THE RADIO TIMESSeptember 23, 2003
The following interview appeared in the Radio Times in September 2003. The interviewer was Robin Eggar.
Back on the beat - The barbed temper that earned him his nickname might have softened over the years, but this ex-Police man still has a fierce drive to succeed.
A year ago, as Sting was preparing to perform at a charity party in Cannes, Bono introduced him.
"He is one of the most talented singers and songwriters in the world," said the U2 frontrnan. "He plays a mean bass guitar. He's good-looking. He's fit. He has a beautiful wife. But God is fair... and he has no penis!" The celebrity audience roared.
Sting initially appears flustered by the memory. "How did I feel? Well, if didn't have six children I might have felt threatened. But in his roundabout, Irish way, Bono was paying me a compliment. We have a kind of older brother/younger brother thing, and I'm definitely the older brother."
Everyone likes to have a laugh at Sting's expense. As he truly does have it all - the beautiful houses, the millions, the six-pack, the conscience - it's hard to resist. Some of it has to be the way he looks: his pale-blue eyes discourage intimacy. There's a part of Sting that can never quite let go in interviews. He's drinking a half of Guinness, and insists I have the same to "maintain parity".
Sting is sitting undisturbed in the corner of his local pub in Highgate, north London, wearing a white ruffled shirt but no tie under an expensive Italian suit. He's sporting a beard, which only he could describe as a "Solzhenitsyn-type thing". The Sun likened him to Abraham Lincoln.
"My kids thought that was hilarious," he says, admitting that there was a time in his career when he was an arrogant so-and-so, and it wasn't a good idea to tease him. These days, he doesn't seem to mind. He says he's been saved by having people around him "who take the piss out of me nonstop. If you're surrounded by people who are afraid to say anything bad, it's bad news. I don't think Michael Jackson has anybody to take the piss out of him."
He likes the grey in his beard. "I can see I'm older, but I feel pretty good about it. I have good memories for a 51-year-old, but I don't behave like one. I think I'm probably 32 or 14, depending on the day. I'm not too old to hit a club or be out on the town. Let's grow old in years, but why should we grow old in our mentality, our energy, our openness to ideas?"
It helps having a body, trimmed and charged by daily ashtanga yoga workouts, that would not disgrace a 25-year-old. "Vanity is part of my job. I don't like it the next day if I drink too many Guinnesses, eat too many treacle tarts. I like to be around my fighting weight: 75 kilos [eleven and three quarter stones]. I like to feel strong."
For all his current levity, part of Sting has always been deadly serious. In 1989, appalled by the degradation of the Amazon rainforest, he started the Rainforest Foundation, promoting it via a series of high-profile interviews, accompanied by Raoni, a Kayapo Indian chief with a plate in his lip. Cue mockery from the press and a World in Action documentary questioning the Foundation's effectiveness (Sting strongly countered the charges). While he's proud that an area of the Amazon the size of Belgium is now safe for the Kayapo, he's learnt never to preach unless pressed. His annual Carnegie Hall concert for the Foundation is still a major social and musical event in New York, but nowadays Sting concentrates on what he does best: writing and singing songs.
In the past, his albums have been inspired by personal trauma. Two consecutive albums were about the death of a parent: 1987's 'Nothing like the Sun' was about his mother, while 'The Soul Cages' in 1991 was inspired by the loss ofhis father. His recent work, including the new album, 'Sacred Love', has been shaped by his own brush with death, and by world events.
In summer 2001, Sting was landing at Florence airport in a small plane, with only his manager and the two pilots, when the brakes failed and the plane careered across the runway before hitting a fence. "I did think I might die. I found myself up here," he says, pointing above his head, "watching it. Then the most violent event of my life happened: the plane broke up, my guitar whistled past my head. We were all in total silence. Then I opened the door, howling with relief. I immediately called my wife and said, 'I'm sitting on top of a broken plane, and I'm alive.'"
Two months later, Sting was planning to record a live album at his villa in Tuscany, surrounded by friends. At lunchtime on September 11, the day of the recording, he had a phone call from some Italian friends who were at the top of the World Trade Center. Ten minutes later, the planes hit. Sting didn't want to sing, "just crawl into a small dark comer and cry". But eventually the recording, which became 'All This Time', went ahead, becoming both celebration and catharsis.
