THE STEWART COPELAND INTERVIEW

Advertisement
Enter here to win The Police Box Set – Message in a Box – The Complete Recordings.

By: Kayceman


The Police
Back in September 2006 I interviewed legendary Police drummer Stewart Copeland. The conversation was focused on his new DVD, Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, which was released in mid-September. On the homemade documentary, Copeland used his Super 8 camera to film more than fifty hours of life in the band. With his wry sense of humor, Copeland chronicles everything from the 1977 formation of the band to the final days following 1983’s Synchronicity tour when they quit at the top of their game.

The funny thing is, as I was putting together the article on the DVD, rumors began to fly about a Police reunion. The more I poked around, the more sure I became that this was no rumor. Knowing that The Police were going to reunite, we elected to hold off on publishing our interview and drop it on the people when the big news broke. Finally, after a solid rendition of their smash hit “Roxanne” at the Grammy Awards and the subsequent world tour announcement, JamBase is happy to unveil our talk with Stewart Copeland.


Kayceman: When you watch Everybody Stares what do you take away from your time with The Police?

Copeland: Two different things actually; when I look back at life with The Police I take a bunch of things away from that, and when I look back at this film, I take a bunch of different things away.

Kayceman: How do they differ?

Copeland: In terms of looking back on my life as a member of The Police I walk away from that with all kinds of musical validation. I guess I have cause to feel good about what I’ve given to the world of music and that feels great. When I look at the film, I think wow, what a cool movie and how blessed I was to have such great images to make such a cool movie. And I’m very proud of the movie as a manifestation of film making, and that’s my primary emotion regarding the film.

When I was shooting the film these incredible adventures were happening in front of me and I wanted to scrape them off and stuff them into my suitcase so I could play with them later, like any tourist.

Kayceman: What brought you to your involvement with film scoring?

Copeland: I got a phone call from Francis Ford Coppola.

How does your approach differ from scoring music versus being a rock drummer?


Stewart Copeland
They are very different. I chuckle to myself over the conflict between the composer and the drummer. As I’m writing an orchestral piece I know in the back of my mind that the fucking drummer is going to trash this beautiful little flute melody. And I’m pleading in my mind with the drummer guy to show a little mercy. But, as soon as I’m sitting behind the drums and the music that the composer guy wrote is on the stands and I’m blasting away, “Fuck off with your little flute melody! I’m playing now!”

Coming out of your career with The Police a lot of press releases, and people in general, got the impression you shunned your pop past. I’m wondering if you really did shun that past?

I don’t think I did, not consciously anyway. It’s not a matter of shunning. It’s a matter of you go do something else.

Lots of people have discussed the break up of The Police, and from most accounts it didn’t seem to be a very clean or easy break. I’m curious if that led you to pursue something outside of rock & roll?

The parting of ways within the band was actually very easy and very amicable. We were all in a really good mood and we decided to make Melbourne the last show.

When you think back on that, what did you feel was the real reason to put The Police on rest?


Sting :: The Police
Two things, both of which I tried to explain in the film. Musically, Sting had become– he always was, but after three or four albums he actually really became a brilliant arranger and producer and songwriter. When Sting was writing his songs, at first he would bring them in as just a few chords and the lyric. But eventually, by the third album [Zenyatta Mondatta], we all had the obligatory rock star country house with recording studio, so he would show up in the studio with platinum demos and he had finished the arrangement. Which is perfectly reasonable. He has a very active brain.

Like Mozart, he completes his composition; every part of it, every aspect, the rhythm, the melody, the harmony, the lyric, everything. Mozart never had to negotiate with the brass section how to play a certain passage. This concept of the composer collaborating with the band is kind of newfangled, and in many ways goes against the grain. It works really well in bands, that collaboration, that’s why rock music is so cool. But, it’s understandable that the composer, particularly one who is as validated as Sting was – hit after hit after hit – to say, “You know what, I’ve written a song and I think it should go like this.” He was perfectly within his rights to assert the sanctity of the composer. The problem was that for Andy [Summers – guitar] and me, it meant less and less that the band is a vehicle for our artistic expressions. We’re just playing parts conceived by somebody else, and that’s no fun. In fact, we didn’t play those parts. We struggled and that’s what the struggle was all about. With hindsight we can see clearly that both points of view had validity and also that the result of that struggle was good. In some cases Sting gave it up and compromised, and in some cases he didn’t and we compromised. Sometimes it was Sting and Andy against me, sometimes it was Sting and I against Andy. That was the struggle, the conflict between the band and the composition.

