Phil Manzanera: Dance away the heartache

The death of a friend has driven Phil Manzanera to make his best solo album. Andy Gill talks to the Roxy Music guitarist

Several floors up a converted warehouse block in a tiny mews in north-west London, Phil Manzanera lounges in the pristine calm of his home studio. Every 10 minutes or so a train rattles by below. "When you're setting up a studio, there are two things you should never do," he says. "One is to build it at the top of a house; the other is to situate it next to a railway line." He chuckles wryly. "So here it is."

The Roxy Music guitarist has lived here since divorce forced his relocation from Surrey. He seems quite settled, but he's used to moving on. He spent most of his childhood abroad, most memorably in Cuba, where he remembers his mother pressing his face to the floor as bullets pinged around them during the revolution: the family home in Havana was directly opposite that of the dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

For a while, Manzanera became obsessed with Latin American music and took to producing Spanish-language artists like Sergio Dias, Tania Libertad, Moncada and Heroes del Silencio. He even made his own stab at fusing South American music with rock on 1990's Southern Cross album. "It didn't work, obviously," he says. But the recent success of bands like Mexico's Cafe Tacuba and Kinky have revived Manzanera's interest, and he is set to produce Kinky's next album.

Manzanera became interested in music as a child in Cuba, where he first acquired a guitar. His next significant musical influence came later, as a teenager in Venezuela, where a life-changing brush with the music of The Beatles led to him asking if he could go to school in England. Packed off to boarding school in Dulwich, he found himself plunged into swinging-Sixties London. This was to be the defining period of his life. His schoolmate (and later bandmate) Bill MacCormick had an older brother, Ian, who worked in a record shop, and at night the three of them would spend long hours investigating the the shop's stock.

"Ian and Bill were so clued-in - the antennae were up all the time for all this stuff from America," remembers Manzanera, fondly, "like the first Velvet Underground album with the peel-off banana. We had our own little musical university; we could check out Varèse, Mingus, the library records, all this stuff. And their parents knew Robert Wyatt's parents, so they knew Robert when he was in Soft Machine. His house was halfway between school and Bill and Ian's house. He was the first pop star we knew - and in those days he did look like a pop star, with the yellow clothes and the Brian Jones haircut. At every Soft Machine gig, even the tiniest ones, we were there. We soaked up all the things that were happening in London, all the events, International Times, Oz, Sgt Pepper, the films that came out then, everything - they were mad, mad times!"

All these memories came flooding back last year when Manzanera learned of Ian MacCormick's death. He had long since changed his name to Ian MacDonald and become one of the country's most eminent music journalists, the highly respected author of books such as The New Shostakovich and the acclaimed analysis of The Beatles' recordings, Revolution in the Head. He had just published an anthology of essays, The People's Music, when he committed suicide last summer.

"It really got to me," says Manzanera. "I'd known him for such a long time, and he'd been so supportive all through my career." He was so enthusiastic about music, and so funny - ask him a casual question, and a six-page e-mail would arrive in return. You'd say you didn't know what classical music to listen to, and he'd send this enormous list, almost a book! When I was setting this studio up, he called and said, 'I've got this great idea what you should be doing: an instrumental combining "Telstar" with "Wonderful Life" - what are you doing next week, I'm coming round!' Another time, he'd got a whole load of new Brazilian music, and he said, 'Drop everything you're doing and get a plane to Sao Paulo, that's where it's happening!'. He could be very serious, but he'd always sign off, after six pages of highbrow stuff, with something like 'What a load of bollocks!'. That was his saving grace. But he was so right about so many things."

When Manzanera heard of MacDonald's death, he was setting off on a sailing holiday with his daughters, and couldn't attend the funeral. But as he strummed away on the boat, he formed the idea of a lasting tribute to his friend.

"I had written a note with the flowers I sent, saying 'Wish You Well', and making some joke - because he was a very funny guy - about being 'off with Saint Serene', which was a lyric he wrote for a track called 'Flight 19'," Manzanera explains. "When I got back, I suggested to his brother Bill it might be nice to do a song as a tribute to Ian, and just have people who knew him playing on it. I asked Chrissie Hynde, to whom he gave her first break when he was Assistant Editor at the NME - ironically, it was an interview with Eno! - if she'd like to play harmonica on it. Paul Thompson, from Roxy, was on drums, and my engineer Jamie Johnson was on bass. And I persuaded Bill to play a bass solo, which a medical condition has prevented him from doing for 25 years: to me, I can hear so many emotions - anger, love, everything - in that solo."

As he worked on the track "Wish You Well", Manzanera found recollections of old times with Ian and Bill were prompting more and more songs. He realised he had enough for an album, loosely based around the hopes and dreams of that seminal era.

He called on old friends, including Roxy cohorts Andy Mackay and Brian Eno, Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, and Robert Wyatt, whose recent Cuckooland album was the first project completed at Manzanera's new studio.

Dubbed 6PM - it's his sixth solo effort - the album is undoubtedly Manzanera's strongest, blessed with a natural grain and texture, his usual questing musical spirit, and a gentle lyricism illuminated by the belief that, however dark things may seem, there is always the possibility that they can be changed. Manzanera is even singing with a greater confidence and self-belief.

This new-found maturity is something he's also applying to his most famous musical outlet, Roxy Music, whose members currently seem to be more at ease with each other than at any time in the band's history.

"There was never any musical problem in Roxy," claims Manzanera. "It was everything else! The management, the politics, the financial aspect. I never felt there was any musical dispute; it wasn't 'I'm going to leave because I want to play the blues and you want to play freeform jazz'. We were always compatible, and when left to our own devices, we always got on. Once we got rid of the management, we got on better than we ever did before. By not having a manager any more, it meant we all had to talk to each other and sort things out for ourselves.

"This is what we should have been doing years ago, but you get trapped by the system. Now, all that side has gone out of it, and the fun side has come back. I want to keep working at it till we're all back in the studio together. I'm a half-full person, my attitude is: Why not? How difficult can it be? We've all matured; we started out as complete amateurs, and always wanted to be more professional, and I think we're getting there eventually, so let's do it quick - before we get knocked over by a bus!"

'6PM' is out on 19 July on Hannibal

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