The following article appeared in the May 1984 issue of Downbeat magazine. The author was Charles Doherty.
No breach of copyright is intended through the reproduction of this article/interview. Copyright lies entirely with the original author and publication - it is reproduced here for non-profit purposes only and to share with Sting/Police fans and will be removed immediately upon the request of the author or publication.
If not for Michael Jackson, the Police would've dominated the pop music news this past year. The weeks when 'Thriller' wasn't number one, the rock trio's platinum-plus Synchronicity topped the charts - an LP that spawned the Grammy-wining smash Every Breath You Take and several other chart-busters; their videos were hits as well. Police mugshots graced the covers of dozens of periodicals' they won "best group" honours in readers' polls from Playboy to Rolling Stone to down beat. And the Police have given Jackson some standards to shoot at: their 10-month coast-to-coast-and-then-some tour (which ended in March) has established all-time attendance and gross sales records. An earlier world tour set international marks in such rock meccas as Hong Kong, Cairo, and Bombay. Sorry Mick, but the Police are undeniably the most popular rock group in the world today.
The key to their popularity is self evident; catchy melodic hooks combined with matinee idol good looks make the teenies screamy. Their early hits were hybrids of English pop and reggae beats (heavy on the "3" if you please), a refreshing sound in a moribund pop scene that perked up ears on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the Police are also darlings of the critics, who call the band simply complex citing counter-melodies, multi-rhythms, minimalism ECMish jazz, and sophisticated lyrics dwelling underneath the pop hooks. The sophisto musos even have ascribed inapropos gobbledygook like "postalienationist rock" and "polyrhythmic arpeggios" to Police work. But hey, it's only rock & roll, and a lot of people like it.
In late 1976 drummer Stewart Copeland invited Sting (nee Gordon Sumner, the charismatic singer / songwriter / bassist he had met earlier in the year) down to London to form a band with him and punk guitarist Henry Padovani. With a self produced single in-hand, they hit this scene as described by Copeland: "In the beginning of '77, clubs were opening all over the place, packed with kids who wanted to hear the new sound, get into the (punk) scene. There weren't enough bands to go around. It was like, 'You got a bass? Good, we got five gigs: You scraggled from gig to gig to gig. At first it was just crazy, but then it began to burn out as there were hundreds and hundreds of groups - most of them terrible - so we took the plunge to go to the states."
By that time guitarist Andy Summers had checked the band and muscled Padovani out of the picture. Though they had several modest hits in England, the Police had no product domestically available in the states, and their debut tour was a gamble on a shoestring - opening fresh off the plane at CBGB's in NYC, and club-hopping around the country, just the trio and Kim Turner (then road manager, now co-manager with Copeland's brother Miles) in one truck with two amps and a small drum kit. In the midst of the tour, A&M released Outlandos d'Amour, the single Roxanne hit, and their rise was meteoric (cf. Detroit: nine people at their 1978 gig, 17,000 in 1983).
Founding father Copeland has been the driving force behind the Police since the beginning. Born in Alexandria, VA July 16, 1952, the youngest of four, at age six months he hit the road with his parents Miles Jr. (head of the CIA operations in the Middle East) and Lorraine (an archaeologist), growing up in urban and rural areas of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon ("a great place when the CIA was operating there"). He picked up his first drum kit at age 13 in Beirut, and played in rock bands at the British boarding schools he attended through college not returning to the states until he was 19. "When I was there (overseas), I always thought I was from here (America). Then when I got here, I realised that I wasn't from here at all; I'm from a Samsonite suitcase."
He took his suitcase to UC-Berkeley for his final year of college, and was four units away from graduating before he returned to England, becoming a "peripheral musician - road manager, radio DJ, ,journalist," and then joining his first professional band Curved Air, a folky art-rock outfit with which he recorded a few albums. It was during a Curved Air tour that Copeland met Sting, catching his act at a club: "The group was terrible but Sting was great."
And a former Curved Air vocalist is now Mrs. Copeland. Sonja Christina and Stewart make their home in England with their children Sven and Jordan. I tracked the Policeman down near the end of their tour at his suite in the Ritz. Polo gear (one of his passions) cluttered the entryway; his "suitcase studio" and Strat sat on the sill of a wide window offering a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and Chicago's Gold Coast; the tall, trim, green-eyed, bleached blond was on the phone.
