The legendary drummer and composer rides the river of music from The Police to Gizmodrome, while also scoring films and writing concertos
Interview by Robert Gourley
Stewart Copeland rose to fame as the drummer for The Police, but from the start, it was obvious that his musical talents stretched further. In 1980—while still a member of The Police—he put out an album under the pseudonym Klark Kent, performing and singing all the songs himself. As The Police were winding down, he launched a new career as a composer with his work on the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film Rumble Fish.
Copeland went on to write music for a variety of other films and television shows but wasn’t content to stick with that medium either. He branched out into composing for ballet, opera, orchestra and even video games. But he never completely turned his back on drumming with a band, with notable projects including Animal Logic (with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke and singer-songwriter Deborah Holland) and Oysterhead (with Les Claypool of Primus and Trey Anastasio of Phish.)
Now Copeland has again returned to rock music, as well as singing, with Gizmodrome. The new group evolved out of a series of collaborations with Italian musician / producer Vittorio Cosma and is now rounded out by legendary guitarist Adrian Belew (King Crimson, David Bowie) and bassist Mark King (Level 42). Copeland points out that despite the stellar line-up, this is NOT a “super group” but rather a “supper group,” born out of hanging out in Italy with great food and no particular musical agenda. Record label interest motivated them to get a bit more serious, resulting in a recently released self-titled album.
PKM: You’ve said that in the early days of The Police, having raw power in the music was more important than musicianship itself. Since you and the people you work with are obviously talented musicians, do you still have the mindset? If so, how do you go about applying it to your work?
Stewart Copeland: Well, you don’t have to apply it; it’s just an attitude. When you’re at home practicing, developing your instrument, you think about technique, how you’re holding your instrument, how you’re fingering. You go through the rudiments. That’s not playing music, that’s just exercise. When you’re playing, you forget all that. You just follow whatever your mood is. If you’re feeling soulful, you play soulfully. If you’re in a rage, you rage. Neither of those times are you thinking about technique or using all the notes you have in your arsenal. You’re just playing that attitude. If it takes a lot of notes to play it, then great, and I hope you’ve done your homework. But that really is not the mission, it’s not something that players really think about; certainly, not this crew anyway. Adrian [Belew] can do all kinds of stuff, but just because he can, doesn’t mean he does.
“Frank Zappa was close enough to the mainstream that he could earn a living but he was never going to be the zeitgeist of the era the way John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Elton John or Sting were. These people have instincts that take them right to the sweet spot.”
PKM: How did Gizmodrome evolve from your initial collaborations with Vittorio to what we hear on the album?
Stewart Copeland: We’d been doing it for fun, Vittorio and I, for years. We’d been trying to get Adrian to join us in this escapade, but our schedules didn’t match. All this time, we’d been promising him what we usually do, which is go to some scenic little town, usually a touristy, picturesque town, offering an opera house to rehearse in and a couple of nice villas to stay in for a couple of weeks in return for a show on the village piazza. It’s an excellent way to start a tour: we go rehearse with a bunch of chums out in the countryside, either Lanciano or Elba or wherever, and at the end of it, we play a show. By this time, everyone in the village knows the material because it’s been blasting out of the little opera house all week, and they all come on down and have a fantastic time. It’s always a fantastic gig with people singing along to songs we just wrote last week. Adrian came aboard the one year we weren’t in a beautiful, picturesque little village; we were in deepest, darkest urban Milan in a recording studio, which actually turned out to be a better use of Belew, because we got a record!
PKM: When this lineup solidified, did you have a strong sense as to the sound you were going for?
Stewart Copeland: Well, pretty quickly we sort of landed; a band sound emerged that we all liked and it sort of directed us. We did it with a pretty low bar and very little agenda. We were all having fun in Italy and then we were going to go back to our lives. My career at the time, and still my actual day job, is as an orchestral composer. And so, this rock ‘n’ roll thing was just sort of for fun, but it started to get serious, and it started to get a sound. I’ve got serious musicians who are throwing in here, and it started to really substantiate before our eyes.
PKM: Was there ever any question as to whether you would be the primary singer on the album?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, there has been some comment, about, ‘Damn, you’ve got such great singers in the band; how come they didn’t sing?’ I think it’s due to the way it all evolved. I’d written the songs, and when it came time to put a vocal track down, I’d go and do the guide vocal, just so we knew what we were working with and where the verse was, where the chorus was. And then I said, ‘OK, Adrian, you’re up,’ and he looked at me like I had two heads, saying, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s the vocal!’ I looked at my site, and the comments were all, ‘Oh, great to hear you on vocals. Klark Kent! Klark Kent!’ But you go to Adrian’s site and they’re going, ‘What the fuck is Copeland doing on the mic?’ A good question, by the way. I have absolute empathy for those people. I feel their pain.
