MUSICIANDecember 01, 1981
The following article by J D Considine appeared in the December 1981 issue of Musician magazine...
Between the pleasant song hooks and facile photogenia of the Police there lies a sophistication and urgency that has justly brought Andy Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland to the top of everyone's pops.
August in the Canadian woods sure beats the hell out of August in the sweaty East Coast city where I spend most of my time, so I can easily appreciate why the Police had chosen Le Studio in the tiny village of Morin Heights, Quebec, to mix their upcoming live album. With clear skies above and cool, clean air all around. the group displayed its outdoorsy side as we talked; Stewart Copeland repeatedly slammed a baseball into his mitt, confessing that "I haven't got a clue of what to do with it," while Sting decided to undergo his interview while paddling across the small lake behind the studio.
Still, business is business, and the business at hand was trying to understand just what it is that makes the Police more than the sum of its parts. It's not an easy question to take on, either. Just four years ago, the Police were slugging it out with all the other bright new bands in the cramped and dirty confines of London's premier punk club, the Roxy. But rather than follow the usual path of critical favour, a cult following, a few unrepresentative records and eventual dissolution, the Police parlayed an independent single into a major-label deal, and proceeded to turn out a series of hits that has made them one of the most widely-listened-to bands of the last five years.
"Playing pop music is very hard to do," shrugged Stewart Copeland, "and we just happen to be good at it. In this instance, the people who are good at it also happen to be quite able musicians, but being technically proficient is really secondary. Completely irrelevant to the readers of your magazine but very important to a large majority of our following is the fact that we're three photogenic guys." He looked up from his baseball mitt to smile apologetically, as if it weren't his idea to be so cute, and added, "That's important to me only in that we've built a group that has everything right."
That's not a bad way to look at the Police: The Group That Got Everything Right. Because from the teen idol good looks of Sting to the sophisticated chops of Andy Summers, the Police manage to meet all the requirements for class-A pop stars while at the same time producing music that is provocative, inventive and arrestingly direct. Not only can the Police come up with the sort of hit singles guaranteed to get you humming along with the radio, but they do so without insulting your intelligence or compromising your aesthetics.
But try to get them to explain how they do it, and you're left holding a lot of loose threads. "We go for melodies," Copeland said of the group's pop sensibilities. "and the best melodies are the ones that are most easily understood. We don't have anything on the records that sounds difficult to play; if it sounds difficult, we'll get rid of it."
Lest you jump to the conclusion that the Police are crass commercialists, apply that maxim to the first single off the new Police album, 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. On the surface, it's a simple, pleasantly melodic love song that ties conventionally mushy lyrics to a sprightly Latin chorus. Sit down and analyse it, though, and you'll find a surprisingly sophisticated use of relative keys supporting that melody, and an intricate series of counter-melodies and rhythms fleshing it out. There's hardly a moment in the song given over to flash; everything that glitters is actually gold.
"It's only the real sophisto musos who are amazed at our ability," Copeland observed. "All the little girls who like our stuff, it never occurs to them that we're incredible musicians. As far as they're concerned, they love the sound of it, they can sing along, and they think we look nice." Well, that's one way of looking at it. Sting, however, offered a different slant on the group's musicianship. "There's nothing worse than an instrumentalist who feels he's so good that he has to fill every frequency at all times. It's athletic, not musical. My theory is that if you're a good musician, you refine what you do down to almost nothing. Miles Davis refined his art down to one riff per eight bars - that is a great musician, that is a thinking man. It's not someone who can blow thirty-four demi-semiquavers every second."
Andy Summers isn't a jazz guitarist who plays rock, any more than he is a rock guitarist who plays jazz. He's the Police guitarist, and it's that role that makes it as easy for him to play the jazzy rhythm figures that adorn 'Secret Journey' as it is to pump out the screaming rock 'n' roll leads that pepper 'Demolition Man' on the recently released 'Ghost In the Machine'. Both styles are familiar to him, and reflect a background that includes a fondness for jazz and a stint with the Animals. But you can't explain Summers' easy style away by pointing at his past, because the biggest factor in what he plays is what the rest of the group plays.
