The following interview with Vic Garbarini appeared in the April 1992 issue of Bass Player magazine...
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.
Fast forward about a dozen years to the last night of the American leg of Sting's 'Soul Cages' tour. He's backstage in Richmond, California, double-checking the tuning of his Ibanez fretless. "Last week in Nashville I knocked the tuning pegs while going on stage," he relates in a raspy whisper. "So I'm sliding up to the first note on the opening tune, going for the gliss, and this bizarre sound comes out. Ever try to re-tune a fretless in the middle of a song?" It's been that kind of a week.
A few days later, in Dallas, Sting's voice gives out entirely, just before the filming of a cable special at the Hollywood Bowl that marks his 40th birthday. Somehow, he gets through it - in part, he claims, because of the two hours of yoga he practices every morning. Evidently, he's facing rock's midlife crisis not by pretending to be what he was a decade ago, but by taking more creative risks than ever.
Consider The Soul Cages: it's the densest, most difficult, and most moving of his three post-Police albums. It was a record he felt compelled to make, one that took him back to "the mythological landscape of my childhood." It's about reconciling with his past in the English seaport town of Newcastle, his father's memory, his own need to clear out old habits and fears. "In order to move on, I had to go back to myself to balance out," he explains.
'The Soul Cages' blends elements of the Police, the jazz experiments of his Blue Turtles band (including a few cameos by saxophonist Branford Marsalis), and the art music of Brecht/Weill, as well as English folk and Third World references. This is adult rock about adult themes: healing, redemption, and reconciliation. Not surprisingly, the album also marks Sting's return to the bass. Today he's playing the same '62 Jazz Bass he used as an 18-year-old working out tunes by his first rock idol, Jimi Hendrix, and playing in a four-man aggregation that eventually became his proto-Police group, Last Exit.
Getting Sting to talk about his bass playing is about as easy as pulling teeth. No, he once talked about teeth extraction - this is harder. Though the normally reserved superstar will wax eloquently on subjects ranging from Amazonian Indian migration patterns to the archetypal imagery that pops up in his songs, instrumental technique and the act of creating music are topics he normally avoids. Fortunately, I was able to catch him in an unusually receptive mood one morning not long ago. We were sitting on the beach in Malibu, discussing my unsuccessful attempt to windsurf. As Sting explained the proper technique - "You have to relax and lean way over to maintain the proper balance" - l saw my chance. Rubbing my sore back, l switched the topic to another area where balance and risk taking are crucial: music.
Vic Garbarini: Tom Herman, your soundman, said that when you were leading the Blue Turtles band as the singer and rhythm guitarist, it was like watching someone try to drive from the back seat. Is it easier and more natural for you now that you're playing bass again?
Sting: It's easier for the bass player to lead the band than almost anyone else, because you can lead without seeming to. It's a very powerful yet very discreet instrument. You can control the music because you can dictate what the chord is - I mean, it's not a chord until the bass player decides what the root is. I can pull the rug out from under everybody when things aren't going right. No matter what the keyboard player and guitarist are doing, I can subvert the whole thing by changing the chord. I can also change the rhythmic feel of the song with the drummer. I manipulate these elements all the time.
VG: You're more of a conceptual player than a virtuoso. You use space and economy, yet your style is quite powerful. How did that approach evolve?
Sting: A lot of it came from listening to Miles Davis early on. Much of his best work consisted of three or four notes spread over eight bars. 'Kind of Blue' [Columbia] showed me you could use space creatively and still have sophisticated textures. And then 'Bitches Brew' [Columbia] made me realise jazz musicians could play rock & roll and really burn. It was something I could emulate as a teenager. Everybody else was listening to the Stones and Led Zeppelin, but that's not what I was interested in. It's funny - Branford [Marsalis] can play all those Jimmy Page solos and Yes tunes. While he was learning them, l was trying to figure out Monk and Miles [laughs]. Another factor is simply that I'm a physically strong bass player - I've got big fingers.
