Stately homeboy Sting fuses a world of musical styles and discovers his true self.
Sting and I ride on horseback through the frigid morning mist. The lights of Lake House, Sting's idyllic Jacobean manor, have long ago faded into the swirling fog. To our left, a flock of swans float gracefully on the legendary river Avon. We gallop past the burial mounds of Bronze Age Celtic chieftains, up and down valley trails through some of the most stunning countryside in England.
Sting, not surprisingly, looks great on a horse. He keeps looking back to ask if I'm okay. I nod and smile. Actually, internal organs I never knew I had are being mashed into a pulp. "I want you to meet the neighbors. They're just up ahead," he says reassuringly. "Hang on." Suddenly we reach the top of a rise. Sting points into the swirling fog. "Down there. Do you see it?" A pensive look crosses his face.
"In ancient times," intones Sting in a thick, faux Cockney drawl, "'undreds of years before the dawn of 'istory, there lived a strange race of people. The Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doin'."
It's the Nigel Tufnel speech from This Is Spinal Tap. On cue, the mist parts and there it is, in all its primordial magnificence: Stonehenge. The real deal. Sting charges off down the valley singing, "Stonehenge, where the demons dwell/where the banshees live, and they do live well!"
On the ride back to Lake House-where he does live well-we sing themes from TV Westerns-"Rawhide," "Paladin," "Gunsmoke."
Clearly, Sting is a complex man. Melancholy yet hopeful, distant yet incredibly warm. He is also literary and pretty damn funny. With the Police he became one of the first alternative megastars, blending reggae, jazz voicings, punk/pop energy and bittersweet melodies that reflected the ambiguity of modern life. He's also been one of the few musicians of that era who made a successful transition to a solo career, initially with the jazz-tinged Blue Turtles band and more recently with his quartet of session ringers, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Dominic Miller on guitar and ex-Blue Turtle jazzmeister Kenny Kirkland on keyboards.
Mercury Falling contains some of Sting's most guitar-intensive solo work to date-an outgrowth of a daily practice regimen that may surprise some fans. Every morning after breakfast, the Lord of Lake House perches in a corner of the manor's main hall and spends at least an hour working on guitar transcriptions. Not of the latest Pantera tune, but of Bach's lute compositions. That may sound out of musical character, but Sting is, after all, a mercurial man.
Guitar World: There's an incredible diversity of styles on Mercury Falling-soul, country, rock and jazz-yet it all meshes.
Sting: I like perverting rock and roll into as many different colors and hybrids as I can. Not to show off, but because that's the way I experience music. I've always preferred mongrels to purebreds in music. In the Police we combined rock, reggae, punk, jazz and God knows what else. And I still aim to create something fresh and new with whatever musical forms seem appropriate. Probably because I grew up as a child of BBC radio here in England. You'd hear this incredible mix, Mozart followed by Hendrix or Coltrane, Scottish folk and African music. I hate the tendency to put music into separate ghettos, as if Celtic music is some separate system from Brazilian music.
Guitar World: The range and depth of emotions is incredibly broad, too. From loneliness to grief to joy and redemption. There's more healing than howling.
Sting: Well, songwriting used to be my therapy. The only way I could get in touch with my real emotions was through my songs. But doing yoga for the past six years, having a family, getting closer to nature living here and working with the Indians in the Amazon has opened a spiritual dimension I'd never really experienced before-and which I need to preserve my sanity. I used to think the idea that life starts at 40 was shit, but here I am at 44 opening to my inner nature really for the first time. So that's what you're hearing coming through on the album.
Guitar World: There's a strong element of R&B; on the album. Where did that come from? Soul music for the soul?
Sting: That's a good way of putting it. During this crisis, my long-term memory took me back to the point where I discovered rock and pop. It was during the boom in soul music-Aretha, Booker T., James Brown, Otis Redding. Puberty was raging, and I was discovering dancing, drinking and sex, so that music has real meaning for me. I even asked Dominic [Miller, guitarist] to quote the first doublestop from "Soul Man" on "You Still Touch Me," and then he continues in that Steve Cropper style. But I wasn't interested in just copying brilliant records-what's the point? You can't better Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye. But you can put an ironic twist on it, pervert it a bit and combine it with other elements to make it your own.
Guitar World: "I'm So Happy I Feel Like Crying" is such a moving song, the turning point of the album. This guy's wife takes the kids and leaves him, and yet he's reborn in the middle of despair. Many musicians can't get past their own bitterness, at least not in their twenties.