Stewart Copeland: I have to ring off now and explain the universe to down beat.
Charles Doherty: What's the earliest musical memory from your universe?
SC: Wishing I could participate in the da'ebki, kind of a dance of Greek descent that is still performed in the Bakaa valley of Lebanon. Arabic music is very much on the downbeat, it's sort of like reggae in many ways; much of our Police rhythm has been described as West Indian inspired when, in fact, it has been more Middle East inspired; but the West Indian influence is there too, picked up from when I was in England - lots of it there on the radio when I was in school. I'm an ethno-music buff, listen to a lot of it. I like Indian music and Balinese music, but it's more intellectual stuff. It's very difficult to assimilate those and apply the inspiration to Western music. If you try to establish too direct a link, it sounds corny. I don't practice them; I just appreciate them.
CD: Who were your early drum influences?
SC: Mitch Mitchell. Joe Morello. I suppose I'd have to mention Hussim Akbar, the local (Beirut) hotshot. My father brought me up on Buddy Rich; musically, my background at home was big band jazz from my father and Stravinsky from my mother. In England my father played trumpet with the pre-war Tommy Dorsey Band and the wartime Glenn Miller Orchestra. I would like to think that I swing rather than rock.
CD: Any current influences ? Favourite drummers?
SC: No, as a matter of fact, there isn't that much inspiring out there. There are some people who are quite good but no real groundbreakers like Billy Cobham was in his day. I do listen to a lot of popular music and jazz.
CD: Who was your first drum teacher?
SC: An Armenian guy, who was a house drummer in Beirut. Later Max Abrams in England. I had lots of teachers in school who taught me rudiments and all that stuff, which is all well-learned and has really done me a lot of good. Although I am basically an instinctive player and not impressed by technique at least I have the technique to back myself up; I'm not limited by my chops.
CD: So you know how to read music and would recommend that upcoming drummers learn how too?
SC: Yes. Reading is useful for earning a living, but is not really directly related to the talent.
CD: In your school-day bands, what son of music did you play? What tunes did you cover?
SC: Heavy metal. Hendrix, Hendrix, and Hendrix. I hated the Bee Gees and the Grateful Dead; Jefferson Airplane made me nauseous. I hated just about everything except Hendrix, Cream, and the Doors. I quite liked the Monkees; I liked the Beatles. The Stones? I liked about one tune out of five, but that one tune was always great. They're son of institutionalised now; I mean, whenever I hear a Stones tune on the radio, I may be bored by them, but it's still kind of a welcome home.
CD: How did you develop your individual sound?
SC: The sound developed itself through the drums. With the Tama drums I'm using, I'm able to tune them very tight and get response, so I can do clever stuff, but they still have a thick sound. It's a matter of getting the sound to cut through. The snare drum is really quite tight, and bright and quite thin until you get it in a big hall and put it through a big PA; the sound of the drums is pretty much like tin cans until you put them through a PA.
CD: Over the various Police albums, your drumming has lightened up, become less busy, more spacious. Was this a conscious decision?
SC: I think I'm becoming more of a musician as opposed to a drummer, more interested in the gestalt than I am in my own personal chops.
CD: Despite One World (Not Three) (a Copeland chops showcase)?
SC: (laughing) Well, that was a jam.
CD: What other instruments do you play?
SC: Piano, guitar, bass, I can fake them all. I mean, I couldn't sit down and play you a song on any of them, but in the studio I can do the part.
CD: You've said that you want the Police to be entertaining, not introspective. Do you still feel that way?
SC: Well, this word entertaining... I want it to be moving; I want the kinetic ritual to be intense.
CD: Do you agree with Sting's statement: "At our best we're a group that says something quite sophisticated in a very simple way"?
SC: Yes. There's many different angles on this group, and the main one, I suppose, is that with all our cleverness we can state something simple, simply (pause) and movingly; that's the most important thing, the emotion. A lot of bands with a lot of technique overshoot the mark, and it's very difficult not to.
