Anders Lundquist caught up with Sting earlier this year in Stockholm for an interview for SingingBassist.com.
When SingingBassist met Sting, it was February 12, and he was about to play a comparatively small 3000-seater, a new concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, thatâ€™s part of the Waterfront â€“ a new conference centre. The show will be an intimate one. All music, a little light show. No pyrotechnics or dancers. The emphasis will be on Stingâ€™s solo career, with very few Police songs, and he will throw in quite a few songs that were never released as singles. He will sing and play as good as ever, and legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta was one fire throughout.
I met Gordon â€Stingâ€ Sumner at about two hours â€™til showtime. Sting politely answers my questions (apart from the most equpiment-related ones, for which he refers to his longtime bass tech), but his body language is not entirely relaxed. The latter may be due to the fact that a lot of music journalists and critics have given him a hard time over the last 30 years, often for reason that have nothing to do with his obvious abilities as a songwriter and â€“ the reason weâ€™re sitting here â€“ a singing bassist. He neednâ€™t have had to worry. There will be no questions about tantra sex, or the supposed â€pretentiousnessâ€ of playing the lute â€“ or trying to save the rainforests. This conversation is to be all about music. It is only when our talk is over that he really starts to loosen up, have his picture taken together with my intern, Cornelia, and sign my treasured copy of his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles from 1986. â€I really miss vinylâ€ he sighs before saying ta.
Singing Bassist: You have chosen to call the tour Back To Bassâ€¦
Sting: Yes. It was supposed to be â€Back To Baseâ€ but the guys who did the posters got it wrong! (Yes, a joke from self-confessed control-freak Sting, who would never let a mistake like that slip through unnoticed).
SB: Was the name of the tour meant to be a celebration of bass playing, a reaction against the big arena and stadium gigs that youâ€™ve done in recent years, including the Police reunion â€“ or perhaps both?
Sting: You know, itâ€™s really a reaction against my last tour, which was with a huge symphony orchestra with 55 people on stage. I always feel like I need to do something at the opposite end of the spectrum when Iâ€™ve done something big. This time, there are six of us on stage, and I play the bass and sing. I enjoy that. But I also like just singing. Itâ€™s more difficult to play the bass and sing â€“ but thatâ€™s why we get paid!
SB: Do you remember the first time you sang and played the bass simultaneously?
Sting: Yeah – the first time I played the bass, I sang! I worked it out. I didnâ€™t want to be a â€guitar heroâ€. I was a guitar player, but I thought it was a much cleverer thing to control the harmony of the band from the bottom. You know, the piano player can play a C chord on the piano, but itâ€™s only a C chord if I play C on the bass. If I play something else, itâ€™s a totally different chord. For instance, an A. So you control the harmony. If you are also a singer, you control the top â€“ yes, Iâ€™m a control freak! So everybody performs within your parameters. So, as a band leader itâ€™s a very good position to be in.
SB: Did you think in those terms, even back in the early 70â€™s?
Sting: Yes, I did. Well, maybe Iâ€™d like to think that I was cleverer than I was, but I actually think so. I thought â€what strategy do I need to get on in this world. Everybody wants to be Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Pageâ€. Maybe thereâ€™s another route thatâ€™s moreâ€¦me?â€ More stoic. Quieter. But, nonetheless, powerful. I had played guitar from the age of seven, in 1969. I played classical guitar â€“ Spanish guitar. Then I played double bass at school, and after that I joined a band. But I didnâ€™t join a rock band, I joined a jazz group, and played in a big band, a mainstream jazz group, and a jazz-rock group. So the first rock band I was in was The Police in 1977. Iâ€™d never really played rockâ€™nâ€™roll. But I think, again, that was a good education. To have a wider experience of music than just three chords. I like rockâ€™nâ€™roll, but my musical background is much wider.
SB: Did you have any problems singing and playing at the same time?
Sting: No, because I figured it out. I figured you can do anything if you slow it down. So I would learn bass lines through playing 45 RPM singles and speed them up to 78, so I could hear the bass. And then I played it very slowly, And I had to sing Iâ€™d sing in the â€holesâ€. You can play and sing anything, itâ€™s just a question of application. Itâ€™s not like strumming a guitar and singing, which is very natural. Playing the bass, you play counterpointed lines against the vocals, so you have to do some work.
