Interview: VOX (1997)

December 01, 1997

The following interview by Sam Steele appeared in the December 1997 issue of Vox magazine...

Bagels! We urgently need someone to go get Bagels for Puffy's dancers." The order comes through the crackle of the walkie talkie like a Muppet Show Kermit-in-control command. This, however, is no third-rate theatre show run by acid-crazed glove puppets. This is something far more surreal; backstage at the multi-national, satellite- beamed showbiz spectacular: the 1997 MTV Awards in New York.

As well as rhetorical walkie-talkie buzzing (krzzzsh-click "Is anybody out there available to go meet U2's party?" bzzzshss-click "Are the Spice Girls supposed to be sharing a dressing room with Marilyn Manson's Marching Band?"), the air crackles with a sense of anticipation bordering on organised hysteria.

Tonight, the A-list of all things over the top, the cream of the international pop elite, will assemble to perform, hand out awards, cry on cue and tick off the watching world for being obsessed with gossip. As if? "I just met (No Doubt's) Gwen Stefani backstage," grins Sting mischievously. "She's gorgeous!"

Sting is currently standing stage left, waiting to rehearse the million-selling 'I'll Be Missing You' with Puff Daddy, and chatting to his manager Miles Copeland. His conversation skims such topics as Princess Diana's death; whether Elton John singing at the funeral is tasteful or tawdry; his first impressions of Puff Daddy ("he made me feel old"), how amazed he was by Eartha Kitt (who he met last night and is working with on "some Disney shit"); Chumbawumba ("I love that song"); and the worrying prospect of sharing an MTV jet home with the Spice Girls. Occasionally, Sting's attention will be caught by one of many dancers doing what can only be described as 'tantric' limbering-up exercises among the plush red theatre seats - legs above heads, buttocks appearing between the chair tops, Lycra stretched in dangerous directions. Well, you've got to do something to pass the time.

"It's such a big deal to open MTV in America," Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs, aka Puffy, tells VOX later, referring to his show-stopping performance with Sting. "It don't get no bigger than that on the young urban rock'n'roll tip."

Which is all rather appropriate, because at the moment, it would seem no one is bigger than Puff Daddy and Sting, and nothing on tonight's show is bigger (or more touching) than their five version of 'I'll Be Missing You'. The Sting-sampling tribute to murdered rapper Notorious BIG (aka Biggie Smalls) has now sold 7.5m copies around the world and topped the charts in 15 countries. The first single to score a simultaneous Number One in Britain and the USA, it's been in residence in the US Billboard chart and UK singles chart for 18 weeks.

Surprisingly perhaps, considering this immense success, Sting and Puffy only met for the first time yesterday afternoon. They will sing the song together for the first time today, complete with soul girl and Notorious BIG's wife, Faith Evans, a 32-piece choir, backing vocalists on sliding platforms, Sting on a hydraulic lift, footage of Biggie beaming down from giant video screens, and the aforementioned dancers. It's a big production number and a devastatingly affecting moment for something that, on paper, sounds like tacky American melodrama.

"He wanted me to dance as well!" Sting gurgles, while waiting for the rehearsal to begin. "I think he wanted me to do what he did. F*** it! I don't do that! I said: 'I'll sing the song and the song will speak for itself.' I feel a bit emotional actually," he confides, "what with Diana dying."

For while 'I'll Be Missing You' was written by a heartbroken Puffy after the shooting of his best friend and business partner Biggie, the MTV performance is made even more poignant by the death four days earlier of Diana, Princess Of Wales. Not that Sting and Princess Di were close. In fact, Sting is taken aback by his own reaction to the news of her death, surprised that he has been invited to the funeral, but will nevertheless fly to London straight after the Awards to be back in time.

"I can't believe it," he shakes his head. "I can't believe how upset I feel by the death of a woman I only met once or twice. It just seems like such a huge tragedy."

His UK press officer mentions that the London offices of record company A&M have been besieged with phonecalls from the media demanding Sting's reaction. Sting visibly shudders, horrified by the prospect: "What could I possibly say?" he asks, bemused. "I hardly knew the woman."

Three weeks later, Sting is still refusing all interview requests, with the exception of inviting VOX for lunch to finish what was started in New York. Thus we arrive at Sting's stunning mansion-come-castle snuggled in the red-gold glory of the autumnal Wiltshire countryside in time to catch him heading off to the pub for lunch.

