Interview: PULSE (1987)

November 02, 1987

The following article by Gene Santoro appeared in the November 1987 issue of Pulse magazine...

"You'd better put the tape machine closer to me, I speak very softly," says Sting, leaning back for a minute from the conference table at A&M's New York offices. We're surrounded by the tools of the trade: VCR's, cassette decks, turntables, TV monitors, huge Altec speaker towers, telephones. The 32nd floor view out the windows is hazy this late September midday. Sting's running late for him, since he juggles his intense schedule with the ease born of organisation. But today is especially hectic. He's just left his morning workout, is on his way to auditions for his October Brazilian tour and he's got a photo shoot plus the inevitable MTV spot to do, and there are equally inevitable snags there. But for an hour or so, munching bagels, sipping OJ and coffee, he's ready to talk music, especially his new album 'Nothing Like The Sun'.

"My feeling is that with each piece of work I do, I want to sketch out a new piece of territory for the future," he begins. "I want to be singing when I'm 40 or 50. I don't want to be doing Las Vegas singing 'Roxanne', but I think it can be done with dignity and integrity. So I'm trying to expand what I do. I've been singing Mozart and Gershwin with my singing teacher; I think I'm a better singer than I used to be. I certainly have more range. And why not? I want to keep expanding, and hopefully people will accept that I can do more than just sing rock'n'roll."

'Nothing Like the Sun' ought to convince a few more folks, if only because it ain't exactly Second 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' or Son of 'Synchronicity'. In fact, it's not exactly like anything else, but an amalgam of all kinds of other things. There lies its beauty, its strength, its integrity, its diversity, and - not coincidentally - a great deal of its meaning. Like the Shakespearean sonnet from which the title phrase is taken (and which appears as the linchpin in the allusively structured song called "Sister Moon"), Sting's new release bundles together poetic and musical traditions which emerge as a whole totalling more than the sum of its parts. In their new hybridised contexts, the fragments have been energized into a unified bun- die of expression for Sting and his outstanding collaborators. Drummer Manu Katché, percussionist Mino Cinelu, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, sax-man Branford Marsalis, and Sting himself on basses provide the nucleus, but along the way like folks Andy Summers, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Hiram Bullock, Mark Egan, Ruben Blades, Kenwood Dennard, Andy Newmark, Dolette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis bring their unique talents to bear. As you can guess from the list, this is one ambitious project.

Sting, of course, scripted most of. the trio's tunes, and that, coupled with his English-teacher background, has given him some controversial insights into the nature of writing music. In fact, it's not too much to claim that his insights are the reasons behind 'Nothing Like the Sun'. "If I understood how a song is created, I'm not sure that I could do it," he says seriously. "the closest analogy is, you start off with a seed idea that can be musical or lyrical. Once that seed idea is in the brain it then gestates. By a kind of process almost genetic, the code that's attached to this seed grows arms and legs: a bridge appears, a chorus appears, a B-section appears, a rhyme for line two appears. I'm not saying it's not hard work; there's a certain amount of grafting and fashioning. But ultimately it writes itself, it really does. Relaxing into that thing - that you're not actually doing much, that you're basically just monitoring the process - is how I've come to look at it now. For months I'll be writing, worrying, pulling my hair, saying I can't write any more songs. Then I'll relax and realize I'm not writing them anyway; I'm basically collecting bits of information, putting them through me and putting them down.

"There aren't any original ideas, you know. The most successful song I ever wrote, 'Every Breath You Take', is an aggregate of every rock song ever written, there's nothing original in it at all. It's a million songs, but it's archetypal; it doesn't sound like anybody else, it sounds like The Police. The originality comes through the band or the individual doing it, and you can get satisfaction from that. But the writing process is very mysterious, and belongs to everyone. Which is why I get so angry when I hear about court cases where people are saying. 'You ripped this off me.' No one, no one wrote anything in that sense, you know? Even the great classic composers took folk music and fashioned it. The other idea is just bullshit, it's just lawyers making money. No one wrote anything. I mean, there've been a lot of my songs that I can see in other people's; I turn on MTV and say, 'uh-huh, I remember that [laughs].' But I wouldn't take the time to even telephone somebody to mention it, it'd be so embarrassing. It belongs to everyone. I'm just glad I can make a living at music, and I don't want to penalize anyone else who does the same. Copyright is a corporate function, people's livelihoods depend heavily on the parasitic nature of taking copyright and making a living out of it. Musicians aren't like that."

