Going ‘Off the Score’ with Stewart Copeland: The Interview

Adrian GarroCategories:2015Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine


Stewart Copeland is many things: accomplished, world-class drummer with the Police, songwriter, composer, filmmaker, and public speaker.

Naturally, the chance to speak with him one-on-one is an undeniable treat, so we did just that…enjoy our March cover story below.

Rock Cellar Magazine: We caught your keynote address at the H.O.T. Zone event at the NAMM Show in January. It was arguably one of the most entertaining chats we’ve ever seen, and it seemed like everybody in the room felt the same way. 

Do you have any takeaways from that event and the experience overall?

Stewart Copeland: Well, it’s a lot of fun telling stories that people are interested in hearing. As always, I cringe a little bit when I think of some of the laughs that come from some of the aspects of my stories. But I tell them with love and admiration in my heart, even if they do leave my colleagues at the wrong end of the gag, sometimes.

I try to remind myself to remind my listeners of that, and that we’re enjoying a snicker at the expense of my highly-esteemed colleagues.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s an interesting way to put it, because a lot of times people of your stature talk about “well, back in the day, this crazy thing happened…” and there probably is a fine line regarding making somebody mad and just having some fun with the stories.

Stewart Copeland: Hey, I’m just looking for laughs. And by the way, I excuse myself by putting myself at the wrong end of the gag as often as I can.

Copeland at the NAMM Show event

Rock Cellar Magazine: Had you done anything like that at NAMM before?

Stewart Copeland: I’ve done various things at NAMM. The previous year was TAMA’s 40th anniversary so I said a few words on their behalf. In fact, I only needed to speak very few words.

I didn’t need to go into their superior technology, their wonderful materials, design. All I had to do was refer to the fact that I’ve been playing them for forty years.

“Any questions?”

Rock Cellar Magazine: Your new tour is particularly interesting. It’s only hitting a few college towns, it looks like –

Stewart Copeland: Well we’re ironing out the kinks, sort of ‘trying it out’. We’re off Broadway for the moment.

Rock Cellar Magazine: For anyone unfamiliar with the tour, what’s it all about?

Stewart Copeland: Well, it’s about the tension between two very different kinds of musicians. All musicians can be divided into two camps: although there is overlap there are fundamentally two different kinds of musicians: those who read and those who play.

The ones who read you’ll find in orchestras, and they devote their careers – they start the beginning of their musical experience as learning to read from the page. Their connection with music is visual. They read the notes off the page, they follow the tempo of the conductor’s baton with their eyes. It’s very much a re-creative process, they take something that has been created and they bring it to life.

And because they’re conscious of the fact that they do it as an ensemble, they have to obey the page. Their whole ethos is about religiously obeying the page. What they’re doing, what their fingers are doing, arrives via their eyeballs, whereas the players don’t follow the page. Players connect to the music through their ears. And they improvise with their fingers – they could be staring off into space, they’re not looking at a page. They’re not looking at a conductor, they’re listening to the other guys. They’re connected with their ears, and what their fingers are doing largely comes from instinct.

There’s knowledge – they are playing a known composition, but basically the feel, the emphasis, it all comes from the player. They create the nuance. For the composer, it’s very different – you compose and you’re looking for those reader guys. But when you’re a member of a band, it’s not about homework, it’s about thinking on your feet.

Bringing these two worlds together is what ParCo is all about. Where the rubber hits the road is when it comes to improvisation. People like Jon Kimura Parker, a concert pianist…he’s the guy who parachutes into the mighty symphony to play Rachmaninov or whatever, he’s the virtuoso pianist. But as he’s playing these great works, the great classics, he’s thinking “man, this is what’s on the page here but I could do that!” and his creative process is sort of inspired by this.

He’s always looked for a way to bust off the page and do some crazy shit with Stravinsky.

We both have the same agent, and our agent said to each of us “you gotta meet this guy.” And so we did, and it’s perfect synergy – I understand the printed page, I understand what’s on the score. I read the damn thing. As a composer, I put it on the page. The drummer guy is a different guy. I don’t read nothin’ when I’m playing my drums. I do it completely instinctively, which can be a disaster, but I connect it with my ears and it’s all instinctive. It’s all improvisation, even when I’m performing Ben-Hur as a ninety-minute score with a giant orchestra closely synchronized with picture. They’re all reading the score, I’m just making shit up.

