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Arts + CultureMusicRoxy Music's Phil Manzera and Andy Mackay tap experimental...

Roxy Music’s Phil Manzera and Andy Mackay tap experimental side for ambient ‘AM PM’

Moody, Eno phase-inspired album 'was done when there was a lot of anxiety and fear of death,' sax legend Mackay says

The COVID Lockdown ground traditional touring and recording schedules to a screeching halt in the first two years of the pandemic, forcing artists everywhere to find new creative outlets.

Some published books; others turned to virtual concerts, at-home performances, and drive-in shows

Working remotely, Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera produced a new album. 

Colored by #CovidLife, the resulting release, AM PM, is a moody nine-track ambient set that manages to be both a reflection of the perilous times and a much-needed antidote.

The AM PM title is an abbreviation of the artists’ names and a reminder of how unstructured life became during the early days of COVID when, without routines or outside activity, days and nights seemingly blurred together.

Instead of working on pre-written song structures, the duo pieced bits of music together like a puzzle without a clear picture of what the finished product would sound like. Once COVID restrictions were lifted, the LP was recorded by a full band including Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson.

Experimentation is in the two 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees‘ DNA—from their groundbreaking work with Roxy Music, where they helped develop the Bryan Ferry-fronted quintet’s glam-rock sound and retro-futurist look to the duo’s Roxysymphony, where they reimagined seven band classics as symphonies with a 20-piece orchestra and choir.

I spoke to MacKay about working on the new album, the soon-to-be-released Roxysymphony LP, and the saxophonist’s favorite Roxy Music albums.

48 HILLS When Phil Manzanera approached you about this project, what spurred you to participate?

ANDY MACKAY This was back in lockdown in 2021 when we were isolated and unable to meet face-to-face. I’d taken an apartment in Brighton and got trapped there at the beginning of 2020 when the government instituted travel restrictions. 

So Phil said, “Why don’t we carry on doing some work? I’ll send you some ambient stuff I’ve been doing: a couple of chords, some atmosphere, and a mood.” Then I played along, initially using the built-in speakers on my MacBook with Logic. Then I’d send him the stems, and he’d do some work. Then we built up some stuff, and he got other friends to drop by. And after we’d finished the Roxy tour last year, he said, “So I’m putting that stuff together to make an album.” I said, “Fine, just go ahead and surprise me.”

So he did some other bits and pieces. We got Paul Thompson to come down and do some more drums. We went into a studio for a day and did a little more recording here and there on parts of the tracks. Then, our engineer and producer, who we’ve worked with for many years, went into the studio and knocked it together.

And that was the finished product, a bit like things we’d done a long time ago but something slightly different for us. It wasn’t structured studio tracks. It was just atmospheres and moods.

The great thing about this is that everyone will find something slightly different in it. It is quite a reflective piece because it was done when there was a lot of anxiety and fear of death. People were genuinely worried that some people, particularly older people and those with illnesses, wouldn’t make it. So that seeps into it somewhere. There’s something quite tranquil about it overall, which maybe we needed.

48 HILLS What was it like working in that manner?

ANDY MACKAY Well, it meant that the finished product was a big surprise, which is great because for a conventional album, especially back in the ’70s and ’80s, when Roxy was recording, you would work for weeks on the same tracks. You get to the point where you’ve heard them too much, and it’s hard to create something new. That’s when you might get another musician to play something to give it a new direction. 

And, often with Roxy, tracks were unfinished throughout the whole album—sometimes never finished and reworked on a later album. 

So this was going back to what I did before Roxy started, which was experimental music when we all, particularly Brian Eno and I, greatly valued spontaneity and randomness. And I would pick up my sax without having heard a track. I’d put it on, find out what key it was in, or maybe the key didn’t matter, and start playing. I’ve never been a big jazz player, but I guess it’s the jazz thing of letting go. It was my kind of improvisation. So the results are still a surprise to me. 

48 HILLS You’ve described some of your previous solo material as encapsulating your different influences. Is that true of AM PM?

ANDY MACKAY Yes. It goes back to how sometimes we come across Roxy outtakes from the earlier albums and also one or two of the early live television broadcasts. There’s one in particular from the 1973 Montreux Festival where the Roxy songs are relatively unformed, meaning Bryan would not sing center stage, and we didn’t have enough material to do a long set. 

Between the first and second albums, Eno, Phil, Paul, and I would improvise long solos by treating the sax or the guitar and adding loops. And we would make up a whole new song in the middle of something, like a long break, which was sometimes five or six minutes. And I saw some of that recently and thought, “My God, I’d forgotten just how strange and experimental we were.” We were thinking, “Well, we’ve got to fill the time up somehow. This is the best way of doing it.” And so it does go back to that.

Subsequently, Brian Eno developed the ambient idea, and his ambient recordings were hugely influential and partly came from Roxy’s experimentation. Then, I did an album over the last decade with a trip-hop influence. I was working with some Bristol-based musicians, so it had a very electronic, experimental basis to it and also an appreciation of small sounds and little percussive things.

Phil worked with Eno and other artists like John Cale, so there’s an experimental thread from when he worked with the English psychedelic musicians in the early ‘70s. So I think we’re continuing something that we’ve always done—and this is perhaps the purest piece of instrumental experimental music we’ve done.

48 HILLS Let’s let’s talk about Roxymphony. I loved hearing the songs reimagined. How did you select which songs to transform into symphonies?

ANDY MACKAY I think they were songs we liked and have done quite a lot, like “Out of the Blue,” so it was nice to try and change them. “A Song for Europe” was added because that’s a slightly symphonic track anyway. “Sentimental Fool” has always been one of my favorite tracks, but one that maybe isn’t as well known. Classical-crossover-rock musician Lucy Wilkins, who did the arrangements and played violin with Roxy for several tours, had an input in saying, “Well, I like the idea of doing this,” like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” a song that I love but don’t do very much.

It was all a huge amount of work and cost but also slightly under-rehearsed. So, it all came off, and the concert was a triumph. We’ve never been able to repeat it because it was too expensive. The audience loved it, and we enjoyed playing it. So luckily, we managed to get a recording.

48 HILLS Speaking of favorite tunes, you’ve described Stranded as Roxy Music’s best album. Why that one? 

ANDY MACKAY I don’t know if I would say that now or could narrow it down to a single album. I like the first one and the last one. The first one, because it balances with all our energy and a year of working together, dreaming of being in a studio and putting everything that we could into it. And then events moved very fast. We became a pop group sooner than we expected. So looking back on that is always a great remembrance. And then the last album I like, which has a certain melancholy maturity about it. Pity there wasn’t another one. 

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter
Joshua Rotter is a contributing writer for 48 Hills. He’s also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle, and CNET.

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