The following interview with Robert Hilburn appeared in an October 1999 issue of the Los Angeles Times...
Sting sets the stage: On tour again after three years, the singer draws on inner strength for the rigors of endless rehearsals, and for the optimism characterising his music today.
Las Vegas: Sting slips a bass guitar around his shoulders as he steps to the microphone on the stage of the Joint, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino's stylish rock club. Backed by a five-piece band, he begins singing 'A Thousand Years', a new millennium-minded love song filled with the graceful, introspective touches that have become his musical trademark. Sting's voice doesn't assert a lot of power - a point critics noted when he had difficulty reaching the back rows of a Washington theater in previews of a Broadway-bound production of '3 Penny Opera' a decade ago.
In fact, his voice at times is little more than a coarse whisper as he sings the song, but there's a winning conviction and unshakeable passion. Even though 'A Thousand Years' is essentially a ballad, Sting puts himself into the vocal so strongly that you can see the veins on his neck rise.
"I could speak a million lies, a million songs A million rights, a million wrongs... But if there was a single truth, a single light... I love you."
When he finishes the song, he pauses and stares into the semidarkness in front of him. "Applause! Applause!" he says playfully, waving his arms in front of him like a maestro conducting an orchestra. But there's only silence. The giant room is empty except for half a dozen crew members at the sound and lighting boards. It's just after 4 p.m. and Sting is starting the final rehearsal for a world tour that will start in less than 30 hours. He and the musicians have spent a week rehearsing at Sting's home in Tuscany and two weeks in New York - long, gruelling sessions that ran from 11 a.m. until past dark.
This one won't be that long, and everyone is glad. Rehearsals are the least glamorous part of the pop concert experience. Like athletes who push themselves to the limit in practice to hone their skills for the big game, musicians give of themselves in rehearsal even though no one sees or hears them.
"I hate rehearsing," Sting says in an interview backstage before joining the band on stage. "On most days it means you have to put all your energy into something for six or seven hours with no feedback, no real pleasure. Besides that, it destroys your voice and [saps] your energy because you've got to use your voice to guide the band and give it energy. The truth is we are probably under-rehearsed. There are still great gaping holes in the set, but I'm comfortable with that. I don't want every note to be thought out. I want there to be a bit of panic in the band... the idea of not knowing exactly where we're headed. Improvising on stage is an exciting thing."
Sting will have lots of time to improvise. The 48-year-old native of Newcastle, England, doesn't tour often - this is his first in three years - but he works hard once he hits the road. He'll do five or six shows a week for most of the first leg of the tour. Southern California stops include the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on Saturday, as well as dates Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego and four nights starting Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Almost all the U.S. shows were nearly instant sellouts.
After a New Year's Eve benefit performance in New York, Sting begins a three-month European tour Jan. 7 in France, then returns to the U.S. for another round of shows. For most of that time, Sting and the band will do sound checks in each city but no more formal rehearsals.
"The sound checks allow you to make sure the sound is operating properly, and they give you a chance to have some fun," says Sting, who was born Gordon Sumner, sipping some tea to relax his throat muscles before singing. "We'll also go over a song if it doesn't seem to be working particularly well. We'll take it apart and listen to it. Some bands tape the shows and listen to them afterward, but I don't have the patience for that. I remember the wrong spots from a show. I don't need a tape to remind me."
Though Sting will do lots of old favourites on the tour, including such Police hits as 'Every Breath You Take' and 'Roxanne', he'll focus on tunes from the new album, which is titled 'Brand New Day' and has sold some 225,000 copies in three weeks. The collection features Sting's strongest batch of songs since 'The Soul Cages', the 1991 album that was a reflection on the death of his father.
Because audiences generally prefer familiar tunes to new ones, most artists limit the new material in their sets to three or four tunes - five or six at the most. But Sting expects to play all 10 songs from 'Brand New Day'.
