TIME OUTJune 01, 1996
The following interview with Laura Lee Davis appeared in a June 1996 issue of Time Out magazine...
Life on the road with Sting is full of wine, conversation and jazz improvisation. In Barcelona, as he prepares to make a beeline for Finsbury Park to headline this year's Fleadh, it's buzzness as usual for the Tantric sex-practising prince of adult pop.
An attractive blond stretches out in the Barcelona sun on the roof of a five-star hotel. As he sits by the pool in his affluent casual clothes, it comes to his attention that, beyond the tables and bustling waiters, a jazz combo are setting up for a lunchtime jam. The guy ambles across to them. After a couple of handshakes and a moment's exchange, he's handed a double bass, upon which he immediately breaks into the jazzy stride of the strangers. As the brisk plucking, immediately in time, immediately note-perfect, wafts across the patio, the scene concludes like an advert for vodka. The guy needed no introduction, the band just happened to be there rehearsing for a lunchtime gig, and the presence of an entourage ensures that this moment of spontaneous cool has an audience. Oh, and this last-minute recruit just happens to be an internationally known performer who's enjoyed a fair few dalliances of his own with The Jazz.
Now if I had been hanging around after interviewing some hype-courting pop star and this had happened, I'd have put money on a manager nipping round to the nearest bar to hire some local fans. But no one plans things as immaculately as they seem to run in the real life of Mr Sting. Okay, so he was once the mohair-jumper-wearing heart-throb ex-teacher in a slightly rough-around-the-edges reggae-pop band called The Police, and sure, he's had wobbly moments - acting jobs are par for the course for almost any famous music person with a chart-lifespan longer than Whigfield's - but Sting's career hasn't exactly been a rollercoaster of scandal after suicide attempt after stint at the Betty Ford Clinic.
The first time I interviewed him was three years back, for the release of his Mercury Music Prize-nominated album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales'. He was already well into parent-heaven with his second wife, Trudie Styler - the man I met was more of a human kiddie's climbing frame than a pin-up. And hell! When he found himself in the dock last year, he was taking his accountant to court for fraudulent dealings. The judge even loaned him his parking space. As well worn jokes about Sting and rainforests sink slowly in the west, there is little his detractors can find to throw at him. Indeed, on a recent "South Bank Show" filmed at his Wiltshire home, even Melvyn Bragg's reliably grovelling interrogations and scenes of "Waltons"-scale domestic bliss failed to provoke any bad press. In fact, many people I know even commented after the show that, while they'd never really cared much for Gordon Sumner's melodic rock doodlings, his general all-rightness had shone through.
Although his passing suggestion earlier in the year that decriminalising Ecstasy might avoid some drug-related tragedies caused a ripple of outrage until people realised it was quite a sensible idea, he seems to attract little tabloid wrath. In fact, the roof-terrace incident speaks volumes about life on tour with Sting. Not once was the chart-topping father-of-six spotted throwing televisions into the swimming pool; nor were the hotel band a gossip-fuelling bunch of throat-slashing punks.
"I actually love touring. I've got it down to a fine art," shrugs the singer on the morning of his first day off in several weeks. "I like the people I tour with and I still get the buzz. There's no way to describe to someone the feeling of going on stage to 12,000 people saying, 'I'm pleased to see you.' That's something you can't be blase about."
Although Sting's tour regime of decent hotels and slick schedules might not be as gruelling as slogging round Europe in the back of a Transit van, the reception he got at the Palais Deportes the previous night would make even the most pampered pop-star suffer a couple of nights in a B&B if they had to. As he mingles funked-up Police favourites with more mellow tracks from his latest album, 'Mercury Falling', the gathered throng let their hero take them on a two-hour journey into grown-up rockland. A tight backing band of longstanding collaborators rally behind their low-key leader, a man with the distinctly laid-back air that comes only with years of success.
"I've been infuriating for years because the only label people can put on me is that the stuff I do is "like Sting", and that," he laughs, "can mean good or bad. But it's definitely me and I'm very happy to he me at the moment."
Straight after the gig, the assembled party of British visitors is ushered downstairs to say a quick 'hola!' to the man himself. Waiting in the dark corridors, smiling at Spanish record executives and dodging roadies, I duck out to the toilets. When I get back, the others have returned from their brief encounter with Senor Sting. It seems a good idea to make a momentary connection before the following day's interview, so I bring up the rear. As I pass the others, one flashes me a look of grave caution and, as if to warn, 'He's got a gun!' or, 'Oh no! His face has just been horribly disfigured in an unexpected backstage accident! Look away, look away!', whispers: 'He's got dungarees on.'
