We spoke to Sting and he doesn’t reckon Gotye is ripping him off...
It’s strange how inattentive you can be in regards to your surroundings. Environmental factors might register in the subconscious without commanding any direct attention. I’m sitting in a secluded, and quite opulent, private room adjacent to a hotel bar – something like a Bond villain’s lair. This is the gag I will crack when Sting walks in the room, I decide. It’s cold, and shit muzak bleeds out the PA. I don’t notice that it’s cold, or the muzak is shit, until Sting walks into the room and notes the room is freezing, and asks if the muzak can be switched off, as an assistant sets off to rectify. I crack my gag. It gets the mild, barely-there response it deserves.
I sit down with Sting. He’s been in Melbourne since at least Saturday – where he performed three songs at the AFL Grand Final. He opened his brief set on the day with ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’ – a bold choice, opening a concise, crowd-pleasing set with a new composition. But save for the lack of familiarity, it holds up somewhat amongst the Police mega-hits that follow.
The track is from his latest album 57th & 9th, his first conventional rock record in an eternity. His exploration of non-standard genres and ambitious projects in the past decades has embedded punchlines into his reputation for the pretentious – 2008’s Songs From The Labyrinth placing the lute up there with tantric root sessions as signposts of Sting’s eccentricities.
His remarks about the temperature and soundtrack in the hotel might come across as a similar vein of pretentious on paper. But in fact, he comes across as grounded. It is pretty fucking cold, and the muzak is unbearably shit if it catches your ear. He’s self-aware, but not so much to the point of self-deprecation. At 65, he’s aware of his twilight years approaching. He’s also aware his voice, and rig, are in good shape considering. He’s matter of fact, occasionally flaring with humility or hubris – comfortable with either.
FL: 57th & 9th – it’s named after a distinct place, but the album references a range of geographical markers all over the world that hold special meaning to you. How do you go about getting these personal symbols out in broadly resonant music?
Sting: Difficult question. I write, first of all, to amuse myself. I like narrative stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like to play characters in songs. So they’re not necessarily about me. I enjoy stepping into other people’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes and singing in that character. Like an actor would. Of course, when you tell a good story, people can resonate with some of the emotions there, some of the experiences themselves, so it becomes universal because human experience is something we share. Whether it’s the loss of someone you love, or some kind of excitement. It’s kind of easy. Once you’re telling a good story, then everybody can resonate with it.
Even though it’s been a while since you’re composed a collection of rock songs, when you’ve performed live over the past decade or so, you’ve been performing rock music. What was the impetus to start writing in the genre music again?
For me, the most important element in music is surprise. When I to listen to music, I want to be surprised within a certain number of bars. I need a surprise. When I compose music, I try and lay a surprise in the first 16 bars. When I choose the music to present to the world I also want to surprise people. So for the last decade I’ve been making, you could call them esoteric records, where I just was following my curiosity. There was no commercial agenda, no strategy. It was really just the love of, the curiosity about music.
So I thought, “Okay, what would surprise people now?” Australia had rock and roll records made very quickly, very spontaneously over a very short period. I went in the studio with nothing, actually. No preparation, but with some trusted colleagues who know my process and help me to figure it out. We ended up with something very direct. Ten very separate short stories. It’s not a concept album and there are different subjects. I haven’t really figured out if there are anything that links them, apart from me. There are bits of my musical DNA all over it. Bits of The Police, bits of me in my work.
The subject matter is nostalgic and reflective, but like you said, it’s like a direct record. It sounds like a modern rock record. Were you tempted to make it sound nostalgic and revisit ’80s tones?
The sound of the record wasn’t even considered. It just is what it is. It just happened by accident. It’s a very spontaneous record. There wasn’t much planning involved.
There’s been a new wave of musicians where some of their foremost influence could be perceived as your work, an example here being Gotye. Are you seeing this new generation and thinking, “Hey, that’s me”?
No, if it’s pointed out to me, I might say, “Okay, maybe you’re right.” But I’ve heard this thing about Gotye before, but I don’t actually hear it myself. Or, what’s it called? Bruno Mars. “It sounds like a Police song.” It doesn’t, actually. I think all musicians steal all music. That’s what we do. We take ideas and then we adapt them to our own uses. There’s only 12 notes in the scale, so there’s nothing original. This is why these stupid lawsuits are fatuous, really, because no one invented music. It’s around. You steal from the best. That’s what we do.
