MUSICIANDecember 01, 1987
The following interview with Peter Watrous appeared in the December 1987 issue of Musician magazine...
Slapping Sting around - Can he handle the tough questions...?
My power is in selling records," Sting says forthrightly. "I can dictate to the marketplace. Someone who has a cult following selling 5,000 records a year has no power whatever. It doesn't matter what he thinks or what he does. It might be very worthy and, for the people listening, enlightening. But basically if I have any power at all, it's as a mass-produced, mass-accepted artist. I like making hit records; I enjoy the feeling of trying to reach a common denominator without being the lowest."
Sting is in New York's Power Station mixing 'Nothing Like The Sun', his new album, a double-record affair with 15-minute sides. A photographer is shooting him posing at the console, all serioused-out, as if he's an artist or something. I assure myself he will soon explode from fatuousness. He does a phoner with some journalist who's asking him about 'They Dance Alone', a song he wrote about women who dance outside prisons in Chile, remembering their political-prisoner fathers/sons/brothers inside. He spews concern, mussing his hair over and over again like a neurotic cat, stroking the journalist and staring at his reflection in the studio glass. He's in New York for just a bit, so everything's rushed: He's to film a movie in Scotland, after which he goes off to play Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's version of 'The Last Temptation of Christ'. I notice Sting has missed a belt loop while stepping into his basic black. He's probably wasting $150 on that loop alone.
See, unless you're as rich and good-looking as Sting, I don't understand how it's possible not to dump on the guy. He dyes his hair, he's ungrammatical ("If you love somebody, set them free"), he's a yuppie renaissance man. You know the type: I just chucked my nine-to-five job for something really wild, like becoming a rock star. I go to the Caribbean and rough it with the natives who play funky music. He's a corporate rocker who claims he's rebellious, and he might just exploit the colour of people's skin to enhance his own image. Magazines like this one fall all over the guy, letting him get away with sweeping simplifications about music, politics and philosophy. He's platitudinous. He's pompous. He has a lot of money. He thinks that he's doing something to change the world by selling records. Hell, let's get to the heart of this: He's taller than I am and can afford better clothes.
Why would anybody in their right mind pay attention to him? Well, because he's in power, and the type of enormous pop power he wields is fascinating, especially in its feints and affronts, and the occasional honest answer. Sting is a man with a purpose, on a mission, or so he says. And, tough as this is to admit, Sting turns out to be a nice guy.
I don't think pop music is a pejorative term," he says. "I want to be proud of being a pop singer when I reach 40. If my son says, 'What are you doing?' I'll say, 'I'm a pop singer, son.' I don't want him to think I'm an idiot. He probably will; he'll probably be an accountant." What Sting's getting at is the notion that pop music can be a vehicle for social change, an idea born in the '60s, K.0.ed in the '70s, and brought back in the '80s in a superficial mode. Compare Sting's well-intentioned 'Russians' to, say, Neil Young's 'Ohio,' and you'll see my point. He says, "Pop music can, more than any other music, be an agent for change. Classical music, jazz and country are so set in their ways that you can't operate inside of them. Pop music takes from all of them like an octopus; it steals."
Or he steals. 'Nothing Like the Sun' (title from Shakespeare, thugs) is loaded with borrowings. 'History Will Teach Us Nothing', a song meant to prod discussion about the uses of studying the past, floats along on lite-skank, while 'They Dance Alone' has stately march rhythms to underscore the pathos of the story. Unlike 'Dream of the Blue Turtles', Nothing is loaded with guests. Ruben Blades narrates his way through 'They Dance Alone'. Eric Clapton, who had been recording in the same studio in Montserrat, appears, as does old friend Mark Knopfler and Police guitarist Andy Summers.
The jazz connection, whittled down on one end (only Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland remain from the last band), finds Sting involved with Gil Evans, one of jazz's great orchestrators. The result is one track, a version of the historic Evans interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing'. "Gil and I did a gig at the Perugia jazz festival this year. I'd been a fan of his since I was about 15 so I went and introduced myself. I would go and see him at Sweet Basil (a jazz club in New York) on Monday nights. I did a gig with him there; we did two Hendrix tunes, 'Little Wing' and 'Up from the Skies', and a Tony Williams song called 'There Comes a Time', which is in 15/8! We had a great time, so I said, 'Why don't you come down to Montserrat and we'll work out a set?' He came down to Montserrat where we were recording, and sat in on a session and gave me a few hints about arranging. It was really cool, and we got a set together of an hour's worth of material."
As for jazz influences on 'Nothing', except for the occasional solo by Branford Marsalis, they don't really exist. But then 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' didn't really strike me as a jazz record. "There was never any intention of it being a jazz record," agrees Sting. "This was an easy label that journalists put on it. It wasn't marketed that way. It has some flavour of jazz, hopefully the sensibility of jazz. I'm not that interested in jazz to produce a jazz record. I'm interested in selling songs. We got a jazz Grammy nomination for the album. Thank God we didn't win. That would have been too much."
