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(Credit: Press / Poly Arts)

Music

Far Out Meets: Stewart Copeland on bassists, baroque and Ringo Starr's innate skills as a drummer

“I think it’s hysterical that both Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts called themselves jazz drummers,” cackles Stewart Copeland. “They were ‘Rock Gods’. Saying ‘I’m a jazz drummer, not a rock drummer’ is the equivalent of saying, ‘I have classical training’. But we all have these moments. I mean, I’m an opera writer!”

He laughs, keenly aware that as a member of a punk band, opera should barely register on his radar. And yet it does, because Copeland, much like The Police, doesn’t prescribe himself to one genre of music. He’s a frustrated guitarist, prolific film composer, a raconteur, and an impresario. “I don’t know if anything I did with Lol Creme was considered ‘work’,” he says. “I don’t think money crossed hands, but we had a lot of laughs. This was when Lol lived in L.A. and I used to go play with him, and Trevor Horn. Trevor had a house in L.A. at that time.” 

He mentions Kevin Godley by name and highlights the videos Godley & Creme directed for The Police, including the ominously produced promo to ‘Every Breath You Take’, a probing clip that captured the bouncy, blonde trio in dark silhouettes and set pieces. Copeland made a sidestep into cinema when he wrote the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent Rumble Fish, before comparing his more bohemian style of directing to Oliver Stone’s more prescriptive measurement. “Francis was amazing” Copeland adds. “Oliver was very different. He wanted this theme to reflect what ‘he was going through, and that theme to reflect what ‘she was going through’. This specificity was a great lesson.” 

Keen to stress the importance of learning, re-building and re-calibrating himself as an artist, Copeland seems happy to embrace challenges and is currently preparing himself for the upcoming ‘Police Deranged For Orchestra’ concerts. “I need to get back into shape,” he quips, and the rest of the interview follows with similar punch and panache. More seriously, he gives his opinion on the merits of the show. “I won’t be playing songs from my new album – and that’s a promise, so it will be all the old songs that people have grown up with. No matter how good a new song is, it will never come close to those old songs. Even if you aren’t necessarily a fan of The Police, we’re going to be playing the songs that everybody will recognise.” 

The orchestra, he claims, isn’t mere padding, as he’s given them plenty of space to demonstrate their capabilities. Considering his métier-seven operas in total-he’s grown accustomed to working in a classical environment. “When you’re the opera composer you get to be the boss,” he explains, which is refreshing because he is, he says, a “timid, shy” character.

Of course, Copeland has many musical mates within the “biz” and says that John Paul Jones popped down to the Royal Opera in Covent Garden to see one of his performances. Ringo Starr, he says, likes to talk drum technique. “I’ve had many conversations with Ringo,” Copeland says. “I’m sitting with him at a dinner, and we start talking bass drums”. Copeland is charming, although he gets a little assertive when we ask why Ringo has been underrated by the general public. “He isn’t.” And then Copeland starts again: “At long last, he’s being appreciated for the musician he is. Normally, singers and guitarists just want a backbeat: ‘Give us a simple backbeat, nothing flashy.’ Ringo did more than that, and it was refreshing to hear a drummer who did.” 

Watch Stewart Copeland’s percussion brigade in The Police song ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’

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However, Copeland’s drumming bears more in common with Led Zeppelin titan John Bonham, so I ask him if he considers that a fair comparison. “I’m more inspired by him now than I was growing up,” he replies. “It was all Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell then and Bonham came later. I liked the fact that Ginger used his tomtoms a lot. He was playing more of his drums than the others, as was Mitch Mitchell who was probably the most inspiring out of all them. It was between him and Buddy Rich. Mitch Mitchell just had that electric spark that was just perfect for Jimi Hendrix on guitar. As a frustrated guitarist myself, that was a problem; ‘Who am I?’ ‘Am I the guitarist, drummer or both?'”.

At 28, I’m just old enough to remember his appearance on the blinding I’m In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, and in one glorious moment during the series, the drummer highlighted Sting’s bass wizardry just as Red Hot Chilli Peppers mainstay Flea won the popular vote for ‘Best Bassist’. “That was me sticking up for my guy,” the drummer replies. “They both have great chops, and Flea can play like a motherfucker”. But it’s not just looking to the past in admiration for Copeland, and Flea’s bandmate, Chad Smith, is a contemporary drummer he admires. With that, he also holds a candle for Foo Fighters bandmates Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins, showing just how much Copeland’s detailed eye for drumming talent stretches.

Much has been written about Copeland’s relationship with Sting over the years, but if there’s any bitterness between the two, it doesn’t come up in the conversation. Indeed, he refers to his former bandmate as a “poet”, compliments his bass playing, and goes out of his way to praise Sting’s ability to write extraordinary tunes that cross all forms of race, gender and ethnicity. Copeland muses to himself when I ask what his favourite tune by The Police is, and he chooses one of Sting’s in the shape of ‘Message In A Bottle’. 

