GUITARApril 01, 1996
The following article by Danny Eccleston appeared in the April 1996 issue of Guitar magazine...
Sorted for ease and jazz...
From fusion to reggae/punk-lite back to fusion to sophisto-jazzpop... Is it any wonder that Sting is enjoying muso-ish middle age? "I've got to the point where I can play just about anything," he tells Danny Eccleston. "And it's good to know you can do that".
"What's got three legs and a c***?" asks Sting. We don't know. What has got three legs and...um, a thing? "A drum stool". Er, ha, ha, Mr Sting. It's funny. No, not Sting's joke, which is barely up there with 'How can you tell there's a drummer at the door - the knocking speeds up' let alone scaling the dizzy heights of 'What do you call a person who hangs around with musicians - a drummer.' No, its funny that he bothers to tell it at all. It's as if we've scratched the multi-millionaire rock star cum eco warrior and found not just a bass player but everybassplayer: i.e. he who is next to bottom on the rock glam ladder and delights in the only time-honoured privilege accorded him... Kicking the drummer.
Sting is often called the a musician's musician, and it's not a description he dislikes. Count the pop types who've reached the same level of global iconhood as Sting and not become blando candy vendors and you'd be lucky to come up with more than three. Count those up stayed true to their instrument, rather than being sucked into the computer assisted worlds of Cubase and Notator or becoming a detached strummer fronting a band of impartial sessioneers, and you're looking at even fewer. Sting's music has, if anything, grown more challenging as it has become more frighteningly popular. 1993's Ten Summoner's Tales (the fourth Sting album not counting the live Bring On The Night) recently became his best selling solo outing - an awesome notion in itself - despite being packed to the gills with what it's author describes as 'muso jokes'. Musos dig Sting; "and I love that," he grins. They appreciate the cool changes, sophisticated harmony, and the fact that maybe one day he'll give them a job. Quizzed in 1984, deified bassist Jaco Pastorius described Sting as 'a beautiful cat', and that's saying something.
"This band has the ability to jam to the skies", boasts Sting of his current Kenny Kirkland/Vinnie Colaiuta/Dominic Miller combo, "and in restraining them, there's certainly a tension there that works. I think the musicians like that. You know, one of my biggest tasks is to keep the band together, and the only way I can do that is giving them stuff to play that challenges them and engages their enthusiasm. And once I've engaged their enthusiasm I feel that I've succeeded, and selling records and everything else is beside the point."
Sting's new album is called 'Mercury Falling' and it's probably his best post-Police recording. It's certainly the earthiest, partly a by-product, of its recording environment: i.e. Sting's dining room, dominated by a composite SSL desk and purged daily of dogs and children. Hugh Padgham ('his ears are like Jodrell Bank!') once again engineered and produced, while Sting composed the lion's share of the tunes in his head as he tramped squirishly about his adequate grounds. But wasn't it ever a pain in the neck - the inability to physically escape from this record?
"Oh I don't know, heh, heh. It's a big enough house to be honest..."
Revelling in their now uncannily organic interplay, the band weigh in with authentic R&B ('You Still Touch Me' is a deft Dunn/Cropper groove, 'All Four Seasons' pure Al Green), light-hearted C&W ('I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying') and, just to prove they can still shift the gears when they feel the urge, Northumbrian folk music into fancy bossa nova via Steely Dan... in 7/4 ('I Was Brought To My Senses'). Eclecticism might be the double-edged sword of crap proverb - certainly the overpowering jazz-fusion of 'Nothing Like The Sun' (the second Sting LP) never convinced, in spite of the BPI award - but that's not about deflect Sting from his cosmopolitan course.
"I had a pretty mixed education as a musician," he recalls in rich transatlantic tones flecked with proper Geordie consonants. "It was certainly different to that of a lot of rock'n'roll players. I worked in an orchestra pit backing cabaret. I backed strippers ha ha! I worked on the ships. I did session work. I did all of that stuff and I learned a great deal from it. My ambition was to be a muso, and not necessarily a very good one; my ideal was just to make a living playing the bass."
Famously, Sting was never a punk, even though the Police's debut single ('Fall Out', released in 1977 pretended it was. The 25-year-old spiky blond had been anchoring Newcastle jazz-rockers Last Exit when he met drummer Stewart Copeland, then occupying the three-legged stool behind, ahem, jazz-rockers Curved Air. Following Sting's relocation to the capital and the formation of the Police - essentially Copeland's band and initially featuring Corsican Henri Padovani on guitar - Sting and Copeland guested in Paris with Mike Howlett's Strontium 90: a Gong-connected (you guessed it) jazz-rock band, starring ex-Soft Machine/Zoot Money/Kevin Ayers G- stringer Andy Summers. Summers in, Padovani up the road, debut album Outlandos d'Amour kicked off at Nigel Gray's Surrey Sound studio in January 1978 and the now fully peroxided band bit The Man's gilded bullet, and did a Wrigleys gum ad for television. Now, how punk rock was that?
