When Roxy Music wrapped up their original run at the conclusion of their Avalon tour in the early '80s, saxophonist Andy Mackay was certainly not hurting for work. A saxophonist in the '80s? Talk about someone who was rarely, if ever, going to find themselves in a state of unemployment. In addition to his efforts for other artists, including Paul McCartney, Pet Shop Boys, and "Johnny Cougar," as the future Mr. Mellencamp was then called, Mackay also regularly collaborated with his fellow Roxy member Phil Manzanera.
The twosome recorded a pair of albums in the late '80s as - you guessed it - Manzanera & Mackay, and having recently completed a reunion tour with Roxy Music, they're back together again, this time delivering their first-ever instrumental album, AM PM. Mackay spoke with Q about the uniqueness of this particular collaboration and his profound desire to take it on the road, and he also chatted about some of those other artists he's worked with over the years, including a particularly notable track by Mott the Hoople.
So what led you and Phil down the path to recording this album?
As you probably know, it was recorded sort of discontinuously, you might say, during the COVID lockdown, so we were obviously not able to see each other or mix or play together. I was stranded out of London, at a town on the coast called Brighton, and Phil said, "Look, I've been doing something. I'm going to send you a track. Just play something on it, anything you like, and see what you think." So I downloaded it, plugged in my laptop and put Logic on, and just recorded some sax into the speakers, playing without rehearsing. I just put the track up, found what key I was in, and played. I did a few takes - one on soprano, one on alto - and then sent it back to him, and he said, "Great!" And then a few weeks later he'd send me some more stuff. "Okay, do the same on this." And then he said, "I love that!" And I did a little bit of Wurlitzer here and there.
And then earlier this year, after we'd finished the Roxy tour of last year, he said, "I'm putting that album together. I'm going to call it Ambiente, and it sounds great." And I said, "Good, let me hear it!" I hadn't heard any of it! And he did a little bit more, got some other people in, like Yazz Ahmed, the trumpet player, and Paul Thompson on drums. And our producer and engineer, Mike Boddy, who we've worked with for years on all our recent stuff, Phil sort of put something together, and then Mike mixed it. I didn't hear it until it was finished! I said, "Okay, whatever you like. You've got the bits and pieces, you've got the ingredients... Chuck 'em in the pot and cook 'em, and we'll see what comes out!" And it sounded great! The more I listen to it, the more I like it.
It's totally unlike any other album we've done, where you're usually kind of getting fed up with it by the time you finally get some production masters. Every time I hear this, I hear something completely new. I sometimes wonder whether I'm hearing the same album, or whether it automatically remixes itself! But, yeah, it's great, and I think it's whatever mood people see reflected in it. It doesn't tell you much, it's for you to respond to. Which is great! I'm very excited about it.
That's interesting you say that, because it's very similar to something Phil said, and it's a comment that I understand more now that I've heard your perspective. He said, "What transpired, to me, is that it's like shifting sand. Even I don't quite understand."
Yeah! I mean, I can't remember the exact genesis of it, because sometimes I'd play some sax, he would lose whatever guitar or keyboard he'd sent that the sax was on, and then record something else against it. So it was sort of like rubbing something out and then finding something underneath it.
It's fascinating how it's sort of going back to the experimental approach that we both had in early Roxy, and before Roxy formed, when I was working with Eno. When we were both students in the '60s, we were very influenced by randomness, by random music, by John Cage and artists like Lamont Young, valuing spontaneity. We tried to put some of that into Roxy, but it tended to be more in sort of things like some outtakes and in some of our very early recorded gigs, when we didn't have quite enough material to ever play a complete set. Bryan would maybe sort of sing us a song on the side of the stage and then sort of step off into the shadows, and Eno and I would carry on and then play for five minutes a solo which he'd be looping and doing stuff with. And when I hear it now, I think it sounds kind of extraordinary. [Laughs.] It's extremely weird and experimental. So this is probably the first actual official product we've done that's quite that strange and has that degree of spontaneity.
Yeah, Phil said that he actually went back and was watching the Roxy performance in Montreux in '73.
Montreux '73 is a really interesting one, yeah. Phil does a five-minute solo guitar thing with millions of pedals and tapes, and I do a thing with Eno using loops. I can't remember which song it's on. I think "If There Is Something."
It might be "Ladytron." That's the one Phil cited specifically.
"Ladytron" as well, yeah. But, yeah, they're quite extraordinary! And the audience... I saw it quite recently, and I can't quite work out how much they're enjoying it or how much they're slightly puzzled. [Laughs.] But it's very interesting! And that has been a theme throughout the music of Britain from the '60s on. I mean, Phil was involved in what's sometimes called the British psychedelic era, with bands like Gong and Soft Machine. And obviously Eno's ambient records. And I was kind of inspired by trip hop in the '90s and 2000s. I worked with some Bristol-based musicians on a record I made called Andy Mackay and the Metaphors, which has quite a lot of that ambient experimental sound in it. It's more based on songs, but... You know, it's great, and it's nice that we've actually got something out that puts all of that together with us and Paul on the same record!
