Stewart Copeland Interview: An Arresting Conversation with the Police Founder and Drummer
Image attributed to Stewart Copeland
Stewart Copeland is known as the drummer of the rock band the Police, formed in London in 1976 with singer and bass guitarist Sting and Henry Padovani (who was soon replaced by English guitarist Andy Summers). The Police became one of the top bands of the 1970s and 1980s with the songs “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” “Walking on the Moon,” and others.
Copeland has also written various pieces of music for films, video game soundtracks, ballet, opera and orchestra. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Police in 2003, the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Classic Drummer Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2016, Copeland was ranked 10th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time.” He was born in Alexandra, Virginia, the youngest of four children of CIA officer Miles Copeland Jr. and Scottish archaeologist Lorraine Adie.
"My daddy, love him or hate him, was working for America, and his job for America was to get that oil flowing to the west rather than to the north, which they did for 50 years. They kept the peace with the tyrants, despots and cutthroats. As my daddy used to say, 'That guy is a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.' They actually did keep the peace, which is a good thing or a bad thing."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stewart, what are you working on right now in your studio named Sacred Grove?
Stewart Copeland: Right now, I’m working on an oratorio. I can’t say for whom because the contract’s not signed, but as usual, I’ve gotten the thing written. It was just suggested, and I had it written by that afternoon. It’s a giant piece based on Milton’s Paradise Lost that I’d actually been working on anyway called “Satan’s Fall.” Within Paradise Lost is, “What’s up with Satan? What’s his problem?” When Gabriel comes down to Adam and Eve in books six and seven, I believe, and explains to them that there’s this guy called Satan and to watch out for him, he tells the story why Satan is Satan. So I’m doing a choral piece, chorus and orchestra, for that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool. Are you also lining up performances for your band Gizmodrome?
Stewart Copeland: Well, yes, the other part of my day is doing exactly that, strapping on a guitar and singing these songs. I’m doing a pocket tour of Europe in front of the band with guitar on the mic. How about that?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s different, isn’t it?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, it is. Very different. In fact, it’s kind of not my main place, which is my day job, which is writing fancy music for orchestras in fancy halls using the chops that I picked up as a film composer. So that’s what I’m doing, but this rock and roll thing keeps dragging me back! Drums are fun to play anyway and so is guitar, as I am discovering.
I have a special guitar that Fender made for me with just one pickup and one knob, the volume knob, because we have a real guitarist named Adrian Belew who’s somewhat of a legend, the man who was stolen from Frank Zappa by David Bowie and Mark King who’s also kind of a legend in Europe with Level 42, and we get his drummer, Pete Ray Biggin who will be holding down the main drums. I get that occasionally, but he’s there to hold it down when I play guitar and sing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you rather be in a band than not?
Stewart Copeland: Bands are very fun. It’s like being on a team as a youngest sibling. It’s a natural condition for me. I love it. I love being in a band, but they’re complicated, and these caliber of musicians are complicated. A collaborative, artistic endeavor is usually an emotional mind field. So it’s a topsy-turvy world within a band, but it’s still kind of cool to be on a team. I also like the quiet of my studio here where I’m writing for a big orchestra, and I’ve put it all on the page, and when I see the band, they’ll be looking at the score, and they’ll play exactly what’s on the page, and we’ll all get along really great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What inspired you to reinvent yourself as a composer of film and opera after the Police?
Stewart Copeland: The film music was a livelihood to feed my family. The orchestral work since then, because I actually don’t do film work anymore, is art for art’s sake because it’s interesting and exciting and new frontiers as music. I still enjoy E, A and D chords on a guitar, but as you go through life, you develop more interests in other things. I also discovered orchestras during the course of film composing, and what a fantastic instrument they are and how engrossing it is to create a score for it.
It’s a very, very different musical experience from making recordings or playing rock concerts in a rock band. It’s all about homework. You do it all in the quiet at your desk where you can see all of the music in your mind and have it on the page, not as a playback, something you can listen to so that you can play that recording and receive it and make decisions about where it should go. You have to put it on the page and hear it as you’re looking at the page because that will be the result when 60 guys are reading their parts to create that thing. So getting it to work on the page is very different from getting it to sound great coming out of speakers.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): About 15 years ago, I used to while away the hours playing Spyro!
Stewart Copeland: Oh, great! So did I with my kids, and I’m so happy that there’s a generation out there who know me as the guy who did Spyro. If I do say so myself, and I’ve just got to, that’s some of the best music I ever wrote because it was under the gun. Now that I’m writing big symphonic pieces, I’m still doing Spyro riffs. I’m still into that Spyro stuff and grabbing little, cool, three-note figures and so on. I’ve developed a theory that under the gun, under pressure, that’s when the really cool stuff happens, when the really rich juices flow. I remember also with The Equalizer, when I was doing episodic television, the show would come in Tuesday, you’d score it and ship it on Friday whether it’s any good or not. But you get into a roll, and then looking back on it, those are the coolest riffs. Those are the most ingenious little musical tricks because you’re solving a problem here. You have to get from this move to that move.
