06.01.1983 - Musician
Breathe slowly, Breathe slowly and deeply. Do not get sick. Not now. Not crammed like a sardine in the back of Andy Summers' Datsun 280-Z on a late night London cruise. Not while my head is hovering just inches above the tousled manes of two-thirds of Britain's most successful pop group. Make a note: never order eggplant in a wine bar. Particularly when you're in a country that imports its vegetables and then calls them by their French names. Quick, distract the mind. What was it about Sting that was so perplexing, so out of synch with what I was anticipating? Well, what was I expecting to find? A bright, brash, somewhat arrogant young muso? A witty, ambitious, strong-willed Apollo about to make the jump from Pop Icon to All Around Beautiful Person? And did he fulfil those expectations? Well, yes... and no. Mostly no.
Andy Summers, Robert Fripp and I were halfway through a stultifyingly boring British detective film when Sting (née Gordon Sumner) arrived, scruffy and unshaven in his Bogie trenchcoat. On to dinner where conversation revolved around the rigors of touring in Third World countries. Sting's use of medieval plainsong as a vehicle, and then into author Thomas Hardy and his reflections on Dorset country life, which launches home-boys Fripp and Summers into their fifteen-minute comic routine about the origins of obscure West Country sexual slang replete with working-class Dorset accents (Note: check 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' for references to "the hot twern of love"). Sting's contributions to the flow of conversation delivered in his raspy near-whisper, are insightful and pertinent, though he hardly dominates the conversation. Attentive and a tad shy, he seems content to listen, reflect...
Wait a minute! That's precisely what's thrown me off-balance all night. He's not trying to fill up all the available psychic space. Make no mistake - it's not just that he's reserved. There are plenty of "reserved" superstar-types who still manage to inflict their oppressive presence's on every square inch of space around them. No, what we have here is a man who may occasionally act in an arrogant manner, but who does not emanate that quality. Not averse to occasionally throwing on his celebrity (like the Nike jogging suits he favours) and taking it out for a few spins around the track, he nonetheless has a good grasp of the difference between image and reality. He doesn't mind being the centre of attention, of course, but halfway through any self-oriented soliloquy, he invariably dissolves into the kind of self-deprecating laughter that recalls a shy but impish schoolboy caught in mid-prank - as if he's equally delighted and embarrassed by the absurdity of it all. You sense that if you scratch Sting's surface you'll unearth a vein of genuine humility and self-awareness. In any case, there is something alive and ticking in there, peering out at you from behind the Apollonian mask. Yes, Virginia, there is a Ghost in that Machine - and he's friendly. Luckily, little Casper is awake and alert to the perils of his situation. Mr Gordon Sumner, you see, has, been singled out by the Starmaker Machinery for the Full Treatment. He is the new Corn King, the golden one who is feted and fawned over, encouraged to dissipate his creativity through self-delusion and indulgence tilt at the harvest, his dried out husk is tossed on the fire. A possible destiny, but not an inevitable one. This Ghost seems to know instinctively just the right inner shocks and twists to apply to himself and his environment to keep awake and unseduced by the heady narcotic of fame that's thrown so many of his contemporaries into uncontrollable tailspins. Instead he's intent on utilising his experiences, both personal and artistic, as fuel for his own inner growth and self-knowledge. A lamb in wolf's clothing ? How about an undercover cop?
His main allies in this struggle are the same that have served master musicians from John Lennon to the Whirling Dervishes: risk, discipline and creative friction: risk as in playing unusual Third World venues, and refusing to milk the formulas: discipline as reflected in his commitment to (as opposed to obsession with) his craft and his insistence on tackling new media and ways of working: and friction as in provoking creative crises, both within himself and in his band. Here there is some self-deception, and sometimes a real inability to acknowledge the contribution of his mates. The man, by his own admission, is not a pleasure to work with.) In spite of his inevitable failures and weaknesses though, he does see that only through self-challenge can he keep himself and his music honest.
As with the man, so with the music. The bright, hook-laden structures of Police songs mask a depth and complexity only occasionally matched by their most adventurous contemporaries, let alone other commercially successful groups. But then, the Police have always been musical subversives.
In fact that's how they became the only new music group to reach the big time during the darkest days of corporate rock. The plan was to feed to an audience half-anaesthetised by the tired clichés of 70s arena-rock a steady diet of unusual and challenging musical ideas (reggae, minimalism, ECM jazz), delicacies hidden inside buoyant melodies and deceptively simple song structures. True to form, the Police have come up with another predictably unpredictable gem with their new album 'Synchronicity'. Eschewing the multi-tracked density of 'Ghost In The Machine', 'Synchronicity' reaffirms the fundamental Police aesthetic of doing more with less. It's back to the three-piece, but with a complete rearrangement of the band's musical geometry. There are few, if any, overdubs this time around and lots of space. Afro-polyrhythms and rock-steady percussion replace Copeland's trademark reggae kineticism, and there's nary a chiming, echoplexed chord in sight. Instead, we get smears, blurs and other assorted guitar graffiti from Mr Summers, all delivered with the refined grace and taste of a Zen monk's brush painting. Unlike some of what passes for new music these days, this is genuine frontier stuff. And, as usual, it's Sting's slightly other-worldly yet irresistible melodies that bring it all back home. 'Synchronicity' also offers a sense of going deeper as well as wider. The nascent social awakening that began with 'Driven To Tears' and continued through the spiritual speculations of 'Spirits In The Material World' and 'Invisible Sun' has become infinitely more personal and immediate on songs like 'King Of Pain' and 'Oh My God'. 'Synchronicity' is a testament to the spiritual and musical growth of its creators - a reflective, bittersweet pop masterwork.
