Legendary Police Guitarist Andy Summers Talks New Book Fretted and Moaning

Books Features Andy Summers
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Legendary Police Guitarist Andy Summers Talks New Book <i>Fretted and Moaning</i>

When you consider the totality of Andy Summers’ body of work, especially if you look past his most well-known output as a member of the Police, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that Summers’ primary passions are guitar and photography. When Summers sat down recently for an hour-long Zoom chat with Paste, he referred multiple times to music as an “obsession” that’s still going strong, almost 70 years after he became inseparable from his first guitar as a child. And, though he turned to photography much later—in the early ’80s as the Police’s stardom accelerated into superstardom—he threw himself into his camera work with the same tireless dedication that he’d applied to music. Throb, his first book of photographs released in 1983, chronicles the side detours Summers was fond of pursuing, camera in hand, from within the hurricane’s eye of a world-beating rock band.

Perhaps inevitably, Summers decided along the way to introduce writing to his repertoire. In addition to penning the text for photographer Ralph Gibson’s book of guitar photography, 2005’s Light Strings, the legendary six-string innovator published his memoir One Train Later in 2006. Fifteen years later, he unveils his first stab at fiction with Fretted and Moaning, a collection of 45 short stories all threaded together by the presence of guitars. (Be sure to read the exclusive Paste excerpt here.)

Perennially sharp-tongued over the years, Summers (who didn’t hold back in our interview) employs a biting prose style in bringing to life a parade of zany characters facing calamity after calamity. At times, one gets the impression that the characters in Fretted and Moaning emerged from the mythical version of America that enchanted Summers’ imagination before he ever set foot in the USA. An ideal book for the guitar-lover who doesn’t necessarily think they like to read, as well as for the bookworm who doesn’t think they have much interest in the guitar, Fretted and Moaning reveals yet another side to Summers as a nascent literary voice, a refreshing twist from someone who has long established himself as a prodigious master of at least one, arguably two, other artforms.

Out August 19th via Rocket 88 Books, Fretted and Moaning is available in three editions—hardcover (£35/$45), signed hardcover (£125/$175) and “ultimate hardcover” (£350/$450), which includes an exclusive, signed, numbered/limited-run Giclée art print of a Telecaster photographed by Summers.

Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.

Paste: How much had you attempted to write fiction by the time you sat down to write One Train Later?

Andy Summers: I’ve always been a fairly literary person and an avid, non-stop reader. And I’ve had to write quite a few things over the years. So it was sort of there. And with One Train Later I got to the point where finally I thought, “Yeah, I’ve probably got a pretty interesting life story if I could turn it into a book.” Not that I’d sat down and written like that before, but the inclination was absolutely there. I didn’t think, “Oh, there’s no way I could do it.” I’m a pretty confident person. [Laughs.] So I originally wrote about 800 pages. That’s where I really got my feet wet. With the stories in this new book—I actually wrote some of them quite a few years ago. It felt like, “Hmm… I should probably do more of these.” And then I did some onstage performances, where I read a couple of these to the audience, and it went really well. So, prior to getting in touch with a publisher, I got down to it. I had a lot of ideas, but it was just a question of getting into full writing mode and taking it seriously.

Paste: There’s one common thread between the two books, in that One Train Later is essentially a sequence of stories…

Summers: Well I hope it’s a bit more than that, because that makes it sound kind of dumb. I’ve seen plenty of so-called “rock star books.” Most of them are crap, and they’re just anecdotes. I wanted mine to be much more legit than that. Because there’s lots of other things in there, not just anecdotes. There’s funny stories, but there’s also loss, divorce, pregnancies, bitterness—it’s all in there.

Paste: Okay, but there are two scenes from One Train Later that, in an alternate universe—if you’d made them up—could have fit right into your new book because they lend themselves to the same kind of acerbic presentation: One was the part where you’re sitting at a café in Germany and it dawns on you that there’s an ex-Nazi officer sitting across from you, and then there’s the part where you’re in a prop plane in South America with the Police and you almost fall out of the plane.

Summers: That’s all true.

Paste: Of course, but there’s some common thread in the storytelling approach.

