Q MAGAZINEDecember 01, 1987
The following interview with Steve Turner appeared in the December 1987 issue of Q magazine...
His books are racked alphabetically - the Jung next to the Joyce. His songs are littered with literary allusion and tangled time signatures. His talk is of chromatic scales, Kafka and Schoenberg. Has Sting over-extended his artistic licence? "I write for myself," he tells Steve Turner. "If the audience like it that's wonderful."
Sting holds court not in the music room with the sofas and grand piano nor in the oak panelled study with the leather topped desk and racing prints over the fireplace but in the kitchen. Not that this is any ordinary kitchen. Exposed oak beams run along the ceiling, pots and pans are hung from meat hooks over a stove in the centre and French windows open on to a well tended garden fringed with tall trees. Beyond the garden rolls the expansive greenery of Hampstead Heath, providing one of London's most exclusive views. The previous resident of this Georgian mansion was Yehudi Menuhin. Prince Faisal lives next door. "I've never seen him though," says Sting. "He's never popped in for a cuppa or asked to borrow any milk."
On the wall, directly behind Sting as he sits drinking coffee at the kitchen table, is a moody black and white photograph of a row of terraced houses in Newcastle. A lone dog plays on the road. At the end of the street, dwarfing everything else, is the immense hull of a tanker ready for launching. This is where milkman's son Gordon Sumner was born and raised, the oldest of four children.
The houses have since been demolished, the ship, as Sting wryly notes, is probably now dodging shells in the Gulf, the milkman's son is a millionaire with homes in Highgate Village, Greenwich Village and Malibu Beach who employs a staff of 20 including a PA, nanny, housekeeper, secretary, and gardener. Today he is in London. Tomorrow he begins band rehearsals in New York. Next month he launches his tour in Brazil and Argentina. "I always wanted to get out," says Sting, gazing out towards the Heath. "I always thought the environment was restricting. They built a ship every year and we'd all go to the launching, looking at this thing drifting off into the world and never coming back to port again. For me it became a symbol of escape. I had that feeling of being trapped. At the other end of the street was a railway line. There we were in this enclave of banality, stuck between two modes of escape."
And escape he did, bundling his wife, six-week-old son and earthly possessions into a Morris Minor and driving down to London. Behind him was a comfortable job as a schoolteacher and regular pub gigs with a jazz-rock band. Before him, nothing more certain than borrowed floor space and a ¬£16 a week dole cheque. Then along came the Police.
Sting has not shaved for his interview. Neither has he combed or washed his hair. The man with the celebrated cheek bones appears not to give a damn. He wears a heavy navy blue jumper with a black watch strapped over it at the wrist and periodically stabs at his stubble or rakes his fingers through his hair when talking. He speaks softly and deliberately, a knitted brow and a faintly screwed up nose the rare signs of emotion.
The new album, 'Nothing Like The Sun', his first studio recording since 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' in 1985, continues his exploration of jazz-infused pop and socio-political comment. He's retained Kenny Kirkland (keyboards) and Branford Marsalis (sax) from 'The Blue Turtles' but played almost all the bass himself and used guest guitarists including Andy Summers, Eric Clapton, Ruben Blades and Mark Knopfler.
His light voice and polished sound has odd associations. At times he's reminiscent of Colin Blunstone, the former Zombies vocalist. On 'Englishman In New York', his tribute to the individualism of Quentin Crisp, there's a touch of John Anderson. Someone overhearing my copy asked if I was listening to Art Garfunkel. In Sting's view it's a lot less self-conscious than 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' and more confident.
"The last one was nervy because it was a new situation for me and the musicians," he says. "That nervousness worked by creating a lively energy that made it sparkle. This one is more relaxed. There's more authority in it. We are astride something. We were crossing the bridge before and now we've created something that we're comfortable with, which is an interface between pop music and jazz and anything else that comes to hand."