MUSICIAN: How can pop be music for change? If you're playing music that's as easily acceptable as a Top 10 hit, it doesn't matter what the words are because the music is pretty and seductive.
STING: I think there's a trick, a seduction process at work. A sophisticated ear can hear the beauty of an interval like the second. Most people can only understand harmony like thirds and fifths, a seventh if they're into jazz. They don't want to know about anything like a second or an eleventh. Pop music can be useful because it introduces things like that as gimmicks, if you like, which train the general ear. The Beatles took a lot of risks musically. They used thirds and fifths and sevenths. They were well in the mould of popular music, but there were things in the music - time signatures, harmonies, classical music - that suggested other fields. I think that's why it was successful. No other music gets to as many people.
MUSICIAN: It may be getting to people, but it may be an opiate.
STING: I've had ambiguous thoughts about 'Every Breath You Take' - Big Brother! "I'll be watching you." I wondered why it had been so powerful. I got a certificate saying it had been played on the radio one million times - five years of listening. Why was it bought, why was it listened to? The theme of the song is ownership, surveillance, control. Reagan's in the White House, people want this figure larger than them to look after them. It's a very cynical and evil song, and that worried me - it's a very pretty melody. People were seduced by it. It was a type of an opiate. I'm aware of it. The fact that I'm aware of it and not just counting my royalties, that's something. For me the greatest music ever performed was Mozart. It's pretty, happy, it's pop music and it's wonderful. If I were to choose a piece of music today that I wanted to listen to, I'd listen to 'Faure's Requiem'. I'd rather listen to that than Schoenberg or Ornette Coleman. It speaks to my soul. I like harmony. Music for me is order out of chaos, and the world is chaos. If you go on-stage or on record and you produce nothing but dissonance and an arrhythmic wall of noise, you might be reflecting reality, but you'll empty the concert hall. I think you have to seduce people.
Basically you have to make them feel welcome, feel warm, and maybe during the set, disjoint them. Which is actually more effective than playing for someone who's braced themselves for an hour of noise. I've sat in concerts of modern music. I can hear what they're doing, but everybody's bored rigid! There's a greater challenge for a musician to write something meaningful in a major key than to write something meaningful in a minor one. I much prefer to write in a minor key because it's easier. To write something that's good in a major key is a triumph. I love pop music, because pop music educated me to other music forms. It was the first type of music I heard. On British radio Mantovani was played next to Jimi Hendrix. It was Rosemary Clooney, then the Rolling Stones. You got that kind of world music thing thrown at you. That's not possible now. You listen to any American or British station and you get this same kind of homogeneous music all day long. That's not good for music.
MUSICIAN: But you fit into that format.
STING: Of course I do. That's how I make my money. But what I'm trying to do is change the form. Two years ago I did 'Blue Turtles', which had songs on it that I thought would never get on the radio, but because I was in such a position of power it was a challenge. A song like 'Bourbon Street' was a massive hit in Europe; 'Russians' was in the Top 20 here. I put this on the record and thought, "This is really going to put the cat among the pigeons - how are they going to play it in their format?" And they did. I think it's my duty to use the power to, if not revolutionise it, then push the boundaries of what they're willing to play. I like pop music.
MUSICIAN: What on the new record is hardest for radio?
STING: I think this album is a lot easier for radio to accept. When I made that statement, I was thinking of 'Russians'.
MUSICIAN: If it's your duty to push the boundaries of what radio will play, it seems 'Nothing Like the Sun' is a step back from that.
STING: Maybe it is. I've made this record, more than any other, for myself. I can't really be asked to cling to my belief from two years ago; I may have moved on from there. I haven't made those rhetorical statements about this record. The record is for me to enjoy.
MUSICIAN: It seems like a mainstream pop record. What does it say about you?
STING: I think you're probably right. There's nothing wrong with pop. Where it succeeds, it brings in lots of elements and assimilates them. Maybe it dilutes them in your opinion, but I like it, I'm quite proud of it.
MUSICIAN: The songs are all mid-tempo.
STING: Probably. That's the way I felt. It's a reflection of two years of...it's how I am at the moment. Anything that was uptempo I didn't put on it. I didn't feel like doing it, even though the engineer was begging me. I'm saving them for my heavy-metal album.
MUSICIAN: You use some very basic clichés as hooks. "Sooner or later", "Be yourself."
