Andy Summers on His One-Man Sonic and Filmic Synchronicity

Is it fair to say everything little thing Andy Summers does is magic? It certainly seems that way, as the onetime Police guitarist is experiencing a late-career renaissance, having recently dropped a diverse instrumental album, Metal Dog (Flickering Shado), and narrated an acclaimed documentary about his former band, Can't Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police (Cinema Libre). Can't Stand Losing You, directed by Andy Grieve and based on Summers' 2006 autobiography One Train Later, received much acclaim during its theatrical run earlier this year, and it's now making further inroads with its home video and digital release.

Summers remains quite fond of The Police's 2007-08 reunion tour, but he doesn't see it happening again anytime soon, if ever. "It was magical," he agrees. "I never expected it to happen, but I thought it was a great tour, and we played better than we ever had. Man, we were lucky we all met each other, you know?"

Summers, 72, and I recently spoke about creating those signature Metal Dog soundscapes, becoming a voiceover artist, and the (sorry) arresting nature of The Police's unique chemistry. His not-so-secret journey makes us all see light in the darkness.

Mike Mettler: I often found myself calling this album Metal God, considering the overall variety and tone shifts you have on the record.

Andy Summers: Mmm. Yeah, well, I went from having an inspiration from contemporary dance music to making a much more cutting-edge instrumental record, rather than a rock album.

Mettler: The details apparent in songs like “Animal Chatter,” with the character of the sibilance of the cymbals, and some of the percussion in “Ishango Bone," don't resonate as much in MP3 form as they do in hi-res audio, wouldn't you agree?

Summers: That's a good question. We’re just about at the point of changing our Pro Tools setup in my studio, as we’re on 8-point-something, and they’re up to 12 now. I'd like to A/B the difference between the two and see if I could hear it. Some people might say, “Sure, you could do it at 96 [kHz], but they’re never going to hear it.” There is sort of a soft argument against doing it.

Mettler: The argument some people make is you may not be able to tell the difference between, say, 96 and 192. But I can definitely tell differences between 16-bit and 24-bit. That’s the crux of it.

Summers: Yeah. Well, God bless you! (both laugh) I’m not a total nut about that stuff. My head goes straight to, “What is the music?” If the music's got an emotional quality and there’s something interesting about it, it doesn’t have to encompass the absolute sonic spectrum.

Mettler: Ultimately, if we’re not affected by the content of the music — if we don’t feel what you’re doing in “Harmonograph” or really get that shimmery feel at the end of “Mare Imbrium” — we miss out on the different journeys you’re taking us through on each of those songs.

Summers: That’s right! Obviously, as you can see on some of these endings, they particularly have differing sounds. I'm very conscious of doing that, but I’m not saying to myself, “OK, I’ve gotta vary the sonic experience to where the frequencies are different.” I’m not thinking of that first; I’m thinking of the music. But as it happens, it makes for a very interesting frequency spectrum in the overall sonic landscape, but it’s really coming from a different place — not a technical place, but an emotional place.

Mettler: Is there a record you could cite that gives you an emotional experience like that from beginning to end?

Summers: That’s interesting — it's almost like asking, “What is the most interesting experience you’ve ever had in your life?” (both chuckles) But something I did like very much is a record called Flumina (2011), by Ryuichi Sakamoto and a French guitarist called Christian Fennesz. The thing I like about it is Ryuichi plays so many beautiful clusters on an acoustic piano against this sonic wall the guitar player makes. The fact that Ryuichi is a real musician and a real pianist comes through so well. He’s playing weird, atonal clusters that somehow are more meaningful than someone who’s not quite that good, you know? I won’t name any names of certain people who make what’s called “ambient music." It’s a very nice record, and one of my favorites of the various ambient things that are around.

Another of the younger players coming up I want to mention is Anthony Pirog, a guitarist. I like his whole approach — it’s very melodic, and the emotion on Janel & Anthony's Where Is Home (2013) is right there in the music, at the same time being cutting edge. That's him on guitar and Janel Leppin is on cello, and it’s very nice.

Mettler: What's the best way to listen to music these days?

Summers: If I’m going to listen to music, my preference is really vinyl. I want to go completely upstream and make a triple-gatefold vinyl album! (chuckles) It’s lovely that people are embracing vinyl and realizing the sound quality. It’s going completely against the grain, instead of the modern world and iTunes, and all of that.

Mettler: Vinyl can help open up the layers and quality of a song like “Bitter Honey,” or the funky groove you get on “Animal Chatter.”

