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Police Drummer Stewart Copeland Premieres Composition


Stewart Copeland may be best known as the drummer for the legendary 80s rock band The Police, but he's also a composer for both film and orchestra. La Jolla SummerFest presents the world premiere of Copeland's latest composition for percussion and hosts a screening of a documentary film he made about his time with The Police.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The La Jolla SummerFest concerts are known for their wide musical range and the superb quality of their musicians and composers. So, it's no surprise that my next guest is fitting right in as composer-in-residence this year. Stewart Copeland earned his place in musical history as drummer of the band the Police. He became a rock superstar, along with band mates Andy Summers and Sting, with hit after hit in the late '70s and '80s. But when the Police broke up, Stewart Copeland got a chance to explore other musical styles that intrigued him. He composed soundtracks for movies like "Rumblefish" and "Wall Street," he put together a number of bands, like Oysterhead. And he began writing serious orchestral music. Tomorrow, SummerFest presents compositions by Stewart Copeland, including the world premiere of his latest work for percussion. And it's my pleasure to welcome Stewart Copeland to These Days. Good morning, Stewart.

STEWART COPELAND (Musician/Composer): Well, good morning. Hello, San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Now one thing that intrigues me is that after the Police, you could've kept playing in one superstar band after another, being, you know, just being a rock – a superb rock drummer. But instead, you turned to composing for orchestra almost immediately. And I wonder what it is that draws you to that?

COPELAND: Well, actually the superstar band thing doesn't work, and I did try that. You get other musicians who've been very successful—they must be great—put great musicians together and it's all going to happen, right?


COPELAND: Well, actually it doesn't work that way. The reason a band like the Beatles or the Stones or the Police, for that matter, work is not because they're the most brilliant musicians individually but just because of the way they fit together creates a band sound and that's what's brilliant. And so you take the great guitarist from this band and the great drummer from that band or – it's not going to – it's not necessarily going to work. So I did try that. But the other side of the question is the other opportunities. That was more of a draw anyway. You know, when you play in a rock band, you really only get to play one kind of music. But an accidental entrée into film composing opened up a whole new world. And when you're a film composer, you get to play with everything.


COPELAND: You get to play with orchestras, with electronics, with rock music occasionally, ethnic stuff, period stuff, because films cover every aspect of the human condition, every cultural environment, every emotional environment, you know, happy, sad, comedy, adventure, thriller, sci-fi, everything, everything, everything, everything. And so as a film composer, you get to play with every known form of music.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as I said, SummerFest is hosting a world premier of the piece that they commissioned from you and it's called "Retail Therapy." What's – I think I know what the title is referring to but…

COPELAND: I know, what was the ailment that this was therapy for?


COPELAND: The Police.

CAVANAUGH: Why is it called "Retail Therapy?"

COPELAND: Well, actually because it was actually written in hotel rooms across the world while on the Reunion tour with my…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.

COPELAND: …ex-band.


COPELAND: And while it was a wonderful experience, it was very tense. A lot of anxiety, a lot of pressure, really. You know, when you're going in front of 80,000 people night after night and Godhead is expected of you, unless you actually are Zeus or Apollo or Anubis or something like that, you know, if you're just mere mortal flesh, there's a little pressure.


COPELAND: And so what bands do when they're on the road is they rape and pillage just like pirates.


COPELAND: And the band version of that is shopping.

CAVANAUGH: All right.

COPELAND: And so I've hit the malls across America, pillaging and stuffing strange items into my suitcase.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we don't have – You know, this piece is premiering. It hasn't been recorded. I wonder if you could give us an idea, how do you translate the idea of shopping into a musical piece?

COPELAND: Well, shopping is a very cheerful and optimistic exercise and so it's an upbeat piece. There's a spring to the step. There are shiny things. There's a hope and anticipation of a cool score, of a cool acquisition of some kind. Of course, this is "Retail Therapy," this – there's no part of this composition encompasses buyer's remorse.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, four of your compositions are being performed at SummerFest, including "Retail Therapy." One of the pieces is called "Gene Pool" and it's from the 2005 album I'm hope – I hope I'm going to say this correctly, "Orchestrali."