Sting: Exactly. He's singing the song cynically at first, then while gazing up at the stars he has this revelation about all life being connected, that he's supported by the universe. He continues to sing the song, but now he means it. His pain is gone. As a young man I was quite angry and bitter. I felt shut out of the world. So I can relate to younger bands making angry music with a lot of attitude, but my music has finally gone past that to the next stage. Not acceptance, but beginning to understand the cycles of life rather than getting caught in that loop of anger-of hurt, revenge, hurt, revenge.
Guitar World: Do you relate to younger bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam that built on that same king of psychological searching and discovery you pioneered in alternative music?
Sting: Definitely. I like both of those bands a lot. The Nirvana thing is a tragedy, hard to even talk about. But what impressed me about Kurt's songwriting was that although it gave the impression of being just thrown together, it was actually very well-crafted, powerful rock music. It had a unique blend of rawness and sophistication. My oldest son, Joe, turned me on to them originally.
Guitar World: Did you know that Pearl Jam sometimes drop material from your Soul Cages album into their songs?
Sting: No. That's very flattering. I heard they're working with the same yoga teacher who taught me. I'm sure they could use the help, if they're anything like we were at that age. I met Jeff Ament, their bassist. He shook my hand and said something like "WHY? Why did the Police break up?"
Guitar World: What did you tell him?
Sting: The truth: Ego-mine and theirs. A conflict of roles, to some extent. I was the songwriter, and they wanted to play that role too. They didn't have the experience anymore than I could have played lead guitar. It's funny, we played "Message in a Bottle" at my wedding a few years back. Stewart rushed the beat as usual, and I snapped around and gave him this quick snarl, which he returned, and Andy grumbled. Suddenly, we all just started to laugh. It was us falling into our old unconscious roles, and we all saw it.
Guitar World: "Hung My Head" is the darkest song on the new album-the protagonist accidentally shoots someone on a horse and then gets judged and condemned. And why is it in this awkward 9/8 tempo?
Sting: I wrote that riff and now I forget how to play it! [laughs] I just give them to Dominic to play or develop, sort of like the Police. I'm still not sure what the fuck it's about, but the key is when he admits to the judge that he was fooling around with the gun because he felt "the power of death over life." What I'm saying is, there are no accidents with guns. You pick up a gun to feel that power of death over life-that's why you're guilty.
Guitar World: An interesting feature of English television is that there is lots of sex but barely any violence. The exact reverse of American television.
Sting: Well, I think violence is the real pornography, that's what I'm getting at. Sucking dick or licking pussy isn't pornographic to me. It's rarely shot very well-you get the feeling the people making those films don't really like sex. I do like it, and yes, yoga does increase your endurance. Next question!
Guitar World: You play Bach lute transcriptions every morning, but you never finish one...
Sting: Because learning the pieces by rote isn't the point. John Williams or Julian Bream will always play it better. I practice them in order to see how music works and to learn. It's like climbing into the mind of a musical genius. God, he's set up this musical puzzle in this bar, and look how incredibly he resolves it two bars later. As a songwriter, you don't have to be a great guitarist. In fact, it may help that you're not. That's probably why I write songs in the first place. Dominic, or Andy Summers, or John McLaughlin are great guitarists. But they don't write pop songs.
Guitar World: As a guitarist, you have a fondness for stacking fifths. Starting with "Message in a Bottle" through "Every Breath You Take" and "Invisible Sun," up to and including "Hung My Head," you either stack three fifths or use an Aadd9 chord. Is that a holdover from your jazz days?
Sting: Only partly. I like breaking musical rules, and you're not supposed to stack fifths. It's a very modal sound, neither major nor minor, so you have a more ambivalent emotional feel to work with, suggesting different levels to a song. The Aadd9 chord is related to all that. If you play an E, a fifth above that is a B, and then a fifth above that is a ninth from the original E. So it's essentially two different forms of the same thing.
When I played guitar with the Blue Turtles band, I'd play "Every Breath" with this first position A9th chord [plays A chord at second fret with pinky on fourth fret of the G string]. All the notes are there. I also built "De Do Do Do..." around that chord.
Guitar World: When I first interviewed you, over a dozen years ago, you were into that "I must suffer to create" mindset that so much of alternative rock is still stuck in.
Sting: I've come out of that crap about how you have to suffer to have something to write about. I've found I can write from joy, and from resolution as well. Music is its own therapy.
The more you play and study, the more you see the beauty and balance of it. Of course, music has a real healing quality and that's why, instinctively, we listen to it and play it in the first place. It doesn't have to be angry. It doesn't have to be only yelling and screaming and reflecting our misery back at us. If you want to get to the next level, you have to be able to hear music and composers that are exploring the outer reaches of the human mind and spirit. Listen to Bach or Samuel Barber. A lot of rock music is about youth and anger, and that's appropriate. But I don't want to be 44 and pretending to be 20. There aren't just four chords, you know. There are five!