Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Sting is an unrepentant workaholic.”I would say that I am, yeah,” he admits. “That’s my pathology.” When he’s not writing, recording, performing, or traveling the world on any number of different adventures and business pursuits, his absolute favorite thing to do in his free time is to walk. “I find inspiration in walking,” he explains. “I walk around Central Park most days if I’m home.” As a both a human being, and as an artist, he simply can’t seem to stop moving forward.
Almost exactly a year removed from the release of his 12th solo album 57th & 9th, Sting is back again with a brand new release, this time, a live concert film, documenting one of the best shows from his most recent tour, in a city that’s meant quite a bit to him through the years. Live At The Olympia Paris, captures Sting doing what he does best, crooning out lithe, affecting lines about pain, heartbreak, and the larger issues of the world, all while thumping away on a beat-to-hell Fender P-Bass. Backed by a band that includes his own son, Joe Sumner, he remains, as he ever was, the mesmerizing performer, eager to connect with those in front of him, and to a higher power beyond.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sting about his latest concert film while he was back in Paris, fresh off a rehearsal of his play in Newcastle, UK, and before a trip to Montreal, Canada. Through the course of our conversation, we touched on a whole range of different topics from his eagerness to record a new album, and his respectful admiration for David Bowie, to how he plans on celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Police. Read our conversation below.
So you’re back in France again today, how are things out there?
I just got here this morning from my hometown, I was in Newcastle for a week, working on my play The Last Ship, which is gonna open there in the Spring. Had a good week, and now I’m in Paris.
How does it feel to bring that play to your hometown?
Oh, it’s going to be very, very emotional. We did a workshop last night and invited a little audience who were all crying and very enthusiastic. It’s gonna be great!
I’ve watched your latest concert film Live At The Olympia Paris a couple of times over the past few days and thought it was a tremendous performance. Why did you decide to stage and film this show in Paris?
I think it’s always important that when you’re shooting a concert, that the venue itself should have some character, rather than some anonymous arena or sports facility. A place with some music history, and the Olympia, from the ’50s on has been the home of some iconic French artists like Jacques Brel or Édith Piaf, but also the Beatles played there, Hendrix played there. I’ve played there many times. Some of my favorite jazz records were made there. There’s a legacy and a kind of spirit in the place that is very apparent and you feel that as you go on stage. A lot of people before you have made this journey and you’re proud to be a part of that legacy.
Do you think historic venues like that can pull a special kind of performance out of you?
I do. Of course I do. And just being aware of it will raise your game. You know, you’re standing on the same stage as people who’ve influenced you, people who you idolized, people who’ve taught you stuff, so yeah, the game is raised just by that realization.
Are you fluent in French? Watching the film I was very impressed with how you handled the in-between songs banter with the crowd.
No, not really. I can do it on the stage. I feel empowered on the stage. I sort of shy away from conversation in normal life. I can, but it’s difficult.
Of the more notable shows you’ve played in Paris through the years, the gig you performed to re-open the Bataclan back in 2016 really springs to mind. What did it mean to you to play that show? In terms of your career, how important is that moment?
I played there with the Police in 1979 and when I was asked to re-open it, I immediately said yes. Then I realized I had a difficult job on my hands because I had to respect and honor the dead who died in huge numbers that night the year before, as well as celebrate the re-opening of a famous music venue. Those two things seemed kind of opposite, and I explained that dilemma to the audience and then we had a minute of silence, which was a profound, emotional moment, then I began the show with a song I normally end with, which is “Fragile.” Once that was done, everyone relaxed a little more and then we could start to celebrate. My philosophy is that it’s our right to enjoy music with our fellows in peace and harmony. It’s important to carry on and not allow violence to pursue our right as human beings. It was a political act. It was not a gig that was easy, but I think we got through it.
Sadly, in the wake of the shooting at the Bataclan, we’ve had similar, horrifying events take place in Manchester and Las Vegas. How do you feel about the intrusion of such horrifying violence into the concert space? Does it affect your mindset going into a show?
Well, it can’t stop what we do. It mustn’t be allowed to stop what we do. I mean, there’s no coherent philosophy behind these kinds of acts. They’re just these random, stupid acts by people who are deranged. We just have to carry on. We have no choice.
You just wrapped up the 57th & 9th tour a couple of weeks ago. How does that run rank in your mind compared to other tours you’ve undertaken in the past?
I think the take-home from that tour was me singing with my eldest son [Joe Sumner] and Dominic [Miller], my guitar player, playing with his son as the second guitarist. People were really intrigued by that and loved that spirit between us and what was happening onstage. A kind of mentoring thing was happening, between us, though I’m not sure which way [laughs]. I think my son was mentoring me, more than I was mentoring him. It was very tender, and I think people were intrigued by that.
One of the more poignant moments from the film was your son’s performance of David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes,” which you followed by playing your own Bowie tribute “50,000.” How did that come about?
Well, that’s a part of Joe’s show anyway, so I asked, ‘Would you mind singing ‘Ashes To Ashes’ before we do ‘50,000’ because I think they’re related?’ We lost David that year and I thought it told the story very well.
I know you’ve had several interactions with Bowie through the years. What kind of person was he, and how did he impact you as an artist?
Incredibly influential artist. A gentleman. A real gentleman. An icon. He’s right up there as one of the greats. What else can you say?
