Everyone Stares At Stewart Copeland

And why not?

For a drummer who was last officially on top of the world during Ronald Reagan’s first term, the lanky maestro hasn’t exactly faded away. Now, with the reunion of his most famous musical endeavor, The Police, 2007 may prove to be his most triumphant year yet since 1983, when The Police released the still-astonishing Synchronicity, Copeland has been feverishly traversing the music/media map: he’s been an in-demand film and TV composer, a movie producer, and the drummer for supergroup Oysterhead. Throughout his nearly 25-year break from one of the greatest bands of all time, however, the sound of Stewart Copeland’s drumming has remained a driving force of global modern rhythm — the metalheads, pop snobs, punkers, rock purists, world music adventurers, electronicanistas, the reggae elite, jocks, dweebs, geeks — they all adore him.

Among that crowd, virtually all held out hope that Copeland and his bandmates — a bassist named Sting and a guitarist named Andy Summers — would smooth over their famously vicious differences and rise once more as The Police. In 2007, it has finally happened: The Police are reunited for a stadium tour, and Copeland seems to be headed straight back to that drum throne on top of the world.

“I can confirm to you right now your suspicion that it is fun to be Stewart Copeland,” the rythmatist says, his exuberant cartoon-character-as-3D-adult voice jumping up over a cup of tea. “Why? Because I’ve got this really cool band. For me, playing in a band is a job I used to have when I was a kid. Then I got a real job as a film composer, lost interest in drums, and didn’t play at all for ten years.

“It’s very engrossing to be a film composer. It’s a great job. You get to build a studio and work with movie directors. During that time, the drum set became a place to hang wires. With changing technology I acquired a lot of redundant equipment to pile up on my drums and fill up my drum booth with. It wasn’t until Les Claypool called me up [in 2000] and said it was my civic duty to return to drums that I really came back to them.”

See, everything happens for a reason. Who among the legions of Stewart Copeland fans out there didn’t hope, in their heart of hearts, that Claypool’s Oysterhead brainchild wouldn’t somehow bring their drumming hero a step closer to the band we all know he loves best? Phish’s Trey Anastasio was on board, and with Oysterhead, Copeland was once more on stage where he belonged with a brilliant guitarist and bass player. It was one small step for Copeland.

The Proverbial Call. The rust was out of his system, and Copeland kept the drums in orbit, continued his steady diet of scoring, and also produced the riveting documentary film Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, which makes public the years of Super 8 footage he shot while on tour with The Police. Then, suddenly in November 2006, it was one giant leap for Copeland-kind.

“I got a call from Sting; he wants to get The Police back together,” says Copeland. “That woke me up! This came out of the deepest blue. Remember, I had given up drums for ten years and rediscovered them, and part of that rediscovery was recovering from the cold chills and horrors of The Police at the end. I actually forgot about The Police ten years ago. The Police are so far from my life that this is like if Led Zeppelin called me up and said, ’Wanna play? And here’s the kicker: you get to be the original guy!’”

According to Copeland, the separation of The Police following their successful but emotionally draining Synchronicity tour was not a dramatic event — more like a process. “We never planned on breaking up,” he asserts, “it was about changing and getting away from it. We realized the only way we were going to get away from it was to dissolve everything, strangle the Golden Goose so it will go away. Because at the time it was a huge corporation, we never felt like we were breaking up musically. It was intended to be a sabbatical, and it turned out to be a very long sabbatical.

“As soon as we got away from The Police, I composed the soundtrack to [the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film] Rumble Fish. That was such a breath of fresh air after the band existence. I could build my own studio, didn’t have to compromise, and after six weeks I was CEO of my own corporation.”

Fast forward again to Sting’s surprise communiqué to Copeland and Summers, and the reaction of the musical world is intense. While plenty of ’80s bands are still taking the stage, there’s no denying that the reunion of The Police is special. This is no nostalgia tour. It’s something much more relevant. But with no new material yet emerging from the resurfacing, the big question is: what makes The Police reunion so different?