How they're not like that is illustrated, in part, by 'Nothing Like the Sun'. Here Sting has picked up "bits of information" from all over the globe - not that surprisingly, when you consider the Police's relationship to reggae and African rhythms, say, or Sting's own uses of jazz-tinged material on 'Blue Turtles'. But what happens here goes beyond those model...

'Nothing Like the Sun' acts almost like a clearing-house of musical ideas, but structures them around a kind of musical biography of its principal perpetrator.

"In a way,' he says, "the album is a reflection of my life in music. Having Andy [Summers] on the opening tracks, having other friends like Mark Knopfier and Clapton and Ruben Blades on there - if you read the liner notes, there's a list of people on there who've influenced me, from Shakespeare to Jimi Hendrix. I mean, why not? Why shouldn't an album be sort of biographical, in that sense? I'm not just interested in one kind of music, y'know: I don't listen just to rockabilly. I like rockabilly, but I want my albums to reflect a sort of catholic interest in the whole world of music. I don't feel it's limited to any one kind. I think pop music at its best essentially is whatever you throw in the soup; it shouldn't be precious about what it is. It can be anything. When I was growing up in England, pop music was this incredible mixture: You could hear Perry Como and the Rolling Stones, Connie Francis next to the Pretty Things, all on one radio station. You hated some things, but you were confronted with all this stuff. Some radio stations played popular classical pieces, like Beethoven's Fifth, and then pop things. So I was more fortunate than kids listening to the radio now, because what happens now is they turn on a radio station and hear one kind of music all day: heavy metal, jazz, country, classical. There's nothing wrong with those music forms, obviously, except that that's all you get, and if you're 15, you're not gonna learn about the rest of the things out there. So I'm trying to redress the balance here," he laughs, "by putting all this stuff in my record."

The stuff adds up to an ear-opening experience. There are Branford Marsalis' sax and the chattering West African-style guitars chiming and twining over Afro-Latin percussion on 'Lazarus Heart', the whimsical music-hall lope interpolated with jazz and beat-box outbreaks called 'Englishman in N.Y.', the opening ruminations (reminiscent of a Mark Knopfler soundtrack) of 'Fragile', which quickly sequels into a calypso-inf lected beat coming off a talking drum. There's the 7/4 time and technology vs. human love opposition driving 'Straight to My Heart', the updated tale of Noah's ark done as a spoof on televangelists over the pre-reggae Jamaican feel that punningly helps name the track 'Rock Steady', or the art-song-redone, 'The Secret Marriage', that brings the album's personal and political sides together for a final statement.

If that sounds so all-over-the-place as to be near chaos, its structure insures that it's not. "Each of the sides has a mood," Sting explains of the four-sided album, whose nearly 60-minute length will be fitted onto a single CD and cassette, "because there are so many diverse elements in the record. You know, it's not the sort of homogeneous record that starts with one guitar sound and carries on. It was important that each side had a sort of integrity or mood of its own. I mean, I couldn't put 'The Secret Marriage', which is a tender little ballad with a piano, next to a dance track like 'We'll Be Together'. It would sound odd, y'know, so I had to separate them off. The first side is the opener, so it's lively; the second side is political; the third side is up and funny and amusing, hopefully [laughs]; and the fourth side is very romantic and introspective. We were forced to have two records because you can't cut a single record that's an hour long and have it sound good; this way, at 15 minutes a side, it'll sound like an audiophile record. The CD and the cassette are exactly the same."

