Andy Summers is one of the most recognizable names in rock music with a career spanning more than 40 years, between The Police and as a solo artist.
On October 15th, he released his newest solo album, “Harmonics of the Night.” It’s an intimate and atmospheric-sounding album that feels as if you are watching him perform in a smoke-filled bar or listening to him play while viewing his breath-taking photographs at an art gallery. Andy has reinvented himself yet again, always looking for new and different ways of breaking conventional guitar-playing rules. “Harmonics of the Night” showcases his fret-board wizardry is astonishing, mind-bending, and influential ways that are filled with beautiful and lush guitar tones. Andy has put together a diverse array of musical influences on this album coupled with superb guitar playing.
What separates the innovators like Andy from the followers is the courage to try something different. To break the rules and rewrite them at every opportunity. To challenge himself until something completely new is created that he can own. Andy should be added to the list of innovators as he finds that there are still walls in guitar playing to break down.
Visit Cargo Records or visit Amazon to order your copy now. This album will also be available digitally on all streaming platforms.
Correspondent Robert Cavuoto had an in-depth conversation with Andy about his new album, how his improvisation transpires from his guitar playing to his photography, as well as some details about an upcoming European and American tour in 2022. Listen to their chat in the links below (or read the transcript), and remember that for more interviews and other daily content, make sure to follow Sonic Perspectives on Facebook, Flipboard and Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified about new content we publish on a daily basis.
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“Harmonics of the Night” has a very intimate and atmospheric feel to it like I’m sitting in a dimly light smoky bar watching you showcase your skills. I can feel the passion and honesty dripping through the speaker. Do you think this is your most ambitious record yet?
It was complex to put together as there was a lot of layering and thinking things through. There is also a lot of textures and melodies with no drums, which gives it a slightly different feel. A couple of people felt it was subdued; I told them it’s not subdued at all. It’s joyous! It’s more introspective. It’s more composed, maybe like chamber music. The first piece, “A Certain Strangeness,” is very meditative, slow, with thoughtful playing. That was a feeling I had in mind.
Is it challenging to write instrumental music like “Fantoccini” and “Mirror in the Dirt” that evoke emotion, or do you leave it up to the listener to find their own emotional perspectives to your songs?
I find all the tracks emotional in one way or another. The point of writing music is to touch people somehow. These songs all have different emotional attitudes. It could be anything from melancholy to discovering something to honesty. “Mirror in the Dirt” was done over a harmonic loop though I can’t remember exactly how I did it. It was just a question of improving the guitar solo over all these different and interesting chord changes. It’s just my phrasing and my sound. That song was a late edition and is very composed. It’s a slightly different approach to doing a piece like that. It’s like writing manuscripts, and I found my way in the studio, but it is very compositional.
How do you come up with the names of your instrumental songs?
As someone who does this for a living [laughing], I’m very into writing literature. Along the way, I notice things that might make a good song title. I have a list of things on my computer that I would use. They can be phrases too. Sometimes I just make them up to reflect what the music makes me feel. Something simple like “Spell” was basically a solo guitar played on a steel Dobro guitar with special tuning. That’s all it is! It felt like a spell or incantation to me. That was the mood of it.
Do you typically improvise a lot of your songs or solos, or do you work out note-for-note structurally in advance of going to the studio?
Oh no, it is completely improvised! I’m a very good guitar player [laughing], so it comes from the way I phrase it. It becomes personal! It’s not composed. I will set up the harmonic structure, and it’s a very non-traditional structure. In jazz, we call it a 2-4-5 or 1-2-6-2-4-5 thing. In terms of musical harmony, these are much stranger and more avant-garde than that. Once I get used to those scales, I survey them, get used to the D major or D flat, and work out the scales. I know the guide on how to travel through the terrain, and then I give it a go. I don’t like to spend much time, so I get it done fairly quickly as I’m a player. They are not forced. I read some book recently where a band worked out all their guitar solos exactly like they would play them in the studio. That’s not my way at all.
When inspiration strikes, what do you do to capture it?
[Laughing] Roll tape! You can’t always do it because you need a setup. If I get into a writing mode, at home on the guitar, I’ll pull out my recorder. I feel more comfortable if I have one of those within a few feet of me. When I start playing, ideas appear all of a sudden. You don’t plan it, but you hit upon something on your instrument, and “poof,” it goes away. We all make the same mistake and think, “I’ll remember that later,” but you never do! You just have to grab it. So, I always have a very nice Zoom recorder in the studio. With “A Certain Strangeness,” I got a new effects pedal, plugged it in, and thought it was so great. I got inspired immediately. I put it on tape as I was in the mood, and we recorded it. It was the first piece, and its 20 minutes long.
