by Skip Daly
When one thinks of Stewart Copeland, iconic drummer for The Police and, more recently, Oysterhead, guitar is not the first instrument that comes to mind.
However, as Copeland is fond of pointing out, his first hit was as the incognito guitar hero Klark Kent.
Copeland’s musical endeavors since The Police’s multi-platinum 1980s heyday, scoring music for film and composing operas, have served as further evidence that his musical prowess extends far beyond the cymbals.
In recent years, he has added award-winning filmmaker and author to the list. With the 2009 release of his memoirs, Strange Things Happen , Copeland shares what he terms his “rock and roll war stories”, focusing on the tales that “always go over well at the dinner table”. The book dances seamlessly between concert tours, polo matches, and other diverse experiences, leaving the reader to wonder “how does all of this happen to one person?”
Check Out The Police Collection at Amazon.com
Copeland recently sat down with Guitar International Magazine to discuss such varied topics as his new book, the difficulties of composing for orchestra, the challenges of drumming in The Police, and how he really wants the world to know and recognize the greatness of Andy Summers’ guitar playing.
SKIP DALY: Hi Stewart. I’ve been a really big fan of your work for over 20 years now, and I appreciate you calling in.
Stewart Copeland: Aw, shucks.
SKIP: Yeah, you don’t hear that too much, I’m sure.
Stewart Copeland: Never enough.
SKIP: I was a little too young to have caught the Police back in the early ’80s, but was thrilled to finally get to see the band live on the reunion tour, so thank you for that.
Stewart Copeland: Well good, glad you enjoyed it.
SKIP: When I told a couple people that I’d be interviewing you for GuitarInternational.com, invariably I heard “isn’t he a drummer?”, and I had to explain that you are, indeed, a jack of all trades, scoring films, producing Operas, etc.
Stewart Copeland: I had my first hit playing guitar!
SKIP: Yeah, I was about to bring up the illustrious Klark Kent. So, let’s start with the guitar – do you still play much guitar? Do you use it a lot in your film scoring work? What’s your favorite guitar and how many guitars do you have lying around?
Stewart Copeland: Let’s see…looking over here, I’ve got my Fender Strat, I’ve got my original SG, I’ve got a Gibson acoustic guitar that’s from the 19th century. I’ve got that little Sting Martin thing, which is really cool. I’ve got my Fender Telecaster bass, I’ve got my Fender acoustic bass. I’ve got a cello, I’ve got a baby cello…I’ve got my banjo.
Let’s see…what else do I have lying around here…oh, I’ve got another really cool semi-acoustic Gibson kind of jazz guitar, it’s got sort of a hollow body Les Paul shape. I’ve got my mandolin that I got from Eddie Vedder. I’ve got all kinds of stuff here.
You know, what I do for a living everyday is play on the keyboard, and enter notes into a computer. But, actually, the good lord above did not give me the gift of ‘pianotude’, and I can’t play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the keyboard without difficulty, and without the help of a sequencer. But, guitar…I never practice or anything, but it just comes naturally. Fun instrument.
SKIP: Would the same be true when you try to pick up the banjo or mandolin? Or is that stuff that you go to when you’re looking for just a specific sound?
Stewart Copeland: No, I’ve got sort of a little forest…a little ‘grove’ of guitars…and in idle moments I’ll just grab one and start plunking away on it.
SKIP: So you do still play a lot then, just for fun, as opposed to work?
Stewart Copeland: Oh yeah. Actually, I probably play more guitar than I play drums, sitting around the house here. I get paid more for drumming though. And when I use guitar in my films I actually call Michael Thompson or Leslie Anderson.
SKIP: You mentioned doing most of your film scoring work on keyboards or synth, and using sequencers. Do you find place in your film scoring work to pull the guitar out and actually play it?
Stewart Copeland: Well, as an instrument, guitar makes more of a statement than orchestra. Orchestra, because of the way we’re conditioned to hear film music, we don’t hear it with any specific identity of its own. But when you hear a guitar, it does have an identity. It speaks of a…it’s a cultural statement, the guitar, whereas an orchestra is more anonymous. So, when you use a guitar in a film score, it’s for a specific purpose, whereas orchestra is kind of a jack of all trades as an instrument.
And, for a given film, it might be a guitar, or it might be some other stringed instrument for whatever ethnic world that the film inhabits. Guitar is quite broad, more broad than, say, a sitar, but still quite specific to a certain kind of movie. You wouldn’t use guitar for a period piece, without being very careful to avoid having it sound like an anachronism.
