The Police were unlikely bedfellows right from the start of their career, one that ended acrimoniously in 1984 after five best selling albums. A quarter of a century on and the band are preparing to split for the second time...
Interview Date: June 2008
The musician Gordon Sumner has been very kind to newspaper headline writers, the name he chose instead of Gordon - Sting - allows numerous puns while the name of his band - The Police - makes possible even more. Since the '80's fans have been able to joke about having a police record and journalists about having a police interview. John Wilson got one this week...
The Police were unlikely bedfellows right from the start of their career, one that ended acrimoniously in 1984 after five best selling albums. A quarter of a century on and the band are preparing to split for the second time as they approach the final concerts of a reunion tour that has taken them to sold out stadiums and arenas around the world. On stage as a trio, delivering an energetic greatest hits show, The Police are a united force but off stage the band go their separate ways. On Tuesday this week I was led through the backstage corridors of the Manchester Evening News Arena where the band were preparing to play the first of two nights. After sound checking, Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland retreated to three separate dressing rooms for three separate 'Front Row' interviews, one of which includes strong language. We start with Sting...
Front Row: Have you achieved what you set out to achieve when you decided to put the band back together?
Sting: My instinct, about two years ago, was to do something to surprise myself. And the thing that really would have surprised me would be to reform The Police, so I called Andy and Stewart. They didn't believe me because I'd said no for so long. But the legend of the band is still intact you know, so let's give it a go. I think it's been the biggest tour ever which is pleasing.
Stewart: Sting and I had a secret agenda which was to arrive at a rapprochement between the two of us. Andy has always been able to rise above and circle around the conflict between the other two guys in his band and his position is usually to either walk away and have a cup of tea when Sting and I go for each other's throats or sometimes he'll pull up a deck chair and throw bombs.
Andy: There was some healing needed especially at the beginning part. It wasn't easy to get back together. I think we were dealing with old friends really. It's just being in a band. No it wasn't easy. Our first couple of weeks I thought, 'Hey you know we're not going to make it, this is not going to work, we're going to have to walk away from this despite this huge build up.' But you know what, even within the two weeks the machine had started rolling and we were on it and we couldn't really stop it.
Stewart: It was just the feeling of 'I'd like to fix this, these two guys are really important.' The Police was a big item in my life. I went on after the eight years of The Police for another twenty years or whatever of being a film composer, I have a new family, a new life, and The Police diminished and shrank and is on my shelf and eventually it's right next to the old soccer trophy and I don't even see it anymore as I walk past it. But it's still there, it's a little bit more important than that soccer trophy and it felt like I'd like to at least put it back on the shelf in the proper shape.
Sting: We're all mature men and a bit wiser, a bit more sage.
Front Row: But when you made that decision that was just after you had the John Dowland record out and you were on Front Row talking about that record and... a totally different direction. So you wanted to challenge yourself but was that the challenge to see if you could get back together in the room with your two band mates and make music together or whether you'd work as characters.
Sting: I knew the music would work. For me to do something completely different to a lute, a sixteenth century lute album, what could be more different? The challenge was to go back with my compatriots and say 'Let's try this again'. However, I didn't want it to sound like a tribute band to ourselves and I needed to have some kind of indication that we'd evolved as musicians, that we'd evolved as players, and so the arrangements changed slightly so the audience would recognise the song but hear something different.
Andy: Of course, you know, the songs are what they are. I mean you've got certain verses, choruses that have to be sung and sung in a certain order so you've got a little piece of architecture that's solid.
Front Row: You once called The Police the sound of tension at work. Does it still have that tension when you're on stage?
Andy: Oh, I think it does. What I think I called it was the sound of a tight compromise.
Front Row: And twenty five years each extra musical experience you bring to bear on this band - seventy five collective years almost - how did that change the dynamic when you got in the room together? Did it sound like the same band immediately? Did it click?
Sting: It didn't click immediately, I have to say. I've been playing a lot of these songs with other musicians.
Front Row: And totally different arrangements...
Sting: With different arrangements and so they'd evolved in my head and I also found out more about the songs in the interim as well. Little rhythmic detail, little things, and I wanted to bring those to the band. Well, there's a slight resistance there you know? 'No, we want to do it the way we know it, not the way you think you've developed it.'
Stewart: After four months of rehearsal, which was hell, and drove us all berserk - I thought we were ready after one week, just count us in we'll play something. 'Those songs are bulletproof, dude we can't kill your songs, just count us in and it'll be great.' But his nibs has to organise every syllable, everything like that, which is all very well for him to organise but I can't remember all that.
Front Row: He's a perfectionist then?
Sting: There was a little friction there and I think we navigated that one and negotiated that one.
Front Row: You say you navigated and negotiated but was that a new diplomatic approach that you were bringing to the band?
Sting: We have massive differences about music. One will say black, one will say white. However, the way we sit down and figure it out is much more mature than just throwing things at each other which we used to do or launching ourselves at each other. We haven't done any of that yet. Mind, there's till 29 shows to go.
Stewart: Should it be fast, should it be slow, should it be a guitar solo, should it be a groove, should it be loud and exuberant or should it be introspective. These are the things that we just look at each other as if... like we're working with Martians or something. What's the matter with you? Why do you want to do it that way when it so obviously should be this way?
Front Row: And that was the same when you got back together in Vancouver a year and half ago than it was in 1982, '83, '84 or whenever?
Front Row: Nothing had changed?
Stewart: Well, no. What had changed was for the worse, which was that although older, wiser, more zen-like we are actually more cantankerous. I am less disciplined now than I was when I was twenty five, because I've had all this affirmation and all these rewards for being who I am. And Sting is more serious and deeper and less patient with banging and clattering so it's more difficult to reassemble the pieces this time.