Who is he now writing for? He claims for himself alone. "If it pleases me, that's enough. When an album sells millions of copies, I like that! I can tell you, it's a wonderful feeling. It confirms that the effort you've put into it has worked. But that doesn't mean to say that I have to compromise the material in order to do that, just as I don't compromise myself in my appearance. "I don't pretend I'm any younger than I am or wear a wig or a corset or latex trousers. I don't wave my dick in the audience's face. I'm not interested in that. I am myself. I hope my music is something I would make anyway. If I wasn't successful I hope I would still be writing these songs. I write for myself and if the audience likes it, that's wonderful. I'm sure that one day mass appeal and my personal taste will separate."
If that day should come, it will be because Sting has decided to cut out. There's a strong sense of precision running through his life. "I don't like losing control," he said last year. You observe it in small things like his alphabetically arranged bookshelves Joyce next to Jung, Kafka leaning on Krishnamurti, and then in big things like the calculated way the Police latched on to the enthusiasms of punk and the rhythm of reggae.
"It was just a clever way of welding two things together," he now says of the then-unique Police sound. "I could see where the power of the punk energy lay and so we welded it to reggae which was a much more sophisticated and seductive thing. Because we were experienced musicians we could do that. The Sex Pistols couldn't because they were only thrashing Bash Street Kids with instruments. It has power but no finesse so it couldn't go anywhere. It just blew up. Reggae was a closed system. They're still doing the same thing. It just goes round and round."
Did he sit around discussing the new product like this with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland back in 1977? Was it really a question of finding a gap in the market? "It just seemed obvious to me," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm an opportunist. I had no feeling for three chord thrashes. I just saw it as a useful form of energy. I was aligned to it politically because I'd been kept out of the industry for five years knocking on doors and being told my work wasn't commercial. I knew that there'd be something if you could join the two things together which is why 'The Blue Turtles' worked. I have this pop sensibility which I aligned with a jazz sensibility. I wanted to play, something that suggested jazz but which had a pop suss. That worked too."
Songwriting is equally calculated for him. Some writers, like Bono or Mick Jagger, can compose at the microphone but Sting utilises information from books, newspapers, television and dreams.
"I'll make a notation and then carry those things around while they gestate," he says. "The analogy for me is a little seed and somehow, by a genetic code like DNA, it grows arms and legs - it grows a verse, a chorus and a middle eight."
There's something of Paul Simon's seriousness in his methodical approach to his craft. Like Simon he enjoys working with time signatures previously alien to pop. Like Simon he's taking voice and piano lessons and classes in arranging to further improve himself.
"It's the only way to get better. A lot of rock stars have hit records and then get no better. They read in the LA Times that they are geniuses and so they think they no longer need to work at it. Bullshit! I'm close friends now with Gil Evans who's 76 years old and still learning about music."
Sting is the ex-teacher who still likes to keep his class in control and the book cupboard tidy. Clearly a subscriber to the work ethic, he comes down hard on those he reckons are shirking. Reading a complimentary review of 'Nothing Like The Sun' in which a song in 7/4 time is described as being "flamenco-derived", he explodes. "Now this is what's wrong in rock journalism - a musical education. Why don't these guys go to music college for like three weeks? It really makes me angry that they write about music but they don't bother learning what it is about."
He keeps a daily journal and also records all his dream's. Among his best friends he claims an explorer, a nuclear engineer, a clairvoyant and the electronics genius who invented the chordless guitar. He becomes passionate about authors whose books stimulate him; in the case of Mervyn Peake buying the film rights to the 'Gormenghast Trilogy', in the case of Carl Jung seeking out a Jungian psychoanalyst who had known the master. He once said, "I think we're here to learn and evolve and the pursuit of knowledge is what alleviates the pain of being human."
To this end, his songwriting technique has been in for something of a servicing. Early on in the Police career he was happy to write songs that any 12-year- old could sing and understand but around 1981, at the time of 'Ghost In The Machine', he began to work out his anxieties and temptations in singles and album tracks. References to Greek mythology, psychoanalytic theory and Jungian archetypes started to appear where there'd once been de-do-do-do's. On Synchronicity there were veiled references to his marital problems both in 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' and 'Every Breath You Take'.