"Hop in," he grins, revving up an antique 1940's US Army jeep. "A friend found this rusting in a field in Turkey. Over 50 years old and it's still going. Not bad, eh?"

Not quite luxury, four-wheel drive, pampered pop-star issue either. There's no roof to deflect the damp October drizzle, no doors to defend us from the puddle splatter, and precious little in the way of suspension to stop us bouncing around like Zebedee on a broken spring. Sting, a surprisingly down-to-earth, decidedly un-starry man who habitually flies Concorde to New York and is rich enough to have people drive him around in gold-plated Range Rovers, clearly loves it.

"Only way to travel," he shouts cheerily over the rushing wind and roaring engine. The local pub is a short hop on foot across his country estate, and a mere skip over the stretch of River Avon that runs along the bottom of his few thousand acres of 'garden'. Alternatively, it's a bone-rattling ten minutes via winding country roads. As we take a sharp corner at 50mph, one wonders if he should be a teeny bit more careful. Don't want to be stopped by the police or anything.

"Don't worry," shouts Sting. "Everyone knows me here. I'm Sting."

Born Gordon Matthew Sumner, he has answered to the name of Sting since he was a penniless 18-year-old playing bass in Northern jazz clubs where old guys took the piss out of him for wearing a wasp-like black and yellow sweater. Two days ago, he celebrated his 47th birthday with a 'ceilidh' (a night of traditional Irish dancing) at his manor house which, he explains, is why he's walking "funny" (and no doubt also accounts for the red-shot blue eyes and blond stubble).

Once comfortably ensconced in the local hostelry we discuss the past 20 years of his life: The Police - who were and posthumously still are one of the world's most successful post-punk rock bands; how he feels Diana's death was "unnecessary"; why drugs should be "decriminalised"; why he gets pissed off at the paparazzi helicoptering over his house; and, most importantly, how he's still reeling after the apparently random murder of designer to the stars Gianni Versace, who was gunned down in August by serial killer Peter Cunnanan.

"I questioned myself very deeply after Gianni was shot," he says quietly, nursing his half-pint of Guinness. "In many ways I decided to close down. I just thought (adopts foetal position and small voice) 'I don't really want to talk at the moment. I just wanna be a guy. "'

Did it make him paranoid about stalkers?

"Like any celebrity, you do attract certain types of people who are weird, who say they want to kill you. But that's their kick -they want to tell you. The ones to worry about are the ones who don't tell you, like the man who killed Gianni. That really made me question the whole idea of fame. Because Gianni was a very close friend of mine but, he courted fame, he loved fame. That's what his life was about, the cult of the personality, having his name on all the clothes... To end up like that, murdered on the steps of your own home made me think it's not worth it. If this is what fame gets you, I don't want it any more.

"That picture of the steps with blood on them made me feel 'that's where I live.' I've walked up and down those steps with my kids and that image will stay with me forever: his blood on those steps. He was a dear man, lovely, gentle, kind a diamond as they say, gone. For what? For somebody's perverted ideology."

In a world obsessed by celebrity, money, beauty, power fame, the warped logic seems to run: 'kill your idol to become your idol'.

"Yeah," sighs Sting. "It's almost like you're worthless without all those things but the media feeds that frenzy, too."

But it's not only the media who feeds it. It's the whole inter-connected process of the fame/media relationship. To become famous you court the press. When you are famous, you despise them for taking an interest in you.

"When you're out and about, of course!" agrees Sting. "You're there to be photographed. You're invited to events because you're of interest and that's expected. In fact," he chuckles sweetly, "if nobody takes a photograph of you most celebrities would be a bit, you know, concerned! It's not an unpleasant experience to be the centre of attention like that, when you say: 'That's OK.' But there are times in your life when you need to be private."

And what about the freedom of the press to decide what, and when, to publish?

"I think there is a need to know when someone is running the country. Or if someone's in charge of Trident missiles " he argues, in his soft mid-Atlantic brogue. "Then we need to know that they're not weird, can't be blackmailed. But a pop star being gay? Or taking drugs? Or having an affair? It's got f*** all to do with anyone else. Unless he chooses to make it public. There's public interest, but that's politicians and business men..."

"I've been sitting in my garden and had a helicopter fly over for a magazine to do a feature on 'pop stars and their houses'. Short of doing that [flicks a V sign and pulls a f***-off face at an imaginary eye in the sky], what else can you do? There were pictures printed in an Italian newspaper of me playing with my kids in the garden when the photographer was obviously hiding up a tree somewhere. I felt violated. This is on the front page of a Florence newspaper, and this is now accepted journalism. People can sit up in a tree spying on people playing with their kids in the garden, uninvited."