That figures, since the release's overall shape is the product of some long, labor-intensive months of preparation and recording. "I'm not one of those people who can write in the studio," Sting says, smiling. "I hear about a lot of bands who do that, but the idea fills me with horror, terror, even. To go into the studio without a single idea and just jam things out - I'm very envious of bands who can do that and end up with songs. I have to sit for months and months and months and write lyrics and arrangements, structures and bridges; and until that's done I won't go anywhere near a studio - I just can't. I mean, the studio's hard enough without trying to be creative in it [laughs]. So, when I come off the road, I spend a good year to 18 months at least thinking about what I'm going to do next; and the last three months before we record is pretty frenetic. You know: 'I don't have enough songs, how am I gonna do it [laughs].' This time, I spent those last three months here in New York. I had bits on the Synclavier: bits of lyrics, bits of middle eights, choruses. Didn't have a theme, just had songs. Spent those three months cobbling some things together, finished some other stuff, and then went into the studio with 20 pieces of music. Those were whittled down to the 12 that are on the album now.

"After 12," he continues, "I didn't want to cut any more because if you take any one of those remaining songs out the balance kinda shifts; one of the reasons the album works, I hope, is the balance between being up and being melancholy. I think if I took anything else out it wouldn't have worked. So I asked the company said to me like this [draws himself up], 'Sting, where does a 50 ton bear sit? Anywhere he fucking wants. "You can have anything you want [laughs]" "How does it feel to be a 50 ton bear?" I ask. "I'm trying to lose some weight at these workouts," he quips.

Sting's become accustomed to making musical waves over the last 14 years. When The Police hit the scene with their lean and crafted pop-reggae sound in 1977, the music industry was feeding off the bloated carcasses of arena-rock dinosaurs and their clones. Punk had charged through, signaling the swing of popular tastes to a different drummer than the one industry execs heard. But Punk had a small effect on the music and no effect on the biz. The Police purveyed a punkish sensibility and look, stripped back their sound to trio essentials without tottering into the power-trio trip haunting Arnerican stadiums, and offered solid, catchy songs as the basis for their exploratory onstage free-for-alls. The combination sold millions of records.

Recording this was a nightmare, frankly," Sting admits, shaking his head. "I'd never used the digital system before to do recording, and we had two machines, 64 tracks. The sounds very grand, having all those tracks, but ultimately what it does to you is gives you too much choice. With 24-track analog, you have to make decisions on the day you record, right there and then about what you're gonna use, because there's no room to store things. So you say, 'Okay, that's the guitar track there, that's the vocal because it's on the track and there's nothing else.' With this system. Though, you can save endless amounts of stuff by using what are called slave reels. So there are whole slave reels devoted to guitars, to voices, to drums - to everything. At no one time do you hear the whole track, which kind of devolves the artist, because the artist gets bored because he forgets where something is all the time, and it all doesn't come together until the very end. What I like doing is shaping stuff as it's recorded: snip a little bit here, change that and put it here, that kind of thing. So that system I will never use again. What I am interested in is the digital system itself, in light of the Synclavier I use, because that has now become a recording studio which is much less complex and more accessible than the big systems. This time, it was a nightmare [laughs]. Oh, man, you'd think technology would save you time, but it doesn't - it quadruples it. But the thing is, you can't be left behind, you can't be a Luddite and say, 'Oh, I'm not gonna use it.' I mean, my son, who's ten now, is a computer whiz. He sits at my terminal and gets the substructure of this thing; I wouldn't dare go there [laughs]. So it's like, I want to keep up with my son; don't want to, uh, lose face y'know [laughs]."

Given the paces he puts the Synclavier through, both as a tool for writing and for arranging, that's not likely to be a problem in the short term, at least. "The Synclavier is this amazing tool that not only produces near-records from the system," he explains, "but it also notates. So if I write a saxophone part for Branford - playing it incredibly slowly and using the machine to speed it up [laughs] - I can give the part to Branford: The chart just comes out in this beautifully written script. I write lyrics on the word processor so I can shift stuff around real easily. So I was incredibly prepared; I'm never not prepared for the studio."

Part of Sting's preparation includes getting out his other hat, the one marked producer. As you can easily imagine from his own description of the complex process of recording involved, the producer's task - which includes choosing which slave-reel guitar snippet to drop in at what point in which song, for instance - is a daunting one. "How do I produce my own records? I'm fairly sane in the studio: I don't lose my temper or lose heart - and it's quite easy to give up, at times. I only make a record once every two years, so it's not as if I'm in there all the time, and I have the stamina to be in there. This album took four months to record; The Police's first album took three weeks, to give you some contrast, and 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' took two months. I think this sounds a lot better than Blue Turtles, so ultimately the record buyer is going to get more value - certainly more sweat went into it [laughs]. But the bottom line is I felt the songs were good, the material was there, and I felt it could survive almost anything," he says smiling. "I was confident about that; the people around me were going crazy... [laughs], but I was pretty sure it was there. And at the end of the day it was there - thank God."

