Sax, God and rock and roll!
We sit down with Andy Mackay, a founder member of Roxy Music, to discuss his new album, theology and his life in music
Interview by Sam Clark Photography by Andy Barnham
Roxy Music were one of the most avant guard and influential bands of our time. Andy Mackay’s unique saxophone style cut a distinctive, crisp element through their songs and he co-wrote some of their greatest hits including “Love is the Drug”.
Andy’s new album 3Psalms is his first real solo work for over 20 years. Started as an experimental project in the mid 90’s, it draws upon influences through his life in music.
It’s a tremendous piece of work. Whether you choose to spend your Sunday morning in church or at home with a fry-up, this album makes a wonderfully stirring and uplifting soundtrack to your day.
The story of its creation over more than a couple of decades has seen some twists and turns, these could be shear chance or possibly involve some divine intervention? We asked Andy about how it all came about.
The 3Psalms has been an on-and-off part of your life for over 20 years, what made you decide to complete it now?
We finished the last Roxy tour in 2011. Bryan was off doing his own projects and I said to myself the Roxy thing is off the cards now.
No one ever says never, but I can’t see us doing another Roxy tour.
So I thought, now I’ve got time to finish the Psalms properly. Ray Russell, Phil Manzanera, former Roxy Music lead guitarist and record producer and Colin Good, Roxy’s keyboard MD were all a great help. We record with the Czech National Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague who were fantastic. Then finally we mixed it in Dean Street studios, Soho, a wonderful old studio.
How did the album artwork come about?
We needed a photograph in a hurry for the Psalms concert at the South Bank and I remembered a great portrait a friend of mine, Richard Pearce took. Lee Sullivan had the idea of changing it into a comic/stained glass image for the album cover, which works incredibly well. We all said yes that’s it, its brilliant! Its so important now a days to have a design that will work the size of a postage stamp but this also blows up and looks like a piece of pop art, which is brilliant.
So, why did you choose to create a piece of work based on the psalms?
You can’t go on writing love songs forever, sometimes you have to think a little bit more about the human condition.
Around the time of the AIDS crisis a couple of my friends got ill and I noticed people were sort of looking for a place to go. I knew a couple of people who found it much easier to relate to a psalm than they did to a Christian gospel. Saying God loves you just doesn’t relate to everyone. The psalms reflect a human condition, we’re young, we get old, we die. There is a context to it.
For those of us less knowledgeable of religious texts, what are the psalms?
The book of psalms is one of the Old Testament books. There are 150 psalms, they are numbered slightly differently but are pretty much the same in Jewish worship. Originally they were all supposed to have been written by King David but its now understood they were written by all sorts of people over about a 500 year period and collected together as a collection of poems about 3 or 4 hundred BC. There was a monastic thing of singing all the psalms in a month and they would do three at a time.
Growing up as a chorister as a boy in a Church of England school you sang a lot of psalms. They are used in hymns, the Lord is my Shepherd is a psalm. I think the psalms are a bit like Shakespeare, people know phrase but possibly don’t know where they come from.
Have you kept to the original text of the 3 psalms you chose?
I haven’t edited the psalms. Lord thou hast been our refuge, is in the old English from the 17th century prayer book. I tried the modern translation but it didn’t sound right. It’s a very difficult language to understand but I was more concerned with it being a musical thing. The message is not the primary issue, the primary thing for me is the music.
Did you intend to give any message in the piece?
No, no. The psalms cover different things. I just thought there is something more neutral about the psalms as a kind of religious statement.
I would say is there are no simple answers. If religion becomes one of the things people discuss I’d be very happy but I’m not going to tell them what to think, it’s for them to find out.
How did you begin setting the psalms to music?
In the mid 80’s I had some spare time, I had young children, I was quite happy. I had been living in Ireland for a bit and I was back living in London and decided to go back to University and do a theology degree at Kings College, London.
After that I worked on music for film and television [This included the ITV drama Rock Follies. The soundtrack was a hugely successful number 1 album]. I’d never wanted a home studio that needed an engineer, but it was just when software for writing music had come in. I was quite keen on computers then so I set up a little studio at home.
I was trying to think of what to do with samples, bits of tape and all sorts of bits and pieces and looking for a subject and strayed into doing some psalms.
What was it like working on the early computer studio systems?
At first the psalms piece was going to be electronic and experimental, a bit Stockhausen. But initially it was very hard to record audio on early computers because the hard drive was so small. We could just about record 5 minutes but the latency and syncing was very difficult, and it was always going wrong. It got easier though and I started doing more live recording using digital audiotape in a system with multi track tape, it was the first way people started going straight to digital.
When did you start playing Saxophone?
I actually started with the oboe. I wanted to play the clarinet because when I was about 10, Aker Bilk, Strangers on the Shore was a big hit. I asked at school to play the clarinet and they said we haven’t got any clarinets but we’ve got an oboe, you can play that.
What was it like to be a wind musician when everyone was experimenting with rock and electronic music?
Well, I was into both. In 1971 I bought a synthesizer, an EMS VCS 3.
Shortly after Bryan Ferry, Graham Simpson and Andy started Roxy Music, Andy jumped on a tube and bumped into his old university friend, Brian Eno. As Andy was playing his saxophone the band needed someone to operate the synthesizer and he asked Brian to join. Brian also had a tape machine, which he used to play back recordings through the songs. This all accumulated to give Roxy Music their unique, ground breaking sound and perhaps, without that chance meeting on a tube, Brian Eno wouldn’t have become the omnipotent musical presence he is today.
Do you look back fondly on those times?
Oh yes. I love performing and I actually preferred playing arenas to small theatres.
We heard you were ill recently and hope you are recovering well.
I had an operation for throat cancer last year so I was out of action for a while, but hopefully it has all been successful. There was some worry that I wasn’t going to be able to play afterwards. Physically I was quite weak, I’d had pneumonia so I had to get my lungs back working well and my face muscles were weak too so it took a while to get back into shape.
I actually played in the hospital, at first my surgeons wanted to see if I could, then they got quite excited and thought it would be good therapy.
Have you got any other projects like the 3 Psalms hidden away?
No, this is it.
What is next for you now?
If I could play and make it work, it would be nice to carry on for a year or two!
Enquiries: 3Psalms is released on November 23nd
On November the 26th the 3Psalms world premier will be performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center, London together with Roxymphony, a collection of Roxy Music songs played with an orchestra.