SKIP: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the use of orchestra in film, and it reminds me of a quote I recall reading somewhere, where someone was talking about the role of music in film, and made the statement that “film music is doing its job right if you don’t realize it’s even there”.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, very often that’s true. Very effective scores do that. But, then again…the great scores that you do remember – and which do stick in your mind and the themes go around your head the next day – those are important. A score which has its own identity won’t kill a film. But, a score which has no identity also won’t kill a film. As long as it does its job, which is to tweak and manipulate the emotions of the viewer, then it all works out.
There’s no rule that says a great score must not have an identity. That’s certainly not true. For instance, Titanic, with a score that stood out and had its own identity…that certainly did not harm the film. My wife was weeping during the main titles for god’s sake.
SKIP: This leads me to an unfair question…
Stewart Copeland: My favorite kind…
SKIP: If you had to pick between playing drums in a rock band, and film scoring, which is your favorite thing to do?
Stewart Copeland: Well, drums are a lot harder work, a lot more of a physical exertion, a lot more of a commitment. It’s like asking a mountaineer whether he’d rather climb Everest or…go surfing. That is, do something else that’s fun and easy. Well, the fun and easy thing is fun and easy, so of course that’s better. But, that thrill of the superhuman effort of enduring to achieve a result…it’s kind of apples and oranges to compare or try to choose one over the other.
Film composing is fun, it’s comfortable – I do it at home, it’s completely engrossing. I love composing any kind of music. Playing drums is Hard Fucking Work, but the thrill of it, when you’re in front of an audience, is worth it. It’s not easy, and it’s a physical test, but there is a commensurate reward for it. It’s kind of hard to compare…the thrill of playing for 80,000 people – you don’t get that scoring a movie.
SKIP: I recently finished reading your memoir, Strange Things Happen, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. How did this book come about? Is it something that you always wanted to do?
Stewart Copeland: What I really wanted to do was publish these stories in magazines, as short stories. It’s really a collection of rock and roll “war stories”. I’m not that bothered about telling my life story. Who cares? What’s interesting about my life is the fun stuff that I got involved with and these crazy adventures that have befallen me. So, it was really about telling these stories. But, publishers think differently, and they all advised me to do it in one place and do it as a book.
SKIP: What made it feel like this was the time to do it? Was it just a matter of having some spare time to work on it?
Stewart Copeland: It’s strange how all these vectors converged at one time and place. I was working away, doing what I do, and had started writing this book. Actually, when I finished the Police film, it had reminded me of all these stories that I had, and I enjoyed the writing of the narration for that. I just enjoy writing.
And these are stories that always go down well at the dinner table, so I collected them up. I’m not sure about the timing of everything, but things did come together in the perfect order for me to have the perfect ending for my book, which was the Police reunion tour.
SKIP: You talked at one point, and I think this was in the book, as well as in the Everyone Stares dvd, about how extreme the feeling of ‘detachment’ was that you felt from “normal life” during the height of The Police fame. I think you described seeing, from a limo or something, a suburban street with children playing, and it made you feel like there were a lot of things in life that you were missing. With all the fame and fortune you’ve had, do you think there were things you missed out on, or are there no regrets?
Stewart Copeland: No, I didn’t really miss out on them. I just got to enjoy them later in life. This is really corny, and it’s going to be a complete buzz kill for your readers, presumably read by guitarists with dreams of conquering the world with their guitar, but the real reward for it all is sitting on my couch watching Spongebob with my bunny rabbits on me, dozing while my children are chuckling away, and just lounging around in the middle of all that. That’s really the meaning of life.
All the Grammies and the accolades and all of that – they all fade. The money – you get used to it. All the rewards of success in show business are ephemeral. Some of them, such as financial security, are very important. But you don’t feel them, they fade. The accolades, they fade. Anybody knows that when you get that trophy in school for football or whatever…the first day, it’s sitting there on the shelf and it’s all shiny and you walk past and you think “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I won that”, and you get a great feeling.
A week later, it’s lost a little bit of its sheen. A month later, you gotta really work at it to get that feeling. A year later, you walk past and you don’t even see it. The real parts of life that I felt like I was missing, and which I have since come to enjoy – the family part – that endures. And that’s the real thing. That’s really what we’re here for, and that’s where real happiness lies.
