As bass player with the Police, Sting helped revive the old idea (as old as Cream, anyway) of the singer/ bassist as bandleader. When he launched his solo career, though, Sting switched to guitar. He strummed through his first two post-Police albums, Dream of the Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun, and the tours that went with them. Only on his Soul Cages tour last year did Sting return to the bass. We talked to him about the joys and frustrations of his chosen instrument.
"In a way I took a holiday for five years," Sting said. "Playing bass and singing is quite difficult. Strumming along to a song on a guitar while you sing is all the same thing. Often basslines are opposed to the rhythm of the singing. It's contrapuntal, quite difficult, so I just took a holiday, got a couple of really great bass players, sang my songs and strummed along. I enjoyed that holiday. But my instrument is the bass. I feel affinity with the bass and I feel I have a contribution to make, so I'm playing bass again.
"I mean, I played the bass on the albums. I didn't give it up entirely. In a way, taking the time off from playing onstage refreshed my imagination on bass.
"It's much easier to control the dynamic of the band with the bass than with any of the other instruments. Also, when David (Sancious, the keyboard player) plays a C chord, it's not a C chord until the bass player has put his note in. I can change the chord at will. Therefore I can change the harmonic structure of the song, the dynamic structure of the song, and having the low end with the bass and the high end with my voice, I feel I can really drive this thing without seeming to drive it or being dictatorial. So it's ideal for a bandleader, especially in a small group which is trying to have the flexibility of a jazz group without playing jazz."
Although Sting says his basic philosophy of bass playing comes from "Stax and Motown, I love eight heats to the bar," he is nothing if not ambitious. "In a way," he said, "if you're serious about music you become more and more adrift. Musicians are trained to use a part of the brain that most listeners don't. Most listeners to popular music can cope with thirds, fifths, sevenths, simple intervals. Once you get into sixths or thirteenths... In my case, what I love now is atonal music, I love that bitter sense it gives me. I really find it exciting, it draws the tension out of me. So I suppose my music will eventually veer towards something that will not he to the popular taste. Even though I'd like it to be. In a sense my job is to be a populist, to try to popularize more difficult ideas than you would expect on the radio."
To add to his musical palette, Sting has been studying cello. "It's funny," he explained, "the cello has the same scales as a Fender bass, but tuned in fifths. So it gives you ideas; you play a blues scale and fall into different stuff."
Asked which of his songs were built from bass riffs, Sting said, "'Walking on the Moon' was a bass riff. A lot of the Police songs were. A lot of the Soul Cages stuff were bass riffs 'cause we did it as a band. The previous two albums were written on keyboards, so there were fewer bass motifs.
"The genesis of 'Be Still My Beating Heart' was Trudy, actually," Sting said, referring to his wife. "The title is one of Trudy's phrases, but the bassline was mine. Trudy has yet to receive any royalties."
Asked if he sings differently when he plays the bass than when he plays guitar, Sting said, "No. I probably play the bass differently when I sing; you play more simply when you sing. But if you slow it down you can sing and play anything, you can play a symphony on the bass and sing 'Roxanne' if you slow it way down and practice."
STING plays a '62 Fender Jazz Bass, an Ibanez fretless and a Fender Precision. He uses Carver amps, RotoSound strings and Beyer microphones.