"Last Exit had exactly the same sort of line-up and a very similar attitude to my current band," says Sting of his musicianly roots. 'In other words, they were all people who could play in a lot of different styles and had a very catholic interest in everything. We never said, "Oh we're a blues band," or "We're a jazz group." We didn't say anything like that. We simply stole from everywhere, and ended up with a kind of collage. I see music as one big city, and I'm allowed to go into any suburb. I hate these very artificial ghettos that music seems to climb, or be driven into and can't escape from".
"But back then I suppose my hero was Jack Bruce - I think he had a depth of musical knowledge and an idea of what the bass could do that was deeper than your average rock bass player. I also dragged myself through the Ray Brown double-bass book, which I'd recommend any electric bass player to torture themselves with heh, heh. And I found that kind of discipline helpful. Thanks to that, I think I've got to the point, where I can play just about anything. And it's always good to know that you can do that"'
There came a point, however - after five increasingly fine Police albums had placed them on top of the hyper-lucrative rock pile (and in the case of the 'Synchronicity II' video, on top of a pile of rubbish playing guitars that looked like fishbones) - when Sting didn't want to play the bass any more. 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' had come and gone, and with it the solo hits that proved he need go through no more hell with the now totally hate-filled Police. The group were disbanded in 1986, upon which Sting recruited a crew band and a new bass player.
'It wasn't shying away. I just wanted a holiday ha ha! I wanted to concentrate on singing, and having Daryll Jones, one of the best bass players in the world, in the band made for quite a holiday, believe me. But I got back into it and I realised that that's what I do - I'm a bass player who sings."
Singing bass players (Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, the rest) often make the best band leaders and arrangers - almost as if the limitations of four strings have forced them to throw' their imaginations beyond the instrument itself. There's a lifetime of possibilities to be explored on the fretboard of a 6-string electric, and as a result many guitarists never get to peer over it.
"My theory is...well, I think you're right actually. You can lead a band in a very quite sort of way on the bass. It's like, someone could play a C chord on a piano, but it's not a C unless I play a C! I can change the harmonic structure of the band at will. All the time. And do. I'm constantly leading the band down different harmonic avenues just out of perversity, y'know. And dynamically you're controlling the band too, without really seeming too. And if you have the vocal line too, you're applying limitations on the band the whole time - top and bottom - and so as a band leader and arranger I'm in an ideal position, and I don't have to seem too dictatorial. It's not like I'm waving a stick in front of them. I'm just sort of seducing them into going my way.'
As for Sting's skills on the bass itself, the best people to ask are his band. I have to rate him as one of the greatest bass players of all time reckons guitarist Dominic Miller, now on his third Sting LP (Sting isn't present, by the way, so presumably he's not crawling). "I just don't know how he does something like 'Fortress Around Your Heart', which we do live now and again. Next time you hear that, listen to the way the bass and the vocals fit in with each other." Plucking with finger and thumb - mostly thumb - Sting creates a sense of time and space on the bass that is unique. Walking On The Moon seems too obvious an example, but few bass lines are more memorable, or as provocatively desolate. Then there's the strutting menace of 'Spirits In The Material World', the lissom grooviness of Summoner's' 'It's Probably Me' and, on 'Mercury Falling', the searing Weather Report of 'Valparaiaso's' breakdown...
"Yeah, that's a great bass riff," nods Miller, "and he's playing that on a stand-up, really high up! Do you know how hard that is? He was working it. His face was like, AAAARRGGH! You know, Sting has his own sense of intonation as much as he has his very own sense of time. If you got John Patitucci to play that line, it wouldn't sound anywhere near as good, and Patitucci's close to being technically the best bass player alive."
His own sense of time?
