Interview: THE OBSERVER (1996)

February 09, 1996

The following article by Miranda Sawyer appeared in a February 1996 issue of Observer Life magazine...

Dropping round Sting's for a mid-morning cuppa can take up most of the day. First there's the journey to ditsy little Amesbury, near Salisbury; then the ride through rolling, semi- forested fields (your host's - he's master of all you survey) to the painted gates set in the don't-even-try-to-look-over-it stone wall: the pause at the intercom before the gates swish soundlessly open: the sweep round the drive: the trouble finding parking space; and the embarrassing wait at the front door, rapping and rattling in the tiny hope that someone, somewhere within the 16th-century, metre-thick manor walls will be able to hear your faint, unfamiliar halloos.

Eventually, after five minutes' barking at the letterbox to try to attract the dogs you are smilingly rescued by the housekeeper. Behind her pads her boss, a slim, slight-framed, neatly handsome man who shakes hands without eye contact and politely ushers you into the flagstoned hall of Lake House. Stone figures loom above the mantelpiece. Carved griffins squat atop the banisters. A chess set lines up mightily before the fire. The walls are multi-panelled; the windows very paned. Stately is too flip a word for this home. There should be a 'keep back' rope to stop you stroking the chairs.

The lord of the manor disappears through an obscured doorway. A risibly rare, snow-white Alsatian stalks sniffily past: I doff my cap and curtsey at it, but it ignores me. Outside, the trees whip and writhe in the foul weather. Inside, a ginger cat stretches itself indulgently before settling down on antique cushions before the riot-sized fire.

Sting - who owns houses in Los Angeles, New York, Wiltshire and London, is rumoured to be looking for another in Cape Town, and once mislaid £6 million and didn't notice - was born on 2 October 1951 in Wallsend-on-Tyne to Audrey, a hairdresser, and Ernie, a milkman. Before Ernie turned dairy he was an engineers' fitter at the docks and his four children - Gordon (Sting), Philip, Angela and Anita -grew up 'in the shadow of the ships'.

"It seemed like a monochrome world," remembers Gordon Matthew Sumner, in his controlled, unaccented tones. We're tea-cosied and hearth-warmed in a sitting-cum-music room of the main hall. "I'd go to the pictures," he continues, "to the Ritz on the high street, and watch these Technicolor films and think: 'Why isn't life like that? Why is it so grey here?' I just saw cobbled streets and back lanes and dirt. Playing football in the back lanes between loads of sheets."

Were you happy?

"No. Not at all. I knew there was something better." And for Sting, conveniently, there was. He moved smoothly out of the ships' shadow into the Police's seven-year blond-pop domination; then to global solo glory and musicianly repute, rolling the unruliness of punk, jazz, soul, folk and rock 'n' roll into easy-to-swallow, easy-to-follow, sugar-shined gobbets. On the way. he impressed upon us the literary significance of Lolita ('that book by Nabokov'), dropped us a timely memo that 'Russians love their children too' and saved the Amazonian rainforest, probably in his lunch hour. He tunefully told of his blue turtle dreams, his Jungian therapy and his tortured relationship with his father. Critics snorted; but the public bought it. In bucketloads. Sting made lottery-toppling money with interest and, seemingly, hardly any effort at all.

There he sits, perched decorously between coffee table and grate. There's no discernible trace of his lowly background. Far from being a bit of rough, at 44 Sting sports the quality sheen of the extremely wealthy. His light eyes are guarded. His body language is calm. His charisma is of a steady, low wattage. He is very faintly bored.

We talk about his childhood. A bright boy, Sting - "Yes, even my family call me that" - passed the 11-plus scholarship to the priest-run, all-boys grammar school in Newcastle. It was young Gordon's first contact with middle-class people. He lost his north-east accent within the week.

Sting was in the top stream, excelling at English: "I was once told I could make my living as a writer, whatever that meant." He ran for the school at 100 and 200 yards and was triple jump champion. But he cared not a jot; he loathed his education. At 14, it was his extracurricular activities that rattled his soul cages: music (first guitar - his uncle's five-string cast-off acquired when Sting was seven); drinking ("brown ale and eight pints of lager a night. I looked 18, we were all kind of beardie"); and girls, though he didn't manage to lose his virginity until he was 18.

"I was obsessed with sex at 14, 15 and have been ever since. I used to walk around town and think: 'Someone somewhere is f***ing. How do you meet these people?"'

