Stewart Copeland: Sticking it to Convention

November 30, 2017

By Bryan Reesman

Stewart Copeland declares jazz to be, “the last refuge of the talentless.”  That’s not exactly the most auspicious comment to launch this cover story profile with, but it’s appropriate considering the iconic drummer has never been one to play by the rules. Whether agitating his old Police bandmate Sting, improvising with orchestras, or secretly roping together a band, Copeland follows his own beat for sure. Which is funny, because many people might declare that that is exactly what many jazz players do, particularly in the face of repetitive pop music or heavily structured orchestral music.

The drummer believes that jazz, more than any other form of music, has the highest fluff ratio. “The 10 percent at the top is amazing, of course,” he concedes. “But I’ve been a musician for 60 years now and you can’t fool me – those guys are just wiggling their fingers.” He places less of the blame on jazz drummers and more on the soloists, guitarists in particular. “One of my favorite ways to enliven an otherwise somber dinner party is to make a statement like, ‘The problem with jazz musicians is that they all suck.’ Okay, now we’ve got a party, now we’re talking.”

After all of his years in the business, Copeland still exudes a youthful energy and a desire to push himself. His latest project, Gizmodrome, is an eclectic rock band that will tour the U.S. in early 2018. When I meet him for our interview at the Empire Hotel in Manhattan, Copeland is easy to spot. While he’s obviously older than the figure I first recall seeing during MTV’s glory days (and hey, so am I), he still retains the same tall, wiry frame and abundantly light colored hair. He’s an animated subject who loves to debate and discuss music and enjoys being contentious when the occasion arises.

Despite his overt disdain for jazz, Copeland is not completely harsh on the genre. Having a spent a life in pop and rock, musical areas where he says drums are there as a supporting instrument to make the singer look good and where everybody knows their place, he remarks that jazz fans “do not want you to know your place. They want to hear everything you’ve got all the time right now. You go out there completely indulgent. I did the jazz festivals in Europe with Stanley [Clarke]. Jazz music is more fun to play than it is to listen to.”

That being said, he remarks that jazz fans pay good money to hear musicians let it all hang out. He actually loves those “very adventurous ears. Jazz fans I adore. I will play for jazz fans every day of the week.” But he calls bull on people like Miles and Coltrane. “I’ve tried to listen to those guys. I know what drugs those guys are on, and you can’t fool me. Jazz has the highest quotient of the king’s new clothes. That doesn’t mean that Stanley Clarke isn’t a genius, and that on some of those cuts Miles Davis wasn’t burning. That’s what music is all about. But it is a world where you can get up there and put a vaguely petulant expression on your face, wiggle your fingers, and get away with it.”

Gizmodrome (from left): Mark King, Vittorio Cosmo, Stewart Copeland, and Adrian Belew

Throughout the course of his musical career, Copeland has relished usurping expectations, and he has challenged himself to step outside of his comfort zone. While mainstream listeners know his work with The Police, his personal canon extends far beyond that. I have come to think of him as a percussionist disguised as a rock drummer, and the trajectory of his career offers great lessons for aspiring musicians.

Copeland does not teach students or give master lessons, save the occasional drum lesson that gets auctioned off at his kids’ schools. But when asked about basic mistakes that he sees beginners make when they start, he replies, “The main one is trying too hard, which manifests as gripping the sticks [too hard]. My overarching advice is if you relax you get more power. I think the mystery of John Bonham’s huge sound is that it’s because he’s really relaxed and on it. He’s got plenty in reserve. When he really wants to hit big, he’s got it ready to go.”

No one can doubt that Copeland is in command of his kit. His musical roots and training run deep. He began playing trombone at the age of seven. His father was a jazz musician who had played trumpet in the Glenn Miller Band and who encouraged all four of his children to play music, but they did not take to it. (Although his brother Ian played drums for a short time and later became a music promoter and booking agent, while his brother Miles went on to found pioneering music label IRS Records and also manage The Police, among others.)

