Interview: NOW (1991)

March 01, 1991

The following article by Kim Hughes appeared in a March 1991 issue of NOW magazine...

While Sting's commercial success is undeniable, his artistic and political aspirations remain a popular subject of debate.

His high-profile activism has met with mixed reactions, especially his much-touted campaign on behalf of the environment and people of the Amazon rainforest. His music, too, has flirted with lofty idealism, mixing sometimes emotional messages with pristine production values that sometimes seem soulless.

But now, with the release of 'The Soul Cages', his most personal solo album and already a major hit, Sting has put pop politics aside to reflect on his past.

"I was co-opted the last three years," he admits. "Co-opted by various ecological groups. I used my fame and celebrity as a platform, which is fine, but it's not necessarily me. It was important for me to find myself again. I'm still committed to those things. It's just that I don't sing about them. I don't sing about ecology."

It's last Tuesday, and the war is still on in the Gulf. Along the highway bordering the University of Southern Florida, where the 11,000-seat Tampa Sun Dome is situated, a handful of students are staging a protest and waving placards, some reading, "Wanted for murder: George Bush and Dick Cheney."

In the evening rush-hour the scene turns weird. Motorists passing the demonstrators honk angry horns, shout obscenities and shake clenched fists. Anti-war actions are not popular here. Yellow ribbons are everywhere, tied to trees and even car antennas. Sting, tucked into his Sun Dome dressing room to prepare for a 9pm show, is keen to know more. On tour in the States, he has already seen how the war has stirred up America's proud melting pot.

"What is interesting," he says softly, "is that, even though I'm just singing my songs and they have nothing to do with the war, there are interpretations of songs that can change in a certain context."

Sting touches his face a lot as he talks, rubbing his cheeks, eyes and nose, running his hand through his hair. He reclines on the sofa with one of his brown suede cowboy boots on the table in front of him. Physically, he's very relaxed.

"I sing a song like 'Fragile', which has nothing whatever to do with this war, and there's a line that goes, 'Nothing comes from violence, nothing ever could.' In New York and L.A., the reaction has been very positive. People applaud that line. Once we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, played Atlanta, people didn't applaud - it just goes over their heads."

It's true. In Republican Florida, when Sting and his uncharacteristically modest three-piece band perform the song during the first encore, the crowd is silent. The rhetoric is overlooked.

On earlier solo discs The 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' and 'Nothing Like The Sun', Sting's political expression has occasionally teetered on the brink of sloganeering. Both were heavily indebted to literature, issues and real-life dissidents. But the beautiful, introspective 'Soul Cages' reveals a Sting largely unaffected by current events. For now, he is the cause.

Lyrically linked by the bleak industrial shipping town of his youth, but set in a lush landscape of swooning keyboards and sweeping string arrangements, the nine songs on 'Cages' trace death, passion and his attempts to make his peace with his late father. It's heavy stuff, and Sting know it. Still, he says without irony that it's the only record he could have made "at the time, under the circumstances.

"It's a very personal record. But then again, I needed to make a very personal record for my own sanity, in that I kept being drawn into areas that were... um," he pauses, tasting the words, "linked to me. Critics have landed on me for this one," he says of the media reaction to 'Soul Cages', clearly enjoying dishing out a little criticism of his own. "But there's no way I even think about trying to avoid the critics. It's like Revenge Of The Nerds."

Cheerful, talkative and deeply tanned, Sting hardly fits the stereotype of the humourless ex- school teacher and Jungian scholar. As he waits backstage and gets to work on a dinner delivered by his tour manager - a piece of fish, brown rice, green beans and a small cob of corn - he couldn't be more affable.

He admits that the silly first video from 'The Soul Cages', 'All This Time' - showing Sting and a motley crew falling about a cramped boat on a choppy sea - was an attempt to "offset" the seriousness of that song.

Several skits on a recent Saturday Night Live show featuring Sting also showed his willingness to poke fun at his celebrity. In fact, the term "the Stingster," taken from a skit on that show, is showing signs of replacing more disparaging twists on Sting's nickname in some circles.