Sting does, however, accept that this kind of attention comes with the territory, and that there are ways of dealing with the paparazzi. As a celebrity, you need a strategy to survive.

"For me, the idea of being chased through Paris by paparazzi is ridiculous. They're gonna take your picture. It's not very pleasant being chased that way, but don't rise to the bait. They love a chase."

What would you do in that situation?

"I would just smile and drive on. Carry on going where I'm going and they get bored with you. Soon as you run it's like dogs with a rabbit. I think Princess Diana died needlessly. I don't think the people that were dealing with her were experienced in that kind of attention: the press show up, run away? You just don't do that in that situation."

In reality, Sting is relatively sanguine about the relationship between celebrities and the process that helps maintain their status. He readily (if a little sheepishly) admits to using the media when it suits him. He admits, with the embarrassed tone of a man who owns up to being a heroin addict, that he was in Hello!.

"They offered us a fortune for the [Rainforest] campaign to interview me in my house and I was very gung-ho about it. I thought why not? But, I regretted it as soon as I did it. But as far as the media goes, my strategy is that my life is about other things. I think a lot of people in my position get into a situation where they do value themselves by how many albums they've sold and how often they're on the cover of Hello!. I really don't because, for one, I have a family life, and I'm a father (of six) and I have responsibilities that are actually more important. But I know people who are desperate to be in the charts, and when they're not - because there's always a day when you simply don't sell records any more - what do you do then?"

Well, perhaps, as is about to happen with Sting, you sit back while your record company release a third back catalogue-combing album, 'The Best Of Sting/The Police' (the first two being '94's ten-year anthology 'The Best Of Sting', and '95's 'The Police Live!'. Rightfully, as we're nearing the 20th anniversary of Sting's debut with The Police, the album contains almost as many post-Police songs 'Englishman In New York', 'Fields Of Gold', 'Russians' as it does '80s classics ('Walking On The Moon', 'Message In A Bottle'). But why bother?

"I don't mind the thing coming out," grins Sting. "It's a bit of fun really. But, to actually reform and go through that whole thing of being in a group again is... ppphhhtt!"

For Sting the time he was in, the Police brings back mixed memories. He describes his life, between 1978 and 1986 as "crazy and chaotic', and his relationship with former band mates Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as "poisoned" by egotistical wranglings and jealousy. He was the singer, he wrote the songs, he got all the attention. Simple as that.

"I'm very glad I was in a group," he asserts. "And I'm glad it was a good group, but to be in it now would be ridiculous. It's so limiting. The way to grow old gracefully is not to be in a teenage gang - which a band is. I find the whole group thing distasteful."

So all the talk of the Police reforming for a tour...?

"That's bullshit! I'd rather die! What's the point?"

For nostalgia's sake, perhaps?

"I'm not very nostalgic and I don't need the money!"

Do you still see Stewart and Andy?

"Yeah, we talk on the phone, they come and see me, I go and see them, or if one of us has a baby or gets married... We're still obviously... friends. But the idea of going back in time doesn't appeal to me. I've got a band and I work all the time so it's not something I need to do."

As the clouds roll by outside, another round of halves is ordered and the new remix of 'Roxanne', the first single off the 'best of' album, is discussed. Sting maintains that he asked Puff Daddy to remix 'Roxanne', not for commercial reasons, but because, by featuring a rap from the Fugees' Pras, alongside samples of Kool Keith and The Real Roxanne, it's re-inventing his "baby", opening his song up to a whole new generation, using a musical form he readily admits to having little knowledge of.

"It's fascinating for me," he says, "because that vocal performance is 20 years old; there's me 25 years old on our debut single, plus there's all these other cultural references in the mix. It's a completely different artform, a new artform, and I'm thrilled. It's great. The Police aren't on it, but what the hell!" he smirks.

Of current pop trends Sting admits to not being au fait with much dance music or hip-hop, although after meeting Puffy he did go out and buy his album and found it "very powerful". He likes Oasis "because they remind me of The Beatles", is a huge fan of The Verve, and wishes he'd written that Chumbawumba song, 'Tubthumping'.

