The following interview with Jim Macnie appeared in the Feb/Mar 1991 issue of Creem magazine...
Sting racks his memory and rattles his soul
Sting is getting a rush, or several rushes actually, by riding a motorcycle through the drastically distinct patches of brilliant sunlight and blinding shadows of Los Angeles' oh-so-mellow Topanga Canyon. He enjoys swooping up and down the inclines, rounding corners with a smooth flow of energy. I'm down at the bottom of the hill, basking in the expanse of the Pacific, scribbling last minute questions for our conversation. When there's not a minute left, it's into the bowels of the canyon I go, and almost immediately the road signs along the winding lane begin speaking to the situation at hand: trying to get to the bottom of Sting - musician, rock star, advocate, sales item.
ROUGH ROAD reads the first one, but even though Sting put in years working with the Police, success - fame, cash and kudos - didn't take too long to add up. The band amassed their hits in fairly short order; from 'Roxanne' in '79, to 'Every Breath You Take' in '83, they knocked 'em out with as much regularity as aplomb.
NARROW BRIDGE warns the next sign, but Sting's traverse from the most celebrated member of the British trio to a world renowned solo artist wasn't rickety at all; with sturdy girders below him - work in film made his visual persona instantly identifiable - it was a judiciously orchestrated move.
SLIDE AREA proclaims the next, but there's no dirt on Sting's musical knees - 1985's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' reinforced the high tech sound of the Police's mainstream pop, but it took it to fastidious new heights. Sting proffers a monied, cosmopolitan aesthetic, whose work is elaborately well groomed, emphatically natty.
FALLING ROCK insists yet another reminding that the Blue Turtles ensemble sated the bandleader's yen for a new way of expressing his ideas. With instrumentalists culled from the realm of jazz - saxophonist Branford Marsalis, pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Darryl Jones, drummer Omar Hakim - he attempted to widen his scope, leaving the simpler designs of his overtly rock & roll days behind him.
As a flagperson waves me through the construction, the last, most telling sign pops up: NO PARKING. Its bluntness speaks to Sting's rammed agenda. His motor is always running: world tours for Amnesty International (he has just returned from a concert in Chile), forays into a scad of artistic disciplines including theatre (he starred in a Broadway version of 'Threepenny Opera' last year), music (he sang with an orchestra led by arranger/composer Gil Evans), film (the most recent being 'Stormy Monday' with Melanie Griffith) and production (the Topanga meeting place was Skyline Studios, where he was shaping a record by a percussionist/vocalist named Vinx). I knew the California coastline had a rep for being a metaphysical stretch of land, but I didn't know the Department of Transportation would be feeding me secret messages. Another thought occurs: maybe Sting planted the signs himself. He likes things to go his way.
At least that's what our easy-flowing late afternoon talk suggested. We were supposed to be focusing on Sting's latest effort, 'The Soul Cages', an album that reduces some of the inflated music found on his last outing, 'Nothing Like the Sun', a double disc that went platinum but took it on the chin critically. The party line said that Sun was overly self-referential, that its big buck sounds were chasing down high falotin' ideas born of topical convenience and that the creaminess of the music declawed the agitation its lyrics meant to provide. In other words, its calculations were showing and its artifice presented tunes more clever than moving.
Though not stark - Sting and co-producer Hugh Padgham surely get off on futzing and futzing with orchestrations, making even a ghostly ballad like 'When the Angels Fall' into a multi-layered opus - 'The Soul Cages' is a tad more tense and bony; this time 'round the ingeniousness allows for his experienced pop craft - one of the elements that entices the massive throng who receives each new record - to be viewed from more than one angle. Sting may get dissed for self aggrandising, but you discount his compelling melodic constructs and rhythmic subtleties only if you're against pop inventiveness. "No one ever caught on that 'Roxanne' was a tango;" he mentions during the interview, and I get the feeling that at the same time he's tickled by his knack for combining genres, he's ticked that few noticed his cunning.