SB: So, you are a trained musician, then?
Sting: Yeah, my reading is pretty good.
SB: Who were your favorite singing bassists back then?
Sting:; Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney and Phil Lynott. And they were all good singers as well as bass players.
SB: As well as being charismatic frontmen.
Sting: Yeah, well, I donâ€™t have that â€“ but I have the rest (smiles).
Sting’s Fender Precision Basses, photographed by Cornelia Andersson
SB: Was Fender Precision always your â€weapon of choiceâ€?
Sting: Yes, Iâ€™ve played the P-bass since the late Sixties. Iâ€™ve tried other basses. I had a Gibson for a while, but I like Fender. I like the old ones. Mine are from 1955 and 1957. Those are the two that I use, really. The old ones were made by Leo Fender, physically handled by one guy. Thereâ€™s a sense of history and love there. They werenâ€™t made on an assembly line. They were made by one man who chopped a piece of wood and shaped it, wound the coils and the pickup himself. When you hold it in your hand it feels like a weapon. Itâ€™s a piece of work. And thereâ€™s something powerful about playing the bass. The root. Something simple and fundemental. It doesnâ€™t have to be flashy. Of couse there are some flashy bass players out there, but itâ€™s not what I do. I like putting it on every night â€“ even though it fucks up my shoulder!
SB: Do you feel naked without the bass?
Sting: No, I donâ€™t mind singing without it, and I play a little guitar at the end of the show. But I guess people are used to seeing me with the bass, so by now it looks like itâ€™s part of me. Which is nice. But I donâ€™t need anything to hide behind.
SB: Did you ever collect?
Sting: No. I like my basses, but I donâ€™t have a room full of basses. Thereâ€™s no point!
SB: What advice would you give to singing bassists?
Sting: (Laughs out loud, like this is starting to become too nerdy, or that he runs the risk of being accused of becoming pretentious. Which wouldnâ€™t be the first time). Just practice, you know. Slow it down. Work out where you can sing and where you can play. You can do anything, you can play Rachmaninovâ€™s third piano concerto if you slow it down. Though it may take a while to speed it upâ€¦ We create new pathways in our brains through using our fingers. Muscle memory.
SB: I always hesitate to call myself a musician, but I have no problem referring to myself as a songwriter. Itâ€™s just that I canâ€™t play some of my own songs in real time.
Sting: Haha. Well, itâ€™s a different talent. I know some fantastic musicians, and I work with great musicians, but they would never consider themselves songwriters. And Iâ€™m lucky that I teach my musicians the song when Iâ€™ve written it â€“ and then I forget it. I truly forget. I suppose itâ€™s so I can write new songs. But luckily I have (guitarist) Dominic Miller, who remembers everything. He has amazing memory. You know, itâ€™s a different part of the brain the writes songs, to the part that plays.
SB: In your recent box set 25 Years, which sums up your solo career so far, you have written a moving piece about your fatherâ€™s hands. Can you tell us the story?
Sting: Very late in life I realized that my hands looked just like my fatherâ€™s. We have working manâ€™s hands. I mentioned this when he was dying, and he said â€you used your hands better than I didâ€. And I think that was the first compliment heâ€™d ever paid me. So that was a very emotional moment for me. And, of course, I do use my hands every day, like a working man. I make something. I think thatâ€™s rare in modern life. We donâ€™t use our hands very much. And I think the way weâ€™ve evolved as a species, involving using hands to make things, makes us cleverer. Iâ€™m not sure how working a Blackberry makes you cleverer, you know.
SB: That depends what you write.
Sting: Yeah, I guess so.
SB: If you had to lose the playing, the singing or the writing â€“ what would you do without?
Sting: Do I have do do without anything? Iâ€™m struggling as it is! I donâ€™t need to lose anything: But you know, I often wonderedâ€¦ if I couldnâ€™t sing, Iâ€™m not sure I would write. Itâ€™s just a happy combination of things that I can do that makes me a writer. So I really donâ€™t want to think about that.
