A Q&A with Sting guitarist Dominic Miller; Sting brings the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra to Tampa next Saturday, July 3

Sting has never been the sort to let his music slip into a comfortable, predictable pattern. Born Gordon Matthew Sumner, his journey as a musician began in the jazz scene of northeast England, where he played bass with a string of ensembles — The Newcastle Big Band, The Phoenix Jazzmen, Earthrise, and Last Exit. He eventually joined forces with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland to form The Police. Although the jump from jazz to punk-inspired rock was a major shift in his style, it wouldn’t be the last time Sting switched gears and explored a musical tangent. Now, nearly 40 years into his career and at an age when some artists might be more inclined to relax and enjoy their success, Sting has opted to push the envelope once again. (All orchestra rehearsal photos copyright Clive Barda, courtesy Sting.)

Dubbed simply "An Evening with Sting," his latest endeavor brings several of his longtime band members together with the 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. The effect is surprisingly fresh, eclectic and exciting. The orchestra conductor, Maestro Steven Mercurio, has composed new arrangements of some of Sting’s most popular work and breathes new life into old, familiar songs like “Englishman in New York,” “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” Even “Next to You,” a punchy punk tune from The Police’s 1978 release, Outlandos d’Amour, and the reggae-infused hit “Roxanne” find places in the set list. The collaboration between Sting, Mercurio and the rest of the ensemble present the audience with more than simply the addition of an orchestra to Sting’s music. It’s a concert that speaks of reinvention and exploration, and delivers with some truly great music, as well as a few surprises.

In anticipation of the tour’s Saturday, July 3 stop at Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa, Sting’s guitarist and longtime collaborator Dominic Miller [pictured left, copyright Qrious] took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to speak with Creative Loafing about touring with Sting, working with an orchestra, and the challenges inherent with an undertaking of this magnitude.

I know that you’ve been performing for decades, but were there any butterflies or concerns about the magnitude of this tour?

Sure, there have been butterflies, but oh, eventually we treated it like it's just using another instrument, but our instrument just happens to have 45 people in it. (laughing) Really, there’s always butterflies. I think it’s a good thing to have.

Does touring with a 40-plus member ensemble offer any unique performance challenges?

Every night is a unique performing challenge ‘cause you’ve got to gel. It’s like being a football team; you’ve got to be on the same program. It’s a huge challenge, but we’re enjoying the challenge. The main difference for me is that I’m more restricted in the risk-taking that I can do. Usually I can take more risks with Sting, so I’m trying to find where I can take risks, ‘cause that’s what makes it interesting for me. There are spaces for maneuverability in the music.

So is there some room for spontaneity in each performance?

Yeah, there is. Not so much with the orchestra, but certainly with us, as kind of the band players.

Does the orchestra react to spontaneity well, or does it just confuse them?

Oh, yeah, they love it. (laughing) They really, really love it. They’re classical players; they don’t do much stuff like this, so I think they’re learning as much from us as we’re learning from them. It’s very healthy.

Other musicians have said that working with Sting is like going back to music school. Has this been your experience?

Yeah, and I’m one of the alumni. But yeah, it is kind of like that. It’s a long journey, it’s like I feel like I’ve been in music college for 20 years. But that’s because I’ve worked with so many incredible musicians, I’ve seen people come and go. I’m like a faculty member now. (laughing)

So, you’ve graduated from Sting Music University?

I’ve been here for 20 years now and I’ve seen a lot of people come and go; some great people who’ve gone on to do great things from here. I describe myself as sort of the old sofa in the band, you know? I’ve been here for a long time and I’m comfortable but not very modern, but still it works.

What was your first reaction to performing the music of the Police and Sting with an orchestra?

Well, as usual, I thought he was nuts. But the more I thought about it, I thought, actually, this is the right thing for him to do at this stage in his career. You know, he’s getting older, his audience is growing up with him, and I think they want him to take risks; do something different. ‘Cause they know full well that he can go with a four-piece or a six-piece and do the rock sound, but so what? I think they want to be challenged. I think his audience is a particular breed of people who want to be challenged musically. It's thinking-people's music, so really, it’s all very healthy.

In watching the tour promo EPK, songs like “Englishman in New York” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” seem to fit easily into the format. Where there any songs that just didn’t work with this type of performance?

Yeah, some work and some don’t. I think the trick when orchestrating any song, really, is not to try and make it sound like the original. But you’ve gotta think out of the box, so to speak, and some of them were more challenging because it really didn’t compliment the song. Just because you put strings on something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sound better. It’ll sound more dense, but I think the arrangers we chose, and they’re all very good arrangers like Vince Mendoza and Rob Mathes, they know what needs to be done. The ones like “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” that’s really an interesting arrangement.

Which song do you think turned out the best?

I think, gosh, I think “Why Should I Cry For You?” from the Soul Cages album sounds amazing. I never thought we’d do that. “I Burn For You” is one that I really, really like the arrangement 'cause it's challenging.

Without spoiling it, are there any surprises in store for the Tampa audience?

Oh yeah, we’re going to do some rare tunes. I’ll give you a taste, the Police song “Next to You” is a surprising inclusion because who would have thought we could do this with an orchestra? That’s why I admire the arranger, Rob Mathes, 'cause he thought, you know what, I’m going to do an arrangement of “Next to You” and we thought, you must be crazy. But sure enough he did it and it sounds great.

This tour is slated for 75 dates, running into November. Do you think you’ll survive?

(laughing) Well, I’ve been on tour for 20 years, pretty much...

Yeah, but you haven’t be dragging a 45-piece orchestra behind you for all that time.

Sure, it’s a big entourage. Yeah, it’s going to survive; actually, it’s just going to get better. We’re going to keep going until we run out of road.

It sounds like you’re having fun.

Yeah, we’re having great fun. It’s fun for all the musicians and it’s good for us. I’d like to think that I’d be a better musician at the end of this tour. Otherwise, why do it? I’m not just doing it for the money.

An Evening with Sting feat. the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Saturday, July 3, 8 p.m., 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre (formerly Ford Amphitheatre), Tampa, $27-$157. Click here to purchase tickets.

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