February 09, 2002

The following article by Brian Viner appeared in a February 2002 issue of The Independent on Sunday newspaper...

Sting - fame and fortune...

It is Thursday, 31 January in New Orleans, one of those sultry days you get in Louisiana even in winter. And the city is filling up with American football fans, here for Sunday's Super Bowl, the sports showpiece event, this year to he contested between the New England Patriots and the St Louis Rams.

The official razzmatazz is due to begin with a televised concert tomorrow evening at the New Orleans Arena. The CBS broadcast will feature various legends of American football, among them Joe Namath, who 30 years ago, as quarterback for the New York Jets, bestrode the sport like a colossus. Top of the hill, however, is an Englishman, a colossus in America himself yet who scarcely knows Joe Namath from Joe 90.

"I don't understand American football at all," Sting confesses. Actually, he says 'ad all'; his accent is a jumble of Geordie and American. "To me," he adds, "it looks like all-in wrestling with crash helmets. But I did the Super Bowl last year too. It is Americana at its most kitsch and fun."

It is 10.47arn. Sting is sitting on a sofa in the green room at the New Orleans Arena, waiting to rehearse the two songs he will sing tomorrow evening, ('If You Love Somebody) Set Them Free' and 'Every Breath You Take'. He looks relaxed and fit. The blond hair is greying a little around the temples but seems to have stopped receding; the blue eyes are as keen as ever.

Sting is in high spirits, not least because in the brand of football he prefers, his beloved Newcastle United last night beat Tottenham Hotspur 3 -1 at White Hart Lane. He has asked for his London office to fax over the match report. "What's that team of yours, Noocastle?' asks his barrel-chested bass guitarist Christian McBride, an American. Sting feigns indignation. "It's Newcastle United," he replies (in the Geordie way, with the obligatory glottal stop). "SHEARERRRR!'

Shortly after this he pulls out the enormous book he is reading, Roy Jenkins's recent biography of Winston Churchill, and asks whether I have read it. Whether this is to parade his intellectual credentials, perhaps to counterbalance the more plebeian enthusiasm for football, I don't know.

Sting has often been charged with taking himself too seriously - exhibit a) the rainforest, exhibit b) tantric sex. This has always seemed unfair. I don't know about tantric sex (or even whether I'd like to), but I do know that his Rainforest Foundation is quietly doing terrific work. More, this cynicism applies only in Britain, where his musical talent is undervalued. "I'm English, so I understand it," he tells me. "It's not something I cry about. I think I'm appreciated enough."

All the same, Radio 1 refused to play his song 'Desert Rose', a hit everywhere else in the world. And, although he is to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Brits later this week, the Spice Girls (!) have the same award already. He's not sure what he thinks about being honoured by the Brits. "It does feel a bit like a gold watch," he says.

I walk with him to the auditorium. "I don't like singing before noon," he tells me, then ululates to loosen his vocal chords. Needs must. CBS want an arrangement lasting precisely eight-and-a-half minutes, and there are also camera angles and lighting requirements to sort out. Sting and his band perform both numbers perhaps a dozen times, while I sit out front with Sting's manager of 23 years, an engagingly mumsy New Yorker called Kathy Schenker. "The one, the only... Sting!" calls the announcer, each time. Schenker grimaces. "The one, the only, I don't like that," she says.

But it is incontestably accurate. At 50, Sting - Gordon Matthew Sumner to nobody at all - is at the height of his career. The same might have been said 10 or even 20 years ago, but he has palpably thrived since the acrimonious disbandment of The Police in 1986.

And 2002 is going particularly well. He has just won a Golden Globe for Until, the song he wrote for the new Meg Ryan film 'Kate and Leopold', while his evergreen hit 'Roxanne' was on the soundtrack of the acclaimed 'Moulin Rouge' - not that he even knew it until he saw the film. "I was thrilled. And they very cleverly worked out that it is actually a tango."

But the most tangible yardstick of Sting's enduring popularity is that on his world tour these past two years he has performed in front of more than 6 million ecstatic fans; indeed it is said that of 'solo" performers he is the world's number one box-office draw, bigger even dm his friend Madonna.

His expanding fortune is variously estimated as being as great as £200m or as puny as £85m. If you believe one statistic doing the rounds - that the song he will sing tomorrow night, 'Every Breath You Take', earns him ,,000 (£715) a day from airplay on US radio alone - then the higher estimate seems more likely. Either way, it is no wonder that his former accountant, Keith Moore, was notoriously able to defraud him of £6m without him missing it.

