PLAYGIRLOctober 01, 1983
The following interview by Iain Blair appeared in the October 1983 issue of Playgirl magazine...
The cavernous hangar is black and empty - except for thousands and thousands of candles, flickering and shining, laid out in arcane and symbolic patterns. And right in the middle of a spiral, as if trapped by the candles and yet entranced by them, moves the graceful figure of a young man. Carefully, I move closer to observe his bizarre dance, waiting for some ritualistic chant to surface from behind the altar of light, and fully expecting a tap on the shoulder by a hooded and faintly menacing figure.
Suddenly, the cathedral-like cavern is indeed filled with a strange sort of music, as two shadowy figures approach. They turn out to be Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, the ex-10cc guys responsible for directing some of the hottest rock'n'roll videos of the last few years. For the candles turn out to be part of their set on the huge soundstage at A&M headquarters in Hollywood, and the strange music is a playback, at twice the normal speed, of the new single 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' by The Police, and the solitary figure in the spiral is Sting.
Back in his dressing room after the shoot, Sting looks fit and relaxed in his costume, a baggy white outfit that he describes as "kung fu meets punk." He's friendly, articulate and witty - not always the most obvious qualities in a rock star. But there's also something of the chameleon there too. He's open, but guardedly so, with little display of the arrogance he's so often accused of.
PLAYGIRL: This looks like a pretty bizarre shoot.
STING: It is! It's incredibly atmospheric, and I think the set design is brilliant - there's nothing but all those candles, yet it conjures up so many different feelings and possibilities about the song. When Kevin and Lol came to me with the idea, I got very excited because I realised that they really understood the imagistic approach I wanted. The whole concept is fairly esoteric - it's really a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" type of idea.
PLAYGIRL: Why are you working to the track at double speed?
STING: Ah! That's more movie magic. The song is actually called 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' - it's the single off our new album, 'Synchronicity' (A&M) - and it's cunningly being shot at high speed in order to achieve a special effect when it's eventually played back at normal speed. At least, that's the theory...
PLAYGIRL: You seem to be enjoying yourself.
STING: Yeah, it's great. I really like the magic of filmmaking, although it can be very tiring and boring, what with all the waiting and hanging about. The great thing about doing a video is that it's relatively fast.
PLAYGIRL: Did you come up with the concept for this video?
STING: No, although I had very specific objectives. The approach was very important, because I don't like a narrative structure in videos, one where you're given a very definite story line and told what to think. To me, that defeats the whole purpose of shooting a visual for a piece of music, because it robs the viewer of his imagination. I much prefer to work like this, using a tangential approach to conjure up a series of images that complement the music and leave the audience free to dream.
PLAYGIRL: The magic of images and dreams seem very important to you.
STING: They are, although it's increasingly hard to be free to dream in today's world.
PLAYGIRL: You sound slightly disenchanted with today's high-tech society.
STING: I suppose I am. It probably sounds strange, as I'm right in the middle of shooting one, but basically I'm not enamoured with video.
PLAYGIRL: Why's that?
STING: Because it's like TV - soon it'll be everywhere, and there'll be no escape, whether you're in the middle of the Sahara or in the Amazon jungle. I mean, it is great, and one half of me loves it. But the other half is like the tribesman who believes that to have his picture or image taken is to lose his soul and his identity.
PLAYGIRL: How do you feel about video outlets like MTV?
STING: Well, obviously it really benefits us, but in the long run I think it's a mixed blessing. It throws all these images at you and tells you what to see. It doesn't leave anything to the imagination, like radio does.
PLAYGIRL: Did you grow up listening to a lot of radio?
STING: Yeah, far more than I watched TV. I grew up on the Beatles and The Stones and The Who; but now I don't really listen to the radio much.
PLAYGIRL: Why's that?
STING: Because I'm a strong believer in listening intentionally, as opposed to using music as a placebo or as aural wallpaper. It's a matter of making a choice, as opposed to swallowing everything that's given to you. On the other hand, when you have too many choices, that's equally dangerous because you lose quality control. I think that's the problem with American TV, for instance. For all the talk about a "global electronic village," it can be very divisive in society. People complain bitterly about the lack of channels on British TV, but I believe that it helps produce a cohesive culture in a way that's missing when you have 50 or 150 channels available 24 hours a day.
PLAYGIRL: You obviously spend a lot of time in America, touring, recording and now making movies. Would you ever move here permanently?
STING: No, and I've lived here long enough to know why. I'm just too English, I guess. I feel like an alien over here. People always make the mistake of thinking that a common language means a common culture, and of course it's not true. I mean, L.A. and London are totally different - and not just in obvious things like weather, although it's been like home here recently with all the rain!