Rock Cellar Magazine: And it just happens to sound great, yeah.

Stewart Copeland: Well I know what the music’s doing, so I do what I can to push it. And so, Jon Kimura Parker – who we call ‘Jackie’ – he’s really fascinated by this world of leaping off the precipice into improvisation. In the classical world, they regard improvisation with a kind of awe and dread in exactly the same way a lead guitarist regards those who read music: with awe and dread.

You know the old joke, “How do you get a guitarist to turn down? Put a sheet of music in front of him.” Or “How do you get him to turn his amplifier off? Put music on the page.” “How do you get an orchestra to stop dead? Take the music away.”

There’s a really great advantage to me, getting to work with these musicians. I’ve discovered that as I get into the classical world, the technique, the proficiency, the ‘chops’, of those orchestral players are far beyond anything that I’ve encountered. Even considering the studio cats of Los Angeles, where there’s high competition and the best of the best of the best are right here, for hire.

These classical guys blow them out of the water. The stuff Jackie does on the piano…oh, Jesus, I don’t know anybody that can do that here in L.A.  Those classical guys start younger.

Rock Cellar Magazine: So everyone’s pretty much in awe of each other. You’re in awe of Jon Kimura Parker’s skills, he’s in awe of the other musicians, and so on. It seems like everybody’s in awe of each other’s skills.

Stewart Copeland: Well that’s what it takes to make a great band.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Have you practiced enough as a unit to know how these performances are going to flow together?

Stewart Copeland: The University of Texas at Austin very kindly commissioned this whole thing, which means that they gave a hall to rehearse in and put us up in order to organize all this so yeah, we have a pretty good idea. We had a chance to try a bunch of stuff, and it’s about half of my material and half from the classics…composers dead long enough to not rise from the grave…

Rock Cellar Magazine: Are there any plans yet to bring the tour to more cities, or is it too soon to think about that?

Stewart Copeland: Well, Jackie is touring. He’s always touring…Marlon Martinez, by the way, is the next big thing. It was Stanley Clark who turned me on to him, he’s got the Rolodex from hell. This kid, he’s still in college. He’s at Coburn. He really is the real deal, he’s the Next One.

stewart copeland jon kimura parker off the score pic
As far as getting it together, we all have agendas and schedules and so on, but we do really enjoy this, and we’ll be finding little moments at different times of the year to do this.

Rock Cellar Magazine: While you were talking about it I envisioned the tour coming through the VPAC at California State University Northridge, their fancy new hall.

Stewart Copeland: Well I’m coming there with a different show.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You are? When?

Stewart CopelandBen-Hur. I’m not sure if that’s this year or 2016, though.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re quite a busy man, then.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, but this is a fun way for me to play my drums with great musicians without a lot of hoopla. It’s really easy to do. An interesting thing about classical musicians is that they don’t carry their gear around. The only person with gear to carry around is me with my drum set. The piano’s provided locally, there’s a standard issue Steinway, double bass is provided, Yoon brings her violin but the amps, the back line, I just tell them I want two big-ass Marshalls and that’s what we get.

The other cool thing is we play in these performing arts centers, like the one in Northridge, that are just beautiful places to play. Look – it’s all about the showers.

Stewart on a horse in his 'Ben-Hur' performance.
Stewart on a horse in his ‘Ben-Hur’ performance.

Rock Cellar Magazine: I imagine they have world class bathrooms.

Stewart Copeland: They do. They’ve got bathrooms worthy of Yo-Yo Ma. That’s got to be one hell of a shower.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about your private studio. Seems like you have a lot of fun there, hanging out with icons like Neil Peart of Rush, Danny Carey of Tool, and even South Park co-creator Matt Stone & uploading jams to YouTube. What’s that all about?