You mentioned Eno, and I was curious: I know you met him during art school, but I was wondering what you remember about that initial encounter. Did he stand out in a crowd even then?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I was at university in a town called Reading, about 30 or 40 miles outside of London, and Brian was at Winchester Art School, which was probably about 20 miles from Reading, something like that. And I had a slightly pretentious avant-garde performance group at Reading that did theater and music and visual performance art.
Was that Sunshine?
Yeah, Sunshine! We did a performance at Winchester Art School, and Eno was there, and I got talking to him afterwards. And then he came to Reading, and we did some John Cage. One show we did Variations IV and some other things. Yeah, there was quite a big British experimental music scene, both serious and moving towards rock and jazz and other experimental things. So it's always been a theme that ran through our work. I've kind of moved away from it, because I kind of love popular music and I actually love pop music. I like the whole thing of getting hit records. [Laughs.] If you can get them on your terms! It was a bit too earnest doing too many serious avant-garde performances. So I was happy to have that as part of my influence, but not the entirety of it.
Andy Mackay and the Metaphors was a bit like that, and my other recent project with 3Psalms. Both had an element of experiment, but we tended to sort of fix that experiment to repeat it, so it would be a way of composing and a continuing way of performing, whereas with the AM-PM album... I'd like to do some live stuff. I'd love to do it with Phil and Paul and some loops and some other things and just actually take it out as a live performance where we didn't know what was going to happen, either! So we'll see whether that comes about. But it is interesting that the people who've been kind enough to listen to it and say that they like it also say that they find something new each time they listen to it. I find new things in it all the time, more than almost any record we've made, which is great. It's exciting!
Regarding your solo endeavors, I actually went and listened to In Search of Eddie Riff before chatting with you. I'd never heard it before. It's great.
Yeah, that's the sort of album... I did that because I had a little bit of spare time, I had a record company - Island Records - that had a very nice studio in Notting Hill, and it was quite easy to get some studio time, so I thought, "Well, I'll go and do a little musical autobiography." [Laughs.] Which was fun to do. My more recent solo stuff, in a way, I put much more effort into.
But the world has moved on, and it's quite difficult to market a niche product. Streaming is not very kind - certainly not financially! - if you're doing a slightly experimental project. You can do it, but you won't make any money out of it. It's inexpensive to record, but you've got to be lucky enough to be able to afford to live without getting some money off it as well. But who knows? I think once it's there, you look for a lucky break somewhere where people pick up on something and use it in some other context. It'll be nice to see how well this actually does, how many streams it gets and how many people buy the vinyl, which is always a very nice thing to have.
And I should mention that I asked Phil if he had any visions of taking it on the road at all, and he basically just said that there was nothing planned but "let's see what happens."
I think we should do some live shows. I think it'd be great! I mean, there's lots of small venues around central London. Fewer and fewer proper rock venues. It's a tragedy, because the environment in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, bands could come and they'd play in pubs and clubs like the Marquee Club and the 100 Club where you'd get bands that went on to become great names and they'd play and you could go and see them fairly easily. And until relatively recently you could do that. But a lot of the pub venues have closed, and I know young musicians in bands who kind of just go, "Where do you go? How do you get some money? There's no record label to come in and say, 'Look, we might as well give you some subsidy while you work on a project." Now, it's all such that you've got to have a day job and do music for love. And if you play in a pub or a club, you might get a little bit of the gate money, but that's only going to pay for your petrol and not much else! But there are quite a lot of small experimental venues, like theater and jazz places, and I think Phil and I could possibly fit in there somewhere. I think it'd be great!
I wanted to ask you the same question I asked Phil about Eno: when he left Roxy, did you think, "Eh, he'll be back," or were you pretty sure he was gone for good?
Oh, we were pretty sure he was gone for good. Because looking back, it was clear that Eno was not going to spend 10 years on the road in a rock band. He loved doing it. He's always said that being in Roxy was one of the great formative things for him, it enabled him to do what he's subsequently done. Which I think is quite kind, because I think he would've done it anyway. [Laughs.] You know, he has a pop sensibility, which I think is why people like what he's done that seems more experimental.
But, no, when he left, I talked to him and, y'know, we were obviously upset, but in a way, it was sort of the end of the first phase of Roxy. It could've been the end of the band altogether, but we kind of thought about it and talked to Eno, and he said to me and Phil, "Look, guys, you should carry on if you want to." So with some soul searching, we did. And our pragmatism paid off, I guess, because we made another six albums. [Laughs.] And we managed to play Madison Square Garden and the London O2 last year! So we did something right. And we stayed in touch with Eno, as you know, and he's had a wonderful career and remained a remarkable person.
I wanted to ask you about a few side gigs you've done over the years, starting with your participation on Mott the Hoople's Mott album, including "All the Way to Memphis."
