The Police: Stewart Copeland

Police drummer Stewart Copeland and I spoke on the phone for about 25 minutes, a few days before the reunited band launched its 2007-08 world tour in Vancouver. Things got a little tense initially when Copeland thought I was trashing Sting in hopes of currying favor with him, but I think we quickly sorted things out. I flew up for the Vancouver show, which was — frankly — rusty and uninspiring, and I didn’t bother seeing any additional dates.

Coincidentally, Copeland wasn’t thrilled with the tour kickoff either. But he unwisely chose to trash his bandmates on his web site. I wrote a story — Police drummer rips band’s “lame” concert — and it got huge traction worldwide. He referred to me as “that crafty AP (sic) reporter” when recounting the fallout in his entertaining 2009 memoir Strange Things Happen. His unfiltered views got himself into trouble a few months later when he indicated that Chilean president Michelle Bachelet wasn’t very attractive; he apologized to her.


HOPEFULLY BY THIS STAGE YOU HAVE A FAIRLY WELL-OILED MACHINE-

-Either that, or the wheels are just about to come off! We’ll find out on Monday … We’ve been blazing away for four months. We had it all together about three months ago, and then we started tearing it all apart. And then it all came back into focus about two months ago, so then we tore it all down again. We’ve been really trying to get that pocket back that took us two or three years to evolve in the beginning. We’ve been trying to get it back in three or four months. We’ve had as much experience after the Police — life experience — as we had before the Police. Sting and I, we were 23 years old when we met, and it’s 23 years since the last time we played together. We’ve grown a lot.

IN THE LAST 20-ODD YEARS, YOU’VE EACH BEEN ABLE TO BE YOUR OWN LITTLE DICTATOR IN YOUR OWN LITTLE WORLDS-

-Yeah, yeah. Each one of us has been president for life in our own universe.

IT’S LIKE ONE OF THOSE CRAZY SUMMITS IN AFRICA, ALL THOSE DICTATORS GET TOGETHER

That’s right. I’m Milton Obote, Sting is Idi Amin, and Andy, I don’t know.

ROBERT MUGABE?

Yeah. Or Nefertiti. Sting’s more like Akhenaten (Nefertiti’s husband), more like a pharaoh. You’ve put your finger on it, though. We’re three dictators in one kingdom. One Stingdom, I should say.

DO YOU HAVE TO GIVE STING SOME ROOM TO DEFLATE?

In this band, we are both blessed and cursed by the fact that we have within the three of us an 800-pound gorilla … He takes a lot of feeding, but he earns his keep.

WHICH REMINDS ME, IS EVERYTHING SPLIT THREE WAYS EQUALLY?

We have a very equitable deal. Sting could have raped us. He chose not to. We’re all extremely happy.

SO IT’S ONE THIRD FOR EVERYONE?

Yep.

WAS THAT EVER A POINT OF CONTENTION?

Not at all. I was expecting it to be … I would have assumed otherwise, and would have been happy for it to have been otherwise.

IF I WAS STING, I’D LET YOU AND ANDY SPLIT IT 50/50

That’s very odd. Why would you say that?

IN SOME WAY, YOU’RE GIVING HIM BACK SOME CREDIBILITY THAT MAYBE SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT THAT HE MAY HAVE LOST-

-It’s funny how people say that so often, and I wonder where on earth that impression comes from. I’ve heard a lot of people snickering about his lute album (“Songs from the Labyrinth”), and yet that album was probably the most successful classical album of all time.

I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT HIS LUTE ALBUM. I’M SAYING THE POLICE IN GENERAL WERE SO HUGE AND SO COOL, THAT’S IT’S GREAT TO BRING HIM BACK INTO THE FOLD IN SOME WAYS.

OK, look at it another way. Name me another artist who has left a major band, and has done so well for themselves. Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton. None of them have been as successful as Sting.

PHIL COLLINS?

No way. Not even close. Glenn Frey. Nothing. Sting is absolutely the most successful band member at carving out a career for himself.

IF I WAS  STING, I’D TAKE 10 PERCENT AND LET YOU GUYS HAVE 40 EACH.