"Yeah, he is ahead of the beat, there is no question about it. And that's why being a drummer in his band is probably the most difficult job in the world, and it's no wonder that (West Coast session legend Vinnie Colaiuta got it. What normally happens is that drummers - I remember when we were auditioning lots and lots of them - will catch up with his groove. Whereas his whole point is that he wants to be ahead of the beat - which is a punk thing. It's a London thing. But Vinnie's smart enough to stay back and what we have as a result is a tightrope. Vinnie's holding him back and Sting's pushing. And sometimes he will think that Vinnie's too far back, look round and give him the death stare." All Sting's musicians know what the 'death stare' feels like, and Miller has learned to pull out his own teeth rather than lob in the odd sharpened ninth when unsanctioned by the boss. Laissez-faire is not in the Sting vocabulary and he's famously prepared to 'fight tooth and nail' for what he wants; a determination that cost him a cracked rib after a dressing room disagreement with Stewart Copeland during the Police's final death throes.
"Sting is very direct," Miller affirms. "If he doesn't like something he'll tell you he f***ing hates it. At the end of each show, before we have our drink or anything, he'll sit us down and say, "This and this and this and this were wrong." He'll never say, "That was great" There's no praise round here. If he does like something then you're doing your job, y'know. It's the same when you're making records. You come up with a riff and think to yourself "YES!" He's like, 'So what? That's what you're paid for.' "But you're not paid to screw up."
The stern taskmaster is also an inveterate tourer, unusually for a now 40-something who can so patently afford to put his feet up and devote himself to soil conservation experiments at his Wiltshire pile. As we speak the Sting machine is gearing up for another monster jaunt...
"I like touring," says Sting. "It's like being some latter-day pirate. You don't get much rape, but there's still some pillaging to be done, heh, heh. But making a song work on stage is so different to on record. There's a whole different set of parameters you have to deal with, and sometimes it takes a complete overhaul - key, tempo, drumbeat, style, whatever. I like to throw a curve at people and I like to see songs evolving. I'm not out to reproduce the sound of the CD on stage."
Evolution. Progress. Better. All good Sting words. It's as if the commitment to change he once projected onto the outside world (and still does, though once he tired of how cynically his philanthropy was being perceived, he shut up about it) has been refocused more sharply on music. Indeed, focus is an even better Sting word. When a young buck in the Police, journalists would note, with some discomfort, his blazing ambition, and beyond the advanced musicianship - rhythms that were presumed to be reggae (an impression enhanced by the younger Sting's Marleyesque whine) but owed as much to drummer Copeland's childhood residence in North Africa - the Police had obvious class. Even the relatively rudimentary Outlandos d'Amour put several country miles between itself and post-punk's blank nihilism and in 'Can't Stand Losing You' Sting proved himself something of a dab hand at psychosexual drama, a knack he carried over into 1979's 'Reggatta De Blanc', where 'Deathwish' and 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' mined similar dark themes. Edgy, spacious and taut, even while the sound palette was broadening to embrace the richer textures of 1980's 'Zenyatta Mondatta', the Police sound suited notions of dislocation and loss as much as it made for uniquely spiky pop singles. Aptly, the band's earliest Stateside awards - (Grammies for the tracks 'Reggatta De Blanc' and 'Behind My Camel') were for Best Rock Instrumental Performances.
"I can't ignore the Police songs, and I find it difficult to do a concert without singing 'Roxanne'", admits Sting. "People just identify me with it and I think they'd demand their money back if I didn't play it. I love that song. It always stretches me. It stretches me even more now that I'm getting older. 'Every Breath You Take' is another one, and 'Fragile' is another. Those three are the bedrock Police songs that nostalgia demands."
And has he any idea why Every Breath You Take has been so robust?
"I dunno. It's a generic, rule-obeying song. I've l tried again and again to work it out, and I suppose you'd have to say there's nothing original about it except its ambiguity...and I think that's its power."
Though hardly an habitual songwriter - "I avoid it like the plague" - Sting's one of our cleverest. He's not above the insertion of the odd musical quip - "One of my favourites is from 'An Englishman In New York' where at one point we're playing 'God Save The Queen' in a minor key. It really tickles me but nobody else hears it!" - and remains an enthusiast for the uncommon time signature.
"Well, 'Mercury Falling' is certainly more straightforward than the last. There are lapses into complex metres, but I've tried to disguise it a lot more this time, to not be so self-conscious about it. I like 7/4, and I'd never written a song in 9/8 before which is what I Hung My Head is. It didn't really sound weird, but I find it amusing watching people trying to tap their foot to it. It's interesting though. We played a show in Turkey a couple of years ago and, as I say, we play a lot of tunes in 7/4 on the road, and I've never seen an audience attune to that so easily and quickly, because a lot of Turkish music is in 7 and 11 and 13 and they have a complete understanding of that sort of metre, and it is such an amazing buzz when you hear it coming back.
