04.08.05 Let's hear it from the band...
Sting is going back to his roots, stripping it all down to the basics. The onetime English teacher turned rock icon turned castle-dwelling Jaguar-shilling world-musician, whose diet and sex life and personal politics have become standard cultural knowledge, is going back to school - or so he would have us believe.
His current sashay around America, dubbed the Broken Music Tour, finds Sting performing in small college-campus concert halls, with a backing band of three musicians, none of whom play the zither or the doumbek or any of the other oddball instruments that have shown up in Sting's performances in recent years.
But while Sting apparently wants us to see this new venture as an effort to get back to a more intimate, raw approach to music-making, don't bother trying to score a personal audience. The 54-year-old British rock icon isn't doing any press interviews on his current tour of university campuses.
The reticence is at least understandable; Sting is, after all, one of the most dissected musicians of all time. There's little that hasn't been documented and analyzed about his life, his love, and his music. One can currently select from three Sting biographies and one autobiography in print, not to mention a pile of tour documentaries and "Behind the Music"-style TV profiles.
So instead, we decided to chat with the three other guys on stage with Sting during the 28-city tour. It's probably no surprise that Sting hand-picked a cast of characters whose collective resume could fill a book itself. Their perspectives on this current gig thus reflect not only the experience of playing with Sting, but of life in the shadows of celebrity musicians in general.
Aside from Sting, Shane Fontayne comes to the Broken Music Tour with the most impressive resume of all the musicians on stage. Despite never having built a reputation of his own outside the music industry, the 49-year-old guitarist has managed to perform and record with pretty much every major pop music icon of the past quarter century: performers like Bruce Springsteen, U2, Paul Simon, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart.
This current tour marks Fontayne's first collaboration with Sting.
Q: How is playing with Sting different from playing with Bruce Springsteen?
A: They're definitely at the same level, but it's a totally different experience. Sting is a very hands-on, exacting, orchestral-conductor-type band leader; where someone like Bruce, his leadership is more in the moment. With Bruce, it was pretty much free reign: We'd bring something to sound check and then we'd play it in the concert. Sting has a very clear idea of what he wants, and although that can change day to day, it is very specific. Working with him definitely keeps you on your toes; it's really challenging and rewarding.
Q: It sounds like it's rather high-pressure .
A: Actually, things on this tour are very relaxed. It's a very close environment between all of us, band and crew. There's the hard work we put into the music, it is hard work that challenges us daily. But then we eat and drink and share time together in the sweetest of ways.
Q: What surprised you most about Sting's personality when you started playing with him?
A: Maybe the extent to which he won't be constrained by his stardom. I'll come down in the morning and he'll be in the hotel restaurant having a meal on his own. . It seems like the less built-up his image is, the more comfortable he is. I think it matches his work ethic: He comes from the working class, and that's who he is essentially.
Josh Freese is the young buck of Sting's current band. Born in 1972, Freese was still a kid when the Police first started making records. Not surprisingly for a drummer of his age, Freese was heavily influenced by Police drummer Stewart Copeland, as can be heard in his own, frenetic and slightly off-kilter style of playing. Despite his youth, Freese comes to this gig with plenty of past credits of his own, including stints with A Perfect Circle, Devo, Ween, Guns-n- Roses, and the Replacements.
Q: You were still a kid when the Police first broke out. What do you remember about your impressions of the band from back then?
A: They were totally popular when I was in sixth grade. Whether you liked them or not, you couldn't get away from them. Fortunately, I liked them; they had great songs, they were kind of punk rock. Stewart (Copeland) was the favorite drummer for a lot of drummers from that era, and I really thought he was cool.
Q: How does it feel to now be playing those songs with Sting?
A: It's definitely a weird twist. I've been fortunate in that I've gotten a chance to work with a lot of guys I grew up loving. The difference here is that Sting sold about 100 million more records than Paul Westerberg. So getting up on stage with Sting was certainly a bit intimidating.
Q: What surprised you most about Sting's personality?
A: I guess how easygoing and personable he is to get along with. He's a really nice guy. Not that I thought he'd be an asshole, but I knew he had license to be if he wanted. He's not; he makes you feel right at home, he's a warm guy. That made the whole thing so much easier.
Q: Do you find yourself in this deja-vu of playing parts that you learned as a kid from playing along with records of Stewart Copeland?
A: I had never sat down and practiced those songs when I was a kid, but given that I liked the music, I'm sure I kind of stole ideas from him even if I didn't intentionally practice them. I suspect it comes in as bits and pieces, here and there. That's the case with a lot of the guys I was into when I was first learning to play: I'm sure there are pieces of Vinnie Colaiuta and Soupy Sales in there, too.
Compared to his other backing-band mates, Dominic Miller is an old hand. Miller, 44, first began performing with Sting in 1990, and has been on every record and tour with him ever since. Sting has referred to Miller as his "right and left hands," and listening to Miller play the guitar, it's easy to understand why. In fact, Miller is probably better known around the world by his own name than as Sting's guitarist: His 2003 solo album, "Shapes," sold more than 100,000 copies internationally.
Q: You've done a lot of playing and touring with Sting at this point, through a lot of stages of his development. How are things different on this tour?
A: Sting has decided to get rid of the dressing, go down to the bare bones of what the music really is. It's a real voyage of uncovering the songs, and it's really exciting and surprising. He was worried about not using keyboards and such, but it turns out we're not missing anything. It sounds so much earthier.
Q: What are the challenges that you personally faced making the stylistic switch on this tour, and taking on so much more responsibility for filling out the harmonic texture of the music?
A: It's surprisingly been a breeze really; I've worked with (Sting) so long, I kind of know what my role is at this point. We could play these songs on almost any instruments. That's the nature of a good song, and truly he writes good songs. The only challenge has been to connect with the other musicians - we quite honestly didn't know if it would work, going into it. But as soon as they walked in the door, it was a breath of fresh air. These guys are very experienced, so it was much easier than I thought it would be.
Q: Do you think that this current, stripped-down approach is a harbinger of a fundamentally new direction for Sting and your collaboration; or is this just one in the ongoing series of transformations?
A: I'd like to think this would be a springboard to a new direction; I'm getting more and more excited about the kinds of sounds we're making. (Sting) hasn't got any plan as such, as regards the style to go toward. A real artist shouldn't really have a plan, just his wits to find the path that makes sense as it unfolds. He has taken huge risks with his career and most have paid off, and hopefully he'll see this as another new challenge.
And it really is exciting. Right now, I'm using a Les Paul (electric guitar) in the band, precisely because I'm not familiar with it. I'm much more familiar with a Fender Stratocaster, but I put myself in this unfamiliar position so that I can essentially feel like a new member of the band. And that's exactly how it feels: It's all new again.
© The Missoulian by Joe Nickell