Stewart Copeland: My studio, the Sacred Grove, is…I’m a glorified roadie at heart. I like to play with my toys, and my biggest, coolest toy is my studio. It’s a giant train set, and my engineer – my lifelong engineer, Jeff Seitz, we sort of built it together over the years. With the advance of technology I kind of operate it myself these days. Jeff’s one of my best friends, he’ll be our tour manager, in fact.

But as far as the studio goes, I’ve sort of hogged & moved in on the engineering myself because I really enjoy it. I love laying wires and finding the best position for the microphone and experimenting. Since no other clients come in here, when I get that drum sound it doesn’t move. But I’m always kind of honing it, so just playing with it all is like a giant train set.

It makes it the perfect jamming & recording environment. The guitarist looks around, there’s a plectrum right there. He needs a nine volt battery, I got one. Everything is exactly where musicians like to find them. This is the most fun, easiest, coolest environment for musicians to just play. And, unlike a studio, there’s no plugging in and all that…everything is already line-checked, all you have to do is pick up an instrument and start playing.

And since there are no engineers, it also doesn’t feel like a studio recording, which is just a sterile experience.

Even if you love recording the studio is that professionalism, that kind of “money is being spent” atmosphere, all that. This is not that, this is strictly a “hang”.

The musicians come in here, I invite them over, they’re like the trains that I get to play with in my big train set. We just enjoy being in here and having a party. I have some by day, as well, on rather more sober occasions. Day or night, it’s a lot of fun to just make music in here.

The other part of it is, I’m also a recording & filming enthusiast as well, an amateur filmmaker. So I have six cameras running. When the doorbell rings, I flip on the cameras and the whole studio starts recording. Because the cameras are locked off, six of ‘em with wide angle lenses wrapped around the room, I can overdub video, and that really helps when we’re putting the clips together. It’s fun to do.

It’s really not goal-oriented, because the only goal is to put it up on YouTube for people to freely enjoy.

Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s a similar concept to what Daryl Hall does with his Live at Daryl’s House program, people come over to jam at his house and all that.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, it is. I hadn’t heard of his show when I started doing this, but yeah, it’s quite similar…but also fundamentally different. That is also a really cool idea, he has a beautiful studio, beautiful environment, he’s also thought about how to make the perfect, fun place to play. But artists who come there have already made a record and they’re on the show to plug the record. And it is professional, the room is full of professionals. I’ve got the world’s cheapest roadie/engineer on the planet: me, that’s it.

Another thing about the Sacred Grove recordings: the drums and the initial tracks are 100% improvised. You’re not just seeing people play live, you’re seeing them make it up. It’s a jam band thing, everything that comes out of here is completely improvised. There’s never anything organized.

Afterwards, I cut it up and add the overdubs and add instruments & I do cool stuff with it, but the material, the ‘stuff’ of it, the raw materials are fully improvised.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Your days are pretty filled right now, huh?

Stewart Copeland: It’s what I do by evening. By day, my day job…right now, I’ve got a commission from the Pittsburg Symphony, from the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, from the Iceland Symphony, I’m writing an opera for two different companies, the Chicago Theater Opera and Long Beach Opera…that’s my day job. I’m very engrossed in that, I love it, but by night I rock. Three chord licks, loud guitars, cool drum sounds, it’s a completely different world.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How did that improvisational style come into play with your recordings with the Police?

Stewart Copeland: Most of the Police recordings were very spontaneous in the same way. I think I told the story of how one of them was the first time we ever played the song was when we recorded it. That’s pretty raw. Most of the other tracks were two or three takes without any pre-rehearsals. It’s not just that it was the second or third take – or first take, even – it’s that we hadn’t rehearsed the songs at all. We did the arrangement right there on the day. The Police was very spontaneous in that regard. Or at least my end of it was, by the time they cut the guitars and vocals they had all day, they had weeks to do the overdubs…but the drums? Right from the heart.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Considering how close to your heart the older Police recordings tended to be, do you ever get tired of hearing them on the radio all the time, still?

Stewart Copeland: Well now that you mention it…we’d record an album as described, then we’d go out and tour. We’d play the songs every night. And I’d figure out how to get from the verse to the chorus, and I’d figure out how to do this cool thing here, this other cool thing there. “That part I don’t like that’s on the record, I don’t have to do that live! I can fix it!”

