Interview: BASSIST (1999)

October 01, 1999

The following interview with Henrik Tuxen appeared in the October 1999 issue of Bassist magazine...

Bass playing, Pastorius, and why he'll never reform The Police...

You need to treasure the stars of this world. I realised this sitting in the pub one day, listening to a mate ranting on about the pitiful state of the current music scene. "Where is today's Jimi Hendrix?" he was saying. "Where are the Beatles equivalents? The Bob Dylans, Led Zeppelins, Brian Wilsons, and David Bowies of today? There's plenty of imitators, but where are the people who are forging ahead like they did? "In fact it's worse than that," he continued, between sups of his sixth pint of Guinness Extra Cold. "Nowadays when you look back at bands that were considered second division - y'know excellent bands, but not really what you'd call genius - and you look at them now, and they piss all over the so-called big stars of today. I mean, look at a band like The Police: where's their equivalent?

As optimistic as I tried to be, I had to admit that he had a point. People aren't just depressed about the current state of the music because there's no Lennon and McCartneys out there: the fact is that these days there are very few bands able of replicating the talent, verve and incredible success of a band like the Police. A band with melody, a band with three brilliant musicians who nevertheless knew how to bang out a superb three minute pop song. An incredibly popular band that meant a lot to an awful lot of people: schoolgirls, musos, mums and dads, and blokes-down-the-pub alike.

At the time, we may have taken them for granted - loved them, yeah, dug their beautifully simple 'why-didn't-I-think-of-that' bass lines, definitely - but didn't quite realise how precious they were. But now? Well, now - now that we realise how rare they actually are - it's time to treasure the stars of the world. Which is where Sting comes in.

Much has been written and said about this milkman's son from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Gordon Matthew Sumner, since he teamed up with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland back in the mid-70s and became the most popular trio since the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But contrary to the legendary guitar genius, Sting managed to stay in control of his music, as well as his life, personal health and sanity.

Parting ways with The Police at their height, Sting quickly developed into an intelligent and experimental solo artist, blending musical expertise and adventurousness with radio appeal and commercial success.

Sting now has six kids, lives in a house (well, castle) in Italy and he has starred in just about a major film each year. We met him in Studio Mega in Paris during the mixing of his 7th solo album. Now aged 47, he could easily pass as a 35 year old. He looks strong, healthy and sun-tanned, relaxed and in control. So just how does the bugger do it?

"Well, I think I'm happy," he says simply. "I'm 47 and I feel integrated in my life, in my career and my relationships. I don't feel divorced from the real world. I don't hide myself behind walls, have bodyguards and wear sunglasses all the time. I'm trying to lead a normal life, and I think it's my right, it's my reward. I've managed to maintain whatever privacy I want to."

This is probably the key to his continuing success - whereas many of his peers have burnt out through the various traps of fame and success. "Actors and musicians tends to be very poor guardians of their, own sanity and stability," he agrees. "It's always been my ambition to have a stable family life. It it wasn't for my family, who knows? I could have been insane or in prison or out of my mind. Certainly, it has stabilised my life, and therefore allowed me to be creative in a certain way."

And the creativity has been pretty constant. He's a singer, songwriter, musician, and bandleader, and he has always used the bass as his steering wheel. Sting is known for his rhythmic, bouncy and relative simple bassplaying, which nevertheless, generally, is the driving force in his songs. What does he think makes a good bass player? "There's many, many good bassplayers, brilliant bassplayers," he says. "What I try to do, is to integrate playing the bass and singing. It's not a natural thing for a bassplayer to do, 'cos you're up against the rhythm. Whereas if you're just strumming your guitar, it's easy and quite natural. So to a degree that's two separate things you have to work out. You have to sit down and piece everything together. Really what I'm trying to do is use gaps, where I can sing and vice versa, or weave something like a few - you have to weave these things together. There aren't many of us who do that.

"McCartney is a great bassplayer and a great singer, Jack Bruce was one of my heroes, on the other hand there are fantastic players who don't sing. The bass was reinvented by Jaco Pastorius, without a doubt: he took it to another level of musicianship. I met him a few times, and I was staggered by his abilities. People are still trying to catch up with Jaco Pastorius - unfortunately, he died much too soon.

"And then a guy like John Patitucci is amazing. He played with Chick Corea one night, and I went down to see him and he said, 'Hey Sting, man, you've been such an influence on my playing'. I said, 'I didn't notice...'" He laughs, imitating Patitucci's wild and fast moving solos, insinuating that it's pretty far removed from his own style of playing.