Summers: That one is funky, yeah. It’s very fun doing all this stuff. In my head, I have these very exotic sounds, which I achieve through manipulating all these various devices that sit in front of me. And when I come out with this kind of funky texture, I then have to see if I can get a rhythm to go with it. Some sounds I get I feel are influenced by rap and hip-hop music, which is a very modern sound — not rock drums, but much hipper than that.

Mettler: Not just a four-on-the-floor kind of thing.

Summers: I’m getting away from that, yeah. The record sounds contemporary. To me, this is very cutting-edge modern guitar, recorded beyond rock and much more influenced by classical, dance, Indian — all kinds of things.

Mettler: My view as a listener is to be challenged, rather than satiated. Music like this gives us something to dig into and play again, over and over, to find new things.

Summers: Actually, I made this record to sound like something I very much like, and I think it came across really well. I’m certainly inspired to get to Part II, because I’ll definitely put out another one next year, when I find the time to lock into it. I’m really looking forward to it. It's great fun for me to do this kind of stuff, because it’s essentially all me.

I feel like I found a bit of a groove with this one — not just playing straight-ahead jazz, but doing something called experimental music. It’s soulful. This record’s not a downer. It’s fairly out there.

Mettler: I see you also have another career as a voiceover artist, as I just finished watching the Can’t Stand Losing You Police documentary. Was that your choice from the beginning to narrate it yourself, since it was based on your book? Did you feel it had to be in your specific voice?

Summers: Absolutely, yeah. I don’t think I’d have even done it otherwise since it was based on the book. The voiceover thing is interesting, because I did realize when going through the process about three times that I couldn’t just read pages from the book. Things had to match on the screen where you had to modify it and loosen it up and make it a bit more conversational — almost more chatty. It worked better with the movie, you know? Let’s say I went in cherishing my own writing — well, that wasn’t going to work. Even I had to realize I had to loosen it up a little bit from the book.

Mettler: It definitely comes across as being conversational. You didn’t feel like you were getting a professorial dissertation.

Summers: Right. That would have been boring.

Mettler: And you had to sync up with the visual choices that were made, considering what limited footage of The Police was available. You had to sew it together in a certain way. Having been a longtime photographer, you naturally just know what you want to see. Was there a certain quality you were going for when your pictures got translated onto a much bigger screen, bigger than what you shot them at?

Summers: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been a pretty successful photographer for years, so I have the experience with that. I mean, obviously, because of the situation, you have to make really hi-res versions of the photographs. They all look pretty cool seen at full-screen in the movie, as I remember. I think they added a lot to the film. They were very powerful.

So it’s out there now, which is sort of amazing to me — how the movie was received. On Apple TV, it was #1 in Music. And we had a big showing at The Grammy Museum too. It picked up speed. People are really enjoying it. It was becoming more popular daily, which sort of surprises me.

Mettler: The Police’s popularity seems to grow and grow. I think more and more people are discovering just how unique you guys were as a band.

Summers: Bands don’t come around like that anymore, yeah.

Mettler: When we hear a Police song come on the radio, we know it’s you, instantly. No one else ever sounded like you. You’re a genre unto yourself.

Summers: Yeah, it’s a very unique band, and there hasn’t been another one. Which is great, you know — lucky for us! And the film's not hurting anything, because we’re not going out on tour. I think people enjoy seeing the band, especially when we were young and there was all this attention, and the adulation we got. We were really burning away there, and people really enjoy it.

Mettler: It also speaks to a level of musicianship that is maybe lacking today — three guys doing things ten other people couldn’t do or capture. They only band I can think of with three guys who do interesting and unique things in a way unto themselves are the guys in Rush.

Summers: Right, right. Yeah, I like Rush, and I love their movie [i.e., the 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage].

Mettler: Even Alex [Lifeson, Rush's guitarist] has said his ’80s guitar style was trying to follow what you were doing.

Summers: I’ve been told that a few times, yeah, but he’s a great guitar player.

Mettler: He’s underrated like you are, and this movie shows people the things you do that were so subtle and textural were really quite something. You played things on #1 singles that no one else could get away with, if I can put it that way.

Summers: (chuckles) Yeah, that’s right! And it was #1 for us endlessly, in just about any country in the world.

Mettler: So will we be hearing you doing voiceovers for car ads next? We'll be seeing some car going down the highway, and then we'll hear you come in…

Summers: I mean, I can make some money at it, yeah. I can finally get paid. (both laugh)