Interview: Sting

sting-may-2016-nyc-photo-credit_martin-kierszenbaumSongwriter, actor, author, activist, rock star, jazz freak… Gordon ‘Sting’ Sumner is quite the renaissance man. Oh, and he plays bass. Joel McIver meets the legend

Pictures: Eric Ryan Anderson and Martin Kierszenbaum

Every issue of this magazine has a pretty amazing bass player as its cover star, but there are regular stars – and then there are extra-special stars. Sting is one of the latter. You may know him as the guy who fronts the Police, or the solo artist who sold a gazillion copies of songs like ‘Fields Of Gold’, ‘Russians’, ‘Englishman in New York’ and all the other tunes that are now in your head because you just read their titles. Or you may recognise him for acting in Quadrophenia, Dune, Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and what have you. Your kids know him as the funny levitating guy from Bee Movie. Everyone knows Sting for something.

In bass world, though, we know the guy as Gordon Sumner, the ex-teacher born in 1951 who played in jazz and fusion bands before forming the Police in 1977, playing whopping great bass parts and being a massive rock star. Fretted, fretless, double bass, eight-string – the man was unstoppable on bass, filling up the empty spaces within the trio format of the Police with a variety of lines, from the simple to the finger-threateningly complex.

I’ve been trying to get an interview with Sting for BGM for over a decade, always meeting with resistance – not because he or his handlers are unforthcoming, but because he’s been occupying diverse musical territory in that time and bass guitar hasn’t been at the top of his list of priorities. After the Police split in 1984, he dominated the 1980s and 90s with a sequence of rock and jazz albums that we all know, beginning with The Dream Of The Blue Turtles in 1985 and finishing up with Brand New Day in ’99. After that he moved in different, less popular directions, doing the R&B-influenced Sacred Love in 2003, plus classical and folk releases after that.

Fortunately, Sting’s new album, 57th & 9th, is a return to rockist form. Alongside guitarist Dominic Miller and sometime Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, he makes a formidable case, as you’ll hear if you’ve tracked down the first single, ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’. Hence our interview, conducted in a posh London hotel a few weeks before you read this.

Sting and I sit at a table, quaffing tea and talking bass and other essential life-related topics, for half an hour or so. He’s tall, lean and showing his 64 years, wearing a pair of thick specs and asking me to repeat quite a lot of my questions even though I’m sitting two feet away from him (you can make a ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ quip here if you like). But the bloke is full of energy: keen to make his point, eager to stress that he’s still progressing as a musician, and impatient with any journalistic inaccuracies I might come up with. For example, when I refer to the ‘Christmas madrigals’ he recorded for 2006’s Songs From The Labyrinth, he sharply corrects me, pointing out that these were sixteenth-century art songs rather than madrigals.

This is good. Sting still has plenty of, well, sting. Let’s have it, Gordon…

Your new album is great. Does inspiration for songwriting come as easily as it ever did?

No. Ha ha! The music comes pretty easily, because I have a good relationship with my musicians. We have a three-way ping-pong game: we know how to react to each other’s ideas, and I can pretty quickly carve that into a song form. The inspiration for lyrics is difficult. I’m 64 and I’m pretty comfortable. I’m not terribly angry about many things, so how do you find inspiration? The first song on this record is about exactly that. You look at a blank page every day and it looks like snow. But what’s underneath it? So you’re searching for a pathway, a road, a muse, a character, a story… That’s difficult, but then, once I start, what’s going on in the world – whether I want to write about it or not – unconsciously feeds into the writing process. So there’s songs about climate change here, songs about the refugee crisis… I haven’t got a song about Brexit. Ha ha! It’s too complicated.

‘The Ballad Of Boris’?

Oh… I would not write that one. But there have been deaths of so many cultural icons in the early part of the year, some of whom I knew quite well. That reminded me of my own mortality. I wrote this song, ‘50,000’, which is really about that concept, you know, of people being godlike and almost immortal in a way for most of us. So when they die, it freaks you out. As well as the loss for the culture, you think ‘Fuck! I’m mortal too’. And when you’re a man who’s lived most of his life already, you learn philosophy that way.