CD: Sting has also said that your most creative material - Roxanne, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Don't Stand So Close To Me - are often your biggest hits because the commerciality is accidental, not planned. And you've said that you have two types of ears - professional and emotional. Couldn't your professional ears hear the commerciality in these songs when you were working on them?
SC: It's too subjective for that. I suppose you'd have to say there's a third set of ears for our own material. We've been very fortunate. We can thank the stars above that we've been able to follow our instincts, make music that turns ourselves on, and not even think about the world outside - the world of radio airplay and record sales - and we've been blessed with the right instincts, I guess.
CD: Do Sting and Andy perceive of you as a timekeeper?
SC: Heh, well, somebody's got to keep the time.
CD: You've said that you think in rhythm, conceptualise in rhythm, form word patterns in rhythm. How does this work?
SC: It's actually a game, this whole concept of rhythm and how you can break everything down into rhythm - the passing of time, the movements you make, your verbalisations, and so on. In speech it's not a regular rhythm, rather an interrupted rhythm, but it's still there - like in a typist, if they can type in rhythm, they type more accurately and faster. Rhythm comes into our life in many ways. It's a light-hearted, fanciful theory, but actually, the more I think about it, the more seriously I take it. It's an extrapolation on Dr.Copeland's theories of kinetic ritual. I don't recommend it for other drummers; it's just an interesting thought, much like synchronicity will not actually improve your life, but it's an interesting idea.
CD: You're a very rhythmic drummer; many modern drummers are trying to balance a melodic element with the rhythmic. Will you be adding a more melodic component to your drumming gestalt?
SC: I'm not sure; I mean it's impossible for a drummer to play melodically. On tuned percussion, there is melody, strictly speaking, but on drums there is no melody. If you try to tune your first tom-tom to an E flat, and your second to A, you know, those tonal qualities will never come through the rest of the band. Like if you play your E flat tom-tom against an E Major chord, there won't be any kind of problem, so all this stuff about playing melodically gets me very confused.
CD: You're a very physical player, much more intense, even violent on-stage than is hinted at on your records.
SC: As a matter of fact, there's a horrible truth I've come to realise, and it's quite frustrating to me, which is the last three albums - the last two anyway - we've gone into the studio after a time when I haven't been playing for six months. Playing on tour, I just get a lot better, so my playing on-stage is always a lot better than what is captured on record.
CD: So what happened to the live album? Couldn't that catch some of your best playing ? Or do you think videos have replaced the live LP?
SC: We're working on it. Every time we think we're gonna release a live album, we record a new album of original material, and we gotta include some of that, so we wait for the next tour, but this time we mean it. I believe you should see the live album out by this summer. We'll use different material for the album than what is on the videos (Police Around The World, the Showtime concert); we'll select from a much broader range of shows rather than just one concert. Bands can still make it without video; it's not a threat, just another tool.
CD: So your best drumming is live?
SC: Yes...well, actually my best drumming is on my home demo tapes. Whenever I get home from touring and hit my studio that's where all the best drumming is.
CD: What do you practice at home? On the road? To warm up with?
SC: For real practice, just to keep my muscles happening the way they should, I practice monotonous grooves, just get into it and stay there. Good for the muscles and a great meditation technique. On the road I practice music theory, just writing notes, scribbling notes, practising using the musical language with greater facility. Playing gigs keeps my drums happening. Before a show I'll do some callisthenics, shake my hands around.
CD: Andy has said that the Police has hoped to do an album of '50s tunes, things you do at soundchecks, tunes from his teens, stuff like Summertime Blues, Peggy Sue, Elvis songs. How do you feel about that; they're not songs from your teens?
SC: This is an idea that we've passed around; one day we might get to it. We'd just pick some good tunes, like Wake Up Little Susie. That's one of my favourites; it's the first tune I ever remembered.
CD: The first three tunes on Outlandos D'Amour pretty clearly show the development of the Police sound, from energetic punk rock to the pop-reggae hybrid that was a key to your early success...
SC: Sure, from Next To You, through So Lonely, to Roxanne...
CD: Did the reggae influence in the band come from you?
SC: It takes two to tango, and three to reggae.
CD: But didn't you teach Sting the bass pattern on Roxanne?