This self-exposure seemed to reach absurd proportions in his documentary record of the formation of 'The Blue Turtles' - 'Bring On The Night' - when his son Jake was filmed being born, with Daddy ceremoniously cutting the umbilical cord and wiping a tear from his eye. It led critics to wonder whether he'd overestimated the curiosity of his audience. Picasso in the delivery room, maybe. But Sting?
The way he tells the story it wasn't his idea to produce such a soul-baring scene. Sting's intention was to show a band at the fumbling stage rather than at the well-rehearsed, on top of the world stage. It was coincidental that Jake made his debut the week the cameras were hired. In the cause of an honest portrait, director Michael Apted pushed for the birth to be shown, arguing that this, more than the Parisian concerts, was the momentous event for the artist. Sting resisted but finally gave in on the condition that he could have it cut at the editing stage if he decided so.
"Three months later I saw a rough cut in Hollywood," he remembers. "Sitting around watching it were these hardened corporate people who'd put up the money. When this scene came on they all started sniffling and crying. I thought, if this is having this effect on these industry people there's clearly something here that's worthwhile. We got a lot of flak for it but at the same time it's what people talk about."
Because Sting is blessed with both an alluring set of cheekbones and an effortless capacity to leap from mention of Prokofiev and atomic reality to discussion of punk and the Flintstones, he's perhaps been the focus of a touch too much reverential attention. Magazines and newspapers have gobbled up his erudite statements and called him "The Thinking Fan's Rock Star", rarely stopping to evaluate the content of his pronouncements. If the words have more than three syllables they're assumed to be academic, and an academic rock star is still a story in itself. There's an obvious danger that he could get carried away by this view of himself. Too many rock stars have died artistic deaths through the suffocation of sycophantic flunkies. After all, who is there to tell Sting when he writes a pile of pompous crap?
"Most of my close friends are pretty honest with me," he responds. "Especially my girlfriend Trudie. She's hypercritical. A pain in the arse! But I think that's so valuable. Otherwise you're surrounded by yes people and that's another trap. I usually choose my producers from a jaundiced collection. Phlegmatic people. Pete Smith, who did my last album, was a tape op engineer on my demos who I asked to help me out. He said to me (puts on Cockney accent) Sting. You are an international superstar, right? Well I don't give a f***. And that made me laugh. I really got on with him. He'd never produced a record before but he was great. He bossed me around and bossed the musicians around. He told me I was singing flat. He told me some of the songs were crap."
It's true. During the sessions at Eddy Grant's Blue Wave studios in Barbados, Sting was forced to do more retakes than he'd ever done before. And when Smith had finished with him there was Vic Garbarini, former editor of Musician magazine, who'd helped put 'The Blue Turtles' together, questioning him about the "linear and forced" imagery in 'Fortress Around Your Heart' and reminding him of the critical flak he would likely face for songs as didactic as Russians and 'Children's Crusade'.
This time he says the murmurings have been few. "I think the critical politburo around me have criticised individual things but say that as a whole it works. Mind you, it's a long record. There's over an hour's worth of music." Couldn't it be criticised for its uniformity of mood? There are no soul rave-ups with the intensity of 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and no sure-fire number ones like 'Every Breath You Take'. "It's not a lively record," he admits.
Lyrically, too, hasn't he become a mite overindulgent by not honing statements down to gain the sharpness required of the pop song format? I quote an example of jarringly unlyrical lyric from 'Straight To My Heart': 'l think they're working far too much / For the redundancy of touch'. "That was basically trying to fashion a song in 7/4 time," he says, appearing almost grateful for this gentle criticism. "It's not a serious song. It's like, can I make this thing scan? Can I make it danceable in this weird time signature? Yeah, it's indulgent and it's soft. I agree. "You have to balance the whole thing," he says when asked why his songs have become longer and wordier over the years. "There are songs I did spend a long time on and that I really care about. There are songs that are emotionally charged and there are other songs which are just written for fun, for a laugh, or because the words sound good. I think this record is balanced between frivolity, over-indulgence and actual meat." These days his heroes are far removed from the rock'n'roll business. "I almost never listen to pop music," he says. "I don't think Radio One is designed with people like me in mind."