A gust of damp London air interrupts my reverie as we stop for a red light. I watch as Sting waves nonchalantly in the direction of two women crossing the intersection. They sneer and turn away without returning his gaze. As the light changes the more adventurous of the two steals a sidelong glance at the departing 280-Z. Her look of disdain becomes one of shocked recognition. Before they have a chance to react, we've accelerated halfway up Oxford Street. Glancing at the rear-view mirror I catch a fleeting glimpse of two female figures waving their arms frantically as they run full till down the centre of Oxford Street in hot pursuit. Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a little before.
He obviously emanates something...
Maybe it's the black Nike jogging suit, but when I meet up with Sting months later for our interview in LA's fashionable Chateau Marmont Hotel, he looks even fitter and trimmer than usual, though he claims I've caught him in a mid-winter creative trough. Therapy involves programming an entire symphony into the synthesiser and sequencer that are the centrepiece of his sunny suite, and an irregular program of vigorous workouts at the local spa. In a few weeks he'll be taking the next step of his budding film career by playing a supporting role in the movie version of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic 'Dune'. After he's discharged from his acting duty, he's off on a major tour with the Police in mid-July.
A cursory reading of the first part of this interview might leave the impression I was out to "get" Mr Sumner. Quite the contrary. Let's put it this way: there's a struggle going on deep inside this man that we're all familiar with to some degree. Having recognised that, I felt moved to seek out and affirm the Ghost before I tackled the Machine. If this involved reminding the subject of his own inner contradictions - well... that's what growth is all about. Creative friction, remember?
MUSICIAN: Let's get right to the point: a lot of people feel that you're pretty arrogant, and I suspect that's somewhat true. But I also sense a deep-seated humility behind that pose. Any comments?
STING: My reaction to that is to say that only three, maybe four, people in the world really know me. Anyone else's comments about whether I'm humble or arrogant or a pig are irrelevant. because they don't know me and they never will. Now, in answer to your question: yes, I think I am arrogant (laughs).
MUSICIAN: Which doesn't necessarily rule out humility...
STING: No. it doesn't rule that out. I think I'm a complicated being in that I'm very proud and stubborn and not easy to get along with or work with. At the same time. I'm the opposite of all those things as well. Now, I don't know how you deal with that paradox. I'm learning to accept that I'm almost schizophrenic.
MUSICIAN: You realise, of course, that everything in the star-maker machinery is set up to encourage the worst side of you. The arrogance, the egotism, the self-indulgence...
STING: Yeah. but that's the periphery of music, you know. It's the money, the power, the drug of the thing. The pure essence of music is very spiritual, very clean. If only...if only you could be a successful musician without having to deal with the accountants, the lawyers...the sycophants, the press and the publicity. But you can't.
MUSICIAN: You're given enough rope to hang yourself. It's almost as if we encourage our artists to self-destruct by not having an understanding of how to control and transform these energies.
STING: In a sense. we're living the myth of the "Dying God," the Icarus myth. The Elvis Presley thing, the Sid Vicious thing. Society wants it and craves it. At the moment I think I've gone through it. I spent last year in my home country being up for grabs for that kind of destructive thing. The press tried to take me apart...but they didn't.
MUSICIAN: So what are you going to do to anchor yourself so that you don't wind up as the next victim splashed across the front page of the National Enquirer? We are sitting in the same hotel that Belushi died in...
STING: What I've done is to create a public persona, a figure of derision or whatever who might be in the press, but he is not me. I think the solution for keeping your own sanity is to balance the equation of being a modern, Western-educated nationalist with being open to your unconscious, what in the East they call the Spirit. For me, keeping both those pathways open inside myself is a way of remaining sane. That, and trying to be the still point of a turning world, the fulcrum of a lot of attention. And not being swung around like a cat (laughs).
MUSICIAN: But isn't it easy for someone in your position to fool himself? Who around you is going to tell you if you go overboard? Like Lennon said, "It's the courtiers who kill the king. The king is overfed, overdrugged, anything to keep him to his throne. Most people in that position never wake up...
STING: I don't know... l suppose... but... I know whenever I've stepped over the mark. And fortunately I don't have a massive court around me. I have no bodyguards. I'm quite happy being on my own, and I'm less conspicuous that way. A lot of stars say, "I'm paranoid" and they have to go out with a lot of people to protect them. But they look so obvious when they do that, and the more they try to hide, the more obvious they look. If you run away, you just create tension and hysteria. Actually, people like that feel they have to have more attention, so they walk into a night-club with the biggest sunglasses on, just so everybody knows they don't want to be seen (laughs)
MUSICIAN: But there has to be a goal behind the role-playing you were referring to. Isn't there a danger of getting lost in the role? Like in 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', where the servant becomes the master?
STING: Yes. there has to be a reason for the role-playing, and I think we play roles to learn and evolve. It's no good just playing Napoleon well, you have to understand Napoleon and use him as a symbol to move on and learn something real about yourself and other people. Okay, it's true: the archetype of a rock star is dull and moronic. I really hate it, and that's why I'm trying to work with it, to change it, to chip away at it. I'm playing the role, but I'm using it to try to move beyond its assumed limitations.
MUSICIAN: Andy said that the phrase you came up with while working on this album was "Make it your own." What did you mean by that?