The wild adventures are wild, and they’re fun, and that’s why I put them in the book. They may not be the meaning of life – they’re not why we draw breath every day – but they’re still good fun.
SKIP: Speaking of fame, another thing I find compelling about your story is how you seem to be able to take “being famous” in stride. It’s almost like a suit that you’re able to put on and take off within the context of given circumstances. Is that an accurate description?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, I think you’re right. That is what I was trying to talk about. And it’s real important for people in that position to remember that it is just a suit to be put on and taken off. And who you really are isn’t that suit.
SKIP: At this point in your life, in an average day, are you able to, say, go to the supermarket without getting recognized and accosted?
Stewart Copeland: Oh yeah, totally. During the reunion tour, if the band is playing in Atlanta, chances are if I go to the supermarket in Atlanta on that day, I’ll be noticed. But the “avatar”…you know, the ‘other person’, the person on the screen…that guy comes and goes. I’m here 24/7, living my life, walking down the street, but the famous guy – he comes and goes, depending on what’s going on. And normally in my life, I walk does the streets in Santa Monica and it’s pretty comfortable. Every now and then, someone will walk past and say “Love your work Mr. Copeland” and keep walking. That’s fine, I can deal with that.
The really crazy part is actually a younger demographic than my demographic. Jonas Brothers – their fans are much younger, wilder, crazier, and more full of fantasy than Police fans who are in their forties, and so it’s not a problem for me. Back in our younger days, when our fans were young, they were wild and crazy and invasive.
It’s a strange thing. Back in those days, when you just have people beating down the doors and clamoring for attention, it’s irksome, and it’s very easy to fall prey to the temptation to just say “F**K OFF EVERYBODY!”…which is so wrong because you need them, and they’re only expressing appreciation for what you do, and for twenty different reasons that is the wrong response. But that is the animal response that comes welling up the gorge. You really have to remind yourself, and when you’re a young rock star you sometimes forget to remind yourself.
SKIP: Yeah, well, for the fans too…it probably is one of those things that comes with age, where you stop and think to yourself “it is wrong to invade someone’s privacy”, so I guess I could see both sides of that. While you might “need” them, as you say, I don’t know that the fans you describe would be blameless for acting like that.
Stewart Copeland: We’re all human.
SKIP: I know you couldn’t cover everything in the book, but I have to ask why Animal Logic wasn’t covered at all in the book. I really loved the two records you did with that group.
Stewart Copeland: Ah, right! Yeah, there were so many stories that didn’t make the book…I’ll have to write another one. I just had to stop writing. I hit, like, 80,000 words or something like that and the publisher said “Okay, Okay, stop stop!” And there are a lot of stories yet to tell. They are more stories yet to befall! The biggest story I didn’t tell was the first go-round with the Police, and I’ve gotten a lot of flack for that.
SKIP: I guess Andy did a really good job covering that…
Stewart Copeland: Andy did an excellent job. He totally covered it. He really gave the history – the facts of it – and also the atmosphere of it. And it’s all there. Also, in my film, I gave the story so you could see it. But those are the excuses. The reality is that when I set the pen to paper for that portion of my life, the pen just wouldn’t move across the page. And I figured that story was already told, not only in Andy’s book and, to a certain extent, in Sting’s book, but also in several other books. There’s no “behind the scenes” that required further light or further comment.
The story is there – it’s a pretty mundane story. Like I said, this book is a collection of fun stories and that wasn’t the most fun or them. What was fun was the reunion tour, which I did totally get into. And I think I did my best to explain the dynamic of how the band works, creatively and socially, and I thought I pretty much covered that. I accept the criticism though, there must have been a lot of expectation there that I’d tell the Police story – again. In hindsight, I probably should have done that, but I think there are plenty of other fun stories that make it a worthwhile read.
SKIP: I thought your insights on the reunion tour were extremely interesting. The legendary “strife” between you guys always seems like it’s presented in black and white, and the reality of it is much more interesting. You guys seem like you get along, but once you get instruments in hand you drive each other nuts because you care about the music so much.
Stewart Copeland: Which is a benefit to the group. That conflict really made the band what it was.
SKIP: Aside from the book, I also really enjoyed your film, Everyone Stares. That must have been a lot of fun to put together, yes?
Stewart Copeland: Oh it was. It was out of the blue. Just from one day to the next, they invented computers, then they invented the application Final Cut Pro, and suddenly this little hobby that I had twenty years ago – and kind of had to put aside for technological reasons…you know, with Super 8 film every time you run it through the machine you’re scratching it – there’s no negative.