I’ll tell him you said that. You know it’s funny because I hear a lot of flak about Sting, because people assume that what I want to hear is exactly what you just said to me-

-NO, I’M NOT TRYING TO SUCK UP TO YOU-

It wasn’t what I want to hear, because I take great pride in Sting. I don’t deserve to because I didn’t really create him, but I feel as if I did. I discovered him. I found him up in Newcastle, I brought him down to London — I didn’t actually: He was coming down anyway, but I take credit for that. I’m very proud of him. I don’t stand for people putting him down. He’s a tower of music talent. I’ve never met anybody — and I’ve had the opportunity to play with just about every musician that ever I’ve dreamed of playing with — there’s nobody like Sting, in terms of just the depth of his musicality. And not just the deep emotional quality of his music but the music energy. He’s the only guy I’ve ever worked with who can match my music energy, who’s got more than I do. You have to get up really early in the day to get there ahead of Sting.

Stewart Copeland

I GUESS IN THE LAST 20 YEARS WHEN HE HASN’T PLAYED DRUMMERS WHO ARE AS POWERFUL, HE MIGHT HAVE ADAPTED TO A DIFFERENT STYLE OF DRUMMING. NOW THAT HE’S BACK IN THE FOLD, YOU REALLY ARE PUSHING HIM, AND BEATING HIM UP, IN A WAY?

It’s true. We do beat each other up, and we both realize the value of that. It’s not the most comfortable place in the world being in the Police. It’s a bed of roses, all right, including the thorns. We challenge each other. He’s worked with the best musicians who do exactly what he likes. He has — and me too, by the way — we’ve all become very lazy in band leadership. When you’re a member of the band, band leadership is all about having the best idea first and having the energy to sell it to the other guys in the band. Or the quality of the idea has to sell itself. When you own the band, when you’re paying the guys triple scale, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You just tell ’em what you’re going to do and that’s it. But in a band you have to be inspiring. You have to have the best ideas. And so Sting and I and Andy, all three of us, we did get a little lazy about that. We’ve had to relearn how to stay ahead, how to sell our ideas, how to up the ante and the quality of our ideas. We challenge each other. I can’t just say, “I wanna do this. Do that.” No, it’s gotta be a really good idea, and so we’ve had to hone our leadership skills.

AND EVEN IF YOU WEREN’T ROCK STARS, WE ALL GET OLDER AND SET IN OUR WAYS TOO

Yeah, you’re right. All of the hifalutin stuff I just said. Plus the fact that we’re just crusty old bastards. Although we’re getting coddled to the point of mental extinction here. I’ve never been coddled like this. Back when tickets were $15 a head, it was a different world. I’m being coddled into mental extinction here. I’ve just about forgotten how to count change, Dialing a phone is soon going to be lost to me. I’ve forgotten how to work a credit card. You get treated like an old lady. Doors are opened for you, seats are surrendered to you.

EVERY MINUTE OF YOUR LIFE WILL BE ACCOUNTED FOR, FOR THE NEXT YEAR OR SO. BUT MAYBE THAT’S NOT SUCH A BAD THING AFTER ALL?

That’s right. As a film composer, I’m just one of the cogs in the machine. But as pop star, I am the beans inside the can. I am the can. And if I dent my finger, a lot of people are going to be out of work. Now, we’re all very much more aware that we ourselves are the product. For me to maintain my musculature is not just a matter of personal pride or anything. I have a responsibility to a lot of people to keep myself healthy. If I allow myself to get a cold, it’s going to piss a lot of people off.

HOW IS THE ON-STAGE CHEMISTRY NOW COMPARED TO WHAT IT WAS, SAY, IN THE CLOSING STAGES OF THE SYNCHRONICITY TOUR?

We don’t take each other for granted as much as we did. Part of this, I’m just making this up because we’re not really a band yet, we haven’t been in front of an audience. But that audience is not something that I take for granted, right now, sitting here talking to you. I understand now, with the wisdom of the last 25 years, that it’s a real honor, an obligation. I’m not gonna just walk out there like I did 25 years ago and take it for granted that everyone’s gonna go nuts. I feel very, very deeply that I have very important work to do. I don’t take it for granted the way I did as a kid. I think all of us feel that very, very deeply. We get up very early in the day because we feel this. It’s not just a matter of The Legend! The Legacy! or any of that bullshit. We feel really strongly that we want this to be outrageously good.

ARE THERE SONGS THAT ARE COMING TOGETHER NOW THAT DIDN’T COME TOGETHER 20 YEARS AGO? OR CONVERSELY SONGS THAT DON’T HAVE THE SAME MAGIC?