“He [my father] filled the house with instruments hoping that one of his kids would play and they all didn’t until the last kid comes along,” recalls Copeland. “The instruments are lying around, and I immediately grab them and break them. He spotted that telltale sign. He would say to my siblings, ‘Isn’t it time for your piano practice?’ That’s not a musician. But when it comes to the kid to whom you have to say, ‘Will you please stop for a minute?’ That is the sign of a musician in the family.”

Although he tried other instruments outside of trombone, drums were the instrument that grabbed him around the age of eight or nine. They were the most empowering for the late developer. “When the rest of my friends were getting chest hair and facial hair I was way behind, and the drums turned this skinny little runt into a silverback,” says Copeland. His father immediately enrolled him in lessons so he could learn proper grip and proper rudiments.

During his childhood, Copeland moved around because his father Miles worked as an agent for the CIA. Stewart was born in Virginia in 1952 but spent his young years in various Middle Eastern countries and was exposed to a variety of musical rhythms. “Maybe I wasn’t even listening to it that closely – I was looking for American music – but I was surrounded by Arabic music,” recollects Copeland. “When it came time to playing reggae, I understood the fundamental building blocks of the drop beat on the third beat of the bar because the baladi rhythms, the country music of Arabic music, have that dropkick on the three and the absence of one.”

When his family moved to London during his later teen years, he studied under Max Abrams, “who was a venerable figure,” continues Copeland. “I learned how to read and was basically there playing big band jazz charts. Some of my best friends are jazz musicians, and when I’m rattling their cage about jazz in general they say, ‘But dude, you were raised on wrong jazz. White big band jazz is wrong jazz.’ Just to make my predicament even worse with the jazz world is that I actually like white big band jazz – Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich, of course.”

The burgeoning rocker spent years taking lessons and exploring jazz, but then a revolutionary figure emerged who permanently altered his musical inclinations. “I loved bonding with my father over music and everything, but then when Jimi Hendrix came along that was it for trombones and trumpets,” says Copeland. “It was all about guitar.” Funnily enough, as he notes, Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell came from the school of jazz. Despite his musical conversion, Copeland continued with lessons to develop his technique.

After attending college at the University of California at Berkeley, Copeland returned to England, where he tour managed and soon played drums for and recorded with reunited prog band Curved Air between late 1974 and late 1976. After that breakup, Copeland, Sting, and guitarist Henry Padovani formed the punk-inflected trio The Police. By late summer 1977, Andy Summers took the latter’s place, and within a few years, the reggae-influenced group blossomed into the biggest rock band on the planet, culminating in the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning Synchronicity album and successful world tour.

Creative and interpersonal tension lead to solo outings by 1985 and the break-up of the acclaimed band in 1986. By that time, Copeland had already dived into the soundtrack world for both film and TV (he received a Golden Globe nomination for scoring Francis Ford Coppolla’s 1983 movie “Rumble Fish”), and his 1985 film and album The Rhythmatist found him exploring new musical vistas in Africa. Over the subsequent three decades, Copeland has expanded his musical vision into many areas: funky pop and rock (the trios Animal Logic and Oysterhed), films (such as “Wall Street” and “Highlander II: The Quickening”), television (“The Equalizer”), opera (Holy Blood and Crescent Moon and The Tell-Tale Heart), ballet (King Lear), and video games (Spyro the Dragon). His discography and filmography is extensive, and he always seems to be cooking up something at his home studio, The Sacred Grove. Just look on YouTube.

His latest project Gizmodrome is considered to be a supergroup of sorts, comprised of himself, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, Level 42 bassist Mark King, and keyboardist Vittorio Cosma. Copeland actually delivers the quirky singing heard on most of the album, and Belew and King provide some harmonic vocal accompaniment. Reportedly called “punk prog” by at least one journalist, the quartet manages to siphon a prog vibe without the overindulgence often associated with the genre.

For their live shows, the drummer plans to play rhythm guitar and sing, while most of the kit duties will be handled by Level 42 drummer Pete Ray Biggin. Switching up instruments is nothing new to Copeland. Back in 1980, during The Police’s earlier years, the drummer released an album as his musical alter ego Klark Kent, playing everything himself including the kazoo.