But you know, I just like singing, I like playing drums, I like playing guitar. So, fuck it, I’m going to do it! Kiss my ass. I wrote the song, I’m going to goddamn sing it! But having said that, that really was the ethic. Just because I wrote the song, doesn’t mean I’m going to sing it. It doesn’t mean I even have a particularly loud voice about how the song is going to be played. Because one of our early established band rules was, don’t follow the sanctity of the composer. My mission was to get those guys blazing on all cylinders, to reach in deep into their cookie jars and get them giving me their best. And to do that, it was all about inclusion. This is OUR record, not my solo album; it’s OUR album. By the time that had sunk in, I had sung all the songs. But they were happy to follow that stylistic direction. They were all fans of the storytelling vocal approach.
I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but when I was in Oysterhead, the thought did cross my mind, ‘Damn, both these guys are the lead singers in pretty cool bands and they’re both out of tune.’ I’m a big fan of both of their singing, but they’re not great singers, either of them. Les is one of my favorite singers in the world, if you would call that singing. That’s what I aspire to: the way Les does it or the way Tom Waits does it. You’re telling a story, and if you need crooning on a tune, that’s what Mark and Adrian are for. By the way, when we play live, that balance will be much adjusted. I fully intend to have those motherfuckers working. I don’t even know if I can carry a whole show. I’d probably get a sore throat halfway through. I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.
PKM: You sang on only a few Police songs, but had you been wanting to do more vocals?
Stewart Copeland: Well pre-Police, I did Klark Kent, but I hadn’t thought about it since. It hadn’t been on my agenda. The thought occurred to me the other day that I didn’t know the words to any Beatles songs, but I can sing you any drum fill. I never even listened to lyrics or words, but now that I’m a singer, I’m starting to listen to singers, like Elton John. I think, ‘Gosh, how’s he phrasing that?’ I’m catching myself thinking like a singer. But singers and drummers have always had kind of an unspoken bond, at opposite ends of the jet. Both of us share this bond of insecurity, asking if we actually are real musicians? In the middle, you’ve got the guitarist, the bassist, and the keyboard player, they’re talking some strange language, F# Minor, whatever the fuck that is. I’m sure they’re talking about me, and I’m sure they’re talking about the singer, and we look over their heads at each other and kind of think, ‘Ah, shit, now what?’
PKM: How do you feel that your rock drumming background affects your approach to orchestral composing?
Stewart Copeland: That’s a perfectly sensible question, but I haven’t really gotten a very good answer for it because the drummer guy is just on a different planet from the composer guy. In fact, sometimes they are in conflict. I’m writing a poignant little oboe tune for this drum concerto and I’m thinking to myself, ‘God dammit that fuck better not screw this up on the drums.’ And come the night, the drummer guy is on the throne and I’m thinking, ‘Fuck it, my name is on the ticket; I’m here, and the composer dude is at home, so get out of my way, mister oboe guy.’ Of course, that’s not exactly the thought process, but playing drums is entirely instinctive. I don’t think about anything. I don’t think about the arrangement, I don’t think about my role in the universe, I don’t think about anything. My mind is not even activated. It’s entirely visceral, which doesn’t make it easy for the rest of the band.
This is a source of conflict, that I don’t play anything the same way twice, and other musicians kind of count on the drummer to be their platform. Sometimes, that platform is a different platform from night to night. But like I say, I play drums because I really enjoy it, but my day job is composer. I’ve sort of moved on. I’m 65 years old, I’ve been playing music for most of that time, and I’ve got lots to say in different media and in different kinds of music I still want to explore. I’m moving forward, but that doesn’t mean that the drumming thing doesn’t amuse and beguile me intensely. I don’t have to give a shit anymore, I don’t do sessions, I don’t have to learn arrangements. When I play drums on the concerto that I wrote for myself, I know the song. I don’t have to think about it; I know every scintilla of where that music is without even thinking about it. So, when I play with these orchestras, even if I do three nights with one orchestra, it’s not the same every night. The music, what they play, is absolutely locked, but whatever I’m doing over there could be anything. It doesn’t really inform the composing.
PKM: Do you tend to keep all your projects separate, or will you come up with ideas that you set aside for later use elsewhere?
