A Conversation with Rob Mathes, Co-Producer of Sting’s Symphonicities

Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes is a musician with a very broad set of talents: he’s a celebrated composer, arranger, and producer – and those are just his main gigs. Rob has a number of critically lauded albums to his name, including the cult favorite Evening Train, as well as many production and arranging credits with high-profile artists such as Lou Reed, Bono, Panic! At the Disco, Tony Bennett, Elton John, and Rod Stewart.

But Sting’s new album Symphonicities, which Rob co-produced, is — even for an artist as successful as Rob — something different. “This is easily the most significant project I’ve been a part of,” he says. “It’s very difficult to describe — it’s incalculable how important Sting’s music was to me coming up.”

Symphonicities features Sting singing in front of orchestral treatments of some of the greatest songs in his canon, arranged by some of the best arrangers in the business, like David Hartley, Steven Mercurio, and Rob Mathes himself.

Rob brought Symphonicities to Scott Hull here at Masterdisk for mastering, so we’ve had the pleasure of being able to work on this remarkable record, and also the pleasure of working with and talking to Rob, who is as gracious and humble a guy as you’ll find in the music business. On a break from his current project — producing the debut album from Glee star Matthew Morrison — Rob took some time to discuss Symphonicities.

I asked Rob what it is about Sting that made him such an important influence.

He has this extremely rare thing: the whole package, the presence and charisma of a rock star but alongside superb and deep musicianship. From a musicological standpoint, he understands rhythm so deeply, and his melodic sense is incandescent. Listen to some early Sting records; they have beautiful melodies. Take the melody out and it’s beautiful on its own. He had the foresight to collaborate with Stewart Copland and Andy Summers and to marry that amazing sense of melody with the exciting punk rock and reggae rhythms in The Police. Like “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”: alongside the ferocity of that groove, the melody is like Gregorian chant! And then to see Sting grow, and leave The Police, and then write songs like “They Dance Alone” and “We Work the Black Seam” …he’s amazing.

Rob’s involvement in the Symphonicities album came about in a remarkable way. Chris Roberts, the president of Universal Classics and Jazz, made the initial introduction. Chris had been talking with Sting in the early stages of the project, and suggested that he meet with Rob based on his broad experience in both classical music and pop. So they did meet, and they discussed the music, and Sting asked Rob to show him some arrangements. Typically, at this point, an arranger would either produce a printed arrangement to be performed remotely for the artist, or he’d produce a demo recording using high-quality digital samples of orchestral instruments. But Rob did something remarkable.

This is Sting. There is no freaking way I am going to write arrangements and send them out to be performed without my being there. You put the chart on the stands, and it can sound OK, but it will probably need some work. And your typical demo recording, even with the greatest sample library in the world, wouldn’t be effective enough. The first impression is everything. So something in me said “I already have a session booked at Abbey Road in February…”

Rob had the studio time booked at Abbey Road for one of his own projects.

I know the results I get at Abbey Road — the quality of the sound. I’ve recorded easily one hundred projects there over the last decade. I adore that room, the sound of it — it’s legendary. Just put a microphone above the orchestra; it sounds like God. So my gut reaction was that if I could create the tracks exactly as I wanted them, Sting would get a truer picture of what I could do to bring a legitimate symphonic approach to his canon.

So I went back to my hotel room after the meeting and I asked my wife, “Would it be insane to ask Sting to pay for the studio time and musicians so I can record these arrangements for him? I’ll pay the travel costs and do the work for free. He can pay me if he wants to use my stuff, otherwise, he doesn’t have to pay me anything.”

Rob told me, “honestly, if he hated what I had done I would have wanted to pay some of the studio cost back to him!” Sting, remarkably, agreed to the plan. “Sting saw the fire in my belly”, said Rob. “Going out on that limb is the reason that all this happened.”

I asked Rob if he had always conducted his career with such confidence. He said:

That was the boldest suggestion I ever made to an artist. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that it altered the further course of my life. I mean, the idea came out of the air. It was almost a God thing. Some people were skeptical about me doing it this way – they said that it was going to be an awfully expensive demo. But with all of the extraordinarily gifted people on the planet, the only way to get yourself heard is if you’re insanely passionate about what you do.

Symphonicities was released digitally and on CD this week, to strong sales and critical response. Before our interview, early in the morning on the album’s release date, I had read the first three reviews I could find, and they were all positive. But Rob knows that some negative opinion is an inevitability, especially on a project that orchestrates rock songs.

My approach was to meet Sting’s records directly face to face; not try to cop them but to create an orchestral version with the energy of original. But if critics say anything mean, can I learn from it? One example is a criticism I received of the arrangement for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. The critic said that the track was a little “Disney” in a few moments. That’s not what I was going for! So I listened to it again, with this in mind, and realized that I had always had a suspicion about the chorus. There are these underlying Cuban rhythms there in the song, but I hadn’t really brought them out; I didn’t go for the jugular there. So, I went back into the studio and added percussion, and fleshed out what was just implied before. I’m proud of it. This new version, which is going to be called the “Bronx Street Fair Mix” should be available on an upcoming vinyl edition of the album. So in this case, a negative review turned into something positive.

Now that the record is finished, Rob still has nothing but praise for Sting. I’ll wrap up with a few quotes plucked from a post on Rob’s blog, dated July 15, 2010.

He is constantly learning and endlessly curious. [Sting] recognizes the gift he has received: the reality that so many people want to hear him sing these iconic songs. He just wants to keep it interesting. I admire him for it and working on this project was a privilege. Above all listen to that voice. Just extraordinary!

Rob’s blog writing is full of insight and energy. Read it here: www.robmathes.wordpress.com. And his website has some great content, including video and music samples. Visit here.

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