"We play with a lot of space," he said, "so the guitar comes out very clearly. Obviously, I have to consider the bass and the vocals in what I play, but as we've gotten more and more into our style, I've been able to play farther-out things around the vocal than maybe I would have at the beginning. I have to keep the song in mind, but Sting's a very flexible vocalist. He has a good ear, and if I change the chord somewhat, he can pick up on it. And, depending on the thing we're doing, if we're jamming, he can go with it."
Summers keeps his playing flexible by keeping his rhythm work spare. "The way I approach chord progressions and harmonies," he explained, "I like to fragment them, break them down a lot. I like to play small chords rather than large chords, which is a thing I've always done in this group. Instead of playing A7 as a bar chord, I would only play C# and G, which suggests the whole chord, really." The reason it suggests the whole chord isn't just because Summers' background in chord theory directs him to the right notes, either; it's because Summers knows that the A will be in the bass line, so he won't have to play it.
It's almost impossible to follow any sort of logic in the way Sting's past relates to his playing style. Before joining the Police, he was "an aspiring muso. I was into reading dots and arrangements and all that.'' While working as a schoolteacher in his hometown of Newcastle, England, the man then known as Gordon Sumner was spending his nights playing mostly jazz. "I played Dixieland, mainstream, bebop, free-form, I played in a big band, I also played as a backing musician for various cabaret artists. It was a very rich education which was totally outside of rock'n'roll. I wasn't interested in rock'n'roll. The halcyon days for me to be interested in rock music were the early 70s. I found the rock music of the time abhorrent. It was Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple - music I just hated."
What turned things around for Sting was that old dependable, the chance meeting. "Stewart and I met. I was playing in a group based on the Chick Corea-type music, like Return to Forever, which was one of the groups that had the bridge. Stewart saw me play and sing with this group, was impressed, we got talking, and met later on in London and formed a group. "Where we arrived," Sting continued, "wasn't in the rock vein, which Stewart had been in, or the jazz vein, but someplace totally different, which was punk. Which actually appealed to me greatly, because it was energy. And it wasn't so far removed from Ornette Coleman. Although serious musical people thought it was terrible, it did have what good music should have, which is excitement. Whereas all this heavy rock stuff had got so turgid, so pompous and arrogant, it didn't have any life left in it at all. "So that's where we arrived, and we developed from there. I did have reservations about the lack of melody and the lack of poetry in the whole thing, but I saw it as a springboard. And slowly but surely, I subversively brought my own sense of melody into it, largely by the use of reggae. By playing a reggae rhythm you could seductively bring along melody, too."
When the band first burst on the scene with 'Roxanne', it was the reggae beat that garnered the most press, even if it was the mournful, desirous melody that actually snared radio listeners. In effect, what the Police had done for reggae was the same thing the British Invasion bands of the 60s had done for the blues - taken the basics of a specific ethnic music and built a hybrid pop style around it. As Stewart Copeland admitted, there's nothing particularly unusual about the method; "Most music," he said, "is a hybrid of one kind or another. "It's when you choose ingredients that are less used-up that you get more interesting results. Like, who cares about crossing country and blues anymore? Or crossing jazz with funk, or rock with classical ? A lot of West Indian rhythms are not used-up; there are still plenty of fresh ideas there. And the rhythms are better rhythms anyway. Much better than the slues backbeat or any of the jazz things. The rhythms that are coming out of the Caribbean and Latin America are just better, more infectious rhythms that get your foot tapping. And they're much less exploited."
Although Sting quickly saw the advantage of a reggae infusion, he wasn't responsible for introducing it to the Police style. In fact, he really isn't much of a reggae fan. "I've always loved black music," he said, "I've been in love with black music from day one. I'd seen James Brown, various people. Bob Marley I'd heard, but it didn't have a great effect on me at first. In retrospect, I do like him very much now, and I think my singing was greatly influenced by him early on. But no, I didn't listen to much reggae then, I don't now. A lot of it is pretty samey.
Stewart Copeland, on the other hand, had been toying with reggae while drumming with his first band, an indulgent, classical-rock group called Curved Air. "We did a lot of jamming with reggae in Curved Air," he said, "but it just didn't fit in with the group's identity, so it never became part of the sound. "It wasn't until the Police, until we were looking for something else to try that hadn't been tried that this kinda crept up on us. Not only did we find ourselves playing it, but we found that it came naturally to us."