SB: Was there any period where you felt jaded? Like you had done it all, or that you discovered that you were starting to repeat yourself as a songwriter?
Sting: Luckily, I do music as an endless study. I consider myself a student of music, so Iâ€™m always practicing, always try to play new things. I like classical music very much. I tend to learn more from classical music than anything else.
SB: Who are your favorites?
Sting: My favorites tend to be French piano music of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Impressionistic composers, like Ravel, Debussy â€“ that kind of thing. But I also like modern pieces by Ludoslawski and Schnittke. I like difficult music, because it challenges me.
SB: Do you think the classical composers you just mentioned have inspired you when it comes to finding new bass lines?
Sting: Everything you listen to, you learn from, yes. You absorb, you learn, you steal. And it comes out in a different way, once the ideas have come through you. I couldnâ€™t give you an example, but you always learn about bass lines listening to Johann Sebastian Bach.
SB: Around the release of Ten Summonerâ€™s Tales you said that part of the reason you tried to make interesting music musicians was so that your top class musicians would stay with you. Is that still the case?
Sting: Yeah I still have the best musicians in the world â€“ theyâ€™re still with me. Yeah, you have to challenge them. And you have to give them things that arenâ€™t too easy for them.
SB: But is that always such a good thing for songwriting?
Sting: Well, you know, every musician on the stage performing a song, is telling a story. Sometimes musicians can forget that, and just play their thing. They want to show off, and think â€Iâ€™m gonna play that fill, and everybodyâ€™s gonna be impressed by thatâ€. Which, if it doesnâ€™t tell the story, is of no interest to me. Itâ€™s just distracting, itâ€™s just egoistic and stupid. So everyone knows that Iâ€™m telling a story, and each intrument is adding to that story, not taking away from it. So thatâ€™s what I demand and my musicians are smart enough to understand that.
SB: And popular music?
Sting: I hear pop music, and I know it â€“ where it comes from. Iâ€™m not surprised by it very often. I need constant surprise when Iâ€™m listening, or I listen to nothing. Silence. I donâ€™t like hearing music in restaurants.
SB: Unfortunately, silence is very hard to come by these days.
Sting: I know. Itâ€™s too much. And, as a musician, you tend to analyze what youâ€™re hearing. When all I want to do is eat my fish! And this fucking music comes on, and itâ€™s something horrible with flattened fifths. But I still analyze it. I think music is overrated â€“ as a constant thing. It shouldnâ€™t be constant, it should be something that you specifically listen to. I sound like a fascist now, but I want to listen to a piece of music for a reason. Not while Iâ€™m shopping, of in a cafeteria. Then itâ€™s just noise. Pollution.
SD: Do you still listen to other singing bass players?
Sting: Occasionally I hear someone, like Esperanza Spalding, an American jazz singer who plays double bass as well as electric. Sheâ€™s fantastic.
SB: What type of songwriting moves you these days?
Sting: Itâ€™s difficult to write a song that hasnâ€™t been done before, and it gets more difficult as you get older. Because your standards get higher, and because you filter much. Your self-judgment and self-criticism gets harder, whereas when youâ€™re youger, you just write anything and itâ€™s fine. So it gets more difficult, but itâ€™s still possible. There are still good songwriters out there, like Leonard Cohen, and heâ€™sâ€¦ancient. And heâ€™s still great. So itâ€™s possible.
SB: Any younger songwriters that you like?
Sting: Of course there are. But Iâ€™m not sitting here to make a list for you. I hear a lot of stuff that Iâ€™m impressed by, but it gets more and more difficult in the modern age to be original. Weâ€™re in a crisis, we donâ€™t know what the future is. Economics, philosophy, politics, art. Iâ€™m not despondent by that. I think the only progress, the only evolution comes from crisis, so we have to solve the problems.
SB: Your children, Joe and Coco, are artists and musicians as well. Did you give them any advice?
Sting: Just â€practiceâ€. Theyâ€™re both serious musicians, they know theyâ€™re not there to be famous or make money. Theyâ€™re there because they love music, which means that no harm will come to them. If you set out to become famous, or become a millionaire, you wonâ€™t.