STING: Clichés are perfectly acceptable, as long as they aren't the whole story. A lot of songs are buzz words, like "let's be sexy" or "let's dance baby." It's perfectly acceptable to use buzz words as long as there's some kind of idea backing it up. I think that in both of those songs there's a theme, an idea, a journey made. So I don't feel embarrassed by them. A hook is a hook, something that catches somebody, that's even recognised by somebody. Once that's done, it's the listener's turn to figure out what it means, what's the point. Often there isn't a point. I hope that in my songs there always is.
MUSICIAN:Tell me about 'Sister Moon'; it sounds a little like 'Summertime,' the Gershwin tune.
STING: There are similarities, obviously I wanted something old and kind of romantic. It reminds me of a TV theme for a detective series.
MUSICIAN: And 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'?
STING: It's a polemical statement that isn't necessarily the truth. I think it's a way of opening a debate by taking a position that history isn't useful because decent human qualities are rarely apparent. It's about the survival of the meanest.
MUSICIAN: 'Englishman in New York' isn't about you, is it?
STING: It's about Quentin Crisp, who is a friend and a hero. It's about being an individual in a society that generally doesn't applaud it. It started as a reggae kind of lilt, then I added a bridge that felt classical, so I put the violins and harpsichords on, then we went into a jazz section. I wanted to give the impression of somebody walking down the street, passing different musical events. To sum up what it's like on the street in New York. You pass a shop window and hear different kinds of music in each one.
MUSICIAN: What did Gil Evans arrange?
STING: He arranged five of my songs. We did 'Little Wing'. He's just a great guy to have around. I was having a problem with one song, I was concentrating on one note that I didn't think was right, and he said, "Come outside. " He said, "It's not the note you think it is, it's the note before. If you get that one right, then this one will carry on." "I don't think so, Gil." "Try it." He was right. Of course, he knows his shit. He was encouraging, and so open for a man of his age.
MUSICIAN: At this point you could do whatever you want. Why are you limited by the commercial market?
STING: Well, I'm not really. This year I sang with Gil Evans, I did a show of Kurt Weill with the Hamburg State Orchestra, I've done some Gershwin songs. On the record there's a melody I've adapted from Hans Eisler and it's in compound time. Little things. We chip away. It's not a radical record, but, at the same time, there are things in it that would challenge radio and most people's ears. That's not the whole album. It's not my intention to hammer people with integrity and reality. I don't want to do that. It doesn't work. I could do anything, but I'm fairly cautious. I do things slowly, bit by bit. I'm a different composer, performer than what I was five years ago. I'm better at it. Music is something I'm learning about. I haven't said, "Okay, I'm good at that, I'll just rest on my laurels." I'm still learning to play the piano, I'm still reading other people's music. Learning about classical music. I'm writing a string quartet for Kronos. I don't want to stop, I don't want to say "Well, this is what I do." What allows me the freedom to do all that is pop music, and hopefully I'm expanding that, too.
MUSICIAN: You've constructed a pretty clear image; what do you think it is?
STING: Hopefully it's pretty evasive.
MUSICIAN: Why hopefully?
STING: Because most images are kind of fixed - Ozzy Osborne, God bless him, will always be Ozzy Osborne and he can't be anything else, even though he's 40 years old. He's still pouring himself into tight satin trousers, biting the heads off chickens, wears girls' clothes and has flowing locks. It's very hard for him to get out of that. My image has been much more flexible, so I can feel comfortable being an adult and still do the job. I don't wear a corset, I don't wear a wig, I don't lie about my age, or sing songs about dating girls after high school. I'm an adult. I want to sing songs about being an adult. I suppose that's my image, that's what I want to be. Myself.
MUSICIAN: But a person in your position always thinks about how they're coming off. It's not as if there's something unpremeditated about who you are.
STING: Well, take it historically. When the Police were successful, part of our success was because of our image. Three guys, all had blond hair, all reasonably presentable in a photograph, we could all play. It was a very simple gestalt. Then once that worked, it struck me that it had to be discarded, bit by bit. In that process, of course, eventually the band had to go. We became individuals, as opposed to this little group. We gradually separated in the way we looked, the way we thought, the way we wanted to do music. Now the image, I hope, is one of continuous individuation. I don't want to belong to a group of people, an easily labelled box.
MUSICIAN: But again, what do you see yourself as?
STING: A very lucky man.
MUSICIAN: No, I mean the image you present for the photographers. Everything that goes on the cover of your record, you choose. You are constructing something to sell. What is it you think you've made to sell, what impression are you trying to make? This is a commercial gambit, among other things.
STING: Well, that's not the whole story. The photograph on the cover isn't the full man. It's what you choose to put there. I don't think the public really wants the complete man anyway.
MUSICIAN: What are you thinking about when you put together the record cover?
STING: It's kind of instinctive. I have an instinct for the camera, which is one defensive, one aggressive. I choose to give it what I want to give it. My instinct tells me what that is. I don't want everybody to know me, but I do want to be accepted or liked. It's a fine line you walk, and your face reflects that. I don't know what I want anymore. I want to feel comfortable.
