It's much easier now. I don't have to deal with the bullshit. If you don't like someone's song, it's a bit like saying their girlfriend is ugly. There is no tactful way of saying it. But at the end of the day, if you want to have something that works, you have to do that.
Are you worried about repeating yourself? Some of your recent songs sound very much alike: "Sister Moon," on the new album, bears a suspicious resemblance to "Moon over Bourbon Street," from 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles.' "Rock Steady" has the same jazzy strut of "Consider Me Gone."
I kind of like it. The analogy is that of a painter doing various studies of the same still life, changing the angle slightly. I like the idea of sequels. "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" is a sequel to "Every Breath You Take," lyrically the mirror image. "Sister Moon" and "Moon over Bourbon Street" are kind of sequential. Album by album, you keep referring to things. I can take a line from one song, stick it in another and move on.
You're admitted that "Every Breath You Take" was in fact an aggregate of every time-worn rock & roll riff and phrase you could think of. Where's the originality in that?
What's unique about it is the sound of my voice. There's no one else who sings like me. They might sing better than me, but no one sings exactly like me. My voice sticks out on the radio by a mile. And as long as I have this voice, what I do is original.
So I don't worry about originality. As long as it comes through me, it will have that stamp on it. "Every Breath You Take" is an archetypal song. If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original. A million songs have been written that way. But you can't take away from the power of "Every Breath You Take," because it was us, the Police.
On ... Nothing Like the Sun you seem so interested in musical cross-pollination that you skip over the basic charms of simple guitar riffs and song books.
Having made some of the simplest and most direct pop music, I don't know whether I want to do it again.
But this music, taken to a logical conclusion, can only get more complicated and, maybe, indigestible. In the Seventies, they called it art rock.
When this record was first completed and handed to the record company, they threw up their hands. It wasn't simple enough or directed toward the charts. And I said, "Why underestimate the record-buying public? Why do you imagine that they have to be spoon-fed all the time? Does it have to be so utterly simple? I don't think so." Now the record is doing well on the radio and in the shops; the concerts are selling well. It confirms my belief that sophistication, or intended sophistication, is not the kiss of death. As long as you're grounded somewhere in common sense.
In the chorus of "Englishman in New York," you sing "I'm a legal alien." How can someone who aspires to be so worldly still feel so out of place?
The song is about someone else. It's about Quentin Crisp [a British writer, the author of The Naked Civil Servant]. I think he is one of the most courageous men I've ever met, and one of the wittiest. He was flamboyantly gay at a time when it was physically dangerous to be gay. He lives near the Bowery, and he has an unbelievable sense of humor and joy in life that everybody can draw a lesson from. It was my song to appreciate his singularity.
But it's about me, too. It's very important for any kind of writer to have a period in exile. One, it makes you see the country you're in a little clearer than the people there see it. Two, it makes you see the place you come from a little clearer. And I do regard myself as an exile. I've chosen to live in New York for the past two years because of the musicians I play with, because I find it inspiring, because I meet interesting people much more easily than I do in London. It's less phobic here.
At the same time, I know I'm not an American citizen. There are certain things about America that terrify me – its foreign policy, religion – and there's a lot about America that I love. But I'm not assimilated. I don't want to belong anywhere. I come from a place I'm proud to come from. That's almost enough. To settle down somewhere for me seems to equate with a sense of decay.
Last year, you did a movie in Newcastle, England, with Melanie Griffith, Stormy Monday, in which you play a sleazy jazz-club owner. What was it like going back to your home town?
It was great fun to go back, to see people I'd been to school with, to walk the streets I used to walk. I went past all the schools I'd ever been to and all the houses I'd lived in. I basically spent three weeks there assessing my life and how it had changed, for better or worse. I don't think I got any real answers I could write down, but there was certainly something profound about the experience. My mother had just died, my father was dying. It was just the right time to do it.
When you walked down those streets, was it with a sense of fondness, nostalgia? Or triumph, that you'd escaped and beaten the system?
Living there gave me a sense of politics, a sense of poverty, a sense of identity, a sense of beauty and also a sense of what's ugly, because they're all there in Newcastle. Going back there, I saw very clearly why I wanted to be an artist, why I wanted to express ideas and why I started very early.
I lived in this street, and at the bottom of this street was a shipyard with enormous tankers. In 1967, they built the biggest ship in the world, which was a million tons, the Northumbria. This thing blotted out the sun. It was at least four times the height of our house. All my life I had a symbol of this thing they'd built up, this massive, monstrous creature. The men would be like little ants, putting pop rivets into it, thousands of men walking down the street to work on this thing.
I don't know what it means, but I know it means something very special to me. It gives you a sense of enormity. If I'd been brought up on a housing estate, a featureless place, then I'd no doubt be a very different person. But I was brought up in this Ridley Scott movie: acetylene lamps going off all the time, huge cranes swinging over me. I guess I got a taste for things that are big, on a large scale.
How would you assess your film career to date? High-profile projects like Dune and The Bride weren't exactly boffo at the box office, even less so with the critics.
There's no actor who's been in nothing but great movies, nothing but successes. You can make a few lousy movies in relative obscurity. But my celebrity, if you like, means people hang a movie on me, even if I'm just doing a cameo in it. It becomes "Sting's movie." I agreed to do this cameo in Dune because I like David Lynch's work. Then it becomes my film. And because it wasn't a mammoth hit, it was marked down as my failure.
How serious are you about acting?
It's a way of throwing a curve. When I made Brimstone and Treacle, I was the golden boy of English pop. I was the George Michael-Simon LeBon of the time. I had blond hair, a family. Everything was nice. So I took this role as a fucking pervert who screws paraplegics. Suddenly it's "Ugh!"
I love playing the bad guy. It frees me. The role of pop star is the troubadour, the good guy. You're on the side of wholesome things; it's boring. After a whole day of being good and liberal and wonderful, it feels so good to be able to take your shoes off and be downright evil
You were quoted two years ago in Playboy as saying, "I hate most of what constitutes rock music – which is basically middle-aged crap." Given that you're getting toward middle age yourself, whose crap were you referring to?
Anybody older than me! (Laughs) I'm not sure what I meant then. What I mean now is people who are in their late thirties or forties pretending to be teenagers. There are a couple of groups on MTV at the moment who are clearly in their forties singing love songs to strumpets in high heels. This isn't middle-aged music. It's menopausal music. Own up. You're forty-five years old. You've got children who are twenty. Why the fuck are you chasing after these floozies? Why are you wearing this corset, for a start? That's undignified. It devalues the whole exercise. I can take bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe. They're aggressive and full of machismo and warrior chic. But they're young; it makes sense. But these old farts, please!
Meanwhile, the mantle of responsibility and adult expression in pop is being passed down from the Beatles and Dylan to your generation – you, Peter Gabriel, U2.
I think we're wiser than that generation; we're cleverer. And we're more cynical, just as the generation that has evolved from us. We can't be the same as the Beatles are, and the bands that follow us won't be the same as us. We'll be irrelevant and obsolete in time. Every day you practice for your obsolescence and hope you can still be laughing.
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