Q MAGAZINENovember 01, 1993
The following interview with Adrian Deevoy appeared in the November 1993 issue of Q magazine...
They were one big happy family. They were brothers by different parents. They were all for one and one for all. Except they weren't. The Police didn't get on. Famously. "Success distorted a lot of things," Sting tells Adrian Deevoy.
The heavy oak door groans open and you pad silently through the shadow-strewn passages, your tentative "hellos" reverberating throughout the teak-panelled chambers. Is anybody home? You wander into the study where an aromatic log fire crackles and an eerie stillness hangs in the air. A painting casually observes your entrance. Lying still on a vast sofa is the master of the house, his eyes shut, his mouth open. Is he... dead? Slowly, the eyelids part and the lips move to sleepily moisten themselves. "Fifteen years on the road," explains our drowsy, host. "It all caught up with me this morning."
Several large cups of caffeine-loaded coffee later and Sting is back to his old self. "I don't give a f***," he says firmly. "I am not wearing a policeman's uniform. I don't like the police."
It was a shaky idea from the start but it would have conveyed a message: Sting reminisces about his days with The Police, therefore he is photographed in a policeman's uniform. Eventually he agrees to nip up to the bedroom to try the outfit on just to see how it looks. This could take some time. We are, after all, at Lake House, Sting's country pile in Wiltshire - "just your average rock star mansion" - and a trek to one of the 30 bedrooms could necessitate the deployment of a stout pair of walking boots and a slab of Kendal Mint Cake. Ten minutes later he's back downstairs in his civvies with his head in his hands.
"It was frightening," he shudders. "I looked just like a copper and I'm not wearing it. I don't care if The Police box set sells or not. Do you really think I need to make a few quid from some repackaged back catalogue? I'm not going to dress up like a policeman to shift a few extra copies of an album. The answer is no."
And that's his final word. Instead, a willing accomplice obligingly kits out in the patrolman's clobber. It looks drug-flushingly real. As Sting happily interacts with the unofficial officer for the camera, the light bulb of evil inspiration ignites above his head.
"Listen," he whispers conspiratorially, "my neighbours are hippies. Put these handcuffs on me and take me down to their house dressed as a copper. We'll tell them you found drugs in my house and I confessed that I'd bought them from the people up the road and you want to search their place too."
It's cruel but very funny. "We have reason to believe," explains the ersatz rozzer to the bemused hippy personage in the cottage below, "that you have the soft drug marijuana on the premises." Never the world's greatest actor, Sting can barely keep a straight face. After a moment the copper cracks, apologies are accepted and it's all back up to the big house for a post-jape trough down.
Before lunch, Sting takes us up to the bedroom, whips off his shirt and pops the policeman's hat on. You can't help but mention that he looks like the doorman at a particularly heavy duty gay S&M club. "Oh, cheers," he says, removing the cap and toying suggestively with his government issue handcuffs. "I do like these though." Cue a completely libellous story involving a top model, some sturdy "bracelets" and a set of banisters and an unsavoury selection of assorted crudities pertaining for the most part, to "the wife".
Downstairs, Trudie Styler is innocently helping the cooks prepare lunch (marrow bake, cous cous, garlic bread, broad beans and cabbage, now you ask) "All from the garden," announces Sting proudly, taking his seat at the head of the table. Although the fact that he employs seven gardeners to tend Lake House's considerable acreage would suggest that the talented Sumner hands rarely come into contact with anything as unappealing and frankly working class as soil.
Lunch devoured, Sting stands at the window pensively munching an apple looking out at the driving the rain. He suggests we conduct the interview outside so that we might see the horses, cows, goats and chickens, "and maybe a few children" that roam his land. He has, you reassure yourself, probably taken leave of his senses. At that moment, as if to confirm your worst suspicions - and with possible reference to Sir Henry At Rawlinson's End - Sting audibly breaks wind. "Come on," he says, ignoring the brief rattle of superstar flatulence, "I really need a walk."
Togged out in waterproofs and Wellingtons - scant protection against this insanely inclement weather - we trudge through mud, slide across streams, battle against crop-flattening winds and sheeting storms. The animals look at us sadly as if we were an intellectually under-privileged species. Sting eventually concedes, having been nearly blown into the next county, that attempting to hold a conversation in a Force 12 gale is too great a challenge even for a world-rogering sex overlord. So we shelter in a small boathouse on the river and talk about his old band.
