MUSICIANAugust 01, 1985
The following interview with Vic Garbarini appeared in the August 1985 issue of Musician magazine...
Fear and loathing in the Caribbean...
"The strangest thing happened today: I was out windsurfing on my board and suddenly the rudder was gone. It just snapped off for no apparent reason." Sting is lying face up on a pool table at Eddy Grant's Blue Wave Studio in Barbados. "I believe that everything happens for a purpose, so I asked myself why did this happen now? Then I realised the truth. I'd lost my sense of direction." He shields his eyes with his forearm and continues in a low voice. "Is the album any good? I don't know anymore. My voice, it's so weak. I was even tearful before. I just wanted to forget the band. I wanted to go home, crawl into bed, just forget the whole thing because I can't sing."
Sting took on this risky project to force himself to grow. No one said it would be easy. Intellectually, he still can't explain why he chose to work with young black jazz musicians on his first solo album. Maybe, the inspiration didn't come from his intellect. He's been having dreams and intuitions pulling him towards this project. Something in him knows he needs to get more in touch with his ability to express his deeper emotions. By working with musicians whose emotional and intuitive expression is much more immediate, maybe he can loosen something in himself. Still, the mind doesn't want to let go.
"I knew I needed to find musicians who complemented me on some level, and I know I'm right in doing this thing," Sting goes on. "But I'm doing it for reasons I still don't really understand." So trust your instincts, I offer. You're using risk as a tool. "OK, risk is a total tool," agrees Sting. "I mean, there is no greater risk than this project. The safe route, the sensible route, is just to make another album with the Police. Yeah, very good; write ten hit songs, you can easily do it. Keep dyeing your hair; just go out on the road for another ten months. This is nonsense. This risk is more logical and more in tune with what my instincts tell me."
Has he ever pushed himself too far in the past? "I survived what I would consider hell about two years ago," he confesses. "It was a domestic crisis, it was linked to everything - to my career, to the people I was working with. I just wanted out of life basically. I was considering the most drastic measures to stop this torment which created myself. Having lived through that mortally dangerous time, I now find the concept of taking artistic risks laughable. They're not dangerous - they're essential. What I find horrifying is what some people would consider the right route. That scares the shit out of me. Time for bed," concludes Sting wearily. "Tomorrow I'll have another try at Set Them Free and Shadows."
'Shadows In The Rain' is the first track Sting's new band will record. Miles Davis bassist Darryl Jones, Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim, and Wynton Marsalis keyboardist Kenny Kirkland assemble in the stone-walled main studio. Sax-man Branford Marsalis is due in momentarily. Behind the glass partition in the control room engineer, co-producer Pete Smith and assistant engineer Jim Scott prepare the boards for the first take. Sting, also in the booth, plugs his Telecaster directly into the board. "We're going to try 'Shadows In The Rain' in the new arrangement," he announces to the players in the studio. He explains that he wrote the song as an uptempo R&B romp, but the Police version wound up more modern/abstract. Now he'll go back to the original idea. "Often I felt the demos were better than what we used on the record." Sting suggests that Omar lay out a solo drum pattern to start a vocal over. Omar obliges. but Sting calls a halt seconds into the first take. "That swings too much, Omar. It telegraphs what's coming next." Omar plays a series of snaps and rolls. Sting nods and begins the reference vocal. At the end of Omar's roll Kenny and Darryl kick in full tilt, as does Sting's guitar. The track explodes into life. "Okay, Kenny, take it!" shouts Sting. Kirkland launches into a mind-warping roller coaster of a solo on his Yamaha DX7. "Okay, now this is Branford," announces Sting: the singer mimics a sax solo with his voice. It's an exhilarating take.