PLAYGIRL: Where is home for you?
STING: Right now, it's the penthouse at the Chateau Marmont (in HoIlywood)! Basically, I live in London when I'm in England. But being in rock'n'roll is essentially a rootless lifestyle because of all the travelling. After this, I leave for the Caribbean to write for a while, then it's back to London, then I come back to shoot 'Dune' in Mexico, and then it's time to start the next Police world tour... it's all go. I suppose the truth is that I've been travelling for so long now that I don't feel at home anywhere.
PLAYGIRL: What was your childhood like?
STING: I come from a very down-to-earth, working-class family in Newcastle. (Laughs) I read somewhere recently that my Catholic upbringing and my background "explain" everything! I just love amateur psychology.
PLAYGIRL: But it does seem to have sparked your interest in comparative religions.
STING: That's true, I suppose. But then, that sort of questioning is already inside of you, I think. I was always interested in the less obvious things. When everyone around me was playing rock'n'roll, I was playing jazz gigs and getting into people like Thelonious Monk and (John) Coltrane. In fact, I started off playing dixieland - very trad! - and then I got into more big band stuff and reading music. A lot of it was real shit, but I also learned a lot from it, especially the way musicians like Miles Davis play - that economy and simplicity. That really influenced my rock playing a lot, plus the fact that I had to learn how to play bass lines and sing at the same time, even when the two worked across each other. That's when I first began to appreciate the importance of what you don't play - the importance of silence in music.
PLAYGIRL: Do you think that jazz education and background helped you in rock because you started relatively late?
STING: Undoubtedly. I think that if I'd been a rocker at 17 or 18, I'd have burnt out by now. There's also the enormous pressure of success and suddenly making tons of money. If I'd had all that years ago, I'm sure I'd be really fucked up by now! In a way, I didn't even begin to become successful in rock until I was 26 or 27, and now I'm 31, which is an old man for this profession - of course, that's a child compared to Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart (grins wickedly).
PLAYGIRL: Let's talk about those pressures for a moment. In five years or so, you've gone from obscurity to superstardom. That sort of overnight success end the pressure involved has killed a lot of people. How do you cope?
STING: I do lots of drugs and f*** lots of groupies (said with a straight face).
PLAYGIRL: A lot of people think you've become very arrogant.
STING: Look, I don't give a shit. Now that probably sounds arrogant, but what I mean is that only three or four people in the whole world really know me, so all the rest of the crap I hear or read about myself is totally irrelevant. It's the same as reading reviews - you can't afford to pay attention; if you did, you'd probably never get up on stage again or open your mouth.
PLAYGIRL: It sounds like you have a very efficient self protective mechanism.
STING: You have to in order to survive. There's so much crap in this business that it'll just chew you up and spit you out if you're not strong enough. And the truth is that deep down, people really crave that self-destruction - they want to see it happen to Elvis Presley or Sid Vicious, to see their gods sacrificed. And in the end, that's what those stars really are - victims.
PLAYGIRL: You obviously don't see yourself as a victim.
STING: No - just an arrogant sod! (Laughs) I think I'm fairly candid in interviews, so in one sense, yes, I am arrogant and a bastard to work with and difficult to live with. But I'm also easy to get on with and humble and considerate... What I'm saying is that...
PLAYGIRL: You're f***ed up, but at least you know it!
STING: (Laughing) Exactly! I suppose I feel very schizophrenic in many ways, but then nothing's just black or white. No, I don't really think I'm f***ed up, but there is a price to pay for fame and all the trappings.
PLAYGIRL: Such as?
STING: Well, obviously the whole trip of stardom encourages the worst in you, the excesses, the egotism and the self-destruction - and sometimes you do it because it is expected of you. But at the other extreme, the music itself, which is what it should be all about, is a very pure, very spiritual experience. It's really a very difficult balancing act, being a rock star.
PLAYGIRL: You seem more accessible and far less paranoid than a lot of stars I've met.
STING: Well, I don't surround myself with bodyguards and sycophants, and I don't carry guns.
PLAYGIRL: What happens if someone recognises you in the street and comes over to you - does it worry or annoy you?
STING: Actually, I can go most places completely unrecognised, which is nice since I like to just go off on my own. And if someone comes up to me, I don't panic because that's what causes the paranoia and tension. Most people are very cool. It's only when you start surrounding yourself with an entourage that you get problems - it's so conspicuous. What really freaks me out is someone like Elvis who was literally never alone. That's very sad, I think.
PLAYGIRL: I suppose personal relationships also pay the price of fame?
STING: I think that's inevitable, and that's also very sad.
PLAYGIRL: Are you still married to actress Frances Tomelty?