They all have very different magic. We came together, we scrabbled the songs together. Yep, that’s fine. Now let’s fuck ’em all up! … We’re not really a band until Sunday night (at the dress rehearsal), until we’re in front of an audience, because the audience has a big effect … I don’t know what it is, but you can feel something which guides you, and the audience very much has a very powerful impact on what the band is doing, and how they do it. If you imagine that each member of the audience gets a little electric charge or a little something from watching the performance, and then you imagine that that’s all reflected back on the stage. And if you’re at the focal point of all that energy coming back to the stage, it changes you.

DO YOU HANG OUT TOGETHER OFF-STAGE AS WELL?

Off and on. We were rehearsing in Italy and we were together for breakfast, all day rehearsing, lunch, all afternoon rehearsing, dinner. After dinner, in the Magic Stingdom in Italy, his palazzo there, his 4,000 acres, we’d go into the stairwell of the palazzo with this incredible acoustics and just play guitars all night — me on bass and Sting and Andy on guitar. It’s kinda cool, actually, I got promoted to musician!

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE 4,000-ACRE THING? I REALIZE YOU’RE NOT LIVING IN POVERTY.

I have one house (in Los Angeles), I drive a Jeep Cherokee, I live very simply. I discovered in life that I have the same joy in divestment as I once got as a young man in acquisition. I have the perfect house. I’m never leaving this house that I’m in. I might trade my Jeep in for some environment-friendly vehicle of some kind. But I’m not into fancy cars. My watch is a Casio. I live very simply, and I’ve discovered that half of the so-called luxuries that people strive for do not provide happiness. My happiness comes from my children, my wife, my house that I love that I live in. OK, it’s a very nice house, but there’s only one of it. But what’s really cool is that I’ve got my mate who’s got 4,000 acres in Tuscany. I can hang out at his place. He can hire the 10 chambermaids, the half-acre of kitchen and pantry.

WHAT WAS THE EXTENT OF YOUR FRIENDSHIP OVER THE YEARS?

We’ve always gotten along really well. Sting and I are a bit volatile. Half the time, we’re screaming at each other, the other half of the time we’re hugging and kissing, and there’s almost no time when we’re just chatting. We don’t really chit-chat that much. It’s always pretty intense.

I DON’T THINK GUYS CHIT-CHAT THAT MUCH ANYWAY, DO THEY?

I’ve got chuckle-buddies. We exchange wild crackpot theories, get-rich-quick schemes, political apoplexia. In the Police, it’s all about music. Sting and Andy and I go way back. We are deeply bonded. We all have a very high regard for each other. Even though we’ve had our conflicts, we appreciate the value of the conflict. When I’m screaming mad at Sting because of some argument we’re having about music, it never for a second diminishes the respect and love that I have for him. And vice versa, I’m sure. Our cycle is that we play nicely for two or three days, and then tension starts to build. The little slights, bumps and grinds build up and build up, and then we have a screaming match, and then we hug and kiss. And when we get back to playing again, we play like motherfuckers and the band is 10 degrees better than it was. And then we play nicely for two or three days, and then we start to get on each other’s nerves, then we start to get dark and hot, then we have a screaming match, and then we hug and kiss, and then we play even better!!

I GUESS YOU’LL HAVE TO PACE YOURSELF A BIT?

We’re pacing ourselves, that’s it. There’s times, like when we’re in the Magic Stingdom, where we were just with each other all day, every day for months on end. Now here in Vancouver, we’re in a different groove. When we get out on the road, it’s not going to be anything but each other. Right now, this week particularly, all of our various managers, record companies, fluffers, our physical therapists, nutritionists — we have a dressing-room ambience coordinator, wardrobe — we’re surrounded by this humongous entourage now, which kind of separates us a little bit.

DOES IT WORRY YOU THAT ALL THIS IS EATING INTO YOUR SHARE OF THE TOUR GROSS?

They could pay each one of these people here 20 times and I don’t think the tour gross would even notice. My son who’s out here, he’s a videographer, as I’m marveling over the stage, and I’m marveling over the level of coddling that we’re getting, my son’s saying, “But Dad, isn’t this like it was back in the day?” I’m saying, actually there was more interest in the band back in the day, there was more hysteria because we were young and pretty, and it was fresh and new. But tickets were $15, not $260.

AND EVEN THEN, I GUESS $15 WAS CONSIDERED OUTRAGEOUS WHEN EVERYONE ELSE WAS CHARGING $7?