Still, it's as hard to say why the reggae infusion came naturally in Copeland's case as it is in Sting's. "The first music l listened to was actually big band jazz - Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, that kind of stuff. Which, looking back at it now, seems kind of corny to me. I would hate to identify with that stuff, really, but it went in at an early age, so I tend to swing instead of rock. "I was really trained very heavily as a brat. My father, who was an old jazz trumpeter, figured that if I showed any talent, I had to be taught how to do it right and everything. So I was taught how to read, how to hold my sticks right, how to do paradiddles and flamadiddles."
Copeland played in a lot of school bands - "for years I played nothing but Jimi Hendrix" - but what kept his from being a typical American childhood was the fact that his father, Miles Jr., was in charge of Middle Eastern operations of the CIA. "I was born in Virginia, but left when I was six months old," Copeland said. He spent his youth among other Americans in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. "The first time I came back was when I was 19. I'd been in American schools and English schools, and I'd always grown up as an American - had an American passport, an American accent - but when I actually saw the place I was supposed to be from and realised I didn't know anything about it, I realised that I'm not from any place at all." He paused for a moment, then added, "Except for maybe Beirut, and Beirut's blasted to bits, so I guess I'm not from there anymore."
After completing college at U.C. Berkeley, Copeland went back to England, went through Curved Air, and formed the Police with Sting and guitarist Henri Padovani. That incarnation cut one single, Nothing Achieving b/w Fall Out, and even then, Padovani's input was minimal. "Actually," said Copeland, "I played the guitar on that. When we first got into the studio, Henri was nervous and couldn't get it together. He put it down anyway, but the guitar track wasn't happening, so I just said screw it, and played it. I'd spent hours teaching him the song anyway, so I just played it."
With Andy Summers in and Padovani out, the Police were able to move further away from punk and more in the direction of reggae and pop. Sting began to write most of the band's material, and it wasn't long before the Police had completed an album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', and hit the road. The Police came to America for the first time without so much as a single available domestically. Economically, that wasn't a problem; the band rented a station wagon, borrowed equipment and generally kept costs down. Plus, midway through the tour, A&M released 'Outlandos'.
Even with the album out, the band had one problem. "We never had enough songs, really," recalled Andy Summers. "We only had about eight songs, so we'd have to stretch it out so we could fulfil the correct amount of time and get paid at the end of the evening." Like any band short of material, the Police stretched their set as best they could by jamming. "It was very good for us as a band," said Summers. "We probably got together a lot quicker than if we'd had a lot of songs."
In fact, the band even managed to expand its repertoire as a direct result of those jams. "When we first came to the States," said Summers, "we used to do 'Can't Stand Losing You', and we had to stretch it out a bit. So we started to do a bit of jamming in the middle of the song, sort of droning away on a D. Then it gradually expanded. It gradually became a whole other piece of material which we knew was coming up every night. Eventually, it turned into 'Reggatta de Blanc', which went on the second album, a very unique piece. In fact, for that actual track, we won a Grammy." Ironically enough, the Grammy was for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
Ghosts In the Machine continues that tradition with 'One World (Not Three)'. "That was just one take," reported Summers. "We came in after dinner in the evening and we recorded that in five minutes flat, the backing track. And, of course, if you can manage to do that right off, it's always the best. Because the feeling's good. "If you've got a very strong riff, if a riff comes out when you play, things happen. If the channels are open, a riff will come out which will be much greater than if you sit down with your tape recorder and desperately try to think up a riff."
Better for Andy Summers, anyway. For Sting, "Composing is a very private thing. I don't get many of my songs from jamming. I just sit at home with a drum box. Voices Inside My Head came through a drum box. I had a Latin rhythm on the drum box, and started playing the guitar riff. Then I added a bass part. A lot of my compositions come from guitar parts. 'Message In a Bottle', that was a guitar riff. "The way I write, I don't have a melody first and then fit words to it. Actually, what happens is that I write them both together. There's this magical moment where you have this series of chords, this progression, and suddenly the words and the music actually come together at the same time. There's no sort of welding one onto the other. There is no other melody for the chorus to 'Message In a Bottle'. It just happened at the same time, so in a sense, I see the two as equal."