That was one of those nice things back in the '70s, when recording studios were at their absolute peak. They had fabulous equipment, engineers and assistant engineers, and record labels would pay you to go into them to record on 24- and 48-track and so on. And there's a studio in London called Air Studios, which was George Martin's studio in Central London, just off Oxford Street. We recorded there, and that was a studio where a lot of other bands would be working. Roxy would be in one studio and Paul McCartney would be in another, and maybe Zeppelin or whoever. I mean, really, it sounds like every name was a big name, but it happened! And Mott the Hoople were in one of the other studios, and we used to just sort of stick our heads in and out of the control room and see what people were doing. And they said, "Oh, we've got this track, and we'd really like some sax on it, Andy. Would you come and do it?" So I said, "Yeah, sure!" So I popped next door to Studio 2 - I think we were in Studio 1 - and whacked out some tenor, and...there you go! But it was great. Nice guys to work with.
One of the more surprising albums that you popped up on was an early John Cougar Mellencamp album...and by "early," I mean before he was Mellencamp.
Oh, yeah, Johnny Cougar he was known as at the time. Yeah, I...can't remember who approached me to do that. I don't know whether he looked for me or his label said, "Oh, we need a sax player," and someone said, "Oh, there's a sax player in Roxy Music, maybe he'd do it." [Laughs.] I don't know! I think that may have been Air Studios as well. I can't remember. But, yeah, it was great, actually. I thought it was a great album. He was a good-looking young guy. They were hyping him quite hard, I remember, pushing him as sort of the next big thing, and then it didn't really happen for awhile, and then suddenly, of course, he reappeared in a more American context as a big star!
You mentioned McCartney earlier. You're actually on my favorite of his collaborations with Stevie Wonder, the one that doesn't get nearly as much attention: "What's That You're Doing."
I mean, McCartney is kind of strange to work with, because you never know what's going to end up where. He's so prodigious that he's working on a lot of tracks, he's playing millions of instruments... I mean, Paul could pick up a guitar and play some really serious guitar stuff, he can play the drums pretty well, he can write songs on the keyboard while you're thinking. I've worked on sessions which subsequently became "Ebony and Ivory" and "Pipes of Peace." So remembering individual tracks is quite difficult. I played quite a lot. Not that much of it ended up getting used, I don't think. But it was a huge privilege to work with him. He's a fairly amazing creative person, and it was a great time.
You also contributed sax to Pet Shop Boys' "Love Comes Quickly."
That was a strange session as well, because the guys lurked in the control room and sort of put me in a room and made me play a lot, 'til I kind of wasn't really playing solos. It was more just to get me to play sounds and phrases, which they then sort of cut up and used in different ways. It was an interesting approach that they had. I was very pleased to be asked.
You were also part of the soundtrack to a film where your presence was perfect and very much appropriate: Velvet Goldmine.
Well, that was great. Alas, the said thing is, there's a great version of "Bittersweet" with Thom Yorke singing, and I'm a huge admirer of Thom's, but we didn't work together, so I never met him on those sessions. But I really liked the way those songs turned out. I think that movie's now on Netflix. And the movie was...not perfect. [Laughs.] It had some great moments, but... I don't know what you think, but it didn't really come off. Todd Haynes is a great director, but that wasn't his finest film. I think the problem was, it was really about Bowie, who then decided that he didn't want to have any involvement in it. So no Bowie songs. But there's some nice Lou Reed and Roxy and others. That soundtrack album is a really interesting album. I mean, it's got a lot of really great stuff on it, and if you wanted to know quite a lot about '70s music...
It's a great gateway.
You mentioned how you ventured into trip-hop, which might surprise some people. How did you find yourself heading in that musical direction? Or did you just sort of stumble into it?
I was living in the west country of England, in Somerset, so...you head out of London, you head towards Cornwall, and then you sort of get there. Bristol is an interesting city, one of the bigger cities in the UK, but always had a tradition of rebellion and experimentation. It's a sea port, and they developed a musical tradition with trip-hop and bands like Portishead and Alison Goldfrapp and Massive Attack. And, of course, Banksy was a Bristolian. It's an interesting town. And I was working with two musicians who were very into that thing of using small sounds, using the studio, being experimental, quite calm, and that sort of post-rock feel, which I love. I'd really like to have taken that Andy Mackay and the Metaphors album on the road, but it was difficult.
I had a harp player, Julia Thornton, who's a wonderful player. She's actually working with Rod Stewart these days. But she's brilliant. So we had a harp, and we had T.J. Allen, who's a producer and experimental guitarist, and he was one of the people who used a laptop in performance very early on. And Hazel Mills, who's a great keyboard player, and Paul Thompson. We went into Real World Studios and recorded, and I really wanted to go on the road, but everyone lived in different parts of the country. If you don't all live in one city and you want to do a tour where you're only playing to 500 or 1,000 people and you're not making any money, you can't afford for everyone to travel from their homes 200-300 miles away and then get back again. So it just sort of... I just couldn't really afford to get it going enough for it to be commercial. Transporting a harp and getting it set up, especially then miking it up and putting it through lots of laptops, was just too much. And it's a shame, because we did a couple of gigs, which I've recorded, and we did the album, and I'm really happy with it. It's one of the best things I did.
Well, I do hope that you and Phil are at least able to take this album out. I'm sure you'd never make it to America, but for your sake, I hope you just get to do some shows, period.
Well, you never know. If we get to America for something else, we could do some gigs. I doubt if we could actually afford to fly over just for that. [Laughs.] But, again, you never know!