Front Row: The Police has one of the most famously fractious relationships in the history of rock and roll and when bands have fallen out in the past and get back together, normally they say all that stuff was overplayed and people don't really understand what we had together. You're saying upfront, 'Actually, it was pretty tough and you did have screaming rows, so there was a really big hurdle that you had to...'
Stewart: Well the thing that is really misunderstood is what it's all about, and what it was about then is exactly what we still have screaming matches about today.
Front Row: Music?
Stewart: Yes. Sure, we can arrange all you want but I'm going to forget on night one, so what saved us is night one, the audience. Suddenly we have a referee, it's not just the three of us arguing amongst ourselves, now we have an audience going berserk, so we look at each other and realise that there must be some reason why I have to put up with you.
Front Row: Has the tour helped to reconcile those old wounds that you've talked about?
Sting: I never said old wounds.
Front Row: Didn't you?
Front Row: Maybe Andy mentioned the word 'wounds'... You said it was a marriage, a marriage to follow the analogy, that fell apart...
Sting: A dysfunctional marriage, lets be honest, but somehow it worked. It's kind of like Mum and Dad got back together, there's a nostalgia there, a sentiment there, but also there's something that clicks between the musicians and sometimes we think well 'that ain't working' or 'that doesn't quite fit with that but this is the result'.
Front Row: And the twenty odd years that you've all been away and all had successful solo careers as band leaders or composers on your own terms so does that bring an extra friction when you come back together because you all are possibly more strong minded than you used to be?
Sting: Of course, because I can't fire them! 'You're fired', oh, you're not fired are you... OK, alright, well let's talk about this again.'
Front Row: Have there been rows?
Sting: Of course there have been rows, yeah.
Stewart: There was one altercation in, I think, Melbourne, where Sting has this thing because he's been a band leader for all these years where his rapport with the musicians on stage if they screw up, it's like they've got to pay a fine, like James Brown, or something like that. If I do something out or order or just make something up that he wasn't expecting, he turns around and gives me the death stare. For me, that is the most heinous crime ever possible to commit. I could play in the wrong time signature, wrong key signature, there's no crime more heinous than fragging your band mates on stage in front of tens of thousands of people. My brain just short circuits, I can't deal with this. You know I can barely get through the show killing my drums, driving them into the ground, splinters... I get off stage and I'm heading for the man's throat... I immediately... and he is also screaming... We can't hear each other by the way because we have our ear monitors in and so silently we're screaming at each other, the full on deal like that, and he's throwing things around like that but it's not time to go back on stage yet so we ran out of gas and looking at each other... and hug, go back out there and play the last song and we're taking our bows, and we're bowing to the people and going 'F*** you', 'F*** you'...
Front Row: This is a very familiar situation for you, you must have been in this situation thousands of times, what are we now, two hours before you go on stage. So this is the quiet time is it, where you all get into your own space...
Stewart: Right about now I start wrapping up my fingers.
Sting: For me, two hours before the show, yeah, I try and relax. I have to warm my voice up which takes a while.
Front Row: Sting, next door is doing his vocal exercises...
Stewart: Yeah, making his weird vocal noises.
Andy: Touring at the height that we're touring we're fortunate enough to have a gentleman that comes round with us and he carries all these drapes and fabrics around and he dresses all the backstage areas for us so it's actually very pleasant.
Front Row: Very lushly decorated but it's like a souk isn't it, a Moroccan souk?
Andy: I call it a Moroccan brothel. I don't speak from experience of course, but sometimes I have a massage or sleep...
Front Row: You have a sleep? You have a kip before...
Andy: Yes, and I've done this...
Front Row: Oh, there's a bed there... I've just noticed.
Andy: Yeah, they carry it and always set up a bed for me.
Front Row: Is there a sense of ritual that you have to go through to prepare yourself for the gig?
Sting: Well, we're all in separate dressing rooms you'll notice...
Front Row: And you're all being interviewed separately.
Sting: ...with guards! I think mine's slightly bigger than the other two, and slightly more lavished. I'm never allowed in there, you tell me.
Front Row: Well, he's got a proper bed in there.
Sting: I don't want his bed. Forget it!
Front Row: Sting thinks he's got the most lavish and biggest one...
Stewart: Well he's got a tent.
Front Row: Well he's got a small tent...
Stewart: It's a tent! Don't quibble about how big his tent is. It's a tent. The guy's got a tent. We insist that whatever we get that Sting's is like one percent better.
Front Row: It's not bigger though. He thinks he's got the biggest one.
Stewart: It's not?
Front Row: No. No superstitions, rituals that you have to do before you go on?
Front Row: Group hug?
Sting: We do a group hug. Well maybe one each... three of us together hugging, I don't know about that. But I'll give Stewart a hug... or a kick depending on how we feel.
Front Row: So it's not true that you only meet on stage then?
Stewart: Well, almost. We walk off stage without a backwards glance.
Front Row: Do you?
Stewart: We do a runner which is when we come off after the last song, we descend from the stage, straight into a car which is parked ten feet away from the stage...
Front Row: Separate cars?
Stewart: Separate cars, and we drive off into the night.
Front Row: To separate hotels?
Stewart: No, same hotel... well sometimes separate but mostly the same.
Andy: There's a certain amount of apprehension, of like, coming off the tour that we're so used to being with all these people, being treated like a king everywhere, and then suddenly you're back home and... you're doing the washing up.
Front Row: So there's been no moment on stage or jamming or rehearsals or soundchecks where you've found new songs, new ideas, when you've thought actually, maybe we could be doing something new?
Sting: No, what you're asking is 'are we going to do another Police album?' in a roundabout way. No we're not. I think we've done it, I think we've done what the band set out to do, and then we've done it again. So I think that's enough.
© BBC Radio 4 Front Row by John Wilson