Rounding out invention and inspiration is that old favourite, accident. Stewart Copeland told of how bad wiring contributed to his song, 'Does Everyone Stare', on 'Reggatta de Blanc'. "I recorded the demo for that at home. I had a little home studio at the time with wires going everywhere - I think I was running the guitar through the toaster, that sort of thing - and I was playing the piano part while I sang the song, or at least what was supposed to be the lyrics of the song. And just as I finished singing, all the wires in the room acted like a radio and picked up a signal of this opera. It was perfectly in time and perfectly in tune, even the mood and sentiment of the thing were absolutely perfect. So it went straight on tape, exactly in the place that it should have gone. It had to be a message from above that this was the way the song had to go. So we actually used that, my home demo, at the beginning of the studio recording."
Demos play a large part in the way material is developed for each album. "The way we do it is this," explained Sting. "Before we come together for an album, each of us goes into a studio of our own. I wrote ten songs for this album, and with a drum box, piano, bass and guitar put down the arrangements as I saw them, as best I could. If they were satisfactory to the group, that's what we played. If they could be bettered... "I'm proud to say that in a lot of cases, the arrangements I came up with at the demo stage arrived on record. 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' is virtually the same as the demo, and 'De Do Do Do', on the new album, 'Invisible Sun' and 'Spirits in the Material World'."
"We don't rehearse before we go into the studio," Stewart Copeland elaborated. "We each have our songs, and we get down to it: 'Okay, who's turn is it? My turn? Okay, here's the chords, it's verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight, verse/chorus and out on the chorus. Okay? Right. Try that.' Two hours later, we have a backing track, and then we spend the rest of the day putting the guitars over it and stuff like that."
'Ghost In the Machine' was recorded at George Martin's A.I.R. Studio in Montserrat. Like most of the albums recorded there, the sound is rich and substantial, full of presence and detail. To a certain degree, this is due to the magnificent board at the studio, but a fair amount of the credit belongs as well with the way the Police set up for the sessions. "What happened was, we got the band to Montserrat," explained Summers, "and we looked around, because we wanted to get a big, live drum sound. There was the house, where we'd hang out in the day or whatever, and then there was the studio next to the house. The house had a huge room with people wandering in and out, but we took the room and put the drums in it because it was a big open room with a wooden floor. The sound of the drums was great in there, instead of the studio which is a bit more dead.
"Then Sting recorded in the control room, and I virtually had the whole studio to myself all the time. I like ambience, I like the mic away from the amp and I like a bit of room sound. I had all my amps along the wall and I could play as loud as I wanted. "I think all those things contributed, because in terms of overdubs, we really hadn't done any more. We went about it more or less in the same way."
One thing which was definitely new about Spirits was the addition of saxophone, which was played by Sting. "I used to play saxophone as a teenager," he said, "although not very seriously. The fingering has always stayed with me, and I can read music, so getting back into it was fairly simple. I bought a Yamaha alto and tenor in January and spend about two hours a day, the fruits of which you can hear on the album. "It's section work, really. I'm no Charlie Parker, but it's very satisfying getting a simple riff together, then dubbing it and putting harmony on it. The skills involved are fairly similar to the ones you use in singing; you know, breathing, pitch, a sense of harmony."
Dubbing the few extraneous instruments the Police use is not always a matter of dexterity or prowess. Stewart Copeland reports that, with the exception of the piano on 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' he played all the keyboards on 'Ghost'. "Not really playing, just kind of one finger here, one finger there, and occasionally a rhythm pattern. It's just because I can hit the notes. In fact, for the different chords, I draw little letters - I write 'A' on all the keys that belong with the first chord, then for the second chord I write 'B,' and so on." (Actually, both Sting and Andy Summers are able to play piano with relative facility. In between interviews, Summers pounded out 'Danses des Adolescentes' from Stravinsky's 'Sacre du Printemps'; earlier, Sting had been playing Satie's 'Gymnopedie No. 3'.')
Even though making each new album different from the last is something of a tradition with the Police, 'Ghost In the Machine' still comes as a surprise. It's a major leap forward on all levels for the band, and one that comes at a time when one would almost expect them to be playing it safe. Part of that is strategy; the Police haven't quite conquered the pop world yet, and rather than shore up their holdings, the band is clearly going for new territory. "This is the fourth album," admitted Summers. "By the time you get to this point, most people usually start softening up. For us, it was very important to bring out a very strong, punchy album."
