Andy Summers: Circa Now!

By Jeb Wright

Andy Summers is 71 years old…yeah, no kidding.  He does not look it, sound like it or act like it.  Best of all, he does not play guitar like one might imagine a senior citizen would.  In fact, on his latest album titled, Circus Hero, by his latest band, Circa Zero, Summers is rocking and rolling much harder than he ever did in his past.

Speaking of his past, it includes a band you may have heard of…The Police.  A guy named Sting was in that band.  Summers probably flinches every time a writer just HAS to mention that when writing an intro about a current project that has NOTHING to do with The Police.  Still, Andy picked a pretty famous band to join back in the day.  So be it.  However, Circa Zero is its own animal.  

For this band, Summers teamed up with a younger man named Rob Giles from a band he saw play live a few years back.  Giles can, when he wants to, kinda sound like Sting…oops, there I go again.  Most importantly, Giles plus Summers sound like something fresh and new. 

This one should NOT fly under the radar so pay attention, read and learn more.  Andy Summers is totally delightful and witty…and he plays a mean guitar as well…and he likes camels a lot…in addition, he’s making a rockumentary about his time based in that one band I told you about earlier…no not Circa Zero…the other one…come on now. 

Jeb:  I am a hack guitar player and I want to tell you that your playing makes me mad, as it looks so simple, and it’s so hard!

Andy: [laughter] Actually, I find it really hard as well. 

Jeb: Circa Zero is a great band and a great album.  You don’t distance yourself from your past, but you play a whole lot more guitar solos than you did with The Police.

Andy: This was a much more open situation that is very guitar oriented.  We made more of a real rock album than anything The Police ever did, so it needed the real rock guitar stuff which was fun for me, of course.

Jeb: You and Rob both wrote the story of how you met each other and formed Circa Zero.  The accounts are both funny, but rather different.  You guys take some fun shots at each other. Whose account is more factual as to how it happened?

Andy: I think Rob’s is truer, as mine is basically bullshit.  It was something for the fans to read and have fun with. 

Jeb: There are times in music for it to be serious, even pretentious, but there is also time for humor. 

Andy: Yeah, I agree.   You should have fun with these things.  It’s only bloody pop music after all. I really agree with that.  In the old days, we could get really pompous about it, and I think we should just back off a bit and have a sense of humor about it. 

Jeb: I would image Rob and you have a connection and that sense of humor is part of that connection.

Andy: Yeah, we’re pretty sick [laughter].  With any personal relationship, you start sharing humor and you find if you connect on that wave length, and we did.  It was there right from the start.  We share a very sick and ironic sense of humor.  Of course, the music connection is there also.  

Jeb:  You were invited to hear Rob’s band, who I had never heard, of and you were inspired by him. 

Andy: They didn’t really make it out of the box.  I will try to give you a story quickly.  A friend of mine, who is an English guy, who manages some very famous people, told me he was managing this band called The Rescues.  He said that I really needed to come with him to see this band at the Troubadour.  This was about three years ago.  I went to see them and they were different.  They were almost like a modern day version of The Mamas and Papas.  They had two girls and two guys and incredible four part harmonies. 

On every song, everyone changed instruments.  It was unbelievable.  They were great.  I thought, “Oh my God, this band is going to go through the roof.”  It never really happened.  They made some records and they got some notice, but they never took off. 

One of the girls got pregnant, and one of the guys went off and was doing music for television.  I went and saw them again about a year later, and that is the night I talked to Rob-and something connected.  I asked his manager if Rob would like to check out some songs with me, and we got together a few days later, and obviously that’s where it all started. 

Jeb: Did Rob handle meeting you well?  Was he able to pretend that he wasn’t thinking to himself, “OH FUCK… it’s ANDY SUMMERS!”

Andy:  He likes to tell stories about that to his own disadvantage.  He says how he thought he should be singing like Sting or playing drums like Stewart [Copeland].  We did have to deal with that.  It was like, “Let’s put these clothes through the washing machine and then we can move on.” 

Previous to this, I had spent a year in the studio with some great people and I made some really great rock tracks, but I always felt like I had to be instructing everyone by going, “Let’s do this here and let’s put the bass here.”  I met Rob and I knew this is more what I was looking for.  We are on a really good level and we are like two peers playing together.  The fact is that he is an incredible singer as well. His voice was the first thing I noticed. 

Jeb: Are these 13 tracks all new from those collaborations? 