Q: What are your first feelings when you think of The Police now?
STING: It's 10 years ago so it almost seems like another life. I guess the main thing I feel is intense gratitude both for what happened to The Police and for what happened to me subsequently. It's a long career by anybody's standard. The Police is far enough away now to have forgotten the less pleasant bits of it. I'm proud of what we did.
Q: How do you think Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland feel?
STING: I know they feel the band should have carried on but that's just something I didn't share so...it wouldn't have carried on.
Q: Was there an actual moment you decided to split the band up?
STING: It depends on who you talk to. I made the decision at Shea Stadium. I just thought, this is as big as we can get. This is as big as anyone gets.
Q: Didn't you have a fight with Stewart before you went on-stage?
STING: Yeah, we had a punch-up that night. We were having punch-ups virtually every night. I got a cracked rib after a particularly heated disagreement with Stewart. Had it for the rest of the tour. But I thought, All we can hope to do now is keep repeating this success and get diminishing returns, I'd rather start again.
Q: Had The Police run its course musically?
STING: No, none of us had run our courses musically. We were all hopefully getting better as musicians and writers but the politics had run their course and it was becoming too difficult to be creative within that structure. I wanted more freedom.
Q: What kind of person were you at that point?
STING: Total monster. You had three very, very strong egos. Stewart and Andy were more experienced in the pop world than I was. So I had to fight tooth and nail to get things done my way.
Q: Were you very confrontational?
STING: Very. I think that aggressive stuff was really good for us though, it really boosted the way we played. Stewart had F***... Off... You... C*** written on his tom toms. That was for me. He was hitting me with his drum sticks.
Q: You were quite an unlikely three piece.
STING: Well we didn't all grow up together in the same street. It was a marriage of convenience in many ways. At the same time we ended up very close. Almost too close. Like siblings, and we fought viciously like families do. It was a strange marriage. It was Stewart's band and his decision to call the band The Police and at the start he wrote the material. I just tagged along with it until I saw it as a vehicle for my material then... took it over.
Q: When was the last time you were in contact with them?
STING: They were both at my wedding.
Q: Where you got up and played.
STING: That's right. The Troggs had been on singing Wild Thing to my wife and then we had to get up, basically, because everyone was expecting it.
Q: Did you enjoy it?
STING: No, I didn't. But we had to do it. We got up and we hadn't rehearsed or planned anything and we started with Message In A Bottle and Andy starts the riff, he can just about remember it, and Stewart immediately starts f***ing speeding up, as usual, as f***ing usual, so I turn around 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 suddenly it had all come back and Stewart and I immediately caught each other doing it and started to laugh. It was very funny. It was actually a very warm moment. That tension was back immediately. People said that the atmosphere was electric watching it.
Q: Andy Summers has not, from what I can gather, been that helpful or happy with this box set.
STING: (laughs) You'd have to ask him. He's doing his own records. He's got his own slant on things. It's easy to harp on about the negatives but the positives far outweigh those. We made some really good records, a couple of duff ones. The main problem was the songwriting. I was giving a portion of my publishing away to the band just to keep it together and everybody wanted to be a songwriter.
Q: Wasn't it plain that you were the more gifted songwriter?
STING: I can't really answer that but I was the person writing all the hits. I thought it was beyond argument. But we still had numerous fights about it.
Q: The Police toured incredibly hard. It seemed to be almost non-stop.
STING: Well, we had this agenda to conquer the world. I don't know where that empire building thing came from. We were really ambitious. Fiercely so. Bands are difficult though: you begin as a democracy, then roles become defined and then the trouble starts.
Q: You've mentioned that you'd have liked to have seen this box set come out in an artwork coffin.
STING: I thought it would be funny. It was a surprise to me. I wasn't expecting a Police box set at all. Once I knew, I wasn't looking forward to it. I knew I'd have to reassess it.
Q: What do you think when you hear the first Police album?
STING: Well I don't listen to it. I'd probably be analysing it and thinking how I'd do it differently now. Or could I do it better. Perhaps not.
Q: You were very much punk outsiders, weren't you?
STING: We were much older. Stewart and I were in our late twenties. Andy was even older than that. We related to the sense of outrage against the status quo. These f***ing dreary bands piling out this crap. The other thing was that we could play.
Q: Did you meet the punk groups of the time, or did you avoid each other?