Stewart Copeland: There’s very little discipline involved. The good Lord provides. It’s a blessing; I don’t know where it came from. I certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it. But I can see that it’s genetic rather than acquired. I know so many people who work so hard and do all their homework and pay all their dues, but they just don’t have an original tune coming out of their head. They can be great guitarists, really talented and gifted, and think, ‘Oh, I should write a song,’ and then, ‘Well actually, this summer I’m going to write a song’ and then, ‘Well, I’m a bit busy this summer, but I’m going to write a song next summer,’ and that’s not a composer. That’s a great musician with a great gift on their instrument. There’s ten different gifts involved with that, too, but when you have a river of music going, I can’t wait until the summer. I would have written three songs by the summer because I can’t help it. That’s when you’re a composer, that’s a separate gift and lots of composers don’t have the gift of dexterity and can’t even play an instrument. In fact, most film composers I know can kind of play a bit of keyboard but the reason they became composers is because that other guy in class could eat them alive every time playing Mozart. But the composer guy who doesn’t have the physical chops with his fingers is coming with tunes and doesn’t have to play Mozart; he’s got his own stuff. So, it’s a separate gift and just because you have that gift, doesn’t mean that it’s good.
“The thought occurred to me the other day that I didn’t know the words to any Beatles songs, but I can sing you any drum fill.”
Just because I’ve got this river of music going through my head that I don’t deserve to have doesn’t mean it’s good music or that anyone else will like it; it’s just there. And if you’re lucky and you have that music going through your head and it’s music that everyone else likes too, your name is Paul McCartney. If you’re at the other end of the scale, you’ve got all this stuff going through your head but you’re Frank Zappa; Frank Zappa was close enough to the mainstream that he could earn a living but he was never going to be the zeitgeist of the era the way John Lennon or Paul McCartney or Elton John or Sting were. These people have instincts that take them right to the sweet spot. You can analyze the sweet spot and navigate to that scientifically, but you can’t tell the difference between a hit and a non-hit. Both have a verse/chorus, they both have technically the same characteristics, but one strikes it, the other doesn’t. One was probably written through true instinct, the other probably written on a chart. So, you have to follow your instincts, and in my case, I don’t know where I sit but I’m certainly not in the sweet spot, but I’m close enough that I can earn a living. Enough people feel what I feel, or get something out of the music that I produce from my instincts that I can earn a living, and that’s good enough.
PKM: How does film scoring compare to the work you do as an orchestral composer?
Stewart Copeland: With film scores, it is doing it not so much by the numbers but very, very specific. My humble assertion is that the film composer has the widest skill set of any kind of musician, because they have to. They have to have that river of music; otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to come up with stuff, but there’s another element. The music has to be emotionally very specific. The artist follows his emotion and writes what he feels like. The film composer is not following his emotion; he’s following a required, specific plot point where the character in this movie is feeling happy sad, as distinct from sad happy. The nuances of the way the music messages emotion are very, very specific. So, as a film composer, you learn to make music your slave. If you want to convey suspicion, you want your audience to feel, ‘Wait a minute, something’s not right here,’ and there’s musical language that communicates that. If you want your audience to empathize with a character, there’s musical language for that. All these different emotions, all these specific plot points are expressed in the music. You really learn as a film composer how to control and make music your slave.
PKM: Is there a musical format you’d like to work with in the future that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, to get in front of a band with a row of terrifying Marshal amplifiers and a Stratocaster and play power chords while Adrian plays the cool, noodly guitar stuff! That’s what I’ve got coming up.
PKM: With all of your other projects, how big of a focus do you see Gizmodrome as being going forward?
Stewart Copeland: Well, it earns every step. They came down and played on a couple of tracks. They had so much fun, that Gizmodrome earned a few more days out of them. And we had so much fun making the first batch of tracks that we earned another go. Then we thought, this is so good, let’s take it all the way. And when we made an album, the response to it kind of blew our minds. We didn’t know. We liked it, but when it gets out into the world and the response to it, well, the album has earned our further attention on the road. And now we’re all looking forward to getting out on the road. I’m pretty sure I know what is going to happen, which is have a blast because we all get along really well; we enjoy each other’s company musically and offstage as well. So, I suspect that it will earn further tours. We’re looking forward to it. We’re getting together in February, reconvening again to get a show together and play it.
Bob Gourley is a freelance web developer and journalist based in Jersey City, NJ. An early adopter of online media, Bob has been publishing the online music magazine Chaos Control since 1993. His writing has also appeared in publications including Wired and The Boston Globe.