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Interview: Stewart Copeland

28 December 2023

Renowned as the drummer of The Police, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted band, Stewart Copeland’s musical legacy spans over four decades, leaving an indelible mark on global radio airwaves. Shortly before the band’s disbandment in 1984, Copeland diverged from conventional rock, delving into diverse musical realms. His pivot towards classical music, exemplified by composing the score for Frances Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish in 1983, marked a significant shift in his career trajectory. Classical composition became his primary pursuit, an enduring passion consuming most of his waking moments.

The recent year witnessed Copeland’s prolific output: the launch of two new Police-related albums (Police Deranged for Orchestra and Police Beyond Borders), the reissue of his enigmatic 1980 Klark Kent solo album, and the publication of his insightful memoir, Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries. Looking ahead, Copeland sets his sights on crafting operas and orchestrations, eager to dedicate himself wholly to these ventures in the forthcoming year.

In a recent conversation, Copeland humorously acknowledges that the focus of our discussion, the Police Diaries, is presently unavailable, teasingly suggesting a potential dearth of conversation topics.

STEWART: Now this book that I’m busy plugging is already sold out. So, hey, how about them Lakers?

That’s great news. Will more copies be available or is it a limited-edition release?

STEWART: Well, they’re into a reprint, which means that I can fix some errors which is fortunate. There’s a few mistakes in there. No matter how many times you proofread something, there’s always more.

You released a lot of material this year – a couple Police records, the Klark Kent reissue, the book. Was that all planned to come out this year or was it just a lucky thing?

STEWART: It kind of all came out this year to clear the decks for what I’m doing now, which is my next mission, entirely unrelated to The Police or anything from my past. It’s all forward. Last summer, I had an opera go up in Italy. The summer before that, I had a new opera go up in Germany. So, I’m very confident that I’m moving forward, which makes me very relaxed about looking backwards over my shoulder. I would be scared looking over my shoulder if I wasn’t making forward progress.

But, having done all that, I’ve been playing this Police show, Deranged for Orchestra, for two years now and I’m pretty much done with that. I’ve got some more dates this summer in Italy, haven’t quite finished with Europe on that. But I’m now on my next mission, which involves no blonde heads, just gray hair.

What do you find more challenging – the stuff you do for the orchestra or taking songs that you’ve lived with for 40 years and reimagining them?

STEWART: The reimagining part is very easy, because I’m working with not only my own wild inspiration, and desecration, but also a lot of improvisations that the three of us did on stage and aren’t on any records. So, the derangement parts come from these extrapolations done both in the studio and on stage. And also, they come from my use of this material as a score for my film (Everyone Stares: The Police Inside and Out). I had to cut the music up to make it fit the movie, and I wanted to use Police material that was new so that’s what got me into this process. And once the scalpel came out, the orgy began. That’s the easy part.

The hard part is the orchestration. Now, I’m pretty much self-taught 20 years as a film composer. I had an involuntary education in orchestra. But I did, finally, hire a teacher from USC to come over here and kick my ass every Friday, and teach me the actual correct spelling of the articulations, the limitations, strengths of the different instruments, and the different choirs. I mean, I sort of knew all this because I’ve been working with orchestras in film, but I’ve had other people orchestrate, and then I look at what they’ve done, and I put a lot of pencil on it, and I update it. So finally, I formalized my education and orchestration and I do it myself now.

Are you still learning, or do you feel like you’re in a good place?

STEWART: Oh yeah, it’s a very, very complex subject and I’m always learning. And I still send my scores for proofreading and I’m learning all the time. That’s the fun part about it actually, there’s always cool stuff. I’ve got Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland, Debussy, Ravel scores over here, which I refer to, not for the music, but for the orchestration. “How do they get that schwaaaaang boom?” And I can find it somewhere on those scores, “Ah, he has the harp mixed in there.” You can’t really hear it, but it provides a certain weight to that crescendo and that glissando. So, I learned, and this is how Stravinsky learned, by studying Mozart.

I once heard someone say that there’s always going to be some kid discovering the Beatles for the first time today and, for them, it’s brand-new music. I think it was in reference to the publicity cycle and, like, why can’t you review Sgt. Peppers today if it’s the first time you’ve heard it? The classical music you’re talking about is hundreds of years old and people are still hearing it for the very first time. It’s amazing how it’s brand new and exciting to people.

STEWART: The Beatles themselves, the two of them that I’ve talked to who are still alive, both confirm that, and I’m sure this is true of the Stones and it’s certainly true of The Police, the music was made as fast food to be consumed right away and forgotten and we’ll give you another one tomorrow.

