12.01.91 MAKING MUSIC
The following article by Paul Colbert appeared in a December 1991 issue of Making Music magazine...
Sting is in his kitchen. "It's where I keep the piano. And play with the kids." And write songs, but more of that later. It's Tuesday lunchtime and Sting has a couple of days off back home before continuing the European leg of a mammoth 14 month tour. He returns for some British dates before Christmas, but doesn't clock off completely until early in 1992.
The band, a rocky four-piece, substantially stripped down from the last multi-handed corps of players, has been travelling the globe since the beginning of this year. They do, admits Sting, tinker... quite a bit. Along the way they've reconstructed the set to fit intimate clubs or 20,000 seaters, from full blown stage shows to purely acoustic gigs. Sometimes they've played large chunks of the latest album 'Soul Cages', on other occasions crowds have lurched to their feet to hear guitarist Dominic Miller, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist David Sancious whack through a collection of Police songs.
'Soul Cages', released in September 1990, was Sting's first album for three years. Nothing for three years and then a solid 14 months on the road. How could he be quiet so long, then noisy with such determined vigour?
"I never gave it up in that time," says Sting in relaxed mood, "this is how I make my living. I just couldn't see the point of putting a record out for the sake of putting a record out and just filling a load of tracks up with stuff I didn't really mean or didn't care about. I'm in that fortunate position of being able to wait until I'm inspired to do something, but it was almost three years and I did kind of wonder whether I was taking a holiday, or had a mental block, or whether I should be thinking about doing something else altogether."
When 'Soul Cages' was ushered onto the racks, Sting had already gone on record saying he'd faced a long writer's block during its preparation - not musically but lyrically. Pencil had hovered nervously over page for months with no results. It was only drawing on his earliest memories of docks and shipbuilding in home town Newcastle that eventually cracked the dam and produced an album with the sea at its heart.
"I was still playing music every day, but the most difficult thing for me now is to write lyrics. Music is kind of abstract, you can just do it, like doodling at it all the time. Lyrics are not abstract, you have to write about something, and I did want to write about something, it's just that what was going on in my mind at the time wasn't the subject of an album."
It transpires that he's not the sort of writer to squirrel away material. Visions of old songs maturing gently in the cellar until he needs a bottle or two for the next LP are well out. "I was talking to... Bruce Springsteen," smiles Sting, speeding across the unavoidable name drop "and he said he's got 60 songs for his next record and he can't decide which ones to use. When people ask me how I decide when the record's finished, it's easy... when I've got ten songs written, ha, ha. If I haven't got a core idea for something, I don't even start it so my albums tend to be pretty much all I've written. I filter as I go. I don't finish a song and then say, no I don't like that."
There is, he admits, an element of panic in all that he does. And he probably enjoys it. It's different now, from the days of The Police. "I didn't start making records until I was 25 or something, so I had ten years of songwriting to act as a reservoir, to steal ideas from when I needed them. That ran out, and for the past three albums, I've had to start from scratch."
And scratch it is, the challenge of the empty page, and the nagging concern that maybe this time it won't happen.
"You do feel nervous, yes - this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, yet I'm always thinking, 'where's the next song coming from ?' People say [grandly] 'Sting, how do you write songs' and I say [grandly again] 'I have no idea.' It happens occasionally but I don't know the buttons to press; I hit them by accident. I'm just glad I do."
All this sounds remarkably self-effacing for a man who has a ten year history of confident and pointed pop songs. Especially someone who stands centre stage with them around the world. But no, this is Sting as gibbering wreck.
"Seriously. I love touring, you can sort of suspend reality and responsibility for a long time, but it's a nightmare when you stop, especially for the family. You're glad to see them, and they're glad to see you, but who is this monster who's just walked through the door ? When I get home I don't unpack. I refuse to unpack. NO-ONE CAN TOUCH THE BAGS, they just stay in the room and very gradually I'll empty them."