SC: Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a story that goes way back, and Sting and I have argued over this but the actually historical facts are that I lent him some Bob Marley records for a Christmas party, and that was the point when suddenly he started playing reggae bass lines to go with my reggae drum beats. See, if you play reggae drums without the bass lines or the guitar, it sounds like a bossa nova; it just doesn't work; it isn't a rhythm. That's the great thing about reggae - it's an interactive form; no one instrument by itself can play it.
CD: What's the genesis of a Police song?
SC: We each come in with a demo tape, and then we listen to them, and the ones that kind of make our ears prick up - make us think, "Yeah, that could be a Police song" - we work on and try things with, as far as inspiration takes us. The main thing which holds it together, and makes us persevere with it, is the song itself. So as soon as that's together, it's the arrangement around it where all the work comes in.
CD: Do the lyrics only represent the thoughts of the original composer?
SC: To a certain extent, but they also have to represent the feelings of the other two. For instance, Invisible Sun - Sting wrote that about Belfast, but to me it's about Beirut. If I disagree with a point that Sting is trying to make (in the lyric), I'll argue with him about it. But we haven't established an ideological stance which Sting then goes away with and composes songs about.
CD: How about some of the collaborative compositions, other than the jams, like Rehumanize Yourself, where you wrote the music and Sting the lyrics?
SC: Well, I wrote a song that wasn't about anything in particular; I try to apply myself to lyrics occasionally, but it's not an art form that I really have a lot to say with. You see Sting has to sing it so he gets a lot of latitude as far as what he sings.
CD: On the second Police LP you composed three tunes, another in collaboration with Sting, and two were credited to the group. On the latest record it's eight Sting compositions, with one each by you and Andy. You've compared this latter development to the token Noel Redding tune on a Jimi Hendrix LP.
SC: I never should have opened my mouth...
CD: Are the Police becoming the Sting Experience?
SC: Not creatively, no. As far as composing materials, Sting writes his lyrics with a song to go around it, and those are good tunes to do. As far as my own composition, I've got my (soundtrack) scores, and I prefer that writing because I don't have to think of a lyric for all the music I write. I don't have to organise it into a song; I have to organise it to a picture. Actually, compositionally I find that more inspiring. And infact, it's taken a weight off me, trying to write Police songs.
CD: The Police was originally your band. Do you resent Sting becoming the focal point?
SC: It still is my band.
CD: 'People' magazine quoted you as saying, "I've gone about as far as I want as a rock drummer." Is that true?
SC: Did I say that in 'People' ? When did I ever talk to 'People'? As a rock drummer, yes; as a rhythmatist, there is still much to explore. Rhythmatism is the science of rhythm, the art form of rhythm. There are many rhythmic devices; the drum set is only one. There are drum boxes, electronic devices, there are other ways of using tapes, multi-tracking, to build up rhythms. For most Western musical purposes - that is, jazz, rock, blues, all the forms that use the drum set - you can break rhythm down into three voices, much like in harmony where you have a chord made up of three tones. In rhythm there's a parallel: you have the faster rhythm the 16th notes; generally coming from a hi-hat or ride cymbal - against a dialogue between the bass and the snare. Now you can replace the hi-hat or ride cymbal with any number of rhythmic or percussive things that can play 16th notes; you can exchange roles of the backbeat and the downbeat - you know the snare drum and the bass drum - switch them back and forth; you can replace the snare drum backbeat with a lot of different devices that can fulfil that function. In other words, constructing the same rhythms with different instruments, either through lots of people doing it at once, or through multi-tracking in the studio, which I prefer 'cause I can be a one-man band.
You need a pulse to drive a song along, or a riff, or whatever the piece of music is; you need rhythm to give it momentum, so it moves forward rather than hanging still. A melody with no rhythm can stay still, which for certain emotional messages is appropriate, but where you have movement, you have rhythm. And there's many, many, many ways of creating that rhythm.
CD: Last month in down beat Billy Cobham said he likes his Model T, likes the acoustical physics of position within the drum set. Rather than investing in electronic drums, he likes learning more about the development of drum heads, how the shell reacts to certain kinds of stick sounds...