"I need to please myself," he says when asked about the balance of new and old songs. "At the same time, I'm a showman. I like the audience to respond and to enjoy themselves, so I try to keep a balance in the show. Besides, I wouldn't want to do just the new songs... If we did that, we'd just be reproducing the album. You might just as well stand there and mime to the recordings. The interesting thing is to put the songs in the context of your body of work. Some new songs are direct descendants of tunes from older albums, and it's productive to make that connection."
To complicate things on this tour, Sting isn't just introducing new material but is also working with a virtually new touring band. The only holdover from past tours is guitarist Dominic Miller. The others, however, aren't totally new to Sting. They worked with him on the album and one, an Englishman who goes only by the single name Kipper, even co-produced it. The others are Manu Katche on drums, Jason Rebello on keyboards and Chris Botti on trumpet.
Kipper, who plays keyboards and synthesiser, says Sting is a challenge because he is "always changing what we do with a song. At first it was a nightmare. Just when you think you've got an angle on something, he suggests we think of it in an altogether different way. But I've come to appreciate his [method]. I think we all enjoy it."
On stage during the rehearsal, Sting tends to speak softly, careful not to bruise egos.
"A lot of the time I try to speak to the band like I was a director speaking to an actor... Help explain that they are part of a group, almost like playing a role. The important thing is to serve the song," he says. After the first run-through of A Thousand Years, he turns to the band and says, "I think everything is fine on the song, but it sounded a little loud to me. Maybe we all need to be a little softer. I want to treat this song sonically different from everything else. I think it just needs to stand apart."
Yet he's also demanding. During the four-hour rehearsal, he'd make the musicians go through some songs three or more times.
"I usually regard a recorded version as just a beginning," he says later, during a short break. "It's usually recorded soon after you write it, and you haven't really had time to let it develop. When we do it live, I like to give the musicians enough leeway to explore and change... to help keep the song alive."
On stage, at rehearsal or in an interview, Sting comes across as supremely confident. Of course it's easy to have faith in yourself after you sell 95 million records world-wide. But Sting seems to always have had a lot of inner strength. The son of a milkman in economically deprived Newcastle, he somehow realised at a young age that education was a way out for him. Sting became an avid reader and applied himself in school. He went to college, where he earned a teaching degree, and he taught English briefly at a convent school before deciding to move to London in the mid-'70s to pursue a music career.
He used that strength once again in 1984 when he had the courage to walk away from the safety of the hugely successful rock group the Police to pursue what has become an even more accomplished solo career. Through most of those early career years, Sting was as driven in his personal life as he was in his career. He constantly looked for ways to challenge himself physically and emotionally, including such daring escapades as swimming among sharks and going on perilous mountain climbs. In recent years, however, Sting has tended to devote more of himself to his family. He and his second wife, actress-producer Trudie Styler, have three children, ages 15 to 4. He also has two children from his first marriage.
"I think it's good to be restless artistically, and I've been able to hold on to that," Sting says, heading back to the stage to resume the rehearsal. "What I'm learning to do is not be restless in my personal life. At one time I figured that it would feed my muse if I was constantly manufacturing a crisis. Now, I feel I need a solid personal life."
The comfort Sting finds in his personal life is reflected in the warm, optimistic tone of most of the love songs in the new album.
"Yes, I think 'optimistic' is the right word," he says. "I actually wrote and recorded all the music before writing any of the lyrics. I just figured the music would dictate the narrative to me, and that's just what happened. To me, the songs are about the therapeutic nature of love."
Yes, Sting says, he gets asked frequently about plans for a reunion with his old Police mates Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.
"I'm glad that people do ask," he says. "I think it's flattering, and I'm very proud about the legend of the Police, if you will. But I also feel that any attempt to try to re-create a band from 20 years ago is almost doomed to failure. You're different. The other guys are different. The world has changed. "There's nothing stopping me on a personal level. I get along extremely well with Andy and Stewart, probably more than I ever did. It just really doesn't excite me, but that's not to say I would never do it. One day I might wake up and go, 'That'd really be interesting,' but I really can't imagine it. But now, the most exciting thing for me is making this music."
© The Los Angeles Times