Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay Talk New Collaborative Album AM.PM

The two founding members of Roxy Music talk 50 years of collaboration, new music and their former band's recent reunion.

Music Features Roxy Music
Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay Talk New Collaborative Album AM.PM

Since meeting for the first time when they joined the first lineup of Roxy Music, guitarist Phil Manzanera and woodwind player Andy Mackay have remained in each other’s orbits for the better part of five decades. When that band called it quits in 1983, the two formed a new group, The Explorers, and later recorded under their own names for a pair of albums that utilized a deep bench of supporting players like bassist Tony Levin, drummer Steve Gadd and members of 10cc and Moody Blues. And as they’ve amassed an impressive resume with credits as producer and session musician, Manzanera and Mackay keep getting pulled back together to collaborate or play live dates together.

In recent years, the pair’s collective work has been focused on their Roxy days. The two helped put together Roxymphony, a live performance of Roxy Music material featuring the two backed up by a small orchestra and a choir. The lone performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall was captured on film for release on CD and DVD, and will be getting issued on vinyl this coming Friday. As well, the two took part in the run of concerts last year to celebrate Roxy Music’s 50th anniversary — the first time the original lineup (sans keyboardist Brian Eno) had played together since their induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Thrilled though they were at how well all those performances went down, Mackay and Manzanera are even more excited at how their time together helped spark the creation of new music in the form of the cleverly-titled album AM.PM. Released last Friday through Manazera’s own Expression Records imprint, the music was first built by layers during COVID lockdowns. The two would share tracks, adding elements and slowly letting them take shape. Following the Roxy tour, they spent some time in Manzanera’s home studio with a few guests like Roxy drummer Paul Thompson and bassist / keyboardist Mike Boddy (who also served as engineer and co-producer) and a few string and horn players. The resulting material is as nebulous and free-flowing as a glob of wax in a lava lamp with works informed by downtempo, ambient, reggae and art rock.

Paste caught up with both men in separate conversations over Zoom to discuss their longstanding creative partnership, the creation of AM.PM and last year’s Roxy reunion. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You two have collaborated often — more than anyone else — for the better part of five decades now. What keeps you two coming back together so frequently?

Phil Manzanera: We’ve been good friends. We have worked professionally together in Roxy Music and out of Roxy Music, and we have always had something special in our musical conversations. We’re not, technically, the best players in the world, but somehow, the call and response where I play something and he plays something, it brings a smile to my face. I like his tone. I like the fact that I’m not playing with a jazzer. I tend to close down with jazzers because their technique is awesome and I’m listening to them going, “Well, what am I going to play?” We keep it simple. And it’s fun, really.

Andy Mackay:We understand each other pretty well. I think one of the things that attracted Roxy to Phil was its versatility. It was one of the things we put in our ad in the music press when we were looking for a guitarist. I think it was, “Versatile, tricky,” and one or two other things. When Phil appeared, we thought, “Yeah, this guy can play some heavy guitar but he’s also been with some experimental bands.” I guess it’s a bit like my sax and oboe playing. I was not a conventional player. I liked soul music and classical music. We, all of us, developed our musical skills together.

How did this new album AM.PM develop?

AM: We recorded it in lockdown, during the pandemic. We were unable to be in physical contact. I was in Brighton on the south coast for two years during that period. Phil sent me some stuff and I loaded it into Logic, had a quick listen, picked up the sax and played, more or less, the first thing that came. I did another take with maybe another instrument and then another one and then sent it back to Phil. Then he would maybe play something to what I played and then send that back to me. And then send me a bit of ambient track and I’d work on that. He built up a collection of all these bits and pieces. It’s a very strange album because it’s quite hard to get to know and yet when a piece comes out that you recognize, it’s almost like a walk in the country where you see a view that you’ve seen before but it looks slightly different because it’s a bit darker or it’s a different time of year. It’s an album you can sort of travel through.

PM: It was really an antidote to the Roxy 50 shows where we spent six months serving the songs, making sure the songs came across well and the lyrics were heard and all of that. In the buildup to that, I’d been working on songs with Tim Finn, and I just felt like doing something with no structure — coming straight from the head and whatever happened, happened. These bits of music are just us let free, and being free was one of the reasons I was wanting to be a musician. To have freedom to do what you want.

Was that a comfortable process for you both to be working separately rather than being together physically in a studio?

AM: I love working in the studio. We all have a huge nostalgia for the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when you could go into a studio with multitrack machines and brilliant keyboards and a performance space and engineers and somewhere to play pinball when you’re having a break and meet other musicians. It’s gone. There are only a handful of studios left in London and they tend to get used for things like film music where they need to have a big space to record an orchestra. I miss being in the studio but it’s a great privilege in being able to have a laptop with Logic on it or ProTools and be able to have an idea, put it down and play it to your friends to work on it and move somewhere else with it. It’s the way we’re working now and it sort of compensates for the fact that it’s almost impossible to earn money out of music now.

You did have some time together in the studio, though, correct?

PM: After the Roxy tour last September, I thought, “Wow, [Andy’s] playing really well. He’s fully fit and has a beautiful tone, and Paul Thompson as well.” So I said, “Just come into the studio for a couple of days and we’ll play on top of some of the stuff. We’ll get the best of all worlds.” Of course, if we’d done it now, it’d be totally different. We’re out of practice and like, rubbish, probably. Andy just played so beautifully on this album. I think we captured what’s so great about Andy’s playing. I also chose four other people who are fantastic musicians. One is a Lebanese musician Yazz Ahmed who plays flugelhorn. I said, “Just do whatever you like and send it to me and I’ll make a track out of it.” Same with the violinist Anna Phoebe, and an experimental flutist Seth Scott and a tuba player [George Goode], a young guy who’s 18. I saw him at a concert playing a tuba concerto. So there’s a series of different starting points in some ways.

