The following article by Graham Reid appeared in a November 1996 issue of The New Zealand Herald
For almost a decade Sting has been on the sharp end of criticism for being so serious. In a music culture that puts a premium on the lame-brained. But he jokes easily and sounds unrepentantly happy on the eve of his Auckland concert.
It's Sting on the line, sounding very cheerful. "The Rutles over the Beatles anytime," he laughs, and goes on to extol the virtues of hard rock parodists Spinal Tap. It seems Sting - a man whose public persona is that of someone not afraid to own a library card and who once brought new earnestness to interviews - is a big Tap fan ("got their Black album!") and can hoot at the short comings of musicians, himself included, on the road. And he should know.
As one who's been out there for most of his life ("I enjoy playing, that's why I tour so much"), Sting's done the shows and press conferences (once notably, in this country with the Police when he couldn't speak because of a throat infection), traipsed through the endless lobbies of the hotels and motels of this planet - and yet turned most of it into a personal pleasure.
A few weeks ago he was in Ho Chi Minh City and immediately chats about what a beautiful country Vietnam is. "I was just fascinated by it. I was only there three days but we drove up to Cambodian border..."
This then is Sting at 45: family man and world citizen, riding on the back of his best and most relaxed album in years with 'Mercury Falling', touring since March with yet another cracking band of musical compadres and happily finding places to play that others either avoid or probably, more correctly, simply don't even know exist.
"Yeah, we've always managed to go to out-of-the-way places beyond the endless route of pop bands. And I can't understand why people don't - it just makes everything more interesting for yourself. Some people like Michael Jackson make a choice [to closet themselves away). I made the opposite choice and enjoy citizens' rights to walk anywhere. And people generally are very pleasant. It depends on how you treat fame. If you hide behind sunglasses and have bodyguards you attract a certain kind of hysterical reaction, and you can be seduced by that."
Far from falling victim to his own media image, Sting can to have side-stepped most expectations of a pop star. Sure, he has the trappings: the apartment in New York and the 15th century mansion in rural Wiltshire where 'Mercury Falling' was written. And he laughingly concedes there's something of a financial buffer between what he's doing now and going back to teaching ("still qualified, though!").
But Sting also qualifies as a musician without portfolio. Consider just this from the past decade of his solo career: outside music he's toured for Amnesty International and lobbied on behalf of Brazilian Indians; hit the headlines with outspoken - and intelligently unwelcome - comments about Ecstasy and the Amazonian hallucinogen Dead Man's Root; counts among his friends Larry Adler and Quentin Crisp (about whom he wrote 'An Englishman in New York', currently used to plug Rover cars); has acted on Broadway alongside Meryl Streep and Sir John Gielgud in 'The Threepenny Opera', appeared in films too numerous (and mostly underwhelming) to mention...
Then there's been what he jocularly calls "the day job" - duets with Pavarotti; a series of albums that plumbed the joys of the jazz connection ('Bring on the Night') and the depths of his relationship with his late father ('The Soul Cages') all of which boast lyrics of depth and complexity that peel apart like onion layers, and now 'Mercury Falling'.
All that, and a happy family life with the wife (Trudie Styler) and kids (six in total). Not bad for the son of a Newcastle milkman who grew up in a council house. Sting, doncha just hate him?
"I was 45 last month and still have my sanity, and I have my family. So if I'm not happy I don't know who should be!" And that certainly comes through on 'Mercury Falling' where his touring band of guitarist Dominic Miller, jazz keyboard player Kenny Kirkland and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta roam effortlessly through the now-typical musical diversity that Sting brings to his writing.
If there's a criticism of this self-confessed "musical gadfly" it's that he skims the surfaces of styles: jazzy but not jazz, bluesy but not the blues, rocking but not rock. If that's a criticism, he lives happily with it and laughs about "getting as many musical styles into one song as possible. We just ended up rolling on the floor with laughter."
"Also the place where you record becomes the personality of the record. I spent too much of my life in studios, and recording in your house is very different - noises from the kitchen, the kids running around, the dog coming in, the cats... It really makes a difference and helps you relax. I was very relaxed making this one, and the tour is the same."
One of the features of this year-long global jaunt is the nightly appearance by an audience member to join the band on a song which "is very funny. We did it spontaneously a few months ago and it really worked."
And is he discovering a wealth of untapped talent out there beyond the monitors? "No! But the audience loves it. People feel I'm a little bit daunting as a personality - and I think I'm only partly to blame for that. People will make what they will. There are enough mixed signals about me - bad and good - at this point in my career, I don't really mind."
And the virtue of distance from the public perception means he seldom reads press about himself "unless somebody points something out" and quietly gets on with his own reality. Which is? "The relationships I have with family and the musicians, that's a reality. The bigger picture is somebody else's reality."
And so the man who comes on the phone line as Mr Valdez ("that's Exxon Valdez," he says with a laugh), talks about the fragile process of writing music (he needs a deadline and don't expect the Sting box set of unreleased material, he only writes what he needs to record) and how so many musicians take this stuff - notably themselves - all too seriously.
"It's just that most don't have any experience of anything else, so it become their reality. They don't have a bigger picture of life." Given what the disciplined, yoga-practising, book reading, Spinal Tap fan that is Sting has achieved, he can certainly claim something of that bigger picture for himself. And having a thoroughly good time with it; thank you very much.
© The New Zealand Herald