Although some parts are bubbly - Sting actually sounds like he's having fun on 'Jeremiah Blues', 'The Soul Cages' is a massive rumination. With the loss of both his parents over the last few years, there's plenty of reason for reflection. And indeed, the record conjures images of his childhood and upbringing. But throughout the interview, he postulates again and again that he enjoys the mining of such emotions. "Men go crazy in congregations, but they only get better one by one," he assures us in All This Time. Although he had a smile on his face most of the afternoon, there's a seriousness about Sting. Don't be looking for him to step into that open slot in the Wilburys; he's not that kind of guy. Like it or not, his sensitivity is a large part of his draw. The afternoon before, I got my first listen to 'The Soul Cages' at the A&M offices in Hollywood. The mock-up for the CD art was loaded with dead of winter greys and the photos spread around depicted a Sting who was out for a long walk in the woods - having a long, involved talk with himself.
Cut to the back patio of Skyline Studios, where the dappled sunlight provides a beatific atmosphere, and a fairly unguarded 39-year-old sighs as often as he chuckles.
"I think to, some extent all records are bits of personal therapy," opines Sting "but whether it's good for anyone else remains to be seen." Obviously Sting's fans - numbering in the millions - believe that it is. And given the verve with which they scoop up his records, and the fact that it's been more than three years since the release of 'Nothing Like the Sun', more than a few might be interested in the reason for their hero's absence from the recording studio. "Well, until this," he says in forthright explanation, "I hadn't written a rhyming couplet since finishing the last album. Not a bit of doggerel, nothing. It was a block really, and kind of scary. It bugged the hell out of me. And rather than write songs about my car or dancing or whatever, I decided to wait.
"Somehow, two weeks before we started to record, things began to flow, and it was done in a sport. I unplugged something and that helped me figure out what it was all about: my home and my dad. Not to say that it's a sentimental trip down memory lane, but if you're a writer, recounting things is your way of meditating. And as a person, when you're a bit lost, it's valuable to go home, start again, roll the tape back. Some of these songs are my way of dealing with grief - you've got to put it somewhere. I think deeply about that. We don't seem to have the rituals to let you do that any more. You're supposed to be firm and strong, when all you want to do is mourn. I think it's very hard for modern people to mourn."
Sting hails from Newcastle, an industrial town on Britain's eastern coast, and the imagery that dots his new record isn't far removed from some of the scenes he took in as a blue collar youth. On 'Island of Souls', the hull of a huge freighter "blots out the sky," and a man who has worked all his life winds up spent, a disposable tool for his bosses. "Those kind of ships are my earliest memory; he says. "I was born right next to that kind of yard, where million ton tankers were built. And yes, my father worked like a slave all his life and never got rewarded.
"However I do think that there's a certain kind of pride associated with physical work, just like there is in coal mining. The character of the community winds up being intertwined with the jobs themselves. The work was hard when I was growing up, but it really gave you a sense of self. When the industry suffered, the community suffered. You might hate the bondage that it has on you, but it offers an unshakeable self respect. As a child I saw these alternatives - shipyard or Coalman -and realised quickly that school was for me. An escape route." And then with a laugh he adds, "so here we are in Topanga Canyon."
Indeed. As Sting indicates with his eyebrows when saying "Topanga Canyon", the travails of Newcastle resonate in memory only. The studio is a place where the self proclaimed restless traveller - with homes in Malibu, Manhattan and Britain - confesses that he doesn't mind being a bit. But though it's posh in a natural sort of way, it's not home. 'The Soul Cages' was recorded in an Italian Villa, where the family Sting were living - a comfy way to make your record, no ? "We recorded it at Q Sound, have you heard of it ?" he beams after I tell him that the music blowing out of the DAT player seems enormous. "It's somewhat new and uses phasing to make the sound come at you no matter where you stand in a room. We didn't go too extreme with it for fear of seeming gimmicky, but there are subtle enhancements of the stereo. I've found that when you listen to it on a little beat box, where you expect a certain kind of sound, you get something a bit more circular. It's quite disconcerting."
