Interview: US (1996)

April 01, 1996

The following interview with Mim Udovitch appeared in the April 1996 issue of US magazine...

Life at his country estate in England finds the onetime King of Pain happy at last...

To see Sting striding down the long drive of his Wiltshire estate to open the gate for a visitor's car is to see a happy man. At age 44, clad in leather pants tucked into soft boots and a dark-flecked, roll-neck sweater, he looks, for all the world, like an ad for some exclusive men's cologne, perhaps Gentilhomme Pour Les Rock Stars. And not to mince words, it's a look that works for him. Despite his modest demurrals below, according to his wife, Trudie Styler, his own handsomeness is not entirely hidden to him. "Oh he knows he's cute," she says fondly. "Don't let him get away with that. I mean, how many years can you take your shirt off on-stage and not think you look great?"

More to the point, he does not seem like the man who once vowed that he would always be the king of pain. "It's such a cul-de-sac, that whole culture of pain," he says when asked if he hasn't gone back on his word in this regard. "And I was being partly ironic. But the thing is, it was written at a time in my life when I was in terrible pain. My first marriage was falling apart. But I don't sing that song anymore. I can't really feel for it now."

Granted, there are some fairly substantial reasons for him to be cheerful. He is just putting the finishing touches on Mercury Falling, which, give or take a few EP's and Best Of's, is his fifth album of original material since the dissolution of the Police, in 1984. And he and Styler are about a week away from giving birth to their fourth child (Giacomo, born last December; Sting also has two children from his first marriage, to Frances Tomelty, which ended in 1982). But more than that, after almost 20 years in the public eye, Sting gives the impression less that he wears his fame easily (during the interview he sat the whole time with one shoulder turned away and an arm drawn protectively across his chest) than that he now accepts it as part of the terms of a life that has otherwise rewarded him beyond his wildest dreams.

"We have a beautiful home here in the country," says Styler, when asked what she thinks of their life together. "And we sort of find our sanctuary when we're together walking along through our fields. The 'Fields Of Gold' (Sting's 1993 single) are our fields of gold. And that's how I picture us, in this idyllic place. that I can go and be on my own with him and find peace and happiness. And it's a profound happiness, you know?"

Sting has not always given the impression of peace and happiness and, to much of the public at large, still doesn't. "A lot of people who don't know him think he comes across as rather arrogant, but they don't think that if they really know the bloke," says Hugh Padgham, who has worked with Sting on "two Police albums plus three and a half solo albums."

"He doesn't give himself easily to people," says Styler. "He's not a small-talker or a small-thinker. He has a wicked sense of humour, but he takes things very seriously - world events and so forth - and feels a true emotion to them. And that often comes out in his songs. But people misinterpret his shyness for maybe snobbery or coldness."

In fact, some of those almost 20 years in the public eye were marked by a certain amount of, let us say, tempestuousness; the Police, though on good terms now, did not break up prettily, and for a while, Sting was in the habit of writing stinging rebukes to critics who reviewed his solo albums poorly. However, these signs of petulance, not in and of themselves an incomprehensible reaction to the stresses of a sometimes intrusive renown, seem to be a thing of the past. "I became a man through being a musician," says Sting, "That defined me as a person, being in that genre, but it's not a terribly easy genre to grow up in. They don't encourage you to grow up."

The new sense of serenity might proceed from having recently weathered the discovery that he may have been working for nothing: Two months before we spoke, his accountant of 15 years, was convicted of appropriating more than $9 million from the singer for his own personal and business concerns. Most of the money was reimbursed, but "it was upsetting to know that a person I worked with for so long could be so deceitful," says Sting, recalling his initial reaction to the news. "And it made me examine very carefully where my real affection lies. And it's not in the bank at all - it's in my family, my friends, my relationships.

And if relationships are riches, then Sting does have riches indeed. He has children old enough to turn him on to contemporary music (he likes Sonic Youth and Nirvana); he has a wife with whom he shares not only a large family but professional interests as well (Styler produced 'The Grotesque', the upcoming film based on a novel by Patrick McGrath and starring Alan Bates, in which Sting revives his sporadic forays into movie acting). And if his ego gets out of line, he has his old football buddies from his native Newcastle. ("They still think I'm a crap singer. They'll say: 'Saw you on the television last night. You were crap.'") Of course, lest all this emotional good fortune become so overwhelming that it starts to dissolve into a pink mist of happy endings, he also has an enormous estate in Wiltshire, England, west of London, complete with recording studios, stables, extensive grounds - the kind of house where the rooms have formal names and he can easily practice his yoga (his exercise of choice for the past five years) without being disturbed.