Exactly. I remember our manager at the time, my brother Miles, saying, “We’ll never charge $20 a ticket! That’s rape!” I guess times change. I’m just here playing drums and I really am pretty much concerned with all that. That was our manager’s problem then and it’s our management’s problem now.

IS MILES STILL CONNECTED WITH YOU IN ANY WAY, APART FROM BEING YOUR BROTHER?

No, Miles and I haven’t been doing business for quite some time now, because I got off into the film world and in a business sense we kinda drifted apart.

WHAT ABOUT PERSONALLY?

We’re still very close personally.

DO YOU STILL HAVE A PUBLISHING SHARE IN THE POLICE? OR DID STING BUY YOU OUT ABOUT A DECADE AGO?

No, he never did that. This is all business, but there were companies that went back and forth, I think I administered a company — it’s all just business.

SO YOU STILL GET SOME NICE ROYALTY CHECKS?

Oh yeah. Yeah. As far as business goes, we are absolutely straight with each other. I’m very grateful that Sting hasn’t been as selfish as I’ve heard other band members have been. I don’t know what his rights are, but I hear these stories about the way other groups are structured and I shake my head in admiration at my buddy.

ANDY SAID ( IN GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE) THE OBVIOUS THING TO DO AT THE END WOULD BE MAKE ANOTHER ALBUM AND THEN TOUR AGAIN. ARE YOU ON BOARD WITH THAT CONCEPT?

No.

AFTER THIS TOUR, THAT’S IT?

Yeah. And really I’m saying that because that’s just the mindset. With the Police it’s an all-consuming monster. By March, which I think is when we’re planning on finishing up, ask me again. But for the moment I am enjoying the prospect of this year because it’s just a year. If Sting comes up with new songs and we do an album, check with me on the day that happens. Right now, I’m just looking forward to this year and the fact that it’s only a year means that I can enjoy it a lot more. I have a family, I have a life. I’m a composer, I have symphonies to write. I’m really enjoying this drum thing, and I’m enjoying the hell out of playing with Andy and Sting. All this coddling is kind of amusing. Those audiences, well, I don’t know yet, but I’m hoping that’s going to be a lot of fun too. It’s going to be a blast for one year.

I GUESS WE CAN VERY, VERY SIMPLY DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE AS VERY POWERFUL, AGGRESSIVE, AS OPPOSED TO A RINGO STARR/CHARLIE WATTS-TYPE TIMEKEEPER THING?

To my bitter regret! When I was a youngster I established myself as the gonzo drummer, Godzilla on drums. Now that I’m fiftysomething (54) years old I have that to maintain. Right about now is when I wish I had established as Mr. Cool Breeze jazz guy.

I THOUGHT IT WAS ODD THAT YOU WERE SUBBING FOR JOHN DENSMORE IN THE DOORS REUNION A FEW YEARS BACK?

That was a lot of fun, because I was such a big Doors fan. But I was the wrong guy for them, totally.

WHO’S YOUR FAVORITE MOTOWN DRUMMER?

Who is my favorite Motown drummer? I don’t know any Motown drummers. I guess the nearest would be Abe Laborio, is my favorite funk-groove drummer (a mini lesson by me on Motown alumni Benny Benjamin, Pistol Allen and Uriel Jones, as documented in Standing in the Shadows of Motown) During the height of Motown, I was a white kid into Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t discover the value of Motown groove until I was older and more sophisticated.

DO YOU STILL BRING THE REGGAE PASSION TO THE BAND?

Well no, I’ve been around the world and seen a lot more different kinda ethnic grooves, so reggae is just a part of it, whereas back in the day it was the thing.

HAVE YOU BEEN TO NORTH AFRICA?

No, apart from Egypt. But sub-Saharan Africa, I’ve been all over there.

THEY HAVE THE FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT IN MALI

Yes, I know that one. Yeah.

AND THEN A GREAT FESTIVAL IN ESSAOUIRA, IN MOROCCO

Yes, I’ve heard about that festival. I’ve toyed with the idea of going and doing that … My version of that is I go to Italy every summer and play drums there with this music called Pizzica, which is this ancient music from Salento region, which is the heel of the boot. It’s a lot of tambourines, all these ancient folk songs. It’s really robust, powerful, pounding folk music. It ain’t your Peter, Paul and Mary … This Police thing blew all my plans out of the water. I was going to have a really good year this year!

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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