TOPMarch 01, 1996
The following interview with Sylvie Simmons appeared in the March 1996 issue of TOP magazine...
Clever bloke, Sting. Provocative and cool, like his music. "lnterviews", he says,"are like confession boxes. I want to tell you enough to make your story interesting but at the same time I don't want to reveal everything."
Too clever, maybe. Gods, to the best of my limited religious knowledge, don't need confession. And you've got to admit at the moment that Sting, like God, is everywhere - on two film soundtracks (the critically-acclaimed 'Leaving Las Vegas' and the hit movie 'Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls', a duet with Pato Banton) and in a new film, 'The Grotesque'. Turn on the TV and you hear him crooning a commercial for Rover cars. Turn on the radio and there's his classy new single - the soul-styled, spiritually-titled, 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot'. And he's about to drop by your neighbourhood any day now on a year-long world tour.
His new album, 'Mercury Falling', was recorded last year with producer Hugh Padgham in Sting's home studio in Wiltshire. A "very relaxed experience" and a very relaxed sounding album. Sting, sounding the very essence of pipe-and- slipperdom himself, explains: "I do feel very relaxed these days. Not complacent, but relaxed. I think if there's a theme on this record, it's one of acceptance about things that can't be changed. Not one thing in particular. It's just that in the past, in my young life, I tended to fight against everything, struggle against the whole of life. I suppose I'm just getting older", he smiles. "In the past I used to worry a great deal - about writing songs, about whether I was writing enough. But now I just let it happen. I don't put myself under too much pressure, because that just kills the creativity."
Does writing songs and making albums get easier then as years go by? "I'd say it was getting more difficult - once you begin. But I'm trying to be more relaxed about it. It's a paradox: it's more difficult, but I'm more relaxed with the difficulties", he says in totally Sting-like fashion.
"I think of songwriting as my profession. But having said that, I do tend to avoid the occasions when I have to go to work. I can't write when I'm on the road, so the longer I tour, the more I can postpone having to face that blank page which fills me with terror. When I eventually do come home, I spend six months walking around wondering what the hell I'm going to do with the rest of my life! And then I begin. It comes from being empty for some of the time. Being creative is a cyclical thing - you have output some of the time and input some of the time, you can't do both at the same time."
'Mercury Falling' seems to flow musically more naturally from its predecessor, 'Ten Summoners Tales', than some of his earlier albums. Again he mixes styles with impunity - a bloody great blender filled to the rim with pop, country, folk and soul, and a song that sounds like the 'Girl From Ipanema' marooned in the Paris red light district! "I sang that song in French just out of perversity. It was a sort of bossa nova music and the obvious thing to do would have been to sing it in Portuguese or Spanish, but I thought it would really sound good in French."
Pretentious? Toi? "No! I learnt French at school - everybody did. Being pretentious means you're pretending you're something you're not, and in my case that's not true. I've always been true to myself ." Fair enough. Sting has always come in for stick for taking an intelligent and informed approach to a form of music we've been led to believe should be unintellectual and anarchic - diddling with Jung, sporting philosophies and ideas like so many designer accessories. But when the songs come out consistently as sensuous as they are smart, his critics are on pretty shaky ground.
Sting also swiftly sees off the other criticism that's been levelled at him since the Police turned white reggae platinum: of plundering various musical cultures. "Well, that's if you accept the idea of different musical cultures. I see music as a common language, whether you live in Thailand or Memphis, Tennessee. The whole of music is open to plundering. Everyone steals from everyone else, it's as simple as that. My forte, if you like, is mixing musical styles, blending them together. I'm not really into pure rock'n'roll or pure jazz or pure anything any more - in fact I never really was. I like impureness. I like music without any artificial barriers. I don't know, maybe I'm just getting better at it. I suppose it's a mark of maturity, both as a musician and - I hope - a human being."
The first single is one of a handful of tracks with what sounds like a '60's soul arrangement. Had he been digging through his old R&B collection? "I don't need to. That's the music of my adolescence. It's the music I lost my virginity to, the music I drove my first car to - all those Otis Redding and Al Green and Sam & Dave records are just burned into my brain. That music is always with me."
So what music has he been listening to lately? "When I'm writing a record, I tend for about a year before not to listen to any music. I just don't want anything in my head except what I'm working on. I don t listen to much music anyway. I don't find music all that relaxing. I tend to analyse anything I listen to and I would prefer to turn the stereo on and sit back and be blown away - and it's very rare that I do that."