But Sting is at least as responsible as the media for his own perceived seriousness. Striking a pose resembling Rodin's sculpture The Thinker, as he did on Nothing Like The Sun, does little to shake the pretentious image.

Yet as he and his band do their soundcheck before the Tampa show, the mood is light and the jokes fly freely. Play wrestling ensues between Sting and the roadies. Even his apparent failure to nail down the harmonies on 'Message In A Bottle' gets more giggles than positive results from the band.

"One of the things that keeps me sane," he says, smiling, "is that I have good people around me who really don't take me seriously. One of them is the woman I live with" - actor Trudie Styler, mother of three of his five children.

He gestures toward his tour manager, who's re-entered the dressing room to clear the dishes. "Almost all my colleagues are laughing at me. Even my kids are embarrassed by me. And they are embarrassed by me. I pick them up at school and all the kids at the school ask me for my autograph. My kids don't find that funny."

He admits that he's sought after for his star status, while getting extra opportunities. "I did a show on Broadway (Brecht and Weill's 'Threepenny Opera')," he says "not because I'm a wonderful stage performer, but because of who I am. I wouldn't have been offered anything recently unless it was a function of being a pop star. It would be naive to think anything else."

But pop celebrity has its price. Last April, the UK Granada TV show World In Action alleged, among other things, that Sting had abandoned his Kayapo Indian friend Raoni, who had accompanied him on his world-wide save-the-rainforest promo tour. It also claimed the Rainforest Foundation, a group of anthropologists and other scientists working to achieve the goals set forth by Sting, Belgian photographer Jean-Pierre Dutilleux and the Kayapo, had misused charitable funds they raised to carry on the fight.

When asked about the program and its allegations, a so-far calm, friendly Sting stiffens, darkens, and his quiet speaking voice grows louder.

"I arranged a meeting with the programme's researcher. I told her there was a lot wrong with that program. The program says Raoni lives in a slum in the outskirts of Brasilia. She said to me, 'Oh, I know that was wrong.' I said, 'Why wasn't that edited out?' She said, 'I don't know.'

"The program also said 15 Indians died of malaria. What it didn't say was that 15 Indians had died over the last 10 years - a couple from drowning, a couple from old age, a couple from heart attacks. They gave the impression 15 people had died last summer. No one died last summer."

He becomes angrier as he continues. "They didn't include any information about malaria. Malaria is an endemic disease. In other words, if a person has malaria and you move that person to a place where there isn't malaria, all you do is move the malaria. What you do is give them medical aid until the malaria has subsided and then you move the village - which is exactly what the Rainforest Foundation did."

According to Sting, Raoni was flown to the slum site by the news crew to film that segment. "I think they are a complete bunch of charlatans. And I did take it personally," he says flatly. "There was no story without a pop star."

Looking back, it's almost hard to believe that Sting - a proven radio hit-maker - was once regarded not so much as a pop star as a leader in a new musical wave. Still, as with his lingering desire to fight the good fight, he remains critical of the proven formulas.

"I don't see myself as a spokesman for or against rock and roll," he says. "I'm not interested in rock and roll. Most of it's boring. Really, it's the most reactionary art form, so conservative. Most heavy metal has more to do with Las Vegas, with the hair, the makeup, the choreography."

Audiences at the 'Soul Cages' shows won't see anything resembling that. Simple delivery, no flashy lighting, lots of Police songs and, of course, an emphasis on the new LP are the order of the day.

"The only thing I worry about - and I'm really being sincere - is whether I'm being honest. If I had to lie to be successful, or had to pretend an interest in a subject or style of music that really didn't interest me, but my management or a market researcher had told me that would give me a lot of hit records, I'd fall flat on my face. It would terrify me.

"The fact is, I've made a record that has a resonance in my personal life and a kind of music that does interest me. Therefore, it's the only record I could have made. I didn't have any choice and I wouldn't have made a record at all if I couldn't have made this one. That's the best I can do." He pauses, then laughs. "Okay?".

© NOW magazine


Feb 3, 1991

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