"I like to push the envelope. It's like, my favourite interval is the flattened 6th. I introduce it now and then, again almost out of perversity. I had a song in the charts last year - When We Dance - which went to a flattened fifth, and it made the song kind of awkward. I write music to amuse myself, basically."
Such japery doesn't endear Sting to everyone, of course. And though there's little the critics could say that might cut him now ("In a way it helps to be marginalised - I'm a tough old bird now"), the musical 'dressing-up' led him into the odd embarrassing corner, not least when 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' looked close to grabbing a jazz Grammy from under the nose of the sniffily purist Wynton Marsalis - a scrape made potentially all the more awkward by the fact that the trumpeter's younger brother, Branford, was a Sting band staple.
"I'm not a jazz player,' declares Sting. 'I can't even pretend to be a jazz player. I'm the opposite in a way; I like to arrange music slowly and carefully. But I like to borrow from the feel of jazz, and I love playing with jazzmen who are prepared to, er, stoop - ha ha! - to playing this hybrid. I'm very grateful to them."
One of Sting's most endearing characteristics is his willingness to throw himself into alien musical situations with the expectation or maybe just the hope that he'll learn something from it. Something of a tribute album harlot, Sting's appeared on vinyl crooning Elton John numbers, Disney film tunes, 'Mack The Knife' on the Kurt Weill compilation 'Lost In The Stars', and recently lent himself and his hotly grooving combo to 'In From The Storm', the latest hats off to Hendrix.
"I've never been that close to a musician who was that brilliant,' says Sting of cosmic jazz axeman John Mclaughlin, who joined them on 'The Wind Cries Mary' (Sting also covered 'Little Wing' on '87's 'Nothing Like The Sun'). "It just pours out of him. His sense of rhythm and harmony, it's beyond everything I've ever experienced, and that song sticks out: one, because of John's playing and two, because we refused to put the orchestra on it, ha ha!
"But these tribute things, I find it a great relief, y'know, to become a journeyman, a craftsman, and just do what gets offered. It kicks me out of that ivory tower. I recognise a long tradition of songwriting - The Beatles, Gershwin, Cole Porter - and to learn about that tradition is to add breadth and scope to your own work. I'm still a very serious student of music. I'll sit and have a harmony lesson or sit and struggle through Mozart on the piano. At the moment I've spent the last year playing the Bach lute suites, badly, heh, heh... I'll never make a penny as a guitarist but I've got through them and I've learned so much. Listening to them is one thing, but reading them and actually playing them puts you inside the man's mind."
Something else that Sting has learned is to be a little less lyrically transparent. Striving to make sure no-one missed the important points he was making, whether it was about the Cold War in general ('Russians') or Pinochet's inhuman regime in Chile ('They Dance Alone'), Sting concedes that he may in the past have been a tad, um, heavy handed. This time, he wraps an attack on French nuclear testing in the South Pacific in an allegorical yarn about romantic betrayal. In French.
"And 'Lithium Sunset' relates to something I was told by a Shaman In Brazil," says Sting of 'Mercury Falling's richly-hued closer. "In the west we use Lithium to treat manic depression, but the Indians sometimes have the same problem. So they go and watch the sunset, and because the eye can't filter yellow light, you get it straight in the pineal gland, which affects seratonin levels and makes you feel much better. So that's their own cure for depression!
"Basically, I think you learn as you progress in the craft of songwriting to fold your meaning inside something else, just so the listener has the pleasure of finding it themselves."
And if his favourite lyric on 'Mercury Falling' is the Hank Williams-like 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' what's his favourite bassline?
"Well my theory is if you find a good bassline then just hammer it to death! I love that. I love ostinados - I love the tension they bring; just stay exactly where you are and let everything move around you. I like pushing drummers, pushing the tempo, playing a steady eight beats in a bar is heaven, heh heh. I don't need to be Stanley Clarke."
Just as he did when he made the twisty, awkward, sad and rather weird 'Soul Cages' ("an album for the recently bereaved," chuckles Sting, "a small market, but always there") Dominic Miller reckons his boss has just made one of his big periodic gambles, though exactly how big a chance he can have taken when the "stiffed" Soul Cages sold over four million copies is anybody's guess. For his part, Sting seems serene enough - not really the gambling type.
"For me the music has now become a healing force in my life, and I've reached that point after struggling with it for a number of years. I always thought, I had to be in pain to be creative, that I had to manufacture some sort of crisis to write a song. But I don't have to be an angry young man for the rest of my life. There's nothing worse than an angry middle aged man, unless it's a cantankerous old man! I just feel music has helped me to heal my life y'know, and it will do that if you allow it to."