VG: Do you use your strength to control dynamics?
Sting: Yes, in the sense that I often play with a soft touch. When I need that extra bit of volume, it comes from my fingers, not from cranking the amp to 11. If the volume is in control of you, you're constantly fighting a battle with it - but if you're in control of the volume, then you're winning.
VG: 'The Soul Cages' deals with issues left over from your childhood in Newcastle, so let's go back to the beginning. Was your family musically inclined?
Sting: Not professionally, although my father had a beautiful voice and played the banjo - not very well [laughs], but he could hold a tune. In his cups, he'd sing a bit. My mother was a very good piano player. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting under the piano and listening to her play.
VG: Did you ever sing or play as a family?
Sting: If we were a bit drunk. I actually started on guitar - we had a band down at the local youth club, and I remember learning all of Eric Clapton's solos on John Mayall's Bluesbreakers [London]. When I played guitar on the first Blue Turtles tour, I could still churn out all the cliches on the blues numbers - but I was a much better guitarist at 16 then I am now.
VG: What prompted the switch to bass?
Sting: Perhaps I picked up a piece of psychic information, I suddenly realised one day that I had to play the bass to make it I would take up the bass and sing! Newcastle was an economically depressed, northern English town - the only ways out were things like sports, education, and music. We were working class, and breaking out was not easy. Even if you did, you were still tagged as working class.
VG: Any role models early on?
Sting: Jack Bruce, definitely. And Paul McCartney was a model in terms of being a bass player/songwriter. He had a good understanding of the bass's function, both melodically and contrapuntally. Anyone who plays bass and sings knows that most bass parts go against the rhythm. It's a counterpoint, and if you're singing on top of it you've got two lines weaving in and out of each other.
VG: How did you become involved with jazz?
Sting: I recall picking up a Thelonious Monk record when I was 14 and really working at understanding what it was all about until I finally got it. Then I started playing in Dixieland jazz groups, what we called "trad" - very simple and close to rock & roll. I evolved into mainstream jazz with the Newcastle Big Band, where I learned to read music. A lot of it was boring crap, but it did teach me the vocabulary I utilised later on. A few years later, I played on the same bill with Stanley Clarke when the Newcastle Big Band supported Return To Forever, with [keyboardist] Chick Corea, [guitarist] Bill Connors, [drummer] Lenny White, and Stanley. I'd never seen anything like it! Then Jaco Pastorius turned up with Weather Report, and I was excited that I'd turned to the bass. After that, we formed Last Exit, a sort of fusion-with-vocals group. Stewart [Copeland] heard us when Curved Air came through Newcastle, and he started trying to get me to come down to London and form a group.
VG: Was Last Exit the link between your Jazz career and the Police?
Sting: I suppose so, in the sense that a lot of Police songs were reworked Last Exit songs. We had a four piece line-up bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums - same as my current band. I think it's an ideal size, big enough to sound thick and small enough so you don't have to arrange everything.
VG: When you write, do the bass parts come after the melody or along with it?
Sting: I've never thought much about the bass parts while I was writing, to be honest. I just make them up on the spot once I've written the song, with an eye towards being able to sing at the same time.
VG: Your bass lines have a Zen-like blend of sophistication and simplicity. Didn't [jazz composer / arranger] Gil Evans compliment you on that?
Sting: When I met Gil, I was surprised and flattered that he knew who I was. He mentioned that he loved the bass line to 'Walking on the Moon' ['Reggatta de Blanc'], and that has to be one of the greatest compliments I've ever received. At the time, I was looking for someone to be my mentor in terms of arranging. I was working with an eight-piece group, and the Miles albums that Gil helped to arrange were a vital part of my musical education and inspiration. We recorded 'Little Wing' [on 'Nothing Like the Sun'] with Gil's band, but he wasn't really involved as an arranger - he was more of a spiritual guide and counsellor. At one point, I was having a problem with one of the songs and kept going over this one note, changing it, trying to make it fit. Gil quietly pulled me aside and said, "It's not that note; it's the one just before it. Change that note and everything else will fall into place." I did what he suggested, and he was absolutely right. It was magic.
