A conversation with Sting and Paul Simon at the launch of their On Stage Together tour
Their tour is called On Stage Together, but right now Sting and Paul Simon are side by side backstage at Houston's Toyota Center after a long opening night sound check, exuding both confidence and a sense of "what-have-we-wrought?" excitement.
The trek will take the duo to 21 North American cities through March 16 and is far more than a mere you play/I pay co-billing; in Houston the two played 10 of the seamless two-hour and 45-minute show's 30 songs together, while their 14 combined band members floated in and out of Simon and Sting's individual sets.
The combination was borne from a friendship hatched when the two lived in the same Manhattan apartment building and mooted when they played together at the annual Robin Hood Foundation benefit last May; now it's a full-fledged mutual admiration society and musical partnership that may even result in new music from the pair.
"We have mooted the idea of writing something (together)," Sting said.
Simon added, "that would be fun if we had the chance to do that. The collaborative process, if it's going to work it really takes a lot of thinking -- for me, anyway -- and effort to find the commonality that you're going to inhabit, and then you find out what your collaboration produces. It's two different DNAs coming together. So if we have time… We'll see by the end of this (tour), really."
So you lived in the same building in New York for quite a while and you never thought about going on tour together?
Simon: No, we didn't. We played music for each other.
Sting: Yeah, Paul would play me his album, I'd play him what I was doing.
Simon: I didn't go on tour with other people too much. I went on tour with Bob Dylan once, and Brian Wilson, too. But otherwise it wasn't a thing that I did.
Sting: But Paul and I share a lot of musical curiosity about a spectrum of music that's pretty wide, and as vehicles for songwriting. So we have lot in common.
What made this tour happen, then?
Sting: We were booked to play the Robin Hood event. We were booked separately and then we said, "Let's do it together." So we did "The Boxer" and "Fields of Gold," and there was an audible gasp in the room when we walked on together, and when we started singing we obeyed the basic rules of harmony, and it was great.
You guys aren't kidding when you call this tour On Stage Together. Did you envision doing this much collaborating from the get-go?
Simon: We said from the beginning that we really had to do at least eight songs together, a significant amount of songs together. And then we started out with the usual thing of "We'll open and then we'll do a set and then we'll do a thing and there'll be another set and then we'll close." Then it evolved into, "No, let's not break it that way. Let's do a few things together and then do, like, 25 minutes and then a little thing (together) and then somebody does 25 minutes and then we do another thing (together)…" It keeps sort of changing in 25- to 30-minute intervals with duets in-between and the band members melding with each other during the set. And I think that will continue to happen throughout the whole tour. By the time we end up it will be a much more integrated unit than we are now – and we're pretty integrated now.
Sting: It's fascinating to watch. They're all great musicians and enjoy sparking off each other. It's evolving. We're going to learn a lot tonight and tomorrow will be a little more. It's an adventure.
What have been the surprises and realizations as you've put the show together?
Sting: We didn't have any fights!
Simon: I didn't think we were going to have any fights. It's pretty much what I thought it would be. I thought it would be a challenge and I thought that we would enjoy the challenge, and the only thing that I didn't know was whether the band members would feel the same kind of excitement, and they do. We had a week's rehearsal with our bands separately and then we had a week's rehearsal together. We still keep moving things around. It's definitely a work in progress.
Do you figure it'll remain that way throughout the tour?
Sting: We sound check every day, so…
Simon: I think so. I think that's exactly what's going to happen.
How did you go about choosing the duets?
Simon: Well, the two songs we sang when we did the charity event, "Fields of Gold" and "The Boxer," they worked out so we started with those two. I love (Sting's) "Fragile," so this is a chance for me to sing a song that I really…I'll probably sing that song now, probably stick it in my set. So that was great. Then it became, like, what's the rhythm tunes we're gonna do? Sting wanted to do "Boy in the Bubble"…
Sting: I love "Boy in the Bubble."