There’s only one master. So, I had to just box it up and not look at it. I did transfer some of it to video, but the quality was just so terrible that I didn’t pursue that. It wasn’t until computers advanced, and you could digitize things, and then Final Cut Pro that I could get it all digitized and then have it there in really high resolution. And there’s nothing I like more than fiddling with applications.
If I’m not on Digital Performer, then I’m on Finale. If I’m not on Finale, I’m on ProTools. If not that, then Photoshop or After Effects. And when I came across Final Cut…holy crap, making movies is a lot of fun! And the blinding insight that I’ve got this great footage to work with…that’s what led me to make the film. Really, it was just a home movie at first. It only became a commercial product as a result of Les Claypool, who suggested that I send it to Sundance. That changed everything.
I think it was a surprise for everyone in “Police world”, or rather all of the ex-members of “Police world”, because there was no “Police world”. Andy, Sting, and I…all three of us were surprised by the interest in the film, because all three of us had really moved on and established new careers. We really didn’t have much of an idea as to what The Police still meant to people. The film was just a taste…just a hint of what would happen when we went on tour.
SKIP: Do you think the movie helped plant the seed of the idea for doing the reunion tour? I know you’ve been on record as always having wanted to do it…but from Sting’s point of view, do you think that gave him the little bit of nudge that he needed…that ‘hey, there really are people clamoring for this’?
Stewart Copeland: I suspect that the nudge probably happened in the people around Sting, because in that world the “P” word was not spoken. They had a whole new brand name that they were working on. It’s that syndrome…you know, like with Eric Clapton trying to shake off Cream. It’s completely understandable, but I think that everyone in “Sting world” might have looked at it and thought “you know what, that thing still has power…it might be worth doing”. But, I don’t know – this is entirely speculation. I’ve heard what Sting said in interviews.
It may sound crazy, but I never really asked him “Why did you call?” It seemed so obvious…what had he been waiting for all those years? I haven’t really thought much about what his motives might have been.
The Police – The Old Grey Whistle Test – February 10, 1978
SKIP: The final scene in that Everyone Stares movie, where you guys are handcuffed to…what, a bridge or something?…
Stewart Copeland: Oh thank you Lord that I had that shot!! The perfect end-of-movie shot!…
SKIP: Yeah, his statement there carries a lot of extra poignance, where Sting says “I blame the man behind the camera for all of my problems”.
Stewart Copeland: Exactly! Oh, I love that line…
SKIP: Yeah, I thought that was the perfect ending.
Stewart Copeland: By the way, that wasn’t the end of the Police. After that scene, we went on for another two or three years. I think that was during the Zenyatta tour. That wasn’t the end of the Police…I just used that scene for the end of the movie.
SKIP: What was the story behind that scene? Why were you guys handcuffed wherever you were?
Stewart Copeland: It was a photo shoot for a French magazine…we were accepting an award for something, god knows what. And they had their photo shoot, so they had us handcuffed with the Paris skyline in the background. And they were all there dressed as detectives or something. God knows what the promo gimmick was. But it was a great shot. There were a lot of bizarre promotions like that, where they’d think up some kind of theme for the press conference or something.
SKIP: So, looking back at some of your various projects…is there any chance of any further collaborations with the Police? What about Animal Logic or Oysterhead?
Stewart Copeland: Animal Logic…I still get along great with both Stanley and Debbie. Haven’t seen Debbie for years though. In fact, we’ve got a date to have lunch next week to catch up. Somehow, even though the ingredients were really good, that project never really pulled together…so I can’t see any likelihood of Animal Logic reconvening.
Oysterhead is a different story. We still have a real buzz. We’re all real busy, but it’s such a low commitment. All we have to do is turn on some amps and Oysterhead just happens. We don’t even need material. We got called to play Bonneroo one year after we hadn’t played together in five years or something, and we pretty much had a day of rehearsal, which was mostly laughing and joking around, and we went on and just blew the place away. With Oysterhead, there’s a really really rare meeting of the creative minds. We just spark each other off. We enjoy each other’s company, we enjoy playing together. It’s kind of a hobby, and we enjoy it more on that basis.
