“IF THE POLICE HAD MADE CIRCUS HERO, THE WHOLE world would be on fire and it would be #1,” proclaims Andy Summers. “Well, people need to know that an unknown band called Circa Zero made this killer record.”
The guitarist is talking about the album he recorded with relative unknown Rob Giles of the Rescues. “Rob is a multi-instrumentalist songwriter with an amazing voice who suddenly appeared like an angel,” he says. “We started writing together as soon as we met.” Besides being a powerful rock album chockablock with infectious tunes, Circus Hero  showcases Summers’ multifaceted solos, inventive tones, and deep hooks. He plays his ass off and freaks his sounds out.
In fact, Summers has been riding a creative wave since the Police’s gargantuan world tour in ’07 and ’08. He’s collaborated with classical guitarist Andrew York and was featured on his 2010 release Centerpeace, as well as recording Fundamental with Brazilian pop singer Fernanda Takai (Pato Fu) and touring in support of the album. The 2012 documentary film Can’t Stand Losing You, based on Summers’ autobiography, is also slated for release in the States later this year.
In your June 2007 GP interview, you sounded confident that the reunited Police would write two new songs, and that if tour business went well, there would be an album and another tour. What happened?
It’s a very big political issue. It just didn’t happen. There was a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning. But the reality of being together for almost two years and doing all that—there wasn’t going to be another record. It was always kind of a fanciful illusion.
You never even started working on those songs?
No. But I made this Circa Zero record, which is probably about what we would have done anyway.
It has a lot of Police elements, plus a lot more guitar.
I don’t think it sounds much like the Police. It’s a much tougher record than the Police would have made.
How did the reunion tour affect your guitar playing?
When I’m onstage playing “Roxanne” or “Message in a Bottle,” my fingers are on the neck, but I feel like my mind is traveling up and down the strings trying to change every note. I never play those songs the same way twice. There are always little nuances such as timing, or the way you position a sound, or whether you add an open string. You have so many options if you’re a real guitar player.
Do you ever change the way you play “Message in a Bottle” live when you’re running around and hand fatigue starts to set in?
One thing: On the last tour, instead of playing the Asus2 in the verse rooted on the sixth string, I went to the open A to make it a bit easier.
You never cheat and hit, say, the D# in the C#sus2 with the barre finger at the 4th fret of the second string?
No. I always play it full stretch.
Would the overall guitar message from the Police reunion be that it simply inspired you to return to rock?
I wouldn’t deny that. I’ve sort of jokingly referred to it as re-embracing the warmth of the rock scene.
Rob Giles has some similarities to Sting in his vocal range and his bass playing.
Rob started out as a drummer before learning bass and guitar. I play mostly guitar, but I often play bass when I record tracks in the studio alone, and he definitely outplayed me. His rock feel was so strong. I decided he should be out front singing onstage, so I imagined he’d play guitar. He wanted to play bass, though, which led to the horrible comparisons. But Rob’s a fantastic singer and bass player, just like that last bloke [laughs].
You tend to play chord fragments and leave things harmonically unresolved, so the bass is often the defining factor. Did you and Rob discuss the best bass note choices during Circa Zero’s songwriting sessions?
We absolutely did—and right in the creative moment. When I’d hit, say, an A power chord, Rob would often move the bass notes through the key rather than simply playing the root. When he would cycle through a few different notes and come back to somewhere else, it would start to get interesting.
On several Circus Hero songs, it seems you delve into the center of a chord sequence seeking a common denominator as the bass notes outline the movement. You hone in on a simple theme, and that becomes a hook.
Exactly. Let’s look at the single, “Levitation.” Rob started singing the verse melody over the riff on the E and B strings. We needed a signature, recognizable guitar hook for the chorus. I had a little three-note riff [A, G#, F#] that sounded great when Rob started to cycle through notes behind it. He goes from E to A, to C#m—which sounds really sweet—and then it pays off with a descending B7 line.
Do you play the first riff on the top two strings hitting the 5th and then 3rd frets on the B string with the high E ringing open before hitting them both open?
And for the chorus riff?