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis sprints into the studio. "Did I miss something," he asks in mock horror. Branford, brother of trumpeter Wynton, is the band member Sting has grown closest to. Like Wynton, Branford is a jazz purist. He believes that black music - particularly jazz - has not been granted the respect it deserves. But unlike Wynton. Branford respects pop music as a legitimate musical vehicle. He's incredibly mature for a twenty-four-year old, though he's still a kid at heart: Gary Coleman crossed with Wayne Shorter. Sting and Pete play Branford the basic track of Shadows. Branford agrees to take a shot at overdubbing the solo. He enters the studio, grabs his sax, and puts on a set of cans. Pete starts the track rolling. Branford panics. "Wait a minute !" he shouts into the intercom. "What key is this in?"
The entire control room cracks up. "A minor," chuckles Sting. Branford begins his solo by precisely imitating Sting's "sax" solo on the original track. Sting and Pete crack up again. Fists raised, they both jump up and offer encouragement. "Come on, Branford!" shouts Sting. "GO FOR IT!" Marsalis rips off a terse solo that rides the line between rock and jazz. Everyone seems pleased with the playback. "You like the way I quoted you quoting me, huh?" Branford asks Sting. "White musicians compliment each other by saying nice things about each other's work... even if they secretly hate the shit. Black musicians show their respect by stealing the cats licks. It's the ultimate compliment."
Did you see the surprised look on Kenny's face as I ended my solo?" he asks. "That's cause I copped some of his licks there". "That's cool," retorts Kenny. "Cause I copped part of that line from Victor. Remember when you played that Jimi Hendrix riff he other day?" Kenny laughs. "I learned that off you and I use it all the time now."
Branford continues: "I don't want to just turn out rock clichés, and I don't want to wind up playing old bebop licks over this stuff. I've got to find a new approach for this music. And that's going to take some thought."
Sometimes methinks he thinks too much. "Yeah, well, this is how I attack things now," offers Branford. "It's just going to be a bit untogether until I figure it all out." I'm reminded of how hard Branford and the rest of the band members work at their craft. Marsalis will spend hours analysing Joe Henderson solos; he even takes his mini-Walkman stereo on the tennis court with him. It's important for him to show that black musicians are not just operating on "instinct" - that they can conceptualise their music. He knows his intuition is strong so he works to strengthen his analytical abilities. When you ask band members what they most admire about Sting they all give the same answer: his songwriting; his ability to conceptually pull together all these disparate elements he's drawn into one whole. They are attracted to his analytical skills to their emotional directness and spontaneity. Like right and left spheres of the brain, they're complementary.
Sting: "Branford I'd like you to work out some more fills for the verses of Shadows."
Branford: "Okay, let's go. I know what I want to do."
Sting: "It can wait till the morning. Just write out the charts and..."
Branford. "No, man. Let's do it now. I work better that way." And so it goes.
On the second night of recording Sting leads the band, through the stately, waltz-time chords of 'Children's Crusade'. Midway through the track he motions for Branford to begin his solo. It's a respectable effort. Sting calls for another take over the intercom. This time there's magic in the air. Step by step, level by level, Branford's solo builds in intensity, goosed along by Omar's sensitive but forceful drumming. At the height of tension, Branford teeters for a moment on the brink of release, then breaks through with a high keening note.
"Okay," announces Sting over the intercom, "I think the first take was more even." Omar and Darryl are shocked. They rush into the control room. "Wait a minute," pleads Omar. "Didn't you hear what Branford did on the second take?" Sting and Pete are mystified. They had turned down Branford's track in the control room in order to hear the rhythm section. Sting asks Pete to play the second take. After the playback there's a moment of stunned silence. Then cheers. Sting is delighted. "It has real passion. I love it. We really came together there as a band for the first time."
Did Omar somehow know that Branford would make a special effort on this take? "Sure. I knew because I had him up in the mix," explains Hakim. "On the first take the solo was shorter. But the second time I intuitively knew he was going to keep playing. It's the sensibility of playing that jazz music.' It lets me know the cat's going to keep playing, and that gives me a kind of permission to push it up one more level underneath him. I guess Pete and Sting had been doing pop records for so long that maybe they're trying to be a little more... careful."
