Q MAGAZINESeptember 29, 2009
Who the hell does Sting think he is? Singer, actor, activist. Not troubled by modesty.
Sting, part of the furniture of British rock music for so very long now, doesn't like to do interviews these days, and would much rather never have to endure a photo shoot again. To talk to him about living the celebrity lifestyle he shares with film producer wife Trudie Styler, a woman more glamorous than your average 55-year-old, is little short of an insult to his art. Celebrity, you see, is something other people pursue, not he.
"I have demanded a citizen's life," he will tell you a little airily, as is his wont, "and that's the life I lead."
He offers an example. He chose to walk the 15 minutes here today, from his house near London's St James Park to this imposing four-storey office he shares with wife, without the need of either entourage or bodyguard. "That's just not me, and neither is all this." Enduring promotion, he explains, is difficult for him, "but then it is part of the job. I'm employed by a record company - and given pot loads of money - to sell records, and part of that task is to sit with people like yourself and talk about it, so I do. But I'd much rather be in my kitchen in Tuscany making music, if I'm honest."
As welcomes go, Q has enjoyed warmer ones, but no matter. Onwards.
High summer in London, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, and Sting's people have given me 30 minutes (and not a second more) of his time in order for him to plug his new album, 'If On A Winter's Night'. Q arrives a quarter of an hour early, as stipulated, so as to be fully prepared for his entrance into this expansive lounge, with it's framed photographs of he and the missus, and the floor-to-ceiling windows that give generous views over Green Park and, just beyond, the flag that indicates Her Majesty is in residence this afternoon. On one corner of the low glass coffee table is a neat selection of bottled water. I help myself to one, drink from it, and place it in front of me. A moment later, in sweeps Sting. He is lean and taut in a tight camouflage green T-shirt and the kind of cargo trousers that All Saints used to wear. His face and neck radiate with recently caught sun, making his light-blue eyes blaze even brighter. He smiles, shakes my hand and sits on the adjacent sofa. Spying my bottle of water, he picks it up, swigs generously from it, then tucks it under his thigh, having claimed it for his own. I decide not to tell him of my swine flu, and get down instead to business, The clock, after all, is ticking.
Three years after this former Police man took the unexpected decision of rescuing the lute (a forefather of the modern-day guitar) from the clutches of the 16th century for 'Songs From The Labyrinth', a record of Elizabethan folk tales, he is now foisting upon us nothing less than an olde-worlde Christmas album.
"It's not a Christmas album, actually," he corrects, "though that is what the record company asked for. I told them I didn't want to do one of those because I don't like Christmas. I hate Santa Claus, I can't stand Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty The Snowman turns by stomach. So I suggested instead an album about the winter. It's my favourite season, winter. I like getting dressed up in sweaters and sitting by the fire, walking in the snow."
So did Perry Como, but Perry Como never made anything like this, a collection of overarchingly ornate, and creakingly slow, songs from the 12th and 15th century, and sung in a rather portentous voice that suggests Sting was sucking ruminatively on a Werther's Original throughout its recording. Some years ago, in this very magazine, he stated, "I'm sure that one day mass appeal and my personal taste will separate." Presumably, this is what is happening now?
"Well, I could have said that about the lute album," he points out, before rearranging his mouth into the very deliberate smile that so defines him, a smile that begins with the tight pursing of the lips before melting into what is an uncommonly self satisfied pout. "But that sold getting on to a million copies, didn't it? I've been lucky. My personal musical journey has always coincided with mass appeal, but then that has always been part of my job: to take these ideas and popularise them, make them palatable to the general public."
Before he walked away from The Police in 1984, leaving behind a world of ribald De Do Do Do, De Da Da Das in favour of increasingly esoteric, singer-songwriterly musings about threatening Russians, queer Englishmen and those infernal fields of gold, Sting was a bona fide rock god. He was worshipped and adored. Fans genuflected, and he appeared to love it. Appearances, though, proved deceptive.
"I was never interested in being famous," he suggests. "I always knew I'd be much more comfortable outside of the mainstream, where I now reside."
Besides, he adds, tensions between his fellow Police members Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were becoming increasingly apocalyptic. There were arguments, fist fights, heaps of bad chakra. "Things had started to fall apart," he says. "Marriages, relationships, mental states. When everything starts to go wrong just as you are reaching the pinnacle of what you thought was your success, it is an interesting lesson to learn. And it's when you should walk away. So I did."
Over the next two decades, he was repeatedly requested by record companies, by promoters, by Copeland and Summers themselves -to reform the band. "But my answer was always the same: No, fuck off."
That he eventually did, in 2008 for what was to become one of the most successful reunion tours yet staged, was proof, he says now, of one thing: "I am someone who can change his mind, and that's because I think." He taps the side of his head with a finger. "Also, I like to surprise people. And I know they [Copeland and Summers] had wanted it for a long, long time."
And why had they wanted it so badly?
"Ha. No idea. No comment. Ask them."
