Former Police-man Stewart Copeland still “bangin’ shit” at 70

By Steve Newton

Stewart Copeland remembers well when he first discovered his love of music. He was around seven years old, living in Beirut, Lebanon, and gazing intently at the Persian rugs that his mother had bought in Iran.

“I was listening to Carmina Burana,” he explains on the phone from his home in L.A., “and kind of visualizing the music as represented on the designs of these Persian carpets. And by the way, I’ve still got them–I’m standing on it right now, that same Persian carpet. It’s been in the family longer than I have. And I realized that those kind of chaotic yet geometric–order and disorder–are exactly what my music is all about.”

Nowadays the Virginia-born Copeland is known far and wide as one of the world’s top drummers. He came to fame slamming the skins for multiplatinum rockers the Police, of course, but his musical ventures have included composing and performing the scores for several feature films, and well as writing various pieces for ballet and opera.

His latest project is Police Deranged For Orchestra, where he tours around and joins various symphonies–this weekend it’s the Vancouver Symphony–in performances of the Police’s biggest hits. He’s come a long way since those childhood rug-studying days.

So was it the percussive elements of music that first caught his attention as a kid?

“I would say more the rhythmic elements than specifically percussion,” he relates, “because there’s a lot of rhythm in all sections of the orchestra in [Carmina Burana]. Meanwhile my mother was also listening to Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, uh, Aaron Copland–my adopted uncle. And my father was playing white big-band jazz–that’s what he liked. But I didn’t really pay much attention to that.

“And pop music was one hour of American music on the Voice of America [radio network], and one hour of pop music on the BBC Foreign Service, and that was it. The American Community School in Beirut thrived on those two small windows into culture back home, and there was one record store that sold these records. So at parties and at the beach clubs they would play pop music, but it wasn’t like there was any of it on the radio.”

Copeland started taking drum lessons at age 12 and was playing drums for school dances within a year. He says that the drummers that first impressed him were Buddy Rich, Mitch Mitchell, and Ginger Baker.

What, no Neil Peart?

“Well he was a good friend of mine,” replies Copeland, “and absolutely. We were both fans of each other, which is common amongst drummers–not so much common amongst guitarists. Drummers all admire each other and support each other, whereas guitarists are all jealous of each other. So my ‘brothers of the stick’, for instance, doing these Foo Fighters [Taylor Hawkins tribute] shows, with all the drummers there–we’re all best buddies! The drummers are all hanging out–me, Lars [Ulrich], Josh Freese, Omar Hakim, the list goes on and on. Roger Taylor, Danny Carey, Brad Wilk. We’re all chums. We’ll be hangin’ out together while the singers and the guitarists are all giving side-eye to each other.”

One singer not known for giving side-eye to anyone is Peter Gabriel, a proven good guy who, as the story goes, hired Copeland to play on his song “Red Rain”, off his hit 1986 album So, because of the drummer’s “hi-hat mastery”. So was it a lotta work to become a master of the hi-hat?

“No, no work involved at all,” asserts Copeland. “Just instinct. But that story’s interesting because actually he invited me out to his place, where he was just creating backing tracks for songs that he had not yet written–including ‘Red Rain’–and I was just grooving along with [bassist] Tony Levin and Peter, just doing kinda grooves. There were lyrics, but I had no idea what songs we were making–we were just having fun out at Somerset, England. And so, when his album came out, I wasn’t quite sure which tracks I played on or not. But he sends me a couple of platinum discs anyway.”

On the composing-for-film front, Copeland is perhaps best known for his score on Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, which he claims was a joy to work on.

“It was a relief from the pressure cooker of the Police,” he says. “I came straight from finishing a Police album, which is torturous. And let me say in that context, that we all appreciate the value of the work we did, but it wasn’t fun to do–and we were all at each others’ throats. It was very difficult for all three of us.

“And so to leave that environment, and to go over to San Rafael, California, into a studio with no other musicians in the building but me, and to be able to just create this score. Every now and then Francis would come down and say, ‘Great, I love it, carry on.’ It was just a feeling of joy, relief, a reminder of what it’s like to really be creative and make music without hindrance, without compromise, without struggle. Just creativity. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my musical career, just to escape from the Police and make film music.”

