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Expert Testimony

Given by Sting's longtime guitarist, Dominic Miller, to Mark Small

Thoughts from a globetrotting sideman

 
  Dominic Miller
(Visit www.dominicmiller.com)
  Photo by Mark Small

Although guitarist Dominic Miller was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he speaks with a pronounced British accent, a result of his many years living in England. He began playing guitar at about 11 and participated in a Berklee summer program when he was 16. Miller says the level of commitment he saw among his fellow Berklee musicians was an eye-opener and provided a life-changing realization that profoundly affected his work ethic as a musician.

After studies at London's Guildhall School of Music &Drama, Miller began playing in London bands and seeking session work. Percussionist Miles Bould persuaded him to play a free session in which producer Hugh Padgham heard his playing. Padgham began calling Miller for sessions, which led to the opportunity for Miller's guitar work to become an integral component of the massive worldwide hit song "Another Day in Paradise" by Phil Collins.

In the intervening years, Miller has been featured on more than 200 albums, including eight of his own and seven by Sting. Since 1990, Miller has been a member of Sting's band, backing him in more than 1,000 concerts across the globe, and has even cowritten songs with the British superstar. In July when Sting's Symphonicity tour with the London Philharmonic Concert Orchestra passed through Boston, Miller offered his observations on what it takes to attain longevity as a sideman and touring musician.

What did Hugh Padgham hear in your playing in 1989 that prompted him to start calling you for sessions?

He was attracted to the idea that I could go between nylon-string, acoustic, and electric guitars seamlessly. But it was more about an understanding of the big picture and understanding the project. There is a triangle in session work between you, the artist, and the producer. You have to understand the dynamics amongst the three and understand your role. Who are you listening to: the artist or the producer? Hugh and I hit it off really well, and he later invited me to play on the album Porcelain by singer Julia Fordham. When he was producing the Phil Collins album ...But Seriously, he asked me to play on it. That was my big moment, because everything opened up after that.

How did you come to start working with Sting?

Sting was looking for a guitarist, and Hugh recommended me. Hugh had produced many of the Police albums and Sting's solo albums. So I flew to New York for the audition, and now 20 years later, I'm still playing with him

It must be great to play with Sting from many vantage points.

It certainly is, and I treat the job with the utmost respect. I'm not complacent with this gig. Everyone around me thinks I'll always have the gig, but nothing is a given with Sting. He wants us to stretch the music and try new things all the time. He doesn't want to hear the same things every night. It's a fantastic opportunity every day for me.

You've compared working with Sting to being at a music university.

It is kind of like that. I've grown up musically with him. And if I might be so bold, he's grown up with me. We're both interested in so many different types of music, and that's what this gig is about. It's as if we are actors and we're given a script.

Diversity is the key. It's the humor in mixing bossa nova with rock or country with funk or classical with jazz that's the gag. He likes to surround himself with people who get that. If he asked me to play country things over something with a classical feel, it would be no good for me to tell him that I didn't think it would work. After years of playing with so many people, I've found a home in Sting's music, and he's found a guitarist who is willing to adapt to different scenarios.

Some people ask me if I mind being "Dominic Miller of Sting's band." Of course I don't mind that; this is arguably the best day job in the world. I am getting to play with the best musicians around. Through the university of Sting, I have seen world-class musicianship with Vinnie Colaiuta, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland: people who are specialists in their field. It has all improved my musicianship. I've learned a lot about arranging, song form, and writing. It's an amazing journey.

Has part of this education come from cowriting songs with Sting?

Writing with him is a privilege and an education on many levels. It's taught me compositional skills, knowing how to recognize when I've found an idea, and then doing something with it. Inspiration is one thing, but some composers sell themselves short by finding an idea and just repeating it. Sometimes you have to work backwards and complement that idea and find other possibilities. With Sting, I've learned about going on a musical journey with a simple idea and making something of it.

[The song] "Shape of My Heart" is a good example. I had a guitar motif that went 'round the houses, but Sting said, "Stop here; let's just work with this idea." He recognized a way of making it work as a song, and I never would have done that.

Is there an art to living well on the road?

I think so. I've done it many different ways. When I first got this gig it was kind of like winning the lottery. I went a little crazy in ways that you might imagine. You need to look after yourself, because you are an instrument. You're not just using your fingers as you play, you are using the whole body.

Traveling takes its toll on you. You have to pace yourself with diet, drinking, and more. Lack of sleep will really wear you out. Now, I always make sure that I get enough rest and stay reasonably fit. I do yoga five or six days a week. That's a great tonic to travel. I don't drink or do drugs - I can't. I'm not saying that's the only way to do this, but for me it's the only way, and has been for many years.

You also need to stay in touch with the project and keep your enthusiasm up. If you lose enthusiasm, you should just go home. I like to practice music when I'm on the road; I'm not here for any other purpose. The only music I like to practice is Bach. I hate doing scales, but I get around that problem by playing from the great bible of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Violin. Everything is there. Scales with personality and beauty, and there are many ways to play that music. I like to play the pieces very slowly - kind of taking a yoga approach.

Touring is a very demanding environment, and you can't become complacent thinking you've got it together. If you do, you'll start screwing up. My boss deserves my best. When you are playing the same songs every night, it's easy to become bored. You have to respect the project on a daily basis and deconstruct your approach and playing by practicing slowly.

The [Symphonicity] tour is pretty hard core. Once Sting gets out on the road, he stays out until we run out of road. That can be as long as two years. We've done tours where I've had two birthdays out on the road.

Do you enjoy your interactions with the audience when you are onstage?

Sure, but I can't interact with the audience until I can interact with the band. If I can't get my message through to the band, there's no way I can get it through to the audience. What I do has to make the band sound good. If I can manage that, I can have a good time with the audience. The priority for me is to have the musicians identify with what I am doing.

What are your long-term goals?

The big picture is to play Bach without making a mistake! It's a hell of a goal and very difficult. I also want to improve on my sound. Many guitarists bypass the importance of getting a great sound. That's your voice. Guitar is a difficult instrument on which to have an identity. It will come if you play very purely. Eventually people will come up asking how you get your sound. That's the highest compliment. It's not your licks or vocabulary as a player. You can mimic the great players, but do you have a sound?

My goal is to improve on my sound. It's never going to end, and it's a struggle. I feel I'm more of a student now than I was when I was young. I've been given a one-way ticket to an unknown destination. I'm still on that journey. I know I'm not going to get there, but I love it. I'm enjoying the ride.