The following article appeared in the September 1985 issue of Record magazine. The author was Jeffrey Peisch.
Sting discusses what's past, passing and to come...
Among contemporary musicians, only David Bowie exceeds Sting in his quest for movie stardom, and in the number of film roles to his credit. Still it could be argued that Sting has been more of what professional athletic scouts call "an impact player" than any of his other celebrated contemporaries who've attempted the rock-to-film crossover (the jury's still out on Madonna, who on the basis of one film seems to have the star quality that's eluded other rock artists on the silver screen). In addition to a chilling performance as the Jekyll-Hyde rapist character in 'Brimstone and Treacle', Sting's chalked up a major credit as one of the leads in 'Dune', will soon be seen starring opposite Meryl Streep in the romantic drama 'Plenty', and will portray the fatally ambitious Dr. Frankenstein in 'The Bride', a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein.
These experiences have given the once and future Gordon Sumner a deep perspective on the sort of challenges film presents him with, as distinct from his continuing evolution as a musician in and, as it happens, apart from the Police. It's not stretching a point to state that the 33-year-old former schoolteacher is out to change the world with his first solo album, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', with its songs addressing the arms race, the perils of nuclear energy and the price of political strife. Of particular note is a disturbing rumination on superpower politics called 'Russians', with its penultimate line, 'I hope the Russians love their children too."
Sting wrote 'The Dream of The Blue Turtles' last year, and began putting a band together in January. When the group Omar Hakim, drums; Kenny Kirkland, keyboards; Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Darryl Jones, bass) started rehearsing, rumour had it that they were making a jazz album, a rumour that made perfect sense since the musicians in question had all done stints with the likes of Miles Davis and Weather Report. But the sound of 'Blue Turtles' is not jazz - it sounds, in fact, more like a Police album than anything else. In May the band went to Paris to start rehearsing for a European tour; film director Michael Apted ('Coal Miner's Daughter') was on board as well, shooting a documentary, which Sting discusses in the following interview.
While eager to ponder the day's political headlines, Sting's manner was personable, almost playful. Occupying an absent A&M Records executive's desk for the day, he toyed constantly with knick knacks he found there, first brandishing a letter opener, now moving on to fondle a cricket racquet with boyish enthusiasm. Still, he seemed like a politician with an agenda, places to go, things to do, goals to achieve. We took up the issue of Sting's film career as a starting point for a broad discussion of this rock'n'roll Renaissance man's wandering muse.
Has it been a difficult adjustment to go from being a musician to being an actor? When you make records, you're usually in charge of all aspects of the production. For films, you're often part of someone else's vision.
You're right about that. In music, you write the song, you produce it, engineer it, you're involved in every pan of the production, down to the way the sleeve looks. I find it very hard to be in a film, because you're just a cog in a wheel. You don't really have much control over what the end product is, and I find that a bit frightening. At the same time, I quite enjoy film-making. I enjoy the privilege of doing a new job and learning a new skill. I think it's important for someone successful not to become self-satisfied in just one world. It's important to learn new things. Working on films also helps my songwriting and music. And the great thing about films is that you have to create strong and meaningful relationships quickly with a whole different set of people every few months. In music you work with the same people every day, year after year. It's a closed environment. In film you have a leading lady, leading man, a director and many other people you have to deal with, so it's a way of becoming - staying - human. Otherwise you live in this protected, rarefied atmosphere of the pop star and then what do you write about? How hot the swimming pool is? Your tailor?
Do people in the film community like you?
I'm sure before people meet me they think, 'Oh God, a damn rock star is gonna try to act and be a pain in the neck. " I accept those preconceptions, and say, "I'm learning; help." The best actors are great to me and have helped a lot. Most people, actually, have been very kind, and have given me a great deal of help.
What have you learned from other actors?
That I've got loads and loads to learn. I've just started. I've made eight movies and I don't know shit yet. It's a challenge to have to hold your own with Meryl Streep, and I'm quite happy with the way things are going. But I don't think I'm a great actor. I don't know if I ever will be, but I'm enjoying the process of learning.
