10.01.01 THE TIMES
The following interview by Alan Franks appeared in The Times newspaper in October 2001...
He's as well known for his outspoken defence of human rights and the rainforest as he is for his music. But for the past two years Sting has been concentrating on what he does best - playing live with his band. Alan Franks meets a lord of the rockocracy in his Tuscan palazzo.
If the New York terrorists had wanted to spoil Sting's party, they could hardly have shown more lethal timing. As he stepped out to front the band in the courtyard of his Tuscan villa, it was barely five hours after the collapse of the World Trade Centre. This was an audience of just 200 friends, invited from all over the place to hear an intimate version of the concert which he has been taking round the world for the past two years. A live album, to be released next month, was being recorded. The mood should have been exuberant, but it was understandably weird and sombre, with that nightmare footage of planes and buildings still looping through everyone's head.
At times like this, rock music is in a cleft stick. Carry on playing - which is after all the manifesto of the R'n'R Party - and you are accused of being insensitive. Stop playing and you are accused of taking yourself too seriously. Sting is no stranger to the second charge, what with the ntric sex, the rainforests, the Yanomani Indians, and so on. Even people who rated him as a performer found something a little too public about his right-mindedness. Serious issues became entangled with celebrity narcissism. Two days later he will complain at the media for our alleged part in presenting him in this way. But first there is the concert and the difficult atmosphere. He reaches the mike and starts doing some serious talking.
He says there will be a minute's silence after the first number, and then the planned webcast of the rest of the concert - if there is a rest of the concert - will be shut off. The song is the humanitarian anthem 'Fragile', which he dedicates to those who have lost their lives in the atrocity. "This is difficult for us all," he says.
"I'm confused and frightened. I don't want to give this pointless act of violence any credence." At the end of the song he tells us: "We have a choice. We can stop or we can carry on. It's up to you." This must be rock democracy in action, but the outcome is predictable. The audience votes with its feet by standing on them and giving Sting the endorsement to carry on. During the afternoon rehearsal, he has asked each of his musicians if they are sure they want to go ahead, and their response is also unanimous. Two days later he says that if any one of them had wanted the concert called off, he would have respected their wishes, although it is hard to see where that would have left the majority who were in favour of playing. Halfway through the 90-minute gig and normal service is almost resumed: "Do you like my house? I got it for a song. Maybe this song: 'Roxanne', you don't have to turn on your red light."
Perhaps I should be ashamed of my cynicism. It turns out that he and his wife, the producer Trudie Styler (Snatch; Lock, Stock; Green Fingers), have lost three close friends in the terrorist attack. (He subsequently appeared in the American stars' tribute concert for the September 11 victims.) He does not mention it at all during the performance, but later he says he was feeling so devastated that he feared he would not get through the songs. These numbers, like countless others, like films and fiction and advertising slogans, like the world itself, have changed shape as a result of the bombing. Some, like 'Englishman in New York', are suddenly too close to home; others, like 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', too flippant.
Then there are the ones which have had some fresh relevance thrust upon them - the hopeful 'Message in a Bottle', or the newer 'A Thousand Years' from the last album, 'Brand New Day'. Sting says he didn't make any connections until he was right in the middle of it: "An endless turning stairway climbs/To a tower of souls/If it takes another thousand years, a thousand wars/The towers rise to numberless floors in space."
One way or another there was no escaping the altered view on September 11. Even the title of the live CD, recorded at the concert, was changed from 'On Such a Night' to 'All This Time'.
He bought this home in Tuscany a couple of years ago, having found in himself a classic English passion for the region a decade earlier. He had come to make an album called 'The Soul Cages', which was brought about by his father's death. The house is called Il Palagio. It stands in a 600-acre estate with forests and woods, and had been in the ownership of a single aristocratic family for several centuries. With its courts, halls, chapel and 20-room pile, the place is the size of a fair old hamlet or cathedral close. The band, who are a truly eclectic group of musicians, have been hanging out here for the weeks before the concert. It is like a mature version of every young band's dream - the mansion, the on-site studio, the rich patron, the summer hanging on and on in the hills.
Sting takes his role very seriously. At 50, he is older than most of them, and he says that while they are on the road he now combines the role of bandleader with that of father confessor. "All kinds of things happen," he says. "Relationships on tour, relationships at home. People freaking out, wanting to leave. You have to deal with it."
He is, of course, fabulously wealthy, thanks to a 25-year performing and recording career with long periods of huge international sales, first with The Police and then by himself. Eighty-five million seems to be the average estimate of his fortune, although the Sunday Times Rich List has him up at Pounds 120 million, sharing twelfth place in the musicians' table with Phil Collins, George Harrison and Tim Rice. It hardly matters; when you can lose six million to a bent accountant without noticing it, you are comfortable. He is also one of a small band of British international stars with both the means and the will to embrace a lord of the manor lifestyle; visitors to Lake House, his Wiltshire mansion, came back with accounts of butlers and conspicuous opulence.
