In Their Own Words: Stewart Copeland

stewart copeland

With the ongoing Sacred Grove project, Stewart Copeland has given the jam session a whole new meaning. The orchestral composer, onetime film scorer, and drummer for The Police sets up his state-of-the-art studio to film and record a host of musical celebrities that might include Snoop Dogg (or possibly Lion), Serj Tankian, Danny Carey, and just about anybody Copeland feels like inviting into his lair to make improvised music in a context they otherwise never would. Copeland filled us in on the process behind Sacred Grove, the transition from rock drummer to impresario of spontaneous grooves, and – after 35 years – just maybe getting one over on Sting.

Deal Us In

Sacred Grove is all over the map. That’s because there’s no real mission other than the fun of doing it. It isn’t a project, it’s a hobby. I’m looking around saying, “What other buddies do I got?” Now I’ve got people calling me up saying, “Oh, man. I gotta come over!” And it’s gathering momentum here. I’ve actually got about 20 videos now. I’ve got a couple of tracks from Snoop that I haven’t got a movie of yet. I’ll think of something constructive to do for the whole series, but for the moment it is there for the people to enjoy.

The Element Of Surprise

I love that Ben Harper shows up and has no idea that Stanley Clark’s going be there. There’s a buzz to that, too. Sometimes it’s the “drummer gang” and we like to hang and do an uproarious drummer dinner at [West L.A. sushi restaurant] Katsuya’s and we all come charging back here ready to rock. But often they don’t know who the other person’s going to be.

Setting The Trap

I’m the host, first of all, and occasionally I’ll play on whatever instrument my guests are not playing. But my main role is before they get here and after they leave. Before they get here I remember my roadie chops. Because I am in fact an ex-roadie, but I’m very proud of my roadie chops. And I amuse myself by wiring up my studio. So Sacred Grove is fully wired and miked up. Every square foot of the room is close miked, routed, line-checked. It’s got its own A-to-D converter, all its own preamps, its own channel. I just hit one big red button, and the entire studio’s on record. Also, I have six cameras running. The doorbell rings, the cameras go on, and they stay on for six hours. And they just sit there. None of the cameras move, there’s no camera operators or engineers in the room. It’s just me, and my carefully laid nest of creativity. And I have it because I’ve been in a million jams. I’ve been in a million studios. I’ve been doing this for 50 years! So I’ve figured out every angle, every strategy. I’ve got 9-volt batteries; I’ve got plectrums; I’ve got strings; I’ve got a little place to put your drink. Every detail of it is fine-tuned and honed, so when players come in here they forget that the cameras are rolling.

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Wizard Behind The Curtain

Once I’ve got it all recorded and they leave I get out my scalpel and my turd polish. [chuckle] And in some cases I only need the #2 turd polish and in the some cases I need the #11 turd polish, you know? Dr. Svengali’s Turd Polish! [laughs] and I can fix anything, you know? I had Jeremy Piven over here banging on the drums – made him sound like a god. Actually, he’s pretty good already, so I don’t get all the credit. Or I might do a collage-type thing so you get three Taylor Hawkinses. If you see the Thomas Lang video [“This Drummer Is At The Right Gig”] – it’s actually one of my favorite videos. Thomas Lang is like the circus act of a drummer, he is fantastic. He is almost too good to play sessions and be in bands, and everything.

A Police Matter

I remember when we were rehearsing for the reunion tour, after a long hard day of snarling at each other and beating each other up, we’d have a wonderful dinner at Sting’s palazzo. And after dinner we’d go down and pick up acoustic instruments and just play into the night and just have a great time as long as there was no agenda. So a couple weeks ago Sting was in town, and I said, “Hey, why don’t you come over?” I had full intention of sneaking him into the room here with Andy [Summers, guitarist of The Police] and a couple other musicians too – you know, Ringo or whoever. It’s a party, and I would have so much fun with that because both Sting and Andy are such great players. It probably will happen some day but completely on a casual basis. It wouldn’t be The Police, though, because when they leave, instead of us arguing about Should there be a guitar solo or a keyboard solo, or should it be slower or faster? and all of the stuff that we always argue about, we’re just drinking wine and playing music, and then they leave. And then a month later I’ve got this cool track where I get to cut up all their music and make my version of it – mwuah-ha-hah! Of course, it wouldn’t be The Police because it’s not The Police unless there’s Sting and Andy beating me up. But it’d still be cool. It’d be the Sacred Grove.

stewart copeland

The Great Hollywood Kiss-Off

I had a great experience composing for film. I Ioved working with directors, love working with pictures, but it’s kind of a rat race that’s highly competitive. And there are hungry cats out there – a lot hungrier than me. The other factor was that the film scoring budgets just vaporized. I was lucky to be a composer in the golden age of film composing when they really had good budgets. And it’s now at the point [where it’s not doable]. During those years I didn’t have time to write an opera because I was busy earning a living as a rock and roll entertainer. Now it’s kind of reversed where my day job is composing orchestral music for other people to play. I don’t have directors or anything; I only have critics. And I’ll take my chances with the critics rather than with producers and studios. For instance, when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned a piece, I show up with the score, put it on the stand, they count it in. Period. I don’t get notes. No matter who you are, you have to serve somebody, and I think fine arts composing is a better master than Paramount.