Ultimately you'd like to direct a film, wouldn't you?
If someone would say to me, "Sting, here's $30 million, go direct a movie," I'd say, "You're crazy," because I know very little about it. It's presumptuous to think that just because you're successful as a rock star you think you can do anything else. People really do let you do anything - once ! But I don't really like failing. But if I were to continue in movies I would like to have more control over the final product. I find that a bit frustrating that you play your part and then you do the dubbing and that's it. The cutting, editing and all this is left to the committee. I'd like to be involved more in that process. I think I could get into directing. I don't think I could do it tomorrow. I'd have to take an apprenticeship, and this (documentary directed by Michael Apted) is a part of that. It's about the life of a band in one week. I'm going to be very involved in the editing process of the film. I won't be just saying my lines.
Will there be a script for the film, or will it be more like the cameras following you and the band around for a week?
It's being shot as a feature movie, in environments that are meant to look like film sets. So it's a real movie, but there's no script. The thing that's interesting about the movie is that most rock films are about bands after they make it big or when they finish. This is about a band at the beginning. It's quite exciting, fresh.
As far as career ambitions, do you find yourself thinking about achieving the same stature in the film world as you have in rock? What are the goals?
There's no grand design. I work very much from my instincts. My instincts tell me to do things from day to day. What I decided yesterday is probably different today. It's not my ambition to be the next Olivier or Clint Eastwood. I treat every experience I have as if it's the last one. I think of this as my last album and I recorded it as if it's the last one. I have a voracious appetite and I always eat as if it's my last meal. I treat every film as if it's the last one. Success to me is doing things well enough so that someone will ask me to do it again. I don't have any long term ambitions. I would like to make another album; I'd like to have the privilege of making another film; I'd like to eat my next meal; I'd like to make love again. But I assume that I can go out on the street and be shot, or hit by a car, or die of a heart attack. This can happen.
In the past you've often referred to a dark side of your personality. You've said you relate to the characters you played in 'Brimstone and Treacle' - a rapist - and 'The Bride' - Dr.Frankenstein. What do you mean by the "dark side" of your personality?
If you look at my history in the press in England - which is slightly different than here - at first I was heralded as the golden boy - blonde hair, talented, handsome. Here was a chap who was a school teacher, who had a beautiful, talented wife, and a kid. I was athletic and I didn't take drugs. Then (the press) found out that I did screw people, and, yes, I had taken drugs. And then I started to play these evil characters and suddenly I became the bad boy in the English press. This was great for me because it meant I was free to do what I pleased. So the British press is now totally confused as to what I am, which suits me fine. Sometimes I'm a good boy and sometimes I'm bad. That's me. My psychological makeup brings out certain sides of my personality that might normally be buried. What do I mean by the dark side? The ability to admit that you can do things that are evil. My feeling is that to admit to that potential in yourself is to be able to be out of control.
What kind of evil things are we talking about here? Rape? Wife beating?
No, I don't beat my wife - I'm not married anymore. If you look at my songs you get an idea of what I'm talking about. There's a whole series of songs that are very dark and spiteful and violent. 'Demolition Man' is a song about a destructive ego. A song on (the solo) album, 'Consider Me Gone', is a real spiteful song. 'Every Breath You Take' is a mean-spirited song too. It's just a side of my personality that comes out. I'm lucky I have this valve so I can expunge these things in songs. So that's what I mean by my dark side. But I'm also quite hopeful and fun-loving on the other side.
You mentioned 'Every Breath You Take' as a mean-spirited song. Isn't that song about the lessons you learned during the break-up of your marriage?
I suppose the break-up was an influence on the song, an inspirational influence certainty. Then again it's about a lot of things. It's about how we are conditioned to feel about relationships. Once a relationship happens we think we ought to keep it forever; we want to control our partners. 'Set Them Free' (from the solo album) is sort of an antidote to that, saying if you love someone, let them go.