Sting's proud of the result, but shrugs off the tech talk. He's more interested in the content of his songs than the recording process. And the more we talk about everything, the looser he becomes. Books (he's a Bruce Chatwin and Paul Bowles man who's currently reading 'Ripley Bogle' by Liam Wilson), the Iraq debacle ("I wouldn't want my sons killed for cheap oil; when the body bags come back, I won't be waving a flag"), his celebrity ("I walk around like everybody else; people either say 'Hi Sting' or 'F- off Sting'"), even his current flirtations with modern classical music ("I used to hate it, Schoenberg and those guys, but like Campari, its taste grows on you"), and after awhile - even with interruptions - phone calls for him, car-moving for me - the conversation breaks into a steady gait.
Finally it veers back toward the record. The most up tune on 'The Soul Cages' is 'All That Time' and when I mention it's unusually optimistic, he cackles. "True; it's from a period of my teens, the Stax thing, Otis Redding and all. I wouldn't say that it's a happy song, but it does have a wry sense of humour. Macabre, really - a black comedy about this guy who takes a corpse out to sea to bury it. It set a mass of echoes off in my mind about the way that the Norse would float their dead out on the ocean and set them on fire." And the obsessiveness of love in Mad About You? "Well," says Sting summoning his best Broadway leer, "that deals in lust, power and jealousy - kind of a fascinating series. 'Every Breath You Take' was an archetypal song of that genre." Yeah, says I, like if anyone ever loved you that much you'd wind up pulling a shiv on them. "True," concurs Sting, "but it's very seductive to be loved in that manner, the feeling of being owned, possessed. It's a double standard. A lot of the relationships I've been in are like this. Too often we tend to want what's bad for us. It was also a good song for Reagan's America, the idea of constantly being under surveillance."
'Every Breath You Take' is a good songwriter's great song. Its melodic insistence keeps you firmly gripped, and even mass exposure - it went to the top of the charts - couldn't kill the thing. And, as he admits, part of its beauty is that it works in a couple of levels. As a rock star, Sting's politics are often overt: his Amnesty work, as well as his stumping for a blossoming rainforest indicates his general outlook. As a tunesmith, however, he tries to thread a knotty point of view through a well-rounded needle. His opinions often poke through his songs, like the thorn of rose; striving to draw blood. Though they sometimes get lost in the metaphors he houses them in, they're seldom evasive: Sting has no problem speaking his mind. "Hitting things on the head - this is good, this is bad - that's useful to a certain extent," he agrees, "but I like to make it a bit more interesting than that. I mean, I really like Billy Bragg's work, but I'm not him and he's not me."
Jeremiah Blues (Part 1) uses the guise of the Biblical cock Robin to churn some insouciant funk. Sting has long outed his love of Bertolt Brecht's caustic indictments against the status quo, and Jeremiah - a wise-assed lampoon - is a character study, providing him with a chance to invert the earnestness in 'When the World Is Running Down'. The global "big clock is ticking" here, just like in the Police tune, but Sting, his puss adorned with a gleeful smirk at the end of the world's mayhem, loves it to death.
"It's tongue in cheek, kind of an absurdist song really," he grins, "I've been called a Jeremiah with this whole ecology thing, so I decided to take a swipe at that stance, a side-long look at it. It's ambiguousness is nice; I didn't want to write songs about save the trees or don't kill the Lemmings. That's not art, it's propaganda."
Sting would rather feed his listeners ideas that they might not taste until later. Like Brecht? He laughs. "Well, there's a lot to learn from his work - I studied him in school and have generally learned a lot from that guy. But there's a lot of bullshit in his stuff, too. Information in songs is important obviously, but it shouldn't be perceived as boring lessons. Jeremiah has got a good groove going for it."
Taking on a persona in song is nothing new for Sting. Points of view are often shifted in his music. Last year he played Macheath in 'Threepenny Opera' and revelled in the opportunity of being someone else for a matter of months. Does rock stardom come with its own yoke, a personality to be hedged in by ? "It comes with its own joke," he muses. For a second, a gleam in the eye and a pregnant pause. Finally, as if talking to himself "I am a character of myself."
