When it comes to drummers that can be described as “simple” and “reserved”, Stewart Copeland is not the first name to come up. He very well may be the last, considering his fondness for fills, splash cymbals, octobans, wildly exotic percussion, non-western rhythms, and syncopation. Copeland might be one of the flashiest and most technically proficient drummers of all time, to the point where it’s almost impossible to find a simple backbeat in his vast catalogue of rhythms.
But Copeland has a foundation that relies on simplicity and efficiency. Even though ‘Walking on the Moon’ might have a heavily delayed hi-hat, much of Copeland’s playing takes place solely on the hi-hat. ‘Message in a Bottle’ might be a feast for the ears on record, but when the song was resurrected for the live stage, Copeland mostly stepped back from the frantic origins. Similarly, live takes on ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ mostly didn’t feature Copeland on the drums at all, with the musician stepping over to his massive percussion setup to add the essential colour to the song’s arrangement.
Copeland was a master at playing what was needed in any particular space. It just so happened that The Police were a power trio, with a guitar player who favoured sparsity and a bass player whose reggae influences emphasised minimalism. That gave Copeland a ton of room to play and explore in songs, but even the fastest and most extreme fills rarely feel self-indulgent.
While visiting Drum Channel in 2017, Copeland faced his own biggest criticism head-on. “In The Police… a lot of the arguing was about, ‘Look, why can’t you just play a backbeat?’ And because I was a spoiled brat, I don’t wanna play a backbeat!” Copeland explained. Instead, Copeland shows the onlookers how to consciously avoid a standard backbeat, and how creativity can add new facets to a song.
One of the ways Copeland shows is to eliminate the snare entirely, propelling the rhythm of a song with just the hi-hat and the bass drum. Copeland also mentions “moving one beat to the left”, which he most famously employed for the drum track of ‘Roxanne’. The idea that Copeland uses as his philosophy is to give the music what it needs without getting trapped in the standard composition or arrangement.
“Just look for a way of giving the band what they need without it being the same thing that everyone’s always doing,” Copeland implores. “And that’s not too tough an equation. You’re going to find yourself going back to the backbeat, because it’s real easy and it makes everybody comfortable, but it’s not rocket science to just look for another way of giving that beat.”