Summers: Yeah, alright, [I can see that]. There’s a lot of imagination in these new stories, but I’ve found enough things in my life to be able to use as the seed of a story—or, I’ve heard people tell anecdotes and I remembered them or made notes. These were written by someone who’s actually passed through most of this stuff. [Laughs.] That’s been my life.

Paste: Not to spoil it for anyone, but Fretted and Moaning includes a story about a retired musician named Floyd who really pines for his glory days. You’ve never retired—in fact, you’ve remained highly active. But how wistful do you ever feel for life in that upper stratosphere of fame?

Summers: That’s a very good question. Yeah, of course I’d feel wistful. I mean, how long can anybody keep that up? You go from that kind of high-flying excitement, which is a killer in a way, and then you let go of it. Floyd’s position as an ex-country star is different from mine, but it’s not so far from my life that I couldn’t take it and slightly re-invent it.

Paste: One of the things that stands out about your writing style is its economy. Musicians typically have to learn over time not to keep adding parts. How long did it take you to achieve such a succinct style?

Summers: If you want to parallel it with music, I’ve always been an improviser. I grew up as a kid, from like 11 on, completely fascinated with jazz and how to play jazz solos, which are all about phrasing and articulation and the concise, pointed phrase. It’s very much like writing in that sense. When you read a lot, you see how some authors take it all the way out, so you see whether you really want to go that far. The question for me was, “How am I going to make this appeal to the general public? Okay, then, they’ve all got to have guitars in them somehow.” I figured people were going to accept it if I wrote about the guitar rather than trying for some high-flown political novel or something. But the guitar is never really the point of the story. It’s just the focal point for relationships to happen. My idea was to make them all comedic. A lot of these end with a twisted, dark-comic ending. In fact, almost all of them have got a slice of lemon thrown-in at the end. [Laughs.] But some took longer than others to get in the right order. They’re not knock-offs at all. They were all worked and re-worked, but I’m used to this process of constructing and self-editing.

Paste: You’ve said in the past that you prefer ambiguous chords because you hate when music dictates what the listener is supposed to feel…

Summers: Yeah, that’s one of my tropes, if you will. One of the hip things about the Police was that we did avoid giant barre chords and simple major/minor moods. On the guitar, I often would only play the chords with the major 9th or the 2nd above the tonic, so that I would avoid the major 3rd or the minor 3rd. Sting grew up with almost exactly the same musical background as me—the Beatles, the Stones, blues, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Brazilian music, you name it. So when I started playing more out harmonies, he could sing right across it and over them.

Paste: Well, I was going to ask how that affinity for ambiguity applies to these new stories.

Summers: Actually, it’s kind of embarrassing because I don’t know that I’ve necessarily done that! [Laughs.] What I’ve brought to this is a lot of unique experiences from being the guitar player that I am, but with something of a literary sensibility—if I dare say that. I don’t think a normal writer who doesn’t play the instrument could have written these stories. They come out of a lifetime of being around all this stuff and inhabiting that planet.

Paste: You were born during World War II, and you have this concrete sense of what it looks like just after a society has gone over the brink. One Train Later really gets across how severely England was affected in the aftermath of the war. So if you were to write something with a political focus—about, say, all the upheaval taking place in the U.S.—what would you want to say?

Summers: Well, I do live here, and I watch what’s going on with American politics all the time. I read The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. I read some of these political commentaries and wonder if I could write as well as that. It’s a different kind of writing. I’m not a heavily political person—basically, I hate politics, but I feel that being an adult living in this country, and given the importance of America in the world, that I have to pay attention and even talk to my own kids about it. My view of it would be pretty dark. I like reading people like Martin Amis, because he comes at politics as a brilliant novelist. He has an incredible take on the state of the world. I doubt that I’d take-on something like that. I don’t really feel qualified.

Paste: You have a history of living in the L.A. area prior to being in the Police. What attracted you back there after the Police broke up?

Summers: I don’t know, actually. I wonder that myself, like “What was I thinking?” [Laughs.] Post-Police, it was all over and I went back to live in my house in London and it all felt like a downer. At that time, I hated London and thought, “God, I can’t stand it here.” My wife and I met in Los Angeles, so I did have some background here. I’m probably done with it now and ready to move back to London. [Laughs.]