The late fall sun begins to dip and Sting suggests we use the chill to go listen to Vinx, the artist he's producing. "I saw him on stage one night and was thoroughly blown away;' he beams. "He structures his melodics in such a way that without any accompaniment other than drums you can hear his harmonic changes. And though it's wild, it's also old fashioned in a way. The music is all percussion, but his voice sounds like Johnny Mathis - there are some really lovely songs."
Inside, with the monitors cranked up his claims are founded. Vinx is adding a few more details to a track and reminding Sting about putting a background vocal on a song. As we listen to the fade of a tune that laments being home alone with only a TV for company, Vinx deviates from the lyric, trilling along in a high, wispy voice "I want my I want my, I want my emm-teee-veee". Pan to the producer who, with a smirk on his face, is giving Vinx a very righteous finger for mocking his infamous intro to 'Money for Nothing'. This kind of camaraderie makes the superstar a bit less of the character he claims to be, and as Vinx and Sting wrangle over which take of a tune to include on the record (the percussionist wants a dressy one; the boss is heralding an off-the-cuff version because of its immediacy), flashes of what might be the real Gordon Sumner appear.
Later on in the kitchen, Sting trumpets Vinx's fortitude. "I can try to push him one way or another - it's his first album, after all - but he really knows what he wants, and I admire that. Artists have to stand their ground. He realises what his strengths are. If you can strip a song down to its bare essentials and make it work, then you know you really have something."
That could be said for more than a few of Sting's own pieces. When I mention that I like the solo version of 'Message in a Bottle' better than the Police's, he nods his head. "That's a litmus test of sorts - just voice and guitar - does the performance work? I loved the aggressiveness of the original, but having it both ways is nice. Making my songbook somewhat transmutable is important to me."
A week before the interview, I'd gone to hear Branford Marsalis' ensemble, but when the curtain opened, it was just the saxist and bassist Rob Hurst on stage - the other members were stuck at an airport. So it was an evening of stark duets - certainly not what the audience had planned on - yet the response was absolutely enthusiastic. Sting listens to the anecdote intently: "Branford probably could have held their interest just doing stand-up comedy," he smiles, "but I know exactly what you mean. I've always considered a record as only a template for what a live performance can be. Sometimes on stage I'll give a more personal impression of a song. You start at one spot and see where it goes. Keys, lyrics, tempos - you try to move it ahead. There's a tendency these days to make a stage show the replication of a video - MTV exactly. Same dance routines, same set. That's not what I want to do. The Police never reproduced their records on stage either. On our upcoming tour we are going to do a few smaller places at first; you can be much more yourself in that setting. A few years ago at the Ritz in New York we started a song and it was all wrong. So I stopped it immediately; it seemed phoney to carry on. And the audience really understood. They're so used to seeing entertainment with a capital 'E' that the response to the human touch is pure excitement. I say if it's f***ed up, let them know."
Sounds like a guy who came up on the heels of punk rock, huh ? Though those days are long gone, and his position now is that of someone who might be ridiculed by young insurrectionists ("Let's play Live Aid," said Jon Langford at a recent Mekons concert, "you be Phil Collins, I'll be Sting!"), there are parts of that stance that the well established rock star couldn't buy into. "The Police could have pretended to tout some nihilistic ideas, but we didn't," he says flatly. "We were happening at the same time as punk, but we were kind of off to the side a bit. We could play, we knew scales; that made us different right there. Although I came to it with the sort of anger and aggression and desire to achieve as most of them, my heroes weren't Iggy and the MC5. I liked them okay, but I was really into Miles Davis. I was more interested in the musical aspects rather than the attitude aspects. At the same time, you can't deny the energy of someone like Johnny Thunders when he was with the Heartbreakers - that kind of thing was very useful to the music."
Sting cites 'New Rose' by the Damned as a great punk song ("I really love that one still") and gives the thumbs up to Jane's Addiction, whom he had seen a few nights earlier ("the rhythm section had muscles and the singer had an entertaining vibe"). But he allows that his own, well-groomed music of today is miles away from either approach. That, he says, is a plus. "I don't feel I need to be an angry young man; I'm pretty calm actually. I could get a band tomorrow to play some heavy metal or whatever, and maybe have a great time. But as someone, John Entwistle I think, once said, 'It's a bit like smelling your own farts.' If you're just operating on two or three chords, you run out of ideas quickly.