Your tech, Danny Quatrochi, sent us the details of your bass rig in preparation for
this interview.

That’s good, because I never really look behind me. I’m kind of busy up front, so I trust Danny to get me the right equipment and the right strings, but one thing I’m particular about is my bass, which I’ve had for a quarter of a century. It’s from 1957, which is almost as old as me, and it’s a P-Bass, and it’s really been carved by use. It’s very, very battered looking but it has a growl that a modern bass guitar simply does not possess. It has a roundwound pickup. I imagine Leo Fender himself put it on a lathe to make it, and it’s got a genuine spirit. When you play an instrument, the more you play it, the more responsive it is. It’s almost spiritual, if you can say that about an inanimate piece of wood. For me it’s not inanimate: it’s got a character.

Is it still in good shape after all these years
on the road?

Fuck yes.

What’s your backup bass when you tour?

I’ve got a ’54 P-Bass which I don’t use as often, and so is less responsive, but it’s still a beautiful bass. I don’t have that many instruments.

You’ve been through a lot of basses over the years, though.

Yeah. I started with a Fender Jazz, which I still have. I bought it in Newcastle for about 150 quid. It was a lot of money back then. I don’t know what it’s worth now. Then there was Ibanez, Hamer… what was the one with
no headstock?

Steinberger?

Steinberger… but I found my true love eventually. My job as a bass player and a bandleader is an interesting one. Because I control the harmony: it’s only a C chord if I play a C. And also I control the top line, the vocals, so the band operates within my bandwidth. So I can control the band very subtly, ha ha! Or maybe not so subtly. They don’t seem to bristle under my leadership.

How do you define yourself first and foremost? As a singer-songwriter, bass player, businessman…?

A businessman? Um, my passport says ‘musician’, which I’m very proud of. I think it’s a noble profession. To make a living without harming anybody, really, or exploiting anybody. I’m proud of my profession.

Are you equally happy playing guitar
and bass?

Yeah, I’m happy on both. I mean, I started as a guitar player and continued to play guitar, mainly acoustic guitar, but the bass seemed to offer a kind of quiet heroism. And also, playing and singing at the same time is something that’s not natural: to play a contrapuntal bass-line against the singing is much different to strumming along four in the bar, you know. So learning how to do that was important, because my mentors were Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce and Phil Lynott, who could do it. And I enjoy it. Anything I couldn’t play and sing, I knew I could if I slowed everything down. My technique was to slow down gradually and then find the gaps, and then speed it up.

The obvious example of a tricky bass part is ‘Spirits In The Material World’.

A lot of very sophisticated musicians have no idea where one is in that song! Ha ha! Which makes me very happy. Where the fuck is one? It doesn’t matter.

I’ve been listening to a few songs by your pre-Police fusion band, Last Exit.

Really? How did you find Last Exit?

On Youtube, they’re all there.

Really? That terrifies me.

You had chops from an early age, didn’t you?

Take the surprise out of your voice! Yeah, I was playing with jazz musicians, and I was playing Stanley Clarke lines from Return To Forever songs. When Jaco came, about that time, he totally recalibrated what it was to be a bass player. He could play Charlie Parker chromatic lines on the bass guitar: nobody had thought of that before.

Did you sit down and figure Jaco’s stuff out?

Yeah. In fact I have these exercises I do every so often. I’ll find a part and learn it. A couple of months ago I got ‘Teen Town’, which is an amazing piece of bass playing. It really is. So I’m playing that at the moment. In soundchecks I’ll just sit and play ‘Teen Town’, because it’s fun. I knew Jaco. He used to come and see the Police when we played in Miami.

What kind of guy was Jaco?

A beautiful man. Really, a beautiful cat. A little crazy. He would call me at four in the morning in London and say ‘Hey man, how are you doing?’ and I’d say ‘Jaco, it’s four in the morning!’ and he’d say ‘No, it’s only like 11pm’ and I’d say, ‘You’re in Miami!’ Ha ha! His death was appalling. Unnecessary. I’d love to know what he’d be doing now, if he survived his problems. It would have been remarkable. He was a drummer too, and he played piano. I miss him.