Presumably when the urge for a spare pair of socks becomes incontestable. "Yeah. But I have been known to come back from a tour and be found whimpering in the corner, wondering where the restaurant is." The solution is to follow each tour with an immediate holiday. Speaking of which...
"I did have a holiday from the bass for a couple of years after I left The Police," says Sting of his conversion to the guitar for the first two solo albums. "It was so I could sing and strum and that was great, but I find now being back on bass, it's a very good way of leading a band because musically the keyboard player can play a C chord but it's not a C chord until the bass player puts his note in. I can actually change the harmonic structure of the band to whatever I want it to be. That's powerful," he grins, "and I like it...
"Dynamically the bass controls the energy of the group. I've got the bottom notes and I've also got the top notes of the voice so I can control the band without being seen as a conductor, a Joe Loss character. Yes, I've enjoyed going back to the bass."
And how do the rest of the band react to the idea of you shifting the musical geography beneath their feet? "They love it. I mean, these guys are picked because they respond in a positive way to curves being thrown at them. They're not sitting there, tight-arsed about it wondering 'what the fuck is he doing, fucking these songs up'."
When the material for 'Soul Cages' was first taken into the studio it was rehearsed almost entirely on acoustic instruments - double bass, grand piano, acoustic guitar. The plan, Sting explains, was to give the recording a base that was real rather than synthetic. "We got to know the songs through that process then as things developed we added more instruments, but the basic feel was of an acoustic group and occasionally we have done the set acoustically. We played at Carnegie Hall with just acoustic instruments, and at a school in Newcastle, so we can pare the thing down."
He makes it sound very easy, but surely even the simplest of today's electric guitar sounds has a host of subtle effects to burnish its appearance. You don't just pick up an acoustic guitar and get on with it. "Yes, you do have to adapt, you haven't got the luxury of a synthesised bed to lie on. Everything is very bare and exposed, but that's what you use. You say to people, 'this is music with a certain number of limitations and this is us coping with those limitations. I hope it's entertaining'. I often think it is more interesting watching a band coping with limitations than seeing a group merely going through what their record sounds like. Sometimes it sounds so like their record they might as well be miming... and, ah, sometimes they are.
"I've managed throughout the years to keep my songs going because I've injected life into them, changed the tempo, changed the key, made things... I don t know, music is a very flexible system for me, a sort of modular system. You can add bits, take bits off, switch them around, and I enjoy doing that; not only arranging the song, but arranging for the stage."
I wonder, wrongly as it turns out, if that means the songs aren't that precious to him. Sting throws a parental arm over their shoulder. "They're precious. They're precious in that I still like the songs, but this isn't classical music. It's largely based on an improvised form and I like improvising. I actually like adding songs together and adding songs to other songs, bits that remind you of other bits. I'm always wandering off into something else, I suppose that's a thing from jazz, you quote stuff all the time."
Yes, in fact you quote from your own stuff mostly, lines out of 'Set Them Free' on the 'Turtles' album appearing in 'We'll Be Together' on 'Nothing Like The Sun', and so on..
"Ha, ha... the songs are full of lines like that stolen from others, which I think is funny. Okay Paul, I give up, it's just one extended song, really, disguised as a few... ha, ha, ha." All right, we'll spare the cuffs this time.
He usually picks band members not because they are astonishing players - though it just so happens - but because they can play anything "from Latin to classical to avant garde jazz. My whim," he declares "will take me anywhere."
So what happens when someone throws you a country lick on stage? "It will wind up as something else... total anarchy sometimes, a complete disaster, but sometimes it's really wonderful and you can't predict it."
But on stage I have the sneaking suspicion it is not the musical bacchanalia he describes. Songs are chosen and trimmed very carefully, particularly when Sting felt some of the material wasn't reaching the edges of a 20,000 seater. And Police songs resurfaced not just because of their quality and popularity but because they were tailor-made for a small group. They call it working the audience. It's just that Sting believes everyone should have their turn at the wheel.
