Interview: SKY (1999)

December 10, 1999

The following article by Bob Spitz appeared in the December 1999 issue of Sky (the in-house flight magazine of Delta Airlines) magazine...

"I think I am the edge" - Sting faces 50, and the millennium.

From the moment The Police made their debut in 1978, it was clear that Sting wasn't about to go away. It wasn't so much that haughty, feline-faced image he projected, which was right there on the surface; rather, it was the aura of pensiveness and emotional conflict that operate in the margins, asking for closer scrutiny. This complicated man seemed poised for a career move that would take him well beyond the limits of pop rock.

On his own, Sting didn't so much blossom as evolve. He side-stepped the fast life, turning his back on the excesses of rock'n'roll, to concentrate on acting and to marry long-time girlfriend Trudie Styler, with whom he has four children. (He has two other children from a previous marriage).

As a solo musician, Sting (né Gordon Sumner) matured to a point where he could go beyond "edgy" to something more introspective and meaningful, drifting into jazz-inflected, sharply confessional rock shot with lyrical imagery. As an actor, his eclectic movie roles and stage appearances seem calculated less to court stardom than to explore his range of talents. And as a humanitarian, his efforts on behalf of the Rainforest Foundation, which he founded, and Amnesty International reveal plenty about his personal spiritual search.

Clever, charming, arrogant, confident and romantic in a revealing, unembarrassed way. Sting is as engaging - and aggressive - as an international pop star can be. The man who began by embodying the archetypal punk-rock singer described his "mystical process" to this Sky writer on the eve of an international tour to promote his latest recording.

Sky: Calling the new CD 'Brand New Day' seems to nail your view of the millennium. I take it you don't feel the end is nigh.

Sting: No, my strategy always is to be optimistic - mainly because the alternative isn't very uplifting. And anyway, I'd rather be optimistic. That's always the way I've handled my life, and it's certainly done well for me up to this point, so I don't see why the millennium should change that now. Why be afraid of the future? We have a lot of problems to sort out, but lets be optimistic that we can do it. Besides, the naysayers scare me. I don't uncertainty and just plain paranoia - which is why I try to avoid them.

Sky: Does that mean you're excited by the next millennium?

Sting: Yes, I am. I'm especially excited for my children, who will inherit that century. I'm 48 this year, so my hold on it is only fleeting. But what better statement of optimism is there than to have children and say to them, "This is your world - make it better"?

Sky: And yet only 10 years ago, people were saying, "Why bring children into this world?" because things seemed hopeless.

Sting: Well, we've righted that ship, haven't we? I'm not quite sure how, but the way I view it, the outlook seems so promising.

Sky: Maybe so, but aren't you worried that rock is dead?

Sting: [Laughs] No, not at all. For me, rock'n'roll was Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I've never been all that faithful to a label, and "rock'n'roll" to me was just a label. Music is something that will never end, and we'll never get to the end of it in terms of knowledge, enjoyment and experience. If people say "rock is dead," then the definition is dead, nothing else.

Sky: But rock'n'roll, by definition, has always been edgy, daring, even subversive music - the natural expression of rebellion. Don't you desire to fit in that groove anymore?

Sting: They say it's the music of rebellion, but it's been co-opted by some very reactionary forces. Rock wears the clothes of rebellion, but it's about as rebellious as drinking Coca-Cola.

Sky: Does that mean as you get older, rock gets left behind?

Sting: For me, pushing back frontiers is passé. It's the frontiers in my head that I'm trying to push back, my own limitations, both as a thinking person and as a musician. I practice and I work so that those limitations can keep receding.

Sky: What are those limitations?

Sting: Stereotypical answers to questions, instead of looking for something new. Just becoming stale and mechanical. I think it's important to constantly challenge yourself.

Sky: In terms of rock stars of your generation, it seems that as you get older and absorb the responsibilities that come with middle age - a good relationship, kids, a larger world view - it takes you further away from rock's edge.

Sting: I'm not really interested in rock's edge. I'm interested in my edge.

Sky: That said, has your edge been blunted with age?

Sting: I don't think so. Getting older, I'm faced with more crucial issues than "my girlfriend left me." I'm facing issues of mortality, responsibility, issues of conscience and moral judgement. So no, I don't think I've lost my edge at all. I think I am the edge. The whole idea of rock 'n' roll is to stay young and not to have any responsibility. Well, that ain't happenin' here. If I was doing that, I'd look like a fool.

Sky: In that case, are you resigned to the notion that rock'n'roll is a young man's game?

Sting: I don't know. I'm not the expert anymore. I've moved on, and what I do isn't necessarily rock'n'roll. It's got elements of it, but it's not "three chords and the truth." You know, when I was 25 I knew everything. I was completely sure about everything. Now, I'm 48, I know far more - and yet I'm much less sure. For me, it's wonderful to live in that paradox.

Sky: When you sat down to contemplate this new CD, was there one particular theme or issue you set out to explore?

Sting: Not really. I composed this music long before I ever had even a rhyming couplet or even an idea of what it would be about. I don't normally work that way. I normally write lyrics and music in the same period. This time, however, I'd written an hour of music, sequenced it, had it all in order, and then had to try and figure out what it was going to be about. I'd go for long walks with this music in my head and hope that characters, moods or stories would appear. It's a slower process. But they eventually did, and what I found was that virtually all the songs were love songs, which is not unusual. It's a variety of love songs, from sad to hopeful to optimistic - even some twisted, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone following my career. [Laughs]

Sky: Having listened to this new CD, I can't help but sense what a compulsive romantic you are. What are you pessimistic about these days?