I have to believe it’s the same with your photography, are you always carrying around a camera?
All the time. Always when traveling. I go out and about to photograph because I enjoy it. I’ll set out with a specific theme, like architecture or hard shadows in bright sunlight. I find that inspiring as it wakes the mind. It’s all improvised. I have been an improviser all my life, and it’s great preparation for doing photography out in the world.
Have you ever taken an amazing photo of something only to get home and realize it didn’t translate digitally as it did visually?
Yeah, that happens along the way. We are in a new era where we all have digital cameras. I use a Lecia M10 and can shoot 700-800 photographs on my card. I try to be disciplined about that. For example, I went to China like eight times and took 1000s of photographs. Those memory cards are so tiny; you have to be very careful not to lose them. I would literally transfer them down at night to my computer, so I had another backup. That became quite necessary.
I imagine it’s the same with writing a song and being inspired; one day, you are on fire, and the next, not so much. Do you find that to be the case at times?
That’s all my life! You can’t expect to be “on” every time you pick up your guitar. The way it generally works is you start playing, you spend two hours, and you come out with a lot of dreck. You say, “f**k it, I’m done!” But the last thing you played was “the thing” [laughing]. That has happened to me so many times. You say to yourself, “I don’t care anymore!” then something pops out from nowhere and was what you were looking for all along. It’s a beast! You work at your craft and try to have an idea where you are going then these things have their own way of appearing. They just arise.
Was there anything on this album that came to you as a gift?
The very first one, “A Certain Strangeness.” The first half and the second half, “Strange Return,” was purely being in the moment. I got the sound and went straight for it. That was the point in making the album.
Are there any set of disciplines that are required to create what you do in your music?
It’s interesting, the last three albums that I made, I didn’t sit down to write down in manuscript. I used a program called Sibelius to get them all exactly right. These were all made from the attitude of trying to start the tracks with something very fresh. I started with using different pedal combinations. Once I got that sound, I would aim to complete a composition. I would get a sound that I thought was really fresh and didn’t sound like anyone else. I would add a 32 bar click at the tempo to get something down. It inspired me to either write a melody on top of the guitar section or be open for the guitar solo on another section. So there is a kind of methodology; it’s partly open to being inspired or sometimes forcing the inspiration using what you have around you. I have been a guitar player all my life, so I can come up with something pretty quickly. I think the real challenge is to come up with something that doesn’t sound like anyone else. That it sounds like you, and you make your own statement. That’s what interests me to be on the cutting edge, not like just knocking out something that sounds like everyone else who plays guitar. I try to avoid all those clichés.
I’m intrigued by the album artwork and how it ties into the title as it’s very captivating and looks like a spiritual ritual?
“Harmonics of the Night” into itself is introspective. You immediately imagine nighttime. For me, it’s cities, dreaming, sleeping, eating – just the things that occur at night as I have traveled so much world and been to all these cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, Rome or wherever. The shot of the cover was taken in Beijing, China. I went to a show with a promoter; it was a theatrical performance by an Argentinian group called Fuerzabruta. They did all sorts of stuff, and I had a ball being in there with my Leica. They were traveling over our heads, climbing the walls, and doing all sorts of crazy stuff. That shot of the girl is when they descended from overhead into the audience.
The photo is quite haunting, was that the type of show?
It was haunting but fun because they did so much crazy stuff. It’s all these people in their twenties doing some ensemble stuff on a tight rope. They dropped a swimming pool over our heads, and girls cycled on the walls. It was an incredible show! It actually blew my mind. I was so pleased to see it and have a lot of photographs from it. I got a lot of unusual photographs from it.
Will be you be going out on a visual storytelling tour to support this album?
Yes, I had a long conversation with my manager this morning about that. It’s all going to be next year where I do the multimedia show. I have a giant screen and all these sequences of photography projected onto it. Sometimes I play to backing tracks, sometimes with some amazing guitar effect solo, and I talk to the audience. I do a very fast collage of the very early days touring in America, which I shot while playing “Message in a Bottle.”
I’m hoping you come to New York or New Jersey as I would love to see that show.
I did two shows in New York City; one was a very fancy club and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a great success. As far as I know, I will do some shows in May, June, and July on-and-off in Europe. Then late September and October back all over Europe. They are looking to put in American dates as well after that.
A lot of people associate The Police’s music with some of their best memories. What’s it like being such an integral part of people’s music collections?
I love it [laughing]! It’s very nice! You work hard at it and try to make something from nothing so you can actually touch people’s lives to give them a very good feeling. I think that is a huge reward apart from any financial rewards. The thing is that you get through to people and help them somehow with music. There is nothing better!