The Beatles never expected to be taught in schools. I think it happened around the year 2000 when that generation came of age and they just wanted to go back to the originals that all the bands they were listening to, I’m not gonna mention any names, were derivative and they went back to the originals. And, smart kids, they could discern the difference between the originals and the derivatives.

But what you say about discovering it for the first time, a couple things. First of all, there are YouTube clips or Instagram clips of people playing, you know, “Stairway to Heaven,” some black kid, culturally far removed from growing up with Led Zeppelin the way I did, experiencing it for the first time and he reviews it and gives his thoughts which are very interesting. But there’s something that that kid can’t appreciate, which I also can’t appreciate when I look at Mozart or my sons can’t appreciate when they look at Jimi Hendrix, was how surprising it was. You listen to Jimi Hendrix today, and they’re like, “Eddie Van Halen can do that 10 times over.” What you can’t get is the sense of surprise of the guy who did it first. Stravinsky blew everyone’s minds, and still blows minds, and Mozart as well. But, we can’t appreciate how surprising it was because we’ve heard all the derivatives, we’ve heard it as part of the mainstream, it’s part of the zeitgeist now. That sense of wonder of discovery, you’ve got to go to a new artist who is changing rules of everything. You’ve got to go to Jacob Collier to be surprised. And, by the way, he’s probably out of date by now. It’s been 20 minutes since he showed up!

I heard you say in another interview that quantity produces quality. Do you have a drawer full of stuff that you can go back to when you need something?

STEWART: I save stuff, not because I’m afraid of running out of ideas – I’ve always got new ideas, I’m never short of them. I’m blessed and very thankful that I just turn on the tap and music comes out. That doesn’t mean to say it’s any good or that anyone else will like it, but I’m never stuck for an idea. I know musicians who are great musicians or great players, and they’ll say, “You know, this summer when I have some time, I’m gonna write a concerto.” No, you’re not because you didn’t get that gene. If you were gonna write a concerto this summer you would have already written it, by the time you get to the summer if you’ve got that composing gene, you would have intent. That doesn’t mean that they’re good or that many people will love them, it’s just a gene that produces new melody all the time and I’m never short for an idea. But when I’m under pressure and I’m working it, just these little three-note tricks come out. Bass lines come out. Chord progressions, this chord to that chord to that chord, that just have a certain brilliance and I want to hear them again. That’s happened. That went by so fast in the score of The Equalizer or in Spyro or in Dead Like Me, I want to hear it again. I want to take that and make something big out of it. So, when I’m working on a big major work, like an opera or a concerto, I do reach back into my cookie jar.

The Police Diaries came from actual diaries that you kept.

STEWART: Yeah, I don’t throw things away.

Is it only the stuff that you created, like diaries, and things like set lists and backstage passes, or do you keep articles written about you, promotional posters, magazines, things like that?

STEWART: I do have stuff, but I stopped collecting it a long time ago. What I keep is intellectual property – my thoughts, my notes, my dates, facts and figures. Posters, t-shirts, my kids got them all. It’s just merch.

I’ve got all my instruments. I still have my first guitar. I don’t still have my first drum set, I bequeathed it. I’d lost it. The bass player in Curved Air called me up 20 years, 30 years, longer, 50 years later and said, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got this baby blue Pearl Premier drum set in my garage. Is that yours?” I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been wondering what happened to that.” And, yes it was my drum set. One of my sons is musical and I said, “You know, Jordan, as a musical son of the family, I bequeath my drum set to you. I think you’re the child that should have it.” He wrote back to me and says, “Dad, my heart is heavy with joy with this great honor. Basically, I haven’t got room for a fucking drum set. I’ve already got your other drum set.” So, I gave it to a guy in Italy who’s been the head of my fan club, just voluntarily, for ever and ever and ever and ever. The difference between a guitar and a drum set is that I’ve got every guitar I ever owned. They are sitting right here, and I play them, and I love them. Drums just take up too much space. Unless it’s set up, it’s just a blob of junk and they’re in a place where they will be more loved and appreciated than in my storage unit. But everything else I still got.

I have to believe that some of your stuff is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well.

STEWART: Yeah, they got a drum set, just one of the drum sets that I played. One of the many ones. I had three identical drum sets that were played. I’ve got the European kit, the American kit and another one for parts or something.

I have to imagine it’s maybe a daily occurrence, maybe a weekly occurrence, where you’re just out and about or watching TV or you’re in the car or you’re at a store and you hear a Police song. Does it still give you a little tinge of excitement, like, “Hey, I did that”?