Do you ever play slap bass?

Not really. I’ve developed it over the years, just naturally. I play with my thumb and two fingers, like an apoyando style, so these fingers are kinda hidden. Most of the work is done with the thumb and that goes up and down the neck, so you get that effect. I’m also pulling a lot. But I was with Tony Levin in the summer and he said ‘I’ve never noticed how you play, it’s odd!’ I said ‘You should try it’ and he did! The great Tony… I could see him practising using two fingers and a thumb.

You play both fingerstyle and with a pick.

I don’t think there can be any rules about how you play an instrument. I think innovation is important. A pick was good because we were only a trio, and I needed the bass-line to be very clear, rather than rumbling and vague, so playing with a pick low down near the bridge helped the Police, I think, and often on record I would double the same part on guitar as well, so it was very clear what we were doing. But I also like rumbly bass players, you know: I love Hendrix’s bassists, that kind of atmospheric thunder that they created.

You have a signature Fender Precision. Do you play them much?

I have a few. My daughter plays one. It’s identical to the one that I use, apart from the gouges! It’s a beautiful bass. I think it was Fender’s bestseller for a long time. I usually give them away as a gift or an auction item. I think they’re lovely.

Do you play five-string?

No! It confuses the hell out of me. If I need a low D I’ll tune it down. I don’t want another string there. Having played the lute for a while, with 26 strings, I don’t want the same issue when I’m trying to sing and lead a band. Four is enough. I don’t feel the need to be flash. I play the roots, and occasionally I’ll drop a third in instead of the root, but my job is to just lay a foundation. I think the band appreciate that. I don’t get in the way with my frequency. And working with Vinnie Colaiuta, shit! What do I need to do? Not much.

Would you say you’re a good bass player?

You know, I could hold a job down. I worked in an orchestra pit in a theatre. I backed cabaret, I backed comedians and strippers. I worked on a cruise ship. I played old-time dance music, I played Dixieland jazz, I played in a big band. Yeah, I’m a fucking good bass player, ha ha! I had a wider musical education experience than most rock stars, who just play AC/DC riffs or Led Zeppelin. I’m glad of that. I think that feeds into my process. I’m proud of all that work I did.

Which bass players did you admire when you were starting out?

One of the first bands I ever saw was Cream. I also saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience when I was 14, but then I saw Cream, and they kind of turned my head around, ha ha! It was a very formative experience to see those two bands. And then I was in the Police, so the trio thing was prevalent.

Do today’s kids have an equivalent band like Cream to look up to?

Don’t ask me, I don’t know. Ask kids… I was watching these amazing trios, and then on a Saturday night I’d go and play with guys who were literally in their eighties, playing piano, drums and old-time dance music, and you’d play standards for an hour non-stop. And the only clue you got about what key would be next was a gesture with the fingers for the accidentals. They’d do that a bar before the key change, and you’d go to a fourth below and find your key and think ‘I recognise this…’ So busking was hugely important for me. I’d hear something for the first time and then be able to play it.

Do you have a long-term plan?

Yeah. I want to get old as a musician and keep making my living as a musician, and be better. I can do rock music. I know how it works, but I’m also interested in the upper partials of a chord and the way harmony works. You can do both. It’s limitless. People say ‘It has to be rock’n’roll’ or ‘It has to be this genre’ but that kills music. Genre does not help music. It’s labelling.

Do you ever get sick of touring?

I’ve toured all my life. People say ‘How long’s the tour?’ and I say, ‘I started in 1974’, ha ha! What else am I gonna do? I’m used to it. You know, it’s pretty comfortable out there, in the best hotels, and the best mode of travel. You walk out in front of thousands of people and they’re all pleased to see you, and nobody asks for their money back. It’s fucking great!    

57th & 9th is out now on Polydor.
Info: www.sting.com.

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