06.01.1983 - Musician
My left eye describes a tiny upward curve - vision enters and with a spectacularly feeble punch I extinguish the Donald Duck alarm. A faint sliver of memory pierces my befogged brain and it slowly comes back - December, Montserrat 1982. Police Album Number Five.
I examine my arms for mosquito bites - good. Last night's spraying with Off seems to have worked. The vicious Dracula mosquitoes of Montserrat have been repelled at last - may they die in their coffins.
I consider my placement in the bed - curved into a corner. A vast expanse of white seems to radiate out from my body, a sleeper unconsciously structuring his bed space: the effect is quite musical. I realise that I am going off the deep end, while growing into a confirmed minimalist - how to say the most with the least: less is more - it always was a favourite Police studio motto. But what about the virtues of chaos, the pillars of density, and what does any of this have to do with rock'n'roll and mass acceptance in the marketplace? I swing one leg over the bed and hit the shower. I emerge from the bathroom with a radiant mind and a wholesome body. I look outside-the day is simply aching with good vibes. I feel like Zeus. I bash around in the kitchen for a few minutes in an attempt to orchestrate a cup of coffee-the usual early morning conspiracy of inanimate objects defeats me and I decide to go snorkelling.
Moments later I am poised on the edge of a fat rock - resplendent in snorkel and fish god persona. I survey the dark and mysterious sea slopping over my left flipper. My mother's voice echoes faintly from the corridors of childhood - "Don't get out of your depth dear." My body describes a glorious arc - my teeth flash in the sunlight and I disappear beneath the surface of the glistening Caribbean.
The surface recedes darkly behind me. Aquatic flora and fauna grow large in my mask and I start reviewing the events on the new album so far, and my involvement in it. Sting, as always, has come in with a bunch of simply deluxe songs. I have my usual weirdo stuff and then some, and Stewart, who in the last few months has mastered the Appalachian banjo, has come up with some songs that are pure "Copelandia" The trick this year, as it has been every other year, is somehow to weave our various disparate musical attitudes, tastes and emotions into some sort of coherent fabric that a) the group will buy and, b) the public will buy, hopefully. So, how goes it?
We seem to have passed the early ritual grunting and are now about halfway around the track (no pun intended). Unusually for us, this year we have taken the time (six weeks instead of four) to actually rehearse the songs. This is giving us the chance to record the songs in more than one version and to get more familiar with the material than is our usual bent. The one point we all agree on is that to succeed, music must be invested with a cliff-hanging quality - living and dying at the same time. It is imperative, now more than ever, that we push the edge in our music, keep the risk content high and avoid caricaturing our earlier work.
I swim on. There is a flounder to my right. When we are in the studio the atmosphere is often one of children locked in a small house with big shiny machines and a handful of explosives - inevitably overtones of a perverse nature creep into the proceedings. Ironically enough, this tends to add to, rather than detract from the dynamics of the playing situation. As a group, we seem to swing between high emotional intensity and sophomore fraternity with frightening ease. The result, at its worst, is that when "it" happens, we can play together with an empathy that is hard to imagine achieving with other people. At its worst, we can beat a song into an early grave. Generally speaking, making albums is a brutal affair - there is a huge amount of pain involved - personal dignity is slashed and all one's cherished licks go out the window. But out of the pain comes growth, and in the end that's what it's all about. This is foolish - I am getting heavy whilst still underwater. I must reach the surface before I drown.
I plop into the sunlight like a dying fish and grab a lungful of air through my soggy snorkel. The glaring tropic sun beats down on my puny musician's chest and I offer a prayer of thanks to the Almighty.
It is inevitable that in looking back over one's work with the or a group that one would sometimes tend to see each album in terms of "what bits I did," rather than the work as a whole. Okay! So what bits did I do so far? Well, this year my favourite bit to date is the final emergence on tape of the "wobbling cloud," something I've been doing live for a while but didn't really have recorded. The basic technique consists of playing through an echoplex with echo volume set to about three-quarter maximum and a volume pedal with a compressor; the movement of the chord position between swells and the choice of harmonies are crucial. Wearing a long-sleeved shirt is also helpful as the right arm can pivot as a long-handled brush on the strings above the twelfth fret - sea island cotton produces a pleasing tone. The effect is that of a shuddering, trembling cloud of sound which teeters on the brink of collapse at every second. The "cloud" may be heard on a very beautiful song at Sting wrote for the new album called 'Tea In The Sahara', which he distilled from a wonderful novel by Paul Bowles called 'The Sheltering Sky'.
