Interview: SA CITY LIFE (1999)

October 13, 1999

The following article by Mike Behr appeared in the October 1999 issue of the South African magazine SA City Life...

Sex, Lies and Media Tape...

Outside it's a miserably wet, late September afternoon. Inside Universal Music's London HQ, five minute walk from buzzing Piccadilly Circus, I'm warm, dry and the envy of every Sting fan on the planet. I'm so up close to Sting it hurts. And it's about to get better. The amateur photographer who elected to shoot me interviewing one of the planet's most famous rock stars is urging we move closer. I respond awkwardly, unfamiliar with this proximity of fame. Sting, however, remains rooted, breaking the ice with a crack about how he would have bathed had he known the interview was going to get this intimate. He poses politely, but there's no arm-around-the shoulder camaraderie.

It's a fleeting moment, gone in a camera flash. But it captures the essence of Sting's relationship with his public, the press in particular. I'm close enough to plant a kiss on Sting's chiselled cheek, but I might as well be a million miles away. The Police lyric 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' takes on a new meaning.

Don't get me wrong. For a star of this magnitude Sting is one of the most accessible, not to mention accommodating. There are no beefy bodyguards or security checks. No arrogant entourage. The absence of any celebrity circus allows him to blend into the background. He walks, almost glides, between interview rooms - one for TV and Radio, the other for print - without any rock-star swagger. In fact, were it not for his famous good looks, which appear remarkably well preserved for his 48 years (a Libra, his birthday is October 2), he could quite easily jump unnoticed on to the Piccadilly tube. He's even dressed to blend: all black, from the hip military-style pants to quilted shooting jacket, button-up lounge shirt turned up one cuff (I notice it's expensive silk) and the very hip Brand New Radicals-type hat that just about hides his fashionably cut but thinning air.

During the interviews he delivers endless European TV and radio signature sign-offs with slick poise, peppering them with appropriate mother tongue greetings. After one interview for a Finnish multi-media journo, he's even prepared to lie good naturedly.

'Hello this is Sting.' (He pronounces it with near relish in a liquid tone that would buckle many a female fans knee.) 'My favourite website is mtv3... and that's a lie, so be careful...'

Autographs for everyone's uncle are also no problem and frequently good humoured. (He signs my copy of Christoper Sandford's unauthorised biography 'Demolition Man': 'This book is a pile of horseshit. Love Sting.')

For all his accessibility and affability, Sting plays his cards close to his chest. As he has so eloquently done in the past, I expect him to say something controversial or revealing. Sadly, he doesn't deliver the Full Monty. And he later casts doubt on the veracity of his comments with the parting shot: 'Thanks for listening to my bullshit.'

He talks about his seventh solo album 'Brand New Day' of which he is very proud. About how this time he wrote the music first, listened to it on his Walkman during long solitary country walks and how it gradually informed the stories on the album. And how at the end of the songwriting process, in a moment of sublime synchronicity, they appeared joined in the theme of love. But venture too close to Gordon Sumner and the shutters some down. Occasionally he parries with sarcasm or the infamous barbed tongue that lives up to his stage name.

For instance, when I ask him why he still performs - a seemingly reasonable question considering he's worth around £40 million and hardly needs the cash - he replies, 'The feeling of walking on stage in front of 20,000 people who are very pleased to see you is great...' He doesn't add 'you arsehole,' but it's there in his tome and body language. Clearly he's forgotten what he said two decades ago during his heady royal flush of fame with the now legendary Police: 'The pop star myth pleases me at the moment, but I don't believe in it and I'm sure I'll tire of it eventually.'

After a while he gets what I assume to be serious.' For me singing is one of the greatest freedoms in the world. It's like being a bird. The total freedom to go anywhere is a joy. This is why I perform.' This time there is no sarcasm. (Earlier he revealed he was also motivated by fame. 'I'd like my songs to become standards one day. This is my ambition and probably my only ambition.')

I was hoping Sting would repeat what he told an earlier interviewer: that he performs for the attention of one particular person whose identity he declined to reveal. When I remind him of this comment, he snaps back with a macho bravado that the European journalists in the room find amusing. Again there's a mild put-down subtext to his reply. 'To impress someone? Yeah... (His accent is Transatlantic.) Maybe. Why not?'