CAVANAUGH: Tell us about "Gene Pool."

COPELAND: "Gene Pool" is about the struggle – It's kind of a Dawkins kind of concept about the, you know, the struggle of our genes. You know, what's it all about? Why are we here? Well, on a molecular level, we are here to propagate our dianetic infor – our DNA information, and that's a very clinical, hard-eyed view of what it's all about. But, actually, I find it kind of romantic, this struggle of DNA to propagate itself and it uses us humans as mere vehicles in this journey.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear some of it. This is Stewart Copeland's "Gene Pool."

(audio of selection from Copeland's "Gene Pool")

CAVANAUGH: That's an excerpt from Stewart Copeland's "Gene Pool." It's one of four of his composition that's going to be played at La Jolla SummerFest tomorrow night. And, Stewart, you've probably been asked a million times about the influences on your rock drumming but who are your influences when it comes to composing orchestral music, especially featuring percussion like the one we just heard.

COPELAND: Well, as of about the day before yesterday, one of the composers who's also on the bill tomorrow night has suddenly become my new source of inspiration. I'm going to steal all kinds of his stuff, name of George Tsontakis…


COPELAND: …who I only discovered really being a, you know, a culturist boob, as a result of playing this festival. And I guess he, in turn, is influenced or inspired by the great John Adams, another American composer, also another California composer actually. But I suppose going way back to the beginning, my dad raised me up to play jazz but it was my mother playing Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy that actually caught the emotional heartstrings. You know, I was – I had Buddy Rich rammed down my throat and Stan Kenton and Woody Herman and all this – Actually, wrong jazz. You know, I'm allergic to jazz these days and whenever – you know I ruin dinner parties amongst musicians by expressing this sentiment, you know. The only problem with jazz music is that it all sucks. (screams) And everybody's shouting, and suddenly it's a much better dinner party, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you…

COPELAND: And then when the hubbub dies down, I say, well, actually I do like some jazz: Woody Herman. (screams) You know.

CAVANAUGH: You have not been kind about jazz musicians in some of these…

COPELAND: I'm only kidding. I mean, I'm – You know, I am immune to jazz music. It means nothing to me, just those chords are too – they're just, you know – it seem – it feels bloodless to me and it also has no mystique because I was kind of raised on those chord patterns and those ninth chords and, you know. It just does – you know, I don't hate it, of course, and, in fact, I sort of enjoy the relationship between the rock musician and the jazz musician, which is that the jazz musician is kind of a member of a cult but it's the rock musician who has all the fun.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you formed a band, Animal Logic, with a great jazz bassist.


CAVANAUGH: Stanley Clarke. Does he know – Stanley Clarke, does he know how you feel about jazz music?

COPELAND: Oh, many, many, many a great evening over a tall glass, we have slung brickbats and enjoyed. You know, because his view is that skinny white musicians aren't musicians at all. And so the two of us are well matched. I mean, you know…


COPELAND: …I discovered actually that Rage Against The Machine has exquisite taste in jazz. Who knew?

CAVANAUGH: Who knew?

COPELAND: I dropped this bombshell on them. You know, they came to a show and they couldn't believe – They're all like – They're running around my dressing room, you know, pulling their hair and renting their garments and – and, you know, yanking on their beards saying, no, no, no. And they're all saying, he needs to hear some Coltrane, no, some Davis, no, he's got to hear some Charlie Parker. And I'm going, dude, guys, guys, I forget, you know, Parker, Davis, Col – I forget which one's which. (screams) Oh, what f – this is a gag that never gets old.

CAVANAUGH: No, it never – I can see that you can dine out on that for a long time.

COPELAND: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: But tell me a little bit more about your parents' love of music and the role that music played in your household. We know now that your dad loved jazz. He was also looking for one of you kids to be a musician, wasn't he?