In the entrance hall of his Highgate home he has framed, hand-written letters of novelist Thomas Hardy and composer Vaughan Williams. He talks glowingly about his friendship with jazz veteran Gil Evans, a man whom he worshipped on record as a teenager in Newcastle. He talks a lot about Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and the writers of the pre-war popular standards. At a recent press conference, asked a question about heavy metal, he told the journalist that he'd rather be Frank Sinatra than Ozzy Osbourne. Appearing live on 'The Last Resort' he sang George Gershwin's 'Someone To Watch Over Me' rather than something from his own album.
"I think pop music needs to be less homogenous," he says. "It tends to feed on itself. If you look at the charts these days you can hear the archetypal record that the current hit is based on. Anything that feeds on itself eventually dies. What I'm trying to do is to look for the roots of popular music before the 1950s. "I don't think pop music started with Elvis Presley. That's why I included this song (Secret Marriage) which was adapted from a melody by Hans Eisler. Kurt Weill, Eisler and those people were classically trained musicians, students of Schoenberg who crossed a bridge to Broadway shows, to popular music. That bridge still exists. So I'm going from pop music, finding out about them and how they wrote chromatically, and hopefully bringing it back. There's a source here that is not used.
"Just writing the same songs and being in the same band for ever would drive me nuts. Which is why I'm not in the Police any more and why I'm trying to write different types of songs. I can try my hand at any kind of song. I can write comedy songs. I can write a dance number which is just rhymes. I think there's room for everything and on this album I try to cover most of them."
Almost seven years ago, when the Police were only three albums into their career, Sting said, "I think we will have said all we have to say within four, maybe five albums. And then I'll have to stop." The man of precision was exactly right. Five original studio recordings and one set of 'Greatest Hits' and that was it. But in between 'Outlandos d'Amour' (1978) and 'Every Breath You Take: The Singles' (1986) stands a phenomenally successful group career.
Managed by Stewart Copeland's brother Miles, they seemed intent on adapting The Beatles' formula for world domination to a new age. There was the look-alike image (made possible by peroxide), the conquering of new territory (Police played in India, Egypt, Thailand, Greece, Mexico, Chile and Argentina in addition to the normal 'world' tour countries) and then, to cap it all, the duplication of The Beatles' feat of filling Shea Stadium to its 70,000 capacity.
The Police eventually sold over 45 million albums internationally, Synchronicity being the best-seller, and by March 1984 Rolling Stone could confidently describe them as, "rock'n'roll's best-loved active band." At the time they were maintaining a unified front but underneath lay festering grievances and emotional disturbances. Sting's marriage to actress Frances Tomelty was faltering, his normally cool and charming behaviour was giving way to tantrums, and drugs had found their way into his life causing him, as he later said, to "stare into the abyss". So afraid was he that his life was crumbling that he checked in for six months of Jungian psychoanalysis.
Most divisive of all was the relationship between Sting and Stewart Copeland. You can see the seeds of discontent in interviews as far back as 1980 with Sting saying "I'll fight tooth and nail until I'm in command. There's no pussyfooting in our group", and even, by way of a backhanded compliment, that he liked working with Copeland because he was far better than his own drum machine. Copeland, in turn, was saying of Sting, "I can take pride in discovering him."
Sting, the working-class boy from the North East and Copeland, the son of the CIA's man in Beirut, were probably destined not to see eye to eye on too many things. The subsequent amount of attention devoted to Sting's political outpourings undoubtedly upset the man who checked him out in a Newcastle pub when he was singing and playing with the semi-professional Last Exit and invited him to London. Whatever the reasons, by the time Synchronicity was recorded they were barely on speaking terms, choosing different times of the day to make their contributions to each track. "We're the best of friends but always fighting," Copeland explained to me in 1985. "It was there right from the beginning. There has to be creative tension. I mean, the whole idea of the group breaking up because of fights... I mean, it didn't break us up in the first year or the third year. In fact we haven't really broken up."