Who? I ask. 'My father,' he says laughing. 'But he's gone. He's not watching anymore... Or maybe he is...'

I'm surprised at Sting's flippant tone. The death of his father and mother in 1987 sapped him emotionally and creatively for three years. Can it be that he has made peace with his guilt-ridden past? (He attended neither of their funerals.)

It wouldn't surprise me. 'Ghost Story', one of 'Brand New Day's' most poignantly beautiful tracks, is all about processing painful memories of the past. (It's very possibly a love song to his father.) 'That's what ghosts are,' says Sting. 'They haunt you until you acknowledge them. The song is about being haunted on a nightly basis by the past that tortures you mentally until you say, OK, this is the truth now let's move on.'

For those fascinated by the person behind the star, Sting's conversation about his art cannot help segue into the personal, which is not surprising considering how passionate he still is about making music. But he keeps a tight rein on what's for public consumption. He admits that 'Ghost Story' has specific personal meaning, but declines to reveal any more, saying it would spoil the song for the listener. 'It would be like explaining a joke,' he says with a hint of condescension.

Sting is more eager to discuss love, the central focus of 'Brand New Day', which he hopes will serve as an antidote to the doom and gloom prophets in the next millennium.

Talking about 'Desert Rose' a hauntingly beautiful song about romantic and spiritual longing featuring French Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami, Sting reveals he is intrigued by the journey of life, 'In music you never quite get to the end. There's always something new to learn. Romantic love is a similar journey. It's always evolving. You're always one step from it. Which is why you are always led on.'

He declares he's still in love. 'Yes, with Trudie,' he adds, a hint of impatience in his voice. 'And with my music. I'm very passionate about life.' Later, revealing the depth of that passion, he says, 'I like making money but that's not why I make music. I have no choice about it. It's like breathing.'

I'm curious how at 48 the sex symbol sustains monogamous romantic love. 'That's interesting,' he responds surprisingly. 'I haven't got to the end of that journey yet. I don't want to. I want to he provoked. But touch wood, I have a good relationship with my family and that's how I want it to remain. It's the bedrock of my happiness and my creativity. But I'm not smug about it. Any relationship demands hard work and commitment and serious engagement.'

It also requires balancing spiritual and romantic love. 'One of the most joyful things humans can have is sexual union,' he says. 'I take sexual love very seriously. I don't treat it like a Coca-Cola or a hamburger. It demands a certain amount of ritual and seriousness. As well as fun,' he adds to laughter.

'Tantric sex is not about making love for days on end. It's regarding physical and spiritual love as one thing. If you want to praise God there's no better way than to use this incredible mechanism that's been created to make life.'

Sting, who claimed six years ago that he and Trudie made love for five hours at a time, claims flagging sexual drive is the last thing on his mind. 'I haven't really felt the twinge of that yet. But I'll tell you when it happens.'

Someone observes that it's his age group fuelling the Viagra boom. 'I don't mean to be smug,' (it's Sting's hoary cliche) but sexuality is part of one's general health. I've been a student of yoga for 10 years and, touchwood, I'm very healthy, even though I drink coffee,' he says taking a sip from a recently delivered cup.

The truth is nothing seems to bother Sting. Especially not Y2K. To counter the Armageddon talk all we have to do is make that conscious connection that we can love, and he loved. As romantic and naive and woolly as that sounds, I think it's true.'

That includes loving oneself. 'It's a worthy ambition,' he acknowledges. 'I'm learning to love myself... despite many things.'

'What do you hate about yourself' asks a journalist from Belgium.

'I'm not telling you,' he teases, enjoying the attention, 'I'm not telling...

© SA City Life magazine (South Africa)



Oct 12, 1999

'New Day' dawns: Sting has just finished practising his song an Englishman in New York and looks worn out. He sticks out a sweaty hand out to greet a visitor to the small Midtown studio and says, "Rehearsing is exhausting, and it's without reward. There's no feedback, just dead walls." Fame is exhausting, too...

Oct 11, 1999

New songs on the charts, success, the media - none of that matters now to Gordon Sumner. In his isolated and quiet estate in Wiltshire, the 47 year-old ex-Police will rather dedicate to more important things in life: spirituality, the joy of living, growing old and death. His new album, 'Brand New Day', shows he has made peace with himself, his life and his career...