"I sit with my 12-year-old, Jake, and watch Top Of The Pops," he grins "and say exactly the same jaundiced things my father said watching the show 20 years ago: This is crap! What's he wearing?! Ughhhh! "'
Another thing Sting does with his kids is talk openly about drugs, which he feels strongly should be legalised. He thinks Trainspotting was "the most dreadful film," because, he feels, its "honour among addicts" depiction is wide of the mark.

"The element of camaraderie among smack addicts is something I've never seen," he snorts. "Most of the addicts I have known would sell their grandmother for the next fix. I enjoyed it as a film, but I'm not sure about its message."

Sting's own position in the drugs debate, as reported in the Sunday broadsheets, is informed by both experience, and a kind of cod 'paganist' common sense.

"We need to decriminalise (drugs). Nobody takes the law seriously and the law is ridiculous," he snorts. "One of God's plants is illegal - that's utterly stupid. Mushrooms that grow in the ground are suddenly illegal. That's ludicrous! How do you enforce a law like that? What you want is education and medical treatment for people's problems, not prison. I have these conversations a lot with my kids. I don't wanna see my kids strung out on smack or in prison. But I'm much more qualified to deal with any drug problems they might have than the local chief inspector or local magistrate. I can deal with it, they can't. They're simply not qualified. So that's why I keep talking."

His own vices would seem to be feeble these days. He doesn't smoke, won't drink coffee, doesn't eat meat, and likes a bit of yoga of a morning.

"I do drink," he confesses. "I don't take cocaine, though, it's an awful drug. It's addictive. There are drugs that aren't addictive. I don't think marijuana is addictive; most psychedelic drugs aren't addictive. That's a red flag to me. Anything you have to have the next day or next week is something to avoid. Obviously, heroin is addictive. But you have to separate these things and say 'this is relatively harmless, this is deadly.' It's nonsense to pretend [society] has no experience of drugs, and it will become more and more nonsense as politicians get older. We've all experienced the drug culture. Pretending that doesn't happen is crazy.

"Try stopping kids spinning around and making themselves dizzy. Say it's against the law to make yourself dizzy!"

You commented that Elton John's coke habit was God's way of telling him he had too much money. Has God ever given you a sign that you've got too much?

"Did I say that? Well, you can never be too thin or too rich!" glibly quotes the man who freely admits he has the equivalent of the GNP of a "small African country" sitting in his bank account. And, despite his commitment to his Rainforest Foundation, is as guilty of despoiling the planet (putting out millions of non-degradable plastic CDs is hardly helping to save the world now, is it?) as the rest of us. Is Sting a part-time philanthropist?

"I don't think I am a philanthropist. I occasionally have the world's ear and I've used that to say things I believe in. But I'm not gonna do that ad nauseum. I've done it. I just get on with my life and do what I feel's right."

Before we head back in the old bone-shaker jalopy, and having touched on death, drugs, celebrity, morality and media attention, there is one last question that needs to be asked. A final topic to be tackled. Does Sting regret making that seven-hour-a-night-tantric-sex statement that has since become synonymous with his name?

He throws back his head and laughs loudly: "I was with Bob Geldof, the two of us were pissed out of our heads in the pub at lunchtime, five or six pints each. We were just talking bullshit as you do, and forgot the journalist was there. It was quite funny. But taken out of context it's become [adopts haughty tone] 'I now have sex every night for seven hours,' which I don't! Heh heh heh! Of course I don't! "It's every other night!"

© Vox magazine


Oct 2, 1997

As rumours abound of the Police's reformation, we trace the band's history from the bleach-blond ambition of their new wave early days, to breaking America, to the internal rucks and, ultimately the split. The Police were smart enough to recognise, like U2 after them, that rock fans would be looking for new heroes after the storm of punk had blown over. Self confessed opportunists, with a ruthless manager behind them from the start, they latched on to punk's ripped coat-tails during their early years until surprise success in America helped ignite late recognition at home. In this respect, they were the Bush or Cranberries of their day, earning grudging respect at home only after significant US sales...

Apr 2, 1997

Many a 'proper' musician must have been horrified by the sudden onslaught of punk rock's notable anti-technique stance, a musical Exocet missile launched just as the 70's lurched past their soporific mid-points; kids wanted to hear youngsters in bands of their own age playing songs they could relate to and have fun with, not be indulged by self-indulgent geezers with beards and O-levels in guitar-playing, who deigned to release a record every so often in order to pacify the masses. Still, as John Peel said of the punk revolution, "The fun suddenly came back into music. You don't know you're bored till it stops being boring..."