While the renewed energy of The Police should be explosively satisfying for all to experience, Copeland cautions against anyone reading too much into it, especially in terms of a Police catalog extension. “As far as new material goes … I don’t know,” he says, “and I’ll tell you why: because I’m not going to ask Sting if he has new songs. He brought five albums worth of songs to my band. I’m not going to ask him to pass the salt. If he writes a song I will break out the champagne. Even if I don’t like it I will always be happy to hear Sting’s stuff, but I’m not going to ask him. He’s very mysterious that way.
“So what is going to be new? I’ve come back as almost a completely different guy, but I’m now a lot more passionate about playing drums than when I did it for a living. That’s just sort of the motivation behind why I feel like I’m a lot stronger now, that’s why I dig it. I don’t know about the motivation of the other two now, but Andy’s been practicing for 20 years and the kid is hot! I don’t remember him playing like that, but those guitar parts are seriously complicated.”
So one manager spoke to another manager, emails sailed across continents, and the pieces miraculously fell into place for the trio to begin practicing in Vancouver. Not one to mince words, Copeland describes the first rehearsals: “We sucked, frankly. The bass player is the reason I’m the musician that I am. I didn’t become the guy I recognized as me until I played with Sting for eight years. It took a day for us to realize it [in rehearsal], but we were just not in the pocket anymore. That pocket we just assumed would reappear didn’t, and we had to go look for it. When we were young, we handled it by shouting at and abusing each other, but here we just really wanted it to work.
“So we engaged in some band exercises. We played songs incredibly slowly, not talking about what we were doing. No, ’At the F# minor section …’ just listening and listening and listening, and getting deeper into it. It was amazing, like suddenly finding that vein of gold, we hit that third rail and there it is. This took about five days to a week, in this big room surrounded by 20 roadies and a film crew, and an awareness that this is important to people other than ourselves. Then suddenly we hit that spot, that vein, the energy started, and man was that a bolt of lightning!”
It’s hard to imagine just how important it must have been for Copeland to fall back in rhythmically with his bassist. Sting is undoubtedly one of the most influential and successful recording artists of all time, and even the great Copeland occasionally lets on that he feels cool not only just to know him, but to stand with him as one of the best-ever rhythm sections in rock. “We both jumped into a couple of different kinds of new music at the same time, and since we hadn’t established any defined personality within these forms of music, by which I mean punk and reggae, we discovered it together, and that’s what made us so tight,” he recalls. “Neither of us had ever played with just that punk sensibility, thinking, ’energy energy energy!’ And neither of us had played reggae before. We discovered it together; we molded each other.”
Along with the progress the pair made during the Vancouver rehearsals came a shocking revelation. Ready for a news flash? “Sting is a rushing mother****er,” declares Copeland, the perennial scapegoat for The Police’s infamously accelerating tempos live and on record. “I won’t name names, but all of Sting’s players — especially Vinnie Colaiuta — again, I’m not naming names — they all told me that Sting rushes like crazy. When I first heard that I said, ’Get out of here! Sting is my rock. Sting rushing — pshaw! That’s not possible.’ But when I got to Vancouver, to my surprise, with my new wisdom I was using delay lines, which is a more honest way of staying on the tempo. Then Sting started rushing, and I said, ’You bastard! After all these years, you’re still as guilty as me!’ It was a funny moment because he couldn’t deny it.
“And it turns out that Andy has a better sense of tempo than either of us, and so I started looking at Andy. His job isn’t about the rhythm; it’s to color the rich environment — although his tempo is good. But by the time I had this great comeuppance, I couldn’t care less about it. And in fact, I’m perfectly proud of it if the tempo seems to work and lights up the band. If I’ve sped up, get over it.”
For drummers looking for an alternative way to keep their meter in check, Copeland suggests mixing in a delay on a particular drum. “I use delay lines as an extra form of rhythm on fun songs like ’Regatta De Blanc’ and ’Walking On The Moon’,” he says. “These eighth-note or dotted eighth-note delays generate slapback, but the other benefit is that it keeps the tempos honest. If I rush, I just have to stutter to get back into the groove with the click. But the delay line follows you, and you can use it to transition more smoothly in and out of the right tempo.
“That would work for a drummer just in his own mix. One hit, repeat ’dat dat dat …’ And each second you’re reminded of the correct tempo, you get into a rhythm with it, and the rhythm doesn’t work unless you’re in the correct tempo. The delay that comes back to you is like another musician. If you’re in time, you lock, and if the bass player is out of time, you figure that out right away.”
Ultimately it’s the inimitable hi-hat work, the trampoline toms, the world beat kick drum, the punk ferocity, the unmistakable personality and charisma behind every stick stroke he’s ever recorded — that’s what really makes Stewart Copeland so fascinating to musicians across the globe. So it’s no surprise that, when it comes to drumming, the master has some more extremely important advice to share. Listen up now.
“At this point, we’re into the lesson part of the article,” Copeland says. “With the perspective I now have that seems to make it all work better, the two big things are relaxing and listening. When I was a kid trying to prove myself as a rock star by any means, and my means were my drums, somehow it was the job of the drums to stand out. I had to make my mark on the world. I had to piss on the tree. But that’s a distraction. It’s more fun to play when you couldn’t care less, when you just live in the music. Drums are an accompanying instrument, and if you understand and bathe in that concept, then they are really fun to play.
“Maybe I can elaborate on the listening part. There seem to be two modes of playing: one is when you’re listening to yourself, and one is when you’re making music and not listening to yourself. Listening to yourself is practicing, playing rolls, paradiddles, flamacues, and ratamacues, paying attention to whether your right hand is heavier than your left hand, and you can work on that. You can work on that by slowing everything down, because playing slow is actually more difficult and has a better effect on the synapses than anything else — you’re training the synapses to fire off in the correct sequence. If you do that, then speed is just a natural thing that comes. The physical patterns of playing drums, the choreography of all that, is most effectively streamlined by doing it slowly when you’re listening to yourself.
“When you’re actually performing music, the most important rule is, no tweaking yourself and proving your own technique. The minute you’re listening to yourself, you’re not listening to the band and your feel is diminished. The minute that you’re listening to the guitar and the vocalist and the whole band, your hands and the drums just take care of themselves. They have the same principle in polo, where the horse is an extension of your body that you can’t think about. That expression works for the drums, too. Get out of your instrument and into the band, fold in and surrender in a weird kind of way.”