In ‘50,000’ you’re singing “Rock stars don’t ever die, they only fade away,” is that a way of not fearing death and maybe more fearing fading away?
No, I think you learn philosophy at this point in one’s life. I turned 65 on Sunday…
Happy birthday, by the way.
Thank you. ‘50,000’ is really inspired by the loss of so many cultural icons in the early part of the year. Of course there’s the child in us that thinks that cultural icons are somehow immortal. Rationally we don’t, but we’re always shocked and saddened by the death of somebody like David Bowie or Prince. So I was responding to that as somebody who’s also stood in the spotlight in front of hundreds of thousands of people at a time and had that intoxicating feeling of hubris and empowerment that it gives you. But also reflecting on what that actually means. Probably, I think the song says that, you learn more philosophy in reflection than you do in the spotlight.
I think, for my generation, a lot of people were first introduced to you via The Simpsons when you were one of the first big name musicians to guest on there. It’s a send-up, self-parody – obviously the Simpsons was a no-brainer because it was so successful, but do you have any trepidation going in there with taking the piss out of yourself?
No, I don’t take myself very seriously. I can see the gag.
Any plans to re-issue ‘Sending Our Love Down the Well?’
That’s a great song. I didn’t write it, actually. Someone else wrote it for me.
You spoke in 2013 about the 2009 Police reunion, saying “It was an exercise in nostalgia. We were realising an asset”. Legacy can be a fragile asset, if you commoditise it in the wrong way. Do you look back on that reunion and say, “Hey, we really go that right?”
I think the timing was perfect. I’ll take full credit for that. I had been saying “no” for years. Any earlier wouldn’t have worked. Any later, it wouldn’t have worked either. The timing was right. I follow my instincts. My instinct to leave the band was counter-intuitive to many people. Yet I think over the long term I think it was the right thing to do. The decision to a reunion was the right one as well. I’m not saying I’m infallible, but I tend to follow my instincts and have the courage to follow my instincts. Even though conventional logic might say, “Are you sure?” I hope I’m brave enough to continue to do that.
I don’t have to succeed. You can learn as much from failure as you can from massive success. I don’t think anything you do is failure. I think it’s how you respond to decision. Gil Evans once taught me, he’s a great arranger, used to work with Miles Davis, and he said, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note. It’s the note that follows what you consider to be the wrong note.” So we all make mistakes. How you respond to that so-called mistake can often open up a whole universe of possibility. I think that was a great lesson for life which I try to follow: there are no mistakes.
Do you look at acts like ABBA and Zeppelin now and think, “Hey, the timing’s right now. The clock’s ticking,” for them to realise that asset?
I’ve no idea. I can’t speak for them. I’m not a musical historian.
We spoke about the icons this year passing away, and how it makes us all think of our own mortality, but on AFL Grand Final day you looked like one of the fittest blokes out there, including the players. Do you think you’ve got a few decades left in you?
I’m very fit. I’ve always been fit. I was an athlete when I was younger. So I just kept that up. It’s a combination of discipline and vanity. But also, I do a very athletic job that I did in my 20s. I have to remain of a certain level of fitness to do that job. The singing voice is a muscle and it’s all related. I couldn’t do my job if I was unfit.
How do you go about preserving the throat muscle, and preserving yourself mentally?
I’ve never smoked anything legal in my life, so I’m fortunate there. I lead a pretty healthy life. I’m not an ascetic, but I eat well. I look after myself.
What’s your favourite meal?
Obviously all the focus now is on 57th & 9th now. What’s the plans for the immediate future?
We’ll see how the record is received worldwide. At the moment it feels pretty buoyant. We put a single out and radio programmers seem to like it so I think we’re on some top ten or something, I don’t really understand it. But it’s pretty buoyant so I’ll test the water in February and we’ll do a small theatre tour and see how that goes. Then hopefully, if it goes well in the world, we’ll keep touring until we’ve been all over. I’d love to come back to Australia at some point.
Are you set on the rock path now, do you reckon you’ll probably follow it up with another rock record?
I’ve no idea what to do next. Again, surprise would be an element.
Do you cherish that freedom to do what you want?
Yeah. In fact, that’s success for me, is carving out a little area of freedom where I didn’t have before. Rather than just plowing the same field again and again and again with the same results. I’m not really interested in doing that. I’m much more of a gadfly.
(c) Faster Louder by Lachlan Kanoniuk