"Plus, if that's how you've made your mark on society, by utilising that aggressive thing, you're kind of stuck - I don't envy people who have that hanging over them. A lot of us don't grow up because we're rewarded for staying dysfunctional. The media says 'F*** yourself up, it's entertaining for us.' I certainly don't want to do that. I want to get old. Actually be 60 and play music. Not in a Vegas way, but with class. Down in Rio this year, I watched a hero of mine, Carlos Jobim, give a concert. Very intimate setting: piano, bass. And there was such truth in his music, such a relaxed sense of history. I said to myself 'this is what I could really do later on, be a guy and sing songs - not have to pretend I'm young.'"
Throughout the interview it becomes increasingly obvious that Sting's version of Hell is to be locked into one posture. Musically the Police used aspects of ska and other Caribbean polyrhythms; the 'Blue Turtles' outing incorporated the knowledge of improvisers, and parts of 'The Soul Cages' houses lush, Eno-esque, atmospherics. Maintaining a wide approach is a priority, and to make his saucy rock more cosmopolitan, Sting draws on a wealth of resources. "Not in the sense that it's particularly ethnic, mind you," he quips, "but more like the music of a person educated by the radio. The British radio was very eclectic, and I think my music reflects that. Although I do pick up ideas in my travels, I try not to make them too overt. I like music that kind of jumps out of the form, has few parameters.
"For example, Englishman in New York was a kind of reggae thing that had a classical bridge, a Bach sort of ostinato for the middle eight and then a jazz fade. And all those changes weren't very noticeable. I think the world is ready to accept all these influences. Rock & roll has become a great mongrel form, it needs new blood like a vampire: get this, suck that, exploit here and there; then it grows and stays contemporary. It's not a stationary thing, it has to move on."
So Sting must be a hip-hop fan. "Well, when I first heard drum machines and such my reaction was like, 'So what?' But that's kind of a fuddy duddy stance. If I was starting out, that's what I would use, too. I think I know where it comes from - sometimes literally. The spiritual guide in the music lab is James Brown. I just hope kids don't think M.C. Hammer invented the funk." And the blatantness of rap lyrics? "The whole thing that's going on with censorship in this country is a dysfunction of education," he scoff's. "No one accepts anything that isn't in their experience. I mean some of this stuff is laughable. I'm glad the jury at the 2 Live Crew case laughed out loud. Risque lyrics - people are just looking at someone to project their fears onto. They're making cause celebres out of things that aren't worth the attention. 2 Live Crew are fine as a cabaret act, but are they worth fighting over? If it was Lenny Bruce, it would be a different matter."
But why draw a line at all?
Wait a minute, you know what's good and what's mediocre. There's a lot of rap music around that's rude and nasty and smart and political, that makes people wonderfully uncomfortable. But the public eye is turned on the 2 Live Crew kind of thing and they come away with the idea that rap is black guys singing about their d***s. And that's far too easy a synopsis."
There's nothing as blatant as that on 'The Soul Cages'. Like much of Sting's work, it bathes its message in imagery - sometimes sharp, sometimes grandiose - he's surely not a reductionist. Yet getting to the bottom of things, discerning the real deal, is a process he intends on pursuing. He obviously keeps his eyes and ears open. But this guy who sings to millions, "has never seen 'Twin Peaks'," realises that his star persona "is a commodity like cornflakes" and gets "a kick out of the song 'Public Image'" - tries to escape from lumpen generalisations as best he knows how.
"That's what 'The Soul Cages' is about in a way" he concludes, "working through things yourself rather than trusting in mass ideologies. We come into the world alone and we leave alone. I mean, I'm not anti-religious, but if you believe anything wholesale, you open yourself up to a lot of perversions of the initial content. That's unhealthy. The core ideas behind ideologies are great, but invariably they get twisted. I'm not an expert, I'm just working on myself. That's the path to choose".
© Creem magazine