Sting spoke to BBC Radio 2's Richard Allinson on November 5, 2001. The following is a transcript of their interview.
We met Sting earlier last week just ahead of his one-off date on November 5th in the BBC Radio Theatre and we talked about music, The Police and we talked about his new album too. It's called '...All This Time' and I was doing some sums and it's probably the wrong side of twenty one years - does it feel like that?
(laughs) Is there a wrong side of twenty one years? I don't feel that way. For me the passing years should considered to be work in progress, of things getting better. I'm not afraid of saying I'm fifty or that I've been in the business for twenty five years, or this song is so old. It should considered to be a triumph rather than something you should try and hide.
Has anything changed? Have you noticed the business changing, the way your music is received? Has that changed?
I'm very gratified that the music is allowed to evolve in a way that still seems to be relevant to a contemporary audience which I like. That's partly because we keep trying to reinterpret it, but I think if you write a good song and it's structured right and they're good lyrics and it's a good melody, harmonic progression... your ideal is to write a standard like people like Gershwin used to write in the '20's and '30's. And you want it have a relevance in the next century, if it can be possible. So, for me a song that's 20 years old and still out there is a successful song.
It's almost refreshing that you're not frightened to play the old songs, you're not frightened to play Roxanne as you do regularly.
Absolutely not. I don't see any real separation between that part of my career and this one. I wrote and arranged the songs I don't feel like I'm relying on The Police at all. That was my creation as well, so in a sense it's the same thing.
I'd like to play 'Roxanne' from the new album recorded in Italy and you were in the courtyard of your house and you said...
...I was talking about my house and I said I got it for a song, it was probably this one...
Was there a time when you actually did equate material success with artistic?
I have to admit I did. When the first Police album started to sell we were told a 100,000 copies in the world and that was way beyond any of our wild imaginings. I thought, 'that sounds like a lot' and calculators had just come in - these little mini-calculators, I bought one in Queensway - and I put a 100,000 in and I thought I'm not sure what you get per record, let's say it's 50p. I didn't know, so I put in 50p and 100,000 and it worked out I could buy a house! (laughs). And I never in my wildest imaginings thought I would ever own a house, so that was quite something.
You know a little bit more about it now though I suspect?
Do I really know about the business? I know enough to trust my own instincts and not really worry about what is contemporary or what's happening or whatever. I just do what I do. I do what I enjoy doing. I don't really compromise very much, and I'm very fortunate to still have a career despite that.
It actually seems longer than two years since 'Brand New Day'. Does it seem like that to you because you've been on the road virtually continuously?
I think we did almost 300 shows, 51 countries, and 2.6 million people came to see us. That on one hand seems like an awful lot of people, on the other hand it passed very quickly because we had such a good time doing it. It was a fantastic tour, a great success. So yes and no, it seems like a long time and it seems almost like five minutes.
You've always liked doing the live stuff. I remember, I think it was 'Zenyatta Mondatta' and it was one of the shortest times that an album had been then, to record, because when you were with Stewart and Andy you were playing so much by the time you got into the studio it was actually like 'lets do it again and record it'...
I can remember we were on tour before we'd even finished mixing that album, we'd have to go back from places in Northern Europe back to the studio to finish off mixes. You know I like that work ethic, that's something that I love, I love work. It defines you. I don't know what I'd do otherwise.
Because you always seem to me to have been a musician. Other people try to say you're some celebrity and I don't really see photos of you turning up at parties and openings and things. You've always been to me, a musician. When was there a time when you thought people are now looking at me because they recognise my face rather than they've bought my songs?
You know I don't really mind that. There's nothing wrong with turning up at an opening or a play or a movie or some sort of celebrity ball. That is fun. But I'm there first and foremost because I'm a musician and if I'm celebrated because of that I'm very happy. Being famous just for being famous isn't particularly an ambition of mine, it never was. But I'm glad my fame has come through music, through actually having a job.
Aren't you on stamps in Moldovia or somewhere?
Yes I am. They're not worth very much, but yes I am. (laughs)
You and Elvis?
Me and Elvis, yes.
I always thought of you as a bit of a rebel at some stage, musically and there were times when I read in interviews that you went back to your teaching days and things made you angry. Are you still angry. Do you still get inspired to the extent that you used to get?
It's not something I would want to have in my entire life - just to be angry all the time and create angry music. I think there's a time and a place for it. Sometimes it's very cathartic, very useful for you and it's also useful for people who listen to it. But if that is all you do, it's one gag. I think you need to evolve and I'd rather create music now in a situation of relative calm and objectivity. You can still be angry but you're not taken over by it. I think that it just comes with age. You get to certain point and you think well my anger isn't going to change the situation it's just going to make it worse. We need to be much more quiet and calm and intelligent about situations in the world to find a solution.
Because this new album was actually recorded on the night of September 11 and everyone was reeling from the events of that day. There was a time when you thought it wasn't a wise idea to go ahead. Having done it do you think it's actually made more of an impression on the album and the way it was recorded?
Well it certainly wasn't the album we intended to record on that day. We'd spent a week rehearsing, it was going to be a joyous occasion, a celebration of two years work, a celebration of the songs, of my career with an invited audience from all over the world, about 200 or 300 people in my backyard. We're going to have a great time and then the news came through from New York. I didn't feel like singing to be honest with you, it was a ridiculous idea to sing. I asked the band - I sat in the band meeting and said what do you want to do guys? And a lot of them are from New York, had family there they couldn't contact as the phone lines were down, obviously very agitated and terrified. Unanimously they said, look we have to play, this is what we do in this kind of situation. I had this invited audience, we called them up in their hotels and asked what do they want to do - 'Oh, we want to come' - so I said OK, I'll sing one song and then we'll shut down this webcast that was going all over the world as a mark of respect, have a minute's silence, shut it down and then we'll weigh it. If the audience and you guys want to play we'll do it, if they don't we'll just sit down and talk.