"Seven million," he corrects me, with a schoolboy-ish giggle, when I bring up the subject. "He'd created something like 70 different bank accounts in different countries, and the money was coming in different denominations - Deutschmarks, Japanese yen - from different sources... touring, recording, publishing, merchandising, TV appearances. So for that kind of money to be siphoned away is not that surprising. And since it took forensic accountants about two years to sort through the complexities, how could a bass player figure it out? But I understand the cynicism. "Oh he's so rich he didn't even notice."

Rehearsals finally over, we are back in Sting's hotel, the W, in the unromantically named Central Business District of New Orleans. lan, the Scottish barman trying hard not to look over-awed in the presence of such celebrity, but failing, has found us a private dining-room in which to chat. Over the sound system, a female soul singer is belting her heart out. "We've got to turn this babe off," says Sting. "I have a big problem with piped music. I like either silence, or to listen to it properly." lan hurriedly obliges.

Sting asks me what's going on in England. Flooding, rail strikes, NHS cock-ups, I tell him, but it is not the answer he wants. "I miss England," he says. "I miss the weather. I've spent moss of the last 25 years on tour. I'm ready to come home."

I inquire whether Super Bowl weekend underlines his ambivalence towards the US? He is part of it, and yet not part of it. "I love America," he replies. "I owe it a great deal and it gave the world popular music, jazz, movies... the last century was definitely the American century, and I'm in love with that idea. On the other hand, there's this appalling administration robbing people blind, flouting the rule of law, disregarding international agreements on the environment. That side of America I dislike intensely. And I feel like I have a stake here. I have homes here."

Ah yes, the homes. There is a certain irony in me travelling to New Orleans to meet Sting, since I live barely a mile from his house in Highgate, north London. But then, by his own cheerful admission, he has homes everywhere. "I've lived in hotels for 25 years, and I've collected homes all over the world so that, to some extent, I can he relieved of that. I mean, this is a nice hotel, but to check into a hotel and shut the door is kind of prison-like. It's nicer to arrive somewhere you own, with a couple of books you own, a couple of paintings, something of yours. It's a nice luxury and I'm glad of it."

I ask whether he knows how many people work for him? "About half of them," he says, and chuckles. 'No, a lot. We have so many homes, so many children [two from his first marriage; four from his second]. But actually I don't want to know. Because this whole artifice is suspended from a pretty narrow membrane, which is me being able to match melody and lyrics. If I think that delicate thing is supporting this huge infrastructure, I'll freak out."

It's a good answer, but I vulgarly persist in quizzing him about his wealth. He and his wife Trudie Styler - the actress-turned-film producer, whose biggest hit is 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' - own seven homes at the latest count. They could sustain an entire series of Through the Keyhole.

"Yeah well, we've a house in LA, one in New York, a couple in London [the other is on the Mall], one in the country in England [a 60-acre estate in Wiltshire, the families main residence], one in Italy [a 600-acre estate in Tuscany] and one in the Lake District which Trudie bought me for my 50th birthday. That's pretty swanky, isn't it? Your wife buys you a house for your birthday. I said, 'Where are we going for my birthday.' She said, 'The Lake District.' I said, 'You're kidding'. But she got me up there and presented me with the deeds of the house." Sting pauses. "I cried,' he says.

He is not overly charming; there is diffidence, even, in the way he looks down and around whole he is talking, making eye contact only sporadically. But I quickly warm to his refusal to apologise for his fabulous wealth, his intelligence, his eloquence, his candour. He avoids a question only once, when I ask what he might be styled in the event of a knighthood. He snorts at the idea. But we already have Sir Elton, Sir Cliff, Sir Paul; Sir Sting is not such an outlandish notion.

"No comment," he says, at first. "No, a dukedom is what I want. If Jimmy Nail is the Archbishop of Longbenton, I want to be the Duke of Wallsend."

OK, point taken. Is he a monarchist then? "Intellectually I'm probably a republican, but emotionally... I've spent a bit of time with the Prince of Wales, who I respect greatly. I'd give two cheers for the monarchy. Actually, I've been asked to play at the jubilee." Will he? "Play in Buck House? "It's almost too kitsch to turn down."