It's the album's political stance that is the most surprising. 'Zenyatta Mondatta' toyed with the big ideas, but often as not left them at a cartoon level, as with Stewart Copeland's 'Bombs Away'. Sting's 'Driven to Tears' was an apt portrait of the despair a moral man must feel when looking at the world's problems. 'Spirits In the Material World' proceeds from there, but in an unexpected direction.
After playing Calcutta, India last year, Sting remarked that, "Western values are very materialistic. We think poverty equals despair. It doesn't necessarily mean that in India. People are dying in the street, living in cardboard boxes, but you don't see the kind of hopeless despair you'd see in any British city or a lot of American cities." Directly reflecting that observation, Spirits argues that although "there is no political solution," there doesn't necessarily need to be, because the important things in life are spiritual, not political. That sort of hope pervades the album.
'Invisible Sun', which Sting told the audience at the Police's Philadelphia concert in August was originally written about Belfast "but applies to any British city now," opens with the protagonist, a working class youth, stating "I don't ever want to play the part / Of a statistic on a government chart." Yet rather than take a defiant, overtly political stance and end up sounding like a down-tempo Clash tune, the Police song opts for hope. "There has to be an invisible sun / That keeps us warm when the whole day's done." You could call it naive or politically deluded, and no doubt some will. But the Police aren't interested in trying to solve the world's problems, only in learning to live with them.
Andy Summers put it best. Offered the obvious comparison of the Clash, Summers felt "the Clash are always taking much more of a political stance. Very intentional and very militant. I just don't think that's our stance as individuals. To me, that lacks subtlety and comes off very heavy-handed. I think you can get a political message across better with humour and subtlety than all this shouting. I think that just turns people off." Musically, 'Ghost In the Machine' consolidates a lot of the rhythmic ideas that ran through its predecessors. The reggae influences, for example, are more implied than stated, and clearly indicate how completely digested this aspect of the Police's style has become.
Stewart Copeland explained, "Reggae is a dramatic new departure in rhythm, because it doesn't have a backbeat, and the downbeat is on three. So instead of boom whap a-boom whap, it's more like chung-a-thunk-a pock-a thung-a. That's a completely different thing - it turns the drum set completely upside down. "There's a lot of switching back and forth from rock'n'roll to reggae and Latin, and on the new album, the switches are less noticeable, by which I mean they've come closer together. Even when I play rock'n'roll now, I still imagine the three-beat there; even if the backbeat is there, I can still feel the reggae thing happening at the same time."
In the Police's musical scheme, Sting's vocals and bass provide the melodic focus and basic rhythmic direction; Copeland's drumming provides rhythmic continuity and some of the textural details. Everything else - the colour, the harmonic direction and the bulk of the texture - comes from Andy Summers' guitars. It's an awesome responsibility, considering how much he has to do and how easy it would be to spoil a record by overplaying, and ironically enough, it's usually the last thing you notice about a Police record.
Summers' principal tool is the guitar synthesiser, which is responsible for some of 'Ghost's' richest and most intriguing sounds. "I use a Roland guitar synthesiser, the GR-300, which is the latest one they make. I've also got the GR-101, which is the electronic guitar. It's just an additional colour to the guitar synthesiser, really. What I've started doing now is using two guitar synthesisers together, which is really spectacular. "It's like a little panel you have on the floor," he said of the unit, "and you operate it with your feet. The synthesis comes from the guitar itself - there's a hexaphonic pick-up on the back of the second pick-up of the guitar - so it is a pure synthesiser. One of the features of this one is a duet switch, where you play your original note and it will add any interval to it. Second, minor second, major third, minor fifth or sixth, whatever. So you get two notes together, and if you've got it tuned to fifths, say, and you start to play strange chords, it really sounds incredible. The sound gets so fat, really big. It has an envelope and an inverted envelope, too. It also has something called rise and fall time, where there are dual switches on it, A and B, and you can move from one to the other. Like you tune A to fifths, then you can tune B to fourths or thirds, so you can go from playing a line in fifths to playing a line in fourths or thirds. It's great ! And when you get to playing it through a chorus, then it really sounds good."
