Interview: MUSICIAN (1992)

December 01, 1992

The following article by Bill Flanagan appeared in an December 1992 issue of Musician magazine...

Sting puts the bass in its place...

As bass player with the Police, Sting helped revive the old idea (as old as Cream, anyway) of the singer/ bassist as bandleader. When he launched his solo career, though, Sting switched to guitar. He strummed through his first two post-Police albums, 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' and 'Nothing Like The Sun', and the tours that went with them. Only on his 'Soul Cages' tour last year did Sting return to the bass. We talked to him about the joys and frustrations of his chosen instrument.

"In a way I took a holiday for five years," Sting said. "Playing bass and singing is quite difficult. Strumming along to a song on a guitar while you sing is all the same thing. Often basslines are opposed to the rhythm of the singing. It's contrapuntal, quite difficult, so I just took a holiday, got a couple of really great bass players, sang my songs and strummed along. I enjoyed that holiday. But my instrument is the bass. I feel affinity with the bass and I feel I have a contribution to make, so I'm playing bass again.

"I mean, I played the bass on the albums. I didn't give it up entirely. In a way, taking the time off from playing onstage refreshed my imagination on bass. It's much easier to control the dynamic of the band with the bass than with any of the other instruments. Also, when David (Sancious, the keyboard player) plays a C chord, it's not a C chord until the bass player has put his note in. I can change the chord at will. Therefore I can change the harmonic structure of the song, the dynamic structure of the song, and having the low end with the bass and the high end with my voice, I feel I can really drive this thing without seeming to drive it or being dictatorial. So it's ideal for a bandleader, especially in a small group which is trying to have the flexibility of a jazz group without playing jazz."

Although Sting says his basic philosophy of bass playing comes from "Stax and Motown, I love eight beats to the bar," he is nothing if not ambitious. "In a way," he said, "if you're serious about music you become more and more adrift. Musicians are trained to use a part of the brain that most listeners don't. Most listeners to popular music can cope with thirds, fifths, sevenths, simple intervals. Once you get into sixths or thirteenths... In my case, what I love now is atonal music, I love that bitter sense it gives me. I really find it exciting, it draws the tension out of me. So I suppose my music will eventually veer towards something that will not be to the popular taste. Even though I'd like it to be. In a sense my job is to be a populist, to try to popularise more difficult ideas than you would expect on the radio."

To add to his musical palette, Sting has been studying cello. "It's funny," he explained, "the cello has the same scales as a Fender bass, but tuned in fifths. So it gives you ideas; you play a blues scale and fall into different stuff."

Asked which of his songs were built from bass riffs, Sting said, 'Walking On The Moon' was a bass riff. A lot of the Police songs were. A lot of the 'Soul Cages' stuff were bass riffs 'cause we did it as a band. The previous two albums were written on keyboards, so there were fewer bass motifs. The genesis of 'Be Still My Beating Heart' was Trudie, actually," Sting said, referring to his wife. "The title is one of Trudie's phrases, but the bassline was mine. Trudie has yet to receive any royalties."

Asked if he sings differently when he plays the bass than when he plays guitar, Sting said, "No. I probably play the bass differently when I sing; you play more simply when you sing. But if you slow it down you can sing and play anything, you can play a symphony on the bass and sing 'Roxanne' if you slow it way down and practice."

© Musician magazine


Apr 1, 1992

Sting vividly recalls the first time he played a fretless bass. He'd just arrived in America with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland to promote the first Police single, 'Roxanne'. They headed directly from the airport to the legendary music shops of 48th Street. Sting was mesmerised by the steam hissing up through the gratings in the street as they wove through the Manhattan traffic. "It looked exactly like Hell, brimstone and all," he says. That afternoon, Sting bought the first fretless he saw, a Fender Precision. Then, in typical risk taking fashion, he proceeded to play it that night for an entire set at CBGB's - without practising beforehand. "There were no fret marks on it, so all I could do was try to keep a straight face and guess," he laughs...

Dec 1, 1991

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...