MUSICIAN: You were presenting yourself to the photographer as the sombre thinking man behind the console.
STING: Well, not all the time. If I had my finger up here (puts finger in ear, nose), obviously they're not going to use those, they're going to use the sombre one. That seems to be the most workable image, the one I don't mind having. Whether that's real or not is my business. The public don't want to know me. f***, I'm a pain in the neck. They might choose this image to follow, because that's what I give 'em.
MUSICIAN: What's the point of giving them a persona?
STING: A clean, simple, easy image sells records. Let's face it, image sells records. Whether it's Motley Crue or David Bowie. I don't enjoy having my picture taken. I've done it too many times now. I'll go through it without complaining, because I know it takes less energy. It's all part of the business. You write songs for three months, you record for three months, and then you go through three months of this. It's not particularly exciting. But that's part of the job. I don't regret it. It's better than working in a factory or teaching in a school, and I've done both.
MUSICIAN: The way you put it, it's just a business venture. What role does inspiration play in this?
STING: I left out the two years since the last record, where I've basically lived a normal life. The ideas for a song come from living a life, not from staring at a piano or a wall. The songs are about news events, people I've met, conversations I've had, ideas I've come across. Inspiration comes from living, it comes from an oblique part of the brain, not when you say, "Now I'm writing a song. " You do that later, but you have to live first.
MUSICIAN: Tell me about taking co-writing credit for Mark Knopflers 'Money for Nothing'.
STING: This is very embarrassing to me. Mark asked me to go in the studio and sing this line, "I want my MTV." He gave me the melody, and I thought, "Oh, great, 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', that's a nice quote, it's fun." So I did it, and thought nothing of it, until my publishers, Virgin -who I've been at war with for years and who I have no respect for - decided that was a song they owned, 'Don't Stand So Close to Me'. They said that they wanted a percentage of the song, much to my embarrassment. So they took it.
MUSICIAN: You didn't feel bad about parodying yourself?
STING: No, not at all; it struck me as appropriate.
MUSICIAN: You and Knopfler came up roughly at the same time and place. He seems to have taken an entirely different approach to the problems of success.
STING: He's an entirely different person. We get along very well, we're both from the same town. We did succeed at the same time, with different types of music.
MUSICIAN: And a different type of image. He retreated, stopped putting his photo on albums - and you came into the light.
STING: Mark and Dire Straits appeal to the male audience. My audience is both, 50% female, 50% male.
MUSICIAN: Why would that make a difference to you?
STING: Sell more records. (laughs) I like women, I love women; I don't see them as a subspecies that should be ignored. Am I selling sex?
MUSICIAN: How could you ignore that aspect of marketing?
STING: I don't.
MUSICIAN: So then, are you selling sex?
STING: Yeah, probably.
MUSICIAN: Not probably. Are you, or not?
MUSICIAN: How so?
STING: Not in a crude way, I hope, not in a crotch-wiggling way. What kind of sex am I selling? Sensitive, tender, romantic. Literary like being f***ed by a college professor (laughs).
MUSICIAN: Why this fascination with jazz?
STING: Jazz was the music I listened to from about the age of 13 to 16, with the passion to figure out why it was good. The first record I was given was Monk's solo concert at the Olympia in Paris. I must have been 13; somebody lent it to me, said, "Listen to this, it'll do you good. " I sat and listened to it again and again, knowing it would do me good. I sat there training the side of the brain which can appreciate voicings which aren't F-A-B. It was the same time I listened to Jimi Hendrix, which was pop music with an ethnic core; I saw Hendrix when I was 15. He was another type of pop star, a musician that could play. That, linked up to my interest in jazz, dictated what kind of musician I wanted to be. I wanted to become a muso (somebody who makes a living at playing music but isn't a pop star). I did that for a while, working in pit bands and dance bands, and little jazz bands, playing upright and bass guitars. I learned the standards. Once you learn 'I Got Rhythm', that's it. I precluded pop music. Led Zeppelin, I didn't want to know. I didn't want to know about glam rock, it didn't live up to what music should be. At the time of Led Zeppelin, I was listening to 'Bitches Brew', which turned my head around. Seminal records for me were 'Inner Mounting Flame', finding older Miles records from 'Bitches Brew' and going back to 'Porgy and Bess'. Then finding people like me and forming bands who played in this kind of jazz idiom, and we discovered Chick Corea and Return to Forever and we started playing that kind of fusion thing. Then I joined the Police. Which to me was a complete revolution. I had to put my other music aside. All I could see in punk was a very direct, simple image of power and energy I could relate to that. I could easily ally myself with that, and forget about changes chords with flatted fifths, forget all of that. Just go easy chords, simple rhythms, simple bass lines.
