The following interview with Karl Coryat appeared in the March 2000 issue of Bass Player magazine...
Sting: Bring On The Note.
Ask anyone who Sting is, and the most likely answer will be, "He's a singer." Few non-musicians understand that Sting's talents as a bassist and his influence on pop bass are as important as his singer/songwriter gifts, if not more so. In fact, most people know more about his legendary tales of sexual prowess than his knack for a tasty groove. Sure, Sting's bass lines are more subdued now than in his days as an angry young quasi-punk with the Police - but he can still pump out a mean bottom, as he does all over his latest release, 'Brand New Day'.
Sting's pop-star popularity waned a bit in the '90s, but the well-received new album represents something of a comeback it appears the 48-year-old rocker won't be fading into musical oblivion anytime soon. "I don't know how to do anything else," he laughs. Amid a world tour, tons of press dates and appearances, and even TV-commercial shoots for Compaq, it took us several months and three last-minute cancellations before we finally caught up with Sting. In past interviews he had confessed a difficulty talking about musicianship (hence his well-documented musings on tantric sex), but luckily we found him in a particularly receptive frame of mind.
Why is it difficult for you to talk about playing bass?
It's become so second-nature for me that I rarely think about it anymore. I've carved this little niche for myself in playing the bass and singing. In many ways, as a teenager, that was a strategy. I was a guitarist, and I realized I wasn't going to be the greatest guitarist in the world. But if I could create a unique little niche - playing bass and singing - I'd have a better chance. My mentors were people like Jack Bruce, Phil Lynott [of Thin Lizzy], and Paul McCartney.
What about the bass grabbed you?
Well, my current band, for example, runs between my rails. I've got the bottom and the top, which is a great place to lead a band from. On the bass you lead the band dynamically, you lead it harmonically - after all, it's a C chord only if you play a C. So I can have a lot of power without feeling like I'm dictating. It's not apparent to a lot of people what the bass does; if you listen superficially, you might not even hear it. But once you've played the bass in an ensemble, you realize exactly what it's doing.
How did you pick up on that so early?
I was pretty intuitive as a kid, and I figured this was what I could do. But it's not that easy to sing and play bass. It's easier to strum a guitar than play a line that goes against the melody. I learned to work out that little technical problem early on: I found I could learn to play and sing just about anything as long as I slowed it down to its constituent parts. You develop confidence when that works - and you can play something extremely complicated and sing against it as long as you start slowly and build up speed. Not that I play anything complicated now; I play very simply and leave a lot of holes. But that, too, was a strategy - a way of creating a signature, a musical identity.
How easy is it now to play something like 'After the Rain Has Fallen', where the bass line is counterpoint to the melody?
I put the hours in practicing. I start at ten in the morning, break for lunch, and usually by then I've got what I'm working on down. 'Brand New Day' was recorded in a different way - I'd play the bass, and later I'd sing. But for the tour I spent a good amount of hours getting my chops together so I could do both parts. 'After the Rain' was actually the one I spent the most time on. It's very satisfying, too. I work with some of the best musicians in the world, and it always pleases me when they turn around and say, "I don't know how you do that!" They're so much better than I am - but this is my niche. It's what I do.
What instrument do you write most of your songs on?
I wrote most of 'Brand New Day' on a Roland VG-8 [guitar-synth system] with synthesizer sounds. That gave me a shot in the arm about being creative on guitar. I created most songs by jamming with a drum machine and getting riffs - that sound is all over the album. The theme from 'A Thousand Years', for instance, comes from the VG-8. I do sometimes write on the bass, though.
It isn't the easiest instrument to write on, is it?
If you've got the right riff, the song can just write itself. That's what happened with 'Walking on the Moon'. I wish I could find another one of those every day: a simple, easy, three-note or four-note riff. The whole song is based around its cadence, and I'm very proud of that. But there are no rules with songwriting. I can write a song on piano, and I can write one walking down the street or at the computer. I try to explore as many different ways to write as I can.
Why did you play only guitar onstage for several years in the mid to late '80s?