So, I would say there is a strong likelihood that Oysterhead will one day find a way to get back together. The Police…same thing. It’s the completely opposite atmosphere…in fact, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of the kind of band. The Police is all about songs that you know, and the power of a known chorus, and the hits and all that. In Oysterhead, we don’t even know the songs because we’re making them up as we go along. And there’s a different kind of spark that you get when you suddenly arrive at ‘Nirvana’.
The atmosphere in the band is completely different too…something about The Police is bigger than any of the individuals in it, and that causes us to respect it. It’s just something that we can’t get on our own playing those songs. Right now, the idea of any Police activity gives me the cold shakes. I’m certainly not ready for it right now. But, just being a realist, it’s too powerful.
SKIP: Wow, so there is a possibility, undiscussed as of yet…
Stewart Copeland: Oh sure. No matter what any of the three of us says about the way we feel now. It’s only because I’ve been around the block a couple times that I’m giving you this answer. Emotionally, my feeling is “no f**king way”. I really enjoyed the tour. It was perfect. We did exactly what we needed to do. It was really great, but the Police is just not a world that I can live in for longer than a very short time, and I suppose it’s because I only have one job there, that only uses one aspect of my music, which is playing drums.
And I love playing my drums, and I love that aspect of music, but I have too much other stuff going on in my head to be able to only play drums for an extended period.
SKIP: You guys would never consider trying to record anything new I guess, right?
Stewart Copeland: Well, that would take material.
SKIP: Yeah, I remember in the book where you told Sting that after a day in the studio one of you would have drum sticks sticking out of your neck…
Stewart Copeland: Well, that’s right. The studio experience…oh my god! You know, one thing about it…I think it would be incredible, and we’d all be pleased by it at the end of the day. But life is too sweet. We’re enjoying ourselves. I’m enjoying writing music for orchestra…I’m writing a piece for gamelan bells and orchestra for the Dallas symphony. And when I’m finished doing that I’ll write an opera for the Royal Opera in London.
Meanwhile, I’m writing a book of percussion ensemble pieces. I love life and the music that I’m making…I’m reaping the reward after all my years of struggle. Deservedly or undeservedly, I’m living a really great life, writing the kind of music that I’ve got surging through my brain. And it’s kind of hard to imagine leaving this beautiful place and going back to work.
SKIP: I’ve just got a few more, if you’ve got time…
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, I thought we were going to talk about pickups and strings and shit…
SKIP: Well, there’s such a broad range of interesting stuff I wanted to ask about…
Stewart Copeland: You mean the readers of GuitarInternational.com have a broader range of interest than readers of Drum World magazine…?
SKIP: I think you’d be surprised…yeah. So, here’s a drumming question – I recall reading an interview with you where you talked about playing drums after a period of not playing, and you described being surprised about having gotten better by just having spent time thinking about the instrument, different rhythms, etc. Does that still happen for you?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, as a kid I found that. Because, as a kid, you really have pretty rare opportunities to actually play your instrument, particularly if you’re in a boarding school. You’ve got to find a sound-proofed garage or something. You don’t get to play your instrument all day every day the way guitarists do.
So yeah, it surprised me that progress would happen anyway. Walking down the street, ‘rhythmatizing’ in the brain, just thinking about rhythm, and kind of air drumming…it actually does work.
SKIP: Yeah, you know, not to interject personal stories here, but the reason this popped into my head as I was preparing to speak to you is because I played bass as a hobby for twenty years…
Stewart Copeland: Great instrument! Can we talk about basses in a guitar magazine? Because actually I almost enjoy playing bass more than guitar…
SKIP: Yeah, I’ve always loved playing bass, but about a year ago I did something I always wanted to do, which is start playing drums. I’ve been playing about a year or so…
Stewart Copeland: How’s it going? Are you rocking? Are you able to feel the swing of it, and the throb or pulse?
SKIP: Yeah, and the thing I found interesting, and this is where your quote popped into mind…and I mean this with all due humility – I’m not saying I’m great, or even “good” yet – but I was surprised about how certain aspects of it came to me more quickly than I thought they would, just because I was always a fan of drumming.
I always paid attention to it, watched the drummer at shows, incessantly pound on the steering wheel, which drives my wife nuts…that sort of thing.
Stewart Copeland: You probably have a gift for it.
SKIP: I wouldn’t say that, but again I remembered your comment and I do find it surprising that it’s possible to “make progress” from just thinking about it.
Stewart Copeland: Well, yeah, I think that ‘virtual practice’ has value. Because really what practice is all about is training the synapses, and in some ways you can simulate that without actual drumsticks in hand.
