You’d think that playing with one legendary band would be enough to keep Stewart Copeland happy. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would turn down an offer to take over as drummer with the Doors. That call came last year, when John Densmore left due to a combination of tinnitus – a persistent ringing in the ear, which was making it harder for him to work – and, reportedly, personal disagreements between him and his longtime colleague in the group, keyboardist Ray Manzarek. It seemed like a match: Copeland’s deft work with the Police somehow recalled the sometimes bossa-inflected work Densmore had done on “Break On Through” and other bits of catchy, classic psychedelia. He had a lot in common with the rest of the band too. Aside from some recent touring with Trey Anastasio and Les Claypool in Oysterhead, he’s been too busy scoring movies in Hollywood to play drums at all over the past ten years, and the Doors had only played two gigs since ’72. But, proving that rust never sleeps, the Doors recently hit the stage at L.A.’s House of Blues, with Ian Astbury of the Cult channeling the late Jim Morrison on vocals. At long last, the Doors are open for business again.
DRUM!: How did you hook up with these guys?
Copeland: Their sharks called my sharks. We had a trial run-through, and it was great. I couldn’t believe it; they sounded just like the Doors.
DRUM!: Was Densmore there?
Copeland: As it happens, I didn’t meet him until last night [Nov. 24], when I was presenting an award at the Armenian Grammys, which is a very cool gig. I came out, and there he was: “Hey, I’m John Densmore.” I immediately got down on my hands and knees and genuflected. He was actually very warm and supportive; it was a very nice meeting.
DRUM!: So you’ve been a fan of the Doors for a while?
Copeland: Absolutely. All my high school bands played “When the Music’s Over” and “Strange Days.”
DRUM!: “Light My Fire” …
Copeland: Actually, not that one; I was into their darker stuff. I enjoy playing “Light My Fire” now because it’s such a crowd pleaser; the people go nuts. It’s actually a natural for me, because Densmore’s style of drumming is particularly compatible with mine. He and I, and maybe Mitch Mitchell, are of a similar type.
DRUM!: In what way?
Copeland: I hate to use the word “lighter” because I don’t see myself as light, but none of us is John Bonham, in terms of that kind of weight or bombast. None of us is Billy Cobham, in terms of that jazz/fusion thing. I guess we’re jazz drummers. I was raised to be a jazz drummer, and that stamp comes out on my technique when I play, although I’m pretty much allergic to jazz now.
DRUM!: Is the energy at Doors rehearsals archival, or does it feel
like you’re with a band that’s doing something fresh?
Copeland: It’s mixed. There’s a certain element of pride, like, “We’re not a cover band! We’re a living group!” But, yes, we are a cover band, even though the guys in the band wrote the songs that we’re covering. We do the same arrangements that were on their records, and they play a lot of the crucial lead lines. There are solos where they go off and come up with new stuff, so in some places it’s just like the record and in other places it’s fresh. But for me, playing “just like the record” is real fresh. I’m there to play the classics. That’s what the audience wants, and just this once, what the hell, why don’t we give it to them?
But they got their parts through exploration and taking chances. That’s a whole different ballgame from replicating specific parts. When the original Doors did “When the Music’s Over,” it sounded different every night because they were always improvising. The version that you and I have memorized is the one they just happened to play that day on that take. For me, and for most people, that’s the arrangement. So, yes, I’m playing, as an arrangement, what Densmore did as an improvisation. Of course, I improvise within that, because I have terrible discipline. I do mess it up in places. There’s no great pressure on me not to mess it up. In fact, because they come from that improvisational place, they don’t hold their own music in the same reverence that I do. They love it when I do something different, because it gives them somewhere new to go. The band is encouraging me to go crazy with it, but I suppose I’m holding to tradition more than they are because I’m a fan.
DRUM!: How do you approach Densmore’s parts?
Copeland: I’m playing the same part that he played, because I regard that as the part to that song. I play it differently, because I’m a different guy. And the more I play the material, the more different it gets. But I’m starting where he was, because that’s the arrangement. It’s like when you have Karajan and Solti conducting Wagner: It’s the same music, off the same chart, but it’s really different.
DRUM!: What kind of configuration do you play when you’re doing
a Doors gig?
Copeland: I strip my kit down in honor of Densmore. It’s the Buddy Rich kit: one tom-tom in front, two on the side. In other words, I’m cheating a little bit, because Densmore had just one side tom. But you know what? It’s really cool not having a bunch of drums in the way. When I play with Oysterhead, since we basically improvise for two hours, I need every toy imaginable. I have two drum sets, actually – a regular one, and a riser with a whole other percussion rig that Tama built for me. But with the Doors, it’s real simple. The hi-hat and the ride cymbal kind of move in, so it’s much more comfortable. And I play much better. You can get into expression more with one tom-tom, hitting it different ways to get different sounds out of it, rather than having three in front, like I used to have. I think I might just carry on playing that way, because it’s a lot more fun.
DRUM!: How hard has it been to get your chops back in shape after not
playing for a decade?
Copeland: It took a lot of work, actually. I started practicing for the first Oysterhead gig and barely passed muster for that. I had a great time, but man, I was rusty. At first it was all about keeping up with Trey and Les, because they are both on fire, those guys. It took me about a week on the road to really get it up. But it’s stuck with me since then, so physically, doing the Doors thing is a piece of cake.
DRUM!: Do you think you may get sucked into a full-time commitment to
Copeland: Well, we all have our lives, so we’re not moving into a house together and doing nothing but be the Doors. They are good guys to hang with, and yeah, I could see getting more involved. We’re talking about doing a proper tour in the spring and various dates until then. We’re also talking about maybe doing an album. That would be fun, but it’s not my burning wish, because my thing is to play those classic songs. As far as I’m concerned, with the Doors, I’m just the drummer at the back of the stage, enjoying the hell out of playing really great material, and between gigs I go back to my day job and score films. I love to be a weekend rock star.