STING: I felt very strongly that this album should say to the world that we are individuals. We are not joined at the hip; we are not a three-headed Hydra. We were very much thrown together by accident and we're very distinguished by strong egos. And we each have our own contributions to make. That was brought out on the album cover, where my idea was for each of us to have a separate strip and have the freedom to photographically do whatever we as individuals wanted, without knowing what the other two planned. I'll just find out when the album comes out. Hopefully, it'll be synchronistic. Musically, I wrote the song and the guitar parts and then turned to Andy and said, "Make it your own..."
MUSICIAN: As opposed to the last two albums, where you were much stricter about what Andy played.
STING: I think rightly so. Andy can do anything, and given enough rope he would hang himself. So I was quite heavy with him in a sense. But he and I have grown together as musicians and now he understands implicitly what I want, and I can say to him that he has his function in this relationship and I have mine. We do it in tandem now.
MUSICIAN: But I still get no sense of the band being a democracy. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of inter-personal tension seething just below the surface.
STING: There's nothing necessarily good about democracy in a situation like this. What interests me is having the music sound right. Sometimes I'm a little rough with very delicate, sensitive people, and I apologise a lot for it. And I'm sorry if there's a great deal of friction, but ultimately I'm very proud of this group and what it does.
MUSICIAN: So you'd agree that there's a certain healthy kind of friction that's needed to keep a group's creative spark alive?
STING: If it's a friction that doesn't come from ego. It should come from passion about music. If I have an idea I believe in, I'll kill for it. and I would hope that the others feel the same. That's where the tension and anger come in, and it's not a bad thing. A guitar string wouldn't sound without tension: if it were all loose, it would sound like a fart. So I like to pull on the strings of the group to manufacture that situation. Sometimes there are casualties.
MUSICIAN: So by keeping things somewhat on edge, you keep the band's creative arteries from hardening. The John Lennon approach rather than the Paul McCartney security blanket.
STING: What we're talking about is yanking away that security blanket. I've been criticised a lot for saying that this group could end tomorrow, when in reality, admitting that you're on a tightrope and that bands don't last forever is the very thing that makes us vital. This band could end tomorrow. That gives me a sense of freedom. It also gives me a sense of risk and danger, and I'm not mollycoddled by so much security that... as for McCartney, I think he would work better if he didn't have so many millions in the bank. That's none of my business, but he does seem to need more acceptance than almost anyone deserves. Why does he need it? He's achieved so much yet he really needs society to applaud him, to reassure him that he's all right. That's a mistake, 'cause society doesn't know.
MUSICIAN: On the last album it seemed like every new idea you had, you added on, while on this one it's more like you're stripping away, getting back to the minimalist ethic. I heard there were a couple of great synth lines you came up with on 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Walking In Your Footsteps' that you wound up erasing. Why?
STING: Because of what you were saying about stripping away. I ultimately thought it sounded better that way. There's no need for me to say, I've got to be on this track so people will know I can play keyboards! I've got so much ego massage now that... enough, enough. enough! So I can remove things without feeling threatened. I think it's my function to vanish behind the handiwork, in a sense, and just let it stand on its own. Look, I need some applause and feedback, but not. "Isn't he a genius?!" There's a lot of great stuff that Andy played that isn't on the album either.
MUSICIAN: Okay, I'll bite. How come?
STING: Because it sounded better without it (laughs).
MUSICIAN: Ask a dumb question...what about Stewart? I imagine a frisky, kinetic drummer like Stew would drive someone like you up the wall sometimes...
STING: No comment (grins and nods vigorously).
MUSICIAN: His drum sound is completely different on this album, more grounded and cut down by two-thirds. Was that dictated by the structure of the songs, by some need to have a firm anchor?
STING: It was important that this album be different. There were a lot of clone groups who sounded like us coming up, so it was important that we didn't manufacture the kind of album where we all played our favourite licks. I felt the songs I wrote were different, so the playing had to be different. So if you don't recognise the Copeland sound. I think that's a good thing for all of us, because the reason he's such a good drummer is that he's fresh, he's original, he's spontaneous and he takes risks.
MUSICIAN: By clones do you mean bands like Men at Work?
STING: I've never heard any of their songs, actually.
MUSICIAN: Really? Okay, let's try some instant analysis (takes out Men at Work tape, plays "Down Under"). That was the world-wide hit.
STING: Hmmmmm... nice flute. Yeah. I guess they have heard a few Police records. I don't actually listen to the radio much, and I don't think it does me any harm as a composer of commercial pop songs not to hear it. If anything, I value my autonomy from it. Somebody who did impress me recently was that guy in Culture Club. I went to see him recently in New York and he's got a great voice, which is a rare thing in this business.
MUSICIAN: Speaking of great voices, is it true that Sinatra sent you a letter addressed: "To the new Blue Eyes"?
STING: It wasn't a letter. I got his autograph and he wrote that with it. Whether he really knows who the hell I am is another question... but I certainly kept it! I saw him and Pavarotti at Radio City and his voice is going, but he can still sing a song and speak for a whole age. His voice just says it all... the jazz age, the 50s: that's a wonderful, magical gift he's got. He probably doesn't know he does it, or how or why - he just does it. And I'm sure his politics suck, and he may be a jerk around the house, but he's got this voice that just speaks for a generation. And there are only a few of those around.
MUSICIAN: Taking risks is one of the keynotes of a great band, obviously. Can you point to any specific songs or situations where you've clearly stepped into the unknown?