SKIP: I guess, in a sense, it is an instrument that can be “practiced” even when you’re not sitting at a kit.
Stewart Copeland: Well, it may be that you’re not practicing your single stroke rolls so that your single stroke rolls sound more precise. But what you are doing is inventing rhythm, so that the rhythms will have more creativity and your vocabulary will be wider.
SKIP: Yeah, I confess that the rudiments are an area that I haven’t spent time the necessary time with.
Stewart Copeland: Ha! There are no shortcuts my lad!
SKIP: Yeah, I know. So, as a drummer, how much influence do you have on how the vocals are presented? To what extent does the singing influence your drumming (e.g., phrasing, accents, rhythm, etc.)?
Stewart Copeland: Oh, I totally follow the singer. The singer, in a way, is like the 16th notes, rhythmically speaking. The guitar is chugging away and the bass is chugging away, but the notes in between…you know, you’re getting the quarter notes from the bass and guitar, but you’re getting the 16th notes from the vocals. And the meaning of the song…the sway of the song…whether the figure leans this way or leans that way – it’s all in the vocal. And I’m not a big fan of vocalists. I like to trash them at every opportunity because they’re all hysterical hissy fit people…but, in fact, the singing is probably what I listen to most.
I feel the bass and guitar, and I’m locked in there at a visceral level, but intellectually, my conscious mind is pretty much wrapped around the vocal. Even though I’d like to smack most vocalists. Just kidding!!
SKIP: Have you gotten better at being sensitive to what the vocals are doing over the years?
Stewart Copeland: Well, sometimes I’m too sensitive. Sometimes I lean too much into it. In a way, the drummer’s got to stay a little detached, because the drummer has to be the fortress, while the soldiers do the fighting. And if the castle tries to be a soldier doing the fighting, it can be intrusive. I don’t know if that simile holds any water at all, but I like the idea of me being the fortress and those other cunts being the soldiers.
SKIP: Going back to the Police reunion tour, I know you guys made a bunch of arrangement tweaks, and one thing I noticed about some of the older songs, like “Truth Hits Everybody” and “Next To You”, was that the tempos were seriously slowed down. I’m curious what the decision-making process was like there – I guess that came about in rehearsals and in the process of re-arranging those songs…?
Stewart Copeland: Well, it was not my idea. One of the struggles in the Police has always been “faster” or “slower”, and singers like things to be slower, so that they can put emphasis on the words and give greater meaning to the delivery of the words. And if it’s too fast, you just can’t put as much expression into the words. The opposite is true of drumming, and so it’s always been me saying “faster” and Stingo saying “slower”.
And, you know, the singing is the focal point…so let’s go with what the singer needs. Because I can do it fast, I can do it slow, I can do it anyway you want it. The important thing is to get the song right. And when we have a singer with such power, let’s use that bastard to the fullest of his capacity and give him what he needs.
SKIP: So, it was a grudging acquiescence on your part…?
Stewart Copeland: “Grudging” is too strong a word…no, it wasn’t grudging at all. It’s just recognition of how the band is going to be most effective. What’s it take to turn over this stadium? What it takes is for Sting to be Sting. And so, it’s more of an eager embrace. You know, if it was all about how much I like to play my drums, it wouldn’t be a stadium. It would be the Wiltern.
SKIP: What’s next for you in terms of projects? You mentioned a symphony project.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, Gamelan is music from the little Indonesian island of Bali, where they have a unique cultural caldron, if you like. It’s the only Hindu island in an Islamic archipelago, and they have their own version of Hinduism, which is sort of like “voodoo” Hinduism. But, never mind all that…the music they make, the carvings, the dancing…it’s just pumping with art. This island, it’s such a high concentration…and, never mind all that…the music of the gamelan orchestra is played on these bells.
There are various different configurations, sometimes twenty of them, or sometimes only four guys, but they played tuned, pitched gongs, as well as arrays of pitched metal bars. But, apart from western music, it’s probably the most sophisticated music – harmonically and rhythmically – on the planet.
And aside from all the technique, it’s incredibly beautiful and ethereal. This outfit out of Dallas – actually the percussion section of the Dallas symphony – goes there every year.
They make their pilgrimage, and they’re steeped in this music, and they have sets of bells that they had made in Indonesia at concert pitch. One of the problems with writing for gamelan is that every bell set is only in tune with itself, and is out of tune with the next village down the road. So, these guys in Dallas have had these bells made to concert pitch, and the orchestra commissioned me to write a concerto for them. So, that’s what I’m working on now.