Sting plays a lot more on this record, which may help explain why it's both more ambitious and successful musically than 'Blue Turtles': Sometimes a musician needs to be hands-on with his music. "I played all the basses, except for the track with Gil Evans, and a little guitar," he says. "I mean, people were complaining that I wasn't playing bass on the last tour, but for me it was such a great holiday not to hold the bass gig down and sing. It's easier to strum the guitar and sing; the bass is all against the rhythm, which naturally makes it more difficult. And I had a great time with Daryl Jones, who I really admire. But this time, on the record at least, I really wanted to play bass. And I did those bits of guitar as well, although it seems silly when some of my best friends are the best guitarists in the world. I mean, I don't know what happened in 'Fragile': My fingers must have slipped, 'cause it all somehow worked [laughs]."

Different tunes call forth different associations. Of 'Lazarus Heart', for instance, he notes, "Andy [Summers] and I have a long relationship; he knows how to please me, and I know the right things to say to him to get him going. It's a very easy, creative relationship: he just came in for one day, and we did those tracks ('Lazarus Heart' and 'Be Still My Beating Heart') like falling off a log. That solo spot in 'Be Still', where he and Branford are sort of tossing the sounds back and forth, demonstrates the beauty of real musicians. You can't do everything on computers; computers are so linear, so... logical. The best thing about music is the accidents that happen. A note gets played somewhere else and you respond there; you don't really know what you're playing, but somehow the magic works."

Of the woooop effect that punctuates 'Englishman In N.Y.', he grins and explains, "that's a gweeker. You lick your finger and rub it on the inside of a drum. That song was fun, actually, fun trying to capture New York. I've got a beat box machine in there, and a jazz band in there, some classical stuff - anybody who hears that just thinks I'm a lunatic. 'It's such a pretty little song,' they say, 'how can you spoil it with that fucking noise?'" He shrugs. "It's New York. You walk down the street and you hear a million kinds of music, it's noisy and crowded, and it's great."

Side two is where the political aspect of Sting's music, more implied than stated up until he joined the Amnesty International tour last summer, makes its most concentrated mark. It opens with 'History Will Teach Us Nothing', which, Sting hastens to add, "is a polemical statement to open a debate: History will teach us nothing, discuss. There are people in history who are obviously worth looking at, but there are situations in the world where history will not help, where it clouds the real issue of now." As the lyrics note, "Our written history is a catalogue of crime l the sordid and the powerful, the architects of time;" the words clearly, echo the idea that history is the tool of the ruling classes, since it is they (and their academic instruments) who write the versions of history that we study, not the people they have conquered, oppressed, obliterated.

But if History proposes a theoretical overview that shapes Sting's politics, 'They Dance Alone' illustrates how that theory takes practical form among the oppressed people he admires. He documents from the view of the Chilean women whose male relatives are carted away to join the unnumbered desaparecidos in the jails, torture chambers, and unmarked graves of Chilean junta chief/president August Pinochet, who was installed by the U.S. and the Chilean armed forces after Marxist Salvador Allende won the presidential elections of 1970. "I hope he appreciates having his name in there," says Sting sardonically of the infamous Pinochet. The song's mid-section is a soft, Spanish recitative of the English chorus, spoken by Ruben Blades, who is both a renowned musician and a potential candidate for president of Panama. "I met Ruben on the Amnesty tour," Sting explains, "and I think we share a lot of beliefs. He's very close to that situation, as a Central American, and I thought he'd help me give creedence to the song." Closing with an uptempo dance-driven rideout, the tune holds out hope for a future that will banish the mournful, Andean pipe-tinged dirge that is its body.

