THE HEALTH BENEFITS FROM LISTENING TO MUSIC
A CONVERSATION WITH PHIL MANZANERA
“Where are you calling from,” asked Phil Manzanera at the beginning of our Zoom call. “I am in Toronto,” I managed to say. My nerves were getting the better of me. I am talking with Phil Manzanera! “Ah, my daughter is on the way to the airport, she has been there for the past week. She said the weather has been fantastic.” I agree but wanted to say, ‘yeah, it has been nice, but you want to know what is fantastic? Your new album AM.PM with Andy MacKay. But I refrain, but that album is the reason we are chatting on Zoom.
“We opened the last Roxy tour in Toronto, earlier this year. We actually rehearsed about an hour West of the city for the tour too.” Toronto seems to have a special place in Phil Manzanera’s heart.
And as much as I want to talk about Roxy Music, Diamond Head, or 801 or Primitive Guitars, or a number of his classic solo albums, I remind myself we are going to talk about his new collaboration with Andy MacKay. Manzanera and MacKay have been playing together since 1972, with the release of Roxy’s debut album (Roxy Music) and debut single (“Virginia Plain”). But during Roxy Music’s lengthy hiatus following their classic and hugely successful Avalon, Manzanera and MacKay formed The Explorers with vocalist James Wraith. Their self-titled album was released in 1985. Since then, the two worked together with The Players (Christmas, 1988) and on each other’s solo projects. In 1989, the Manzanera and MacKay compilation CD was released which included tracks from their two albums released in 1988 and 1989 (Crack The Whip and Up In Smoke). In 2019 the duo released Roxymphony. So, AM.PM is not out of keeping for the two.
“I recorded everything, well almost everything, in the last three years here, in my shed,” Manzanera told me. “I have my Firebird V11, one microphone, a Neumann, and my setup.” Judging from what I can see, this is not a shed in the standard sense of the word, it is a beautiful cottage-like home, lots of windows and a perfect place in which to record.
“I sent Andy some music I had done with my guitar and said do what you want with it,” Manzanera said about how the album came about. “I have played with him for 50 years and have a sense of what he can do, but what he sent me back blew my mind. His sax playing was amazing.”
And that is how the new album AM.PM began. Of course, the two had some help. Manzanera brought in Mike Boddy, who has worked with Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music and Manzanera, to co-produce and engineer the album, and he also contributed bass, programming and keyboards. Manzanera also pointed out that Anna Phoebe, who has played with Roxy Music, played violin, Seth Scott played flute, George Goode is on tuba, Yazz Ahmed is on flugelhorn, and joining them is Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson.
“There was one moment when we were in the same room, three of us,” recalled Manzanera. “But most of it was done independently. What happened was, it got to a certain stage and then we did the Roxy tour. I thought we spent three or four months training ourselves and getting ready to do the tour, and Andy was playing brilliantly, and Paul Thompson was too. So, I thought, ‘hang on when we get back home, let’s go in the studio straight away, I have a studio in London, and capture what I heard on the stage, which was Andy playing beautifully. We did a couple of days with him playing and it was just magic. I just loved what he played and then Paul Thompson came in one day and did all of his four tracks and we were like a match fit. I did some guitars and things, and that was it.”
Being in the same studio for the first time in three years with other musicians proved to be a huge treat for Manzanera, as well as playing with a live drummer.
““I had forgotten how great it is to have a real live drummer, as opposed to working here with the drum boxes. Although, to be fair, on the Finn-Manzanera album tracks, they are real drummers, and I sent it to friends on the west coast of America, London, and many other places.”
Of course, Manzanera is referring to another project he has completed in the past couple of years, two albums with Tim Finn (Caught By The Heart and The Ghost of Santiago). The albums were recorded remotely and were international affairs (“That was 12 different countries”). Manzanera first worked with Tim in 1976 producing the second Split Enz album, Second Thoughts, and both Tim and Neil Finn have sung on Phil’s solo projects.
“You make a lot of friends over the 50 years, and when I see how talented those guys are…Tim and his brother Neil have written some amazing songs, and their voices are beautiful. Tim has just finished doing some gigs for the first time in 10 years in Australia and New Zealand, his greatest hits type of thing. I was surprised. I didn’t think he would tour anymore, and I would have loved to have been there to hear so many great songs. It was an honour and pleasure to work with Tim. He caught me a moment, and just sitting in these rooms, thinking ‘who can I get in touch with? Do you fancy doing anything?’.