STING: It's not something as dramatic as going on-stage without your trousers on. The risk comes not in doing what the market research wing of our organisation tells us, but doing things purely instinctively and from a sense of enjoyment. Actually, the big thing is to take a risk that doesn't come off, where people say. "No, you can't do that, you can't play that." I really wouldn't mind that. Our manager might... (laughs). I don't want a safe little group that makes hit records. Sure, I like hit records, but that's not the main thing. The crucial thing is to stir things up a bit, which I do, sometimes with heartbreaking results. I think what causes friction in this group is that I'm pretty aggressive, bloody-minded and sometimes destructive. I do it for the right reasons, though, for the music... But egos do get bruised and our feelings get hurt a lot in this group.
MUSICIAN: You brute.
STING: I know, but in the final analysis the music's good, so... so what?
MUSICIAN: I wonder how Andy and Stewart feel about that?
STING: Andy is the best person in the group for taking knocks. He is just such a ball of energy - you can knock him down and squash him flat and drop 10,000 tons on him and he'll be back up within five seconds, smiling and bouncing around. He's like the original Yogi Bear punching bag. You cannot knock him down, which is the highest compliment. Stewart's pretty resilient. too. Not as much as Andy, but...
MUSICIAN: Townshend told me he felt it was really important that you three stay together because none of the individual components would sound as good without the others. Including you.
STING: I agree. At the same time there is a great desire in me for freedom. I really get trapped sometimes in all aspects of my life, and I have to get up and kick and punch and punch. That's just my personality, my psychological problem. Yes, l need the group They're the best musicians I could work with.
MUSICIAN: What happens to a song when it falls into the machinery of the Police ? Wasn't Roxanne originally a bossa nova that got turned around...
STING: Yeah, so what? It could still be a bossa nova and sound good.
MUSICIAN: But there obviously was some reworking of it by the band. How does your ego react to that?
STING: The spirit of the thing remains the same. I know the songs are hits long before they reach the expensive machinery: that's the main thing. There's no ego bruising at all. I'm proud that a lot of the big hits wind up as they were originally written. There are no rules. Sometimes they originally sound great... sometimes they sound terrible, sometimes they sound incredible.
MUSICIAN: The story of Roxanne is that Stewart showed you where to put the bass notes to turn it into a reggae. True?
STING: No, it's an oversimplification, and it's really about ego, about wanting to feel a part of something. Any song you do involves give and take with other musicians; that goes without saying. But there's no teaching involved. We arrived at that very organically, very naturally. It seems to mean something to them that it doesn't to me...l don't understand it.
MUSICIAN: I think they simply want some recognition for their input. How would you feel if you were them? You write almost all the songs...
STING: Yeah...yeah, you're right. I look at it totally differently. I like the bare bones, and I see that we all worked at it and made it something special. I think showing how all the strings are pulled is a demystifying process, and not very useful. I mean, saying (breathlessly) 'Well, on these four bars of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', so-and-so added this amazing...' It's like there's so much hanging on these things that I want to say "It doesn't matter!"
MUSICIAN: C'mon, Gordon, that's easy for you to say. You're sitting there as the overall creative director The only chance these guys have to manifest their creativity is through their "little contributions" to the arrangements. Surely, your ego can handle someone else having an occasional good idea...
STING: (winces slightly) Yeah. you're right... l suppose I speak from a privileged position, don't I? Those two musicians really are brilliant and their contribution to my songs is limitless. That's what I'll say.
MUSICIAN: I remember seeing you at the Garden last year and being impressed by how you manage to deliver inventive, unusual musical ideas within those accessible melodies. Do you ever see yourselves as musical subversives?
STING: Oh yeah, definitely, in that we don't overtly try to overthrow society. We don't get on soapboxes and rant and rave and pretend we're soldiers for the revolution. But I think the way society is changed is by chipping away at it, by putting forth beliefs and ideas which I consider to be real in a palatable way to millions of people. Not a compromised, sugary way, but by writing a pop record that gets into everybody's psyche - the window cleaners, the truck drivers. If you can say a tiny bit of something that's meaningful or profound in those circumstances, then I think you've succeeded.
MUSICIAN: I find the music itself as subversive as anything in the lyrics, in a McLuhanesque sort of way. People have to open up and stretch themselves to listen; it wakes you up.
STING: See, I don't think that what the Police do is really rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll in its worst form is posturing; polemicizing, ranting and raving and pretending that all of society is against you. I don't think our music is rebel music in that sense; I think it's bigger than that. I'm not going to overturn society, but I'd like to change it from the inside. I'm in favour of people who really want to change, not just put other people against the wall and shoot them. That's nonsense.
MUSICIAN: Yeah, I dropped out of the S.D.S. in college when it dawned on me that people who were consumed by their own hatred. jealousy, confusion and violence were not going to be able to run a just, peaceful, sharing society. They were trapped by the same negativity as the people they opposed - like some of the English left today.
STING: I think the political animal is much the same, no matter what colours he's wearing. I don't believe in politics as being an agent for change in society. I think it just maintains it, confirms the whole mindset. I much prefer the politics of individual behaviour. We need to become truly realised as people if anything's going to really change, not controlled by another system.
MUSICIAN: I was genuinely moved the first time I heard 'Driven To Tears' on the radio, because it was apparent that you'd really seen something. And rather than externalising it and polemicizing about it, you let people in on your experience, thereby making something personal universal, and vice versa. Whereas the Clash would've...