Once this album hits the marketplace, the questions will inevitably be raised as to whether or not we have changed our style. Some people will say that the new album is vastly different from anything we have done before. Others will insist that we are repeating ourselves. I can only say that for me, making music always seems to be a matter of walking out into the dark and finding your way by instinct - it's not really a verbal process. If it were, what would be the point of flogging yourself to death over an instrument for years on end ? Stylistic change is governed by the voice that sneaks through the music, the instruments and the songs. After a new album has been finished and the interviewers (God bless 'em) form a line a mile long, well of course it becomes necessary to put together some sort of verbal justification for shifting another million units.
The truth is that the studio is a jungle where all decisions bow to the power of the moment. And it is these moments. above all, that one strives and yearns for - the split seconds of something higher that makes all the stress, hype and absurdity worthwhile. True style is not forced, it unfolds. To repeat - there is no progress in art. Our fifth album is our first album.
I roll over and look out to sea - the weather is uncertain - the future of the group is uncertain - and I am out of my depth. I grip the ocean firmly between my teeth and with a powerful thrust of my flippers, head toward dry land and another day in the studio.
My Brilliant Career
Until I sang 'Mother' on the new album, my last vocal effort with the Police was on a song I wrote in 1973 called 'Be My Girl'. It was about a rubber inflatable doll. In the early days of the Police, we were short on material, so 'Be My Girl' was definitely on the song list, sometimes twice a night. I tended to become more self conscious about doing it for larger and larger audiences. Then one night, in the middle of a performance, I was suddenly clouted over the head by something, only to turn around and find that unbeknownst to me, the roadies had brought this huge rubber doll up onstage. I used it as a piece of business for the rest of my vocal performance, but that was when I retired from singing with the group.
We've changed a bit on the new album. I think a lot of the songs dictated the way they had to be played, as they always should. Some of the tunes have an almost classic feel, songs like 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', 'Every Breath You Take', even 'Synchronicity'. They're in a sort of genre, like classic 50s-type songs. 'Every Breath You Take': there's the I-VI-IV-V chord progression, the classic off-beat snare drum sound and echo. It really seemed to go best with the vocal and to create the kind of updated 50s atmosphere we were really looking for, a futuristic 50s sound. It's a very emotional song and it didn't really need anything to distract it from the vocal. It needed only very simple dressing.
Sting brought the song into the studio with a synthesiser riff. I thought it was very attractive, but Sting wanted me to make it my own and go out and see what I could come up with to replace it. So I tried to find a riff that would outline the simple chords with a slight difference with what is almost a classic Police chord, a major chord with an added ninth-you know, an A major with a B added, an F# minor with a G# added, etc. Actually, I came up with the riff in my kitchen when we were working up stuff for the album I made with Robert Fripp ('I Advance Masked'). It was influenced by a Bartok piece. I just slowed it down a little and it worked beautifully.
The Wild, the Innocent and the Six Minute Shuffle
On 'Synchronicity', we had a middle section in the song which was to be an instrumental bridge. I already had a riff, a repeat of the introduction riff, but I felt the material should go someplace farther than that and we weren't sure what to do. So I went into the studio; I had on my striped costume and plugged into a 100 watt Marshall with everything at full volume, very loud, very screeching feedback.
There I was. I had my sound, I was really rarin' to go. I was just waiting for the tape to start and Hugh (Padgham) the engineer indicated for me to go ahead. Sometimes, when we record feedback stuff, I'll start playing and nod at him and he'll roll the track and drop me in wherever.
This time I wasn't hearing the track in the head phones but I thought it was being recorded anyway. I could see we had the tape going, so I stood there for five to six minutes with this throbbing monster, and I'm screeching, doing all kinds of feedback variations. Finally, I just assumed the track was over - Christ, it was only two or three minutes long - and put down my guitar and went into the control room. Everyone was standing there with their eyes just bulging. 'they had recorded me all through but hadn't put the track with it so all we got was this incredible six minutes of convolutions. We wound up using it for the middle of Synchronicity II.
The riff from my song 'Mother' on the new album was originally in 4/4 time; it was another little thing I did in my kitchen, based on three different Arabic scales. But it certainly was rather compelling. Then I played around with it a bit and took it into 7/4 and then it really seemed to work.
At the time of writing this, I haven't prepared a story for my own dear mother, who I'm sure is going to be quite shocked and hurt when she finally gets to hear the song. But of course she'll misinterpret it anyway, because it's not...this is a song for all men everywhere, not my poor old dear mom.
