For well over 30 years, Stewart Copeland has been known all around the world as one-third of The Police, a band with six Grammys, two Brit Awards, one VMA and sales of over 75 million records to its credit. As a drummer, he is renowned as one of the most influential players of all-time, having inspired modern greats like the Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford, blink-182’s Travis Barker, Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron, and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins. Yet that’s only a small part of the story with Stewart Copeland.
After The Police disbanded in 1986, Stewart dove into the composing world. Beyond television projects, he scored a wide range of films over the next decade including Wall Street, Talk Radio, Highlander II: The Quickening, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. He also added writing music for video games onto his resume with the Spyro The Dragon series. Stewart was also one-third of the all-star band Oysterhead, in which he collaborated with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Primus’ Les Claypool.
Prior to The Police’s record-breaking reunion tour in 2007 and 2008, Stewart directed a documentary titled Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, as comprised of Super-8 footage he had compiled from over the years. Following the tour, he released a memoir titled Strange Things Happen: A Life With The Police, Polo, and Pygmies. Eventually opting to put nostalgia aside, Stewart has been working non-stop as a composer within the orchestral world ever since.
Gamelan D’Drum, which largely features Indonesian instruments, was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2008 and premiered in 2011; it recently had two performances in San Antonio in November 2015. The Tyrant’s Crush was debuted last year with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as featuring Stewart on percussion. Stewart Copeland’s Orchestral Ben Hur, as co-commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival, has one show scheduled with Seattle Rock Symphony in February and four shows Pacific Symphony Orchestra in March.
Stewart will be New York for performances of The Cask Of Amontillado — based on the Edgar Allan Poe story — on Jan. 16, 17, 18 and 19. Taking place at Dixon Place (161 Chrystie St.), Cask will be part of an Opera Double event, featured alongside Robert Paterson’s The Whole Truth. Stewart will be participating in a post-intermission chat alongside Robert, author Stephen McCauley, and lyricist Mark Campbell. More information on this event can be found at www.americanmodernensemble.org.
Downtown had the honor of conducting some Q&A with Stewart in advance of Cask. He also spoke about the Sacred Grove, his performance space which has hosted jams with Snoop Dogg, Cream’s Ginger Baker, Tool’s Danny Carey, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, to name a few; full-length videos of most of these happenings are posted on Stewart’s official YouTube page. For more info on upcoming performances, lectures and all things Stewart Copeland, click on over to www.stewartcopeland.net.
When did you realize that you were more than just a rock musician?
Stewart Copeland: Before discovering that I was a rock musician I wanted to write gargantuan orchestral music. Guitar, bass and drums just came easier at first.
For someone that you primarily knows you from your work in the rock world, what should they expect from the upcoming event called Stewart Copeland and American Modern Ensemble Opera Double Feature at Dixon Place?
S: Well, we won’t be doing “Message In a Bottle!” There is a growing band of cognizenti who have been following my other stuff. God knows how they found me outside of Police world, but by now we should be able to fill the Dixon for a few nights. They will be coming to hear an early work — from the 90’s — that led to the, ahem, gargantuan orchestral work that I’m doing now. This piece was written 20 years ago but recently re-orchestrated for the larger New Modern Ensemble. I still stand by every tune but have learned a thing or two about how to make the orchestra pop.
When did you first read the story The Cask Of Amontillado? What is it that spoke to you about being adapted for a musical performance?
S: I’m sure I read it during my college Poe phase, but this libretto came out of the blue from my friend and mentor, David Bamberger, who commissioned my first opera for the Cleveland Opera. He chose a great story! Edgar Allan Poe lures his readers into a murderer’s point of view, casting the victim as a deserving snob, whose slights and insults are ample cause for retribution. The avenger guides us with dark joy along a subterranean path to the victim’s hideous doom. There is never any doubt which side Mr. Poe was on.
Are there any plans for your Gamelan D’Drum or Ben-Hur works to come to New York?
S: Dang, I’m shaking every tree to get these shows into New York! Momentum is building across the land for my big orchestra gigs. The mighty Chicago and Cleveland symphonies have given me rides and Los Angeles is going down in March, but the Big Apple is still there…
Where did the idea come from to broadcast jams of yours from the Sacred Grove?
S: One day I swiveled my studio chair away from the computer screens and towards the drums, amps and guitars. Hadn’t touched them in years. My inner roadie woke up and I started wiring up the studio as the “Ultimate Jam Room.” I’ve got the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments that money can buy. Not only is every square foot of the room ready to record, but all of the conveniences that players like are perfectly-calibrated. It’s a giant train set and the musician chums that come over are the trains. I get to be the sole engineer! One night someone brought a camera and then it all went next-level. There are now six cameras mounted around the room so every party leads to weeks of joyous editing and mixing.
The way that Daryl Hall has reinvented himself via Live From Daryl’s House on VH1 Classic, has the thought of making your Sacred Grove sessions a TV program, podcast or DVD series ever occurred to you?
S: It’s art for art’s sake. Turning it into commerce would be a headache. The guys come over for the hang and the complete absence of studio crew creates an informality that really sets the players free in a unique way. The results are just there on YouTube for all to enjoy. When it comes to rock music, I’ve already been paid.
Ginger Baker was the latest Sacred Grove video posted after a bit of a break. When you’re in the midst of writing a symphony, is it difficult to jam or play music outside of the classical realm?
S: One is relief from the other. The day job is the orchestra work since it burns the most brain calories. Writing music for the page — to be played later by others — requires visualization of the likely result, which is harder than just hearing the result come out of speakers here now. Making music to come out of speakers is cake!
A lot of today’s influential drummers cite you as being their main drumming influence. Did you always know that your drumming style was unique?
S: Maybe. Does fantasizing about being a drum god count as knowing that you would be one?
Beyond all of your musical projects, you wrote a successful memoir and directed a documentary. Are there other media that you still one day hope to work in or around?
S: Yep. Still a couple tricks up my sleeve. Watch this space.
Do you have any rock-related projects ahead?
S: No, just blazing for kicks at the Sacred Grove.
Is there any chance of an Oysterhead reunion in the future?
S: Aw man, I long for an Oysterhead reunion! We’re all keen and will make it happen, but those other guys are in giant touring bands, so getting all three of us in the room is rare.
When you’re not busy with your career, how do you choose to spend your free time?
S: My career IS my free time. Life is the not free part. When not composing, arranging, playing, filming, editing, writing or wiring, I do like to goof off with my kids or ride my bike along the Pacific Ocean with my chucklehead friends. Study of music theory and orchestration continues to be a vocational hobby, but strangely, it rarely informs my actual work as a musician. Engrossing as all that is, there’s just no time for it in the heat of the creative moment.
-by Darren Paltrowitz