The Telephone Is Ringing…
For all the impact and innovation they brought to music in the late ’70s and ’80s, the Police left a relatively sparse legacy — five studio albums and a collection of singles and B-sides. All of their work seems to see repackaging and reorganization every once in a while, and this particular year is no exception, with SA-remastered versions of those studio albums in stores. This year has also been kind to the Police, with their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Costello and the Clash, bringing a lot of British relevancy to the institution.
Through those five albums, the Police held to a consistent arc. Their first album, Outlandos D’Amour was a collection of ten short punkish songs. It was clear that each of the three members was listening to an entirely different record collection at home, but it still worked out. Drummer Stewart Copeland effectively held together bassist Sting’s dubby bass and guitarist Andy Summer’s jazzy riffs, and the schizophrenic mess had a sparse, energetic vibe that was hard to resist.
Through each progressive album, the band further developed their sound, ending with the sophisticated polish of Synchronicity. Each album propelled the band further into stardom, world tours and eventual dissolution in 1984. The Police had worked out their musical incompatibilities, but had failed to overcome their personal ones. The band’s reunion for the Hall of Fame induction was the first time they’d performed together since the split was official, and in the period in between, the band shared a room together only a few times, and seemingly at the great urging of publicists.
If you listen to so-called ’80s radio, it’s tragic but not exactly surprising to hear the Police getting the short end of the stick next to other, less-influential ’80s artists. Their career was short and hard to plunder. All three members have had significantly more musical output since the band disintegrated in the mid-’80s. Vocalist/bassist Sting started his solo career by incorporating some heavy-duty jazz musicians into a couple of albums, later on wandering over to the balladry and musical soft-focus of AAA radio. Drummer Stewart Copeland dabbled in soundtrack music, including the spectacular Rumblefish, composed an opera and recently, was playing then not playing with a reunited “Doors.” And guitarist Andy Summers has not only released innumerable albums as a solo artist and with legends like Robert Fripp, but has entered the world of visual arts with books and exhibitions showcasing his photography.
I got a chance to briefly speak with Summers, ostensibly for the release of The Very Best of Sting and the Police but more to the point, to find out exactly what he’d been up to these last couple of decades.
Are you based out of LA these days?
You’re doing this interview in support of this Very Best of Compilation…
I guess that’s true.
What about your own recent musical work?
The last couple things I’ve worked on have been recordings of other people’s music — one for Thelonious Monk, and another for Charles Mingus. It’s just beautiful instrumental music. I’ve tried to do something a little bit different this time, it’s got some orchestral string parts on it, so it has almost a European flavor, and there’s some solo guitar music in there as well. Like ECM jazz, I suppose.
Have you met with a lot of success with those tributes?
They did well — I got a lot of accolades, one might say, for those records. Particularly the Mingus one.
I recently heard you on an album with [classical guitarist] Manuel Barrueco. That was an interesting collaboration. How did it come about?
I met Manuel because I was doing this concert at the Hollywood Bowl; it was called “A Night of the Music of the Beatles.” It was Sir George Martin conducting this orchestra, playing all the music of the Beatles with his arrangements. Various pop singers would come out and sing different songs, like the girl from the Bangles, the guy from Counting Crows. It was a great fun night, and they had Manuel playing “Blackbird” or something similar on the classical guitar. I was talking to him, and he told me about making this record with himself and friends, and whether I would like to make this record with him. And of course, I was thrilled, I have a background in classical guitar as well.
Are you a big fan of the Beatles?
Well, yes, I suppose. What are your favorite Beatles songs, if such things can exist?
Oh. [pause]. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one. “Strawberry Fields.”
In addition to your music, you also have an interest in photography. What are your subjects?
The eye is the subject, really. That’s where all the action happens, I just take the picture.
So are you a casual sort of photographer? Or do you prepare and plan your shots?
No, not casual, unless you can call someone who always carries a Leica and three lenses casual.
What are some of your favorite photo moments?
Just five days ago, I was in Mexico City, in this beautiful part of town called Plaza Garibaldi. And I was taking photos at a café there that had these amazing murals on the wall, and mariachi bands everywhere. I went up to this table that had about 11 or 12 mariachi musicians around it, and began taking photos, at strange angles, through the strings, with the murals in the background. Then I started noticing that the people at the table were these heavies, looking like they were part of some drug cartel. They finally asked me to stop — not the mariachis, the heavies — but that was only after I’d taken three rolls.
Are you doing well with the photography then?
Yes, I just participated in an exhibition in San Francisco.
You seem to be a pretty prolific artist…driven almost.
“Driven” would be a good word for it. I’ve been putting out albums at the rate of one a year for some time now, solo and collaboration work.
There was a time where it was harder to find your albums.
I had a deal with Private Music, and then they were bought out by Windham Hill, who were bought by BMG. They released a compilation from my four albums with Private Music a few years back. These days, I’m working on getting most of my music back, releasing it myself.
You have played with a who’s who of musicians, Fripp, Eno…Any of them you’d like to revisit?
I greatly enjoyed working with all of them, but I try to keep looking forward.
What are your plans for the near future?
Perhaps some work with Victor Biglione — he’s a Brazilian guitarist. We collaborated on an album called Strings of Desire, and we tour Brazil as a guitar duo about once a year.
For a while you were doing some soundtrack work, but I haven’t seen much of it lately.
It’s been some time, about ten years. I’d like to get back into it.
You’re certainly in the right place.
[In the background, sounds reminiscent of an impatient publicist] We’re almost out of time… shouldn’t we talk about the Police?
Er, probably. I’ll write something in the intro.