Mercury Falling with its sui generis mix of soul, jazz, country and folk and it's equally distinctive blend of tender heart and dreamy mind, seems destined to add to the coffers. "The thing with Sting's music," says Padgham, "is, it's not like anybody else's. He writes these songs with quirky time signatures, and an awful lot of rock stays in 4/4. I think, as a musician, it's always very tempting for him to go down those new roads and discover things and people as you go. A lot of rock stars sort of peter out, and I don't get that feeling with Sting. He's around for the count. I think he loves being a star on the stage, but all that other stuff - it's all right in your 20s, but in your 40s it can get a bit much. I think his aim is just to write good songs. And to grow old gracefully."

We met in the Captain's Room.

This is some place you've got here. How many people can you have in this house?

Oh, lots and lots. You can lose yourself.

So, it's not just a manor house - it can also be occupied by enough people that you could probably actually operate it on the manorial system.

Yes, the only thing we haven't got is droit du seigneur. I've always had a longing for that.

Well, is there anybody you've got your eye on?

(Laughs baronially). Actually, no. Though you never know who there might be in the village. But so far I haven't exercised mon droit.

Is 'Mercury Falling' the first record you've done here?

No, the second or, technically the third since I compiled 'The Greatest Hits' here. I tend to start on a record immediately after I finish touring for the one before. I have that desire to fill the emptiness and accomplish something. So, I'll just start wandering around, sort of humming tunes to myself, and hoping that rock & roll occurs. It doesn't for a while, and then for some reason, something will occur to me, a line, a couplet, a melody and then a song, and I'll just build on that. It's a totally mysterious process.

Do you get that impostor feeling?

Yes, totally. I feel I can't do it, and I'll tell myself, "I've written hundreds of songs, I've won the Grammy..."

And you're a superstar.

Yes, it's like (wrings hands in mock anguish), "I'm a superstar, dammit!" But the great thing is to actually finish a song and look back and say, "How did I do that?"

Tell me more about what it's like when you're having prewriting anxiety.

Well, most of my life has been spent in a state of anxiety - I worry a lot. And I suppose that that's the whole aggravation that creates the pearl - I create because of that, so I'm not ungrateful for being anxious. Sometimes I'd quite like to do without it, but I think it's just a part of my personality.

And what is the earliest worry you can remember?

That the house would burn down, and I wouldn't be able to save the telly. I was 4 or 5, and I would lie in bed and plan how I would get the television and throw it out the window. I quite loved the television.

You weren't worried about your family?

Oh, they could look after themselves, please. Or I would worry that the whole family would go out and never come back - that was a great worry. Or they'd move and not tell me. I used to believe that everyone that I met was in on the game, and they knew exactly what I was thinking, and that it was all a big theatrical exercise for my benefit, and that if I tuned around I'd catch them unawares. It's total egomania.

Well, paranoia requires a certain delusion of grandeur, for sure, although it's hard to know where you could form that in five short years of life.

I think all Americans behave as thought they were on television. You get the New York taxi driver, and he acts like he's in his own movie, New York Taxi Driver, Americans act like actors, which is why, I think, they make such good film actors.

Do you? I think everyone uses the stories they know to help organise the story of their own lives.

I think Americans are more susceptible to it than any other race.

We're not actually a race, you know.

I think you are.

When you sit down to write a song, whom are you addressing?

It's quite an intimate group. First I need to amuse myself - I need to engage my own interest. And then it's really my wife, and my band. And that's it. If I can engage their enthusiasm, I carry on, and if I can't, then it doesn't go any further. And that's almost enough really. If it goes on to sell millions of copies, that's almost a side effect. To engage the people I work with and have them enjoy the work, that's enough.

Do you feel there are misconceptions about you because of your press?

