MOJOFebruary 01, 1995
The following interview with Paul Du Noyer appeared in the February 1995 issue of Mojo magazine...
Is it time Sting was forgiven?
The unshaven, unworried rock aristocrat strolls the borders of his sumptuous Jacobean pile funded by a decade of vastly successful solo artistry. His enemies are few - the apocalyptic brigade, a touch of premature deafness and a phlegmatic British press unable to cope with his penchant for the selfless gesture. "You're pointing at the moon but people are looking at your finger."
What a good idea it is to be rich. How often this thought occurs when you're round at Sting's place. We visit what is casually referred to as "Sting's farm". It is, more correctly; "Sting's bloody enormous Jacobean manor house out in the country", set in its own estate. How big is the estate? Hard to say; but you may as well call it "Wiltshire" and have done with it.
Sting lives in a leafy Valley That Time Forgot, in surroundings as perfect as the house itself. Period taste assails your every eye. In the grounds there is no guitar - shaped swimming pool. If he had a pool it would probably be harpsichord-shaped. Led by our blond, be-stubbled host we tramp across the fields to have a look around. Down by the river is a wooden hut containing a CD player and two hammocks. "Actually, this is where I live," he jokes.
Pressing on, across the stile is a quantity of goats. "They normally yield eight pints a day" Sting notes (he is a milkman's son and probably likes to keep tabs on these things). Elsewhere are farm employees and scientific-looking coves conducting ecological experiments. There is a strange wooden structure with stones in the middle - it's something, he explains, that men climb inside when they've a mind to get sweaty and intimate. Imperceptibly. one quickens one's step.
He suddenly stoops to inspect some infant mushrooms that are pushing up through the grass. "Hmm. Could be a very interesting interview with 'The Independent' this afternoon," is the gentleman-farmer's inscrutable comment.
Other crops thrive here, too ("It's like 'The Good Life', really"), and one particular piece of land inspired his hit song 'Fields Of Gold': "But now the audience has taken to doing this when I sing it he sways like barley in the breeze, en masse, which is disconcerting. But you can't stop them, can you? Oi! Stop that f***ing shite!"
The house itself is lined inside by dark wood and leather books. The wife and children are away in America; in side rooms are some staff who work in silence. A shaggy dog ("the moving carpet") nuzzles up to its master who, looking a touch rough following a night's carousing up in London, stalks the echoing halls like a dissolute aristocrat. To one side is the fully-equipped home studio where he nowadays records.
Fields Of Gold, which was made here, appeared on his last album Ten Summoner's Tales. And Fields Of Gold is the title of his newly-released greatest hits collection. It's full of the songs that have made him a regular at the Grab-A-Grammy Nights when the rock rebels all give it some cummerbund and the music industry rewards its great and good. It also reminds you what a terrific songwriter he can be.
Often his talents are acknowledged not at all, or only grudgingly. His good looks put some people off, and his apparent vanity. More than anything, he's criticised for his Good Causes, like Amnesty International or the Rain Forest. His motives are suspected. Talking about this later, he comes up with a rather good aphorism: "You're pointing at the moon. But people are looking at your finger."
But you can say what you like about Sting... he can't hear you. This is actually true. Sting is going a bit deaf. It's not particularly funny - he admits that it's one of his main concerns at the moment - but it's probably not unusual. Rock musicians grow old like anyone else and, being in that line of work, they're even more at risk. "I've lost a lot of mid-range in this ear," he says. `And the mid-range is where the spoken word is, so I have to listen very carefully or lip-read with people. I have very interesting conversations where I think people have said one thing but they've actually said something else. I'm going to a doctor in Paris who has a very good track record.
"You go to most doctors and they - say, Ah, it's an occupational hazard, but you've made a lot of money you've had a good innings. And most people in my profession are a little bit deaf. But with this doctor there is a three week course, and through headphones he plays you filtered Mozart - certain frequencies are filtered out, so your brain has to re-train to hear them. He has amazing results. He plays Gregorian chants and Mozart. He says your general health is all to do with your ears, your creativity; your mood.
"So I'll try that, because: it worries me. It's not bad, it's not chronic - I haven't got an ear trumpet yet, but I could have one day. It's with working in industrial levels of noise all the time."
He suddenly roars with laughter at this image of the doddering rocker, bewailing his ailments like a pensioner on a bus. "Ha Ha! This is how it's going now, isn't it? How's the hearing? The next stage in these interviews will be Mick Jagger's back problems. You'll be asking, How's the back, Mick? We're the biggest generation in history; and our generation is getting older and older.