COPELAND: Well, he was a musician before the war. He played trumpet. And he – I'm the youngest of four and he thrust musical instruments into the hands of all the siblings as they went by and so by the time I came around, the house was littered with discarded instruments: trombone, trumpet, guitars, a zither. God knows who he thought was going to play that. And so I just would pick them up and they kind of stuck.

CAVANAUGH: And – But how did the drums stick?

COPELAND: Well, they're easy, shiny, noisy. And I tell you, for – I was kind of under – a slow developer, kind of the runt of the litter, and so when I hit a drum, I went from being runt of the litter to being a big, hairy-assed silverback. And just in one step. You know, because I think anthropologists have figured out that there's a correlation between alpha male and primates. There's a correlation between alpha male behavior and noise.



CAVANAUGH: Okay, all right.

COPELAND: And so it's a quick shortcut. Banging on a drum was a quick shortcut for a nerdy little kid to suddenly have a full chest of hair.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you do know what jazz artists call drummers, right?

COPELAND: Oh, this is one I haven't heard.

CAVANAUGH: They're guys who like to hang out with musicians.

COPELAND: Oh, yeah, I have heard that one. What do you call a likes – a guy who likes to hang out with musicians? You know.

CAVANAUGH: I had to. I'm sorry, Stewart.

COPELAND: No, that's the – That's the one that started the whole thing. Okay, I got another one for you.


COPELAND: What was the drummer's last words before he got fired from the band?

CAVANAUGH: I don't know, what?

COPELAND: Hey, guys, I got a song. Or, what do you throw a drowning guitarist?

CAVANAUGH: I – Tell me.

COPELAND: His amp. Okay, one more and then we can get back to serious discussion of music. You heard the one about the drummer who locked his keys in his car?

CAVANAUGH: No, I haven't. What...

COPELAND: It took him two hours to get the bass player out. Okay. All right. Okay. All right.

CAVANAUGH: All right. I like it. I like it.

COPELAND: Okay. All right.

CAVANAUGH: I have to tell everybody I'm speaking with Stewart Copeland. He has earned his place in musical history as a drummer of the band the Police, and he is now writing music, serious music, for orchestra and that's basically what we're talking about, his music that will premiere at the La Jolla SummerFest tomorrow night. You know, Stewart, as a rock drummer, you were known, you are known, as being very respectful of the groove or the idea of keeping a solid beat. But when you're performing with an orchestra, I've seen that you're very flamboyant, and I'm wondering have you – do you feel like you've been holding yourself back until now?

COPELAND: Well, this is an issue. And my instrument, the drums, are really not well suited to orchestral instruments, you know. And so there has been a constant struggle to adapt the drums and I've ended up playing with brushes just to keep the volume down. You know, the composer guy writes all this good music then the drummer guy gets and ruins it all, you know. And as – When I'm writing a piece, I'm saying, Stewart, Stewart, when you get on the drums, just have a little thought, a little consideration for this poignant little oboe melody, then the drummer guy gets on the drums and screw the composer and, you know, damn the torpedoes. Actually, I have one last comment about jazz, which is that it's – The Savannah Festival, where I played a lot of my stuff, you know, I have orchestral musicians performing the material but on this one instance they hired Wynton Marsalis' players who are jazz guys. And at first, you know, oh, my God, a room – you know, a rehearsal, the first rehearsal, stage full of jazz cats, you know, with that leery attitude, you know, one shoulder down, kind of a jazz pout, you know. But, hey, presto, count them in, and those guys play the stuff better than any of the orchestral players…


COPELAND: …the classical players. And so I guess jazz players are really great when they're playing my material. You know, they understand the rhythms, I suppose, that much as I would hate to admit it are kind of drilled in. And there's a syncopation that any American musician, it's an American sound, really, and if you grew up trained on Mozart, you aren't necessarily in the groove but if you're American and you grow up in American music, you get it.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go back to your composition for just a minute and talk about the role, if there is any role, of improvisation.


