The following interview with Steve Morse appeared in a February 1993 issue of The Boston Sunday Globe newspaper...
Sting lightens up, brings a ragbag of styles to latest disc...
Sting, an English teacher turned pop star, is often typecast as a dour, cerebral man who cracks a smile only rarely. He's a leader among pop's serious social warriors who staged Live Aid, mounted the Amnesty International tour and committed time and money to protect the world's rain forests. Sting's tightly strung, often confessional image was further heightened by his last album, 'The Soul Cages', a ruminative, rite-of passage work about the death of his father.
A far different Sting, however, emerges on his new album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales' (A&M Records), due out March 9. It's a humorous "ragbag of styles," he says, adding that it's loosely inspired by that medieval book of laughs, 'The Canterbury Tales'.
"I didn't want to write about myself this time," Sting says in an interview from New York. "I just wanted to tell stories about other people. I wanted to get away from the idea of a confessional, therapeutic record. I had just done one - and felt better because of, it - so why do it again? I wanted to reach a new plateau and move on from there. I only needed to amuse myself, and engage or amuse the band; that was all I needed to do. I had a great time. I wasn't dredging up some terrible personal trauma in order to create. I was just trying to amuse people."
Sting has amused before, mostly with his former supergroup the Police in songs such as 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' and 'Bed's Too Big Without You'. But his subsequent solo albums have generally gone for big statements and sentiments. So it's refreshing to hear this latest disc, sparked by the hit single, 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You' (a love song that takes a swipe at politicians who "all seem like game show hosts to me"), along with witty songs about cowboys, Mexican bandidos, royal astrologers, medieval kings, card-playing gamblers, lovelorn soldiers and 'Saint Augustine in Hell'. Some of it is allegorical, but much of it is genial fun.
In addition, the crossbred music spans melodic rock, ambient jazz, acoustic folk, subtle reggae and even country twang, while evoking his Police era more than any other solo album he's made.
"I recorded it in my dining room," Sting says with a laugh, thinking back to last summer and his Tudor mansion in Wiltshire, formerly owned by a nobleman in the army of King Charles I. "I was living in the country and was also getting married," Sting adds, "so I felt the record had to reflect that sense of contentment. Even if I've got a reputation for doom and gloom, I can't show it if I don't feel that way."
And how about the 'Canterbury Tales' connection?
"Later, I saw what I actually produced was a real ragbag of styles and influences; and my name Sumner (Sting was born Gordon Sumner) comes from the medieval Summoner (the enforcer of church law), who was one of the characters in 'The Canterbury Tales' I thought, 'Well, it's a mild joke. They'll call me pretentious, but I think it's funny.' And 'The Canterbury Tales' is a ragbag of styles as well. It's all over the place. Some of it's funny, some of it's chivalric, some of it's rude. So there was a connection.
"I studied 'The Canterbury Tales' in school in Middle English, which is probably now more like German than anything else," says Sting, who grew up in Newcastle and taught there. "And I remember the 'Summoner's Tale' was actually about farting, so it seemed very appropriate, really. He (the summoner) and the friar have it in for each other and they tell stories about each other's professions. It's pretty irreverent."
"I also got a wedding present from James Taylor of 'The Canterbury Tales,' so that sort of refreshed, reminded me. James is a very literary man. I worked with him last year at Carnegie Hall and he's just an amazing artist. I've always been a fan."
Sting's light-hearted intent is seen in the cowboy song, 'Love is Stronger than Justice (The Munificent Seven)', about seven brothers who fight off some banditos with the thought of winning the hand of the town's maidens.
"It's a curious hybrid," he says with another chuckle. "It's written in 7/4 time and it's kind of a country song with bits of spaghetti Western and a bit of jazz thrown in. I'm interested in taking generic pieces of music and putting them together to make some very strange new animal. That's what this song is - and the way a lot of the songs on the album are. It's a series of musical jokes. When you go radically from one time signature to another, without any warning, it tends to make people laugh or smile.
"My interest in music is very broad, and I'm not interested in trying to make a pure music form like jazz or rock'n'roll, or blues or folk. But I like all of those musics, and I'm more into trying to create something new out of those elements. I've recruited musicians over the years who have been at home playing classical music as well as rock'n'roll and jazz, so they could move freely and effortlessly from one style to another. That's the game we're playing. It's like a modular system. My musicians clearly know what the game is, which is chaos, I suppose."
Sting's plans now include a spring tour with, of all people, the Grateful Dead. (The closest they'll come to New England is Giants Stadium in New Jersey on June 5 and 6, though Sting will likely play Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts on his own.)
"Why would I appear with the Dead? I've never opened for anybody in my career, but I thought, 'Well, wait a minute, the Dead have this huge home-grown audience, this phenomenon that follows them around; and most of them, I don't think, know who the hell I am. So what have I got to lose?' I'll be playing huge arenas to a completely new audience, and it's an audience that likes bands that jam, so we'll have nothing to fear there...
"It seems like a silly idea, but it's sort of attractive in an irrational way. Frankly, I'm fascinated by the idea. I know that Branford Marsalis, who's played with us, played with the Dead last year and had a great time."
Sting plans to perform "almost all of the new album," but also wants to plug in different Police songs from the ones he played on his last tour. "The Police songs were tailor-made for a small group, so it's very easy to adapt them and breathe new life into them," he says. "I like to treat them as this body of work that you can go back to and revitalise."
As for his social concerns, Sting says: "I'm still involved with the rainforest project. I'm doing a concert next month with James Taylor at Carnegie Hall, also with George Michael, Tina Turner and Bryan Adams. We're trying to raise a million dollars to keep the Rainforest Foundation going another year. We're doing this largely because we had a big success last year to demarcate an area of Brazilian Jungle the size of Switzerland and actually establish a parameter with beacons that are linked to a satellite, so the satellite can monitor any incursions into the area.
"And I like the idea of doing this concert in an intimate place like Carnegie Hall. We could go to Giants Stadium," he adds, "but I'm kind of bored with the big environmental gesture. I think people get the wrong impression. They get the impression that a miracle is about to take place because you're giving a big stadium concert. What I've learned over the years is that miracles don't happen at all. It's process that happens and process that gets results, and process day to day dogged, determined work. Not miracles. So I've avoided the big gesture.
"I mean, Live Aid was fantastic, but people would say a year later, 'Didn't we solve this problem last year?' And that's really not the right idea."
© The Sunday Boston Globe