How do you feel when you hear yourself referred to as a Renaissance man of rock?
It's certainty flattering but that's a function of being interested in a lot of stuff. I am well educated and to be well educated is to be interested in more than one thing. I like playing tennis, I like skin diving and moon surfing. But who wouldn't if you had the chance to do these things? I have the opportunity to act, write songs and perform. I am a very privileged human being. Most people don't have the opportunities that I have and I have a certain responsibility to do the best I can in all those fields. There's some relief that in the world of privileges I'm in the top three percent. Not in terms of financial wealth and security, but in the fact that the ability to do a job that I enjoy is almost unique. I grew up doing jobs that I hated. I never expected for a minute that I'd do a job I like. I don't know what I'd do if I hadn't been successful. I'd be useless, a drain on society.
Certainly one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Police is how much space the group members afford each other for outside projects. Andy Summers has done two albums with Robert Fripp and published a book of photographs; Stewart Copeland has done a movie soundtrack and shot a documentary about Africa; and you, of course, have done several movies. Now you've released your first recording project outside the band. The political nature of that album, though, raises a question about why you chose to go the solo route. Did you feel you couldn't express the ideas on the album in the context of the Police?
It certainly would have been different with Andy and Stewart. You'd know exactly what to expect and how it would sound. Once you're in a successful group you become part of people's gestalt, and you're not allowed to escape from it. Freedom is everything to me - freedom to change my mind, freedom to be seen differently. The more people pigeonhole me the more my freedom is impaired. I want to be able to change what I do. I get bored very easily. My threshold for boredom is very, very low. People say to me, "You're a member of the Police and that's all you'll ever be." Well, that's like telling someone they'll spend the rest of their life in prison. Not to say that prison isn't comfortable, and it's safe and you get fed. But it's not really my intention in life to be safe and secure. I want to be stimulated all the time.
How did you go about choosing the musicians to accompany you on your solo project?
They're probably the best young jazz musicians in the country, and I'm very privileged and honoured that they agreed to come work with me. My intention was to use musicians who had the finesse of playing jazz, but to make music without that label. I think we got enough spontaneity on the record and yet enough discipline to have gone into areas that most pop records don't go. A lot of people will be surprised at how this album sounds, because it isn't jazz but nor is it a mainstream pop album. It will be interesting to see how radio adjusts to it. If they adjust at all.
That's true, because while some of your Police songs address social issues, the politics on this album seem more pointed.
I'm not sure if it's political so much as apolitical. It's largely about the redundancy of the political process, and it's something I feel very strongly about. If we're going to have world peace then it's going to be a function of each one of us contributing to that, rather than allowing the so-called experts to do it for us. I don't think they're getting anywhere, so I want to do something in my own small way. For example, the original idea for the song 'Russians' was to go and record it in Russia with a Russian orchestra. It's not a pro-Soviet song, it's pro-children. It's a very obvious statement to me but one that isn't being made. The wheels were set in motion but it's taken a very long time to do because of the politics of going through the Politburo and having them sanction it. My feeling is that you have to make contact with our potential enemies, people you might be expected to kill or be killed by.
When you sat down to write this album did you have certain issues in mind that you wanted to address?
Well, it's not a concept album. There's no consistent theme running throughout - but there's also no song on the record that doesn't have an issue. It's not just a riff of a guitar with nonsense lyrics. A lot of thought and energy went into it. The songs are more didactic than they've ever been before. I have to be inspired before I write, but then when you're writing about issues like the miners' strike, the proliferation of nuclear power, and the arms race, then you have to have a certain responsibility to those issues. You have to think about them. I think time is running out. You can't really make records that are about nothing anymore.
Do you think the world is in that bad a shape?