I’m also writing a book of pieces for different configurations of percussion ensembles, for duets for piano and marimba, and for quartets – mostly for quartets, marimbas and percussion. And for drumline – I’m writing a drumline piece for marching bands and football rabble rousing, as well as larger percussion ensembles, for schools and so on. And that’s quite interesting…so that’s what I’m doing right now, those musical pieces. Very obscure.
I mean, I’m not intending to make the charts with this. I don’t really have to worry about that. I have the luxury of just immersing myself in musical projects that amuse me. I don’t even need to worry about…I haven’t taken a call from my agent in quite some time now as far as film scoring. Although I did do a film score just the other day. Not a full score – some other poor bastard had to do the rest of the two hour movie, and I just did one song. It was for a documentary called “Bhutto”, about Benazir Bhutto, who obviously lived an incredible life. This documentary that they’ve made about her is pretty stunning. It was up at Sundance, so I just did one track for that.
Nowadays, film music is my hobby, which means I’m not going to be doing much of it because, for most people, it’s a dog-eat-dog profession.
SKIP: So it sounds like you’re in a pretty good spot right now, in terms of just being able to pick and choose the projects that interest you and work on those, and that’s it.
Stewart Copeland: Pretty much, yeah.
SKIP: In terms of outside interests, you’re known to be heavily into polo. Are there any other obsessions that you indulge in during your free time?
Stewart Copeland: Well, applications. I love playing with computer applications that do cool things. I love messing with movies, and editing photographs of my kids. And travel, of course. C’mon, what about what my favorite pickup is or something about guitars!….
SKIP: Yeah, ok, talk about guitars for a minute…go for it, what’s your favorite piece of “gear”…
Stewart Copeland: Well, my favorite guitar…the guitar I’ve always wanted my whole life is Andy’s telecaster. And then they reproduced it, right down to the fine scratches and everything, and I didn’t get one! $3,000 each and by the time I swallowed hard and said “ok, give me one, I’ll pay”, they were all gone!
SKIP: You know, you’d think that would be do-able, for you…
Stewart Copeland: Really! It’s such a cool guitar. I think I revere it more than him. In fact, while we’re on the subject of Andy, this is the perfect place to make a complaint about journalists in general…
SKIP: Uh oh…
Stewart Copeland: Everytime I talk about the Police, I spend a great deal of time, usually, talking about Andy, and the contribution he makes to the band, and how unique it is, and how unique his contribution to the world of guitar is, and how very few guitarists cite Andy as their favorite guitarist but they all steal from him. And how seminal a figure he is in the guitar world.
None of it ever gets printed. It’s an amazing thing. I talk about both of my colleagues equally, but only the stuff that I say about Sting gets printed. So, let this be the forum, here at Guitar International.com, let it state that I believe Andy is the motherfucker and let him get the respect from me that he deserves. It irks me that this respect from me doesn’t get the attention that Andy deserves. Who cares about my opinion about Andy, except that he is an incredible guitarist, and the world should know that I believe that.
SKIP: Well, I give you my word that we’ll print that.
Stewart Copeland: You know, I’ve talked to a lot of guitarists who, even as they’re playing his shit, are not giving him credit for it. Now, I don’t know why that is.
SKIP: It’s funny you mention his telecaster, because there’s something I remember from his book [One Train Later] that was interesting. I don’t know if you remember this story or not but he describes being backstage somewhere and setting his guitar down against a big boiler-type structure, and it apparently demagnetized his pickups!
Stewart Copeland: Yeah. I can’t remember the full story with it, but yeah…did he have to replace a pickup or something? He had the wrong pickups on that thing…
SKIP: Yeah, he described how bummed out he was because he could never quite recapture the same sound.
Stewart Copeland: This was after the Police that he ruined the guitar?
SKIP: No, it was during. It was on the Ghost In The Machine tour maybe? He talks about it in the book. He and Sting were backstage, and he leaned his guitar up against this thing, and then went to eat something, and when he came back he couldn’t get any sound out of the guitar, and had to have some work done on it or something. I guess they had to replace the pickups.