Among the recorded samples of Summers' guitar synthesiser are 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' from 'Zenyatta Mondatta', and 'Secret Journey' from 'Ghost In the Machine'. "You have to pick your moments on it," Summers added. "One of the best things about it is that you can change from straight guitar right into guitar synthesiser in the middle of a song. Like 'Don't Stand So Close', the verse and chorus are played with just straight guitar, then the synthesiser comes in just by turning a rotary switch from one to ten. So when it comes to the solo part, I just whip it around and then I'm into the solo with the guitar synthesiser."
As much as Summers makes use of technology, he cautioned against excessive gimmickry. "You have to learn to use these things and make them sound good," he said, "not just turn them on for the sake of it. It's the way they're integrated, really, so they become a natural extension of the music. We are in the 80s, and that stuff is all available to be used, so...
"It's funny. In England there's Hallmark Records that they sell in Woolworth's - they're like K-Tel, they do all the hits. Three or four of our big hits have been covered by them, and they sound terrible ! You should hear the one of 'Message In a Bottle', it's so funny. They're laughable, really. I don't know why they can't get those sounds. Those effects are available to anybody, and they work when we use them. But when you hear some of these covers, they can't get anywhere near."
If the fine musicians at Hallmark have trouble getting an approximation of the Police sound in the studio, you can imagine how difficult it must be to recreate the myriad effects live. Which is precisely why the Police don't attempt to do that; instead, the band looks at the studio versions as one thing that exists only on tape, and the concert arrangements as something else altogether.
Sting explained it this way: "We never think of it as the same thing. We go into the studio and we feel no shame, no guilt about using overdubs. We like overdubs. For example, I overdub all the vocals, just 'cause I have from the start. It's not that Andy and Stewart can't sing, it just seems to be the sound. "On-stage I can't do that. On our records, we'll have six or seven vocal lines; on-stage, we can only have three at the most. We have to adapt there. Andy's the same with guitar parts. He might put several guitar parts down in the studio, whereas on-stage we only have one. So when we finish an album, we have to seriously rationalise what we've done.
"Now, the easy way would be just to create an album with three instruments, like 'Outlandos d'Amour' was. I think that's interesting up to a point, then it starts to get very samey. So we got rid of that idea, and said, 'We're going to make the best possible album that we can, and use all the studio techniques that we know of.' What we have to do is rationalise the parts so we can get the same effect with just three instruments. That's where things we have like the Moog pedals and various synthesiser things come into effect."
If you listen to the studio-versus-live sounds of other rock trios, what generally happens is the studio detail is exchanged for sonic bulk. The guitar is turned up, the bass fattened, and the drummer hits everything in sight.' That's been true of almost everybody from Cream to ZZ Top to Rush. But not, oddly enough, of the Police. Instead, the sound remains as lean as it seems on the albums, and nearly as subtle. The principal difference is that the edges are far more apparent. In the band's only American appearance this year, a shabby new wave "festival" staged at Philadelphia's Liberty Bell Park, songs such as 'Death Wis' and 'Message In a Bottle' took on a ferocity barely hinted at by the album versions. More impressive, though, were some of the devices substituted for the studio wizardry. Stewart Copeland's high-hats were given swirling, chimerical textures when he added echo to 'Bring On the Night', and Andy Summers' guitar work was wrapped in a warm, shimmering envelope of synthesised sound. Not all the additions were technological, either; the finale of 'Bed's Too Big Without You' took on extra heat when Summers started supplementing the beat with jazzy substitute chords.
No wonder the band was so excited about its next project, a live album due to be released late next spring. "It's definitely going to be our best record," bubbled Stewart Copeland, "because it's got all the elements that make us a teen-idol pop group. It's got the easily identifiable melodies and all the primal strokes, but at the same time it's got actually finger-twiddling ability Weather Report would be proud of."
The only question the band faces is deciding when to stop. "At the moment, we've got 84 minutes of material," Sting said. "I'd like to put that out as a double album - there isn't room for any more. So we probably won't be including live versions of songs from the new album."