I was kind of having a holiday, because I wanted to concentrate on singing. I wasn't really playing guitar; I was just kind of strumming along, being kind of Elvis. During that time period I used Darryl Jones and Tracy Wormworth, two of my favorite bass players, and it was educational to see how they interpreted the music. I also taught them a few things; they didn't have an affinity for reggae, for example, so it was a nice trade-off. After two tours I decided to go back to basics. I said, "I'm the bass player, and I sing - this is what happens." It's been that way for ten years now.
In your current live set you put down the bass for a couple songs.
I open with 'A Thousand Years' and I play the theme on the synth guitar. I enjoy that; it kind of eases me into the set. Then I put on the bass, and I finish the set on acoustic guitar to calm down the audience a bit.
When people talk about your style, the concept of space always comes up. How conscious are you of putting space into a line?
It's an instinct with me. That partly has to do with singing in the gaps, and partly with the economy of music. For me, the sound is only half of music - the space between the notes is also vitally important. I gave a speech at Berklee College of Music a couple years ago and talked about silence. As musicians, all we do is create a frame for silence, because silence is the perfect music. You can argue this as a polemic, but music began as a religious practice, and it's in silence that we reach true spirituality. But I'm perfectly happy to play eight to the bar on the root, chorus after chorus. I just want to pump the band along, drive it, and give it a safe home.
A couple of years ago I went to see John Patitucci playing with Chick Corea, and John was playing a million demisemiquavers [32nd-notes] to the bar on his double bass. I went backstage and he said, "Oh, Sting, it's so great to meet you, man. You've really influenced my playing - all the space you leave." I said to him, "I never noticed that!" [Laughs.]
A lot of your bass lines aren't obvious. Do you try to write lines that are unconventional and unexpected?
Throughout my music you'll find a kind of perverted sense of fun: I like to twist things. I like expectations to be contradicted. It's just my sense of humour - my sense of fun and play. I'll indicate that things are going one way and then suddenly shift them in another direction. It just amuses the hell out of me. I've been accused of being capricious and pretentious, but I'm just amusing myself, in the hope that others will be amused in the same way.
Early on, how much work did you put into developing your playing?
I went through the Ron Carter school, and I spent years going through Ray Brown's double-bass book [Ray Brown Bass Method, Mail Box Music], just playing his scales and arpeggios. So I've paid my dues. I also spent a lot of time picking apart the Beatles. I love Paul's bass line on 'She's a Woman' [Past Masters Volume One, Capitol], for example. Plus a lot of Motown - Carol Kaye's playing influenced me, as did a lot of individual songs, like 'Rescue Me' and 'Knock on Wood'. I learned by listening. I'd often turn the record player up to 78 RPM so I could hear the bass lines rather than just feel them.
How did your reggae style develop?
In reggae there's a power shift toward the bass and away from the guitar, which was very attractive to me as a bassist. The way bass is used in reggae, and particularly dub, is very radical. It's a revolutionary way of loading the rhythm of a bar, and it isn't easy to do. When a lot of people try to play reggae it ends up sounding like a cliche; you really have to get inside it.
What was the first reggae recording that caught your ear?
In England we had reggae since its inception. Jamaica really wasn't the center of reggae - London was. Any reggae act that wanted to make it came to London, from [Millie Small's] 'My Boy Lollipop' in the early '60s through ska, blue beat, up to Bob Marley. That's not to take anything away from Jamaican music - I respect it and love it - but London has a huge West Indian community, so we felt it around us. I haven't mentioned Jaco yet, but he was another huge influence. He also shifted the power away from the guitar toward the bass in a revolutionary, astounding way. Who would have thought to play a chromatic Charlie Parker tune, 'Donna Lee', on bass?
Some of your bass lines, particularly 'Rehumanize Yourself' ['Ghost in the Machine'], are uncharacteristically busy. What inspires you to write such a line?
It's mostly a matter of energy. When I feel you can play a lot of notes without taking away from the song's drive, I do it. I can play fast and furious if I want, and if I feel it's necessary. But I have no intention of showing off on the bass.
You change your plucking-hand technique from song to song.