What he will say, readily, is that it wasn't the easiest remarriage in history, and that he found it difficult psychologically - a forward-thinking artist such as he taking a contradictory step backward. The tensions that defined them 25 years ago defined them still. They had separate dressing rooms and rarely socialised after hours. But, he insists, he did enjoy the 150 dates "considerably". Perhaps, Q suggests to him now, this is because it afforded him blanket adulation from everyone, something he hadn't had in an awful long time.
"No, it wasn't that. It was a fun thing to do, sure, but it confirmed to me that I never really missed being in the band at all. I'd gotten too used to being solo, to doing things my way. There needs to be at least a semblance of democracy in a group, but there is no democracy in art."
And so who was the de facto leader, then? That smile again. "Do you really need to ask?"
Type "I Hate Sting" into your search engine and you could quite easily lose an entire day perusing the very many sites devoted to verbally abusing a man who has sold more than 100 million records. Though the internet is, of course, a place where all manner of strange folk get to air a voice that otherwise goes ignored in daily life, it is nevertheless rather shocking to find that he is loathed in a manner usually reserved for war criminals. What on earth has he done to upset so many people?
"Nobody who is writing or blogging about me has the faintest idea who I am," he states with unerring serenity. "They have never even met me, most of them, so the idea they have of me is pure invention." Really? "OK, maybe some of the things they have read are true, but it's still not really me, and for that reason, I can't take it seriously."
That said, there must be something fundamental about the man's personality that has prompted such enduring derision. Q posits that it perhaps lies in the way he articulates himself. He has, after all, the natural born arrogance of a Liam Gallagher or a Kanye West, but delivers it with that most potent of arsenals: rarefied eloquence.
"Look," he says, a little testily, "this is me. I am well educated. I speak in a certain way. What am I supposed to do about that? Grunt?"
Sting, of course, would never grunt. Former school teachers rarely do. Instead, he appears to have retained a school-teacherly air of superiority, a kind of all-encompassing knowing that suggests he is better informed, on any given subject, than anyone else. More, that he is right when everyone else is wrong. When we talk about the protection of the Brazilian rainforests, for example, a cause he is still very much committed to (though less publicly now, in order to deflect the flak he received while campaigning two decades ago), he says this: "The deforestation of the rainforest is still the main cause of greenhouse gases being trapped in the atmosphere. I knew that instinctively 20 years ago. Now science has proved it."
The manner in which he discusses The Police, meanwhile, at once saying so little but also so very much, gives the impression that not only does he not like either Copeland or Summers at all, but that he enjoys his arch contempt for them. If all this suggests that he is really quite impossibly supercilious the smuggest of smug bastards, you could say - then perhaps we should look at it from his perspective. How can one remain humble in the face of such achievements? He has been a rock star and an actor. He has won 16 Grammy awards and been nominated for three Oscars. He is a CBE. His wife - with whom he has purportedly enjoyed tantric sex ("there is an element of truth to it, yes") - is very likely better looking than yours, and their marriage is one of the celebrity world's most enduring. He has worked hard, reaped unimaginable rewards, and possesses obscene wealth.
"Yes I do," he agrees, "though I've never been one to spend a lot of money."
But doesn't he have six homes?
He explains that his houses- in Los Angeles, New York, the UK and Italy - are global bolt-holes he fills with art and literature (and, in Tuscany, with wine, olive oil and honey), and that these are the places that help keep him sane when he travels the world as a wandering minstrel, as he so frequently does. And he says that wherever he goes, he is almost always afforded respect from his fellow civilians, "but especially in New York, where people have a higher self-esteem. They don't feel threatened by me." And here in Britain? "People have a much lower self-esteem in the UK, which can make my fame to them a little... sticky."
And if things ever become a touch too "sticky", given the absence of entourage or bodyguard? What then?
"I can look after myself," he says. "I have a mouth on me."
He also has yogically developed and maintained muscles. At 57 years old, Sting remains almost preternaturally toned, vibrantly healthy. He looks positively probiotic. On the cusp of becoming an old man, he seems anything but.
"I see pictures of 1951, the year I was born, and it looks like ancient history, everything in black and white. But I feel so alive, and still so young. But then I do keep fit, very fit, partly out of vanity, partly professional capacity."
So he does admit to being vain?
"I was being flippant," he chides, before conceding the point. "OK, I am a little bit, yes, but only because I want to realise my full potential as a human being in every aspect: physically, mentally, artistically. Do I think of retirement? Occasionally, yes. I look at my kids [he has six], and I think my work is done. But then I decide that, actually, no, I still have some juice left."
We have been speaking, according to my Dictaphone, for 29 minutes and 15 seconds when the PR suddenly emerges, magically, like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, to convey that my time is up. Instinctively, Sting switches back to business mode.
"This record is the perfect example of that juice. It is an unexpected record, and odd, but in an interesting way. And that," he says, "is all I ever really wanted to be."
© Q magazine by Nick Durden