STING: I think the Clash have fourteen-year-old intellects. Musically, I think they're very good; I do like them. But the political posturing is laughable. They talk about Marxism; they haven't the faintest idea of what Karl Marx is all about. It's the cult of... the phallus, the cult of the rifle, the cult of the guitar. It's all the same thing: phallus worship, onanism. No thanks. But yeah, I think most of my songs are subjective in the sense you were referring to. We've all sat and watched atrocities on TV, and we tend to become immune to them. But when you see a child with a distended belly, and he's obviously in such misery and pain that you cannot do anything but...cry. Who do you blame ? All you can do - at that moment, anyway - is cry. And I did just that, and felt I should say so.
MUSICIAN: The tech-heads get into you guys for being great musos, but that's clearly not your centre of gravity. What are the pluses and minuses of being so technically proficient?
STING: It's only a tool with which... when you think of a great work of sculpture, you don't consider how Michelangelo was holding his chisel, do you? Or if it was a Gibson chisel or a Fender chisel (laughs). It's pointless...
MUSICIAN: No. I think the Steinberger chisel is the one that's pointless.
STING: (laughs) What survives and is meaningful is totally abstract and away from the craft. I'm proud that the group can play, I really am, because it makes the message so much more fluid and polished. But it isn't essential. What I've done recently is to learn to play a number of instruments, but only up to a certain level. On 'Ghost' it was saxophone, on this one it's oboe. It's not like I could cut it in an orchestra, it's just that I want to learn enough so that I'm in touch with the spirit of playing the saxophone, or whatever. Learning something new like that keeps you fresh and alive, it brings you back to square one. I've been playing keyboards for two years now and I've gone through the whole history of rock'n'roll by accident. I find myself playing things that keyboard players would have done in '58, and now I've worked myself up to about '65. It's an incredible sense of discovery. Putting yourself through all these steps is the best thing you can do, because it takes all the bullshit away.
MUSICIAN: Can too much facility...
STING: ...damage the spirit? Yes, it really can. I don't really allow that in the group. It's something I fight about a lot. I like things to be spontaneous and quick. Our albums sound pretty rough, warts and all. And I like that.
MUSICIAN: Would you agree that on Synchronicity, you've abandoned the overdubbing and layering of the last album in favour of the Police aesthetic of doing more with less ? Back to the three-piece but rearranging the elements?
MUSICIAN: Please say more than "yeah." Mr Sting...
STING: AHHHHHHHHH... YEAHYEAHYEAHYEAHYEAH YEAHYEAHYEAHYEAH ! Okay, I enjoyed making Ghost In The Machine and playing with the tools of the studio, just building things up and sticking more vocals on. Great fun. But listening to it, I thought. "Hey, my voice on its own sounds as good as fifteen overdubs, so I'll try it on its own." And I've done the saxophone section bit now, I'm bored with it; and Andy was into just plunking down one guitar part. I'm glad we did 'Ghost'. I don't regret it. But it was time to change the regime again. A lot of the criticism levelled at us and that album was that we're incredibly formula-ised and efficient. Almost Nazi-like...
MUSICIAN: Nein, mein Fuhrer Not zo!
STING: (laughs) So the new album is about having a personal voice, in a sense. All of us got the chance to say things quietly and quite emotionally. Andy, for instance, did his best work ever for the Police on this album. His song 'Mother' is wonderful. Very funny and witty, just saying, "Here I am, a real person, not a member of some fascist organisation. I'm a normal human being just getting a big kick out of singing like I do in the shower, without effects or backing vocals. Just me. I am a person.
MUSICIAN: Using Arthur Koestler's title 'Ghost In The Machine' seemed to be your way of saying the same thing.
STING: Yeah, beneath all that finely tooled craft there is a little voice saying (in a tiny voice) "Hey, we're alive in here!" On 'Synchronicity' we decided to cut away the machine entirely and just use... ourselves.
MUSICIAN: You once said that 'Zenyatta Mondatta' was made with the wrong attitude - how so?
STING: It was made at the wrong time. What happened was, our success in England and Europe was meteoric and we had the number one album in almost every country in the world. So we got really charged by this, like having a hundred volts up your ass, and we thought. "GOTTA DO ANOTHER ONE - NOW! THE MOMENT IS OURS!" So we rushed into the studio and I churned out about fifty songs... and some of them were good, and some of them were just terrible. But the attitude was to get something out as quickly as possible, otherwise we'd lose our chance. I learned from that never to do anything until you're ready. That's why we spent so much time preparing for 'Synchronicity' before going into the studio.
MUSICIAN: What specific songs or dynamics were you unhappy with on 'Zenyatta'?
STING:Just the general lack of thought put into it. There are a few really good songs on 'Zenyatta', like 'Driven To Tears', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'When The World Is Running Down', 'De Do Do Do...' The rest of it you can forget. That's our most flawed record. Surprisingly, that was also the one that made us big (laughs).
MUSICIAN: Yet it was on the previous record, 'Reggatta de Blanc', that the Police sound seemed to gel.
That was where it all clicked, yeah. There was so much happening in my writing and singing, Stewart's and Andy's playing, and suddenly it all meshed together. We had reggae influences in our vocabulary and they became synthesised into our infrastructure until it was utterly part of our sound and you couldn't really call it reggae anymore. It was just the way we played. That's the great thing about rock'n'roll. It bastardises everything, and I much prefer mongrels over pure races. As a musician, you learn your craft and emulate and copy people, and suddenly there's a moment in your development when you grow up and finally become yourself. I think 'Reggatta' was that moment for us. Then we got caught up in the whole business of becoming a "successful rock group" and almost lost it. We calmed down after that, but we had to work hard to get back into that serendipitous state again.