STING: I'm an opportunist. I saw this vacuum between punk, which was unschooled, and the horrible corporate rock on the other side. I saw this thing in the middle that was clean and simple. That's what 'Roxanne' is; it's so simple and bare... It's not the energy of 'Never Mind the Bollocks', nor is it corporate rock. It's right in between them; we just took that path because it was just so clear to me. There was a vacuum there. There was all this fierce energy, and everybody was terrified of it and moved aside, and the corporate rock bands were on this height and they didn't know what was going on. I think the Police was the band that took it, and everybody followed us.
MUSICIAN: So 'Blue Turtles' was an attempt to go back to your roots in fusion?
STING: No, not really I think that fusion music as a whole kind of failed. It wasn't based on songs, it was based on licks. Which is only entertaining for a while. I think pop music is based on songs. So I was trying to do that route. I don't think we were a fusion band. It wasn't about licks. It was about selling songs, giving them a platform.
MUSICIAN: Tell me about your bass playing.
STING: I went through Ray Brown's bass book four times. I'd translate that on upright and electric. Once you've been through that four times, you have chops. I was a much better bass player then. I was playing six hours a day. Jaco Pastorius turned my head around. Stanley Clarke. I remember doing a gig with a big band and we supported Return to Forever. I had never seen anything like it! It was like, "I thought I could play." I remember thinking, "I have a choice here. I either become a singer or I stay a schoolteacher." You go through life trying to figure out what your little pinnacle is. That's what I was saying about being 35 and individuated. I think I've reached a point where I'm not really trying to be anything but me. I feel happy that I'm Sting. I've become that. Whether I've manufactured Sting or not, that's what I am.
MUSICIAN: You've started to play bass again.
STING: I have. I've gone back to Ray Brown. After holding a guitar for two years, the bottom F on a Fender is a long way down, your fingers are puny.
MUSICIAN: What are you practising on the bass?
STING: The album's finished! I'm playing piano now, Mozart.
MUSICIAN: Seems like in the last part of the Police's career you were exploring overtones, and upper partials and stuff like that. I didn't hear that on 'Dream of the Blue Turtles'.
STING: Well, 'Dream' was more about a band meeting a pop star. That's what the album's about, going through that filter. I didn't want to extend what the Police had done because that would have sounded like a Police album. It was something we really didn't think about. We knew about space, less is more, and simplicity. We didn't really think about "Let's play that chord here." It wasn't a philosophical thing. Andy plays on the new record, and those tracks sound like the Police.
MUSICIAN: You got a lot of shit for hiring all black musicians for 'Dream'.
STING: I didn't get a lot of shit from anybody. No one was brave enough to do it.
MUSICIAN: I saw a comment about your being a modern-day version of Lord Jim.
STING: No one said it to my face.
MUSICIAN:Well, are you a modern-day Lord Jim?
STING: No. Am I exploiting, demeaning, trivialising? I'd have to say no.
MUSICIAN: Have you used black musicians to enhance your credibility? It enhances the image you've been making for yourself as an intellect, someone who has taste.
STING: That's racism, basically. It's basically saying that a white pop star can't make music as well as black musicians. That's bullshit.
MUSICIAN: Or maybe you run a plantation system.
STING: We're using Wynton's argument that I've stained the purity of black music. These arguments are used by the South African government to defend apartheid: "We have to be separate!" If I believe that music is a force for good in this world, then what better way of demonstrating it than musicians of black and white working together. Aghh! It makes me want to give up, in a way. Talking about my band, all the people in my band are from middle-class backgrounds; I'm the only working-class kid in the band. I'm from my own kind of ghetto. I'm not a spoiled, middle-class rich kid. I'm rich now, and have all the trappings of wealth. The band made a decision to play with me, and it wasn't just because I was paying well. I think these guys are of such personal and musical stature, they wouldn't want to play with me if they didn't think it was worth doing. I don't see them as my back-up band. It wasn't as if I were in the spotlight and these guys were... they were given the stage. I felt it was a band. I wrote the songs, and I was more famous and I sang, so I had an advantage, but there was no way that they were my sidemen. I didn't want it to be perceived as that. I wanted it to be a band as far as possible. If you listen to the live album I think it sounds like a band. People took solos, took the spotlight. So I can't really take that kind of stuff seriously.
MUSICIAN: But what about the accusation that you used black musicians to enhance your credibility?
STING: Have they enhanced my credibility?
MUSICIAN: Yeah, in some people's eyes.
STING: So here I am with enhanced credibility.
MUSICIAN: That's using them for the colour of their skin and not necessarily for their musicianship.
STING: That's wrong too; they're brilliant musicians. I don't know how you could find a better band.
MUSICIAN: You can find good white musicians though. It's interesting that they're all black.