Now Sting is not a man without humour or intelligence. He's heard all the jokes about rainforests. But you could almost imagine that he'd chosen these post-gig togs in the same way that Santa Claus, come December 23, resists the elves' taunts to shave off that white beard: if he didn't look the part, it just wouldn't be the same. You only have to consider the money some of our top television celebrities spend on wigs every year to see how people can get trapped by their public personae. The real Sting, however, in no way resembles some bygone "Spitting Image" caricature. If his music's too soft and 'adult' for you, then don't buy his records. But hey you, sniggering at the back! Dungarees are comfortable, okay?
"I can't, for expediency's sake, pretend that I'm someone else," Sting says the next day, musing over his rather uncool image in the UK. "The camera comes too close for me to change things just because they might be more fashionable or commercial. To write songs, you really have to be honest, so I just do what I like to do. I have a luxury of being able to ignore most fashions, that comes from being around so long. I think people would find it undignified if I did anything else. I definitely have my eyes and ears open to new bands. I quite like the fact that, for the first time in many years, British bands seem to have the self-confidence to take on the world. I feel a certain amount of patriotism that bands like Oasis are making it. But that doesn't have much effect on what I do. I've just been lucky in my career that what I've been interested in has coincided with popular taste."
So, after the call-up to headline this weekend's Fleadh does coming home mean anything special to the Geordie? "It's always different because the English are English, we're very phlegmatic. I understand them because I am one and I'm just as cynical, just as bitchy! When you go home, people know where you're from, there's no mystique, so you have to prove yourself purely on the music."
When we get back to the hotel after the gig, Sting turns up in the bar for a few late-night drinks. In interview, he has a remarkable knack of making you feel you could ask him almost anything, yet his replies are always measured. Maybe, at 44, he doesn't feel the need to unburden himself of traumas to strangers: "The conceit is that to be relevant, you need to be angry or alienated or unhappy. I fell into the same trap. I thought I had to be in pain to write, so I'd literally manufacture opportunities when I could experience this stuff. It worked for a while, until one day I realised I was destroying myself. By various means, I was actually trying to kill myself. You have to look for other models of creativity - Bach was a genius but he was also happy to just sit in the kitchen with his kids!"
Over a drink, Sting seems a lot more relaxed, possibly because the following 24 hours allow time for a relaxed lunch and a wander round the shops, and possibly because he knows that he's not going to stumble into an icy conversation about his career. He suggests that, rather than just sitting around with the crew, we should perhaps have been seeking out a certain sex bar down by the dock, where his entourage once found themselves on a previous tour. Apparently, one of the acts was a guy who chained a chair to his foreskin and dragged it across the stage. Sting leans back to ask a friend if he can remember how many people were sitting on the chair at the time. "I gave that guy a standing ovation," he recalls.
During the day-off lunch, the wine goes down well, but it's a civilised affair: no food fights or behaviour that'd shame a national football team - just talk of exotic eating, travel and drugs. Sting's 'decriminalise Ecstasy' comments moved one paper to brand him an 'E-jit', but Sting is neither a wired hippy, nor an old square attempting to be credible by name-dropping daring drugs. In fact, his first hallucinogenic encounters with a tribe in South America, which he describes over dessert, sound a damn sight more exciting than anything in 'Altered States'. "There's a movement in America to "out" creative people who use hallucinogenics," he reveals, clearly approving of this move towards normalising certain less conventional pastimes. All this, plus wild tales in music mags that he enjoys hours of Tantric sex. Now does that sound like an old fogey to you? "What really interests me is dying, getting old. Learning acceptance of that is fascinating, much more so than the latest dance step or gangsta rap, because it's fundamental. I'm halfway through my life now, so I have to start dealing with it. My form of meditating is writing a song, so a lot of the songs on this album are about accepting situations which simply can't be helped and the courage it takes to live that way."
Hmm. It's not exactly what you tend to associate with pop music, is it?
"No, it's not. But pop music is getting older. My generation of artists are still around - Bruce, Mark Knopfler, Peter Gabriel. We're entering this phase in our lives and we're still being creative. It's a very interesting time and I don't think we should be knocked off our perches just yet."
Following the "South Bank Show" retrospective, are there paths he would like to have followed other than music?
"That's a good question. I get a lot from sharing what Trudie does. She's starting to make a lot of important documentaries now and I feel that's almost part of my life too. I worry about people like Michael Jackson. When he stops being the King Of Pop, what is he? That's a bit scary; you have to find a life outside people's perception of you. My home life puts everything else into perspective. I make music for myself and the people around me. A side effect of that is this huge, touring, money-making product, but the basis of it is about my relationships with people very close to me. I can feel safe in that group, which is why I'm not concerned about whether I sell ten records or 10 million. You can't be the bee's knees forever."
And what will you do then? Now he smiles.
"Send the wife out to work."
© Time Out magazine