At some point in the Nineties he seemed to have vaulted into the royal enclosure of rock aristocracy, where Elton John and Billy Connolly hang out with Prince Charles. Soon after he bought the house in Italy, the label bearing the words Famiglia Sumner started appearing on the bottles of olive oil produced by the groves of the estate. This is about the only visible use of Gordon Sumner's family name. No one calls him anything but Sting, not even his wife. It was a nickname he got through wearing a bee-striped jumper during his early days as a bass player in the North East, where he grew up. It stuck, like some brand that survives diversification, and he seems to have done nothing to discourage it. One associate of his in the music business says he looks a bit flummoxed if someone does call him Gordon. No one knows quite what would happen if he got a knighthood.
On Wednesday, the day after the concert, the world is even more lopsided. The New York death toll is sounding beyond belief. In the bars of Florence the jets are still vanishing into the glass walls of the Trade Centre, again and again. Berlusconi comes on. He has the same look, angry but chastened, as the other European leaders. Down at Il Palagio, 40 minutes south on the Arezzo road, Sting is said to be distraught about his friends. Television and radio interviews are being cancelled, and the Americans are wondering how they will get home. All their stations have gone into obit mode, with nothing too raucous or too happy.
Suddenly the party, and the age of the party, is over. Popular music, along with the grown-up trades of banking and insurance, has taken a terrible hit and gone inappropriate. And yet, and yet.
"These cranks," says Sting with weary anger, "are trying to kill human expression and joy because we don't agree with what they purport to believe in, and we are not allowed to have music or travel as we need to, or have the freedom and the joy of life, and I feel very defiant about that."
It is now Thursday, two days on, and he is talking in the garden of a hotel just down the road from his house. He has come here in a small group, which includes his wife and his American manager, Kathy Schenker. There is a handful of quiet Americans at the poolside, and the same heaviness in the air. Sting looks downcast and tentative, not a bit like you imagine him, and glad to have the support of strong women.
And goodness, they look strong.
"They (the terrorists) hate life, they hate music, they hate women, they hate the world. Destroying it is the only thing they can do. They are demented, with their weird political religious perversions, like the Nazis."
So where, I ask, does his vocation stand at such a time? As rock stars go, he is among the most engaged.
Not as active as his friend Bob Geldof has been, but an outspoken champion of human rights - honoured by the Chilean foreign minister this year - and a stern critic of Disney over the storyline of 'The Emperor's New Groove', a film for which they wanted him to write the music. (The emperor builds a theme park in a South American rainforest). "I have to qualify my answer by saying I never tackle political issues head-on," he says. "With something like 'Dance Alone', and the Pinochet regime, the metaphor was of the poor women dancing alone in front of government buildings; you could understand that metaphor whether or not you knew the political issues. I've never set out to write a song that is about, for example, the environment.
Songwriting is much more veiled than that. The meaning reveals itself as you go into it. A song should be plastic enough for you to find different meanings there. That's what all art does, all poetry, if you can call it that."
All this is delivered in an oddly transatlantic accent. That is, it straddles the ocean; Washington DC and Washington Tyne and Wear all at the same time. He looks exhausted, but trim and fit from his daily hours of yoga. He also looks a few years younger than the recent photos, which had stopped making him look like the early-middle Olivier and started making him look strangely like Jeffrey Archer. Before meeting him I had been told by one of his press agents that he was getting back to doing what he knew best, ie, playing live, and distancing himself from those non-musical pursuits. It was even suggested that he was a bit contrite about all that other stuff.
This turns out to be untrue. "I've never given up doing what I do best," he says. "It's just that the media is more interested in what you have to say on the other issuesI if someone asks me a serious question about the environment, or politics, or whatever, I will try and give a good answer, but I will never walk into a room and say, here's my view on this. I'm not that kind of spokesman. I got into this position by default. I'm a musician. I play songs and I entertain people. I don't see myself as a saviour or a spokesman for anything except my ideas as a songwriter. But the media don't want to go that way. Look at Bob (Geldof). No one wants to talk to him about his music any more, because of his fantastic work elsewhere. It's easier to talk about issues than music. So I tend to steer clear, unless someone pointedly asks me what I think of some situation. You know, I have this fantastic band, and I'm really not bad at my job." True enough. The 16 musicians of his current band are just about as good as you can get. Their presence is his best reference as they wouldn't work for any old employer. Also, he's a very active member of the line-up, as bass player as well as singer, stepping carefully around the acoustic double bass lines of Christian McBride. The two-year tour (200 gigs, 51 countries, 3.7 million audience) has made him match-fit. He can still shout tunefully when the number needs it, such as 'Seven Days', or the beefed-up 'Every Breath You Take', still do a scissor jump to close off the last chord, still shape his phrases with great lyricism on 'Fields of Gold'.
