Interview: VOX (1991)

December 01, 1991

The following interview with Isabel Appio appeared in a December 1991 issue of Vox magazine...

An Englishman in New York again...

Sting shuffles into the sitting room of his rented apartment bordering Central Park. Like all the best NY rock star addresses it's a stone's throw from the Dakota Building where Lennon got the bullet. He scratches his head. Sting has that dishevelled-disorientated look down to a fine art. Somehow you can't help feeling that it cost more than a few dimes to make his creased, oversized shirt fit that badly; that his hacked haircut is probably not a home-job with a pair of blunt nail scissors; and that his crumpled black trousers and T-shirt are not his roadies' recycled jumble. And that stubble - unmistakably designer.

The arches of Sting's feet are bandaged tightly with brown tape. That's because a few days ago he found he couldn't raise his right arm higher than shoulder level - his doctor blamed his fallen arches. "I spend a lot of time walking around barefoot and my feet had become quite flat, so it affected my arm,"' he says, now sitting crossed-legged on his snooker table, striking warrior-like poses with his cue-cum-spear for the photographer.

In the closing American stretch of a 14-month world tour Sting plays New Jersey's Garden State Art's Centre. The 15,000-seater venue, looking like the top layer of a wedding cake, white columns and all, is sold out to respectable 25 to 35-year-olds. Security react swiftly to the slightest whiff of deviancy: "Hey, you can't stand here with that popcorn in your hand," orders a guard. He doesn't get the obvious reply: "Why not?" but an apologetic "OK sir" and the culprit moves on. The row behind sound like they're having the best sex of their lives: every recognisable opening chord is greeted with cries of "Yeah, Oh my God, Yeessss". They love him to death.

As much as the anaemic and drifting introspection of Sting's recent solo work may turn you off or wind you up, live, the band's undeniably tight and hot. Even Sting's vocals resonate with surprising authority. Through with the Turtles Band and its prestigious black jazz musicians, Sting's current band is, more fittingly a trio. There's cool guitarist Dominic Miller, born in Argentina, whose star quality, says one backstage observer, could soon "do Sting out of a job"; keyboardist David Sancious, playing on home ground, formerly with Springsteen and Gabriel and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta who's bashed out sessions with Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell. Sting had said of the crew: "David's an old friend from the Amnesty tour. Vinnie's a drummer's drummer from LA who demanded the gig. I told him no because I didn't like him, he came anyway. Dominic, from King Swamp, War Party, Pretenders, is kinda new but very refreshing. It'll probably be a different band next time."

Overall it's a meandering jazzy set where old hits - 'Roxanne', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' - are met with equal rapture as the new, more highbrow material of 'The Soul Cages' album. There's even a Hendrix blowout with all four on guitar. Something of a tribute, says Sting, who first saw Hendrix when he was 14. "He was the first black person I ever saw, he was over six foot tall, had a huge Afro, played left-handed guitar - he totally freaked me out. There weren't any black people in Newcastle at the time. He's really the one who made me want to become a pop star." Keith Altham, one-time Hendrix press agent and Sting's long-time PR, says, "You think it's a pretty good likeness until you realise that they're doing with four guitars what Hendrix did with one."

In the neon-lit hospitality room backstage, the scene is more cups of herbal tea and fairy cakes than Wild Turkey and Angel Dust. The women, immaculately power-dressed, seem to have come straight from NY's executive boardrooms; the men are mostly roadies. "This ain't exactly Guns N'Roses," I venture to Vinx, the most interesting looking of the bunch, who sits alone fiddling with his Walkman. "What d'you expect?" he laughs, "Everyone's over 40". Vinx is Sting's new protege (signed to his label Pangaea - which refers to the shape of the world before the land masses split to form the continents) and support act. An ex-Olympic track and field star, he describes his music as "primal neolithic prehistoric pop" beat out through percussion and his rich baritone voice. It's his first solo album, produced "very quickly and very cheaply" by Sting. "Why you?" I ask. "He saw he could make a lot of money without doing anything I suppose." I had been warned about his attitude problem - but he seemed spot on to me.

The other figure of interest in the crew is Sting's live-in personal Ashtanga yoga instructor (plus his Daryll Hannah look-alike Scandinavian girlfriend). Serene, discreet, instantly likeable, his attitude is impeccable. Sting's been hooked on yoga for some time, he tells me, and even some of the roadies are interested.

Another key figure in Sting's party is Billy Francis, tour manager for 10 years. He's the joker in the pack, said to be responsible for the more memorable tour pranks. Three years ago in Oz he got all the roadies to go on-stage dressed as Chilean mothers for 'They Dance Alone'. They pinned photographs of Sting to their dresses instead of the customary missing relatives. The audience didn't seem to notice. On the 'Blue Turtles' tour, Francis blacked-up and donned an Afro wig, swapping places with Branford Marsalis for the sax/guitar duo. It took Sting a while to notice and some of the other elite African American jazzers in the band were not amused. Again the audience seemed none the wiser.