CAVANAUGH: Do you use any?

COPELAND: Well, yesterday I was on the stage rehearsing this piece here in La Jolla and I had these two incredible Asian women on violin and the piano. It's a little three, you know, little piece for three players. And unbelievable the way she just clawed in like she had nitroglycerin instead of resin on her bow and on piano, unbelieve – you know, precision amps fire, which are two things that often don't go hand in hand. Unbelievable. Oh, I'm in ecstasy. Oh, and, by the way, Kyoko, when we get to bar 119, you know, there's that section. There's not really much going on on that violin there, that's really a place where you can improvise. Suddenly, the temperature in the room drops 20 degrees.


COPELAND: A look of blind panic on her face. This woman who has such a formidable command of her instrument is suddenly quaking in fear. So the Wynton Marsalis jazz cats, they were all over it. Give them a solo and they'd burn the house down. But classical players, it's just not part of their thing. Except for one of the guys onstage does improvise and that is the composer…


COPELAND: …doing a little live composing on the fly, as it were. In fact, there are no charts for the drums. Everybody else has a chart. They play exactly note for note what's on the page, but the drummer guy gets to ham it up.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, the drummer guy is you. Now you said you won't go into a studio and record playing drums anymore, and I'm wondering why that is.

COPELAND: Well, because it's the not fun part. You have to – It's the bricks and mortar that sustains, you know, support the structure and it's all business and you don't have the benefit of the track, really. Actually in modern recording techniques, you do because you can have it all on synthesizers. You can record all the other instruments to a click track and then add the drums at any stage of the process that you want. In olden times where my attitudes developed and hardened, you had to record the drums first just as the basic template on which to then overdub all the other instruments. And that's just no fun because you're not hearing the music and there's a lot of pressure to get it right. All the other musicians are saying, I can't play with that, do it again. And it's just – it's just no fun. It's all business and it doesn't feel creative and – and then when you're done and the other guys begin to layer their stuff over it, then you get the sense of what the music is and it starts to get creative but you're out there playing pinball machine by then. You know, you're – you're done. And so the whole business of being a recording artist as a drummer is unrewarding. I could play guitar in the studio until the cows come home.

CAVANAUGH: But just not drums. Let me – You said that you composed a lot of this premiere work that's being played tomorrow night at SummerFest while you were on the Reunion tour with the Police and I'm wondering what that tour was like for you. You gave us a little idea that you did a lot of shopping but did you – I mean, things like did you have to physically get back in shape because you were playing so much? You talked about having to be a rock god each night. What was it like on the Reunion tour?

COPELAND: Yes, the physical, in shape part was very necessary. There was a lot of physio to get fit for it, and then the rehearsals, and then still there's no preparation for two hours of that kind of stuff. Something strange happens and I'm sure, because I'm not that superstitious, that it's all biological but somehow when you're in front – you know, the kinetic ritual of it, when you're in a stadium and there's a large, large group of hysterical people in front of you, you become – You can leap tall buildings. You can do superhuman feats of physical endurance. And if you were spiritual, you could say that you're infused with the spirit of all – you know, whatever, whatever. I, personally, I think it's just biological, that your heart, your digestive system, your blood, whatever, just decides to burn up all of your fuel here now, right now, so that you can leap this tall building right now in front of all these people. Something like that anyway.

CAVANAUGH: You have – you give the audience a really good idea of what that's like with your film "Everybody Stares." You took this nine millimeter camera, you followed the Police around, not during the Reunion tour but during the seventies and early eighties.

COPELAND: Ah, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And that's – a film of yours that's going to screen tonight in La Jolla but I want to ask you, you know, you're talking about the energy that this audience gives you but even the title of your film, "Everybody Stares," isn't it a little creepy, actually, to have everybody always looking at you?