At this point a fax is delivered to him. The Tottenham vs Newcastle match report. It is from The Independent. For my benefit? He shoots me a look that suggests he doesn't need my approval that much. "The Independent is my paper," he says. He adds that he is addicted to the crossword, which has also been faxed. I suppose this makes sense. As one of the finest lyricists of his generation, words are his thing, no less than music. And the word he likes to use to describe his life is 'journey'. He keeps saying it. I invite him to recall the early stages.

His parents, he says, "had aspirations for me that I never realised. They wanted me to work in a bank. My father [a milkman] was a smart guy but didn't have the opportunity to use his brain. And he and I had the usual father-son battles, but I was making my journey back towards him when he died. He never quite understood what I became. It was beyond the realm of fantasy for him, some sort of entertainer with a funny name."

The funny name, as has been frequently chronicled, was inspired by a black-and-yellow hooped sweater he used to wear. "I was in a trad group called the Phoenix Jazzmen, these guys in their fifties, and I figured I needed to establish that I was not part of their generation. So I would wear slightly outrageous things, and a girlfriend knitted me this sweater. They saw it, the band pissed themselves laughing, and started calling me Sting. The next night, I'm Sting. Then they call the house and say they want Sting to do a gig, and my mother's like, 'Who the f***'s Sting?' But then she starts calling me Sting too. Not my father, though. It left a funny taste in his mouth. I kept it, and it has been an interesting journey with, this name. Because it is a stupid name, but it's easy to sign. It was never the plan, it just happened."

His interest in music had been kindled by his mother's liking for rock'n'roll. "She was quite hip, my mother, and not that much older than me, only 18 when she had me. She'd put on these 78s of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I would be so galvanised by those that I would roll around on the floor in a kind of catatonic ecstasy. Then an uncle of mine emigrated to Canada and couldn't take his guitar with him. When I found it in the attic, I'd found a friend for life.

"After that I fell into the jazz scene in Newcastle, and played in the Newcastle Big Band, which was a better education for me than playing in some Led Zeppelin-type garage band. I felt I wanted to be part of an older lineage than rock'n'roll, not," he laughs, "that I'm a snob. I worked on a cruise liner, did all the musician stuff, and once The Police started I could bring those experiences into the music and make it more catholic.

"Now, if I have an hour at home, I tend to listen to classical music. I rarely go to pop music to learn something because I usually recognise the archetypes it is drawn from. If I put on Bach or Brahms, that's different. I'm in the presence of genius, which can only do you good. But I don't go for the idea that music has these ghettoes, that there is pop music and jazz, and Latin and country and classical music. There is music and an ability to play in all these spheres is what I look for in my band."

Christian MeBride, for instance, although only 29, is one of the world's finest players of jazz guitar and double bass. There are jazz fans furious with Sting for "poaching" him and others away from their vocation, to play 'Message In A Bottle'. Still, Sting can hardly he blamed for seeking excellence. Hiring MeBride also exemplifies his bravery, his guitar technician Phil Docherty tells me. Sting is a renowned bass guitarist, but McBride is better. "That's the confidence of the guy," says Docherty. "A lot of people wouldn't want to be outshone."

Docherty, an affable, 46-year-old from Glasgow, looks after Sting's cherished 1957 Fender Precision bass guitar. He has worked for Sting for 12 years, the past two of them more or less constantly on tour. "When we started this tour my son was nine now he's 11, only one shoe size down from me. But you'd have to he an idiot to blow this gig. We are paid at the: top end of the scale. And he's a fantastic guy to work for. If somebody makes a mistake they always get a chance to make amends, although he doesn't suffer fools."

For all the diffidence of his body language, Sting has always made sizeable demands of those around him as much as himself. And he has always had great confidence. Yet it was only at the urging of his first wife, the actress Frances Tomelty, that he moved to London to seek the big time. He was a teacher by then, educating 11-year-olds by day and gigging by night. When he told the headmaster he was quitting to, become a full-time musician, he was warned that he would lose his pension.

"And of course, I did. But you know, that kind of sealed it for me. I could see myself becoming deputy head if I had enough chalk on my leather elbow patches. Not that there's anything wrong with teaching. It's one of the most important professions in the world, it just wasn't what I was meant to do. This is. But I'm glad I was 25 and had had a proper job before I embarked on this thing. Without that I wouldn't have had much ballast in life. I was married, I was a father, I had to find money for a mortgage, and it made the sub- sequent success all the sweeter. I've never lost perspective on who I am. Well, maybe briefly, but generally I'm pretty balanced."