As if finishing the new Police album and readying a live album weren't enough, Summers also had arranged to record an album of duets with guitarist Robert Fripp. "I've known him for many years," Summers explained, "and I instigated this particular venture. About a year ago, I wrote to him, and he got back... Basically, I wanted to do something outside the group. I didn't want to go off and make The Solo Album, because it's too early in the group's career. It's a bit of a cliché, anyway.
"What I've been particularly interested in doing is working with another guitar player. I know Robert Fripp, I like what he does, and I thought that we could make a very interesting record together. From listening to the way he plays, I believe that there are a lot of areas that are common to both of us. So between his tape recorded stuff and the guitar synthesiser that we both play, I think between us we're going to make a very modern guitar duo record. In some ways, I see it as being the 1980s version of Eddie Lang and Carl Kress."
Summers isn't the only member of the Police who records on his own. Since the group's inception, Stewart Copeland has been turning out occasional records under the pseudonym "Klark Kent". Lately, though, Kent has been strangely silent. What happened ? "I don't know," replied Copeland. "I pray daily, I conduct all the prescribed rituals, I've followed the Book of Kent quite closely, trying to figure out when he'll appear again, but I really can't say."
What prompted his initial appearance? "God knows...the state of the world. I mean, look at the world. If there was ever a need for the light to go up, for the Bat-phone to ring or something, the time is now." Couldn't be that Klark's been put off by all the attention given to Superman, the movie? "All the attention that Warner Brothers has given might have scared him away," Copeland laughed. "You're getting warm."
Copeland may worry about major film companies quashing his outside activities, but not Sting. In fact, after his appearance in Franc Roddam's film 'Quadrophenia', as well as roles in a British film called 'Radio On' and a BBC production in which he plays an angel, Sting has been getting quite a reputation as an actor.
"I get very claustrophobic, very frustrated in one scene," he said of his need to expand his horizons. "My head can cope with more than one thing, and needs to, so I'm keen to get away from stereotypes and people's conceptions of what I am. I like people to be puzzled by what I'm doing next. Some people think I'm a bass player, or a singer or a songwriter; some people think I'm an actor. I'll say I'm none of these and all of them. I'm interested in enlarging myself." Among the horizons Sting would like to explore is writing. "I've written since I was a teenager, and I write about 200 words a day, because it's a muscle you need to exercise. You just can't suddenly decide to write a book. "I do write, sometimes badly, sometimes well. It's all related to production; pop songwriting is related in a sense. I just keep the muscle exercised. Someday I'll find something I want to write about, and that'll be the mode of expression I'll use."
So there you have it. Three bright, talented and, as Stewart Copeland pointed out, photogenic guys who happened to come together to form one of the most popular, musically satisfying bands of our time. But we're still stuck with the question we started with: what is it that makes the Police more than a sum of its parts?
This is Andy Summers' answer, which covers part of it: "It's three guys, and we all have different musical backgrounds, and it's all those different things. We've all synthesised our musical backgrounds into a playing style for each one of us, and when the three of us come together you get a lot of different music coming together as one new sort of sound."
This is Stewart Copeland's answer, which gets another part of it: "When we started out, our objective was just to make music that was special. We didn't care how many people got turned on to it, just as long as they got turned on to it a lot. In other words, the depth of response is what we're after."
And this is Sting's answer, which covers the rest of it: "One of the things I'm interested in, frankly, is selling music to a large number of people who aren't necessarily compromising themselves. I think it's been done in the past, by the Beatles and by the Rolling Stones, and not successfully since. Because you've got charlatans in the business going for the formula, who say, 'Okay, the worst possible record we could make will sell millions.' And it's been true.
"But there was a golden age when the popular music was the best music. I think we've attempted to do the same thing, by playing what we consider to be good music. Not going back over old territory, which is what a lot of Beatle sound-alike groups do. They think the Beatles are the greatest group ever, so they copy their music. We are inspired by the spirit of that era, not by the music. I mean, our music has screw-all to do with the 60s. I'm frankly not interested in that. I'm more interested in the 80s."
Considering how much equipment each member of the Police now has on hand, it's hard to believe that the band did its first American tour out of a station wagon. Nowadays, it would be hard to get one player's equipment into a station wagon, much less the entire set-up.