STEWART: Well, I don’t even leave the house once a week. When I do, occasionally I hear a Police song and I like it. It’s a little bit humbling because I’ve been playing concerts with this material, Deranged for Orchestra, and I think it’s pretty darn cool. But if I’m driving along in the car and a Police song comes on, I hear the original version with those three scumbags, that’s even cooler. I have to fess up, as clever as I think I am, I go back to the original and just like those kids in 2000, the original totally doesn’t suck.

I read your auto-biography that came out about 15 years ago and you used the word “deranged” to talk about some of the clips of Police music that you had. Is that a word that’s been sticking in your word and that you’ve wanted to use when putting something out?

STEWART: Well, when I cut the music up for my film, I got carried away and created a bunch of tracks, which were deranged. They were unarranged. They were rearranged. And I just liked the word deranged so I started using it then. The mission was nixed by my two colleagues, you know, understandably. “Stewart’s over in the studio somewhere remaking our hits. Are you kidding me? Is he insane?” For my movie? Okay, they get it. It scores a movie. One day we will release that as a record, my derangements with the three guys from which my orchestral versions derive. They’re pretty darn cool if I say so myself. It’s still The Police. It’s Andy on guitar. That’s him doing what Andy does. That’s Sting with amazing extrapolations on vocals and bass, new bass lines from Sting that you’ve never heard before. Pretty darn cool.

When I saw The Police on the 2008 reunion tour, I remember there were some songs that started out with arrangements different from what was on record. Sometimes, it took me a few seconds to realize what song you were playing.

STEWART: Yes, we did do a little bit of that. When I did my derangements, I was wondering whether – and when we did The Police reunion tour – we changed things a little. The worry is, “Are they gonna come after us with pitchforks for messing with the sacraments?”

You mentioned you’re pretty much a homebody. Is it all music, all the time?

STEWART: I’m a studio body. I never leave this room.

Is there any down time?

STEWART: This is my down time. They call it work, but it really is what I’d rather be doing more than almost anything else. It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

When The Police came to an end, did anybody reach out to you and say, “Do you want to come join our band?” Or were there any artists saying, “We’re going to start something up and we want you to be part of it?”

STEWART: Well, there was The Doors who invited me to join them. And it was a funny thing where I couldn’t believe it. They’re my thing. Like, kid these days, the Foo Fighters are happening for them. The Foo Fighters is the thing. For me, my age group, The Doors were right there, along with Jimi Hendrix and Cream and so on. So to get a call from The Doors is unbelievable. And I said, very meekly, “Let’s have a jam and see if we’re right for each other.” I was being super humble. And so we did and we met up at SIR Studio and we played together and Ray Manzarek said, “So, did we pass the audition?” I said, “You were auditioning me, not the other way around.” Jesus Christ, weird that they saw it from that point of view. But I wasn’t right for them. We enjoyed the jam. I was transported playing those songs with Robby (Krieger) and Ray. I couldn’t believe that I was really doing that. But I was the wrong guy. I am no John Densmore. He does trance and he was one of my big influences, but I’m not that guy. He’s actually a friend of mine now. And I do explosion. It wasn’t The Doors with me, it fell between two stools, so we parted company. But yes, that’s it. I mean, I get calls every day from somebody in Argentina saying, “Hey, you know, I’d love you to play on my album.”

When I interviewed Andy this summer, he said you guys do keep in touch. I know business is part of it. When Andy or Sting creates new material – whether it be music or something else – are you the first person to run out and check it out?

STEWART: I do pay attention. I’m not the first person to rush out. I’ve got other fish to fry, but I am very interested in my two colleagues. Sting is still one of my favorite songwriters. And, on one hand, if I was there, I would do it differently. But, on the other hand, Sting’s pretty good at arranging. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need me to force him to make compromises and he doesn’t need collaboration. So, I’m a fan, I really like what he’s done with it. I probably wouldn’t have been capable of keeping the discipline to fulfill his vision. I am very interested in both of them. Andy is also an interesting artist and I’m still a big fan of his too. I don’t live for their next album necessarily, but I am absolutely curious about what they’re up to.

Do you already have a full plate for 2024?

STEWART: I do. I have an extremely full plate, mostly composing. I was out playing shows the last couple of years. Now, mostly I’m in my studio. I’ve got a gigantic opera to write and another album that I’m writing before I even get to that. But I’m kind of superstitious about talking about things till they come to fruition.