"I'm mainly playing Fender bass on the record and stand-up bass on a couple of tracks," explains Sting. "I like to keep my chops together on the double bass, but it's like an athletic pursuit rather than a musical one; you have to keep those muscles in your fingers completely... er, strong! Kenny Kirkland and I are playing every day at the moment; he's been taking me through some McCoy Tyner (Coltrane pianist and major band-leading dude in his own right - Jazz Ed) tunes. It's a pleasure playing that stuff with him; maybe we should get a booking at a Holiday Inn sometime!"
An early user of Clevinger electric stand-ups ("Ugh - like a baseball bat with strings"), and known in the past to have strapped on a Steinberger and even Spector basses, Sting has since turned his back on that quintessentially mid-80's armoury and rediscovered his Precision tones of 'Walking On The Moon'.
"The bass I'm using at the moment is one of the very early '50's Fender P-basses", he purrs, "the one that looks more like a Telecaster. I love the thing, it's a hunk of wood, but it was made with love and you can tell. There's something about new basses that I just don't like, but I find it very hard to walk past an old bass and not buy it - yeah, it does get a little expensive!"
Bizarrely, Sting's double-bass and electric bass guitar tones are these days barely distinguishable, so clipped and woody they sound.
"Well I tend to damp the notes anyway. I try to disguise the twanginess and give it a more rounded quality like a stand-up bass. I suppose that has become my sound - I am the anti-Chris Squire.
In the midst of his rustic-style kitchen, axe-for-hire Dominic Miller barks down the phone, fretfully arranging last minute recording jobs before the Sting tour starts a-rolling, taking him out of the session running for the best part of the next 12 months.
"People wonder why we're paid so much money," he grumbles. "Great gig though this is, I could get back after eight months or whatever and find that every producer in town has forgotten my name. It's a state of perpetual paranoia."
Recent work with Talk-Talk's Mark Hollis, and sessions in Nashville alongside bass groove legend Willie Weeks and Jim Keltner should ward off the spectre of Want, and Trevor Horn has already asked him to add "a bit of nylon" to the next Tina Turner album, a task he's performed for Sting since 'Soul Cages', when a disastrous audition ("No sound would come out of the amp, until one of the roadies came over and turned by guitar volume up!") was rescued by some deft bossa nova from the floppy-thatched guitarist.
'Mercury Falling' affords another glimpse of Miller's impressive talents. Whether adding noodlesome textures on his signature Fernandes P-Project (a neat, semi-solid electro-classical) and Rodrigues vintage Spanish, or glassy panoramic swells from his new baby, a 1962 Fender Stratocaster, he's completely at home.
"With this record there's a simpler angle," he avers. "I was going through a real Motown phase and I think Sting was resurrecting his Al Green records. The great thing about that music is that it's so simple, yet so full of balls and integrity. The combination of Sting's muso's playing that simple stuff is really powerful I think, but he always has to rein us in. If he left us to our own devices he'd have one shit-sounding record!"
Though equally capable of giving it some Cropper, Hendrix, or Page, Miller's soon-come solo debut 'First Touch' (on Rutis Music), is largely a nylon strung showcase - an exciting amalgam of flamenco and classical styles that ends up sounding not much like either. Whatever, anyone with more enthusiasm for guitar playing would be difficult to imagine.
"It's amazing how many sounds you can get out of an nylon-strung guitar," he fizzes, "just by the way you use your right hand. Try approaching it as you would your electric: digging in, getting the harmonics going. There is so much you can do."
"I have a wonderful pair of hands," poeticises his boss, "called Dominic Miller. Without being controversial, he's the best guitarist I've ever had." Which immediately places the Buenos Aires-born whizzkid in exalted company. For his part, Miller claims he's an Andy Summers fan.
"He was the first guitar hero that didn't play widdly-widdly, who had that ability to hang. And Sting... Sting is Mr Lateral. He'll challenge us to play in sevens while Vinnie plays in fours, or change song keys on stage, forcing you to find completely new shapes. I mean, can you imagine that happening at a Phil Collins gig?!"
Though he's currently trying out a pair of Trace Elliot Bonnevilles he's loath to name an amp more Sting-compatible than his tour-hardened Mark III Boogies.
"I need this chesty, high-mid EQ. A Marshall won't give me the brightness and a Vox will break up too quickly. I need about 80 per cent clean sounds with a bit of rrrrrrragh! every now and again. The chorus of Roxanne is an obvious place for that..."
And though the whole Sting set has him on his toes, there's a special place in his heart for 'Synchronicity II'. But why?
"Because it's ROCK!"
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