VG: What did you think of Bob Belden's orchestral arrangements of your songs on 'Straight to My Heart'?
Sting: Some of them were really nice. I really liked it when they stretched the tunes rather than doing a fairly literal reading, which sounded a bit like guys just reading parts - but I suppose that's the nature of a big band.
VG: Why did you choose to not play bass in your band until now?
Sting: After the Police, I wanted a holiday from playing so I could concentrate on singing. On 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', many of the bass lines were on the demos long before the band was formed. I gave them to Darryl [Jones] and said, "Do what you think is necessary". I composed two on the spot: One was the reggae line to 'Love Is the Seventh Wave', which my co-producer Pete Smith insisted I do late one night in the studio. It was one take, I think. The other was on 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', which I played on the [electric upright] Z Bass. On 'Nothing Like The Sun', I was the bass player until Kenny [Kirkland] brought Tracy Wormworth along at the end of the sessions, and I asked her to play with us on the road.
VG: Do you prefer to record your bass direct?
Sting: Yes, I usually plug right into the board. In the Police we'd all play in the same room, and all I'd hear was Andy's guitar - which needed to be loud to get that natural distortion - and Stewart's drums. But I hate the sound of a bass coming through headphones - it sounds like a mechanical fart. So nowadays I play in the control room, where I can get a warmer sound and can mix and adjust the other instruments to approximate how they'll sound on the record.
VG: You sometimes double-track your bass lines, don't you?
Sting: I often use the double bass over the original electric bass lines, because the double bass has overtones that you feel - a big subliminal undercurrent of sound. We used that combination on 'All This Time' on 'The Soul Cages'. Sometimes I use an old Italian bass, but I often use the Z Bass.
VG: Where did you get the Z Bass?
Sting: It's a Van Zalinge electric stand-up I got in Holland a decade ago, when the Police were recording 'Zenyatta Mondatta'. You can hear it on the original 'Don't Stand So Close to Me'. I also used the Z Bass on 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. On 'Synchronicity', I combined it with a Precision fretless on 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' and with a Steinberger on 'King of Pain'.
VG: Do you think the lessons you learned from the break-up of the Police helped you to become a better leader of your own bands?
Sting: One of the problems in the Police was that I had the best gig in the band; everyone wanted to be the guy who wrote the songs, and that couldn't be. In the Blue Turtles band, there was a sense that everyone knew what their function was. I got the best drummer, saxophonist, bassist, and keyboard player I could find, so I could concentrate on being the best singer and songwriter I could be. I didn't have to fight for my right to be [the songwriter], so it was much easier and more creative. But Andy and Stewart certainly made key creative contributions to many of the Police songs, even if they didn't write them. They're fantastic musicians, and they did enhance the songs. But the songs themselves are very personal - that aspect had nothing to do with the band. Maybe this sounds terrible, but when people talk to me about "Police songs," I say they aren't Police songs, they're my songs. Andy and Stewart had never been songwriters, but I'd been writing for a long time. Suddenly they were in a successful group, and they wanted to become songwriters overnight without having gone through any of the training.
VG: Didn't a lot of the material you wrote in Last Exit later turn up in the Police repertoire?
Sting: Yes.' The Bed's Too Big Without You' was actually an old Last Exit song written over the chords to 'Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out'. 'So Lonely' and 'I Burn For You' were Last Exit songs. And some of the melody and lyrics to 'We Work the Black Seam', off the 'Blue Turtles' album, came from a Last Exit Song. It took me five albums to run out of Last Exit songs, so now I don't have a reservoir to dip into at all. It's a drag [laughs]. I was 25 or 26 before I had a recording contract, at which point I had ten years of writing behind me, so I didn't really have the sophomore-album problem. Now I have to start from scratch again.