His only chance of bumping into bonking was at the dancehall where his parents met: the Plaza, on the seafront. There would be live soul bands - Jimmy James, Geno Washington - and all the girls would dance together in the middle of the room while the boys necked bottle after bottle of Dutch courage until "you were brave enough to go and ask your dream girl for a dance. And you'd jig about a bit opposite each other, not touching, and she wouldn't look at you for the whole thing, and when you finished you'd think: "Well, does that mean she wants to dance another one or...? Um... Bye." And you'd have a few more beers and avoid being beaten up on the way out."

Sting remembers his teenage years as "violent, aggressive, a lot of fights".

Are you handy, then?

"I can look after myself. I haven't hit anyone for... Actually, the last time was only a couple of years ago."

Did they fall over?

"I sorted them out. I was justified."

At 14, Sting might not have been the accomplished lover and fighter of his later years, but he was working hard at being an all-the-medals musician, picking his way through 'First Steps In The Guitar' by Geoffrey Sisley, slowing 45s down to 33 to hear guitar parts, speeding them up to 78 to get the bass. He wrote what he now describes in easy UK-LA-speak as 'a bunch of toons' about love and, yup, loss. One of them, So Lonely, ended up as a Police song.

In those noodling, earnest-haired days, working-class boys dreamt not of pop groups but of being musos: 'real' musicians. So Sting played in pubs, in the thriving Newcastle jazz-jam sessions, moving in on his double bass whenever the original bassist went off for a drink. He ended up with a residency in a local group.

"I've done every kind of musical gig, I've backed cabaret, strippers, I've played on boats. It wasn't your usual rock'n'rolI upbringing, no."

When Sting talks about his childhood he seems slightly ill at ease, despite the swamping comfort of his present surroundings. He's much happier talking about music, so for a time we discuss his new LP 'Mercury Falling'.

It's a tasteful, tuneful 11-song collection that swings smoothly from hands-aloft soul betters to lonely-moon folk croons. it showcases Sting's happy knack with a melody, his neat phrase-turn 'To get my thoughts together I have to hold on to my head.' Eclectic musical sources, uniformly played and produced: not a jarring note, not an upsetting harmony; perfectly, deceptively simple. Easy listening that's trickier than it seems.

On first hearing, Sting appeared to be tackling such contemporary issues as the National Lottery, burbling meaningfully about 'the raffle'. It's actually just his special pronunciation of 'rifle'. His themes are less contentious: love. acceptance and cowboys, again. "I like cowboys. I like that landscape, that epic. The music has to reflect my travels." Sting's clearly been EuroStarring as well as hobby-horsing: he sings one song entirely in French.

How would you define pretentious?

"Pretending to be something you're not. It's not something t would describe myself as. I'm quite modest, actually."

Do you think that in order for creativity to be taken seriously it has to seem as though it was won with difficulty?

"I used to genuinely believe that in order to be creative you had to be in some sort of pain. So I spent a lot of my young life manufacturing crises. And it's very dangerous, you can end up dead. So when I got to 40, I thought I'd like to be just happy and settled and make music out of joy - like Bach, who sat in his kitchen surrounded by his kids and made brilliant music.

"It's quite easy to shock people; it's more difficult to seduce people and seduce them at a high level," comments Sting, who knows that it's 'a murder of crows' and has actually used it in a lyric. "Anyway," he adds, "some of this album's quite complicated, musically."

Whatever you may think of the intricacies of his music now, the Police's songs were never so sophisticated or sorted. There was plenty of squabbly angst in their disturbing, spacey melodies (which later influenced Kurt Cobain's Nirvana, definitely of the pain-is-directly- correspondent-to-creativity school). The Police's aural argy-bargy was partly because, by their demise in 1984, the three members couldn't stand the sight of each other.

There's a story that drummer and founder member Stewart Copeland had a number of expletives written on his drums so he could pound them when performing, and that these pithy expressions were directed entirely, some would say justifiably, against Sting. When the Police first got together, however, they did each other nothing but good. Sting was in his mid-20s, 'just a nice bloke', teaching during the day, gigging with his band Last Exit at night. He met and married actress Frances Tomelty when he was playing for a musical in which she starred and, in 1976, the Stings upped and moved to London: Citroen, dog, baby and all. There, our plucking hero rehearsed with Stewart Copeland - loopy, lopey US drummer, just as old as Sting, with a penchant for brief 'n' silky running shorts that disguised his genuine enthusiasm for punk.