The Ghost vs. the Machine
I used to have a whole studio at home, a 16-track recorder and desk, a remote, everything. But what I found was that with the lifestyle and limited amount of time I have, I didn't want to take that much time for the process of creating music. I've found that I actually get the most done with a two-step process. First I'll sit down in my kitchen, which has wonderful acoustics, and play my acoustic guitar into a small cassette recorder in a sort of stream of consciousness flow. I note all these ideas down in a book and give them all numbers. The the best ideas I'll pull out and work on on my TASCAM 244 Portastudio using drum machines, electric guitar, synthesiser and bass. All I want to think about is the music and not the recording itself, which is why I sold all the 16-track stuff. I learned the hard way - it cost me a lot of money.
I think Stewart is more geared towards twiddling knobs and spending time like that. Sting is exactly like me. He doesn't like to use a big formal system. We both just work out on Portastudios and then go to a studio to make better demos, where the engineer can spend all the time. I find it a clearer and easier way to think.
The Mouth That Snored
Last year, we would work 12-hour days in the studio, and most of the creative stuff occurred after dinner, when we'd be loose after playing all day. The roadies - we call them the three wise men - would generally fall asleep on the couch in front of the desk. When people would fall asleep, then they would be taken to the party, as we called it. In other words, you'd pile all kinds of things on top of them - cigarette packs, candy wrappers, beer bottles, anything - and then take their photograph or wait till they work up just covered with all kinds of garbage they would have to scrape off. This year, we started taping people down, like mummies, so they couldn't get up.
This one guy, Tam, has an incredible snore, and one night he nodded out and began to snore. We finally were just sitting there all snickering and giggling at this incredibly loud snore. Then we all got the same idea at once: we set up a mike right over his nose and put it into a flanger and a huge, deep echo and recorded it, putting it up terrifically loud. It was so loud, ear-shatteringly loud, that it finally woke him up.
Later we slowed it down on tape, and got a really beautiful sound, just like the Loch Ness monster. I'm sure it can be put to good use somewhere. Afterwards, anybody who would attempt an overdub would eventually come to the end of playing or singing their part and say, "Well, how was that?" And there would be complete silence in the control room, and the sound of loud snoring would fill the studio.
For a while now, we've been hoping to record a complete album of 50s songs, all the classics: 'Summertime Blues,' 'Peggy Sue,' 'High Heeled Sneakers,' Elvis stuff... You know what you get in your teenage years, you just go on in a sense repeating for the rest of your life. It's really at the soundchecks that we get to play almost everything we know. Sting likes to do 'Respect' a lot. We just play anything rockabilly, Jimmy Smith stuff, R&B, jazz... We get into James Blood Ulmer, a lot of funk... and we'll also play some very far-out stuff as well sometimes. The soundchecks are fantastic - we really blow people away. When you're on a long tour and are playing the same tunes night after night, the soundcheck becomes very fresh. It's an important time in the day to try things out. Often nothing is ever said we just get down and play, but we know what we're doing and things occur. And this is where the band is growing, hopefully.
The Wobbling Cloud
Onstage I've been using the same set-up for about the last three years, which is two reworked, souped-up Marshall 100-watt tops, two 4 x 12 cabinets. (I'm not sure what the speakers are because my faithful roadie changes them all the time). I use them at about half-volume, with not a lot of presence. I also record occasionally with a Bolt amp. I also have a Peter Cornish custom-made pedalboard which contains an MXR Phase 90, an MXR analog delay, a Mutron III envelope follower, a fuzz, an Electro-Harmonix flanger and a Dyna-Comp compressor. I carry two echoplexes on tour, both of which are about fifteen years old. I combine the analog delay and the echoplex to get some double rhythm effects. The board has a master effects on and off button, so you can pre-program effects together without having any effects on, then just hit one button and have them all come on together.
I use a '63 sunburst Telecaster Custom which has a Gibson pickup on it, and an overdrive pot installed in it, and I use a '61 Strat, a Hamer, and the Roland guitar synthesiser. I have the GR-303 guitar synthesiser, which I like better than the 808 guitar. I recently got a Gibson Chet Atkins electric classical guitar and used it on the new album. On 'Ghost In The Machine' I used a Gibson 335, a Les Paul and Strat most of the time. The 335 has a slightly warmer sound. On some pieces I started to get a good sound with a compressor.
I'm gradually using heavier and heavier gauge strings all the time, probably because I spend a lot of time practising on acoustic guitar, and electric guitar is just too light for me. I've gone over to using Dean Markley strings at the moment. The sizes are .010, 013, 017, 026, 036, and 048.
I think most of the three of us always want to keep it at the barest, the bare bones. I like the three-piece sound. I think that's the classic Police sound. But I'm aware at the same time that it must grow and that one can't drag one's feet in the mud. Things have to move on. It's sometimes necessary to force change.