STING: It just turned out that way. I turned around and realised that I was a minority. They were great musicians, first and foremost. That they were black wasn't an issue for me. But as you say, they've enhanced my credibility.
MUSICIAN: Did the 'Blue Turtles' band get any royalties?
MUSICIAN: Would you have let them do some of their material?
STING: They didn't have any material. I had conceived the album before it was recorded, so that wasn't part of it. I had been in a band before, where everyone didn't decide who was what until much later. In this band it was very clear what we did. I sang and wrote the songs, and played the guitar, and I hired a drummer who would drum.
MUSICIAN: Then how can you call it a band? That just seems like a business arrangement.
STING: It was a band in as much as what they were good at playing; and as jazz musicians, they were used to composing or arranging on the spot. It was a band in that sense.
MUSICIAN: In what sense?
STING: That they were allowed to do that. I had arrangements and we worked from there. They were allowed input to play what they wanted, as long as I liked it. On the live album, I paid the band royalties, because I thought a lot of the stuff was theirs too. So we shared the royalties.
MUSICIAN: You've started your own record label - Pangaea. What will it be like?
STING: Mixing genres is good for classical music, it's good for jazz, it's good for music in general. I don't want to be a ghettoist, wanting music to be pure, this myth that a pure music form is a good music form. For me, if that's what pure music means, then it's a dead form. Any music that doesn't borrow from outside dies. It's a natural process. All music is going through that process. Classical music, jazz pop, rock'n'roll, each genre has become a ghetto, because they don't want to get out. It's dying.
MUSICIAN: It seems to me there's a lot of activity going on in classical jazz and rock.
STING: Only at the interface, not in the mainstreams of those forms. In classical it's only when the Kronos String Quartet, who I love, play music that isn't necessarily classical music that the sparks fly. When they play 'Purple Haze', it's f***ing wonderful. I think these forms are dead at the centre, but very alive at the outside. Where life comes from is taking from one environment and putting it in another. It might be uncomfortable for a while, but it'll produce something new. It's something I try and do with pop music, and I'm going to try it with the label. Most pop musicians now are nothing but archivists. They pick an archetypal record from the '60s or '70s and they remake it. I do the same, but it's not the sole purpose of what I'm here for. I want to try to do something new; it's what everybody should be doing. I try and borrow from everything that I hear. It would be against the label to have a brand of music. We're doing a recording of Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' with five musicians and three actors. We're hoping to record Youssou N'Dour, Mino Cinelu, Michel Colombier. We want to release about six records at one go. In the breadth of what we're trying to cover we'll be able to suggest what we're about, which is anarchy, really. Creative anarchy, where it's not one type of music. I see music in a holistic way; I don't see it as little boxes and subdivisions. It's all in front of you on the piano.
MUSICIAN: Except for Youssou, who sings between the cracks in the piano.
STING: He does. Islamic pop, which is why it's interesting.
MUSICIAN: Is Pangaea a tax write-off?
STING: No, it's not a tax write-off! Absolutely not. There are much more beneficial ways of writing taxes off than forming a record company. If anything, it's going to swallow money up. We're not looking to sign Genesis or Lionel Richie. You have a lot of dirt on me, don't you? (laughs)
MUSICIAN: Are you thinking of the label as a way of avoiding being a pop star if you get old and decrepit?
STING: I suppose if I were looking for a twilight career it'd be a good one. It's something I love and care about and know about, so I think that being involved in producing new acts and feeding that need, that would be cool.
MUSICIAN: Why is there a need in Western pop to go beyond our traditions?
STING: Pop reflects our society it's sort of barren of spiritual values, therefore we look outside, we look to the East for spiritual values, and our music reflects that. We look to ethnic music forms as kind of untainted. I think it's right.
MUSICIAN: But the danger is you get this facile exoticism; you say, "Here are these reggae rhythms that bring with them intimations of the Caribbean, here are these African rhythms that bring stereotypes of Africa." Each set of rhythms has ramifications, and if you're buying it, and using it like that, you're using the surface of other people's cultures to sell a novel product.
STING: I don't think that reggae rhythms belong only to Rastafarians or Jamaicans. It's a music I've grown up with.
MUSICIAN: But when you treat the world as a supermarket for ideas, it can trivialise them.
STING: See I see music differently. I see music as being ultimately benign influence on them. "It can turn the wild beast into a man." I don't think music can be used in an evil way.
MUSICIAN: But if you don't use your sources carefully, you can be patronising.
STING: That's a very elitist view.
MUSICIAN: You can make music symbolise something that it wasn't intended to symbolise.
STING: When I've stolen music, my wish isn't to trivialise, but maybe to popularise. I think there's a difference. It's an attempt to point popular music in a direction, or admit your sources and say, "Well, this came from that, if you like this then you'll like that. This is the real stuff." I try to be honest about influences. "This melody was stolen from Prokofiev." It's useful. I think a lot of people read Jung from listening to 'Synchronicity'. I don't know if they understood it, but it can't have done any harm. Pop's good at dropping hints.