Over the last ten years I've developed a classical guitar technique called apoyando, where you play with the fingers underneath the thumb. I don't know many bassists who do that. Sometimes I use my thumb and dampen the strings with the side of my hand, and I use just my fingers for certain things, too. I don't use a plec [pick] very often, except when I want to get an effect. I'll try just about anything, but I especially like to pump along on a dampened bass.
Do you play much fretless these days?
Not onstage - it's just a pain in the arse. But sometimes on a record I'll play a little fretless. I prefer the double bass to get that sound.
Are you still playing electric upright?
I haven't played my electric upright for years. But I play my double bass at home; if someone comes over to play piano, I'll join in on the upright. But playing upright is like an athletic pursuit: You have to play every day, otherwise the muscles go.
When did you start playing upright?
I picked it up in school. There was a double bass there, and nobody else was interested in it, so I started to play blues parts and a bit of jazz on it - and I became the bass player, even though I was a guitarist. So that put me in good stead to become a bona fide bass player later on. When you feel the power of the bass through your fingers, not to mention the effect it has on music - the width it gives a musical sound, and also the depth - it's an exciting revelation. Later I bought my 100-year-old German bass - it was one of my first purchases as a wealthy young pop star. That's the same bass I played on 'Perfect Love Gone Wrong' on the new record. I call it Guido, and I like to fantasize about all the music that's been played on it - I imagine classical music, cabaret, and who knows what else.
I also love my current main bass, a '54 Precision. I rescued it from the orphanage about ten years ago and fell in love with its dilapidated appearance. There's no finish on it; it's just a wreck. Something about that really appeals to me. An old instrument is something to be cherished. I think instruments absorb and retain energy - it sounds mystical, but I really believe it. It could be only a baseball bat with strings on it, but somehow, if somebody plays it for many years, it just feels right. It develops a spiritual valency a new instrument doesn't have yet.
What's become of the '62 Jazz Bass you used for many years?
It's still around, and it's still one of my favorites, with a place of honor at home. I look at it occasionally.
It must get jealous of the '54.
They don't know about each other; I keep them in separate rooms.
Do you ever take a liking to a new bass someone sends you?
Occasionally I see something interesting and unique. People have offered me 5-strings and 6-strings, but I don't need them. I'm not judging anyone who plays a 5 - it's great to hear one played well - but I like to play the 4. When I was touring with Me'Shell NdegeOcello, we agreed: Four strings is where it's at.
When you're recording, do you still often double a bass line on upright or guitar?
Not much. We did that a lot with the Police; it was kind of a trademark. 'Every Breath You Take' ['Synchronicity'] has electric bass plus double bass, as does 'Perfect Love Gone Wrong' on 'Brand New Day'. 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' had electric plus electric upright. Sometimes playing guitar alongside a bass line adds a bit of depth to the line.
How much of a perfectionist are you, either in the studio or in rehearsal?
Probably not at all. I work with people whose job it is to rein me in. I'd make an album in an afternoon if I could, but it's a technical process that takes a lot of patience. I try to be as spontaneous as I can, and if an idea isn't working, I'll move on quickly and attack it another way. But I don't get too bogged down with getting a bass sound; I invariably go through the desk [direct into the board] and just EQ it at the end of the day. I'm also not a hi-fidelity freak, although I work with people who care about that.
You share a production credit on 'Brand New Day' - what's your role as co-producer?
I arrange the music, I get people's energy up, and I know when something sounds good to my ears. "Producer" is a nebulous term, one that's usually defined by the limitations of the artist - so I have people around me who fill the gaps in my knowledge.
You sometimes use synth bass on your records - how often do you play a keyboard bass part yourself?
Sometimes. Whatever works - I'm not precious about roles in a recording situation. If somebody puts something down and I like it, that's it. If I think I can improve it, I'll try. That's the way you learn: Sometimes a keyboard player will have a totally different approach to a bass line, and you can learn by duplicating it. Other parts fall easily under your fingers on the bass but not so easily on the keyboard. So it's good to be open about who plays what. I'm still willing to learn; even though I'm 48, I'm still a student. That's my only ambition, really: to remain a student of music. I never want to think I know everything - because the more I know, the less I'm sure about.
© Bass Player magazine