STING: We're separated. It's impossible to sustain a marriage, or any sort of commitment like that, when you're on the road most of the year or locked up in some recording studio.
PLAYGIRL: You said earlier that drugs and groupies are the answer.
STING: Well, they are the traditional escapes, and for a while I suppose I thought they were the answer. Life on the road is so bizarre and such an existence of extremes that you need something to keep sane. You spend 23 hours each day just travelling or sitting around waiting, and then there's that one single hour when you're on stage feeling like you're the centre of the universe. And it's such a high, and such a rush, that it makes up for all those terrible hours of boredom and loneliness. But touring is such hell... I'm surprised that there aren't more rock'n'roll casualties.
PLAYGIRL: Do you still do drugs?
STING: Not very much now, though I used to do plenty! I just think they're basically a waste of money and very self-destructive. I'd far rather look after myself and my health.
PLAYGIRL: What sort of lifestyle do you lead when you're not touring?
STING: Fairly quiet. (Grins) People never believe it though.
PLAYGIRL: If you've given up drugs and groupies, what vices do you have left?
STING: None! I really live very frugally, and I spend time with my kids.
PLAYGIRL: You're very wealthy and you could easily retire - or at least stop touring. Why don't you if it's so terrible?
STING: Ah! Perhaps that's my vice! I guess I am addicted to it; it's a sort of love-hate relationship. In many ways I think I'm an introvert who becomes an extrovert on stage.
PLAYGIRL: There's that schizophrenia again.
PLAYGIRL: You said you like to be on your own, and a lot of your songs deal with loneliness, or the effects of loneliness...
STING: Well, ultimately we are all alone, aren't we?
PLAYGIRL: Is that why you love to perform?
STING: An audience does have that incredible unity and sense of oneness, and I like to feel that, even when I'm still aware of being alone up on stage. I mean, there's something very ironic about a stadium full of fans singing along to 'So Lonely'. One part of me can stand back and consider that fact while the other half is fully involved in performing and delivering the song.
PLAYGIRL: : In recent years a lot of bands, like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, have become increasingly political in their music, and have been obvious about it. But The Police seem either less committed or more subtle in their approach.
STING: I should hope we are more subtle! I mean, I loved The Sex Pistols, but they really were more of a social phenomenon than a musical one. People talk about rock'n'roll being anarchic and changing the world, but that's total bullshit to me. Listen to Stravinsky - that's anarchy and revolution in music. The sad thing, in a way, is that rock isn't doing anything new at all, or taking any risks musically. In most cases, it's totally reactionary and has lost all power to shock and change. My father was a Teddy Boy (fifties British tough boy), and when he brought home a Little Richard record, it was considered outrageous. But now a lot of bands have gone back to copying that era and the whole rockabilly trip. Where's the revolution in that?
PLAYGIRL: Do you think there's any place for politics in music?
STING: Yes, but I hate all that naive posturing by bands like The Clash. They have the intellects of 12-year-old kids and don't know what the hell they're talking about. I think it's pathetic - what do they know about the Sandinista rebels? Nothing - it's all image, aligning themselves with the rebels. They dribble on about Marx, but they haven't even begun to grasp the basics of what he was saying. Don't get me wrong - I really like their music, but they should keep their half-baked political posturings right out of it.
PLAYGIRL: I agree, but you can hardly defend the Police on the grounds of being political savants, or of taking musical risks.
STING: True, we are very mainstream pop, but then so are The Clash. The difference to me is that we know it, and work accordingly. We don't pretend we're liberating society by ranting and raving at our audience. I don't even think we're really rock'n'roll. I mean, all rock responses are so predictable and formalised.
PLAYGIRL: How do you mean?
STING: Oh, everything - the clothes people wear, the lit matches, the need to rush the stage at the end - never at the beginning, you notice!
PLAYGIRL: Do you take an active part in politics outside your music?
STING: Not really. I'm basically apolitical now, although I used to be an active socialist - but then so were all my generation. Basically, I don't trust any politicians. I think most of the leaders running the world are a bunch of immoral criminals.
PLAYGIRL: Whom do you respect?
STING: People who're true to themselves and their talents; it's a terrible thing to have a gift and to abuse it.
PLAYGIRL: You mentioned The Clash and The Sex Pistols. What about your other contemporaries in music? Who's influenced you?
STING: (Smiles) Like I said, I am a mere youth in comparison, but obviously giants like McCartney and Jagger and Bowie. I suppose I identify most with an artist like Bowie because of his refusal to be typecast in any situation. Everything he's done is interesting and breaking new ground. In that sense, both Jagger and McCartney have played it very safe.
PLAYGIRL: Like Bowie, you've crossed over into movies, but unlike Jagger, you seem to have successfully avoided merely playing rock stars.