“There’s a certain pristine quality to The Police reunion — there’s only three of us and it’s the exact same three guys,” Copeland says. “To me, it gives me a really cool band to play with. I get to play to 60,000 people on a really cool stage. I get to make sure that the lights are perfect, that everything’s perfect. Now that I’ve rediscovered playing drums, you can’t ask for anything better. The other thing is, I get to give up my day job [of composing]. The last few years, I’ve been a semipro drummer. Now I can declare myself a professional drummer. We’ll see when I get in front of a paying audience if I’m a true pro.”

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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.”

Back In The Groove

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.”

The Lesson Part

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.”

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Gear Gab

While the outward appearance of his familiar kit, complete with Octabons, is altered only slightly — one of his trademark three rack toms has been moved to the left — the biggest surprise is his adoption of a double kick pedal. “I saw a youngster playing with one of those things and I was damn impressed with the possibilities, so I got me one,” he says, momentarily channeling an 1850s Western old-timer. “Although I’ve been playing with it for a couple of years, it’s not quite ready for its close-up. What I’ve found it does give you is a different sense, like the difference between an acoustic and electric guitar — it allows you to play differently. The trap set becomes a new instrument when you think about the four points of your physique, rather than 3.5.

stewart copeland

Copeland’s Police Reunion Kit

Drums: Tama Starclassic Maple (Blue Sparkle Finish)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5" Stewart Copeland Signature Snare Drum
3. 10" x 8" Tom
4. 12" x 8" Tom
5. 13" x 9" Tom
6. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
8. Octoban Low-Pitch Set

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 12" Micro Hi-Hat
B. 14" 2002 Flanger Splash
C. 6" Cup Chime
D. 18" Signature Fast Crash
E. 8" Signature Splash
F. 10" Signature Splash
G. 16" Signature Full Crash
H. 22" Dark Metal Ride
I. 17" Signature Fast Crash
J. 18" Signature Light Flat Ride
K. 18" Signature Fast Crash

Stewart Copeland also uses Tama hardware, Remo heads, and Vater signature sticks and mallets.

“There are also a lot of things I like to do when I have two tom-toms in front of me. Having the smallest and the biggest of the three is a big contrast, so with the snare and those two toms close together, there’s all sorts of cool stuff you can do when you don’t have the big leap from the floor tom to the big tom to the ride cymbal.”

Guru Of Groove.

Poll any ten drummers in any genre, and the majority will almost certainly name Copeland as a primary inspiration. In return, he listens to what’s out there, but seems worried about the direction that rhythm is taking. “One rule of thumb in the evolution of any instrument is that the youngsters pick up where the oldsters finished,” he points out. “But today, we are not in an age of great drums as pop instruments. Since progressive rock was dominant, there really hasn’t been a Golden Age of drums. The age with Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham was where drums were important to a rock group. But now drums are not expected to be that interesting. They serve a asubservient role.

“However, in modern times, there is music with a place for virtuoso drumming: Cookie Monster music, that is, death metal, bands like Sepultura, Slayer, and Lamb Of God. It’s just a different instrument in that genre, and that’s where exciting things are happening.”

For those who think Copeland has some nerve talking smack about the drumming world at large, go back over this interview — if you find the slightest hint of self-praise, let us know. Because just as it is for money and sex, the same is usually true for mega, mega, un-Earthly talent: those who have it don’t talk about it. “When I was younger, I would have been happy for the self-examination,” says Copeland. “Now all I’m worried about is whether my left hand is heavier than my right hand, or whether my rolls are even. As far as my contributions to the world of music? Not my problem. I’m certainly not trying to step into the limelight with my drums.”

That’s why, all throughout the long-awaited reunion of 2007, Copeland may finally have as much fun with The Police as the first time he, Sting, and Summers played their first live gig in 1977. “We’re not looking past this tour,” The Policeman says firmly. “Here we are together, and it’s happening again. But this time, we have the feeling of, ’Okay, we’re going to do this finite amount, and we’re going to enjoy it a lot more because it’s just that.’ We can relax, go back to scoring films or whatever. All I have to do here is play drums on great songs in front of a huge audience. The thing about what Sting will do next with his career — never mind!

“This year, we’re playing as The Police and that’s all we have to worry about. This band is going to be way stronger than it ever was before. We are in a whole new place now, and those songs that we have to play, those are great songs. So, new material? I don’t know. New Police? Absof**kinglutely.”