"I think audiences are pretty reactionary, so they kind of want to hear what they know. They want the hits. So I'll give them that, as long as there's a trade off. As long as I can say, right, now it's time to listen to this and struggle with it for a bit and as a reward at the end I'll play something you wanna hear'. I'm not precious about doing old stuff, I like the old songs, but I think there's a to-and-fro with the audience. You have to think they've done some work as well and they enjoy it better, too."
Perhaps the most surprising detail about Sting is that the man who turned out 'Message In A Bottle', 'Roxanne', and 'Every Breath You Take' admits that he finds writing songs genuine hard work. They may sound as if they fell, fully formed, from a tree in the garden, but no. And more to the point, it's becoming increasingly hard.
"I am", he breezes, "a 40 year old man now. Forty last month. And I'm not as plugged into everything as I was in the early Eighties... what like to call my 'heyday', ha. I felt very much tune with what was happening then, and I felt that I knew what was going to be a hit, I could write something and say, 'Hit'. That was a function of being in a very successful group.
"Now, I feel less plugged in. I mean, I do the work, but I don't know if its going to be a hit or not, really. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, sometimes... ah... okay everyone it's NOT a hit is it? I mean that 'Russians' song was a big success but it didn't sound like anything on the radio, it sounded weird. Who knows?
"But that doesn't stop me just carrying on. And I do think the work I'm doing is getting better, I don't think it sells as well, but it is getting better. I think if you work hard at your craft you can refine it, but it still gets harder. In the past I'd write stuff and if the standard wasn't that high, that was okay because I didn't have much to beat. Now the standards are high, and I have to beat myself.
"And when I come off the tour I'll come back home, I don't have a studio I just have a piano in the kitchen, and I'll play with the kids, sit at the piano, panic a bit. Then panic some more. Then go for a walk. But right now, there is not the slightest thing in my head. No ideas, nothing. And that's good, because it means I'll have to start from scratch again.
"But look, I don't want to moan about my life. I have a GREAT life and I'm really glad I have this work, it's fantastic work, but it doesn't come every day. In fact, I haven't written a word today. In fact, I've done fuck all... ha, ha."
THE BASS: "Same one I've used since I was 17, a '62 Fender Jazz. In between I've toyed around with bass guitars without machines heads, bass guitars without bodies... bass guitars without strings... but you go back to what you love. I've played double bass a couple of times in acoustic sets but really you have to play every day otherwise it's blisters three numbers in."
THE KEYBOARD: "I still work on a Synclavier system, and I use it as a massive digital diary, in a way. I can dabble on that thing, put a date on it, then put it away and six months later look up the date and see what I was doing back then. I find music is easy, songs are difficult."
THE MUSIC: "I'm interested in slipping things into pop music, something that tastes a bit odd. Pop music seems a bit narrow to me now. I listen to Radio One and nothing surprises me and it should. I didn't have a classical education. Everything I know about music came from pop, it led me everywhere. I don't think there's the same width of references today and therefore it's become a closed system, very formularised. Pop music is based on thirds, fourths and fifths, and anything else is 'esoteric'. A sixth is 'jazz', a seventh 'blues', and an 11th... forget it."
THE INFLUENCES: "I used to have this argument a lot because The Police toured the world so much; did that make us an eclectic band interested in 'World Music'? No, of course not. It had nothing to do with travelling, it was about having an open mind and listening to the radio. You didn't have to go to Jamaica to hear reggae. And people have the wrong idea about touring, it's very self-contained, you don't get outside the shell that's made for you. And if you do, you're usually drunk anyway."
THE LESSONS: "Yeah, I still take piano lessons and music lessons. There's still an awful lot to learn. I'm not one of these guys who learns four chords and decides that's it. I'm interested in getting better. I think you should never lose that child in you as a musician, and to me the best musicians are those who never stop learning."
THE BODY OF WORK: "It's a bit early for hindsight for me. I don't often look back at my work and ponder its significance... you might find that difficult to believe but I don't. I'm too worried about what I'm going to do next. When it comes to music, as soon as there are rules, it's dead in the water as far as I'm concerned."
© Making Music magazine