STING: God, I hope so! That's the kiss of death for an acting career as far as I'm concerned.
PLAYGIRL: Have you nurtured a long-standing ambition to act?
STING: Not really. I just see it as another extension, another area that I'm interested in. I certainly don't want to end up as just an actor - I think that's a pretty limited ambition.
PLAYGIRL: How did you begin acting?
STING: My wife persuaded me to audition for the part of Ace Face in 'Quadrophenia', and when I got the part, I found I really enjoyed doing it. But then I also decided that if I wanted to get serious about acting, I had to be very careful about what roles I picked. So I deliberately waited and chose vehicles that were more left field. The easiest thing would have been to accept one of the dreadful musicals people kept sending me. That's why, apart from doing 'Radio On' and 'Artemis 81' for the BBC, I waited two years before doing Martin in 'Brimstone and Treacle'. It was a very ambiguous role, which also appealed to me - the irony of a character who's described by the author as "being, or who imagines himself to be, a demon."
PLAYGIRL: Do you think you're like Martin?
STING: (Smiles) Well, let's say I can be pretty ambiguous. And like I said earlier, people are very complex - nothing's just black or white, and it's not as simple as goodies versus baddies. I think the truth is that we're all capable of being saints and murderers.
PLAYGIRL: You seem to have a fondness for playing the villains, however.
STING: I identify with them, I suppose. They worm their way into society and then take over.
PLAYGIRL: What are your next movie plays?
STING: Well, I'm shooting Dune in Mexico starting sometime in early summer.
PLAYGIRL: What attracted you to that project?
STING: (Laughs) Money! No, it's a great story, a sort of classic science fiction tale of interstellar intrigue. I'm playing one of the villains, called "Feyd," I think.
PLAYGIRL: For someone who feels acting is a very limited ambition...
STING: I sound very enthusiastic, huh? Well, I am. I think acting's exciting, although the reality of filming is so boring and tedious. The trouble with actors is that they're always full of other people's words. It would be like me just playing The Beatles instead of writing my own songs. I think all actors should write as well as act - it'd make them less neurotic for a start!
PLAYGIRL: Well, in your capacity as an actor, do you plan to write?
STING: (Smiles) Funny you should ask. I do have my own pet project that I've been working on. It's an adaptation I've done of Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' trilogy, and I plan to film it if I can raise the finance. Of course, raising money for movies makes rock 'n' roll budgets look like peanuts.
PLAYGIRL: Without playing the amateur psychologist, do you feel guilty at all about your enormous success?
STING: I suppose I do. I definitely feel the enormous contradictions of growing up next to the docks in a very poor neighbourhood, and now finding myself where I am. I mean, I love money (laughs), but I do feel guilty. Perhaps playing all those archetypal intruders is a way of objectifying that guilt.
PLAYGIRL: Would you ever give up all this wealth, adulation and privilege for anonymity?
STING: No. I don't feel that guilty. (Laughs)
PLAYGIRL: Can you see a day soon when you devote less time to your music and The Police, and become even more involved in films?
STING: Well, I certainly don't want to be still jumping around the stage when I'm older. I mean, I admire Mick for keeping going, but there's a certain time in your life when it's natural, and a time when it's no longer dignified. Rock'n'roll is "young" and it's about energy - who really wants to see a 40 year-old going through the moves? As for films, at the moment I'm still watching and learning. But in the future, I want to be more in control, as I am with my music. It's OK to be manipulated while you are learning, but I'd rather be the one pulling the strings.
PLAYGIRL: You seem to have a great need to be in control of situations.
STING: You're right, but I don't think in a negative or destructive way. It's a matter of stretching yourself, both as a person and as an artist.
PLAYGIRL: You seem to pretty much control the Police, being both the writer and the focal point. Does this lead to any friction?
STING: Well, of course, there's a certain amount of friction - there is in any creative situation and it wouldn't be normal if there wasn't. We do all scream and shout occasionally, and I suppose there's a certain resentment and there's hurt feelings. But we do get the results. The music is what's important in the end.
PLAYGIRL: You mean the end justifies the means?
STING: In this case, yes.
PLAYGIRL: What about rumours that the Police is breaking up?
STING: (Smiles) We put out most of those ourselves to keep people on their toes. No, we're NOT breaking up just because I'm off doing a movie, and Stewart's doing the music for (Francis Coppola's) 'Rumblefish', and Andy's done a solo album. We've been living and working and touring and recording together for some six years now, and we need that space - I think we deserve it! On the other hand... (ambiguous smile) no band is forever; they can't be. It's like life, it's all temporary. One day the Police will end, and that's as it should be. In the meantime, we'll just keep working at what we do best.
© Playgirl magazine