LIVE!May 01, 1996
The following interview with Adrian Deevoy appeared in the May 1996 issue of Live! magazine...
Confessions of Gordon Sumner, Confidence Man - on the heels of a new album, Sting waxes poetic on sex, drugs, fame and soccer. Oh yeah, rock'n'roll too...
Nobody wants to be a loser least of all Sting. But he has just watched his home team, Newcastle United, get beaten by rival Chelsea. Disguised in a fisherman's hat and accompanied by his 19-year-old son Joe, the singer trudges slowly out of the soccer stadium. A few fellow fans recognise him and mutter words of sympathy. "Cheer up, Sting, man," they grunt. "Aye," he replies, reverting to his native Newcastle accent. "We'll kill 'em next time."
Newcastle, a raw and economically depressed city in the north-east of England, is revered for the passion of its soccer supporters. There, the game isn't a matter of life and death - it's much more important than that. Over a consolatory cup of tea in a nearby cafe, Sting attempts to rationalise his love of soccer. "I find it almost religious," he says. "I really don't know why it pleases me when a team wins and why it makes me a bit unhappy when they don't. But you enter a sort of state of grace having been to a match. And there isn't a game that equals it as a spectacle; the way it's improvised, it's like jazz." He pauses, worrying that he might be going a little overboard, then forges ahead. "I actually cried at a cup final a couple of years ago," he admits. "What did it was when they sang 'Abide with Me.' It's such a beautiful song."
Throughout this, Joe sits looking at the old man affectionately. Despite being a good three inches taller than his father, he bears a strong resemblance both physically and in his quietly confident manner. Much like Sting in his younger days, Joe is absorbed in a band (which he describes as "Soundgarden-ish"), to the exclusion of almost everything else.
"He's a good guitar player," Sting says proudly when his son is out of earshot. "Very dedicated and really passionate. He'll come home after a gig and his hands will be bleeding."
Two of Sting's old school friends have journeyed down to London for the match, and in defeat they turn to their superstar chum for some spirit-lifting entertainment. He suggests an evening of greyhound racing. At the track, Sting reveals himself to be a gung-ho gambler who follows his instincts against the odds. Again, he is struck by the aesthetics and atmosphere of the sport as much as the competition itself. "They're just so graceful to watch," Sting croons, as the hounds hurtle toward the finish line. Later, when one of his fancies trails in second to last, he tears up his betting slip and groans, "I could have been rich." At the close of the race he's about ¬£60 down, but at least it's put the football loss out of his mind.
We drive back to Sting's North London house. It's a large 17th-century family home, all dark wood panelling and candlelight, overlooking Hampstead Heath. This is Sting's official London HQ, although these days he lives at Lake House, a 30-room castle in the Wiltshire countryside. (He also keeps an apartment in New York and a place on the beach in Malibu.)
As you pass beneath the exposed oak beams, carefully circumnavigating his two pet Irish wolfhounds and the antique French furniture, it is plain that Gordon Sumner has come a long way since his working-class youth. The son of a milkman and the eldest of four children, he won a scholarship to a Catholic secondary school but devoted more time to athletics than to his studies. In a move wholly indicative of the driven character he would become, he gave up running when he came in third in the National Junior Championships. It was finish first or forget it.
It was the same ambition that impelled him to quit his teaching job and head south to London in 1976 - with first wife Frances Tomelty and infant Joe in tow - to find and help form the band that would become the Police. The rest, as they say, was hysteria.
World domination and six solo albums later, an infinitely more mellow 44-year-old Sting settles in his firelit library to talk with gentle enthusiasm about his latest record, 'Mercury Falling' (A&M). The title, he offers cryptically, could refer to a temperature drop or something more astronomically significant. "I haven't made my mind up yet."
The ideas for the album crystallised, he says, as he rambled around the grounds of Lake House mulling over what he'd learned and absorbed in the preceding two years. Recorded in six weeks with his band (Kenny Kirkland, Dominic Miller and Vinnie Colaiuta) and mixed in a month, 'Mercury Falling' appropriates sounds and borrows flavours from a range of genres, resulting in a music that exists on the borders between jazz, soul and rock'n'roll.
These disparate styles are then homogenised by Sting's softly serrated tenor. The impressive list of guest musicians includes saxophonist Branford Marsalis as well as the Memphis Horns, who truly deserve the overworked accolade "legendary," having played with Elvis Presley, Otis Redding and Sam & Dave.
This summer Sting will take his core group of musicians on tour in the U.S., the first leg of a year long world-wide jaunt. "I've been doing it a long time," he says, "and I've got some of the best musicians in the world with me. It's a battlefield, and you have to go out there with the intention of winning. But now I want to take the audience on an emotional voyage of discovery. It's not enough for me just to make them jump up and down anymore; that was pretty well the universal response to the Police."
But devotees of the old trio should not despair. In fact, the spectre of the beloved Police song 'Every Breath You Take' hovers over several tracks on 'Mercury Falling'. Sting acknowledges this, explaining that it's just a familiar chord sequence - a major chord followed by relative minor - that you'll hear in lots of rock'n'roll songs. "But I thought, 'It worked really well the last time I used this chord sequence; why not use it again?"'
Still, rumours of a Police reunion remain utterly unfounded. The last time the band reconvened was for a couple of Trudie Styler in August 1992), and all the tensions that had originally split the group resurfaced instantly. "We hadn't rehearsed or planned anything," Sting says, shuddering at the memory. "We began with 'Message in a Bottle', and Andy [Summers] starts the riff - he can just about remember it - and Stewart [Copeland] immediately starts speeding up, as usual, so I turn around to him and 10 years just suddenly evaporate and there I am glowering at Stewart and he's glowering at me and Andy's fumbling with the chords, and just then Stewart and I caught each other doing it and began to laugh.