VG: 'The Soul Cages' deals with the death of your father and the inner journey homeward. How much of that was planned consciously before you began to write?
Sting: For almost three years, I hadn't written even one rhyming couplet. I'd written a lot of little fragments of music, but there were no real ideas coming out. I was genuinely frightened. At one point I thought, "This is it, I've just dried up!" Then I started to wonder why my creativity would suddenly dry up. Perhaps I was afraid of what might come out if I wrote something. I think there was an awful lot of denial and blockage going on in my subconscious - there were things I wasn't ready to face. This went on until after I'd gotten a band together and had two months before the whole process [of rehearsing and recording] was supposed to begin. I still didn't have a damn word. I spoke to Bruce Springsteen about it. He was just starting his own album, and I said, "Bruce, I don't know what to do. Have you got any bad songs you don't want?" He offered me a couple. Then one day I just sat at the piano and started to free associate, mumbling to myself there was nobody in the house - and the mumbling got louder and gradually I started to sing lines. Words started to flow out 'Island of Souls' was one of the first. So I wrote down what I thought were just disconnected images and lines. Quite a few were about the sea, and all were linked somehow to my father and his death. Suddenly, I realised I was mourning my father, and then the whole thing poured out of me like a river - which became the central image on 'All This Time'.
VG: You must have felt great relief although it must have been painful, too.
Sting: It's still difficult for me to sit down and listen to the album properly, because I start to break down. When a song really works it can be very emotional when you sing it. You don't know whether to sing or to cry - it's an odd feeling. My music is the only way I have of really getting in touch with my deep feelings, because I suppress them. There was nothing else I could have written about on this record. So to me, it's not a brave record. I know there would be this record or there would be no record. But I do feel better about my father, and much looser in general than I've ever been.
VG: The music also seems looser and more fluid on this album.
Sting: It is much looser structurally - even haphazard in how it came together. I'd written a lot of musical bits on the Synclavier when we started, but I never feel the music I write is real until someone else plays it. So I took all three pieces of music into the rehearsal studio with the band I gave them the lay of the land, and then they laid out their little plots - sort of a feudal system [laughs].
VG: There's a folkish feel to the album, but there's also a blend of jazz, rock, and Third World sounds.
Sting: Absolutely. There is a very strong folk tradition where I come from in England, but I'm also a child of the radio. My music reflects that. As a kid I listened to the BBC, which was incredibly eclectic - everything from African music to classical symphonies Jazz, too - Kenny [Kirkland] pointed out that a riff in Jeremiah Blues is similar to an old Herbie Hancock riff. Even though the album has some ethnic references, I'm not interested in creating music from a traditional point of view I think musical forms should be broken down and bastardised - it's a modular system for me. 'Mad About You', for instance, has an eastern-Mediterranean flavour linked with a classical tonality - different styles that seemed to gel.
VG: There's less overt improvising on this album, but it sounds as if you're still developing your jazz sensibilities in the harmonies.
Sting: The older I get, the more I like dissonance - that bitter harmony. There's a flatted 5th harmony that I play at the end of 'The Wild Wild Sea', and a couple of the crew came up to me and said, "Hey, this is a mistake." I said,"No, it's a flatted 5th. It has a bitter quality about it, that's all." This is popular music and it's pretty simple, but occasionally you can do little things that suggest something unusual. If I hear intervals that most people find horrendous, I love them. It demands a level of concentration that is very rewarding, but it's an acquired taste - like Campari, which I love.
VG: How would you characterise your role at this point in your career?
Sting: A lot of rock is becoming almost reactionary very static and cliched, and I know I have the position and power to push the boundaries a bit. Bono called me just before the new U2 album ['Achtung Baby', Island] came out and said he was excited but a little nervous, because they had taken a lot of risks. I said, "Great. Good for you!" I was relieved that somebody of his stature was willing to do that. I just hope I have the courage to keep taking risks. Whatever comes next, I hope it will be surprising.
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