Was it a process then of getting these longer pieces of music and extemporaneous material and editing them down into song form?

PM: I definitely edited stuff. I’d sit here and just do crazy stuff. Play anything, and then play anything on top of anything. There’s a few tracks where it seems to shift the whole time. I’ve got no idea what I did. It’s just primitive. I did an album once called Primitive Guitars because I’m still sort of a primitive. I’m not that schooled. I was anti-technique really. I just wanted to let things flow. So consequently this album sounds different than any other kind of music I’ve done.

AM: I left that to Phil. I’ve been on enough of my own projects over the last few years that have taken so much of my time. What I played was quite spontaneous but it was responding to what Phil had sent. I said, “I’m really happy for you to just take it away and do whatever you like.” Then we added only a few tiny touches, which, I think, is why I enjoy it so much.

How was it for George to come in and just play and have free reign to do whatever he wanted? For all the other musicians, that might have been a comfortable place to be. How did he fare?

PM: He’d never done it before. He’d never been in a studio before. He will be going to music college here, the Royal Academy of Music. It’s very difficult to find a tuba player, and also somebody who’s young enough to not be set in their ways and would be open to experiment. If they’re learning the dots all the time and reading the dots, there’s no opportunity to just improvise. I think it’s such an important part of your personal development to see what’s inside of you. I just made it as comfortable as possible. I think he’s going to be surprised when he hears it.

In addition to AM.PM, you both have the recording of Roxymphony out this coming Friday. How did this project come together?

PM: Andy had done an album based on the Psalms with an orchestra, which he’d been wanting to do for donkey’s years. He wanted to put on a concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall and he said, “Look, my album only lasts half an hour. I need to do another half. So let’s do some arrangements of Roxy songs?”

AM: I needed to put a small orchestra together with Lucy Wilkins, who played violin with Rox in the 2000s, leading it. Lucy came up with the arrangements along with another old colleague of mine, Ray Russell. It worked really well. Got a huge audience reaction.

PM: We did the first half with the Roxy tracks, and he had a choir for his songs so we took that opportunity. We had no idea what it was going to turn out like because you can’t have rehearsals with a big orchestra because it’s too expensive. The first time we really heard it was when we played it. And people loved it. Luckily, we recorded it.

AM: It sounds great. It’s a really interesting slant on some of those songs, particularly two or three of my songs that have a more classical element that I brought to Roxy. The chord sequences and the structures I used were much more influenced by my love of classical music.

PM: It worked really well. There’s one, “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” which is really scary. It could be in a horror film.

AM: When you listen to it, the voice in “Dream Home” is kind of a mad man. Here is this guy singing about the inflatable doll and the perfect apartment and you think, “Yeah, this could be a Hitchcock film.” I’ve talked to Bryan [Ferry] about it in detail. Brian has a cinematic imagination, and he loves movies. You could do a Bernard Herrmann score with it. This was a nice way to indulge in those sorts of things.

Before COVID hit, you were planning on touring the U.K. with this program, correct?

AM: I’d love to. I’m going to work on the Psalms in a more easily performable version. We have a great network of cathedrals in England, which are usually in older cities. They form the cultural focus in Cork or Canterbury, where you have a full time professional organist and a choir, which is usually boys and girls and professional male and female singers. They have a fantastic resource of performing English church music of an incredibly high standard. They need to make money because they have huge maintenance costs. So they’re used for classical concerts and sometimes for theater or jazz music. So I had the idea that I would try and take the songs out using that rather than clubs or concert halls. So if the arrangements were there, take a small orchestra — guitarist, a couple of woodwind players, some percussion — and use the resources and the space. The idea is to do a cathedral tour next year if I can.

How was the experience of the Roxy 50 concerts for you both?

PM: It was fantastic. I absolutely loved it. I saw it as a victory lap. We spent a fortune on the visual content of the show, putting us in the iconography of the 50 years of Rox, music iconography of what the songs were about. It’s the first time we’ve ever been able to do that properly. And it’ll never happen again. It was just so ridiculously expensive. But I don’t regret it for a minute. It was a great way to finish what we started out trying to do. It’s because of America that we were finally able to do it. Somebody said, “Would you like to come and do this concert? We’ll pay you so much money.” And we said, “Great! Thank you! We’ll spend it all on the show.” Being the useless businessmen that we are. But as I was saying to Bryan [Ferry] the other day, if that was it, then I’m happy. We got great reviews and we can all continue doing what we’ve always done.

AM: The audiences were fantastic. It was a big production. There was a lot of pressure. Bryan was worried about his health. I think singers always do. We had the COVID situation where there was still a lot of paranoia and fear of getting ill and having to cancel shows. We got away with it quite well. I think by the time we got to Los Angeles, which was the last show in North America, we were feeling that we’d settled in. Then we had three dates in the U.K., ending up in London at the O2 Arena. I think they were some of the best shows that we’d done. We got some of the best notices of our career. I think we’re all aware that we’re not going to be doing it forever. It’s nice to do it and feel the affection and interest that the audience had for us, which was brilliant.

Did it feel then like the period at the end of the Roxy Music sentence? You can walk away now with your heads held high?

AM: It’s difficult with hindsight to remember exactly what you thought. There was definitely a feeling that the London show was a kind of summing up. We’re a London band. We formed in London. We rehearsed in London. Our first gigs were in London. So we were coming home. We finished it and thought, “We’re not sure what will happen next.” I think we realized that, “Yeah, that’s probably it.” We never say never, but I think that’d be a very good point to finish off if that’s how it is.

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