Interview: L.A. STYLE (1991)

May 02, 1991

The following article by Kristine McKenna appeared in the May 1991 issue of L.A. Style magazine...

Father & Son...

Sting comes into the greenroom at 'The Arsenio Hall Show', where I'm waiting to interview him. He's just finished his sound check, having run several times through Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze (he does a pretty creditable version of this megaton tune) and his own All This Time, the hit single off his new album, 'The Soul Cages' (A&M) - a record that took less than two weeks to sell a million copies. The songs are rich in images from Sting's childhood in the northern England industrial town of Newcastle, where he grew up next to the shipyards as Gordon Sumner, the son of a hairdresser and a milkman; the album memorializes and is dedicated in part to his father, who died three years ago, only six months after the death of Sting's mother.

It's hot under the TV lights and Sting has worked up a sweat-so the first thing he does upon entering the greenroom is peel off his shirt. He then plunks himself down next to me on a small couch and apologizes for his B.O. (He actually smells pretty good.) Wow, I wonder, is this the done thing? Should I take off my shirt, too?

It's quickly evident that he means nothing personal by doing this interview half naked - he just happens to be a supremely confident man and takes for granted the fluttering hearts around him. Certainly he's fascinated by the effect he has on others and enjoys being the centre of attention, but as he admits below, he really doesn't give much thought to other people. He's far too busy puzzling himself out.

Sting has had the golden touch since he first burst on the scene in the late'70s as the creative engine - and sleek hood ornament - of the new wave band the Police, and his power as a pop avatar shows no sign of fading. On the opening leg of a world tour that promises to be exhausting, he is already feeling its effects, and he takes pains to protect his voice. He sips a soothing elixir of herbal tea laced with honey onstage and off, totes a humidifier wherever he goes and measures his words carefully. For today's interview, he props the tape recorder on a pillow just a few inches from his mouth and barely raises his voice above a whisper.

One of the most unusual things about Sting is the pleasure he takes in the workings of his own mind. He seems to view his life in such a way as to invest it with mythic dimension, and appears to regard himself as a grand work in progress. A politically committed, well-rounded and fairly philosophical person, he obviously - and understandably - finds his private musings on the unfathomable mystery of human existence more compelling than the idle chit-chat that passes for conversation in most quarters. Imagine how often he's told he's brilliant - the novelty surely must have worn off by now. This may explain the fact that while he's exceptionally cordial, he's also somewhat remote and has formed the ability to talk candidly about any topic while giving very little away. Sting has clearly learned how to save a part of himself for himself while existing in the eye of the hurricane known as fame.

Is ambition rooted more in fear or in joy?

Three in the afternoon and you're asking philosophy questions! I'd have to say ambition is mostly driven by fear. The fear leads to occasional moments of joy, which are immediately followed by more fear.

What have you had to sacrifice to achieve all you've achieved?

Privacy. But, of course, my work is based on my making private moments, emotions and thoughts available for public scrutiny - that's what I do. I open my chest and people are free to respond positively or negatively. It's kind of a dangerous occupation psychologically.

When you do something you're proud of must it be acknowledged by others in order for you to fully enjoy it?

Probably. I think I succeeded to gain approval more than anything else, because I'm not a naturally extroverted person - I'm actually an introvert. But to gain approval I do extrovert things even though it's not my natural demeanor.

Why have pop musicians been elevated to such an exalted position in society? Being a musician is really just a trade, no more inexpendable to the culture than the service a plumber provides.

Oh, come on! For starters, plumbing doesn't involve talking to the mass media. And, in addition to the actual work a musician does, there's a manufacturing of image that seems to go with the territory, so it's no surprise that we're more famous than plumbers are. I'm not saying we're better - we just have more access to the media than plumbers do.

You mention the manufacturing of larger-than-life images that seems intrinsic to popular music - why do performers go along with that? It seems destructive for both the performer and the audience?

It's something you must do to succeed. It is a trap in a way, a bargain with the devil, but part of this job is being able to make sense of those illusions, to objectify them and not take them seriously - and I don't.

Have your ideas about romantic love changed significantly over the course of your life?

Yes they have. I'm more of a realist about romantic love now and don't fall in love as readily as I did when I was a teenager - and I'm glad of that change. I can still write about that experience because I definitely lived it, but I'm much more immune to it now. I'm 39 - I don't fall in love that easily.