Stewart Copeland: Huh…I vaguely remember reading that in the book, but I don’t remember any change in the sound. They both experimented with other guitars and other basses all the time, but Sting always goes back to his P bass or his Jazz bass…I think they’re both from about 1958 or 1959…and the same with Andy with his telecaster. He’s got more Stratocasters than I think they ever even made, and he’s pretty much actually a Stratocaster guy…but that tele he had, with the shit he did to it…I don’t know, there’s no other guitar that I’ve ever come across that has that sound, that just has that cut.
SKIP: He still plays that all the time, right?
Stewart Copeland: He actually used a replica on the tour because the original is so precious that he didn’t want to take it out of its ‘glass case’ kinda thing. I was also in a situation like that, not quite in such a sexy way, but I had a snare drum and I don’t know where it came from…it was a Pearl drum and I don’t even know how this Pearl came to live amongst my Tama drums, but it just had this sound. I recorded all the hits with it.
And I could never get another snare drum to have the same response, to have the same crack and everything. I’d wake up in the middle of the night fearing that I’d lost that one drum. Well eventually Tama was able to figure out what made that one drum so special and replicate it.
It took them two or three years, with different prototypes, metallurgists were involved and all that, but they were able to eventually replicate it and now I’ve got twenty of my favorite drum. They’re all exactly the same and they’re all perfect. And I think they were able to achieve that with Andy’s telecaster. And then, this is life’s great, cruel irony – I didn’t get one.
SKIP: They must have had a second run or something, no?
Stewart Copeland: Well, they did a second run but they weren’t up to the same level. On the first run, each guitar was hand-crafted, scratch for scratch. And I tried to tell those motherfuckers “Look, I put those scratches there! Those are my scratches!”
SKIP: You’d think you could get Andy to make a call for you or something…
Stewart Copeland: He’s a fucking guitarist…what are you gonna do?
SKIP: Another thing that was amazing from his book is when he described selling his Les Paul to Eric Clapton. This is obviously well before The Police days
Stewart Copeland: People always forget how much Andy predates us, I mean by a whole decade.
SKIP: Yeah, that was one of the fascinating things from his book – all the things he was doing years and years before The Police. Running around London with Eric Clapton and what have you. The guitar he sold Clapton ended up becoming Clapton’s iconic guitar.
Stewart Copeland: When we first met Andy, he was the big dog. He was the triple scale alpha guitarist on the session, and we were two hungry guys. Andy was the big guy.
SKIP: Do you still keep in touch with Henri Padovani at all?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, very much so. In fact, it was very touching…when we were rehearsing at the Magic Stingdom in Italy…
SKIP: “The Magic Stingdom”…?
Stewart Copeland: I call it that, he doesn’t.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah. At one point, I think Sting and Henri were in communication, and Sting said “Henri, come on over!” So Henri comes over and visits us while we’re rehearsing there. And it was the most charming, touching thing: Andy got all threatened! Can you believe that?
I mean, Sting and I were astounded. We had one of the great towers of guitar on one side, and the guy who just learned to play for six months…and Henri’s actually gotten pretty good by the way. But the idea that Andy could feel threatened by Henri was kind of charming. Sting and I were sort of charmed by that. “Get out of here! Really??” You know? Dude, you’re Andy Summers, for fuck’s sake!
SKIP: Did you have a four piece jam session with Henri?
Stewart Copeland: No, no, no. Andy, for all his great talents as a guitarist, IS a guitarist – which means he is allergic to all other guitarists. Drummers – we love other drummers. The more drummers on stage, the happier we are. I love having percussionists and other people banging on shit, it couldn’t make me happier. Guitarists, almost always, hate other guitarists. They don’t want another guitarist on stage.
SKIP: Last question…given your incredibly successful career, what remaining musical ambitions do you have? Is there anybody you’d love to collaborate with, etc?
Stewart Copeland: There are a lot of musicians I’d love to collaborate with, but it’s not really an “ambition” thing. It’d be fun to play with Jeff Beck – he’s another of my favorite guitarists. You know, I could do that on any day of the week and it’d be a lot of fun. But it’s not like a life ambition.
I guess my life ambition at this point is to get better at writing for orchestra and these exotic new instruments. And then when I get good at that, I’ll have to find some other mountain to climb. You need a balance in your life between being a master at something, but also having something new to grow into. Right now, the new place for me to grow into is getting a handle on orchestra. I’ve been doing it for twenty years now, and I still have a lot to learn. I’m getting pretty good at it, but I still have a lot to learn. That’s going to keep me busy for a while.
SKIP: Stewart, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I really enjoyed it.
Stewart Copeland:Thanks very much.