STING: No, we played with The Damned and Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers. Actually among other musicians, the fact we could play gave us some respect. It was just journalists who didn't like it. Punk was all about fashion. In a way it was good for us to be marginalised, good for our resilience. We could have been like Sham 69, you know, the best group in the world for three weeks and then you're not. That's so horrible. So destructive.
Q: Were you a highly competitive person then?
STING: Yep (laughs).
Q: What drugs were you taking?
STING: Normal drugs: cocaine. We went through our cocaine stage which was totally stupid. It exaggerated everything. Total paranoia. It's the most mindless, pathetic drug. Why the f*** anyone would want to take it I don't know. I guess you take it as some sort of reward: we've made it now, we can take coke! God's way of telling you you've got too much money.
Q: You changed after the first two Police albums from writing about yourself to addressing broader issues.
STING: Well, as a songwriter, you're constantly looking for new sources of material, somewhere else to go. If you continue to write about yourself, it's boring for the listener and boring for you. I was looking for wider issues to write about. Not that I wanted to nail them on the head. I'd always use a metaphor before I tackled anything.
Q: Will you listen to the box set?
STING: No, I most certainly won't.
Q: If you did, you'd notice the sound maturing around the time of 'Zenyatta Mondatta'.
STING: Well I think around that time we felt we could dismiss this idea that we'd been punks. We'd made it and we thought, f*** it, let's make music we really want to make. It's funny though, I remember those small gigs so much better than the stadium shows. I can remember pretty well every night of the first tour: which gigs had tricky stairs to negotiate with the gear; what was said in the dressing room; which encores we did. But a stadium just looks like a stadium. When we first came back from our first tour of America and we played the Nashville and they were queuing around the block to get in whereas there'd been four people. That's so exciting. That or the first time you heard your record on the radio. You can never recapture that.
Q: What compares to that now?
STING: Now? God, I dunno. Having a new baby? No, you can't reproduce that excitement and it would be silly to try. Move on or if necessary walk away. I'd hate to be Sting like I was 12 years ago.
Q: Where did the idea of fusing rock and reggae come from anyway?
STING: Well at the time of punk the only music that was really listenable was reggae. We were total Bob Marley fans and by osmosis almost, I ended singing that way. People always tell me that Roxanne is a reggae song; it's actually a tango, it's not a f***ing reggae song. But going from that lope into full rock'n'roll really appealed to me. Still does.
Q: Elvis Costello said at the height of your early success, "I wish Sting would knock off the cod-Jamaican accent."
STING: Well why didn't he knock off the cod-American accent?
Q: You completely ripped Bob Marley off on 'So Lonely'.
STING: Totally. 'No Woman, No Cry' sped up with a slightly different melody. Those chords, classic aren't they, C, G, A Minor, F. It's like the chord sequence around 'Every Breath You Take' is generic. It's 'Stand By Me' and it's 'Slip Slidin' Away' by Paul Simon and the lyrics aren't particularly original either, they're straight out of a f***ing rhyming dictionary. But somehow there's something quite unique about that song and I don't know what it is.
Q: Did The Police's success break up your and Andy's respective marriages at the time?
STING: I think success distorted a lot of things. Magnified problems. Created problems that didn't really exist. Success is a very destructive thing. Even though we were in our late twenties and emotionally capable of handling it, we still f***ed up. f***ed up our private lives, f***ed up among ourselves. Fame is very difficult to deal with. You have to learn this strategy to cope with it. But we're harping on about the negative side again. We were a f***ing great band, Stewart was a brilliant drummer, Andy was a brilliant technician and guitarist, I was a f***ing brilliant songwriter and I sang and played bass. At the same time!
Q: Do you hear the legacy of The Police in Nirvana?
STING: People have mentioned this. I like Nirvana. I like that modal quality. I think they make very careful music. Nevermind is beautifully produced. I guess that binary system, fast and slow thing is similar. I hear it more in that band Therapy?. I can certainly hear Stewart's influence in the drummer.
Q: How do you feel now about the writers, particularly Arthur Koestler and Carl Jung, that you adopted at the time of 'Ghost In The Machine' and 'Synchronicity'?
STING: I think those people came along at a time when I needed them. I needed therapy badly. I had Jungian therapy and it was very creative and it related to my work. I got to Jung through Koestler. The first thing I read by Koestler was a book about laughter which wasn't a lot of laughs.