They end up recording the two albums, with material left over. According to Manzanera, “When the vinyl comes out at the end of November, there’ll be five brand new tracks that no one has ever heard.”
As for AM.PM, Manzanera is looking forward to the reviews. It is a very beautiful, yet experimental instrumental album.
“It is very difficult to review instrumental music for reviewers. You know, most reviewers are writers, and they can understand lyrics and lyrical content and stuff to do with writing, but when it comes to abstract music, it is very difficult to put down into words what this music is. People who write about classical music go for all sorts of things. I read what they put and I think, ‘I don’t see it like that, I don’t even see it, I just listen to it’. It is a different approach to listening to it.”
“It’s a feeling. I suppose, when you think about Brian Eno’s ambient music, there’s a lot of stuff there, it is just a tone or colour, a backwash to your life. You don’t have to focus totally on it if you don’t want to. It can just exist and be the soundtrack to your doing other things. It begs the question as to how we listen to music. There was a big opportunity to just listen to music and choose different music for different moods depending on what you have been doing through the day. You start going into more detail about what you want from this soundtrack to your life.”
And even Manzanera admits that the album is difficult to describe.
“You couldn’t predict where we were going next, absolutely not. I am expecting the reviews to be either ‘this is just crazy nonsense’ or ‘this is really different and interesting’ because you can’t pin it down. So, I am ready for both…kinda.”
And to help promote the album, Manzanera has put together three music videos for the project.
““There are three videos associated with AM.PM. The first video (“Blue Skies”) has had more hits than anything I have done in the last three years. You can see “Newanna” and you can see everybody associated with the album playing along, and just before the album is released, there will be a video for “Ambiente”. I just do them here at home, just something to have something visual. It is fun to give it a little bit of visual context. What I realized by doing the three videos, it just brings it to life. Everyone has their own mental picture, but when you see us playing the parts, it puts on the emphasis.”
The videos will have to do for the time being, as Manzanera has no plans right now for a solo tour with Andy MacKay.
“There are no plans…we will just have to wait and see. It’s not as straightforward as that. And there’s lots of projects going on here. But when Tim went out, I thought ‘oh hey, should we do some gigs?’ But how do you schedule that? When we did the Roxy tour, we decided to do it and I said to Bryan, hang on, we haven’t got a manager, we haven’t got an infrastructure, how are we going to do this? We found somebody and it took six months to get us up to speed so we could do it.”
In the meantime, as AM.PM is about to be released, Manzanera is already thinking and planning some new projects. Besides the Tim Finn collaboration receiving the vinyl treatment, Roxymphony and The Players’ Christmas Album are both being re-released on vinyl, And Manzanera is considering revisiting the classic 801 Live album.
“I’m thinking of doing a three-vinyl version. I found a version of the Reading festival. If you know 801, every time it is played, it was different. You think you know it but every time you hear it, it is different. I think people will like it, because people who know it are real fans, and people will enjoy it, it is like having a new recording.
But this is not work for Manzanera. “It’s just what we do. It is fun doing it with Andy. A few years ago, Andy had a bit of a medical problem, and it was touch and go. It is a miracle that he actually did the Roxymphony and the Roxy tour and played so well. We are getting to the stage in our lives where we are all getting a bit old. You just have to enjoy every day and do what you do. In general, I think music is good for people. To listen and to play and to play with other people is very sociable. There are health benefits from listening to music. There is a reason that Eno’s music is played in hospitals.
And for Manzanera, it all comes down to listening and enjoying as much music and art as possible.
“Everybody has a back story of stuff that influenced them. What is beautiful, what I think, when I talk to younger musicians coming up, I say ‘listen to as much music as possible. Let it all go in and it will come out gradually. It is like adding colours to your palette if you are a painter. You will have all this extra stuff to draw on, and not only music, but art, visual art, literature. It all helps influence. Because what we are doing is just making a series of choices. Shall I play it this way? Or should I play that way? I will play it that way. Now that I played it that way…series of choices until you get what you consider a finished thing. All those things that influence your choices, if you only have a limited well to draw upon, you won’t have a lot to draw upon, so make that well full of interesting, colorful stuff. You decide that this is what you want to do, not to be famous, but because you love music. And that’s it. Whatever happens along the way, happens.