So we started off in a pretty sombre frame of mind. I started off with 'Fragile'. That wasn't going to be the first song at all, it was going to be the last song but I thought it was an appropriate song and then that sombre mood, song by song, changed into something different. Almost defiance in a way, despite what happened. I wouldn't say a celebration, just to say we're playing music because the people who have created this atrocity don't want music in the world, they don't freedom, they don't expression. I don't know what they believe in, probably nothing. So in a way everybody was galvanised by this feeling, that's what the album is. The other thing is, I suppose the sung word and the lyric convey much more of an emotional message than actually a piece of prose can?
I was choosing these songs fairly carefully. I edited the set. I didn't want to sing 'Englishman In New York' for obvious reasons, it seemed gratuitous and stupid. A song like 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' is a joyful song and didn't seem appropriate so I threw that one out, and began with more sombre songs like 'A Thousand Years', but as I was singing the song I realised that some of the lyrics were much closer to the situation for comfort. You know in that song 'A Thousand Years' I'm singing about towers of souls rising into space. It just seemed a little too on the money, and they caught me by surprise a few times and it's odd that this event had cast a shadow over all the songs and all the lyrics. It was strange to say the least. It wasn't the easiest night of my performing career by any means, but there's something about it that's compelling. So I'm glad we kept the tapes rolling, the album is interesting because of that.
A piece of history. Where's home these days? You strike me as being a bit of a nomad. You've been on the road for the best part of two years.
Home is where my wife and children are, and most of them go to school in England and so England is my home, my spiritual home. Although I do spend a lot of time in Europe and a lot time in America and just floating around, working, but this is my home.
Going on the road in the late '70's and early '80's and going on the road in the new millennium, has it changed a lot? Obviously the lifestyle has changed a bit but has the actual performance changed a lot from your point of view?
The performance or what's around the performance? I mean packing your own gear into a transit van and ploughing up the M1 every day and then setting it up and doing the same thing on the way back home.
Because you've still got to do that unless you go on a telly show...
No, I don't have to do that anymore. I don't even have to tune my guitar.
But imagine you starting out at 15, 16 and trying to be in a band. You've still got to do that haven't you?
You still have to do it. I think it's very important that you do it. It builds stamina, backbone, resilience all those things that you need for...
No, not cynicism, a long career. You need some kind of apprenticeship. And that apprenticeship is far better than being some kind of video star.
Looking at the way you've sold records with The Police and you, statistically you're one of the very, very few acts both with The Police and in your solo career that have had consistent success not only in Britain but then you've translated it over to America and you've kept it going around the world. Is there a formula?
I think I'm a very fortunate human being, period. But then you have to create your own luck in many ways. You get lucky once and then you have get smart. I don't know, my intention has always been to improve as a musician. My ambitions are really about that and not about success in various marketplaces. But just to be a better songwriter and the rest of it is a side effect of that I think.
I got the impression that with The Police you never outstayed your welcome. Five albums, and whoomph, there you go...
As a band I thought we'd achieved what we set out to do and more and my instinct told me very clearly that I want to begin again, or at least use the momentum that The Police had given to allow me a further freedom as a songwriter to explore more areas than a band could cope with. A three piece band especially. And that wasn't a particularly logical decision to make, a lot of people say I was nuts to leave this hugely successful band but for me the instinct was the prime mover. I want to try it, see what happens. I'm not afraid, I hope I still have the courage to do that in my life.
We were thinking in the office earlier today we could actually build a good half hour of music featuring you, but you wouldn't actually be the prime suspect. You know Puff Daddy's version of 'Every Breath You Take' - sorry, we have to call him P Diddy now for reasons that I've never understood...
Sean is his name...
...Mr Combs... There's Pras and the Fugees 'Roxanne', there's you with Dire Straits 'Money For Nothing' and Phil Collins on the 'No Jacket Required' album and stuff. It must be great see other people do your songs, but are you always happy with the results?
Yes, I'm always very, very flattered that people want to cover my songs. George Michael did 'Roxanne' last year, Jimmy Nail did 'Walking On The Moon'. It makes me very happy.
Was this a 'Bring On The Night' type thing, the 'All This Time' recording? Inviting a specially selected audience into your backyard to do a live album?
I wanted it to be a personal record rather than a big sort of Ra Ra stadium concert. The size of the venue often dictates the music, or the kind of music you can play. I wanted it to be much more quieter, much more about a rapport between someone you could see in a small place. Like a love letter, and so when we mixed this record we took all the reverbs off. There's no glitter on this record, there's no kind of production shimmer on it at all. It's very flat and as if you were sitting in a room with these musicians. That's how I wanted it to sound. I'm thrilled with it.
You famously said somewhere, 'If I had my way I'd never speak to anyone ever, I'd just sing'...
Yeah, so can we stop the interview now? (laughs) I think it's almost a deal with devil that you make. I mean to talk about your life gets people to hear your music but really that's not what you do, it's not what I do. I don't express myself well except when I write songs, so I would have preferred - if I could change anything - not to have ever said anything ever. I admit it. But here I am again, with the devil. (laughs)
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