SB: Do you think your son Joe, who sings and plays bass in Fiction Plane, tried to avoid doing the same thing as you do?
Sting: Not really. It feels natural to him, and he lives his life without reference to me, and Iâ€™m proud of him. He doesnâ€™t live off my back or live on my name. Heâ€™s very independent.
SB: Do you miss the naivitÃ© of the early Police days, where you could play a bum note during the studio recording of â€So Lonelyâ€ and keep it?
Sting: Do I miss it? I donâ€™t miss anything about The Police, actually! (laughs). Regarding bum notes, I can still do that, but it doesnâ€™t matter itâ€™s just the feel, you know? Iâ€™m a 60-year old musician, and thatâ€™s what you get. I donâ€™t want to be 17 again, you know?
SB: After such a varied career, and the dialectics of moving between opposites, what is left for you to discover?
Sting: Oh, thereâ€™s plenty to discover. Iâ€™m writing a play at the moment, with songs. Itâ€™s for other people to sing. Mostly new songs. Writing in different keys for women to sing and how that fits. Itâ€™s quite a difficult process, but I like it.
SB: You do like a challenge, donâ€™t you?
Sting: Yeah, I do. I get bored very easily.
SB: What kind of strings do you use?
Sting: The ones that are given to me for free. When youâ€™re rich and famous people want to give you things. Itâ€™s a wonderful irony that amuses me. And now Iâ€™ve run out of wisdom of charisma. But if you want to know more about my equipment I can make sure you get to speak to my Danny, who handles that.
DANNY QUATROCHI, BASS TECH
Sting’s Fender Precision Basses, photographed by Cornelia Andersson
SB: Ten minutes later, I am talking to Danny Quatrochi, who has been Stingâ€™s personal bass and guitar tech Sting since 1979, right before The Police releaed their third album Zenyatta Mondatta, which made them one of the biggest acts in the world.
Danny shows me the Fender Precision â€™55 and one from â€™57 that Sting previously mentioned.
Danny Quatrochi: When he got the â€™55 bass, he only wanted to play this one, nothing else. If anything, he wanted another one just like it. But they are really hard to come by. Heâ€™s had the â€™57 bass for around 23 years. Heâ€™d just done a video for a movie called â€Demolition Manâ€, for which he hired this bass in California. It was all beat up, a complete mess. Really noisy. But he bought it, and we did some emergency wiring to make it work right away.
DQ: We use DR Strings. 40/60/80/100 in gauges. Avalon Preamps. I have a switching unit that switches between basses, made by a British electrical engineer called Pete Cornish. The amp is Lab.gruppen and the speakers are Clare Brothers Audio. The bottoms have 18â€ speakers, and the top have 12â€ and a front driver. Theyâ€™re internally crossed at the amplifiers. Sting doesnâ€™t use any effects, apart from a little octave divider at the close of â€Demolition Manâ€, and thatâ€™s only about eight bars during the guitar solo. I can just turn it on and off here. Thatâ€™s it. Otherwise itâ€™s straight bass.
SB: What instructions do you get from Sting?
DQ: I donâ€™t get instructions. Usually we have a soundcheck, and if heâ€™s not happy with the sound, weâ€™ll fix it then. We set the equalizers, and the only thing I really change during the show is the volume.
SB: Whatâ€™s Sting like as an employer?
DQ: Heâ€™s great. I mean, Iâ€™ve known him and worked with him for 33 years now. I started around the time Zenyatta Mondatta came out. The Police had just fired a guy and were looking for somebody new, and I knew a girl at the record company. She called me and asked me if I was interested in working for a group. I applied for the job and started working the next day. I had no idea how big it was going to get, but I knew he had something from the first night I saw The Police. The band in general, and Sting in particular. I enjoyed the reunion tour. Of course everything was on a much bigger scale compared to back then. In those days, we were seven people working with them. This time it was 70. Even in 1983, when they were at their original peak, it wasnâ€™t on the same scale at all. Compared to bands like U2, and The Stones today, where there are hundreds of people involved it was still not that huge.