But that’s not to say that Copeland isn’t a tidy writer in his own right, as is evinced from ‘Fall Out’, the band’s debut single, soaked in the fury and immediacy of punk. Guitarist Andy Summers had yet to join the band, so Copeland plays the main riff, while Henry Padovani worked on the solo. “Henry was our hip connection, as he was the only bonafide punk,” says Copeland. “He was the only one who authentically couldn’t play”. He’s joking, but praises Henry’s “primitive charm”. As Copeland points out, punk wasn’t necessarily about technical acumen but vitality. Padovani was choppy, looked great, but Sting craved something grander and more musically ambitious to stick his chops into. 

“When Andy joined, suddenly Sting could have much more complex harmony, more complex music generally,” Copeland adds. “We didn’t really, and I’m sure he didn’t either, have any idea of the gold that was buried underground in regards to his songwriting. We knew he could play bass like a motherfucker, because our bond was his bass playing, and he could sing a bit, except I didn’t really know that either, because mainly his job in those days was shouting. We had no idea he could carry a tune. It wasn’t called for. When Andy joined, we all discovered that Sting had a rare genius for writing songs”.

Punk was bolstered by anarchy, energy and youth. Andy Summers was a veteran musician, whose musical credits stemmed far back into the 1960s. He was already in his 30s, which didn’t qualify him as old, but surely he must have seemed out of step in a band determined to challenge the mighty battalions that surrounded the London clubs in their ripped jeans and green hair. 

(Credit: Press / Poly Arts)

Copeland wasn’t worried. “Andy’s age never crossed my mind,” he clarifies. “It was a cultural thing. We had found a niche, which was the punk movement. The scene for Curved Air just dried up and went away. There were no clubs that were hiring prog bands. Punk was the only scene that was vibrant, that was happening generationally, that was ours. We were too young to be proper hippies. We were 28 in the 1970s, not the 1960s. That scene, let’s call it punk, but really it was a new wave of musicians, was very constricted. The rules of punk were very strict, very harsh. ‘Thou shalt not play longer than two and a half minutes’; ‘thou shall not play love songs’; ‘thou shall not play guitar solos’. Andy came in, and one sense freed us from those rules, but we starved for another six months, and then we started making seriously good music. Eventually, we were able to succeed, by unstrapping that strait-jacket and Andy gets a lot of credit for that”. 

What you experience with The Police, then-three precocious musicians, somehow melding jazz, pop and reggae into a hybrid that was entirely theirs alone. is just a reminder that great music can form from the most unlikely of sources. For almost the whole point of The Police was the trio’s desire to follow their creative impulses, whether it was writing in the middle of London, or travelling overseas to soak in the aroma of the European skies. 

They harnessed their craft and packaged it accordingly, but Copeland disagrees with me when I describe Synchronicity as a stadium album. The tunes, he feels, became more anthemic when they were performed in stadiums, but the recordings were purer and more compact in their recorded form. “The music for ‘Miss Gradenko’ came from playing guitars in hotel rooms,” he says. “I had it on guitar, and was struggling to play it, but Andy just picked it up. He can just do that (laughs). As for the lyrics, it was during the Cold War, and I remember seeing a picture of a lady in a Russian uniform. I think Sting did something similar with ‘I hope the Russians love their children too.” How can you compete with a fucking poet?”.

Synchronicity proved the band’s commercial peak, but Regatta de Blanc was their masterpiece, a blistering album complete with contrast, character and colossal feats of percussion, every cymbal pushing the bass further into the central mix. Summers rarely sounded wilder as a guitar player, as he bursts through the studio, brimming with ingenuity, his arpeggios choppy, his chords soaking with ambition. And then there’s Sting, all disembodied yelps and idiosyncratic lyrics, carefully masking his ennui with a series of intricate bass notes. Any one of them could have been a superstar, judging by this album, but it was the frisson that allowed the dazzling brilliance to emerge, as the album boasted one exhilarating performance after another. 

Regatta de Blanc was more dependent on the band’s cohesion,” he explains. “It was more dependent on the band who had discovered each other playing two, three sets a night across America. We were stretching our material, and as a result of stretching our material, we had to improvise, and by virtue of improvising, we discovered all the cool stuff that each other could do. So, when we went in to record Regatta, Sting hadn’t had time to write the new album by himself, so some of it we made up on the spot. Some of them were songs of mine that got in there, and that’s my favourite album because of the atmosphere. I think Sting continued to write better and better songs but some of his best songs are on that album. It was just his quantity that was lacking rather than quality”.

I’ve taken up enough of the drummer’s time, so I leave him with a question about the present. In his efforts to exhibit the band’s catalogue from a more contemporary point of view, Copeland has gone to great lengths to reconstruct the legacy, both for himself and his fans. Is he content with the new outfit? “I have three soul sisters on the microphone singing those songs, and they really deliver. They’ve turned me into a real fan of The Chiffons, The Supremes, The Shangri-las: all these groups. I’m really inspired by them. They just have a great vibe, and bring a great power to the songs. And there’s the mighty bass player Armand Sabal-Lecco, and Rusty Anderson on guitar, on loan from Paul McCartney. When Sir Macca calls, I will lose him!”

Stewart Copeland: Police Deranged For Orchestra will perform select dates across America in March 2022.