I play that from kind of an E barre chord on the middle strings at the 10th fret. I sort of hold that position as I go to the A on the second string at the 10th fret to start the riff. It repeats over an open A, which is where the bass goes. And then I hold the C# in the root while playing the riff on top. Sometimes I like to pluck that fingerstyle.
What’s your overall M.O. regarding using a pick versus your fingertips these days?
I play the first “Levitation” riff with a pick pretty forcefully because it needs that kind of aggression. Actually, I play most of that song with a pick, but on most of my new material I generally go back and forth between using a little Dunlop Delrin 500 2mm pick, and full right-hand plucking. Strumming with a pick sounds great if you’re hitting power chords aggressively, but my chords sound better when they are plucked rather than simply strummed with a pick.
Do you grow out your fingernails on your right hand?
Yes, because I also play a lot of nylon-string guitar, and I play it properly like a real classical guitar player. I have good right-hand facility, but I will probably grab a pick if I want to play really fast rock or jazz lines. Lately, I’ve been doing more hybrid picking.
My nails are natural, so I have to be a bit careful hammering away with a rock band. I did the whole Police tour with one acrylic nail. Wait, no, I think it was all acrylics because I would hit the guitar so hard that it would literally crack the nails across, and it drove me mad. Acrylics are great—especially if you’re a flamenco player. You get a very heavy, powerful sound. But I find them kind of clunky. That’s the trade off. You get something, but you give up something else.
One of the definitive riffs on Circus Hero kicks off “Shoot Out the Stars.” You employ a signature way of plucking partial chords and arpeggios while maintaining a creepy but lovely rub of a G against an F# throughout the figure. Can you provide some insight?
Hit the C on the fourth string at the 10th fret, and then G on the second string at the 8th fret. Hold those and play the F# on the third string with your little finger. Then you’ve still got the D and the F#, but you move the bass from the C on the fourth string up to the D. Now release the D so your fingers are just on the third and second strings as you incorporate the open-E string, and then throw in that F# before you whip up to the Em arpeggio at the 12th fret.
“Whenever You Hear the Rain” is a dreamy ballad that again maintains a theme of two adjacent notes—this time A and G#—going through the chord changes. Would you agree it actually has a quality similar to “Every Breath You Take?”
It’s basically a reverse version of the “Every Breath You Take” lick. It’s played over the same chords that go from A to F#m and then up to D and E. It didn’t work out quite as well, but I felt like I turned it around. So yeah, it’s the same quality, but I feel I have every right to do it [laughs].
Did you play all the guitar parts on Circus Hero?
What guitars and amps got the most tracking time?
I did most of it on a Fender Custom Shop copy of my ’61 Strat, and I played a lot of the solos on a Les Paul in order to get the fat, sustaining sounds of humbucking pickups. And the Les Paul is generally faster, because it has a much shorter scale. I did most of the solos on one of three Les Pauls—a tiger-striped one, a beautiful red one from the Gibson Custom Shop, and a 1958 Les Paul Standard Reissue. I’m still stringing up with D’Addario EXL 115s gauged .011-.046 for rock stuff.
I’m experimenting a bit at the moment with amps. I mainly used the same power amp that I’ve used for years and had on the Police tour—a Mesa Engineering Simul-Class 2:Ninety. It powered a pair of sealed-back Boogie Rectifier 2x12 cabinets in stereo. I also found Roland’s VG-99 V-Guitar System very useful for coloring tracks.
Circus Hero is loaded with groovy high-gain sounds. What pedals did you use?
The overdrive sounds mainly came from a Love Pedal Eternity Overdrive reinforced with a Klon Centaur. I got the Eternity in 2007 and used it on the whole Police tour. [Note: According to tech Dennis Smith, Summers always kept a second Klon Centaur on as his preamp for Circus Hero, and the core of his recording rig is the same as what he uses onstage.]
What are your thoughts on chorus pedals these days?
On Circus Hero, I’d sometimes just add chorus in Pro Tools afterwards. Now, I’m using a Pigtronix Quantum Time Modulator. I feel chorus is a bit retro, actually. But let’s face it—I did really well with chorus. It’s still a beautiful sound. In fact, when we did an acoustic set at the Grammy Museum last night I played my signature Martin through a Magnatone Stereo Twilighter with a sweet built-in chorus—technically stereo pitch-shifting vibrato—that’s very handy. I got it recently. As a guitar player, you just melt the minute you hear that amp, and you’ve got to have it.