Copeland’s other movie work includes the scores for such films as Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda, Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia, Boaz Yakin’s Fresh, Bruce Beresford’s Silent Fall, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Talk Radio. So if he had to pick just one, which one of his scores would he say he’s most proud of?

“Maybe Rumble Fish. There are movies where I was really proud of the movie, but the score was not huge. And there were others where the score was huge, but the movie sank without a trace. One of those, in that category, would be Rapa-Nui. Huge budget film about Easter Island, incredible production value. So basically the film was dubbed, so it sank without a trace. The score, inspired by those images, is one of the best scores I ever did, for a totally forgettable movie. That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

Copeland says that he had an involuntary education in orchestra during his 20 years as a film composer.

“I learned how to use an orchestra and how to make ’em do cool stuff,” he says. “And one of the things they can do is burn down the building, so it’s a blazing show. The last two years I had two different operas, so I’m making new music, but there’s a certain power in songs people know, songs that have emotional baggage, which just make them a lot of fun to play on stage. So hopefully the people of Vancouver will enjoy that process as much as I am, just playing songs that people love. It’s really powerful.”

For his upcoming shows with the Vancouver Symphony, Copeland will play a bit of guitar and do a bit of conducting, but mainly he’ll be on the drums.

For vocals we have three soul sisters on the mike,” he says, referring to singers Ashley Tamar, Carmel Helene, and Amy Keys, “and they bring a very refreshing quality to the songs. I also have bass and guitar, all really top-class musicians, but the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is the main event. It’s not about the band, it’s about the orchestra.”

Copeland has taken his Police Deranged for Orchestra tour all around the world, with his Vancouver shows being the premiere in Canada.

“When you have orchestras of the caliber of the Vancouver Symphony,” he raves, “I can show up, show them the score in rehearsal at two o’clock, and by 4:30 we’re done. Doors open at 7. So they’re amazingly adept at just delivering on the spot. And also there’s an excitement that you get. A band has to rehearse for six weeks to do a 90-minute show; a big symphony like the Vancouver, they need two-and-a-half hours. And so when they play that same material later that night, it’s still fresh. There’s a buzz that you get from the symphony that comes from that immediacy.”

Copeland says that he saves the biggest Police hits for the end of the show, to build up momentum. When asked if he had a personal favourite Police album, he goes with the second release, 1979’s Regatta de Blanc, the one that opens with “Message in a Bottle”. It includes three tracks co-written by Copeland and three more that he composed himself.

“It was probably the most fun to make,” he recalls. “We were still hungry, but our mojo was high because we’d just come back from conquering America.”

Despite his claims of having had to escape from the clutches of the Police for his own creative sanity and survival, Copeland still hears from his old bandmates Sting and Andy Summers.

“Oh yeah, we’re in touch. Various things–album releases. But also we send each other stupid memes, you know, things that are funny and daft. We actually get along great as long as we’re not in a room trying to make music.”

Speaking of which, does Copeland get asked a lot about when the next Police reunion will be? And as a follow-up question, when is the next Police reunion?

“Well, you know,” he teases, “I’m an optimist, actually. I can tell you that I see absolutely a one-percent chance of it ever happening again.

“And by the way,” he adds, “Sting has been very supportive of this Deranged Orchestra mission. I sent him a huge volume, hardback score of the whole show, the gigantic full orchestral scorebook–makes him feel like Wagner or something like that–but he’s very happy with the whole process. He’ll make it to a show one of these days. He’s had a couple of narrow misses, but he’ll make it down one of these days.”

Whether or not his old band’s former frontman ever turns up to revel in the sound of symphonic Police, you can bet Copeland will be doing his best to stir things up behind the kit. Turning 70 last July hasn’t caused him to change his technical approach to drumming one iota.

“Not at all,” he confirms. “In fact, I think that drumming has changed my approach to being 70. By the way, I can tell you that 70 is better than 60. Me and my old college buddies, our meme is ’70 is the new 40′. I went to a surfer college in southern California, and my surfer buddies at 70 are all still surfing. And I’m still bangin’ shit.”


To hear the full audio of my interview with Stewart Copeland subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 325 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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