Q: Do you still write your dreams down as you were doing prior to recording Synchronicity?
STING: Maybe sometimes but much less self-consciously.
Q: It was at this time that you were attacked for being a pretentious wanker.
STING: I can't help that. I read books. What can I do? And it's perfectly valid source material.
Q: But they were seen as pretentious books.
STING: That was the critics' problem, that whole pretentious wanker campaign. Their problem.
Q: It all seemed to get horrible once The Police went to record 'Ghost In The Machine' in Montserrat.
STING: Very horrible. Very dark. Miserable. Our marriages were breaking up, our marriage was breaking up and yet we had to make another record. Nightmare. Then it hit us that this is how we're going to have to make our living for the rest of our careers. I started looking for a way out. It was too much of a shock because I said from the beginning the Police will last three albums and well, we did really.
Q: Do you remember writing Synchronicity at Ian Fleming's desk in Jamaica?
STING: Yeah, my marriage had broken up by that point and I sat at the desk where Ian Fleming had written the James Bond books and wrote 'Every Breath You Take' and 'King Of Pain' and 'Wrapped Around Your Finger'. That really helped me. It was a healing process.
Q: Can you tap into the feeling you had when you wrote 'Roxanne' if you sing it now?
STING: I still sing 'Roxanne'. But I'm not necessarily thinking about it. I'm not faking it but the words and melody dictate a mood.
Q: 'Walking On The Moon' was an extraordinary sounding song at that time.
STING: Very sparse. As a three piece what was intelligent about us was, instead of trying to pretend we were a bigger band, we used that limitation to our advantage: less is more. There were some big black holes in 'Walking On The Moon' and you get those on the radio and people are immediately sucked in. Same with 'Roxanne'. That guitar chord Andy came up with for 'Walking On The Moon' was just mind-blowing. And that weird jazzy bassline.
Q: 'Don't Stand So Close To Me': any hint of autobiographical detail in that as a former school teacher?
STING: No, none at all, I was a teacher but I never had a relationship with any of my pupils, I wouldn't want to. You have to remember we were blond bombshells at the time and most of our fans were young girls so I started role playing a bit. Let's exploit that. And it really worked. You know that single sold a million copies in Britain. A million. Imagine that now?
Q: And, of course, it contained the worst rhyme in the history of popular music.
STING: "Nabokov" and "shake and cough". Okay, I can defend that. Sometimes rhymes can be so bad they can shock you into listening to them. Most good, full rhymes are just Hallmark card stuff. Moon, June, erm, Balloon. But I've used that terrible, terrible rhyme technique a few times. Technically, it's called a feminine rhyme - where it's so appalling it's almost humorous. You don't normally get those type of rhymes in pop music and I'm glad (laughs). There were a lot of people saying, 'What a pretentious wanker, he's mentioned Nabokov in a pop song', but by the same token a lot of people wrote and said, 'What's a Nabokov'?
Q: 'De Do Do Do De Da Da Da' was dismissed as a nonsense song when in fact it was very articulate.
STING: God I got flak for that one. I always thought it was an articulate song about being inarticulate. The first thing you have to consider is that this was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. I was intrigued with why songs like that worked. Why 'Da Do Ron Ron', why 'Doo Wah Diddy', why 'Be Bop A Lula', why 'Tutti Frutti' worked. I came up with the idea that they worked because they were totally innocent. They weren't trying to tell you anything or distort your vision - it was just a sound. So in the song I try to intellectualise and analyse why that works so effectively which is self-defeating in a way but it was still a massive hit. Some people might think that the man who wrote 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' is a stupid twat but... I'm living here.
Q: Is there any one Police song that still moves you?
STING: (pauses) I think 'Message In A Bottle' is a good song. That can move me. I like the idea that while it's about loneliness and alienation it's also about finding solace and other people going through the same thing. The guy's on a desert island and throws a bottle out to sea saying he's alone and all these millions of bottles come back saying, So what? So am I! I like the fact that the whole deal is clinched by the third verse. It makes a journey.
Q: Do you see The Police as part of your past now?
STING: Yes, it's very much a part of my past and a lot of it I am very proud of, but it's now consigned to history. In my mind anyway.
Q: Anything to add?
STING: Yeah, I really want to say, that the truth about The Police - me and Stewart and Andy - is that we all loved each other... too much.
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