You have to figure out some way of doing it, and you’re in such a hurry that you don’t realize how cool that is or what you just did. I find with Spyro also the volume of it. I just had to do like a quadruple album worth of backing tracks every summer, and that pressure producing that volume of material is really counterintuitive, but the quality improves with the volume and the pressure. Some of those Spyro riffs I go back to. In fact, another thing that I’m doing on my docket is creating orchestral arrangements of Spyro riffs. There’s a show that I’m concocting for 2019, an orchestral show, which involves more of my film scores and a big dash of Spyro.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, I happened to have married a serious video game player 20+ years ago, and he influenced my Spyro obsession, although he may have wished he had not done that (laughs). But the soundtrack was awesome.
Stewart Copeland: He lost you in there, yeah, as you were playing with that Sony PlayStation. I did it with my kids, so that music for me personally has an extra charge because it takes me right back to sitting there in the family room with all the little bunny rabbits around me. Patrick, the oldest kid, is at the wheel, and I’m saying, “Good move! Pick up the thing there! Go through that door!” It was really like old-fashioned family entertainment TV where the whole family would gather around and watch whatever they watched when I was three in the 50s or something. The whole family was in there just enjoying the moment together. And the best part? My music playing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned writing music for television, and you did a cameo appearance also in an episode of The Equalizer. Did you ever think about pursuing acting as a serious career?
Stewart Copeland: Very briefly. I learned very quickly that the Lord did not grant me that favor. I do not have that gift. I got all kinds of good stuff, but not that one. I had a couple of opportunities, but it just doesn’t work. On the mic when I write the operas, I perform the hell out of it, which is a lot of acting. But that’s not visual. That’s on the mic. Visually and physically walking across the stage being convincing and delivering a line, it just doesn’t seem to work. I can pick up a trombone out of nowhere, and I get it, but not the acting thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the early years of the Police, you wrote the majority of the songs, then Sting began to write more. What happened there?
Stewart Copeland: What happened is that Andy Summers joined the group, and he could play F-sharp minor. By then, Sting had discovered what he already knew, but it hadn’t occurred to him to do it for himself. He learned how to do pop songs in the course of playing in a band on a cruise ship. So he knew the structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, out. But he never dreamed of using that formula for his own use because he was a jazz musician. He went off and did like the 20 minutes opus #7, you know.
But it was the punk rock thing and a year of the Police just being loaded with the guitar chords E, A and D. That’s it, and limited to that, it disciplined or straightjacketed, if you like, and got him into focus. Then when Andy Summers joined, and he could play 80 chords under the sun, suddenly out of nowhere, the bubbling volcano Sting creative talent exploded and suddenly, bang! “Message in a Bottle,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Roxanne,” almost an inexhaustible supply of great songs came just out of nowhere. And they were so good, but I didn’t notice, for one, that my crap songs were being supplanted by, “Oh, let’s play that instead. That’s so much better. No problem.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Andy Summers has said that “Message in a Bottle” was your finest drum track. Do you agree?
Stewart Copeland: Well, that’s very kind of Andy. I like it. It’s good. At the end, there’s an overdub that annoys me to this day that somebody should’ve talked me out of, and I’m amazed that they didn’t. There are just too many crashes on the cymbal at the end as it’s fading out. But apart from that, it’s not bad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In many Police music videos, it appears that you are a prankster.
Stewart Copeland: A whatster?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) A prankster, the guy who is always cutting up and making others laugh.
Stewart Copeland: I would say that Andy was, too. Andy and I are both pranksters and like to mess it up. We like to make it more interesting. We like to give it a little bit of a curveball out there. Fortunately, we had in the band somebody with solid, instinctive understanding of what folks wanted to hear. So we had absolutely bankable songs that are what folks really want to hear and a couple of pranksters just to make it a little more interesting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you a natural the first time you played the drums?
Stewart Copeland: It is a gift. Music is a collection of different traits, and one of them is a certain level of autism where you will enjoy the repetitive exercise of training your muscles to do complicated things beautifully and accurately amongst other traits that you need, and I did seem to have those traits. My older brother, who’s my big hero, had a set of drums. I could hear him struggling with trying to play, and then when he roared off on his motorcycle, I would sneak in and actually try it myself. I found that I could do it. But I thought, “Wait a minute. It’s not possible that I can do what my big brother can’t do, so I must be doing it wrong.” But, yes, it did seem to be a gift.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was it like being the son of a CIA officer?