A song like “Every Breath You Take” Sting brought it to the band as a Hammond organ piece, kind of like Billy Preston, these big huge chords with that song over the top of it. We could hear it, this was huge, one of the most important songs he’s ever written. But, it didn’t sound like us. We don’t have a keyboard player. We’re a guitar band. So, Andy came up with this guitar figure, which was never part of his original recording, but it was really potent and really changed the whole atmosphere of the song. Sting gave it up, he compromised.

Another song was “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” where Sting had the platinum demo. We heard his demo and it sounded great. He could have just released the demo and it would have been a guaranteed huge smash hit. But, we wanted to Police-ify it so we tried it slower, we tried faster, we tried the reggae version, the punk version, the jazz version, the polka version, but nothing was as good as the demo, so we gave it up and I just over-dubbed my drums to his demo. Some went this way, some went that way. Ultimately all of our records turned out rather well. Also, after eight years of working with us and five albums, Sting was less and less willing to make those compromises, so eventually we parted company.

 
After eight years of working with us and five albums, Sting was less and less willing to make those compromises, so eventually we parted company.

-Copeland on the demise of The Police

 

So you said it was an amicable separation?


The Police
There was another side to it which was band life. We were in this cocoon separated from the real world and we felt a little bit uncomfortable about that. I felt like the Aztec Sun King and that any minute now the priests are gonna come drag me out of my palace, take me up the pyramid and cut my heart out. It just didn’t seem like this could last.

By stopping when you did, you cemented yourselves as absolute legends at the top of your game. Did that have anything to do with the thought process at the time?

It turned out that way fortuitously. But no, that wasn’t part of our thought process. I certainly felt that there was a lot more gold in them hills. And I continue to be inspired by Sting’s songs; he didn’t run out of gas as a songwriter. And it may be that he felt that, “god damn it I want to write jazz songs and have it sound like my own thing.” Maybe he was burnt out on working with Andy’s concept of how guitar chords should work and my concept of how the drums should be. But it didn’t feel like that. When we played on stage we always turned each other on.

What’s your relationship like now with Sting and Andy?


Stewart Copeland
Very good. I’ll probably see Sting in the next couple days, he’s in town, just got to L.A. Andy I see all the time because he lives just down the road. One of the surprises of this film, and by the way in all the other fifty hours of footage that I have, is that we liked each other. All the shots I have we are laughing and goofing off.

What songs are you most proud of?

“Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Can’t Stand Loosing You” and “Message In a Bottle” are my favorites, and “Beds Too Big Without You.” “Roxanne,” “Synchronicity.” And “One World is Enough,” you get the idea, I love them all.

One thing that has always blown me away about The Police was that you guys sort of existed in a vacuum where you were creating something very new and unique, which is a difficult thing to do.

We were very lucky that there was a vacuum at that time.

So how did you develop this sound?

By playing with each other. Andy and Sting inspired a certain kind of drumming in me and I believe my drumming inspired a certain kind of bass playing in Sting and so on. We really developed our style as a result of working with each other. My concept of how drums and bass works evolved by working with one particular bass player.

And how about just fundamentally, what were your influenced that led you to this?


The Police
Well the vacuum you were talking about was such that there were no new wave groups that had chops, which meant we were the only ones.

How about the rock – meets – reggae – meets – punk?

It was a meshing of all three [Sting, Andy, Copeland]. Sting certainly discovered reggae. He had a New Years Eve party in 76-77 and he borrowed my record player because he didn’t have one, and also my record collection, and for the first five days of the following year I think Sting was deeply lost in a world entrenched by reggae. There was a real sudden and dramatic conversion.

I read something where a writer said that you have some sort of aversion to jazz?


Stewart Copeland
It’s a fun party trick, but I am allergic to jazz. I was raised to be a jazz musician, my father was a jazz musician and I was steeped in jazz from the moment my ears blinked open, which is why I am immune to jazz. And my main reason why I love dissing jazz is jazz musicians. The problem with jazz musicians is that they are all crap. It’s sort of like jazz is the refuge of the talent-less. If you really want to be a musician and you are prepared to really work hard at it, but you don’t have the gift and you don’t have any soul and you don’t have any talent, jazz is what you should do; because all you need to do is just spend hours training your fingers to wiggle very quickly and you’ll be a hero in the jazz world. Not so in blues. In blues you need talent, you need X factor, you need heart, you need to have lived a life, you have to have something to say, you need to be an actual musician to play the blues. Jazz, any fool can do it; all you gotta do is practice.