Photo: Janette Beckman

And so I’d listen to the record unadorned and untrimmed, and sometimes in need of a haircut. But you know, they still stand up, they don’t bother me. It’s just sort of interesting that the record everyone’s familiar with is from before I figured out how to do it the best way.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s a glowing recommendation for the Police’s live records, then.

Stewart Copeland: Yes. Well, as far as the drums are concerned.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re obviously very active in the music business today, continuing the hard work you’ve done for the past few decades. Do you have any specific thoughts or standpoints on the state of the business today versus how it was in the past?

Stewart Copeland: As I said at NAMM, the playing field has been leveled. The threshold has been lowered, which means that any damn fool can do it…but that also means that some genius who would have been excluded now has that chance to get on the airwaves. It’s become a lot easier to create music that comes out of speakers.

Getting music onto the page is just as hard as it always was, but getting things to sound cool coming out of speakers is now within the reach of everyone. That widens the talent pool exponentially. That’s a good thing. As far as how to succeed with music, how to promote it, that also has completely changed. Back in my day you’d travel around in a truck, go schmooze the local radio station, hopefully they start playing your record. Then you move on to the next town. Nowadays, playlists are all generated centrally out of New York, it’s a whole different world. It’s almost unrelated.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Some people get big off YouTube.

Stewart Copeland: Well it means you don’t have to go to The Man.

Rock Cellar Magazine: The Police already did the reunion tour, and you and your band mates are all doing your own things at the moment. It doesn’t seem as if any new activity is on the horizon there, but the other day I was researching your solo career and I realized I had never heard Oysterhead. That album sounded like a lot of fun –

Stewart Copeland: The band was a lot of fun, that was probably the most fun band ever.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What was that like, and are you and the guys – Les Claypool and Trey Anastasio – ever thinking about going back to it? There was one reunion gig in the past…

Stewart Copeland: Well, we’re all really keen. We talk about it…a lot. We cross paths & we’re always talking about it. The problem is…well I’m really busy but I can pick & choose what I’m working on. It’s all on my schedule. Those two guys are both on rather successful, living, working, breathing, touring, recording bands. Their schedules don’t really permit much leeway. Besides, one of us (Anastasio) is now a Grateful Dead!

Rock Cellar Magazine: Yeah, that’s true.

Stewart Copeland: Trey Garcia, you know? That is so great. When I heard that news, I just exploded with joy. Because I know how much that would mean to Trey, that kind of validation. He never tried to be Jerry Garcia or anything like that, but this was still great news.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That ought to keep him busy for a while, definitely.

Stewart Copeland: And then a week after that, you know, he’s back on tour with Phish.

Rock Cellar Magazine: They’re relentless with their touring, it’s intense.

Stewart Copeland: They are.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Well Oysterhead was fun, and it’s great to hear it was fun for you as well. Hopefully you can get together sometime for a sequel.

Stewart Copeland: What I’m hoping is one day both Les and Trey will be in L.A. at the same time, so I can get them over here to the god-damn Sacred Grove! If there were ever two guys made for the Sacred Grove, it’s them.

Rock Cellar Magazine: On a personal note, I saw Chevy Metal, the band with Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, play back in like 2008 at the Malibu Inn. You were there, and when you got behind the drum kit I noticed Taylor had the biggest smile…

Stewart Copeland: Well you know why he was smiling, right? Because he gets to be the front man when I’m behind the drums.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Yeah, he loves doing that.

Stewart Copeland: He’s convincing, too.

Rock Cellar Magazine: The Foo Fighters still do at least one song per night where he gets to go out and be the frontman.

Stewart Copeland: Well I’m not sure if folks want to hear him sing as much as they want to watch Dave Grohl play drums.

Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s probably a matter of both, yeah.

Stewart Copeland: I wish Taylor could play guitar, because then they could really trade off.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Maybe that’s their next act, you never know with them. Thank you for your time, Stewart! It’s greatly appreciated.

Stewart Copeland: Thanks for your interest.

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