"But one of the doctor's theories is that a lot of opera singers have this hearing problem too, like Pavarotti. It's not the fold-back that's doing it, it's the actual decibel level of their own voices. And I have a very loud voice too, so I've probably damaged myself that way. But it's said that ear damage can create unique vocal sounds - the theory is that you can only reproduce what you can hear. Sometimes a singer will have a hearing problem that will enhance his singing because he's hearing something unique and therefore he reproduces something unique. Apparently Caruso had a serious problem, hence his unique voice."
Bang-Bang-Bang goes a carpenter's hammer, in another room. Vroomff-Whrrr says something tractor-like, outside the window. Dreamily; Sting picks up an acoustic guitar and fingers a classical melody.
A 10-year retrospective album ('Fields Of Gold' is sub-titled The Best Of Sting 1984-1994) offers an opportunity to look back. "I haven't been disappointed very much at all, to be honest with you," he reflects. "Where I've failed in the public eye, they've been lessons that I've enjoyed, like doing that play on Broadway; The Threepenny Opera. I'm not one for crying in my beer about past defeats. I haven't been kicked in the teeth very much. People have tried, but I have a pretty thick skin."
Really? Did you grow it deliberately, so to speak?
"You have to. To survive in the business more than six months you need an outer shell. Otherwise you get mown aside. You also need a sense of - irony about it. If I read my reviews - and sometimes they're vicious - I'm not going to get upset by it, because it's balanced by equally ludicrous praise. Somewhere in the middle is a fair comment on my work. I haven't been that bruised. If you take the praise seriously then you have to take the bricks they throw at you seriously.
"If anyone described me as a genius I would laugh. I have my moments - I just have to join them together..."
Describing Sting as a genius is something - rather like earthquakes, or mosquito-bites - that happens abroad more than it does here. In past times men who excelled in the arts might get the accolade of a grateful nation, and a plaque in Westminster Abbey. Sting, by contrast, just gets called a wanker in the Melody Maker. If he minds this he's too smart to let it show. He's almost patriotic about how much the British take the piss. As Auberon Waugh has said, it's practically a national virtue - nothing becomes this country more than its readiness to mock and subvert.
"That's the nature of British phlegm," Sting agrees, "and I'm part of that. It makes us fantastic, it also makes us a pain in the arse. The Americans take it more seriously. But being from somewhere else you're always taken more seriously. American artists are taken more seriously here than in America. French cinema loves the big American movie actors. So it's a good trade-off. Being popular in America certainly pays the rent. People here are realistic about you: 'We know you're from Newcastle, you can't pull the wool over our eyes with all your bullshit.' But if you asked 10 people in a room what they think of Sting, you'd get a fairly graded response. I don't think you'd get 'Oh he's a c***' 10 times. I hope not anyway! Ha! Wann-kaah! I get a good response from other musicians, which is pleasing. I don't read the newspapers to check whether I exist every day, as I think some people do."
He claims he was reluctant to put out a greatest hits record: It's like a testimonial match, isn't it ? Something you do when you're ready to cash in." But he was spurred on when the record company told him he'd have to make two new tracks for it (namely the recent hit 'When We Dance' and 'This Cowboy Song') because that's the way greatest hits albums are marketed now. "As singles, three or four minute songs, it's not a bad collection to marshal from 10 years. I'd prefer to do an album of new songs, but I think it passes muster."
Sting's solo career had a very ambiguous beginning. When he recorded and toured his debut LP 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' in 1985 The Police had not officially split. In fact their manager Miles Copeland was adamant: the press must not suggest this band was at its end. But they were.
Despite its rather crappy name, 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' was a big hit and so were its offspring singles - 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', 'Russians', 'Love Is The Seventh Wave' and 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. The rockumentary movie of its Paris launch, 'Bring On The Night', was also acclaimed. Was he hedging his bets back then - seeing if the solo thing worked out before telling the Police he was off?
"In my mind it was the start of my solo career, though it was a projected as a sort of hiatus. And luckily that experiment was very successful, which gave me the confidence to carry on and not run back to the Police. In my mind I'd already left the Police and never intended to go back."
But if you failed, the option was still there?
"I don't think it was. We did try to make a re-recorded greatest hits album, after the success of the Blue Turtles album, and it totally failed. It became a nightmare of ego and recrimination and fighting. We tried to re-record each track, because I figured we were better musicians by that point, and could make the songs better. But we only got as far as one before all hell broke loose. We did Don't Stand So Close To Me and almost came to blow's over it. So it wasn't an option any more after that."
The solo albums have all done well. The second, 'Nothing Like The Sun' (released in 1987) contained 'They Dance Alone' and 'Englishman In New York'. But in 1991 he released 'The Soul Cages' and achieved what he calls his "critical low point". It's certainly the least pop-tastic album he's yet made. There was a rare upbeat track, All This Time which climbed the charts, but all the rest was gaunt and spooked - a drifting meditation on the recent death of his father. Half flippantly; he says, "I think its market is the recently bereaved... But actually I think of it as my best work.