"Stewart lived in this squat in Green Street in Mayfair which I thought was incredibly glamorous. We'd rehearse with the baby's cot propping up the bass drum until Joe cried and I had to give him his bottle."

Guitarist Andy Summers - shorter, grumpier, even more ancient - made up the trio and they hopped on to punk's tattered shirt-tails to nip straight into the top 40 with Roxanne. That was in 1978. The Police lasted until 1984, when after five LPs, world-rollicking superstardom and the collapse of his and Andy Summers's marriages, Sting blew the whistle-on the peroxided coppers. Copeland and Summers have never forgiven him.

It wasn't until 1989, though, that Her Majesty's Press turned against the World's Richest Geordie™. The rock critics had soured around the Police's third LP: pompous, Mad Max, torn-trouser videos; lyrics like 'I face the day with my head caved in / Looking like something that the cat brought in' ('Invisible Sun': Sting's piercing insight into the Northern Ireland question); and 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da'. It wasn't Sting's music that made the papers waspish, though; it was his decision to help the Kayapo tribe in their fight to stop the devastation of their home, the Brazilian rainforest. To take their leader, Chief Raoni, a fierce-looking chap with a dinner-plate lip, on an awareness-raising world tour. To become an eco-warrior.

Mention it and Sting gets a bit tetchy.

"Well, I've never been an eco-warrior. What is an eco-warrior anyway?" he huffs. "Look, I've done a little bit of work to safeguard a piece of land, which I was asked to do by the people who lived there. And I actually succeeded. I wouldn't write a song like Michael Jackson's Earth Song, which I think is a pile of crap. And the video's even worse. Michael brings the trees back to life? He brings people back to life? He brings life back to dead soil? Jesus Christ! He's God ...!"

There's an eyes-to-ceiling pause.

"And you know the worst thing about that song?" seethes Sting. He is genuinely affronted. "It's that semi-tone modulation in the middle. That is just beyond it."

Sting is a one-name celebrity (Bono, Madonna, Hitler, God), and once you reach that status you have almost certainly handled more interviews than any journalist sent to kill you. As such, he is a tricky interviewee, not because he doesn't want to help ("I'm pretty candid. I don't tell lies) but because he's almost impossible to catch out. He repeats questions out loud to give himself time, laughs to cover his answer-assessment. He never, ever, gives you more than he wants you to know.

I want to ask him about Ecstasy, currently a scalding hot disco biscuit in the Sting elevenses selection. At the beginning of the year, a Swedish journalist reported, out of context, a few of Sting's informal, actually-rather- sensible-sounding remarks on the drug's legal status: something to the effect that keeping Ecstasy illegal was leaving young people in criminal hands.

Are drugs a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment? Sting repeats the question, laughs, and begins.

"Historically," he says carefully, "drugs or psychoactive substances are used in a religious or medical context and not just to get f***ed up. They can be a rite of passage to enter the world of the spirit. We don't have that in our society, we are paranoid and hysterical about the idea of using drugs. And yet this society is drugged up to its eyeballs with alcohol or cigarettes, medication, Prozac, you name it.

"So," he tiptoes on, "as drugs are here for the rest of history, can we assimilate them into society in a safe way? And the first stage, for me, is to decriminalise it - not legalise it - because then it'll stop this wedge being driven between the police and normally law- abiding, self-respecting, hard-working people who happen to do drugs at the weekend." He stops.

Is Ecstasy a more interesting drug than most others?

"I don't want to answer that question, it's too difficult."

Well, don't you think that a lot of young people have used it as part of a rite of passage when moving from childhood into adulthood? That it's helped them be more open at an age when they're usually too worried about what other people think of them to be able actually to express their feelings?

"I wanted you to say that because I don't want to say it. I don't disagree with you."

When did you last take drugs?

"No comment."

His frustratingly unshakeable self-control (his eyes are so circumspect it's as though they're set somewhere behind the rest of his head) has led to a near-flawless public persona. Although the Ecstasy debacle has been taken up by the tabloids, Sting's cool response (wisely worded press release; no further comment) has papered over the cracks almost instantly. Such media astuteness, allied to wealth and happy, healthy, Hello!-able family means many people believe that Sting has no worries at all.

"But I'm a real worry wart!" he asserts, unworriedly. "I worry about everything, starting at the world and getting down to what I'm wearing. If you're struggling to pay your mortgage and keep your job then you have less time to worry in a way. I've got time and leisure to worry."