Another great moment in the film is the version of “Roxanne” you played with the cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” included in the middle. How did you discover that those two songs melded together so well?
It was a spontaneous moment one night, and the band follow me wherever my whim takes me. But it does tell the story in a way. “Roxanne” is the girl that Bill Withers is missing. I’ve always loved that song.
Is it exciting to breath fresh life into hit songs that you’ve played so many times throughout your career?
Yeah, that’s my job. I sing songs that I’ve written three or four decades earlier, hopefully with the same passion and curiosity as I had when I wrote them. That’s my gig. To change the song incrementally night by night is also one of my purposes. I really want the songs to evolve, because they are living things. I’m not there to just reproduce a record, I’m there to explore a template and move it on. I sing that song every night of my life and it’s an athletic song to sing. There’s a high C in there. I think the audience is waiting for me to not reach that note one night, but then of course, one day I won’t. Up until now…
I know you just put an album out last year, but are you in the pursuing any new musical ideas at the moment?
I’m going back into the studio next month actually, but I don’t have any ideas. It’s just a way of stimulating ideas. Like, ‘I’ve paid for the studio time, so I better come up with something.’ I always feel like if you’re in a state of grace or a state of openness that stuff comes to you and the best stuff is always an accident. You have to be ready to recognize it when it happens.
How do you know when it happens?
You just do. It happens. There it is somehow, on the page in front of you or in your head and you know it’s good. Or, you know it’s not good and then you move on.
I know you kind of went into 57th & 9th in a similar sort of style, without lyrics or ideas. Do you think that approach will lead to a more conventional, rock style of music that marked that work once again?
I think that method of not really having anything and sort of jamming a record into material, that led to that spontaneous rock sound. I’m going to start that way, but I may be led into a totally different direction once we begin. I really don’t know. My intention is to always create surprise or to surprise myself. I’m just open to whatever happens, and whatever’s happening in the world will be reflected in what I write about.
Talking about what’s happening in the world, there are a pair of songs on 57th & 9th, “One Fine Day,” about climate change and “Inshallah,” about the refugee crisis. Since you put those pieces of music out into the world, it seems like both of those issues have only gotten worse. What kind of positive change would you like to see done about both of those problems?
I just think we need a real paradigm shift in the way we think about the world and our place in it. I don’t think our so-called leadership is in any way inspiring, so it has to come from us. It has to come from the bottom up. But we do need a radical shift. First of all, we have to save democracy, because chaos is around the corner, but we need a larger paradigm shift than that. We need to really alter how we see ourselves. I don’t know the answer. Maybe this turmoil is a catalyst for that. I hope so, but it’s pretty bleak at the moment. I’m looking for signs of life.
I think there’s a whole lot of people that feel the exact same way out there these days. What keeps you optimistic through it all? What keeps you going?
My optimism is purely strategic, in that I get pessimistic, but I think it’s a bad strategy. I think if you’re optimistic, at least you can be prepared for something better happening, or thinking of something better happening. That’s always been my strategy and it will continue to be.
What is the biggest rumor or urban legend you hear about yourself that you’d like to dispel?
Oh, I’m happy with all of it! It errs on the wrong side sometimes or errs on the right side, but I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s fine [laughs]. I get away with a lot and get blamed for a lot, but it doesn’t matter.
I’m sure you’re probably aware, but next year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Police album Outlandos d’Amour. Do you have any plans to celebrate that particular milestone?
I greatly appreciate the Police and what we achieved as a band. I’ll certainly raise a glass of wine with my compatriots, but I don’t think anything else. Maybe the record company will re-release something, but I’m not sure. 40 years is a significant number of years, but I’m not terribly sentimental about that kind of anniversary in any way.
So, what’s next for you Sting? What does the calendar look like?
Well, today I’m in Paris, tomorrow I’m going to sing “Inshallah” for a refugee ballet dancer from Syria who wants to do an interpretation of that song, so I thought I would go along and support him. Then, I’m going to a Leonard Cohen tribute in Montreal next week. Going to sing a couple of Leonard’s songs. Then I’ll be in the studio. I’m busy!
Sting: Live At The Olympia Paris is out on November 10. You can pre-order your copy here.
In 1983, there was no bigger tour in the world than the Police’s run supporting their latest album Synchronicity. Spanning 107 shows in all, the peak moment of the gigantic run came on August 18, when the band touched down at Shea Stadium and regaled a crowd of 70,000 with some of the best cuts from their impressive catalog. “I’ll never forget that night,” Sting told me. “It was wonderful.” Though they played numerous outdoor stadiums throughout the Synchronicity tour, the motivation to play Shea in particular was mostly reverential. “I think the reason to play Shea Stadium was to try and emulate our heroes, The Beatles. They famously played the Stadium in the ’60s and for us to do that, in our minds, it put us kind of on a par with them for a while anyway,” he confided.
The show itself was incredible, with the audience treated to hit, after hit, after hit. “Message In A Bottle,” “Spirits In The Material World,” “King Of Pain,” “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Every Breath You Take,” and many more. It all culminated with an encore three-pack of “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You” and finally, “So Lonely.” Though they would perform more gigs along this tour, and stick around for a few more years afterward, for Sting, Shea marked the beginning of the end of the Police. “It was the culmination,” he explained. “We went on for a little longer, but that, for me, was the summit. That was as far as we can go.”