Sting′s ′musical hard drive′: Guitarist Dominic Miller on his new album | Music | DW | 01.03.2019
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Sting's 'musical hard drive': Guitarist Dominic Miller on his new album

Mention the name Dominic Miller and guitarists will prick up their ears. His new album is called Absinthe. DW caught up with him to discuss intoxicated painters, bandoneon and Brexit — and his day job with Sting.

DW: Why the title Absinthe?

Dominic Miller: For me it's about being out of it. Because absinthe means absentia which means not there. And over the last few years I've really been into French paintings and thinking about this history of the early 19th century and how Lautrec and Van Gogh and a lot of these guys were tripping on absinthe but still coming up with amazing work. And because they were such highly skilled artists they could come up with these really outrageous trippy concepts with color.

Read more'I like the idea of a harmonic protest,' says Sting guitarist Dominic Miller

And absinthe is the common denominator with what I'm trying to say with this album. To have exactly the same thing, almost like a collection of paintings with those kind of brush strokes, with different colors. That's why I use a different timbre of instruments: A synth, a bandoneon [a type of concertina particularly popular in Argentina], a guitar, or Manu Katche who's not your conventional drummer by any stretch — and he's very much a painter on the drums, especially the way he plays the cymbals.

Compared to your last album, Silent Light, which was quite sparse and left a lot of space, the new record comes across as a full-on band effort. Was that a conscious decision ahead of going into the studio or did it develop as you wrote the songs?

It was a conscious decision. The first thing that came to me was the title. And I thought okay this is not going to be simple. If I want to go with this concept I can't just do it with one guitar. I need to have some sound. I want some colors and some big bold brush strokes. So I slowly came up with a line up that would be sympathetic to to that cause: Manu Katche on drums, Nicolas Fiszman on bass, Mike Lindup on keyboards who I've all worked with for years and who would all get the idea. But the sonic spearhead for me is Santiago Arias on the bandoneon which is quite a powerful sound.

Guitarist Dominic Miller in Berlin (picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/C. Behring)

"I want some colors and some big bold brush strokes"

So, yes, it is a departure from the last album. I don't want to repeat the last album. I know I can do that. Why do it again? That would show that I'm not being very courageous. I think especially with the ECM label they don't like it when you do the same thing. So I had to do something that was 180 degrees from the last one. But having said that there are a lot of moments on this album when people aren't playing. I still managed to get them to not play. The mics were open and I said if you hear something play, if you don't, don't. Just leave it. You don't have to. 

The bandoneon gives the tracks a very haunting quality. Did that influence the way you approached the songs? Did you know in the back of your mind exactly how it would fit in?

I knew that I wanted that sound. I didn't know how it was going to work but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a gamble, but I definitely knew that I wanted something that would contrast with what I'm doing to immediately put me in this uncomfortable position. So it's bold. I just wanted to do what my French Impressionist heroes would do which is take bold steps.

Read more'I wanted a European feel'

There's one track, "Ombu," which really branches out, the middle section feels very improvised.

Yes, very much so and a lot of that had to do with our producer Manfred Eichler taking us out of our comfort zones. I would show him the idea I had for every song and then he would pretty much take it apart. He would say you've got to take it more out there. So he pushed me to push the musicians out of their comfort zones.

Sting concert in France (Imago/PanoramiC)

Dominic Miller (left) playing with Sting at the reopening of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris

After you tour this album you're back to your day job, as guitarist with Sting. Is that still pretty much a natural transition for you?

It is. I can step from one character to another very easily. It's actually very comfortable because as you can probably imagine the logistics are completely different to mine and it's not my responsibility anymore. My responsibility is only very specific when I'm in his band to make this part of it sound good. And I help the other guys with the arrangements — even Sting sometimes.

You're telling him what to do?

Yeah, he likes it because I know his music pretty well — better than he does sometimes. Why should he remember everything? I'm like his hard drive. So I can remember the keys and the harmonic shifts of almost every song we've ever done.

What are your views on Brexit and how it could impact upcoming bands and artists especially who rely on touring through the EU to make ends meet?

Well, I'm already feeling it because there are some airports that are already testing the passport system with two queues. And [just imagine] if they bring back customs and the carnet system [Before the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, touring musicians were required to carry a "carnet" — a document listing their every piece of equipment, which would be closely checked at each border — and visas were required to enter most European territories]. If I'm going to have to get visas for everywhere I'm playing in Europe, I'm not doing it. I'm not going to go through with that. But having said that I don't think that's going to happen. I'm sure there'll be some sort of amnesty for artists and musicians, some sort of European visa.

Read moreBrexit: The day the music died

I don't really know how this is going to play out. All I know is that we don't want to be part of Europe. But Europe is great. We've lost that identity. What the British people don't understand is that if you want to have all those things you like, your fridges, your cars your  toaster, your telly, it's going to cost you twice as much because we can't afford to ship in the parts. So that fridge is going to go up by 30 percent and you can't afford it.

Absinthe is out now on ECM Records.

Selected tour dates in Germany:

March 10 and 11: Berlin - A-Trane

March 17: Mainz - Frankfurter Hof

May 25: Munich - Bayerischer Hof