Stewart Copeland: (laughs) I didn’t know about it until his book came out, and I was in college. Well, actually, whether I knew about it or not, I can tell you what it was like. What it was like was that I grew up in Cairo, Egypt and Beirut, Lebanon. I grew up in a house not in a normal neighborhood, but in a house that was an ottoman palace. On an American diplomat’s salary, you could live like a pasha in what was then called the Third World. It was a pretty culturally exotic experience from which I picked up all kinds of different cultural influences that just went into the DNA from growing up surrounded by that world.
As far as the CIA part, to me as a kid, it looked pretty much like a lot of cocktail parties. They would develop young colonels and promising young generals because they were manipulating the governments of all these countries there and not just whoever the dictator of the day was or whatever cutthroat they had in power. In whichever country it was, they were always developing the next guy just in case. So there seemed to be a lot of parties. This big house we had was a beautiful Levantine structure with a wrap-around terrace, this balcony that wrapped around the upper story of the house, and that’s where these parties would happen where all these characters would connive to control the destiny of the oil flowing from that region, which is why it was important.
My daddy, love him or hate him, was working for America, and his job for America was to get that oil flowing to the west rather than to the north, which they did for 50 years. They kept the peace with the tyrants, despots and cutthroats. As my daddy used to say, “That guy is a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” They actually did keep the peace, which is a good thing or a bad thing. It could be argued either way. But they have to all fight it out now that they discovered the Internet, and people can see what’s actually happening. Out of medieval darkness, the people in these regions can now see what’s happening and might have an opinion about it, so the whole thing was bound to come off sooner or later, but for 50 years, they had, on one hand, stability, and on the other hand, stasis. You choose. Good or bad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you feel about your father’s work?
Stewart Copeland: My father had great empathy. He was what was called an Arabist. He spoke several different dialects of Arabic including Classical Arabic. My mother was an archaeologist. Steeped in the culture, I grew up playing Castles & Crusades in actual crusader castles, so we felt ethnically a brotherhood, a bond, with that region. But on the other hand, my father was working for the United States of America, not for the people of Lebanon. He, I guess, was amoral about it, and he was not trying to shaft the people.
He felt genuinely that it was in the best interest of these people, who had only ever known tyranny, by the way. In all of their history, they had only ever known tyranny, and my father’s job was controlling the tyranny. This form of tyranny or that form of tyranny? Our tyrant rather than their tyrant? So he was kind of amoral about it. He was America first, but he and his children all felt very empathetic to the people whose destinies he was manipulating.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think about the Trump administration?
Stewart Copeland: I think that it is just a misunderstanding, and my rift with Trump is that I like everything about it except for him. It just has all kinds of problems we don’t know. Our representatives up there are hard-working people, but all of them have to go beg for money most of the time, so how can they possibly have our interests really at heart? So the idea of a bull in the China shop coming and breaking it all down, I can understand why a lot of people would see that as a good thing, but damn, I wish it was Oprah instead.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you recognized on the street?
Stewart Copeland: I can sink into comfortable obscurity where I can walk down the street comfortably. Then a TV crew will show up for some reason. Some charismatic guy will have a drum set and want me to talk to him about it. Months later, people will see me and say, “Oh, my God! You’re that guy!” And they’ll want selfies. They’ll say that I was on that show Storage Wars. I’ll say that I’ve never heard of it. But then suddenly I’m real famous as a result of appearing on the show, and I’ve never even heard of the show before. So there’s a few weeks of visibility, and then other things happen, and it’s fade back into the comfortable place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will there ever be new music again by the Police?
Stewart Copeland: No. I don’t think so. We still feel like a band, but we just aren’t getting around to doing any shows or anything anytime soon. When we did the reunion tour, we realized that our destinies are entwined and that we did something really cool, and it’s a great thing when we came together just to play “Roxanne” like we did. That’s kind of a sacred thing.
But each one of us has our goals and what we want to do with our lives, and the reasons we make music take us in different directions. But we all recognize that thing that we did has a power, and it’s in there on a shelf while we’re busy doing other stuff.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there “other stuff” in uncharted waters that you still want to do in your career?
Stewart Copeland: Writing orchestral music in general and opera, in particular, are still unclimbed mountains. I’m getting up there. I’m getting up into the high zones there. In my opinion, I’ve occasionally hit “Wow!” but there’s still a lot more to learn. I’ve written five operas now. The Invention of Morel is coming up in Long Beach. The world premiere was in Chicago, and it’s coming up in Long Beach here. I still feel there’s more to learn. I can get this better. I’m still tweaking that. So that’ll keep me busy for a while. There are so many things an orchestra can do that is endless.
I haven’t even begun to explore all the possibilities of how to make an orchestra do new stuff. Applying what I learned in rock and roll, there’s no reason at all why 90 guys together cannot achieve what three guys can achieve. Let’s burn down the building. I’m not here to be the new Brahms or the new Mozart. I’m here to burn down the building. With 90 guys, that ought to be possible.
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