Interview: WORLD CAFE (2000)

June 17, 2000

The following interview with Micheala Majoun took place in June 2000 for World Cafe...

Michaela Majoun: We have a great chance today on the World Cafe to have a second conversation with Sting, who's still touring for 'Brand New Day'. (laughs) And we're backstage at the Sony Blockbuster E-Center in Camden NJ. Welcome.

Sting: Nice to be here.

MM: Last time we talked, you were just beginning your tour for 'Brand New Day' and now we have a chance to check in with you and find out how it's been going. It's the start of the second American leg, you just finished Europe, you were just in Budapest.

S: I was just in Budapest, a lovely place. It's actually a lovely place.

MM: So we last talked about six months ago, at least.

S: Nine months ago. Well, we started the tour nine months ago. So maybe seven or eight, but...

MM: Is it typical for you to tour so long?

S: Yeah, it is. It's actually the only thing that prevents me from thinking. And thinking is painful for me. (laughs) I like to tour so I don't have to think very much.

MM: But you have to be away from your family. That must be difficult.

S: Well, that's true. But my family are with me at the moment. They have school holiday, so they all came out.

MM: How's the tour been so far for you?

S: I've had no complaints. It's been very successful. We've played lots of different countries and cultures. Now we're back in the States and the record seems to have gone through the roof suddenly. It sort of hung in there for nine months and now it's got it's bullet back. So I'm, on a commercial level, very happy. But also on a philosophical level, I'm very happy with my band and my life and I love touring.

MM: When we talked last time, you said it was great to start out in smaller venues because the big arenas, which you're now playing, dictate the music. How has the music changed over this time?

S: I think night by night, little changes become solidified. So the songs kind of morph into something different. Well, I hope they do. That's the intention, anyway. And if I hear a tape from nine months ago, I definitely notice the differences.

MM: In what way?

S: Tempos. Sometimes arrangements. Sometimes keys have changed. Sometimes the songs have been rearranged. Verses have been taken out. Choruses have been put in. Feel. Playing with a different kind of pocket. That kind of stuff. It just changes every night and you accept the good ideas and you jettison the ones that don't work so well. They all have changed in a good way.

MM: How do you keep the songs fresh for you? Not only from this album, but from your whole career. In this show, you play a lot of songs from the past.

S: I think you have to enjoy what you're doing. I think that's the first point. You have to be breathing life into something and you have to mean it. And I love singing. I love singing these songs and if it becomes a chore, I will certainly give up. So that's my job. My job is to get out there and sell these songs as if they are brand new every night.

MM: I think it would be great for our listeners to explore your musical influences a little bit and kind of go back and see where some of the complexity in your music has come from. Certainly Jazz has been a big influence since The Police and even more strongly in your solo work. When were you first exposed to Jazz?

S: I was quite young. I think I was about fourteen and I was friends with an older guy at school who was very much into music. He would lend me albums to educate me and he lent me an album called 'Monk's Solo', which is Thelonius Monk live at the Olympia in Paris. So I took it back from school and listened to it, and I hated it. It was too jarring and very odd rhythmically. I told him I didn't like it and he said to listen to it again tonight and tell me what you think. I listened to it again and I sort of got used to it. After about a week of this, I really began to understand or see it, really be able to enjoy it. I think music like that does take a little bit of work. It's not an instant payoff. That harmonic and rhythmic complexity is something that isn't natural for the ear to understand. You have to be educated to learn it. So I'm glad that I had that friend to put me through that kind of musical indoctrination. Jazz is something that has always interested me. Not as a player, I'll never be a jazz player, but certainly the sensibility of Jazz interests me.

MM: Weren't you in Jazz groups before you were in The Police?

S: I played double bass in a variety of Jazz combos. I played in a big band. I played in a traditional Jazz group doing Dixieland. I played in this sort of modern Jazz group.

MM: In your show, when you do 'Moon over Bourbon Street', you channel Louie Armstrong. You actually sing in his voice. Where did that come from?

S: (laughing) I have no idea.

MM: Is he a big influence?

S: I think he's a hugely underrated influence. A serious musician, an incredible trumpet player, a wonderful singer, and a wonderful activist, really, for human rights. So he's a hero...Louis Armstrong.

MM: One of your jazzier tunes on 'Brand New Day' is 'Tomorrow We'll See'. When we spoke before, we talked about where that character came from, a transsexual hooker. It occurred to me later that I should have related that somehow to 'Roxanne', because it's not the first time that you visited the general theme.

S: No. I mean I find that a stimulating area of discussion. You know this idea of ethical morals versus social morals. And the idea that we shouldn't judge that behaviour as if it's an ethical mistake. I really believe that it's somehow a vow for society and therefore should not be illegal. I mean I don't have much experience with it, to be quite honest with you, but I've learned not to be judgmental in my viewpoints.

MM: You said that 'Tomorrow We'll See' was inspired by a documentary that your wife did on transsexuals in Paris. How about the song 'Roxanne'?

S: I wrote 'Roxanne' in Paris also. It was the first time that I'd actually seen hookers working on the street.

MM: How old were you?

S: Uh, twenty-three or twenty-four. I liked the name 'Roxanne' and decided to write a story about a relationship that would obviously strained by this profession, which I'm sure is a very real situation. But she wasn't a real person.

MM: Last time we spoke, you described Miles Davis as a musical avatar. Is there a particular period of his that's been an influence?

S: The first album that really turned me on to Miles was 'Bitches Brew'. And it was from then I went backwards through the Miles cannon and picked up 'Porgy and Bess' and 'Sketches of Spain' with Gil Evans' arrangements. Then further back into 'Kind of Blue' and earlier Miles. I loved the sense of space that Gil Evans created, leaving holes and gaps for the imagination.