Of course they are. I think the they're pretty confused about me, and I think on the one hand I'm an arrogant bastard and on the other hand I'm a do-gooder ecological bum. And also that I'm a rich bastard. It's a lot of extremes. But I have a lot of freedom because there's no consensus. I exist between the extremes of the bastard and the nice rainforest friend. But I don't want to start saying, "Oh, I'm not like that - I'm not that person." Because it doesn't matter - it's just a myth, and it actually shields me.

Though you do annoy people. When I was clearing customs, the passport guy asked me what I was travelling for, and when I told him I was interviewing you, he groaned, like, "Oh, that snot again."

I've always annoyed people. I had teachers at school that called me annoying. I've always been a f***ing pain in the butt! That's just me. What's that magazine in America that William F. Buckley Jr. edits?

National Review.

National Review. A few years ago they said that among the five biggest pains in the ass in the '80s, No. 1 was Gore Vidal, and I was No. 3.

I guess they thought that because of your activism.

(With a "no, duh" air) You think that was it?

Well, and also your generally unpleasant personality.

(Happily)Yes, I'm horrible!

But at least you're smart enough to conceal it for mow. So, could you tell me the story of discovering that someone had stolen 9 million dollars from you without your knowledge?

Yes. I wouldn't have known to this day if I hadn't got an anonymous letter from a former employee of this man. I was in the kitchen, eating breakfast and opening the mail, and this rather large bundle came, and it said PRIVATE AND STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL, so I opened it, and it mentioned all these figures and all this evidence, and I turned white, the blood drained from my face. I was with my wife, and she was saying: "Honey? Honey? What's up? What's up Honey?" And I said, "Someone has just pinched six million quid off us." I thought it was a joke. But I called my lawyer and my manager and...sure enough. The problem was, I'm a singer and a songwriter, but I've actually found myself at the head of a multi-million-dollar international corporation. And it's so complicated, the way money is routed, and there's so much paperwork - you have to trust somebody.

Yes, I think I read somewhere tat you had 108 bank accounts, and I wondered whether that was really necessary - is there so much money that 107 aren't enough?

Right, that was the system designed by the guy in question - there are fewer now. I mean, it was a lesson for me. Because I thought I was bankrupt. And because I'd been working with this guy for 15 years, and of course, we were friendly. But I have to say I don't think I was the victim of this at all - he's the victim.

How would you describe the difference between your singing persona and yourself?

I think in my singing I allow myself the luxury of vulnerability, which I don't really allow in my personal life.

That's not healthy for you.

I know. But I think I'm just...very masked, poker face. But in singing you can't help exposing your vulnerability.

I see. And to what are you vulnerable?

To love. I've been hurt in love. I've had my heart broken, but I've always sought the healing of that in love again. I haven't been put off by it, which I think is good - not to be embittered by love. I just bounced from relationship to relationship, and luckily I found a person I'm very much in love with that can last me through the years.

And when you guard yourself against - Why are you smiling at me? Stop laughing at me.

I'm not laughing at you, I'm just... smiling.

OK. How do you disguise your vulnerability in your personal life?

It's just not an issue. It's an accident, with the singing thing. It just happens that I can sing - it's an accident of the throat. Sometimes I look at myself and my position, and I think: How on earth did I arrive here? A person who came from the worst part of one of the worst towns in England ? And it's just that first you get lucky, and then to sustain that, you have to get smart. You can stay on top for six months on just heat, but to stay there for 20 years - now, that's work. I was 26 when the Police first really happened, and now I'm 44, so a lot of water has passed under the bridge.

It doesn't seem like that much time has passed since the Police, though when I hear them now, I feel sad for how innocent I was when I first heard them.

But it should mean different things at different times - that's why I don't like videos too much, because they tend to dictate too strongly what a song means or what the visual scenario for it should be. With radio, you can create your own.

And when you started, videos hardly existed.

No, we were among the first to do them.

Hmm. The record company probably hardly laid their eyes on you before they thought, Well that should sell a few units.

Nooo. I suppose for a man of my age, I look all right.

And before you became an internationally renowned beauty, did anyone much comment on your looks?

Um, I think I was always very - what's the word? - eligible.

Do you remember your first date?