Of course, not all of what each member uses goes out on the road. To record 'Ghost In the Machine', Andy Summers used several guitars, among them a Stratocaster, a Les Paul and a '58 black-inlayed Gibson ES 335 of which he's very proud, along with the Roland guitar synthesisers mentioned earlier. But his principal guitars, the ones he uses on the road and in the studio, are a customized '53 Telecaster - "it has a Gibson pick-up on the front, it has a little pre-amp in the back, and a phase switch" - and several Hamer guitars. "I told them I wanted a Custom neck and a Sunburst body, and they did one of those for me," he said of his favourite. "They put two '88 Gibson PAF pick-ups on it for me, and that's a beautiful guitar.
"They also gave me a great guitar on the last big tour we did of the States, where they put one pick-up back at the bridge, and it's like three pick-ups in one, and that has been very effective." Summers also owns a Hamer fretless guitar, which he said "only works on the bottom four strings anyway." He doesn't use that on-stage, but hopes to employ it on his duet album with Robert Fripp.
For amps, he uses two 100-watt Marshalls on-stage, which he reported are "slightly souped-up." In the studio, he has been using the Roland Bolt amps quite a lot. His effects board was wired by Pete Cornish; and includes a phaser, a flange, analog delay, fuzz, Mutron and a compresser. "I tend to use the MXR," Summers added. AIl the effects go out to a Roland Space Echo before coming back into the board, and the board itself has an overall power switch so Summers can turn the board off while he's playing, cue the effects he needs, and bring them all in at once simply by hitting one switch.
Sting, perhaps the best known fretless bassist this side of Jaco Pastorius, reported that lately he's gotten back into using frets. "The big problem I have on-stage is that I sing, I play Moog pedals and I play bass, so I've got to do three things at once. So I've gotten back into using frets, because it's one thing less I've got to do." At the moment, he's using a standard Fender Precision bass, which is on loan from Andy Summers. The fretless basses he most commonly uses are by Fender and Ibanez. The band records with Oberheim OB-Xa's.
His favorite instrument, though, is a custom-built doublebass that has been fitted with a pick-up just between the bridge and the body. Since it's essentially an amplified instrument, the body has been removed "It still has a streamlined body, but it doesn't have this great, huge woman-shape that's so cumbersome." Nonetheless, its rather unorthodox appearance can be puzzling; so Sting introduced the instrument at the Liberty Bell Park concert. "A Iot of people ask me what this is called," he said. "It's called Brian."
As for his amplifiers, all Sting could say was, "It's like a PA system. It's big and extremely Ioud." Danny Quatrochi, the band's guitar roadie, was able to expand on that, though. The speakers are two 12" folded horns in cabinets for the Iow midrange; six 12" speakers front-loaded for the high midrange; two Gauss HF4000 drivers in Gauss difraction horns for the highs. Driving all that are Crown amps. There's a PSA II for the low bass and low midrange, a DC300 mono amp for the high midrange, and a D75 mono amp for the highs.
Sting's effects rack consists of an Ashley single-input preamp for Brian-the-doublebass; an Ashley four-input preamp; two KIark Technic equalisers; a one-third octave mono and an octave stereo; two dbx 160 compressor/limiters and a Roland Space echo. He also uses harmonisers and echo to thicken his vocals on-stage.
Stewart Copeland's main gadget is the Roland Space echo. "I put the drums selectively through a delay unit," he explained, "the high-hat usually, the snare drum and the bass drum sometimes. I've got a footswitch on my high-hat pedal, next to it, so I can just click it on and off. It's like on-stage dub. I do quite a lot of it, and it makes it sound like two people falling down the stairs instead of just one."
Copeland has myriad other devices, among them a repeat/hold switch "that goes into a repeat pattern and holds it, so I can get up and walk around the drums, and the drums are playing themselves. I can play with the speed, and slow it down, sort of cornball onstage." There are several digital timing devices, and a Syndrum set-up that includes one for deep, electronic enhancement of the bass drum.
His drums themselves are by Tama, with octabands and two heads. Copeland prefers small drums to large ones, and the same goes for his cymbais. "I use high-hat cymbals that are small and easy to control, so that when you shut 'em it goes tcht! and you have absolute control. I can't stand sound edges." The rest of his cymbals are a mini-splash, splosh and splish cymbals, an ice-bell, and "apart from that, your average ride cymbal and crashes."
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