Gizmodrome’s debut album is both familiar and alien – rock and pop tunes turned upside down with funk inflections, exotic rhythms, and off-kilter phrasing. “Any art form has to be a combination of familiar and unfamiliar, the tension and release,” muses Copeland. “The tension comes from the unfamiliar and the release is the familiar. The cadence is familiar.”

The songs were recorded in two sessions a year apart in Milan, Italy. Even then, the album feels very organic and like something that gelled in the studio. Copeland admits that the creation of this musical collective came from a “nefarious scheme, which was I can’t afford these guys,” he quips. The drummer knew he wanted to get them to play together, so he assembled them together under the ruse of a solo project. “Like Adrian will tell you, he came expecting to play two or three tracks on Stewart’s album, and after a day or two he realized it’s not Stewart’s album anymore, it’s his album. It’s Mark’s album. It’s Vittorio’s album.”

Through this surreptitious recruitment scheme, Copeland became more of a puppet master than bandleader by allowing them to be the way he has been with other musicians rather than policing their output. “The real creative juices flow when you give them free rein,” says Copeland. “I don’t think you can make a rock album by hiring session players and telling them what to do. Those songs that I wrote are pristine in my mind. In my mind it’s perfection, it’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. But I’ve learned in this long life that Mr. Belew is probably going to come up with a better idea. If you give the rest of the band free rein and approval and encouragement, that’s when they start to really produce the stuff that Adrian is known for. To really get full-on Adrian Belew, give him free rein. And wow, did that pay off.”

One example that Copeland offers in terms of their songwriting genesis is “Amaka Pipa.” “We have a perfectly good song, and at the end he [Adrian] is playing a solo and out of nowhere comes this riff that is smoking,” recalls the drummer. “So we put it in the beginning, we put it in the middle, and now that song is all about that riff. I had a great idea, but just letting Adrian be Adrian lifted it way up. On ‘The Man In The Mountain,’ out of nowhere Mark says, ‘How about this?’ He starts singing a lyric, ‘I’ve got the keys to your horse.’ I don’t know even what that means, but that’s brilliant, let’s do that. If they had come in and I told them what to do, I wouldn’t have gotten that cool stuff. The benefit is that I get everything that these guys have in their cookie jar and repertoire, and I get to play with that.”

Copeland’s cookie jar is sizable. The rule-breaking drummer has a unique composing style that combines woodwinds and percussion in interesting ways in his soundtrack work. Much in the way that Danny Elfman frequently serves up a rambunctious storm of strings and horns, Copeland favors a playful blend of woodwinds and mallet instruments, a sound that I first heard on his soundtrack to the ‘80s TV crime drama “The Equalizer” and which has surfaced on later works such as the 2004’s Grammy Award nominated live album Orchestralli.

There are certainly textural and sonic qualities that woodwinds and mallet instruments share. “Sometimes a figure that works well on an oboe works well on a xylophone,” notes Copeland. “I learned about the use of xylophone from my almost namesake, Uncle Aaron [Copland], who I adopted as an honorary uncle even though he misspelled his name. I probably got percussion with woodwinds from him.” The drummer adds that he loves oboe and bassoon, and he discovered that the basses in orchestra do not really provide the bass in that setting. “The bass lines are put on the celli, that’s where it works, and then you use the bass to add a little heft to the celli,” he explains. “The other main bass instruments are the bassoon and the contrabassoon.”

On a tangent thought, Copeland veers into another personal discovery connected to his instrument. “Another weird thing about orchestra is that the percussionists are not the rhythm section,” he says. “Orchestral percussion does not do rhythm. What they do is punctuation.” He acknowledges that some orchestras have problems with certain rhythms that he writes into his compositions. He might see a percussionist reading a cowbell part while following the conductor, and then he will stress to that player that he should be leading the rhythm.

“And he looks at me with a look of fear because he’s used to following the conductor,” says Copeland. “I realize that for one thing these are players of the eye not the ear, which is a whole other topic of conversation. They connect with the music with their eye. The visual cue of the baton is the guiding light. The notes that they read with their eyes on the page is their guide. Their connection to music is all visual, and their bodies and their ears take care of themselves. So those percussionists don’t lead, they are led by the conductor and that’s their thing. They don’t do rhythm. Once again, the celli and the strings are where you hear the rhythm.”