MM: Do you do that?

S: I think that certainly in vocal style, I'm influenced by Jazz more than anything else. I do have Jazz phrasing. Not that I intended to. I just think that I was exposed to that sort of stuff, so I tend to phrase in a Jazz way.

MM: What's a great example of that in your work?

S: Oh, I don't know. I don't listen to myself. (laughs)

MM: Why not?

S: Why don't I listen to myself? 'Cause I don't need to. I tend to get sick of myself. I'm so ubiquitous with the photographs or television shows or interviews. I play the music every night. I recorded it. So I don't really listen to it. I like to keep the idea that it's in the moment and then it's gone. It's created and then it's gone. This is my little fantasy.

MM: Back to your history with music, how did rock and roll enter your conscience?

S: My distinct memory of hearing The Beatles for the first time. 'Love Me Do' was the first song to make it in Britain and I remember being totally galvanized by that harmony and their unique sound. I remember hearing Elvis Presley's 'All Shook Up'. My mother brought the seventy-eight into the house 'cause my mother bought rock and roll records. And I remember being incredibly excited by Elvis Presley. My father would bring Sinatra and Bing Crosby. They bought a lot of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. South Pacific. Oklahoma.

MM: Did you like those?

S: I loved them. I used to listen to them a lot. 'My Fair Lady'. Oh, I love 'My Fair Lady'. 'The Street Where You Live' is a great song.

MM: I'm not surprised by that.

S: Well, 'Englishman in New York' sounds like a song from 'My Fair Lady'. (laughs) That kind of melody, I'm sure, came from listening to those musicals.

MM: How about classical music?

S: We didn't have much classical in my house. My mother liked to play tangos for some reason, but classical music was something I came to quite late. And now that's my music of choice to listen to, or to even play. I love Bach. I like those solo pieces for violin, cello, and lute.

MM: What do you play them on?

S: A guitar. You can make a passable attempt at the cello suites on guitar and the violin partitas, as well as the lute suites. So it's a great instrument for Bach. It's very simple.

MM: When did you learn bass? Were you on bass before guitar?

S: No. I was a guitar player and I joined a band who already had a guitarist. So I tried playing bass. I picked it up and I realized that I could actually create a niche here. 'Cause singing and playing bass is not terribly easy. It's not natural. You can strum a guitar and sing, but to play bass and sing took some working out. So I decided to go that route and I'm glad I did, because not many people did it. So you can be kind of unique.

MM: You mentioned creating a niche. So was there a certain amount of calculation in that?

S: Yeah. Everybody was into being like the latest guitar hero, playing as many thirty-second notes in a bar as they could possibly imagine. I wasn't really interested in that. I couldn't do it anyway. Playing the bass was a much more strategic move because I realized that the bass controls the harmony of the group. It also creates the dynamics in a subtle way. Also singing meant that the band had to run between the rails that I was creating, with bass on the bottom and voice on top. So in a way, it's better than waving a white stick. You can manage things without seeming to be dogmatic or dictatorial.

MM: Was there some intention to create a niche with The Police?

S: Yeah. I think we had a certain intelligence about how to get noticed.

MM: It is very difficult to get noticed and to create something new in a vast field of people who are trying to imitate each other. We talked before about the fact that you've used computers pretty early on in the game. A lot of people are using them now. Was there music that got you to be interested in computers?

S: I wasn't particularly interested in computer music. I used to like Kraftwerk or bands like that, but I never thought that's the route for me to go. What interested me about Midi-systems was that I could slow the process of composition down to a point where I could, because I'm not a wonderful keyboard player, slow everything down and write the next chord before I play it. Songs came out of that experiment that were much more sophisticated harmonically. It allowed me to use the keyboard in a way that I normally wouldn't have had. At the same time, I was never interested in just producing an electronic sound or rhythm. I like the idea of human beings playing with or against machines to try and find an organic balance or, uh...struggle or...

MM: Tension.

S: Tension. That's the word. Between those two things. If you listen to most of my records, they all have that. There's a machine beneath it but it's actually being worked against the human being. The album that I was really using computers a lot was 'Nothing Like The Sun'. 'Straight To My Heart' was written on the computer. It's got a mechanical, sort of strange time signature, but there's a human element to which obviously humanizes it.

MM: What was your exposure to World Music? That's certainly been important in the music you make.

S: Well, luckily being brought up in Britain in the fifties and sixties, you were exposed to other communities. It's part of British life that our pop music reflects a multiracial aspect. But I hate to categorize music. I didn't like that phrase, World Music. What isn't world music? I think there is good music and there is not so good music. That's the only characteristics that I would acknowledge and I go for good music.

MM: Have you ever felt that because of the way you started out in music and your brilliance at writing pop songs, that your accomplishments as a musician and the complexity of your compositions haven't been fully appreciated?

S: I've really no complaints how people perceive me. I think in the list of fortunate people on the planet, I'm pretty near the top. It would be churlish of me to have any complaints at all. Please. People will get around to me eventually.

MM: What are you looking forward to on the rest of the tour?

S: Oh, more fun. (laughs) In a way, I'm actually looking forward to it being over. Just putting my feet up and just sitting and thinking for a while. As I said before, being on tour, you don't think. It's a little like being a sportsman. You just kind of play the stroke every night. So I'm looking forward to that time that I can just assimilate what I've learned and maybe enter a creative mode again. But before that, I'll have to rest and just be on... input.

MM: Any plans for the next project percolating?

S: No. I don't have any plans at all, which is the best way to be.

MM: Fallow ground.

S: I have a nice garden to sit in, though.

MM: Thank you Sting. It's been great to meet up with you again on this tour.

S: Nice to talk with you, too.

© World Cafe



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