"All my albums sell about five or six million copies, so The Soul Cages wasn't exactly a flop. But it was attacked most in England for being pretentious. The buzzword was gloomy, I think, or depressing. Maybe I'm defensive about it, but it's very heartfelt, very earnest. I couldn't get away from these ideas about my background, my father, death. I had to get them out of the way, almost as part of the mourning process, so I could then get on with writing songs for fun. Which is what I did on the last record ('Ten Summoner's Tales'), which people seemed to like much better.
"But that's fine. A whole body of work should reflect lots of different moods, and that was a very dark period of my life. If I was to be honest, I would have to make a very dark record. By the time I made 'Ten Summoner's Tales', that was about having a steady band that I loved and trusted, and having a nice family life. I'd moved here. I fell in love with the cliché of moving into a country mansion, which I'd avoided for years. It was all of those factors, and just having a ball."
Unlike 'The Soul Cages', this 1993 album was warmly received in Britain and has sold very well. Nor was it so autobiographical. (I'm assuming that he never was part of a seven-man bandit gang, terrorising Mexico or whatever he does in 'Love Is Stronger Than Justice'. Sting nods, to confirm that he was not.)
"I didn't want any more confessional songs, and I wanted to put myself in other scenarios. I can do that, I'm a craftsman. I don't have to just do one thing. It was a good release for me. But now I don't know what to do next that's the problem. I don't know whether to go back to the doom and gloom. I'll have to sit and wait and see what happens. I've no plans."
Songwriters sometimes say the songs that come to them the fastest turn out to be the best. "The ones that come quickly have already been written somewhere else. You just compile them. If you take, say, 'Every Breath You Take', which is probably my most successful song, it wrote itself. It's completely generic - a rhyming dictionary come to life. Yet there's something compelling about it that I can't explain."
Your 'issue' songs are the most commented upon, but of late your chosen themes are mostly romantic ones. ('If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', 'It's Probably Me', 'Fields Of Gold', etc.) "I am a romantic, in a very old-fashioned sense. And I think my song-writing is part of a romantic tradition, which is probably the oldest tradition, even beyond rock'n'roll."
It seems that what affects one person, emotionally will move us more deeply than global matters, whatever their relative importance in the wider scheme of things. You know the idea: disasters in the world might distress you, but "only love can break your heart", to quote Neil Young. "It's true. Gershwin encapsulated it with 'Gibraltar may crumble, something may tumble, but they're only made of clay our love is here to stay.' It's true. There's something about the continuity of the human species involving romance, involving lovemaking, procreation, which is stronger than regimes or anything. I think living here brought that home to me. Being with my kids. We need that sense of continuity for our sanity. There's a whole school of thought - the millennialists, the apocalyptic brigade, the right wing religious groups - who all want the world to end. I'd like it to carry on.
The conversation turns, as it so often does when your thoughts are deep and apocalyptic, to what was on Top Of The Pops last night. As it happens, Sting was.
"I think I was probably the oldest person in the whole fucking building," he puzzles. "The audience all looked like my children, with make-up. The acts seemed only slightly older. And, to my shame, I'd never heard of most of them. It was odd being there, like it was my last stab at stardom. Top Of The Pops has been a major thing in all of our lives, and I care what happens to it. But it has a very faded, end-of-the-pier glory to it."
Is the pop single a dying art?
"Actually; I was encouraged last night. In the dressing rooms were all these bands: East 17, China Black, they were all practising in their rooms, singing their songs. Which actually were songs, with structures, middle eights and choruses, as opposed to just linear dance stuff. I think the song is the basis of the whole thing, and dance music has a lot to answer for. It's great in its context, a dance hall, but as the standard fare of our charts it just doesn't hold up. So you get this massive turnover of people who do it then vanish next week. Songs have a currency that lasts for years, as I know to my benefit.
"So it all depends on whether we can produce new songwriters. Success here used to be your passport: the world waited for the next big thing to come out of Britain. Now that's not true. No-one's looking any more. I'd like it to happen again. We have a great deal of talent here but it's not nurtured by the music press or the record companies, it's certainly not supported by the radio. Unless we want to become a faded Pop Empire we have to address those problems."
Sting's eldest son is 18: "And he's very radical about music, he barely tolerates me. He likes Sonic Youth and Pavement." The main thing they have in common is Nirvana, which the father endorses as "actually very careful music. It wasn't just thrown together, although that was the impression. It was very worked out."