The great thing about this type of protest," Sting says, "is that when men protest, they go in cars and they throw bottles of petrol, tear gas, whatever, then they get taken into prison and beaten, or get killed - that's one kind of male response to oppression. But the female response is so much more pervasive and so much more powerful, because you can't attack it. In the song what I'm trying to do, basically, is magnify that power: the grief, the sorrow, certainly, but also the anger that is contained in this dance. I just see it as a victory every time the women do one of these dances, and it happens a lot. They will win, and not through violence." As 'Fragile', which finishes off the overtly political tune cluster, puts it, "Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could." Sting's liner notes for that track observe pointedly: "In the current climate it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish 'Democratic Freedom Fighters' from drug-dealing apolitical gangsters or Peace Corps workers from Marxist revolutionaries. Ben Linder, an American engineer, was killed in 1987 by the 'Contras' as a result of this confusion."

Side three opens with a kick-ass dance track from the land of the good groove, a funky butt-shaker called 'We'll Be Together'. "Do you mean it's not original?" is Sting's mock-horrified rejoinder when I tell him some of the tune's sounds remind me of Stevie Wonder and Parliament/Funkadelic. "I don't know what that word means any more, do you?" I ask when the laughter finishes, and he shakes his head, says simply, "No, I don't." Then he describes the song's genesis: "You know, what's happening in this business is that you do a single, then they say you have to do a dance mix. So my thing was, 'Why bother doing a single and then a dance mix; why not just do a dance song?' All right. So I wrote this song; did the video for it last week. It's hilarious - at least I hope it's hilarious - and it's unusual. I play a drunk in a restaurant who falls over everybody and ends up in a big fight. I'm told it's funny."

The side-ending 'Rock Steady' lampoons an increasingly pervasive form of airwave violence in this country, the radio/TV evangelist. Sting's liner notes for the song put it succinctly: You can't tell the preachers from the game show hosts. "I was really writing about the Jerry Falwells and the Tammy Bakkers of the world," he explains. "You know, 'Come aboard and I'll protect you,' that kind of thing. Monte Hall and 'Lets Make a Deal' are much more wholesome."

Side four, moody and evocative, ties up the thematic and musical-biographical concerns threaded through the course of 'Nothing Like the Sun'. Of 'Sister Moon', the 'Summertime'-style track that leads it off, Sting says, "To me it's a detective film, like [drops voice to a Jack Webb-like monotone] I'm a private detective. It's very '50s-ish, romantic, a foggy day down by the river or something." The middle track of this triad is Hendrixs 'Little Wing', one of the guitar giants most moving compositions, which distinguishes him from his would-be heavy metal offspring: Jimi wailed, but he wrote tunes. Testimony for that comes when you realize how many times that song has been covered, and by such musicians as Eric Clapton and composer/arranger Gil Evans, whose album of Hendrix homages translated the songs into an orchestral idiom that demonstrated their value as tunes, not just collections of great guitar licks. "As I explain in the notes, in many ways those two guys made me want to become a musician," says Sting. "The Beatles made me want to be a songwriter; seeing Hendrix and people like Gil [Evans] made me want to be a musician. I've managed to become a songwriter, but I'm still not a musician. That's my goal. I practice every day. I have my piano lessons, guitar, all that. But working with great musicians makes you realize when you're not a great musician. People like Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland - I mean, Branford can be watching football on the TV and play the most divine music. He's a genius, no kidding. Thank God I can conceptualize the stuff and write the songs. I've got a very musical brain, but there's some sort of barrier here, just across the wrists [laughs]. A funny thing happens with the synapses, they just... Oh, well. I'm a good bass player, I've been playing it since I was 17, which is now 19 years ago. I have strong hands and all. I think you need to be physically big to play the bass. Miles [Davis] says I've got the biggest goddamned hands he's ever seen."