MUSICIAN: What kind of work do you do to try to regain your creativity when you hit a dry spell?
STING: What I do in my creative troughs, which are frequent, is to go back and hone my craft. I finally recognised the pattern of peaks and troughs in my creativity, and that was a big, big step for me - getting away from the paranoia of not writing, being uncreative. At the moment I'm here in this kind of limbo, 'twixt album and tour (laughs). So what I'm doing now is going back to school, learning orchestration. And I know that three months from now when I'm ready to work again creatively, that this time of honing my craft and improving my skills will bear fruit.
MUSICIAN: I see that you've got an Oberheim synthesiser set up with a sequencer. What are you working on, exactly?
STING: Well, I've always loved Vaughan Wiiliams, so I went out and bought the score to his Sixth Symphony. I thought, (enthusiastically) "Okay, I'll start on page one, get out the synth, and do the bass part up to page 30!" Then I did the cellos and violas, which required learning another clef, which is great. Then I got to the trumpets and find they're written in D flat, so I have to transpose them, which is a difficult exercise. Then you get a bit further and find the bass is written in 4/4 time, but the oboes are in 12/8, so you have to use the sequencer to match up those two rhythms, which is a complex problem for the computer.
MUSICIAN: So you feed all this into the sequencer and it synchs all the parts together and plays them back for you?
STING: Yeah, there is no other way to record a symphony by yourself. Right now it all sounds like a pipe organ, but later I'll take it into the studio so I can get something that approximates the actual sounds of the various instruments. I'm doing this just for fun, for the learning experience. I'm not going to release it. I've just learned so much about orchestration... look here (points to score). I wondered why the flutes don't go for more than six bars. Well, it's because they have to take a rest, and so he gives it to the piccolos to play! Anyway, I'm halfway through it now, and by the end I'll be a better musician, and in my creative period all these skills will be put to use.
MUSICIAN: The drum sequencer piece on 'Walking In Your Footsteps' - how did you put that together?
STING: That was the first thing I ever did on the sequencer. I was learning to work it and just played a couple of riffs which fit together contrapuntally, then played them through a couple of different sounds. It's wonderfully mechanical and rhythmic. Then I used the same sequence with the drum sound over it based on a classic rock'n'roll riff (laughs). I'm pushing the DSX to its limits. The other day I used up its memory entirely, about sixty-four bars of stuff. and it just said. "Stop ! I have no more memory" I tried to stick some more in and it got really angry ! It started to buzz and lights began to flash, and I had to turn it off (laughs). I had this bizarre relationship with this machine. I pushed it too far. but now I believe I'm on good terms with it. It's a little like HAL in 2001. Weird, but such a pleasure.
MUSICIAN: I suggest leaving it a little warm milk before bedtime. Did you also compose the synth-based material on Ghost In The Machine on the Oberheim?
STING: Yeah, 'Invisible Sun' was just a chord sequence I was fooling around with. Actually, 'Spirits In The Material World' was written on one of those Casio keyboards while I was riding in the back of a truck somewhere. I just went (taps out three chords) and there it was just by accident. That was the first time I'd ever touched a synthesiser, that album. Now I have a quite sophisticated knowledge of them, but I learned through doing. I have an affinity with instruments that's enviable, really. I can learn to play something on anything very quickly.
MUSICIAN: When you get a flash of inspiration, how does it initially manifest ? Is it usually a lyric, a riff, a hook?
STING: I get titles. It's common sense, really, because the title of the tune coincides with your hook line, your chorus. So I write titles and work backwards from there.
MUSICIAN: Do you get the music and the lyrics at the same time?
STING: I think the best songs are written with both at the same time, they just find themselves somehow. A title will suggest a certain rhythm: 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', Da da da da da da. Or 'Driven To Tears' - Da da da da. And it writes itself. There's only eight notes in the scale (laughs). The craft, which is the hard part, comes in after that. It's weeks and weeks of joining bits of inspiration that cement together. Our current single, 'Every Breath You Take' wrote itself, largely because it was taken from a very old tradition... it's very atavistic and yet it means something now. I woke up in the middle of the night in Jamaica and went straight to the piano and the chords and song just came out within ten minutes. Wrote the song. Went back to bed. It's a way of saying there's still something meaningful and useful in the old way of doing a rock'n'roll ballad. But it's not entirely derivative, there's something else I hear in it: a tinge of sadness.
MUSICIAN: The new album's lyrics are laced with sadness and suffering. Spiritual suffering...
STING: I think these lyrics are the best I've ever done. And, yes, it's been a year of hell and torture for me... And I know that without that torture and without that pain - without that awfulness - those lyrics wouldn't have been as good. So in a sense I'm very suspicious of myself. I wonder if I manufacture pain in order to create.
MUSICIAN: I doubt it. The kind of pain you might be capable of manufacturing yourself probably wouldn't open you up to higher inspiration. The kind of spiritual pain I hear on the record - the pain of shattered illusions, of growth - comes from something beyond your ability to manipulate.
STING: Without being overly sentimental or indulgent. I have to say that, to me, the opportunity to express pain is the greatest... I don't really feel like telling anymore. I think I said it succinctly in the lyrics in a way that's meaningful and not overindulgent. To go over them now, well, it overstates it. I just want to say that if there's a feeling of sadness in any of the songs, it's genuine. That's all I want to say.
MUSICIAN: Fair enough. Talking about certain experiences can spoil something, I agree. Have some more tea. Why the title 'Synchronicity'?