Andy: We had to start somewhere, so we started with the usual musician’s bullshit which goes, “Hey man, what have you got?”   I think the first thing I said was, “Check this one out,” and it was a track called “No Highway.”  I had that one around for a while.  I was going to record it with this Brazilian singer.  I played that and Rob goes, “Let me just try this.”  He sang a different chorus line, which is what you hear on the album.  It was pretty cool.  It was not what I had imagined, but I went with it.  I said, “Check this out” and I put that big guitar part underneath it. 

That was the first thing we did and it got us going.  After that, it was pretty open and we just started playing.  I had various guitar riffs and we got into that creative space together.  It was very easy.  I would have the guitar part and Rob would get on the drums—real drums, not electronic drums, which made a huge difference.  He would then get on the bass and finish it off. 

Jeb: How long did the album take to write?

Andy:  We did it over a few months as we were not there every single day.  We would knock it out and then go away and for a while, and then we could come back and up the ante.  We would come back in and go, “I know what we should do on that one track” and we would get back into it, and we would figure it all out between us.   We both are writers, so apart from playing our instruments we were very much into composing. 

Jeb: You seem to work fast.  Is that a fair statement?

Andy: I think I work pretty fast. It depends what you do.  I have ways of preparing.  With Rob and I, what happened was we started working together a lot and we got into a zone and stayed there. 

We are working on the second album now, and there is a lot of stuff prepared.  We have over twenty tracks and we have so far worked on four.  We need to have what Rob calls a lockout, where all we do is go to the studio every day and we just do this for about three weeks.  That puts you into a really good headspace where you’re really on it.  You’re playing really well, you’re thinking really well, and the ideas are flowing.  This is very different than showing up every couple of weeks and turning the amp on.   

Jeb:  Is there a band, or is it just you and Rob?

Andy: We have a band. We’re going to do a gig soon at The Troubadour which we are really looking forward to.  We have a Danish drummer who is an amazing rock drummer.  The band is complete as it stands right now, with the three of us. 

Jeb:  My favorite song on the album is “Nighttime.” 

Andy: That is a big one.  People are actually getting that one which I am happy about, because it has a usual structure.  The main guitar riff I had and I had the melody, and I showed it to Rob and we needed a chorus.  He came up with the chorus.  It was like, “I’ve got this bit and look at that bit you’ve got.”  We put it together and we started structuring it.  The end section is almost like “Layla.”  I think that puts it in a special place. 

Jeb: I love your being able to really push your creativity on this album as far as you want.

Andy: Live, we will even open up the solo sections and really stretch out and play like a trio in the moment. 

Jeb: Tell me about the song “Underwater.”

Andy: That one went through some changes.  We had that basic riff.  We went along with it…the amazing thing about that one is that we had the whole thing figured out, even the instrumental section.

A couple of weeks after we were sitting around and feeling good about it and Rob comes in and goes, “I’ve got a whole ‘nother sound for ‘Underwater.’’  I said, “Alright, let’s see what you’ve got.”  He got on the microphone and he sang this melody, which is what you hear on the record, but it was much different than what we had.  His new one was much better and it really shows how we could be in the moment. 

Jeb: “Levitation” has some Police styling in there…the way you do that single note thing. 

Andy: I don’t think I made a formal announcement when we started this album that said, “I am not going to do anything that might sound like The Police.” 

You know, it’s like the way I play.  What I’m trying to do when I play is to do something that is smart on the guitar; something that is witty and something that is not like what someone else would play.  I’m trying to play things the way I hear them. 

Some of them might come out something in the way that I played with The Police.  There is a little bit of that in there, but I don’t hear it much.  There are a couple of chords here and there.  You can say the lick on “Whenever You Hear the Rain” sounds a bit like something I might do in The Police. 

They [the licks] serve the song and that is what I am looking for.  I want to do what makes the song sound the best, even if it sounds like something I might have done in The Police.  To me, there are echoes of that, but this record is more of a rock record than anything we ever did with The Police. 

Jeb:  Sometimes I think it would be tough for you; You have to not sound like you sounded in The Police. 

Andy:  I have played something and said, “I think I’ve done that one before.”  There are horrible déjà vu moments [laughter].