"Anyway," he adds, "during that period with the Police, the most successful time of my life, I was suicidal. My first marriage and my relationship with the other members of the band was collapsing. I just felt adrift. I was manic-depressive and I just wasn't chemically balanced enough to enjoy it. I was out to lunch."
When asked about the Sex Pistols reunion tour this summer, he concludes that they must need the money and wishes them well but is adamant that he won't be joining the nostalgia-fest. "The Police are very much part of my past now. A lot of it I'm very proud of, but it's consigned to history. In my mind, anyway."
But what of the disgruntled Police fans who claim that Sting lost his edge when he folded the band and that his solo material lacks the energy of his glory days? "Fine," he chirps brightly in that inarguable manner that interviewers have, on occasion, found infuriating. "It's natural to have an edge when you're young. At a certain age you've got a different strategy. I'm much more interested in seducing people than corrupting them or screaming at them and giving them a headache. I've done my share of that, and I don't want to be the man I was when I was 25. There's a more focused energy in my music now. I don't want energy bursting out everywhere; I want to control it now."
When people hear the new record, Sting says, he'd like them to appreciate that he is still on a journey, that he's not treading water. Critical acclaim, however, is something he no longer seeks.
"I think it's better to be marginalised," he says. "Then you've got nothing to lose. If you're cosseted in the warm glow of critical love, you get spoilt and lazy." He stands to attend to the fire, pontificating, as he does, on the nature of success. "My self-esteem doesn't really depend on who understands me and who doesn't. I'm a human being, and it's nice to be loved, but sometimes it's nice not to be. I've had enough affection and adulation in my life not to need it all the time. I could quite easily walk away from fame. Being famous is quite pleasant most of the time, but I'm not sure I need it."
As the evening draws on, we discuss films. Sting has just completed acting in a new movie, his 14th, entitled 'The Grotesque', in which he co-stars with Styler. "It's about a couple of servants who wreak havoc on a household," he says, laughing. "My usual thing." No stranger to the biz, Sting has written and recorded songs for countless soundtracks, the most recent being three cuts for the acclaimed 'Leaving Las Vegas'.
Then we get down to some serious reminiscing: about the time I called him, at the height of his solo success, and challenged him to go busking on the London Underground. He agreed immediately, and turned in what I still believe to be one of the finest performances he's ever produced: gorgeous, pared-back revisions of the Police classics 'Roxanne', 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Every Breath You Take' and two ramshackle renditions of the Troggs' 'Wild Thing' and the Stones' 'Brown Sugar'. Some of the expressions on the faces of the tube travellers as they clocked who this particular panhandler actually was will live in my memory forever.
We remember-albeit hazily-a drunken conversation wherein Sting divulged that his principal hobbies were yoga, tantric sex (which can involve making love for up to five hours at a time) and ingesting a Brazilian hallucinogenic drug called Dead Man's Root, which takes the user on a journey through the death experience and culminates in a form of redemption. "You die basically," he says. "You meet your own God. For the first hour and a half you're terrified and you're in this awful, frightening place that's not in your body. Then you cry, weep physically for two hours. I went through my whole life; I was involved in stories in real time that took years. And then in the last two hours I was beatific, in ecstasy, a sort of sainted state. It was a religious experience."
Sting reluctantly reveals that the details of these extracurricular activities will soon be published in a sensationalised and unauthorised biography. "Every celebrity in my position gets a seedy book written about them;' he says. "So there's one coming out about me saying that I've had sex and taken drugs. What a shock, you know? Big deal. I've read this book and it's written in the breathless style of a 12-year-old girl. 'He had three women in his room one night.' Of course I did! The only thing I object to is that everyone who has taken drugs is 'an addict.' If I was a drug addict, I'm one of the best adverts for drugs you could think of. I'm healthy, I'm sane, I'm happy, I'm rich."
The next time I meet Sting, he's in great spirits and has good news - Trudie has given birth to their fourth child. For Sting, that's a total of six kids. "Not very ecologically sound, I know," he says, announcing that his new son is to be called Giacomo.
After lunch we repair to the local pub. At the bar, the patrons raise an eye-brow of recognition but refrain from pestering the celebrity visitor. Over a glass of Guinness, he tries to imagine a time when the world will no longer want a new Sting album. "That day will come," he shrugs. "I'll put something out and people will say, 'No thanks.' I really just want to avoid getting to the stage where I'm like a rat running around a drum wondering why I'm doing it. I don't feel in competition with anyone anymore. I have a few friends who are in the same position as me, and I'm really happy when they do well. I don't subscribe to the idea that 'Success is not enough; my friends must fail."'
As the light fades, we return to Sting's library. "Without wishing to seem morbid," he says after a thoughtful silence, "I'm trying to work out how to die well. I'm halfway through my life. My challenge is figuring out what sort of an old person I want to be. I know I want to be healthy and sane and more spiritual, more in tune with dying than I have been in my younger life. Death's a taboo in our society but let's think about it and work out a strategy It's the most important thing we all face and it's kind of unavoidable. If you want to live well, you must surely want to die well." A reflective pause. "What's it going to be like on that day?"
He turns his gaze to the glowing embers. Cheer up, Sting, man. "Well," he says with a knowing smile, "someone's got to think about these things."
© Live! magazine