want “Roxanne.”

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