"It was the right thing to do," he says quietly. "What is terrorism designed to do but to alter our lives in a way that most of us don't want? So our playing was an antidote to what September 11 was all about."
'Sacred Love' was recorded in Paris during the build-up to the attack on Iraq. "It reflects the confusion ofthe time," he says. "I was in the centre of 'old Europe', reading the papers, thinking: 'Are there weapons of mass destruction? If we go in, are we going to be blown up?' Things were changing at such a rapid pace that I felt I had better finish it quick. It must have felt like that before the Second World War.
I don't know the answers," he says sadly. "I'm struggling, just like everybody else. But what we see in the papers every day is insanity. The world needs therapy."
Sting was born Gordon Sumner on 2 October 1951, in Wallsend, on the outskirts of Newcastle. His father was a milkman, so when Gordon, the eldest of four children, passed the eleven-plus and went to St Cuthbert's grammar school, it was a big deal.
"It was a big watershed in my life," he says. "Most of my friends didn't go, so I lost my roots. I ostracised myself from my parents. I learnt things they had never heard of, like calculus and French. But having been promised the earth, I realised after A-levels it was all a con, that there was nothing at the end of it."
He dropped out of Warwick University after one term studying English, and went to teacher-training college. He was 20 when he found both the name that properly fits him and his true calling. "I was adrift. I didn't know what to do," he says. "That was when music came to save me. I wasn't ambitious until I'd found that." In the evenings he was playing bass for a traditional jazz band, having first picked up the instrument at 16.
"I was christened Gordon by my parents before they actually knew me. Nicknames are given to you by people who latch on to something about you. It began as an insult. In the band I was the kid who wore this stripy jumper and looked like a wasp. Someone called me Sting and it stuck. I was quite a barbed personality," he grins. "I'm much softer now."
Although they only got married in 1992, he has been with Trudie Styler for 20 years. He credits her with saving his sanity and patently adores her, but admits it hasn't always been easy.
"I'm not sure I believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight. But for that to mature into a lifelong relationship takes real effort, consciousness about how that person develops, and common interests. You have to actively make it a good and exciting thing. Daily."
He has "nice joints" aplenty: LA, Tuscany, the Lake District, London, a Manhattan apartment, a Malibu beach house. His wife spends most of her time either in London or at their 800-acre estate in Wiltshire. It was there that Trudie, an executive producer of 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', introduced director Guy Ritchie to Madonna.
"She'd been our friend for a long time and we had a dinner party. Bingo." Was it a set-up? "You'd have to ask Trudie that, but they are a great couple. Other people have asked us, 'Got anybody in mind for me?'" he jokes. "So we're going to start a celebrity dating service."
He considers his six children ¬? two by his first wife, actress Frances Tomelty; four with Trudie ¬? his greatest achievement.
"I get more compliments about them than I do about any other aspect of my life. I'm very happy about that, how individual they are, how focused they are."
When he did 'Rise and Fall', his recent duet with Craig David, Sting consulted the kids. "I said, 'How hip is Craig? How did I look in the video? Did I look like Craig David's dad?'" They told him he was fine, that he was cool. Because he's their dad, they may not have realised that Sting will always be cooler than Craig David.
His last studio album, 'Brand New Day', sold 500,000 in the UK - creditable sales, but nothing like he managed with The Police. However, it sold eight million in the rest of the world, making it his most successful record in a solo career that began back in 1985.
The impact of The Police was so huge, it's hard to remember that the band lasted only seven years. The last two of them were not the happiest. Sting's marriage disintegrated; then the band imploded. "You'd have thought it was what I had wanted after all those years. But I felt trapped. I just wanted out. I made my own life a misery and everybody else's life a misery. So I'll take the blame."
He is featured in concert this Saturday on Radio 2, and next January he starts another world tour; he might play 300 shows. It's what he lives for. "I like to work. I'm crap at everything else. There's no thinking involved in touring: it's purely physical. I go out, sing and jump around.
"I don't need any more acclaim. The people who really matter to me love me, and that's enough." However, he admits," I like having people know who I am. It's important to me that my last record did better than the one before. I like to play this game to win.
"I am," Sting says, giving me a steely look, "very competitive."
© The Radio Times