STING: Oh, it coincides with my reading at the moment. You can substitute symbolist for synchronicity in the title song. The man's anxiety and aggression are symbolised by an event in a lake somewhere far away, without any causal connection between the two. That's synchronicity, drawing that analogy. In a sense, it's creating it because there are times in everyone's life when something you encounter becomes a symbol for your state of mind. Like in 'King Of Pain', where I conjured up symbols of pain and related them to my soul. A black spot on the sun struck me as being a very painful image, and I felt that was my soul up there on the sun. It's just projecting your state into the world of symbolism, which is what poetry's all about, really.
MUSICIAN: Andy mentioned that one thing about both this album and the last one that made him somewhat uncomfortable was that the three of you played in different rooms while recording. Why separate instead of together in one room?
STING: In my case, it's because there is nothing worse than hearing a bass through a set of headphones. Basically, it sounds like a frog farting. I play much better when the sound coming out of the instrument is rich and warm. If we played together like that in the same room, we wouldn't be able to hear anything except the drum, because the guitarist has to have a lot of volume to hit a certain level of distortion or passion or emotion. I play in the studio next to the engineer so I can hear the instruments balanced and mixed roughly as they'll sound on the record. Andy couldn't be in the control room with me because of the guitar noise. We have the drums in the kitchen at Montserrat because they sound best there.
MUSICIAN: But isn't there a danger of losing that special energy grid that can form among members of a group?
STING: That's possible, but the pluses just outweigh that. I have visible contact with Andy at all times through the glass, and with Stewart via the monitor and vice versa. Same with audio, so we actually hear each other much better this way.
MUSICIAN: Still sounds to me like making love on the phone. Aren't you afraid of losing the spirit? Would 'Message In A Bottle' have had that incredible kineticism if you'd all recorded in separate rooms?
STING: Hmmmm...the energy, yeah. There's a lot to be said for both viewpoints. !t we start making bad records I'll rearrange it. By the way, I don't use an amp in the studio either. Just plug straight into the desk.
MUSICIAN: A lot of the songs you compose on guitar, like 'Message In A Bottle', are based on parallel fifths. Is that something you brought in from your jazz days?
STING: In a sense. but it also comes from Gregorian chant and plainsong, which I love. (Picks up guitar, plays Chuck Berry boogie in A.) it's an expansion of that basic Chuck Berry riff, but you add the 9th, which gives it a jazzy sophistication. (Plays A and E adds B with little finger.) It takes rock'n'roll into a slightly more aesthetic area.
MUSICIAN: If you had to point to one song that captured the essence of what the Police are trying to do. the most complete manifestation of the inspiration behind the craftsmanship, which would it be?
STING: Roxanne, definitely. It stuck out like a sore thumb on the radio when it came out because there was nothing else like it around. Why? Because it's simple. The instrumentation is incredibly basic and yet it's melodically and harmonically sophisticated while appearing to be utterly A-B-C. And that's the essence of the Police. Not that we're fantastic virtuosos or sex symbols or brilliant singers. At our best we're a group that says something quite sophisticated in a very simple way. And funnily enough, our most creative material is often our big hits, like 'Roxanne', 'Magic' and 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. That's because our commerciality is accidental, not planned.
MUSICIAN: The Police group dynamic seems to be very much a product of your use of space in and around the music. What brought you to that sensibility.
STING: I learned that from listening to Miles Davis. Some of his finest solos are maybe three notes over eight bars. In fact. I think 'Kind Of Blue' and 'Porgy And Bess' are my two favourite albums. The latter being the first time I was exposed to jazz orchestration, and 'Kind Of Blue' made me aware of the creative use of space combined with rich textures.
MUSICIAN: Did they represent your musical ideal as a young player?
STING: Mmmmm...more 'Bitches Brew' period Miles, I think. That was the first time I heard jazz musicians play rock'n'roll, and I loved it. Everybody was on that: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter. All blowing! And very much in a style I could emulate as a sixteen-year-old bass player - not Led Zeppelin.
MUSICIAN: C'mon, confess - you copped every riff you ever learned from Uriah Heep.
STING: No, not even them. I started off in Dixieland jazz groups playing trad, two notes of thump-thump. Loved it. Very close to rock'n'roll, really. Then I moved over to mainstream jazz and later big band, where I learned to read on the job. I had to play all the crap and rubbish, but it did serve to expand my vocabulary, which got me in the habit of using my creative troughs to improve my skills. A lot of rock musicians have not had the privilege of working in other forms. Pete Townshend, as good as he is, hasn't played much outside his idiom, and that's a great shame. Same thing with John Lennon. See, I don't think Lennon did enough work. Yes, he was inspired and wrote some great stuff. I just wish that in between those creative peaks he'd worked at his craft. He wasn't a great musician, and yet he could have been.
MUSICIAN: I have the feeling that when you go off and play in unusual places like India and Africa, it's part of your urge to push through barriers, to take a risk in order to keep growing. You can't be doing it for the money alone...
STING: You don't make any money when you play in Cairo or Bombay. You spend money. You're right, we do it for the challenge. We've always had that pioneering spirit. The second gig we played in LA, believe it or not was in Terminal Island prison, because that, too, was a frontier we felt should be crossed. They didn't know who we were.
MUSICIAN: So you do it to push yourselves?
STING: Yeah, otherwise nobody really listens. Tomorrow we could go into Madison Square Garden without any rehearsal, pull out the old slops, and have them screaming for two hours. But that doesn't interest me. I prefer to work hard, to stretch, and if I work hard, so does the audience. That's why I prefer to go to places where the ritual isn't completely formalised and mechanical. And that show in Bombay was the best gig of my career. I'll never do a better one.