In fact they had. Sting was already planning the next stage of his career, developing his parallel career in films ("a way of extending myself") and writing for 'The Blue Turtles'. They were to play three more concerts (Denver, Atlanta and New Jersey), for Amnesty International last year, although Sting's record company biography records these not as Police reunions but as concerts "with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers". Two years later Sting can, without a moment's hesitation, announce, "It's over," when discussing the Police. Why is it over?
"Because over the years my beliefs became increasingly unique to me," he says. "I was making statements that other members didn't necessarily agree with." The other 'members' being Stewart Copeland? "Exactly." So it was a personal conflict? "Yeah. A personal conflict," he agrees, and then rushes to amend the statement. "I mean, no. I really love Stewart. He's a great friend." Does he see this great friend socially? "I don't see him very much," he admits. "We disagree on so many things - music, politics... How could we be a band if this was happening? Besides, I didn't want to be in a gang any more. I didn't have this need for male bonding. I wanted to be on my own and so I planned my escape again. We had achieved everything we set out to achieve about ten fold."
Part of his escape was into the world of acting where he's had a mixed reception but already a more extensive career in front of the cameras than Bowie, Jagger, Dylan and Ringo Starr stitched together. What he has lacked in dramatic education he's making up for in dogged persistence. The films that were critically panned he doesn't seek to defend, admitting that he was miscast in 'The Bride' and confused by Dune. His proudest achievements are 'Plenty' - "The most classy film I've ever made" - and 'Brimstone And Treacle' - "The one I'm most proud of."
This year he's been at it again, co-starring with Kathleen Turner in Julia Julia, an Italian film shot in a new high-definition video format, and later playing a Newcastle quayside club owner alongside Tommy Lee Jones ('The Executioner's Song') and Melanie Griffiths ('Something Wild'). "I think it's going to be good," he says of 'Stormy Monday' which was shot entirely on location in his old hometown. "I play a Geordie and it's going to need subtitles."
Reported to be worth at least ¬£20 million, he wears his money well. He knows that such rewards for his talent don't disqualify him from speaking up on behalf of the poor and oppressed. In fact, it makes it much more of an obligation. He's been a member of Amnesty International for six years and will be taking part in a world tour for them in mid to late 1988. The best thing about having such financial blessings?
"The freedom to move. The freedom tomorrow to be in New York or Los Angeles, to be somewhere I want to be. I regard myself as an internationalist rather than as a citizen of any one country. My family travel with me." His older children by Frances Tomelty - Joe (11) and Kate (7) - live with their mother in North London while he lives with Trudie Styler, his girlfriend of four years, and their children Mickey (3) and Jake (2). "Two of my kids are in LA this morning, two of them are in London and God knows where my girlfriend is!"
If she's in New York she's at their Greenwich Village loft ("A big room with a piano and a bed in") where Sting likes to hide away and write. He spent three months there earlier this year writing the songs on Nothing Like The Sun. If she's in LA she's at the home bought from Barbara Streisand and situated in the Malibu Colony just along the road from Johnny Carson and Sylvester Stallone. ("It's a little beach hut basically. Very expensive, though.")
Surrounded by such wealth and opportunity Sting tries to preserve as much anonymity as is possible. The performer in him needs to be observed. The artist in him needs to observe. He's to be seen trudging through the autumn leaves in Hampstead and Highgate, still stubbornly refusing to employ bodyguards. "I think they invite trouble," he argues. "They draw attention to you. I quite like being anonymous but the way to be anonymous is to be yourself. You've got to go to the launderette, go to the betting shop and do what you do. If I went to the pub over the road with four big guys, I mean... I'd be in a fight." And is he allowed any anonymity?
"Absolutely. When people recognise me they are generally very pleasant. If they're not, they call you a wanker or something like that. But I can deal with that. I'm from Newcastle."
© Q magazine