Yes. And I must admit it was a clumsy affair. I was probably about 15. I met her at a party, and I suggested we meet at a park the next day. And we held hands, and there was a little kissing and sort of fumbling, and then once that happened, I didn't know what to do next. I had no idea really - it wasn't the sort of place where you could have girls as friends. It was all about quarry or a sort of totem - you know, you owned that girlfriend for a while until you owned another one. And you needed permission to develop a genuine relationship, and I learned that much later. But I suppose first I got better at hunting, and then I became the years carried on. But I think my kids are much better at having relationships with the opposite sex, so I think we may have evolved.

What genre would you describe your music as?

That's a difficult question. To give yourself a label is self defeating, and I'm a bit of a gadfly in terms of style. I haven't plowed one furrow for the whole of my life, like just rhythm & blues or folk music or jazz, but I use all those elements. And it creates its own genre, almost.

I guess any artist who hangs in there for more than a decade is almost his or own genre by the end of it. Madonna, for example.

Yeah, she's great. I have a lot of respect for her. She's very smart, and I like the games she plays with the media. And I actually liked Sex - I thought Sex allowed her a lot of freedom.

Yes, it was a very interesting book, although not good pornography, I didn't think, though of course that's very subjective.

It had pictures I found arousing. There was one with big blond hair, and I think she was hanging over the sea - she's suspended over the ocean. I liked a lot of the book.

Right. Oh! Here's a question: Why are the British so into spanking? I was reading 'The Sun' yesterday and thinking that one thing you don't see in American newspapers is 4 or 5 pages of ads for spanking videos.

That's something I don't share with the rest of my countrymen, I'm afraid, although I was caned at school. But I don't really understand sadomasochism, though I've had it explained, and the explanation was that it's a balancing act, and more about power than sex, for people who wield a lot of power and need to have the balance corrected. And I've been to an S/M club in New York, out of curiosity, and it was just people hung on the walls being whipped rather carefully and rather politely. The person who took me was explaining the whole thing, and there's quite a lot of skill and care and that there were signals so you don't do too much. And it was interesting, but... you know, I didn't go back.

OK. The next question is: How could a former English teacher write the lyric "Sounds like the ticket for you and I"?

Because music is about sound and rhythm. And lyric writing obeys the rules of music before it obeys the rules of grammar. "If you love somebody set them free" isn't correct grammar, either, but it's musically correct.

But that's not grammatically incorrect, is it? Oh, so it is. How right you are. Well, I've been put in my place. Good answer. Do you ever regret having told a journalist that you could make love for four or five hours at a time?

No. I've had more fun out of that than anything I've ever said, just from seeing how intimidated and fascinated people are by the statement.

It's an eye catching statement. I don't know that it's intimidating.

Well not for women.

Personally, I picture myself looking at the digital clock and thinking, Dammit, I'm going to miss 'Letterman'.

(Laughing) It's men who are intimidated. Everyone asks about it, but they don't seem to know what to ask. It's a sort of conversation stopper really.

What other rumours do you hear about yourself?

Oh, just what we said before, that I'm an aloof rock star. I think I'm naturally shy, and that comes across a aloofness. But that's all right. As long as the people close to me know me, everything outside of that isn't real. And people are generally nice to me to my face.

(At this point, the interview is suspended briefly while Sting has lunch - vegetable stew - in his big rustic kitchen and I listen to Mercury Falling in his small rustic recording studio. When we resume...)

To pick up where we left off, may I just say that people thought you were snotty before, they're going to think you're affected beyond words now that you've done 'La Belle Dame Sans Regrets', a song sung entirely in French.

Well, it's bad French. I just liked the sound of the French against that sort of bossa nova beat, and it's actually about my reaction to the French nuclear tests. But I wrote it in French, just because I like the sound of French. It's not good French.

You also have a lot of heartbreak songs on the record.

Yes, I don't know why really. For some reason, the relationship in the minor key is much more compelling. Just "I Love You, you love me" - it's very two dimensional. Whereas "I love you, you love somebody else" - there's much more to go round there.

Ah. Well, that's a plausible and intelligent answer, yet an evasive one.

Of course it's evasive. I mean, I'm not saying I haven't ever had a heartbroken moment. I'm not having one now, but I remember when I have, and I suppose I'm drawn to that.

Also, you did an arty thing.

A naughty thing?

No, an arty thing. There's a Freudian slip for you. You start and end on the word's "mercury falling".