Simon: And I thought we should investigate reggae because we both sort of went there for awhile. So we chose that, and then I didn't think I was gonna get a chance to sing "Every Breath"; I figured he'd just keep that in his set. But that's fabulous, you know, so that became another. And "Late in the Evening." But those are the tough ones, in a way. The rhythm tunes presented more of a problem mostly because you don't usually hear two voices in rhythm tunes; they're about grooves and stuff and idiosyncratic phrasing, and it's easier to get a blend when it's a ballad and it's simple and empty. The rhythm tunes… just weren't written for two voices, so you've got to find a way. Of course you can swap verses and stuff, but…
Sting: Yeah, trade lines or something. The Simon & Garfunkel songbook was made for two voices, so that's a shoo-in. I'm doing "America" because I've always loved that song.
Being the younger half of this touring equation, what did Simon & Garfunkel and Paul's music mean to you as a developing musician?
Sting: It was huge. I was at school and I bought "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and I was fascinated by Paul's writing because he was a literate and literary songwriter. I thought, "That's what I'd like to be, what I'd like to graduate to." I'd play in folk clubs and I'd sing "I wish I was Richard Corey," you know? And so I knew that material extremely well. I never, ever expected that one day I would know the man and be on the same stage with him and tour with him. That's beyond the bounds of fantasy. But, you know, he's been one of my teachers for along time, and still is. I'm still learning from him.
And Paul, at what juncture did you become aware of Sting?
Simon: Right away, I guess as soon as America became aware of the Police. I thought the band was great. I thought Sting was great. I didn't realize he wrote all the songs, and when he left I was interested to see because being part of a hit band or group and then you leave and go out and have a solo career (smiles), I wanted to watch it. He's a trained musician. He likes all kinds of music. He used to play Bach pieces when I'd come over; he'd say, "Listen to what I'm working on, this Bach piece," which would make me hang my head in shame and go back to my apartment. You know, just the idea that you would try to pick up a lute and play it…
Sting: Madness! (laughs)
Simon: What an instrument. God… I'm still struggling with a six-string acoustic (guitar). So I think there's a similarity between us. There was an interest in other cultures, and there's a bunch of musicians we know – Peter Gabriel is like that, and David Byrne -- and the musicians that we've played with also come from different genres. (Sting) played with a lot of great jazz musicians, and I played with drummers who were trained in India and northern Africa and Zydeco guys, and of course the African guys (from "Graceland"). So even though we're a generation or half a generation apart in age, we're sort of the same aesthetic.
Do you feel like you share an audience, too?
Sting: We'll see. By doing these songs in this kind of cycle we are re-contextualizing them. So for Paul's audience that will see me for the first time and some of my audience that will see him, they'll compare and contrast the song choices and it will make them new again. I think the audience will enjoy this kind of to and fro. It's intriguing.
Musical theater is another common ground, Paul with "The Capeman" and Sting with (the upcoming) "The Last Ship." What kind of conversations have you had about that?
Simon: I saw Sting's performance, kind of minimal performance at the (New York) Public Theater of "The Last Ship." It really makes you feel like something important is coming, something really good. And all I said – and it wasn't a big conversation – is, 'This is my experience of where I was, what I didn't pay attention to that I missed that I shouldn't have missed." I said, "You really have to have a very strong book and know where that's going," 'cause I know that he knows how to put a band together and I know that the sound is going to be great and the songs are good. It's just a matter of the storytelling and how well you do the storytelling. But his collaborators are really gifted, and also I think it's a time when Broadway is very open – more than open, welcoming – towards people from popular music and rock to come in.
Sting: Did you feel that wasn't true?
Simon: It was not true, no. very much not. It was very much, like, "Who do you think you are, coming over here?" and that's changed, which is great.
Sting: I was with Paul during "The Capeman." I was there the first night and lived in the same building. I was under no illusions about how hard it is to create a successful musical, but I thought the music for "The Capeman" was great.
Simon: And I feel the same way about his music. And what's really similar is we both said, "OK, we're going to go into this other idiom, the theater. Let's take the music from our childhood that we grew up with. We know how to do it. We like to do it. We like to play it. We like to re-write it." For me it was the doo-wop and, to a lesser degree, Latin, for (Sting) it's the instruments that you heard and the music that you heard. So basically we're writing about our childhoods (in) both plays, even though they're totally different subject matter.
Do you foresee doing more touring together in the future?
Simon: Well, (Sting) has such a big year coming. He's go to go right to work; ("The Last Ship") is going to open in June in Chicago, so first he has to finish the show and all that. But, y'know, if we're alive and still singing and we want to do it again, we can.