And do you think that hold true for the elite, for folks like Jack DeJohneete?

I love Jack DeJohneete. Some of the others – Miles [Davis], mostly crap. Some of his early records where he had Tony Williams, great, I love those. But mostly it was crap. He was out of tune and he was a fucking junky and it sounded like shit. It was utterly preposterous. The king just wasn’t wearing any clothes. Coltrane, same thing. [In a condescending voice] “Love supreme, love supreme” it’s a joke.

It’s commendable to hear people speak up for what they believe.


Stewart Copeland
Well half of all this is just because I enjoy the frisson caused by such comments, and the other thing that colors all this is that it’s not about the music, it’s about the guys. Jazz musicians as a rule are stuck up snobs. And the reason is because they don’t get laid! Rock musicians get laid, jazz musicians don’t!

That would piss anyone off.

And it turns them into grouchy people to hang with. There are many exceptions to that rule. One of my best friends is Stanley Clarke; he’s great fun to hang out with.

Now thinking back, you mentioned your father and growing up in a jazz household, and I’m curious if there was any rub in the fact that he was a C.I.A. agent and you were a rock star, did that create any issues?

No-no-no. My father’s job as a C.I.A. agent… to observe the C.I.A. agent at work was to watch him attend cocktails parties.

So I guess there are more similarities than one may think.

Well he saw himself primarily as a musician. And all his sons and daughters went by without showing any talent for playing. Miles and Ian were both real music heads, they listened to music all the time, but they couldn’t play anything. So by the time I came along – the fourth child – the house was full of abandoned musical instruments. So I started to pick them up and play stuff, so my dad jumped up, “Finally one of my kids!” So I was immediately packed-off to every lesson. I think trombone was my first instrument at age six or something. I don’t remember ever not being the musician of the family and having lessons of some kind.

 
Miles [Davis], mostly crap… He was out of tune and he was a fucking junky and it sounded like shit. It was utterly preposterous. The king just wasn’t wearing any clothes. Coltrane, same thing.
-Stewart Copeland
 

And at what point did you realize that you had something special; that this might not just be a hobby?

I think seven.

Really?

What clues did I have?

Yeah?


Stewart Copeland by Lynn Goldsmith
Just my own over-inflated imagination. Same as every musician. I assume that all musicians – maybe not jazz musicians, but most musicians hit that spot when they’re playing where they know they are doing something beautiful and it touches their own heart, it’s the real thing. It may not be absolutely proficient, but you hit the spot. And at that moment you feel like you are the greatest musician that ever lived.

And you had that feeling at seven?

I always remember that music gave me that. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I had that, but I know music always gave me that. And I was a measly kid, the runt of the litter physically. Around 19 or 20 I started to grow, but up until that point I was a pale skinny kid; and music was the one thing that I had that gave me a reason to get out of bed.

Did spending a good amount of time in the Middle East as a young man have a strong impact on you musically?


Stewart Copeland
The Arabic music totally had a huge influence. Arabic music has that similar thing to reggae where the emphasis is on the third beat of the bar, so when I picked up reggae I already had that deeply engrained.

I’m also curious about the differences between playing live and recording music, what do you value most about both those outlets?

I value recording in the studio not a whit, not a jot, nor tiddle. I hate it. I love playing on stage. My policy now is that I’m never going to record drums in the studio ever again because I hate it. Playing on stage I love. And if I ever need to make a record I’ll have to do a concert first.

Can you explain why?

The reason is that when you’re playing drums in the studio you’re not really playing… your heart and brain are not in the same place. You’re trying to remember an arrangement, you’re trying to fake it. It’s sort of like playing with a rubber doll; it’s not the real thing. Actually, for me that only applies to drums by the way. I love over-dubbing on guitar, bass, any other instrument, I love it. It’s just the drumming part.

Something else I wanted to touch on was Oysterhead, which turned a whole new generation on to you.


Oysterhead :: Bonnaroo 2006 by Dave Vann

Ahhh, I love Oysterhead.

So first off, this was a trio, as was The Police, where were the similarities and differences?