For whole stretches of the performance, the music is a long way from rock'n'roll. When the trumpet of Chris Botti or the piano of Jason Rebello are prominent, it is closer to jazz, always a major influence on Sting. He cites Miles Davis as one of his musical heroes, but detests categories. For someone who has at times come across as the embodiment of vanity, he is modest almost to the point of self-deprecation about his musical ability. "I know about structure," he says, "but that's my one talent." Yet he taught himself to sight-read complex bass figures, and could hold his own in other people's bands.
He is proud of his eldest son, Joe (by his first marriage, to the actress Frances Tomelty), for being a working musician, "not one of those who moves from Garage to MTV stardom in a matter of weeks". And as he goes on, he becomes justly proud of having likewise paid his dues. "I worked in the theatre, in the pit, cabaret, cruise ships. Not a lot in my position have done that. I sound old-fashioned here, but you need to have gone up and down the M1 countless weekends, carting Hammond organs up and down stairs and sleeping in the van and eating every night in the Blue Boar. It's so gratifying to see Joe doing it the right way. That's how you create a spirit of community in the band. You're like a little guerrilla group taking on the world."
He started doing all this himself at the relatively late age of 25. The son of working-class Catholic parents, he had won a place at St Cuthberts Grammar School in Newcastle. The plainsong in church suited his voice well. He became an English teacher in the same city, playing clubs in the evening. When he then told his school he was off to pursue a music career, the head warned him he would be jeopardising his pension.
"Pension? I didn't know I had one." He had a wife, Frances, a baby, Joe, and a small car. In this they drove south with no very clear plan beyond not staying in that old life. Shades of another Geordie singer, Eric Burdon of The Animals, singing, "We gotta get out of this placeI girl, there's a better life for me and for you."
He says that without Frances he would never have done it, and that he still feels great pain about their eventual divorce: "My first marriage was probably the only failure I would admit to in my life. To this day it deeply saddens me that I didn't manage to make that work. I processed the grief of it through songwriting and performing."
He will not have it that he himself is somehow getting back to his proper trade of music after messing about with other things. That is absolutely not the story as he sees it. In fact, he even goes on to suggest that the other things have fuelled his productivity. "I've no regrets about anything I did. It certainly gave me a very interesting entry into worlds I would never have had revealed to me otherwise. Like visiting the Amazon tribesmen, having them tell me their story, trying to help them out in some way, being involved with Amnesty. In some indirect way, I believe these things do feed creativity."
He lets drop that he still regards himself as an amateur when it comes to music. The facts prove him wrong, but I get the impression he can't quite believe his luck in having all these highly regarded musicians wanting to play with him. He undersells himself here. He remains an electrifying performer, with enough charisma to hold an audience for two hours but with enough confidence to give his musicians a generous exposure. The best of the songwriting is still taut and assertive, and the sheer variety of musicians he has played with has broadened his range.
He insists that he is "somewhere in the top ten of the luckiest blokes around", and it is hard to quibble with that. The money, the homes here and in rural Wiltshire and America; the colossal success of his music, the six children (two from the first marriage, four from this one), the welcome possibility of some anonymity, the handsome wife and protective friends. He says the best thing about ending the tour is the thought of getting back to being an available father. Take away the cladding of stardom and this is a rather straightforward bloke - decent, hard-working and very concerned with the welfare of the people around him.
His pupils must have rated him.
I ask him what it is about actresses, but Mrs Sting and the others are moving slowly towards us. They want him back and I can't see him resisting them. "Well," he says, "sex and drama." What of them? "They're very related. The thing about serious Shakespearian actresses is that they are not just beautiful but also intellectual, and that appeals to me."
The others are arriving like a chorus. I do ask him about the tantric sex, but we are really pushed for time, and it's not a thing you can rush. He mutters something about a slightly drunken conversation with Bob Geldof, but then says: "Tantric is not just about sex, it's about how you give thanks to creation for the way you walk, eat, breathe, treat other people. It's about treating your partner as a goddess. Sex is a wonderful way of giving thanks."
Fairly conventional stuff when you get down to it. For ages he seemed to court the good opinion of others when he could have had it by trying less. He was one of the best pop peacocks of the past 20 years, but he kept his modesty for the thing he was evidently best at - being player-manager in a class team. He should stick to it, but on the evidence of what he did to The Police - scuttled it in its prime - he might not.
He knows that risk-taking is his way of dodging predictability. He learnt that at school, by leaving the place.
If he had not, he would still be planning the music for the Christmas show and wondering how to raise the money for a new bass. 6 Sting's live album, 'All This Time', will be released by Polydor on November 5.
© The Times