Back then, his bandmates would create a landing place for Copeland’s flights of drumming fancy. Today, local orchestras play this foundational role, as Copeland uses exciting improvisations to give old songs new life.
Dates for Copeland’s tour resume this month. He’s in Portland on March 16 with the Oregon Symphony and then settles in for a trio of shows on March 24-26 in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony.
In the meantime, Copeland joined UCR to discuss his distinctive playing style, how the Police brought two favorite deep cuts to life and the solo Sting songs he wishes he’d appeared on.
I think one of the things people love about your playing is that it’s not strictly regimented. When it comes to the Police, I can see the nature of your drumming working well in that creative environment. But did it ever cause frustration?
Oh, absolutely. Not to me; to the band! And I have absolute sympathy, for a singer trying to sing his songs. For him to shine, he requires a really solid platform. That platform sounds more like Vinnie Colaiuta than me, so I absolutely understand his need for [structure]. It’s the same with me and the orchestra. I can shine, I can blaze and take a left or a right and do whatever the hell I want to do – because the orchestra is rock solid. They are playing the page absolutely faithfully. I know exactly where they are going to be, which means that I can leap from mountaintop to mountaintop, like a goat, or fly down into the valleys with them or go anywhere – because I know exactly where they are. In bands, not counting Oysterhead [Copeland says with a wry tone], it is not ideal for the drummer to come up with something different every time. In Oysterhead, that’s what it’s all about.
Watch Stewart Copeland Perform With the Atlanta Symphony
How quickly did you see that connection with Sting and Andy develop?
With Sting, it was immediate. I saw him playing and thought, “That’s a heck of a bass player and guess what, he can sing too! Cool! That’s useful. That takes care of my singing needs.” But none of us had any idea that he could sing like that. When Andy joined, it was a bit uncomfortable for me as kind of manager of the band, because Sting didn’t have an opinion. I’d do a photo session, I’d choose the shots and he’d be [like], “Sure, fine, whatever.” He’s busy doing music. That’s what he does. But when Andy joined, there were a couple of things: First of all, I had to deal with a second opinion. “What do you mean? Let me see that contact sheet!” “What do you mean, you decided such and such?” One, it was annoying. Two, it was really great to have somebody to talk to about, like, “Fucking Squeeze got the truck. Do you know anybody else with a truck to get us to Barbarella’s in Birmingham tonight?” It was actually great to have Andy, with another bread-head in the band. The other part, which is the really important part, was all of those fancy chords he had. They just lit Sting up. The day Andy joined the band is when Sting started writing those big songs. You know, I suspect that not even he knew what a great songwriter he was, under the hood, because he’d been playing jazz and stuff. But forced to play three-minute songs with the opportunities presented by Andy’s skills and talents, it all kind of came together and he started writing fantastic songs.
You’re going to be doing the Police hits, which brings people out. Has this exercise also give you the chance to look at any deeper cuts from the catalog as well?
Yes, I did look at some. “Murder by Numbers” is quite obscure. One of my favorite Police tracks. It almost didn’t make it – in fact, it didn’t make it onto an album. It came out originally as a B-side. It’s one of the most interesting Police songs. In spite of its jazz chords, I like it anyway. Partly because of the circumstances of its recording. In Montserrat, on this island a million miles from the nearest record executive, over dinner, Andy’s plunking away at his jazz chords and I’m trying not to listen. But Sting’s ears perk up and he says, “Hey, wait a minute, I might have a lyric for that!” He went into his book and the two of them at the dinner table, heads together, kind of concoct his lyrics and Andy’s chords. While they’re doing that, I’m kind of figuring out the rhythm in my head. I said, “Hey, let’s do a take.” They go downstairs over to the studio. My drums were 20 feet away because we recorded the drums in the dining room of the facility because it had a good resonant sound. By the time they get down there, Hugh Padgham hits record, because I’m already playing [imitates rhythm pattern]. The tape rolls and they start playing and that recording is the record. Not even a run-through, not even a “let’s try this.” That’s it. The first time we ever played it, that’s the recording.
Listen to the Police’s ‘Murder by Numbers’
Did that happen a lot, that kind of spontaneity?
No. Well, it was very close to that spontaneity. The last three albums, I recorded the drum parts about half an hour after hearing the song for the first time. Sting had a great technique, which was Andy and I would get to the studio and we’d been writing songs. We’d play all seven of them in a row [and he would react to the material]. By the third or fourth one, everyone’s staring at the floor or the ceiling. “I think I’ve got to make a phone call,” you know. But Sting would reveal his songs, one by one. “Okay, that’s great. What’s next? What have we got here?” We’ve already heard all of Andy’s songs; we’ve already heard all of my songs. “What have you got there, Sting-o?” He’d pull out one of those songs [like] “Tea in the Sahara” and we’d get right on it, figure it out and do two or three takes. Usually, the second take was the one. By the way, they’re in a real hurry. “Oh, that’s great, Stewart.” You know, “It couldn’t be any better than that!” Because they’re in a hurry, they want to do their overdubs. “It’s fine, it’s fine! Nobody will ever notice that little fuck-up there!” So, they’re in a hurry to get on with the fun. And by the way, once I’ve done that, they redo all of the bass, redo the vocals, redo everything. But I’m stuck with that original drum pass with all of its imperfections.
It’s good because you don’t have preconceived notions, so you don’t get boxed into a certain thing. But it sounds like Sting and Andy Summers had a chance to go back and redo those things after they had some time to marinate on it.
Absolutely and get the right guitar sound and very much improve on it, you know. I’m not that religious, but I do believe in the X factor. I think there’s something magical in the uncertainty of that explorative feel. You can’t put your finger on what it is, but there’s a vibe to it.
Is there a song you never got tired of, just because of the joy you had playing it? On the flip side, what’s the song you would have wanted to play more?
There’s a lot that I really enjoy. “Message in a Bottle” was always fun to play. “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Love that song. “Roxanne,” I love the jam we used to do in the middle of it. “Tea in the Sahara,” I even loved his fucking oboe solo. I swear to God, the guy gets an oboe – which is a very, very challenging instrument, mostly sounds horrible – but he kind of got the hang of it, as he does. He pulls it out in that song there and starts honking on that thing. I gotta say, you know, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it – but man, that sure sounds cool. He’s kind of like that. He can pick up any instrument and make it sound cool.
You and Sting still have a friendship, but as creative collaborators, you hit that point where you realize you no longer fit together. But what album or song from his solo career would you have enjoyed working on?
“If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” The Soul Cages was a great album. I’m crap at remembering the names of songs, but there’s so many. “Englishman in New York,” “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.” I took that personally [Copeland says with a bit of sarcasm].
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