Yes, it was the first lyric I wrote on the whole thing, just as saying it was getting cold, and the mercury was going down. But it had a lot of reverberations to me, in terms of symbolically, mythologically, astrologically.

You're singing differently, too, a little in a lower register.

Yes, my range is changing. I do exercises, and I chant with low chanting. Singing is good for you, I think. It's a healthy occupation.

Where do you chant? I'm picturing a kind of yoga position.

I sit in the shower in the morning and sing.

You sit in the shower?

We have a big shower with a seat in it, and I sit on it and sing.

You have a seat in the shower?

It has a marble bench.

A lovely notion. Tell me a story about the Police.

It seems like another life, those days. It was probably the most successful time of my life, but also probably the most unhappy.


Most of my life was falling apart, including my relationships with the other guys in the band and my first marriage, and there I was, just being swept along on this big tidal wave of success. I didn't feel comfortable. I like control, and it was just out of control. Let's see, a Police story. Well, one of the things that Americans are very bad at is making tea, and when we were on tour, we never got good tea. So, I got on-stage in Boston one night, and halfway through the show I said: "You know what the problem with America is? You can't make tea." And there was kind of hush around the stadium, because I was insulting them, and I said, "Remember your first attempt at making tea where you threw that stuff into the harbour?" And there was like a frisson around the crowd. It was very funny.

It could have been an international incident, because, of course, we in America are not encouraged to think of the Boston Tea Party as a bad thing.

I think you shouldn't have had the Revolution. You would have gotten rid of slavery quicker, you wouldn't have had a war, you would have had a king.

You think we should still be a colony?

Well, you know that's a very pejorative word.

Would you prefer a euphemism?

No. But I feel the War of Independence was wrongly based, you know. You were paying taxes without representation because our troops were there protecting you from the French.

Uh-huh. Have you come out against the American Revolution in public before?

No, this is the first time it's come up.

Well, I'm glad to have the scoop, but I don't think it's going to go down too well with your buddies in Amnesty International, to tell you the truth. Let's see. You're about to have your sixth child. How is being a father of sons different to being a father of daughters?

I find that being a father of boys is a mixture of homespun wisdom...and violence. I'm joking, but I think of violence because the kids are actually smarter than I am, so arguing with them is no use - I never win. So, I have to say, "Well, I'm bigger than you." Though I can't so that anymore with my oldest son - he's bigger than I am. And with the girls I've no way of winning at all. I can't argue with them, because they're smarter than I am, and I can't smack 'em, because they're girls. So, I just have to leave them alone. My only proscribed statement to them is "No musicians".

And why is that?

Because I know what they want.

And what's that?

(Darkly) Sex.

Do you think being raised a Catholic has left it's mark on you?

Yes. I'm actually rather grateful for a Catholic upbringing - I think it's a great source of symbolism and imagery, of guilt, blood, death, eternal damnation, all of which are great for writing. But I don't think Catholicism has scarred me, if that's what you mean. I don't think I allowed it to. Though I used to have vague, vague leanings towards the priesthood, but only because I thought I could meet a woman that way.

Oh, get out. You did not.

(Laughs)Yes, I did.

And what do you do for fun when you're not working?

I watch football. I like to go walking. I like to go out with the boys and drink. I ride.

Do you dance?

I only dance after midnight. I'd like to go to a rave.

What's stopping you?

Don't know. I haven't been invited to any raves.

And you're waiting to be asked? You are shy. OK, very last question is: To what do you attribute your success?

Probably some major good work in my previous life. I don't know what else it can be. It's luck - I'm very lucky. I'm a lucky guy.

© US magazine


Mar 13, 1996

Rock of Middle Ages: As Sting embarks on a massive world tour, Michael Odell reports exclusively from the first night in a small club in Amsterdam, and finds him resigned to being slagged off by the British press. Maybe it's the words to 'Roxanne' or his take on Ecstasy, or his forbearance in the sack (five hours' sex without relief, he claims) but Sting is the kind of guy Amsterdam wants for mayor...

Mar 10, 1996

He's calculated, ego-driven, unapologetic, and an eco-opportunist, critics sneer. Oh, yeah, and one of music's towering figures of the past 20 years. Shame he didn't die young - he'd be a legend...