The following night Sting teaches the band a new tune, Consider Me Gone. "It's another in my series of songs about spite and ingratitude," Sting says. "Like 'Demolition Man' and 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'." The band attempts three or four takes, but the feel isn't right. "It just isn't floating," muses Sting. Suddenly, Eddy Grant enters the studio impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit. "Sting, can I bring in a guest for just a minute?"
"Sure," nods Sting. "Who is it?"
Well...it's the president of my home country, Guyana. The Great Man and his entourage of cabinet members, journalists and armed bodyguards file into the tiny control room. In the studio behind the glass partition rubbernecking band members wonder what the hell is going on. Smiling nervously, Sting shakes the president's hand and apologises for being shirtless. "What the hell do we do now?" he whispers to tensely. "Try another take?" I suggest. He begins the guitar riff and the band swings in behind him. This time the groove falls into place and all the musical problems disappear. The Great Man loves every minute of it. Ten minutes later, still smiling and bopping, he's escorted out by Eddy. As soon as he's gone Sting and Branford simultaneously break into 'The Beverly Hillbillies' theme.
"That was great," says Jim Scott. "Now all we have to do is find ten more presidents of obscure, third-world countries so we can finish off the rest of the tracks."
"Let's set down a couple of grooves," suggests Sting, "and see what we come up with." They swing into a country-rock tempo with Sting singing "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" over the changes in his Dylan accent. "I wanna sing about... Cheeeeeez!" he howls. He next calls for a funk groove, and the band rockets off. Branford improvises a rap based on his nickname, Steep-Pone: "My name is Steep, you can call me Pone, 'cuz I do it to the girls with my sax-a-phone!" Sting is in stitches. Finally, Sting calls for a reggae, and skats some old Jamaican melodies over the groove. "I think we have something here," he says. Later, this track will become the foundation for the tune 'Love Is The Seventh Wave'. "Omar, you were perfect." commends Sting. "One-take Hakim does it again." Omar twirls his sticks and grins, "Anything else I can do for you?" "Yeah," Pete Smith replies over the intercom, "next take, can you stick a broom up your ass and sweep the floor while you're playing?" The band, led by Omar, collapses in hysterics.
Over the next week. the band lays down basic tracks for 'Fortress Around Your Heart', 'Russians' and 'We Work The Black Seam'. The latter song was inspired by the recent British coal miner's strike. 'I wanted to deal with what drove these men to take such drastic actions," explains Sting. "The government wanted to close coal mines that were deemed uneconomic.' They were talking about getting rid of creative communities and offering nothing to replace what gives them their sense of cohesion and identity, which is the work they do. Simple economic efficiency can't be the sole determinant of everything of value. Obviously. some of life's most meaningful and nurturing activities can't be measured in just pounds and dollars."
I note that he stuck that idea in the chorus of 'Set Them Free'. Sting smiles. "Man can't live by greed alone." I offer that Fortress seems to be about countering the spite and possessiveness of songs like 'Wrapped Around Your Finger'. "It is linked to 'Wrapped'," he concedes. "Wrapped was a spiteful song about turning the tables on someone who had been in charge. 'Fortress', on the other hand, is about appeasement, about trying to bridge the gaps between individuals. The central image is a minefield that you've laid around this other person to try and protect them. Then you realise that you have to walk back through it. I think it's one of the best choruses I've ever written."
As much as I agree with the points of view expressed in the new songs, I confess that I find them all pretty didactic and preachy, the imagery often forced and linear, rather than poetic and inspired. I'll concede that each song is redeemed by a chorus or line that punches through to another level. But, for someone who's trying to feel his way into something deeper, this intellectual approach seems wrong.
"Yes." Sting admits, "These songs are didactic and I am being overly intellectual. But I think they're pretty subtle and seductive, and I feel there are certain issues that have to be addressed, to the best of my ability, at this moment. These songs are in the troubadour tradition of travelling around and dispensing information in song about political and social issues."