Oysterhead
I can’t think of two more contrasting band environments. Oysterhead turns everything I know about stage craft on its head. In The Police it was all about songs. Oysterhead has no songs, it’s all about improvisation, it’s all about chops and playing and creating excitement that comes from improvisation. The spontaneity of it, the creating here and now is what the buzz of it is. When I’m on stage with Oysterhead and we’re completely way out on a tangent – who knows what song we even stared out with, we’re way out there – I’m dying thinking this is a horrendous crime against stage craft and I look at the front row and this is their favorite part. They’re watching us think. They’re watching something that has never happened before and will never happen again. They’re in it with us, they’re on the journey and you gotta take the rough with the smooth.

In The Police we organized our material and we went and presented it on stage. And every once in a while we would allow ourselves excursions of improvisation which was very rewarding, but it was all in the context of closely arranged material. The set list was very honed so that the lighting guy, the sound guy, the guitar tech, the wardrobe lady – everybody knew what the next song was. We would work on it with great diligence to make that show really work. The pacing from this song to that song, the transitions, everything. In Oysterhead the philosophy is “set lists are for wimps.” We would just walk out there and play.

In The Police’s day stage attire and image was very important. It was part of your job to look different from the kid on the street. You had to look more outrageous than was possible for a normal civilian. It was part of your job. It would be unprofessional to leave your hotel room looking like you would be safe with children. Nowadays the band – the rock stars, look just like the fans.

Well, Les Claypool could go against that one.


Copeland with Oysterhead :: Bonnaroo 2006 by Dave Vann
Well that’s true, but that’s just Les Claypool wearing his street clothes. That’s the real Les Claypool, he’s a special case. One of the greatest men on the planet. He should be president. One of the craziest yet most sensible people I know. He’s the most practical wacko I’ve ever met.

What about Trey? What do you enjoy about playing with him?

He’s a force of nature. You remember Mozart in that movie Amadeus, that’s our Trey. He’s just a cheerful guy. Point him towards the stage, plug him in and cool shit happens. You never know what’s gonna happen at any other time – or even on stage for that matter – you never know what’s gonna happen with Trey; is he gonna show up, or not? And that’s part of his charm.

I find Trey’s guitar playing to be rather unique, especially his tone and his style, is that something you agree with?

Absolutely. He can create a whole world of sound and music without really playing his guitar. He uses his guitar to create these sounds, these wafting clouds of atmosphere which are really affective and don’t involve finger wiggling.

Is there anybody else you sort of put in that same category?


The Police at 2007 Grammy Awards
By Kevin Mazur
Not really. I’ve done a lot of jamming with Jeff Beck and he has incredible chops of a different nature.

You’ve done so much in so many different areas of creativity, what else do you want to do? What else do you dream of?

I really like writing orchestral music and I have to squeeze it in between earning a living by writing film music. I suppose if there’s anything I want to do more of it would be that. All the time when I was getting this jazz upbringing my mom was listening to Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, and those things actually resonated more deeply. It’s almost a completely different musical personality. When I play drums I hear guitars. At certain times of the day I hear guitar music, but at other times I just have this river flowing of orchestral music and I want to make my own. And I love it when I get an opportunity to make some; when I get a commission from Seattle Symphony or San Francisco Ballet, or any of these people to write this kind of music. And it’s so removed from the other aspects of my musical life.

It often seems that people who are very creative in various mediums thrive off of new experiences and new outlets, so that certainly makes sense.

When I look at who I am and what I’ve done, the orchestral side seems completely anomalous, it’s so gentle. I guess it’s sort of like the Japanese war commander who while he’s planning his military strategies is doing flower arrangements.


THE POLICE 2007 TOUR DATES
05.28 | GM Place | Vancouver, BC
06.06 | Key Arena | Seattle, WA
06.09 | Pepsi Center | Denver, CO
06.15 | MGM Grand Garden | Las Vegas, NV
06.16 | Bonnaroo Festival | Manchester, TN
06.18 | US Airways Arena | Phoenix, AZ
06.26 | American Airlines Center | Dallas, TX
06.30 | New Orleans Arena | New Orleans, LA
07.02 | Scottrade Center | St. Louis, MO
07.22 | Air Canada Centre | Toronto, ON
07.25 | Bell Centre | Montreal, PQ
07.28 | Fenway Park | Boston, MA
08.01 | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY
08.03 | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY

Enter here to win The Police Box Set – Message in a Box – The Complete Recordings.

Watch The Police at the 2007 Grammy Awards

JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!