"I like the bass," he says. "I think it's a very good place to lead the band from. You can lead the band without necessarily waving a white stick. The dynamics of the band, and the harmonic decisions of every chord, is the bass. It's not a C-chord unless I play a C, if I play something else it's a different chord, simple."

While Sting may be famous for incorporating a variety of different styles, musicians, technology and instruments in his music, there is one respect in which he's a true conservative: he'll never replace his beloved old Fender bass. "I use a 1953 P-bass, and it looks like an orphan. It's all battered and beaten up. I love old basses, particularly the ones that have chips and scratches on them. You can see where people have played them before. Typically the P has been used so much, that it's almost rubbed plain. But new basses I hate. I can't stand them. I think they are terrible and I don't want to have one in my hand.

"As far as amps, I have my own kind of PA system on stage. On record I just go straight into the board, 'cos I like to play in the control room. I don't like playing with headphones."

Bassist got the opportunity to listen to three freshly mixed tracks from the new album, Brand New Day. All the songs we heard - A Thousand Years, Desert Rose and Brand New Day - feature brilliantly simple bass playing, but the common denominator is that it's the bass that's anchoring, and setting the pace of the songs.

"Well, you know, I'm not ashamed of playing the simplest thing possible, if that's what works," he says. "I have no desire to demonstrate scales, or the speed of my fingers, that's not the point, although I do practice. For me the point is to anchor the music, to provide the solid ground. Then the other musicians, and my own voice, can build on top.

"For this album, I wanted to pretend that I wasn't making a record, but merely to make music and have fun with various musicians, that was the ideal. Just to spend some time and have some fun. Only at the last minute would I allow it to be called a record, I wouldn't have anyone saying, 'This is the new record'. Instead we were playing, experimenting, or just using time in a good way. I've spent since last June getting this far - longer that I've ever spent on an album. I usually make albums in a much quicker and more professional way. It was recorded piecemeal, a little here and there, in a casual and relaxed manner, basically in my home in Italy."

'Brand New Day' features a harmonica solo that sounds suspiciously like Stevie Wonder... "It is Stevie Wonder," he says laughing. "It couldn't be anyone else. When I wrote that song, it reminded me of him. I know him, so I asked him to contribute, and he was wonderful. I think he gave something extra. It's a very difficult key for a harmonica. He's playing B major, so it forced him to do something else."

You sing duet with the Rai singer, Cheb Mami, on 'Desert Rose': are you making what you'd consider to be world music? "I don't really like the term 'world music'," he says. "What is that? World music is made in the world by everybody. It's really not a term that I would entertain at all. On the other hand, I've always been able to assimilate influences and make them apply to my expression. I never feel that I have to pretend to he anything. I can hear music, assimilate it, understand it, and then produce something different. You can hear where it's from, 'cos all music is related. It's not my intention to make a world music album at all. I'm making a Sting album, and I'm not sure that you can define what my music is. I'd rather say that my ambition is to defy the titles that people make for you. I don't do world music or reggae - I do what ever I do. But it's true that 'Desert Rose' has a definite Arabic, north African flavour, but it's one song out of 10. The other songs are very different from that. Cheb Mami is the biggest Rai music singer in France, and I believe he's fantastic. I met him last year, and I thought he had an amazing voice." And so he does...

Originally playing in jazz bands in the North East, Sting ironically became most famous as part of the tightest possible rock formation of them all - bass, drums and guitar. Since then, Sting has played with a wide range of musicians: what's he looking for in the people he works with? "I prefer to work with people without any sense of musical barriers," he says. "Musicians who are fluid enough to move from different styles and have no snobbery about playing very simple country music and, eight bars later, play something very complex. I need the musicians to be almost like actors: 'Now you play this role: do the heavy metal drums for eight bars, and then go back to the country feel' I don't want them to play just what is easy and natural for them. I'm constantly trying to challenge the musicians into doing something which is slightly uncomfortable or challenging for them. I keep a very good group of musicians around me, and I think they feel as if they have to work hard, which is good."

And does he apply that way of thinking to himself "I like to challenge myself," he says. "I've been doing this for 20 years, so any moment I get bored, I just want to stop. I always need to be learning."

It must be easy, having achieved the level of success that he has, to rest on your laurels and imagine that there's nothing left to learn. How does he stay interested? "Just by remaining a student musically," he says. "Practising. Not imagining that, just because I've won so many Grammys and platinum discs, I know everything. The more I find out about music, the less I know. I'm practising Bach on classical guitar everyday. It's like having a conversation with a 300 year old man, who's on an entirely different musical level than yourself. I'm much less sure of myself than I was 10 or 15 years ago. I thought I knew everything then. I know nothing, but I know more than I did then."