SC: He's speaking aesthetically. Basically, I think he likes the wooden sound and feels alienated by the electronic sound. I don't feel alienated. Many of the electronic drum sounds are overused, but the possibilities are limitless. In fact, you can take acoustic sound, sounds that would not alienate Billy Cobham with his purist ear, and record them digitally and trigger that sound with electronic systems such as the Synclavier, the Emulator, the Kurzweil - which can also learn dynamics, different sound levels. What I'm trying to say is that there are far greater possibilities within the electronic world than there is in just a stick hitting a drum head, (dreamily) a whole new world...
CD: How did your soundtrack for director Francis Ford Coppola's film 'Rumble Fish' come about?
SC: A phone call from Hollywood.
CD: From Coppola?
SC: No, actually his lawyer called my lawyer. I guess he (Coppola) heard something in my music that he liked. He wanted advice on rhythm. I worked very closely with him at first, to develop the concept, then he went off and did the movie and I went off and did the recording, and then we met again when we had each accomplished our part. I participated in rehearsals for the film, infact jamming on the drums while they were rehearsing; they were all very polite about it. Then I came down a few times while they were shooting. When they cut it, that's when I did most of the recording.
CD: Your drums on 'Rumble Fish' are tuned looser, sounding sort of like the "L.A. fat snare". Has Stewart Copeland's sound gone Hollywood?
SC: No, they were tuned tightly; that sound comes through studio cosmetics. That thickening of the snare drum sound is certainly not the L.A. fatback sound. It was very interesting having to write for the studio musicians - strings and horns - that I added to my own performances (on guitar, electric and acoustic bass, keyboard and rhythm synths, tuned percussion, drums, typewriter, and kazoo), having to write everything down pre-cise-ly, with bar numbers and everything. With eight string players you can't say, "When it gets to the F, just hold that there and then wait; and when you hear the riff come in, go back into the opening figure." They just cross their eyes and look at you as if you've got two heads and say, "What bar number is that please, Mr. Copeland ?" So you have to arrange everything very carefully, which is a good discipline, because when you're sitting at the piano working all this out, you can actually think up what you need, as far as strings and horns and orchestral instruments go, write them down, and on the day of the recording, they play it exactly as you imagined it - with a bit of pushing and pulling here and there to get the tone right, the feeling right, but basically they play the notes you want. Whereas with your rock & roll guitarist, who arrives at the session and you say, "Could you play something funky here," - hopefully he comes up with something great, but generally he doesn't.
CD: Any other soundtracks on the horizon?
SC: Well, some people that I know in England have made a documentary on polo, and that's the kind of thing that ordinarily the BBC would spend 200 quid and get some hack to rustle up some tunes for or get something from the library, so I'm writing a 'Concerto For Eight Ponies'. The film scoring goes along quite well with the Police. Right now (at the end of the lengthy Police tour) I'm itching to get into the studio and do a score. But after I've done a score and have that out of the way, I quite like to get back and do some of those songs again.
CD: So what's the deal on the movie you made?
SC: 'So What' ? It's now on release in any theatres in New York, and soon, in Chicago and L.A. It's a 35-minute movie I shot about the punk scene in England in 1982 as opposed to '77, and in fact, it has grown. Even though the thinkers and the fashions have moved 10 times on down the line into new romantics and beyond, the punks have grown in numbers and gotten weirder in style and are actually quite photogenic. They're in a strange kind of limbo; the world isn't watching anymore, but they're still out there in Scunthorpe and Blackheath and Liverpool and Manchester and urban blight areas, unemployed and unemployable and completely estranged from society. And they live in this strange world of the bands and just go from show to show and live a wild life.
CD: Where will Stewart Copeland be 10 years from now, still bleaching his hair, drumming for Sting, and fending off groupies?
SC: I beg your pardon (laughs). Could we put that another way?
CD: Sure, where would you like Stewart Copeland to be 10 years from now?
SC: At least a three-goal (polo) handicap. I would like to have completed my first symphony (pause) and to have at least three months a year touring with the best band I know, the same two guys, the Police.