Jeb: The one nod to The Police on this you can’t deny is “Hot Camel.”  You had “Behind My Camel” on Zenyatta Mondatta

Andy:  I know that was weird; I don’t know how that happened.  We had ten tracks that we gave the record company.  We were going back and forth on the contract and they said, “In today’s world we need two or three more tracks.”  So, we came back with three more songs, one of which was “Hot Camel,” which is kind of metal/funk.  It was going to be one of the songs for the next album so we put that one on. 

We really enjoy playing that one so we decided to put it on and I think it makes the record very interesting.  We are playing this really crazy shit on this one. They said, “What is this track called?”  I said, “Shit, I don’t know… ‘Hot Camel.’”  I had “Behind My Camel” which I won a Grammy for, and it’s kind of famous, so I guess I was just continuing the Camel theme, I suppose.

Jeb:  You and Rob are in totally different areas of your life, chronologically, yet you can, despite the age difference, use music to create something that defies time. 

Andy: That is really true, and that is a really nice thing to say.  Music is beyond those considerations.  I’ve been doing this a long time, but I think I sound pretty youthful on this record. 

Jeb: Circa Zero is a unique band.  How do you sell records in this American market of today?

Andy: I am trying not to get despondent about it because it’s tough now to actually sell CDs, or albums, or whatever you want to call them. 

I think what we do now is make music that, when people come to see us play, this is what we are going to play; this is what we are going to do.  We are reading about really big artists these days, and they are number one, and they sell something twenty-three thousand albums the first week out.  With The Police, we would shit two million before we’d even finished the bloody record. 

It is such a different time.  I’m really glad that I’m not trying to do that now.  We really enjoyed making this record and we hope people like it.  You can sell it all around the world, it’s not just the US market; you’ve got to remember that. 

We hope that it will get enough people interested to turn us into a really great live act and that is where you make the money today, if money is what you’re interested in.  It’s fun.  I’ve never gotten bored playing live. 

Jeb: I heard that your book, One Train Later, is being turned into a documentary?

Andy: It is going to be out on the 26th of September in the USA.  I was involved in this all the way.  Believe me, it’s a true Hollywood saga, the making of this movie.  It’s been around about six years in the making.  I think I made the first contact on that in about 2006.  I mean, it’s a long story.  Some of it the film companies started and then started again and then they get a different director…there is really a lot of blood on the tracks. 

The film is very good.  The people who have seen it really like it.  I think it is one of the better Rockumentaries out there. It has been around so long with these ups and downs that I’ve sort of…the emotional pull of it is gone from me.  It’s not that I don’t care anymore but it’s like, “Oh yeah…that movie.  FUCK!” 

Jeb: “When is that fucking thing coming out!”

Andy: Well, it’s kind of like that [laughter].  It will be out in September and I suppose then I will think, “Oh this is nice” and I will get back into it. 

Jeb:  You literally could have missed the opportunity to form The Police if you had taken a different train.  I will leave the mystery for those who do not know the story so they go see the movie.  But that must have made you believe in serendipity. 

Andy: It is an interesting point.  I sort of gave it that title and I put the little antidote about getting off this train and meeting up.  Someone told me that I really undersold myself saying it that way, because I make it sound like it wouldn’t have happened for me if that meeting hadn’t happened that way.  I had never thought of it quite like that.  Anyway, it served the book and it makes a point. 

I do believe in serendipity.  Christ, it’s incredible how that all works.  I would say at that point I‘d been playing for a while and I thought I was great, but I had not broken into the big time.  I was getting a lot of notice in London at that time.  Instead of joining Procol Harem, or something like that, I joined this punk band with absolutely no future whatsoever, who no one liked, and who had no record deal.  I felt something, you know.  The rest is history, obviously.  There was a lot of serendipity involved in that story. 

Jeb: The name of your new band, Circa Zero, is very cool.  It is like you’re saying, “We are starting from nothing.” 

Andy: Yeah, that’s right.  We were thinking we needed to make the least pretentious name we could.  It is about starting with nothing, zero, and no one knows who we are…hint, hint.  It is a good name. 

Jeb: Last one:  Have you heard of the band Def Leppard?

Andy: I know who they are, of course. 

Jeb:  Phil Collen, their guitar player, is a huge fan of The Police.  He wanted me to tell you that you are responsible for his guitar sound on their album Hysteria.  He told me he spent hours trying to figure out your sound on the song “Walking on the Moon” and he could not get it, but what he came up with was his sound for that album. 

Andy:  Right.  That is pretty cool; I had never heard that.  Well, there you go.  He must have been loaded.