Was it always your ambition to break down musical borders, or has it been more of a coincidental and gradual move? "

I think it's been there all the time. Well, the engine that runs the whole thing is songwriting, not the sound of a band. Some musical careers are built on the sound of a musical group. Like the Rolling Stones, they sound like the Rolling Stones: Keith plays the guitar, Charlie plays the drums, and it's always going to sound like the Rolling Stones."

And now they have his old player, Darryl Jones. "Oh, he was better back then," he laughs. "But the line-up dictates what that is. It's not about songwriting, although they've written some very good songs, it's within those very narrow confines. I've never had that feeling, and that's one of the reasons why I left The Police: I didn't want the songs to be limited by the limitations of the group. So I use large groups of different musicians, and really each album is a showcase for songs, rather than a showcase for a sound. For me, The Beatles were a prime example: how many types of musical styles are there on The White Album? It's simply unlimited. They just play whatever they want, but songs drive it, not the band, which again is probably why The Beatles broke up. I see myself as a songwriter first and a bandleader second."

Does that mean that he'd never he able to work within the framework of a band again? "I could work within the framework of a band, but I wouldn't like to do that permanently. I'll do that for one record, or a tour, but to be trapped within those parameters would be exactly that - a trap. And I don't want to be trapped."

So The Police broke up because he felt trapped by the trio format? "Well, for me a band is only a vehicle for songs. And as soon as the bass, drums and guitar became a limitation, then I wanted to extend the band. I needed a keyboard player and a horn section, I needed an orchestra, I needed that freedom. 'Cos with these limitations in the instrumentation, it only takes a certain amount of times, and then you run out of ideas. You've got three colours: how many times can you mix them up and come up with something that isn't brown?"

Sounds logical, but it still must have been a tough decision to break up such a successful band... "Well, looking at it from a commercial point of view - 'Why would you leave the most successful group in the world - are you crazy?' - Yes, I must be crazy. My instincts were telling me to it, and I've always followed my instincts. And it has served me very well to do so. Even though it seemed crazy to other people, to me it seemed perfectly logical and the right thing to do. And, you know, 15 years later, I'd say that it worked. I hope to follow my instincts until I stop."

The Police are as popular as ever - what was their secret? "Well, we were a pop band, and we sold lots of records to teenage girls, but also we were good musicians. I think, certainly Andy and Stewart were fantastic musicians of a very high standard, and they could have been in any group. So that kind of quality lasts. It's not just about having blond hair and looking good, it's about having some kind of substance in what you do. The albums were good, they weren't necessarily just trading in the latest craze, they had some kind of integrity. I'm very pleased with the fact that The Police still have a legend and I'm also very pleased with the fact that it's intact: that we haven't reformed and tried to cash in on it."

Lots of people would want them to... "People are constantly asking, and it just puzzles me. We did it - why do you want nostalgia? We could only fall. What is success - is that trying to be like what you were 20 years ago?"

All three of them are still very active, too... "Well, we are, and I think that's good. Stewart is a very successful composer, Andy works with jazz now, and I have my own career. We are all very comfortable and happy. I think maybe that they have more passion about getting back together 'cos they miss performing in front of large groups, but I don't."

Sting may not like the concept of world music, but he's certainly soaked up a huge variety of influences over the years. But what about his own roots: can he still identify the working class English boy in his music, today? 'I feel I'm more European than most English people," he says. "Some English people want to remain isolated. I don't. If you listen to my music and you knew about my background, I don't think you'd say this is the sound of a working class artist, because I'm not. I don't belong to that category, I don't need to. I'm very proud of my roots: my father was a working man, and I'm proud that I came from a very tough town. But does it have to address the rest of my life? "I'm very proud to be English: but does it matter to my work? No - it's nice to be a European. I was brought up a Catholic: does it feed my work? No - again, I don't regret it. I've tried to escape all the categories that can label you - working class, English, Catholic, male, Anglo Saxon - they're all traps, and I'm trying very hard to get out of them.

"People always want to put you in a box," he says, "and it's my job to resist that."

© Bassist magazine


Sep 17, 1999

This is a full transcript of a webchat that Sting did in September 1999 with TWEC...

Sep 16, 1999

We walk through fields of gold - Trudie Styler tells Tiffany Daneff why converting her farm in Wiltshire to organic is a natural progression. 'Is it costly? Yes. If you go organic, I think you've got to realise that it is labour intensive but, in return, we are self-sufficient for seven months of the year. I know that there hasn't been a pesticide or fertiliser put into the soil, so I can rest assured that every meal I eat here I can eat with serenity. And that counts for a lot..."