Stewart Copeland's Equipment
Stewart Copeland's basic gear is Tama and Paiste. "I use Tama because they make the best stuff and also the widest variety of stuff; I like to fiddle around with different shapes and sizes," says Stewart. "And anything that you can smash and hang on a stand, I'll give a try and Paiste makes the widest variety of targets." His Midnight Blue Tama imperialstar setup includes a five-inch snare, 22-inch bass drum ("I use the Synare, triggered by the kick drum, to electronically enhance the bass end of the bass drum."), 10-, 12-, and 13-inch rack toms. and a 16-inch floor tom-tom, plus a four piece set of Octobans. Hardware is all Tama, mainly Titan, with a King Beat pedal. Cymbally speaking, on-stage it's Formula 602 13-inch medium hi-hats (sans Sound Edge) and a 16-inch thin crash, two eight-inch 2002 bell cymbals, two eight and an 11-inch 2002 splashes, and RUDE 14-, 16-, and 22-inch crash-rides; in the studio Formula 2002 16- and 18-inch mediums, and a 22-inch 602 heavy ride replace the RUDES.
The Tamas are mostly outfitted with Remo Weather King coated Ambassadors, with Emperors on the tom batters, and a black dot on the bass batter. He says, "My studio kit has black dots (Remo CS heads), and they're actually quite cool; I may go back to them on the road." Keeping Copeland cool on-stage is a Zirkon AT9O 5,000 BTU air conditioning unit. Sticks ? "I can't honestly tell you. I just noticed that they have 'Stewart Copeland' printed on them, so I guess I use the Stewart Copeland model (from Regal). My mallets have white handles and a clear plastic head, and I break about two a night." Before the first gig on the current tour last summer, informed sources at Drums Ltd. said Copeland's drum roadie, Jeff Seitz ("He's my man from Juilliard, quite a scientist.") picked up a couple of crates of Regal Rock wood-tipped sticks and Mike Balter Lexan #92F mallets.
"I use a little duct (gaffer's) tape for muffling because, I suppose as everyone must know by now, the muffling that is built into the drums is totally useless and should be dismantled completely. I used to wrap my hands in duct tape too, but just last week I found some gloves (Drum Gloves, from Rug Caddy), and they're pretty neat, but they haven't got it quite right (for me) yet; at least someone is trying. This, unfortunately, is what happens after two or three gigs (holds up a pair with a worn-out thumb web on the left hand).
"I have Deltalab, AMS, and Roland 2000 digital delays. triggered by on/off pedals next to my hi-hat for certain effects, that are attached to the different drums; the soundman has a list of what drums to put through at what times. I tried double-bass drumming when I was with Curved Air, but I found it messed up my playing, and I can now get the same effect with delay. So I've been using the delays for years and years, but I keep checking out the new ones. See. with longer delay times, you lose the high ends; but now the chips are getting smarter so you can maintain the high end over longer delays.
"I also have a whole percussion rack with a Tama Gong bass, timbales, bongos, xylophone, tuned percussion, bells, gongs, cup chimes - the whole Paiste array. For three or four numbers - King Of Pain, Wrapped Around Your Finger, the best is Walking In Your Footsteps - Mr.Oberheim takes over (the Oberheim DMX programmable digital drum machine) while I'm on the rack. It's a starring role for him, really, and quite complex - not just rhythm, he plays fills and all. It's my programs, with Mr Oberheim's sounds running through a custom-built signal-boost device that triggers the Simmons electronics, so it's a combination of the Oberheim and Simmons drum sounds that comes out of the speakers. And I'm looking for new sounds to be triggered - everyone's using the Simmons programs now. At home I have an Electro-Harmonix device (an Instant Replay) that can record sounds, sort of like a one-note Fairlight. You make a noise into a mic, hit a pad, and the noise comes back. I just haven't had a chance to figure it out yet."
On the road Copeland figures out his new charts on his "suitcase studio" - a Yamaha HandySound HS-5O1 polyphonic mini-synth, a Casio PT2O monophonic mini-synth (that also plays chords), a BOSS Dr Rhythm, the Scholz Rockman (for studio effects), a Fostex X-15 Multi-tracker cassette recorder, Sanyo C mini-monitor speakers, and Sony headphones, plus a Fender Stratocaster for that dose of heavy metal.