Beyond that Sting has three or four albums that he returns to. "I play 'So What' by Miles Davis almost once a week because I find it stimulating intellectually to hear those guys exploring the range of their talents. To hear John Coltrane play and Wynton Kelly, it thrills me every time and I know every note. I like French romantic orchestral music, Ravel, Debussy, Faure, Erik Satie. And I've really got into these Dominican monks singing Gregorian chants, though perhaps that's just my Catholic upbringing. I'm sure that had a big effect on me melodically, that plainsong. You'll find those intervals in my songs a lot."
We find another interval here, because it's time for Sting to go and lie down in the garden while a young woman covers him in leaves. Time, in other words, for his MOJO photo session.
"Prrffhh," says Sting, a slight frown playing about his sculpted Nordic features. "Prrffhh," he adds. "Prrffhh, prrffhh." He's got a leaf in his mouth. Yet he endures the session with surprising good humour. He's cold, he's damp, he looks a bit of a pillock. But he lies there patiently while photographer Nigel Parry stands above him, snapping, and the assistant carefully lifts that obstructing leaf aside. "I can read your headlines already: 'Sting turns over a new leaf.' Or: 'The autumn of his years'...
Back at the house, in another huge room (the one where a former resident, an old sea captain, lived alone while the rest of the building decayed gently), he shows us some earlier press coverage. Above the mantelpiece are two framed articles from 'Viz'. In one of them, Sting ("Real name: Gordon Sting") admits to making such energetic love to his wife, Trudie, that her head came off. The other cutting recounts his stay at a hotel, when "four-inch sex monkeys" masturbated into his tea, and fellow guests were not best pleased.
And the conversation turns, as it so often does when your thoughts are of four-inch sex monkeys, towards the future. I ask him: What's left to be done?
"I have to enter a phase now," he replies, "where I sit down and say, What have I learned ? Who am I ? What have I got to say that's useful or coherent? And at the end of that period, if I think I have nothing to say, then I hope I have the courage not to say anything. I'll wait, and be patient."
Might you find another Great Cause, as the Rain Forests have been?
"It was a useful experience for me. I learned a great deal about myself and about the media, and human nature generally. I have no regrets about it. I'll probably go back to the Rain Forest soon. I won't be writing about the Rain Forest or ecological concerns, although people accuse me of doing that. Of being, you know; some tree-hugging whatever...
Has your work made a difference?
"Yes, it has. We set out to demarcate an area of land, which I later found out was the size of Switzerland. Everyone screamed at me, Get back to singing, you fucking wanker, you can't do this. Five years down the line, having been pulled over the coals, we actually did it - physically demarcated the land, had it ratified by the Brazilian government, and all the criticism sort of evaporated. But I'm, not doing this for praise or blame. It's because I think I can do it. So now we have a very healthy organisation with offices in New York and in London. It does very good work with the medical programmes, and our success is being used as a model for other organisations in different places. So I'm happy about the outcome. I'm still involved, still a trustee, still raising money for it. But it's not the headlines any more. It's fine."
Does anyone in your position have a similar responsibility? If you are surrounded by celebrity; ought you to use it as a force?
"I think if you have access to the media, and people ask you to help them with that access, you should do it. But you should also be aware of the negative things that will happen to you. Because you're focusing attention, some of that attention is going to be negative and you must accept that. This is what I've learnt. It's human nature. Nothing you can do about that. If you want to do it, you should. But I don't think it's a prerequisite of being a celebrity. I was just curious about the issue, and about the effect I would have. Sometimes you can be helpful and sometimes the opposite. Celebrity is good for kick-starting ideas, but often celebrity is a lead weight around your neck. It's like you're pointing at the moon, but people are looking at your finger: Oh, you've got dirty fingernails! It's hard. I'm asked almost daily to help some other cause, but I'm cautious - because I don't have much time, and because I'm aware of the pitfalls."
On the front steps of the mansion Sting fills his nostrils with the sharp Wiltshire air and looks around to admire his building's fine architectural details. He is lord of all he surveys. You can say what you like about Sting. But if you hate him, the news is bad. The news is: It's your problem, not his.
On the other hand, maybe Sting's life is too good. Contentment is reputed to be the enemy of inspiration. There's a view that says: Nothing like a bit of anguish to get the creative juices flowing.
"I know" he says. "I firmly held to that belief. You had to manufacture a crisis to be creative. Now in my 43rd year, I'm really fighting against that idea. I want to be happy and sane and still make music. People have made great music in those conditions. It can be done. Whether it's relevant to everyone else, I don't know: Maybe I'm in a very small percentage of people who are happy. Maybe it's smugness. I don't know. But I am happy."
© Mojo magazine