Poor lamb. Does it worry you that people think you're smug and po-faced?

"People who think that just don't know me. I'm happy and I'm shy and those two things can be warped into smug and po-faced. But I'm not. I don't really give a shit."

Aside from 'this Ecstasy thing' and his sometimes irksome acting career, Sting's most recent public problem has been with his ex-accountant, Keith Moore, who worked for him for 15 years and then robbed him of £6 million. Moore was sent down for six years last year. Sting 'took no pleasure in it', but says it made him realise that his wealth was "not in the bank" (which, for a while, it certainly wasn't) but in "my friends, my family, my love of music".

Says he, sitting in his swank castle.

"I know. And the bank paid me back, too - which they should, it wasn't my fault. "You know," Sting muses, "I quite enjoyed being cross-examined. I was disappointed when the QC said: 'No further questions, Mr Sumner.' In fact, in his summing up, he said: 'You will have noticed how self assured Mr Sumner was in his testimony. This is because Mr Sumner is a star and is used to being in the public eye. Whereas my client is just a normal person like you."'

Several light years away from being a normal person, but polite and professional to the nth-plus-one degree, Sting invites me and Trevor the photographer to stay for lunch. It's a bizarre, unnerving affair, involving troupes of people, mostly home helps. Sting sits at the top of the table, then his wife Trudie Styler, me, a sound engineer and Trevor (the photographer) on one side; opposite are two girls, one of whom nurses Giacomo, the Stings' fourth baby, and the press officer. There are four other minions in the kitchen.

We are served soup and salad by a 50-something lady to whom Trudie refers as Mrs D; as in, when she jogs her employer's arm by mistake: 'Now, Mrs D, I think we can do better than that.' All conversation is initiated by Sting, Trudie or, sometimes, me. We talk of fashion (Versace invited them to his Paris show); music (Massive Attack, but Sting doesn't know who they are). Everyone else just reacts to their employers' comments. The only time a servant rises it is to pass the salt, a status arrangement that most would find digestively upsetting, but seems to go down just fine at Lake House.

"I think that children shouldn't be put down in their first six months," pronounces Trudie, a formidable woman who sweeps off to dictate to her secretary after lunch, leaving someone else holding the baby.

During the interview, Sting told me of his stalwart efforts to lead an ordinary life. When in Wiltshire, he goes to the corner shop. In the US, he visits strip bars. "They're the best places to go if you're someone like me. Full of naked women and no one takes a blind bit of notice of you. Perfectly reasonable safe sex and a nice quiet bottle of beer." He thinks that, as a writer, if you can't go out and observe other people and situations, you're lost. "I like," he insists, "low life." Sting's personal wealth is estimated at £44 million.

One of the reasons Old Clever Boots called his LP 'Mercury Falling' was because he's a fan of the word 'mercurial'.

"You can't pin mercury down and I like that, I identify with that," he explained. "I love being a chameleon, I'm good at it. When I go out I don't get bothered. I love fluidity," Sting offered, in his even-handed way, and I realised that, after half a day spent talking to Sting, watching his reaction to people about him, his way around his home, noting his taste in books (Miss Smilla; Jimi Hendrix biog), discussing films, I still was no nearer to what he was about. He beat me. I left without even knowing if I liked him.

© Observer Life magazine



Feb 1, 1996

Sounding like the schoolteacher he once was, Sting describes the meaning behind the title of his new A&M album, 'Mercury Falling': "It's a phrase that I find laden with symbolic relevance. It means so many things. Mercury is a metal, a liquid, an element, a planet. It's an astrological symbol, an astronomical thing. You know, Mercury is the god of theft and commerce. He's the messenger, too. He's quite a complex character, this Mercury. As am I..."

Feb 1, 1996

Giles Smith didn't want to be just any old rock star. He wanted to be Sting. But his Eighties pop group, The Cleaners from Venus, let him down badly. All seemed lost, until, one fine day, the phone rang... Word came through from the man at A&M Records; Sting fancied a jam. Any interest? I'm used to this, obviously. Given my history as former keyboards man with the legendary late-Eighties UK pop combo, the Cleaners from Venus (two albums, one tour of Germany, no hits and a messy inter-personal combustion), international rock stars are at one at me on virtually a daily basis to come out of retirement and play with them. "Oh, go on, just for an hour," they say, but I smile and say, quietly but firmly, "That's all in the past now..."