What's the most dangerous thing about money?

That it goes away. I like being wealthy, and I don't think money changed me. Actually, I've been thinking a lot about money lately, trying to figure it out. One of the people I admire intensely is Gandhi, and he chose to be poor, but it takes a very special person to be able to live like that. I don't know...

What's your idea of the epitome of bad taste?

Money without education.

Do you feel like a man or a boy?

I feel like a man and don't want to feel like a boy. The difference is, a man accepts his lot in life and, can look in the mirror and say, this is what I'm supposed to look like now. I don't regret losing my youthful looks or mourn the passing of any of the things of my youth. I like being a man.

What embarrasses you?

When people around me use my celebrity to get power - that's the biggest offense in my book. And when I see that happening I always confront the guilty party.

Your new album takes the recent death of your father as its central theme. Now that your father's gone and you're free to mold your memories of him as you like, do you find yourself idealizing him?

It's important for me to come to terms with my father, to meditate on what he was and what he did, and occasionally I do find myself idealizing him - but I think that's constructive. In a way I'm trying to mythologize my relationship with him because I have no other way of dealing with it, no other path. He appears in one of the songs, 'The Wild Wild Sea', as a sort of hero figure - he's the sailor who turns the ship around. I needed to see my father as a hero - every son needs that.

What aspect of your childhood has been most useful to you?

Much as I resented it at the time, I was brought up in a symbolically powerful environment. Big ships the ocean, industrial life, the imagery of the church - it was really quite exceptional in terms of what I saw. I certainly wouldn't want to live there now, but it did provide me with a rich reservoir of memories - and the
meaning of those childhood images deepens and evolves with time. They used to be symbols of entrapment for me, and now else they mean something else entirely.

In what way do you treat your children differently than you were treated as a child? [Sting has three children by his companion of the past eight years, Trudie Styler, and two by ex-wife Frances Tomelty.]

I try and be more demonstrative with my affection than my parents were conditioned to be. My parents were of a generation who were taught that it was unseemly to show emotion, and I think the children of that generation probably suffered because of it. I think I tend to err in the opposite extreme - I'm always kissing my children and because I don't shave too often they don't like me kissing them. Maybe I should shave more - I'd get more kisses.

Should children be protected from unhappiness?

To a certain extent, yes, but you can't hide the fact that bad things happen in the world so you must be prepared to explain why these unpleasant things exist. My kids have a very happy existence, an they tend to be bewildered when they encounter the dark aspects of life - things like homeless people, for instance. How do I explain the fact that there are people living on the street while I have three homes?

How do you explain it?

I just tell them we must look after these people - I don't know what else to tell them.

Has being a father changed you?

It made me into an adult. In my line of work you're encouraged not to grow up, to remain an eternal Peter Pan - it's a horrible trap that I see a lot of people around me fall into. It's reflected in the way many performers look and the music they're forced to do. I think there's a deep unhappiness that comes with trying to be something you're not, so I'm very grateful to my children for forcing me to grow up.

Literature clearly plays an important role in your songwriting. Is the pop song a big enough canvas for your literary aspirations?

It's up to the writers of so-called pop music to make the canvas work. And, if you really want to push the limits of the form, you must be prepared to take the brickbats, that are thrown at you - the accusations of being pretentious and too intellectual for pop. But who makes the rules up? I think pop music can encompass literature, and we shouldn't be afraid of criticism from anti-intellectuals.

Do you have a structure of religious belief?

I don't like organized religion and I'm not looking for one. As for what I do believe, that's changing in that I stopped believing in a transcendent creator who's outside of creation. I think if there is a god, he is creation and is the world, and this belief ties in with my feelings of reverence for the planet. I don't believe that it's a sin to miss Mass on Sunday but not a sin to chop down a forest. It's a sin to chop down a forest. I place my faith in symbols of longevity and continuity - rivers, the sea, nature, my kids - real things you can touch and see and that you know will go on.

Have there been pivotal episodes in your spiritual evolution?

Yes. The most recent one was spending time in the jungle with so-called primitive people. These people see spirit in everything on earth down to the ants that work around on it, and that belief gives them a reverence for life that's sorely lacking in our "civilized" society. This society we live in is in fact utterly primitive. Spending time with those people reversed my views about what progress is.