Yes, I think we have to do something drastic. Well, I guess it depends on how you read the papers. Today I read the New York Time's and it was disaster everywhere: Central America, Lebanon, and you know I'm not making this up. The world is in a terrible state. We can close ourselves off to it because we're sitting here in a comfortable environment - we all have cars, the waiter is coming, there are our pretty wives, pretty kids playing on the lawn - but the reality of most of the world is not this. This is an illusion. Now we can either contain that illusion, or we can come to terms with the reality of the world and try to change. And I know it's all very well for me to say that, but what can I do as a pop star ? But I'm trying. The Band-Aid project is a case in point. We did this song and raised eight million dollars for Ethiopia. So you can't discount pop music as a galvanising force for change. Then again, you can't change the world overnight with a song, but it's the only forum I have so I would like to use it as best I can.
Following up on what you said about not wanting to be pigeonholed by the star-making machinery...
I don't mind the star-making scene. I've gotten advantage and privilege from it. But I don't want to be trapped by it, to become an Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. People's perception is totally rigid, so I keep behaving in odd ways, to jog that perception.
Have you ever thought about using your real name (Gordon Sumner) and dropping Sting?
It's largely a defence mechanism. I've been lucky in that I've been able to create this persona that takes all the glory and all the flak and leaves me intact. I really feel like I have my head screwed on, basically. I don't live in an ivory tower. I'm not overprotected by bodyguards and yes men and the rest of the entourage, because I have this persona who does all that. Sting is a creation of the press and myself, and I'm protected from it. The people who know me real well, you can count on one hand.
Since Sting is merely a creation, then you're putting on a performance now?
Yes, right now, I'm performing. It's not in my interest to use this interview as a confessional. One, I don't think you'd find it particularly interesting. Two, you have a particular need and I'm willing to fashion myself for you. So you walk away satisfied and your readers will be intrigued. But it's not a confessional, so I have to balance out what I give you and what I shouldn't.
Why do interviews at all?
It's part of my responsibility. If I'm writing songs about issues I care about, and I'm asked questions about those issues, then I have to answer them. I've got this forum, I might as well have a go at it. And I quite enjoy interviews. I'm enjoying myself now; I like the tension. It's a game I learn to play better and better. And I'm not completely putting a mask up; I'm obviously being quite candid now.
What does your eldest son, Joe [age 9], think of your life?
He was born in a trunk and by the age of three he had been to every continent with the Police. When he started to ask questions he would ask why people wanted my name on a piece of paper. How does everyone know you?, he'd ask. Why do all these people come to the concerts? He'd ask these questions and I'd try to explain to him in a way that I could. I've also had to involve him in the creative process. In a song like Russians, he was at the studio with me when we recorded it, and there's a line. "How can I save my little boy, from Oppenheimer's little toy?" It was obvious to him who the little boy was, so he asked me what Oppenheimer's little toy was. We had discussed the bomb before that. One day when he got home from school he asked me if it was true that there's a bomb that can blow up the world. So I had to give him some kind of answer. I said it was true, but what could someone gain from setting it off? It would be ridiculous. He seemed to get a certain amount of comfort from that. What the kids have done for me is rooted in the future. I feel I have a responsibility for what happens in the world in ten years. The classic rock'n'roll phrase is, live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse. Having kids doesn't make me sentimental or middle-aged. It makes me realise I have a responsibility. I can't just sit back and allow the world to become what it will become. Because I think the people in charge are assholes and I want to get rid of them.
One last question: the official line on the future of the Police seems to change every few weeks. What's the latest?
It's flattering to the group that people would worry about it. But then, it's kind of a sentimental thing. Why would three grown men want to be lumped together for the rest of their lives as this unit? We are not Siamese triplets. We are three thinking individuals. We are often at odds with each other in every sphere - musically, politically. We are not best buddies; we are colleagues. I'm intrigued by the amount of interest that the subject generates. It's odd. There are no plans for a next Police record. I don't think in five-year plans, either. I think, Will there be a career in five years? Will there be a world in ten years? Will there be a record market? The way things are going, maybe not."
© Downbeat magazine