No such tomfoolery tonight. With Vinx gone home to bed, the Yoga instructor probably deep in meditation and Billy Francis in a serious, mood, room service and 32 channels back at the hotel prove more alluring than the backstage hangout.

Next morning, back at the Central Park duplex, Sting ruminates on the concept of home. "I don't really live anywhere. I have houses in New York, L.A and London. As long as I have a couple of books and some paintings that I own, it's my home." Wherever he lays his hat, obviously. Upstairs GQ magazine orchestrate a front cover photo shoot. "It's like bleedin' Paramount studios up there," quips an observer to our own more modest photographer, who's brought just the one light. GQ have the whole caboodle: make-up artist, wardrobe mistress, hairdresser, best boy, best boy grip, special-effects co-ordinator and lighting crew. Rails of Fifth Avenue suits swish past. "What's wrong with your own clothes?" I let slip to Sting. "My wardrobe's not good enough, they always want to dress me up." Later a manicurist lovingly tends to his nails.

Sting confesses (in the programme notes) that as he reaches 40, the mid-life crisis has hit him hard. Most noticeably the public exorcism of his parents' deaths in 'The Soul Cages'. "The core of all story-telling is death," he says. "I'm heading that way anyway. I'm moving into an where I'm not going to be selling such massive amounts of records. I don't really have a choice otherwise I'd have to pretend I was younger, get a corset, get a wig, write songs about dancing or girlfriends. If I stopped selling records I'd probably take another job like teaching, it's so highly paid."

Sting ponders his true motivation for touring. Ego? Money? "I enjoy it, that's the main thing, and I'm good at it... I'm not a natural actor, but singing I'm confident about, I know I can sing... It's the only job I can do. It's unusual for people to have jobs which they enjoy. Also, I think I have a good band, people should see them."

Due to play the UK this month, home crowds never whip up the euphoria felt for the man overseas. When Sting heard that promoter Keith Prowse had gone bust, he duly offered to put up the £15,000 ticket subsidy for the UK show to go on. "It's important for me to come home and do well," Sting muses. "My bank manager doesn't care if I play England or not. England is hard to sustain. That's the phlegmatic quality of the British that I have myself, which makes them good. It also makes them a pain in the arse."

Sting's answers are beginning to sounds familiar. Having listened to a couple of recent Sting interviews he has a stockpile of them. Sting on individualism: "I would rather have a record that was hit against the odds. I try to put out records that are a little bit strange, that have no place in the charts or radio. The record company says 'We like this record but how the hell are we going to get it on the radio? I say 'That's not my problem'."

Sting on pop stars and charity gigs: "It's been long enough for us to ask serious questions. There are pluses and minuses. You can raise large amounts of money quickly for emergencies which is a good thing short-term. The downside to it is (also the fault of the media) you tend to create an atmosphere of impending miracles. We distract from the real sources of power and money which are multinationals and government. In the past I couldn't think of a good reason for saying no. I turn down most things these days."

I steer him into the more vulgar territory of money. One of Sting's aides had said that the cheque Sting received for half an hour's work (doing vocals on Dire Straits' 'Money For Nothing' was as much as he'd made in his job for ten years. "Yes, I like freedom. I'm not ashamed to say that wealth gives you the freedom, I'm not in love with money but I like the idea that I can go anywhere anytime."

More of a sore point are the 'pretentious git' accusations which continue to fly his way: this year, Sting finally appeared in Private Eye's Pseud's Corner for his description of the songwriting process. "I think I get up people's noses. Maybe it's a good thing. There are people who know me who are close to me and I listen to their criticism. I don't think my image is terribly close to what I'm like. I'm supposed to be very cold and aloof, stand-offish, pretentious. I'm sure I have my moments of being all those things, but it's not the whole picture.

"I'm not afraid of being called pretentious. Songwriting is my therapy - it actually keeps me reasonably sane. I don't go to the shrink, I don't take massive amounts of drugs, I write songs. I can't be that unpleasant to listen to, I sell 60 million albums each time so something good must be happening." Sixty million people eat McDonald's; does that make it good?

"I get bored with myself to he honest with you; I'm sick of seeing pictures of myself (here I nod in agreement and, for a moment, gaze distractedly over Central Park). I can talk myself in circles, but when I do something clever I know it's clever and I think that gets up people's noses. I'm not a stupid guy, I've worked a few things out, there's quality in what I do whether you like it or not; a lot of work has gone into it." Is that a magpie, I wonder, settling in the park's tree tops, or a raven?

Sting: Central Park duplex, fallen arches, Kayapo Indians, international maverick nomad.

Gordon Sumner: Geordie, ex-primary school teacher, singer-songwriter, son of a milkman.

© Vox magazine


Oct 3, 1991

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Oct 2, 1991

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