Can you describe how your home studio is set up and how the Circus Hero tracks went down?
I use Pro Tools HD with an Avid C24 control surface. Rob would record the drums live in the main room while I’d put down a first guitar part. I keep my speakers out back in a storeroom, actually. They’re miked up, and I plug in through the wall in order to keep perfect separation. He’d lay down the bass, and then leave me alone to dial tones and add colors. I have a big room full of different guitars and amps. Sometimes I’d pick up a Collings I-35 Deluxe because I felt it would sound right playing, say, the backing arpeggios.
On “Levitation” you use ascending arpeggios to set up a very thick, wet guitar solo that’s more about the tone than the notes. Do you recall how you achieved it?
I played that solo on a Les Paul through a Z.Vex Box of Metal and a Mid-Fi Electronics Pitch Pirate, plus the Strat via a DigiTech Whammy Pedal using octaves and fourths.
The rhythmic, one-note intro riff on your main “Underground” track also has a wild effected tone. How did you conjure that up, and the one on the Hendrix-like solo?
I played a VG Strat using the 335 setting on the VG-99 and manipulated the D Beam realtime controller on that song. I played the solo on a Les Paul through a Dunlop Original Cry Baby wah, and added a chorus from the AIR Creative Collection in Pro Tools.
“Say Goodnight” features a guitar solo of a very different nature. You start slowly and then do a bit of melodic shredding with a creamy, overdriven tone.
I was thinking about how to make a real statement. The moment finally comes when you’ve got to prove yourself a guitar player and play a brilliant solo. “Oh God, no!” I have to feel right: wide-awake with good energy. I might wait a couple of days until I’m ready, and then cut lots of solos in one day. Sometimes I play it straight away. This one was tricky—it took a few goes until I found myself capable of playing lots of interesting stuff in pretty much one pass.
This is a typical way for me to approach a solo: Once I’ve worked out all the chords and get all the parts laid down for a song, I’ll focus on the solo. I’ll play through it five or six times to feel out the territory. At that point I’ll strike an attitude—more notes or less notes, wild or exotic—whatever makes the statement most effective. The goal is to sum up the whole song in the solo. It’s all in those 16 bars. It’s the high point.
“Gamma Ray” is loaded with cool guitar sounds and parts—especially the Zappaesque solo.
Yeah. It’s a real dope-smoking solo [laughs]. On the record, I used a Les Paul through a Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone.
How do you feel about compressors in general?
I’m a bit in the middle. Sometimes I feel like a compressor works, and sometimes I feel like it’s sucking the life out of the tone. Compressors tend to sound better on record than they do live.
What did you use to generate echoes on Circus Hero?
I used a few sources including Pro Tools. “Let’s see if we can get an echo that works,” I’ll say to my engineer. “Here’s the original line. Let me play another thing against it.” We’ll keep changing the number of repeats or the tempo. I got the triplet echo on “Summer Lies” from a TC Electronic Flashback X4 Delay. I actually played a Strat through the VG-99’s Police Clean patch for the tone.
“Night Time Travelers” is epic. The recording breaks all the way down to an acoustic guitar before building back up, sounding psychedelic, and culminating with a big ostinato. How did that tune come together?
It started with my guitar riff, and then Rob brought in the chorus, and then the last section came. Finally I found that Police-like line to add all the way through for excitement.
That recording ended in a weird way. I was listening to it at the mixing studio in Hollywood, and the end was bugging me. I was suddenly inspired to pick up the cheap little acoustic that was there, tune it to open B, figure out the chords, and re-track the whole ending.
Interesting. You hardly ever use open tunings.
I’ve never been one of those guys. In a weird way, I find it limiting. But I’ve written quite a lot of new stuff in alternate tunings for next Circa Zero album. I’ve got about five or six pieces in just insane tunings. I went into the studio one day, made up a bunch of new tunings, and started trying them out. It was quite inspiring and very refreshing, actually. Circus Hero was straight ahead, but the next one is going to be a different deal.