MUSICIAN: Have you heard Paul Simon's 'Graceland'?
STING: I liked it very much. I liked the accordion.
MUSICIAN: What do you think about the political aspect of it?
STING: The controversy was really outside of what Simon did. It was about power, the committees having power to say who can do this, who can do that; it struck me as being mealy-mouthed. The fact is, the whole thing has drawn attention to the injustice of South Africa, rather than making the South Africans feel comfortable that a superstar has come to make a record there. If anything, it's embarrassed them further. Any objection over him going to Johannesburg and paying local musicians to play with him is nonsense. He should be applauded. If anything, he's brought people like Miriam Makeba into the open again, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now people in Detroit have heard of these bands and the music; they'd never heard of South Africa before. Maybe the controversy was a good thing because it got people asking questions about these problems.
MUSICIAN: You don't think Detroit has heard of South Africa?
STING: I was using Detroit as a term for Middle America.
MUSICIAN: You don't think that Middle America has heard of South Africa?
STING: No. Not really. Most Americans, statistically, don't know where Nicaragua is, or who the secretary of state is. Fifty percent of American high-school children couldn't name a country near the Pacific Ocean. So, no, they've never heard of South Africa. Maybe pop music is the only acceptable source of information. They don't watch the news. They watch MTV. So the ultimate good of the controversy might have been to promote a peaceful change in South Africa. I have mixed views on the use of violence to change anything. I don't agree with the African National Congress mining roads.
MUSICIAN: You don't think violence is being used against black people there all the time?
STING: Of course it is.
MUSICIAN: So what's the right response?
STING: I hate violence. It achieves nothing.
MUSICIAN: That's not necessarily true. Sometimes armed revolution is the only way out. The Afrikaners aren't moving anywhere. The ANC has been around for many years. And peacefully, too for most of those years.
STING: But they've never had the chance for so much world support before. It's wrong to corroborate how they're attacked by Afrikaners as terrorist. Why give them that ammunition? Gandhi successfully drove out the British from India. Passive resistance works. I can't defend violence for anything. Because the lives of my children and me depend on that philosophy. I hate guns.
STING: I've never really been exposed to guns. What I hate most is guns in the media and entertainment. A movie star is someone who stands on a film poster with a big gun. I've actually said I will never appear in a film with a gun. That's my new directive to my agent, I said, "I don't want to be in these f***ing movies with these morons holding these things.' I don't need a gun. It makes it attractive. It's important that the black people in South Africa inherit something. If there's a violent conflagration they'll inherit nothing. The infrastructure has to be maintained. It has the semblance of democratic government, and that could become a democratic government if there was a change of heart.
MUSICIAN: But what happens if there isn't a change of heart? The ruling class isn't going to give up.
STING: They are. Bit by bit they're losing their confidence. What gives them confidence is that they're in the laager, where the wagons are around and the world is against it. Extremists will thank you every time something happens that makes them feel that xenophobia. I'm hopeful that there's enough dissent among the ruling class for the idea to germinate and for the country to become a truly open society.
MUSICIAN: In 'Fragile' you say, "Nothing comes from violence, nothing ever could. "It strikes me that violence is the only thing that can change things in South Africa, and that hating guns won't stop Oliver North's actions in Latin America.
STING: What will stop Norths happening is what happened at the hearings, which is open debate. And hopefully education.
MUSICIAN: You used the analogy of the British in India. The South Africans are much more hard-line than the British were then. Passive resistance won't work.
STING: I think that passive resistance and very strict boycotts of the economy by the Western powers would bring these people around. I think that blowing up kids with landmines won't work. I just don't. I'm not even going to apologise and say, "Well, maybe it will." It just creates more violence and bloodshed. I can't defend it, I can t defend violence.
MUSICIAN: Do you think there's a necessity for political songs?
STING: If you're being honest, if there's any integrity at all in your work, what you see and what you believe has to be reflected in it. If something strikes me in that way then I'm forced to write about it, not because I think it's a necessity, but because I can't help but write about it. I think you can put ideas across quite eloquently that eight weeks of Senate hearings couldn't. Nothing but confusion has come out of this Iran-contra thing. It's confusing for people. They see one set of values apparent, and another set of values underneath it which is completely contradictory. Fundamentalism is in music, too. Heavy-metal music is the music of the fundamentalists.
MUSICIAN: You don't think heavy metal has a sense of humour?
STING: I don't think heavy metal has any sense of humour at all. Well, maybe I'm being silly. But it's back to basics, heavy rock'n'roll. There's no finesse to it. No grace.
MUSICIAN: It's not about music, it's about a type of community.