COPELAND: It is a little creepy. Of course, this is what every musician wants. And when I was a skinny little kid, as I say, word to the litter, all I wanted was to walk in a room and have everybody stop their conversation and look around. That's what you want when you're a kid.


COPELAND: And when, you know, you want the – you know, when you're 12 and you want the 15 year old girls to look at you, you know. But then you get all that and you realize that it's pretty meaningless really. Nobody really knows you, knows who you are. The only people who know me or really care less about the real, actual person are my kids, my wife, my family.


COPELAND: You know. And to them, the whole business of the celebrity, the rock god, the, you know, the person at the focus of all that attention, none of that has any meaning. And it doesn't really have any meaning to me anymore. But the film "Everyone Stares" is a first-person shooter. It is – because unlike your normal MTV documentary about a band, you have the band over here and the camera over there and it's a shot of the band as it walks past. In this case, the camera is inside the band looking out at the world.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

COPELAND: And the fans are screaming right into the camera. The bass player is screaming right at the camera. The – I mean, it's all, you know, as – When you watch the film, your name becomes Stewart because people are looking right at you in your seat and addressing you as, hey, Stewart, you know. Or, Stew, Stew! Or, Stewart, you're too fast or whatever, you know.


COPELAND: And it's a very first person experience of what it's like to ride that thing and be a part of something like that. It's – it's quite exotic. It actually is sort of a little out of the ordinary to ride the – you know, to ride the rocket ship in that way.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I'm wondering, since you've made this documentary and you've scored the films that I talked about, "Rumblefish," I mean, there are really so many film scores that you've done, and TV scores, do you have any interest in making another film?

COPELAND: Well, I love the work. The work of scoring a film is deeply engrossing and, in fact, all music has – is engrossing one way or another, whether it's a concerto for the, you know, a commission for the Dallas Symphony or a jingle for Mountain Dew, these different – You know, at one end it's art for art's sake; at the other end, it's money for god's sake, you know. And – But they have very deep artistic challenges and one is good training for the other. You know, when I do work as a film composer or, you know, for – you know, the most crass end of it, for jingles, you know, sixty seconds to sell a product, actually it's great training because the client needs specifically this attitude. Sort of like a professor in music conservatory only much more important and you're getting paid for it, unlike music school. But the client is a lot more flinty-eyed than the professor. And the homework, the mission, is a lot more specific and you've got to get it right. And so 20 years of film composing has forced me to learn all kinds of stuff, which is very rewarding when it comes to writing that, you know, concerto for Gamalon and orchestra for the Dallas Symphony.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, right.

COPELAND: Or this piece for La Jolla, you know, it – You know, the commerce actually educates the art, and the craft that sustains the art comes from this employment, this art for hire.

CAVANAUGH: Finally, I have to ask you rather quickly, you've been talking about, you know, this commercial end of feeding the creative impulse in a way. You also talked about listening to obscure influences. I'm just wondering, as my final question, what musical obscurities you're interested in listening to right now.

COPELAND: Well, I would be glad to answer that question with one caveat.


COPELAND: Musicians have normal – have notoriously terrible taste in music.


COPELAND: Because we don't listen to music properly. We listen to like structure of it, the makeup, the technique of it, the mechanics of it. And we're impressed by all the wrong things. But I guess on my play list right now is George Tsontakis, the composer, Slipknot, always a favorite, Camille, French artist who does most of her – she's sort of like a French Bjork. You know, most of the track comes from her voice, you know, clicks and yelps and so on.

CAVANAUGH: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, Stewart. That's going to give us a primer, though.


CAVANAUGH: I appreciate it.

COPELAND: Like I say, just because I like it doesn't mean it's any good at all.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.

COPELAND: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Stewart Copeland is a former drummer for the band the Police, and his – four of his compositions will be performed tomorrow night at 7:30 at MCASD's Sherwood Auditorium as part of La Jolla's SummerFest, and "Everybody Stares" will screen tonight at 7:30 p.m. also at Sherwood Auditorium. And you're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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