MUSICIAN: Did they react like a Western audience?
STING: It was a learning situation for both sides. They'd never seen a live rock'n'roll group just as we'd never seen a live Indian audience. And it wasn't just kids, either. The chief of police was there, the Lord Mayor and his wife, beggars, old people with turbans on - a whole cross-section of Indian life. They had to open the doors because of the demand and this 5,000 seat amphitheatre was invaded by about 15,000 Indians. It was just like a scene from Gandhi, in fact. So we walked out there and they politely applauded, and I said, "All right, before we start, I'd like to say that this is essentially dance music, and I'd appreciate it if you dance." So all the old ladies in their saris got up on their seats with their umbrellas, and by the end of the show we had a stage invasion. We had them screaming and shouting and yelling and jumping up and down. That confirmed my belief in music as a universal phenomenon that can work anywhere. There we were, tapping a very simple tonal code which speaks to everybody, regardless of race, colour, creed or social standing. I think it's probably the finest moment of my performing career (long pause)... I still get emotional thinking about it. I just hope I... I'd love to do it again... that feeling of being a pioneer, being so fresh. I did spend a lot of time just weeping after it was over.
MUSICIAN: Many of your best songs are about loneliness and alienation. Is there any irony in having 20,000 people all singing along with you in a stadium about being "so lonely"?
STING: No, there's no irony whatsoever. From the outside it might look a bit strange, being surrounded by all this attention and yet experiencing the worst lonely feeling... but I do. And then suddenly the attention is withdrawn a half an hour later. You're so isolated...
MUSICIAN: Are you saying you're lonely while the show's still going on?
STING: Yeah, of course I am. I don't think the people in the audience feel lonely. They feel a cohesive force at work and feel as one. And here I am the person producing the noise...feeling isolated.
MUSICIAN: What can you do in a stadium situation to help bring the audience to that state of cohesive unity - to wake them up?
STING: Sometimes it depends not on what we do but on what we don't do. My favourite moments of the set are when we stop playing and singing, and I allow the audience to tumble in. They just get sucked in, WHOOOOOSH! I love that! Andy told you in that article (Musician #51) that I do that 'cause I'm lazy, (laughs) but I don't think he meant it. I love to stop and say, "Okay, come on do it!" It both confirms you as someone who has given them something, and at the same time it makes them work, like real art should. An audience has its role too. They have to work and give something to complete the event.
MUSICIAN: One last question: are you ultimately optimistic about where we're heading, or will the Ghost be snuffed out by the Machine?
STING: Yes, I'm optimistic and I think there's a way for the West to look through the Machine that wasn't there before. Science is doing away with the mechanistic world view, with Newtonian physics and Darwin and causality. The deeper we go the less material things become. We see that what we thought were solid atomic particles have qualities and functions that are illogical and non-quantifiable. They're really not waves or particles at all. They exist outside of the limits of time and space. So I feel that the razor edge of this exploration is where our spirituality will be rediscovered. I think our salvation in those little molecules somewhere. I'm not saying the future is material. I'm saying the future is spiritual. It's like we're looking at the universe through a very powerful microscope and we're going to come out the other end. We're discovering at the universe is not built on and held together by hard little atoms - because these atoms and the spaces between them aren't filled with solid particles - they're filled with magic.
Everyone I know is lonely
God's so far away
My heart belongs to no-one
So sometimes I pray
Take the space between us
Fill it up some way...
O My God - Sting, 1983
Mr Sting may not be a tech-head. but he's not exactly slapping away at a broomstick and washtub up there, either. According to Police bass roadie Danny Ouatrochi, the maestro usually brings a brace of four instruments into the studio: a Steinberger which he strings with Superwound SDB 505s, a Fender Precision fretless, and an old Fender Jazz bass with a Van Zalinge electric stand-up bass (the Z-Bass) picked up in Holland during the Zenyatta sessions. He often lays down a track with one bass and then overdubs again with another. That's the Z-Bass on 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' and 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' (with the Steinberger overdubbed on top), and the Z-Bass with the Fender fretless added later on 'King Of Pain'. "I just love playing stand-up bass." adds Sting. "I'm not as facile with it as I am with the Fender or the Steinberger, but then again my lines are fairly simple. You don't hear the Z-Bass on those overdubbed tracks as much as feel it."
Sting also uses two Moog Taurus bass pedals to play footsie with. Danny adds that a Roland Boss Chorus usually accompanies the boss on-stage, as does an Oberheim OB-Xa and a DSX sequencer. His mini-PA was designed by T-D Audio of Montclair, N.J.; its three-way speaker system uses Gauss 15-inch drivers. Electro-Voice midranges and Gauss HF-4000 defraction horns, all mounted in Electro-Voice, Eastern Acoustic and custom-made cabinets. He powers these with three Crown amps: the highs with a D-75, the mids with a DC-300A and the lows with a PSA-2. Ashley SC-80 crossovers direct electronic traffic while an Ashley SC-40 pre-amps the bass and an Ashley SC-44 pre-amps the pedals and synths. Along with a Roland Chorus Space Echo and two dbx limiter/compressors, he employs a Klark Tekniks DN-27 one-third octave equalizer as well as a DN-22 stereo octave equalizer. He keeps all this on tv.v racks, one for the Crowns and the crossovers and one for the pre-amps and the effects. For mobility's sake all his basses have gone wireless by way of NADY.