The final track of this album is, like many of its neighbours, initially deceptive. A nostalgic-sounding evocation of art songs past, 'The Secret Marriage' is an allusive tour-de-force. As Sting's liner notes point out, the tune's melody is adapted from one by Hans Eisler, a colleague of Bertolt Brecht who, like Brecht, barely escaped from Nazi Germany to America; once here, he, again like Brecht, was hounded by the McCarthyite American right for Marxist views. So the political implications of Sting's reshaping Eisler's melody are easily enough drawn. But if the music continues the allusive mode so fundamental to 'Nothing Like the Sun', the lyrics reunite the album's alternating public political/ private romantic motifs. Like the Shakespearean sonnet that gives the disc its title, 'The Secret Marriage' defines its intentions negatively: "No earthly church has ever blessed our union l No state has ever granted us permission I No family bond has ever made us two l no company has ever earned commission." It juxtaposes the public and private spheres of every individual's life at a crucial point: Marriage in our culture, after all, is not only a romantic statement but a social act. The track is a fitting combination of affirmation and defiance that echoes the dance of the Chilean women in terms of Sting's own life.

If his life this last week of September has been hectic, it's a breeze compared to what's coming up for Sting over the next several months. There's a worldwide tour planned in support of Amnesty International sometime next spring, not to mention a few film parts and his own tour. "I'll start the American tour in January, go through March, and then probably be back for the summer," he says. Don't pick up your tix expecting to hear a live clone of the recording, though, as anyone who's seen either The Police or the Blue Turtles in concert can attest. "It's never my intention to reproduce a record on stage, never has been," Sting says. "Police shows had nothing to do with the records, you know: We'd change the key, we'd change the tempo, we'd change everything. I view my work as a sort of modular system; I take bits from here, put bits there. So the stage show is something entirely different. It's easier now to reproduce a record on stage if you wanted to, with all the sampling technology that's available, if you want to take it with you. But if you've got great musicians and a good vibe onstage, you can play anything. I'm more interested in taking it out over the bridge than I am in just having it stay where it was when I recorded it. You have to open the songs up; that's what's great about it. The album is a start, and then you go through the tour. In many ways it'd be better if you could record at the end of a tour. Your first album's like that: The first album you make is the result of two or three years of slogging on the road and writing."

So it's off to SIR Studios for the Brazilian tour auditions. "We're working out scheduling difficulties and all that now, so I'm still not sure who exactly is going to be in the band," Sting says, then adds quickly, with characteristic wit, "So many great people want to play with me, I'm like the Stan Kenton of the '80s [laughs]. I'm just the band mascot, stand in front with a baton and set them off."


"I think the CD format will actually make the album form longer; people will start making longer records. Eighty minutes seems too long; It's too much to listen to in one sitting, your concentration goes. But for me, at least, an hour seems right. And that, again, will dictate a different kind of record in the future. It will have to develop a shape in order to hold people's attention for that length of time."


"I'm just glad that there's something to talk about in the songs. It's one of the reasons I wrote the liner notes, as a sort of test: If you can write something about the song, then there's probably something in it. Most songs you hear, you can't write anything about them; they're just words that rhyme, you know. They have the semblance of meaning without meaning anything. So there's room for songs that actually have some kind of substance. Not every song on my album has substance; some of them are just words that rhyme. But pop music is so pervasive and powerful, and it can be so positive in society, that it should be used more in that way, as a means of expressing information. Not dogma or preaching, but information. I mean, it's on the radio all the time, people are always listening to it, so why not use it to express ideas rather than just form an abstract picture. Certainly the Amnesty tour was a good example of an information tour. But a good song should tell a story, as the country people always say."

© Pulse magazine



Nov 1, 1987

No shades, no subterfuges, no stardom trips. At 36, Sting has finally exorcised the ghosts from his machine. Minty Clinch talks to Newcastle's most famous export. For me, Sting is a small neat blue-eyed demon - that's how we see him in the movies - who moves like the athlete he once was. We shake hands and he sneezes, the victim of a heavy cold. No demon, but flesh and blood. Polite, articulate, professional, very much in control. But very much a rock star. We may meet on a film set, but he insists that music still has top billing...

Nov 1, 1987

"Dire Straits did 'Brothers in Arms' here you know," says Sting. We are standing on the terrace outside of George Martin's Air Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The early morning banks of fog are beginning to break up, gliding past each other like ocean liners, revealing a glittering bay far below on the coast. "Seven weeks into recording - the same point we're at now - they decided to junk the whole thing. Started over again." He continues to stare out to sea. Suddenly he snatches his towel from the railing and sprints off towards the studio garage. "Let's go for a swim..."