Even while acknowledging such differences, Copeland understands that classical and rock players approach things in different ways and that there is value to both. He notes that in an orchestral piece “with rubato or very hard to discern rhythm or shifting tempo,” classical percussionists can land on the same place with dozens of other orchestra players simultaneously, whereas he feels that rock drummers could not do that. “They would need to hear a click track, so they have a whole completely different set of skills. Just because they’re banging on inanimate objects doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re drummers. Fun fact.”

In his post-Police years, Copeland has delved into composing for films, ballet, and the opera, areas that he was not trained in. He says part of his education came in writing his scores, but the rest came from reading scores by the likes of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Copland. “I learned the reading as a kid, and I did take tuition in orchestration, not composing, just to learn the language of the page,” he explains. “But [for] what to do with that language, I studied Rites Of Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid, just looking to see how they do it.”

He enthuses about John Williams and one of his most famous cinematic fanfares. “The first page of ‘Star Wars’ is an education in music,” declares Copeland. “He’s got this harp gliss combined with other things – that’s how that sound arrives. Ravel sounds like this sweeping wave that is all one thing, but you look at the chart and there’s all kind of agitation within it. You learn this by studying those scores.”

It is interesting to compare and contrast the structured scores that Copeland composes for other artistic ventures with playing in a group like Gizmodrome. There is an obviously greater improvisatory nature to his rock work. It seems that he is more focused when needing to generate a score or soundtrack, but his own performances allow him to let loose.

“The cool thing about playing in a band is that I just haven’t got the discipline,” he says. “One of the problems in The Police was that Sting has a very pristine, clear picture of how it should be, and he’s usually right. He’s a really good arranger, particularly in how you use a drum set. There are ten way different ways to hit a snare drum, and he is completely conversant in all of them, so when he turns around to me and suggests something he’s not wrong at all. In fact, that’s a great idea, but get out of my face. The conflict is not because he’s wrong, it’s because when I sit behind the drums I’m an animal. It’s visceral. I don’t think about what I’m doing. I’m listening to music. My body does what it does. That drives him crazy.”

When Copeland plays with an orchestra, a similar dynamic occurs but in a different way. “Their whole ethos is faithfully reproducing what it says on the page, and that is their mission,” he says. “Their self-esteem derives from how closely they obey the page. When I go out to play with an orchestra I’m all over the place, but I know I have the freedom to be all over the place because those guys are locked. I know the music. I can play what my body feels like at the moment, but the music that they’re playing is locked and that takes us back to the dichotomy of The Police. When Sting is trying to do the song, it’s not locked. Over his left shoulder is this cacophony. We both have great empathy for each other, and I did my best to give him a solid platform. He did his best to somehow ride that horse. That’s where the creative tension was.”

It is interesting to note how Copeland, to quote his earlier observation, often steps out of place. That is a big part of what has made his rock drumming so exciting, the fact that he tries not to repeat himself throughout a song and attempts to fill certain sections with unexpected trills and fills of his own devising. If he unintentionally absorbed Arabic music during his young years, he likely did the same with jazz when he was consciously studying it. Indeed it could be said that jazz informs his playing. When offered that thought, he replies slyly: “Some have said.”

What has always appealed to me about Stewart Copeland is his way of using the drum kit as an extension of his personality and not just the standard backbeat or pulse of rock and roll. It sounds like that approach does not lend itself to playing a lot of straight grooves. “No, I’ll play a backbeat,” he counters. “Sometimes it’s got to be a backbeat. I always check every other idea first and a lot of times end up with a backbeat because it works.”

Of course, it is more fun when he embellishes that backbeat with other flourishes. In preparing for this story, I found a YouTube video of Copeland, his former Police bandmate Andy Summers, and ELO frontman Jeff Lynne jamming on some 12-bar blues. While rocking out the jam, Copeland strayed from a tight groove and gave his performance a little extra punch; perhaps too much so in that moment. “I’ve got to f**k it up somehow,” he admits.

Musical insurgency has not been bad for Copeland. He’s proven that one can break the rules, and thrive doing so. But only after learning what the rules are. 

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