STING: It's about fascism!
MUSICIAN: Bullshit. In that case pop music is a type of fascism, too. If everybody looks like Madonna that's a type of fascism.
STING: I mean what the Nazis used in the '30s isn't that far different from a heavy-metal concert, which is loud music, spectacle bombast.
MUSICIAN: What's the difference between that and Madonna. Everything you're saying could be applied to Madonna.
STING: There's more finesse in her music, more lightness.
MUSICIAN: In the music itself, but it's still a spectacle and it still encourages like-minded thinking.
STING: Alright. The heavy-metal symbolism is militaristic. Masculine, jack-booted, macho stuff that I don't want. It's ugly.
MUSICIAN: To call it fascism implies to me that music has malevolent purposes, which you earlier denied.
STING: Well, at a very primitive level. Say a musician learns music via heavy metal. A kid who's 15 starts to play guitar, it's very violent and aggressive; if he continues playing in that style, he will eventually come to a peaceful glade. Ultimately it's benign. The musicians mature and advance on to playing better music. I think it's generally benign, though that s not a cast-iron rule.
MUSICIAN: So what the hell do you do with your money? How much money do you have, anyway? You must have mountains.
STING: I probably make a dollar a record. I've sold six million albums over the last two years.
MUSICIAN: What do you do with it all?
MUSICIAN: Do you lose money touring?
STING: You don't lose it, but you don't make much. You invest. Hopefully it comes back in record sales. I buy Synclavier equipment (laughs).
MUSICIAN: But you grew up poor?
STING: I grew up poor, but I haven't had the time to become a jet-set spendthrift. I know the money's there, but I don't have a yacht. I don't have a tennis court or an estate in the country. I have an apartment here in New York, a house on the beach in California, and a house in London. What do I do with my money? Not that much. I don't think of the price of a pair of shoes. I enjoy that. It's a great feeling. It's a relative concept. I did an interview last week with an Italian socialist paper. They asked me, "How do you feel about all the poor people in the world when you're so rich?" And I said, "Wait a minute. You're quite chubby. Clearly you've eaten a lot of food, either this week or over the past few years. There are no holes in your trousers. Compared with 90 percent of the people on this earth, you are incredibly rich. The difference between you and a man in Chad is monumental compared to the difference between you and I. So don't give me any shit about money, because you're fat, well-fed and well-clothed." It's garbage. Trying to make me feel guilty about money is shit. The third world is much worse off.
MUSICIAN: Control has come up a lot in this conversation.
STING: I'm a control freak. I am.
MUSICIAN: Is that good or bad?
STING: It's good for me. (laughs) I like to be in control. I don't like being driven in a car. I don't like being piloted around the world in a 747. If I was going to die, I'd rather have my hands on the controls. With music, I like to be in control. That's why film is such a relaxing medium for me; it's like throwing yourself out of an airplane.
MUSICIAN: It seems as if you've ordered your life so that you've got control over everything. You've gotten a record company, you've made yourself enough money so that you can do anything you want. Did you think of it in those terms, as an ultimate goal? Is independence something you've always wanted?
STING: Yeah, I could never see myself as having a boss. I was fired from my job in the civil service. Which is just about impossible in England. I was in charge of five girls in the Revenue service who knew more about the job than I ever wanted to know. I would take four-hour lunches, I didn't do a thing. I just spent the whole day reading books, messing around, arrive an hour late, go home an hour early. I like the fact that I'm in control of my life. Isn't that what everybody wants to be? I'm trying to encourage that sense of independence in my kids.
MUSICIAN: Do you take any of this shit seriously?
STING: Which shit? (laughs)
STING: I love music. Whatever allows me to do it and gives me the most freedom possible, I have to take seriously. So selling records, being successful, having control of what I do, I take it seriously. I don't compromise myself that much. I don't pretend I'm young, or wear clothes that look silly. I dress on-stage the way I dress in the street. I don't have bodyguards and I don't have armoured cars and I don't have sunglasses and I live in a neighbourhood and I go shopping. It's not so different a life than anybody else. I have the freedom to do what I like. I don't think it's changed my life, I don't behave differently because of it. Because you're in the public eye would tend to make people shy away from real life. But I go out, get drunk, get rowdy. If I'm a celebrity, it's because of my work, not from being seen at parties or opening nights.
MUSICIAN: Has anybody ever accused you of being a sensualist?
STING: I would think that would be praise rather than an accusation. (laughs)
MUSICIAN: It also means a type of detachment.
STING: I'm pretty detached, but I want to be detached from the mob. The mob is dangerous.
MUSICIAN: But a Police concert is a mob, too.
STING: It was never my intention for it to be a mob. We played loud, but it wasn't marching music. People were singing yeah, but hopefully they were singing about light and love. (laughs) Community is one thing, a mob is another.
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