You went through several years of Jungian therapy. Are Jung's ideas still important for you?

Yeah, I've retained a lot of Jung's ideas about symbolism. Jungian therapy taught me to analyze myself, my own dreams and the poetic images I see around me, and I take those things very seriously - I enjoy it too. It's fun to be Jungian. I dream a lot and write my dreams down when I remember them, and I also have waking dreams - 'The Wild Wild Sea' is based on a waking dream.

What are you looking for when you converse with people?

I try and demolish projections about me that people invariably have. Those projections can be either positive or negative, but I try to get them to relate to me as I really am, which is somewhere between the two poles.

Are you a trusting person, or do you tend to approach people in a guarded fashion?

I'm quite a trusting person and trust people instantly - then I have to be proved wrong.

Is it easy for you to ask for help when you need it?

Yes, because I have a small group of people around me I trust implicitly and know won't bullshit me. The main one is Trudie, the woman I live with - she's brutally honest with me when I'm not doing the right thing.

What's been your greatest disappointment in life?

A failed marriage - I think it was the only thing I've failed at really.

What's the greatest obstacle you've overcome in life?

Being naturally reticent and shy - I know nobody's gonna believe that.

What's the most widely held misconception about you?

That I'm cold.

What lesson in life do you repeatedly have trouble with?

I say yes to too many things and find it very hard to say no to offers and requests - probably out of fear that I won't be asked again. One of my great teachers in life is Trudie, and she makes me practice mouthing the word "no" in a mirror.

How much do you feel in control of your life?

It's important to maintain a degree of control, but if one wishes to do any kind of creative work, one also has to be willing to relinquish some control. Unless you take risks you atrophy creatively, and that's the area of my life where I do take risks. I certainly don't take risks in terms of drugs or alcohol or having sex with thousands of people - those aren't risks that I find useful. Doing something where there's the possibility of failure is the kind of risk that interests me.

Do you look to the future with hope or dread?

I have to look on it with hope because my kids deserve a happy, safe life - and I think it's possible to create that. However, I don't think it's possible with the current structure of our leadership, and I'm not just talking about America and Western Europe. I think the way we elect our leaders - or have them thrust upon us - will not work in the future. We have to figure out a new way of doing it, and I don't think this change need necessarily be bloody. The success of certain parts of the Eastern bloc in getting rid of that old-fashioned idea of the tyrant is very inspiring, and I'm sure it can be done. There are, of course, all sorts of complicating issues, like religion and ideology.

What makes you nervous?

Carpet bombing. Targets of opportunity. Friendly fire. All of this war terminology is very clinical and a bit scary to me. However, this isn't to say I have a knee-jerk reaction to the war. People are crying for peace in the Middle East, but I'm not sure what peace means in this context. I'm as confused as everybody else, which is why I'm doing a version of 'Purple Haze' in my shows right now. 'Purple Haze' is a kind of atavistic song about Vietnam, and it reflects the confusion I feel. There are parts of the allied manifesto that are right and parts that are wrong. I don't believe we should've gone in there all guns blazing, I think we could've waited. It's an enormously complex situation.

What aspect of your life are you most grateful for?

I sometimes get the horrors when I imagine what my life would've been like if I didn't have this job - I'd have been terribly frustrated. I have a lot of energy and if I was forced to work a job that involved suppressing that energy, I'd be unhappy and would turn very negative, I think. So I'm grateful for my work.

What change in yourself are you most proud of?

I took yoga up just six months ago and I can now do a full lotus. I was pretty fit anyway so it actually wasn't that big a thing, but I did study with someone very intensively for three months, and I do sense a big change in myself. What excites me more than anything is that my moods are much more balanced. I used to experience very extreme mood swings, but I feel centered now and I don't get so unhappy - nor do I get so wildly ecstatic.

Do you apply the same standards and demands to others that you apply to yourself?

I can't say yes or no to that because basically I'm not that interested in other people - I'm too self-involved. I don't regard myself as a critic or judge of other people.

Can you walk by a mirror without checking yourself out?

Absolutely not.

Is it an affliction to be self-obsessed?

Not for an artist.

© L.A. Style magazine



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