Sting: Oh, boy! [Laughs] Well - nothing! There's nothing that can't be cured or sorted out with the right mind-set. There are things, though, that upset me, like what happened in Yugoslavia. In this, the final year of the millennium, we're behaving like atavistic chimpanzees, when we should be progressing. That depressed me, but in my present state of mind I say that somewhere down the line there has to be a solution. People have to wake up to the truth that we are all brothers, and even if the guy next door wears a fez, you can't kill him.

Sky: Rock'n'roll used to carry that kind of a message, but not lately. Does that aspect disappoint you?

Sting: Well, people are a little cynical about music carrying messages. Unless the message can be linked to entertainment first, they don't want to hear a message. Today, messages have to be veiled, as opposed to spouting propaganda.

Sky: Do you think pop music today is incapable of dealing with more complex themes?

Sting: That's my challenge - to make pop music complex enough for me to dig and yet simple enough for people not to be turned off. I want it to deal with issues that I'm concerned about, and yet not be too highbrow or too highfalutin. I'm trying to achieve a balance between those two things.

Sky: Your music on 'Brand New Day' seems to have more of a world aspect to it.

Sting:: Yes, I do regard myself as a world citizen. My music has never really been rooted in a geographical area. I was educated by the radio and a record collection, not by some sort of ethnic or tribal sound.

Sky: But I have to assume that your "education" had a narrow curriculum - that of 1960s rock'n'roll, with a little classical and jazz added into the mix.

Sting: Yep, all of that. But I was also educated to have an open mind, so music, for me, is more universal than that. That's where sparks fly, that's really what gets me going. I like a Middle Eastern music called rai, which is Algerian music mixed with Western pop and flamenco with a bit of reggae thrown in. It's a hybrid music form which I feel at home in. It's not pure at all. In Europe at the moment - in France particularly - rai music is very popular. I got to know some of the guys and invited them to play and sing on the record.

Sky: Who, in particular, set your sparks afire?

Sting: I spent most of last year listening to Cheb Mami, the great Arabic singer, who has an incredible, swooping voice that just mesmerises. A friend introduced us, it was love at first sight, and, rather impetuously, as lovesick musicians often do, we jumped right into the studio together. [Laughs] I had a melody to a song called Desert Rose and asked him to improvise a bit; he created a lovely counterpoint, and everything took off from there. The amazing thing is, he didn't understand a word I was singing. But the lyric he improvised was almost the same as mine - it had to do with lost love and longing - which goes to show how the music suggested to us individually the exact same emotion. It cuts across all cultures, whether you're Arabic or Western European or Japanese or African. Music is the universal tongue.

Sky: I realise that you've put The Police behind you, but do you feel their music still holds up?

Sting: I think the legend of The Police is still very intact. I'm very proud of it. We were a damn good band, and it holds up pretty well.

Sky: You've always been described as the ultimate, '80s guy. Was that the defining decade in your life?

Sting: No way. I'm happening now.

Sky: Perhaps, but now is the age of Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson, the Fugees. What, do you tell your kids about stuff like that?

Sting: A lot! They play me a lot of interesting music. My kids range from my older son, who is 22, my daughters are 17 and 15, my other son is 14, and there are others who are 8 and 3, so I access a lot of that stuff through them. They play me a lot of interesting music, and I have to keep an open mind. If I hear some rap lyrics which I decode as being fascist or misogynist or racist, then we discuss it. In that sense, music becomes a useful tool to reflect on what's wrong with society, or with what's wrong with a branch of entertainment. But I would never say, "You can't bring that in the house." In my house, I say, "OK, what are these people singing about and what message are they giving us? And what good is it?" I take the power of music extremely seriously - and it's not all positive. If you attach a negative emotion to music, it tends to be more powerful. And as a pop artist, I have to be careful. I have to be aware of what's happening.

Sky: You refer to yourself casually as a "pop artist." Has your image changed over the years?

Sting: It's as complex as I am. I try never to contradict people about what I am. A lot of people have very extreme views about me, either positive or negative. But I'm allowed the freedom to exist between those poles. The extreme about me is that I'm an incredibly arrogant person, and the fact is, I'm not. Nor am I so modest. See, I've got a very arrogant face. I was always accused of being arrogant at school.

Sky: Do you ever get tired of being Sting?

Sting: No, I quite like being Sting. Fame is not an unpleasant experience, and I've learned not to take it so seriously. I don't really bring "Sting" home. [Laughs] My wife knows the game.

© Sky magazine



Dec 1, 1999

Why being one of the world's biggest pop stars can be fun and fulfilling, even though that label can be kind of silly and meaningless. And why there was no competition for groupies after Police shows. Sandy Sternshein sings Sting songs in the shower. He tells me this when asked which modern musician he thinks has the best voice. Sternshein, a 52-year-old dentist drives a Porsche and stays away from fatty foods, is a friend of my dad's. My dad's in real estate, lives in suburban Boston and says his favourite Sting song is Roxanne, but when he sings it, he's actually imitating Eddie Murphy singing it in '48 Hrs'. Sandy likes that movie too. Neither of them, however, like Puffy's version of 'Every Breath You Take'. They don't like the rap music very much...

Nov 17, 1999

Putting the music first; Sting: The lyrics came last on the prolific songwriter's newest offering, 'Brand New Day'. For the fans, Sting has always been a musician's musician, the kind of player whose confidence and ability seemed worlds away from the garage-band amateurism of many rock stars. It isn't just that the former Police-man is a multi-instrumentalist, handling not only bass and guitar but also keyboards and (for a while) saxophone; he's also a jack of all styles, being as well-versed in jazz and classical music as he is in rock...