We talk about balancing left and right brain functions in songwriting, how the right mixture is crucial. "The really good lines in my work come through just that kind of inspiration," Sting agrees. "I always start with one line that pops into my head - like 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. Then I create a scenario around that central image. The linear craft comes with trying to dress that central line. My songs serve different functions. I have songs about faith in something greater than ourselves. like 'Love Is The Seventh Wave' or 'Invisible Sun'. There are also songs about being lost. And there are songs that provide information. I have to view them as a whole rather than in isolation."
Branford and Pete Smith materialise behind us. "Is he giving you a hard time again?" they ask Sting. "f***ing critics!" sneers Pete, in what I hope is mock disgust. "What have you got against Fortress anyway?"
The next morning, Sting attempts to lay down a vocal for Set Them Free, the proposed first single. It does not go well. In take after take, Sting's voice breaks, cracks and slurs. He sits over the board, cradling his head in his hands, his confidence shaken by the repeated failures. Pete moves quietly to his side. "Okay, you're a bit raw..." he begins.
"I don't want to talk about it," moans Sting.
"It's coming along," insists Smith. "Just go back in the booth and give it another try." Sting trudges obediently into the isolation booth. He puts on his cans and closes his eyes in concentration, clutching both fists. "You can never, ever, let a singer think he can't do it," insists Smith. "If he starts to believe that, we've f***in' well had it."
The next take's a marked improvement. "That's the stuff, Matt," enthuses Smith, calling Sting by his nickname. "You're getting there!"
"Yeah, I guess so.." responds Sting over the intercom. "I guess it was just... fear, wasn't it?"
"It isn't just the vocals," Pete confides later. "There's something missing in 'Set Them Free'." Branford disagrees: "Leave it alone. It's got a groove. What more do you want?"
Next morning, Sting and Pete discuss the missing link in 'Set Them Free'." Sting asks Kenny if he can come up with a line on his DX7 to give the intro a bit of character. Kirkland finds a circular, modal figure in a clavinet setting. "That's it!" exclaims Sting.
A determined Sting heads into the vocal booth. At the end of the afternoon, we're called in to hear the results. Sting's vocal is exhilarating - passionate and intense. Combined with Kenny's synth riff, it gives the song the lift velocity of a 747. Everyone knows that the turning point has been reached. The single is in the bag.
Sting is breathing easier. "I think it's a very good vocal, very committed," he ventures. "I had to spend about four hours to get it. I had to drag myself through the most humiliating playbacks because I just didn't have the confidence. There's actually a joyful swagger in there, because I knew I'd done it."
So is Sting really changing? His girlfriend Trudie thinks so. "I think the band is helping him open up. It's difficult for him in some ways, but he's loosening up and having more fun. At least he doesn't read so many books anymore," she laughs. "That's gotta mean something!"
But Sting is challenging as well as being challenged. "The band can feel their way into things, yes. But sometimes they play too comfortably. What they do very easily, very adeptly, I don't particularly want. I want them to feel a certain amount of pressure."
He offers a thumbnail sketch of each band member: "First of all there's Branford Marsalis, who isn't good at anything. Then there's Omar, who thinks he's a good drummer but really he's nowhere as good as me. But I like him. Then there's Darryl, whom I'm trying to teach to play the bass. He's kind of cute. Finally there's this joker called Kenny Kirkland who sounds as if he's playing with boxing gloves on. It's a pretty good band."
After months of being the butt of the band's jokes, Sting is learning to play the dozens. Maybe he is loosening up.
And while Sting might not be certain what part of his being is forcing him through these changes, he's confident of his direction. "I know I'm right in doing all this," he insists. "It hasn't taken any personal courage at all. My voices are just saying, 'You're absolutely right, Sting. Go for it.'"
© Musician magazine