The break-up of his first marriage, which still causes him guilt, nearly tipped that balance. But he has admitted before that he "processed the grief of it through songwriting and performing". Every Breath You Take came from that time. "It is a strange song," he tells me. "On the me hand it's quite seductive, on the other hand it's about control and jealousy." He explains that writing it, and others like it, was cathartic. And thank God, because I'm not sure where I would have put it, that sense of failure, I don't know where people put it who don't write songs and aren't able to emote physically. It must go somewhere. With me I can put it out disguised as pop music. I'm not sure I could have survived it otherwise."

He dealt in the same way with the death, within 12 months, of both his parents. "But I don't need to manufacture trauma in my life to be creative. I have a big enough reservoir of sadness or emotional trauma to last me. I'm happy being happy." The one cloud in this happiness is the time he is forced to spend apart from his children, the youngest of whom is only six. The eldest, Joe, meanwhile, is trying to hammer out a career as a musician. As Sting looks on from the top of the ladder, does any part of him miss those early years?

"Well, the most exciting part of your career is the beginning, the first time you hear one of your songs on the radio, the first time you get to number one. I remember listening to Radio 1 one day, while I was painting the kitchen in our little flat. They were playing Kate Bush and Gerry Rafferty, and then 'Roxanne' came on. I almost fell off the ladder. Nothing's ever been like that.

"I mean, I never thought I'd own a house, but I remember asking our manager how many records we'd sold, and he said about 100,000. I went and bought one of those little calculators, which had just come out. I said, 'How much do we make per record? And he told me, so I did this sum and said, 'F***ing hell, we can buy a house.'

"That was great, the revelation that this adventure we were on was going to turn into money in the bank. But no, this is the best of times, right now. I'm 50 years old, healthy, still sane. I think that what me and my peer group are forced to write about is intensely interesting, much more than the latest dance craze. My friends are Peter Gabriel, Bruce [Springsteen], and we're singing about mortality, getting older. It's an interesting time. But I'm also an entertainer. When I perform I play my hits. I walk out in front of 20,000 people and nearly everyone's pleased to see me. I sing songs they want to hear, they know the lyrics, and I think, 'I wrote this in my living-room and now look.'

"And people like talking to me, which I enjoy, because you can get very isolated in a position like mine. I don't want to he cocooned in some strange world that a lot of people exist in. I won't name any, but I know people who've gone crazy in that hermetically sealed room called stardom, and it's a f***ing bore, frankly. I'm surrounded by people who take the piss out of me all the time, and that's the greatest blessing. There are people willing to tell me I'm being a c***. That's good."

It is now Friday evening, nearly showtime, and while the band members watch an old episode of Friends on television, Sting is in an adjoining room in the throes of a 90-minute yoga session. Having naively assumed that yoga was mainly about the lotus position, I am shocked. It is an incredibly rigorous workout with some frankly improbable contortions. Even as I watch in admiration, I am irreverently reminded of a singer-songwriter friend of mine, who wondered whether I would find that Sting was 'up his own arse'. Figuratively, the answer has to be no. But physically, I'd say almost.

The show is now just 11 minutes away. Sting, in a biceps-revealing sleeveless sweater, emerges from his dressing-room. He generously comes over to chat, although we are constantly interrupted by people wanting to shake his hand. Sandra Visser, a CBS presenter, positively reels away from the encounter.

It is fascinating to see at first hand the effect he has on people, not least his audience. "The one, the only... Sting!' cries the announcer. "Every breath you take," sings the 50-year-old father of six, and the crowd, including a large contingent of teenage sorority girls from nearby Loyola University, goes wild.

© The Independent on Sunday



Jan 11, 2002

Maturity, says Sting, is a "dirty word" in pop music. "It shouldn't be. I think that my music becomes better and more sparse as I grow more mature. I also think it's important to recognise that a significant part of music is the space between the sounds. What you leave out can be almost as important as what you put in. 'Nothing' can almost be a perfect music; near 'silence' can sound great...

Jan 9, 2002

Sting took part in a web-chat with fans on the AOL UK network on 21 January 2002. Here is the full transcript of the chat...