Paste: How accurate would it be to say that you’re more direct and sharp-tongued than your average Brit?

Summers: It’s possible. I’ve got pretty strong opinions about things and I don’t mind voicing them if I get the opportunity. [Laughs.] Then again, I think when you’ve got a country that’s as tiny as England, and everybody’s on top of one another, people do get more opinionated and have strong thoughts. Out here… God, the size of America—I can barely even conceive of it. America is a gigantic country. I just don’t think countries should be this big.

Paste: How did that hit you on the Police’s first trips across the U.S. in ’78 and ’79?

Summers: Oh, we were very excited. All the music we were influenced by comes from America. Places like Detroit, Nashville, Chicago—these are all legendary names if you’ve grown up in England, and finally you’re here, where it all came from. I mean, we played in Memphis, my God! I went down to see the house where Elvis was born. [Laughs.] Stuff like that was very thrilling in those early days. It was complete romanticization on our part, of course, but to be driving around in a van across the country was thrilling. I enjoyed it, despite the long hours.

Paste: Stewart Copeland once described a scene from the recording of your instrumental “Behind My Camel” [off the Police’s 1980 LP Zenyatta Mondatta], where Sting refused to play on it. By Stewart’s account, you said “If this doesn’t make it onto the record, I’m going to kill someone.”

Summers: Stewart tends to fabricate quite a lot. That doesn’t sound quite right, but I do remember the incident. The song won a Grammy, so I got the last laugh on that one. [Laughs.] Being in a band with people, they’re your friends but they’re also your adversaries, so you have to state your position clearly and stand by it. [Laughs.] You have to get used to rejection. It certainly was like that in the Police, where you’re trashing each other’s efforts all the time until you end up someplace where everybody goes [feins resignation:] Alright, that’s good. That’ll do it.

Paste: It’s well-documented that you felt the Police had more great albums in you.

Summers: Oh, no doubt.

Paste: But in Can’t Stand Losing You, your 2015 documentary re-working of One Train Later, you cast the band’s 2007 reunion as a triumph. How much interest did you have in making a new album, especially when it was clear that people came out in droves to see those shows? I mean, one imagines the music-business machine was seeing dollar signs.

Summers: Oh yeah, everybody wants to make money. I was probably—I don’t want to use the word “cynical,” but by the time we got through that tour, I knew there was no way we were going to make a new album. There was no way Sting would step up to the plate and agree to do that. So I didn’t really hold out much hope.

Paste: At the time, you could hear it in the playing that all three of you had grown as musicians.

Summers: I agree! And thank you for saying that.

Paste: It wasn’t just chops, it was the growth. So it was like, “Why wouldn’t a band in this position make new music?”

Summers: Look, I can only say, “Ask Sting.”

Paste: What made it clear to you that he “wasn’t going to step up to the plate”?

Summers: Well, he’s a very—what’s the right word, intransigent?—person. Very self-enclosed. You couldn’t get in there. Although, now that I think about it, there was some talk about that. He and I did have some conversations along those lines. It’s such a Spinal Tap cliché, but we talked about doing an acoustic album. God, I can’t believe we actually said that. [Laughs.] So there was some talk, but then of course the tour was over and we all just drifted back to wherever we were. I mean, that was almost a two-year involvement. That’s something you have to come down from to get back to reality.

Paste: You’ve said the reunion was volatile, that it could blow up at any moment.

Summers: Yes—between Sting and Stewart, not really me, but there were some difficult moments in there. Even at the beginning, I thought, “We’re not going to make it.” But we did. With a setup like that, we had 120 people with us and 75 trucks. It was massive, so two weeks in, it’s like, “Too late! You can’t back out now. All the contracts are signed and the insurance is in place.”

Paste: Somebody would’ve been hung from a balcony if one of you had tried to back out!

Summers: Yeah, it would not have been pretty. [Laughs.]

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. He also dreams of being a “setlist doctor” to the bands you read about in these pages, and has started making playlists for imaginary shows that your favorite band never actually played. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter Twitter.