'Mercury Falling' is also linked with its predecessor by the fact that Sting has used many of the same musicians - strange when he's said that spending ten years in a band cured him forever from wanting to work with the same people. "Yeah, I used Dominic Miller on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Kenny Kirkland plays keyboards - he's from my old band The Blue Turtles. I'm very happy with my band. My attitude at the moment is, if something isn't broken, don't fix it." Which does beg the question, why break up the Police then?. That wasn't broken. "Well, it wasn't working terribly well for me !" It was for the fans! "Sorry," he laughs, "but I have to take precedence over them!"
Would he ever consider working with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers again? "No, I don't think so. We played at my wedding a couple of years ago but apart from events like that its not on my agenda." The past is the past. But the past is also his song catalogue. His songs, he once told me, are "like a diary, where you can look back and say what my preoccupation's were." Sometimes this self-examination has left his music a bit self-conscious, with Sting turning his brain inside-out and, like a piece of post-modern architecture, showing us all the pipes and supports. But on 'Mercury Falling' Sting - to continue the dodgy architectural metaphor - seems to have installed a Jacuzzi on every landing and is relaxing in the sound of the songs more than posing unanswerable questions about the world we live in. Has he finally laid his school teaching past to rest?
"Maybe I'm not asking so many questions on this record, but I'm accepting the fact that there is a question - accepting that mystery as part of life. I've been studying philosophy for a long time. I read books about these eternal problems. As for not coming up with any answers, the greatest philosophers in history can be accused of that!
"I don't like to underestimate the audience. If people want to get information from my songs, then that's fine. But you can listen to a song on so many levels. You don't have to know what the hell I'm talking about - or on the other hand you can take it further and write a thesis on it. But I always assume on first listening you'll be intrigued to go a little bit further and find out what it is that inspired me and what I'm on about."
So what particular new philosophy or ideas have inspired him? "I don't follow one school of thought or religious group at all. I'm very curious about life in general. I'm constantly searching."
Dreams were always one inspiration. "When I can remember them!", he laughs. "Most of my dreams are fairly surreal - they don't have a narrative that goes from A to B in a logical way and I don't remember most of them. Sometimes I wake up and go 'what was that about', analyse it and find a coherent reason for it.
"I'm very self-analytical. I think I'm my own psychiatrist. I don't pay a fortune to an analyst to hear my troubles every day. I tend to be able to write a song - unconsciously almost - and look back on it and go, what am I saying here? And sort of find myself in the song - find my anxieties and needs are in the song. I think it's all the same song, basically. All the songs added up will represent your life - your progression as a songwriter and a person. It's all there in a veiled sort of way."
How about drugs? When was the last time pharmaceuticals inspired a song? "I can't tell you that!" he laughs. "I just think it's a good job there isn't drug testing after an album like there is in athletics! Don't get me talking about drugs!"
The tabloids demoted the star from God to demon status when he spoke out recently in favour of legalising Ecstasy. What did he expect? "I said that in a very informal manner. But I stand by it. I don't mind being demonised by them - because they're on the wrong side as far as I'm concerned. As if they really care!"
No, Sting doesn't spend his days off popping pills. His "hobby", he says, is acting - "my hobby, inasmuch as it's not my vocation or my passion, which is my music and always will be." Last year he filmed the soon-to-be- released 'The Grotesque', working with his wife Trudie Styler. His role - an English butler - is another of those dark, menacing parts he's specialised in since 'Brimstone And Treacle'. "I think I'm quite a cheerful fellow but people always seem to cast me in these dark roles. I don't mind," Sting laughs. "I always have a lot of fun playing those characters."
He's also got a leading role in the video for Pato Banton's reggae version of 'Spirits In The Material World', recently, used on the 'Ace Ventura II' soundtrack. "I've always had respect for reggae artists", he says. "I've worked with Pato before and he wanted to record this song and I ended up singing it with him."
What's surprising is how few artists have covered Sting's songs. "I don't know why", he shrugs. "Maybe down the line over the next 20 years. 'Fragile' has been covered a lot. I liked Isaac Hayes' version", he laughs. "It only sounded slightly like 'Shaft!'"
Does he enjoy music as much now as when he started out? "I love being a musician. I'm still a student of music. I think a lot of people get successful on the limited musical ability they have and that's where they stop. They know five chords and that's it. But I've kept working", says Sting. "I've kept learning. And I'm still asking questions.
© TOP magazine