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Interview: Stewart Copeland

A Conversation About Stewart's New Album and Tour, Police Deranged for Orchestra

The podcast of this interview appeared at The Vinyl District on June 30, 2023.

It’s a real luxury to sit for a while and chat with musicians who have been a part of your life for - well - all of your life. To actually speak with the people who made the sounds that have served as your life’s soundtrack, to ask those things you’ve always wondered about. Who gets to do that? For better, or worse, I’m one of the lucky son of a guns who is allowed to engage directly with many musicians whose work has impacted my life in one way or another for many years. I’m sure you all have some Police records in your collections; what would you ask those fellas if you had a moment of their time?

I asked Stewart Copeland about his newest musical endeavor, it’s called Police Deranged for Orchestra and it features a fresh take on many of the Police classics that you know and love, but they are infused with a new and exciting energy by this musically restless, 7 time Grammy award winning rock star and drumming great. He’s taking the show on the road and wants this new album to serve as a representation of what you might expect in the audience. He’s also completed a new coffee table book titled, Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries which looks at the lean early years of the Police where Stewart was their drummer, but also their manager.

So, what would you ask Stewart Copeland if you had the chance to chat with him? Well, you’d probably ask questions that are different from mine, but that’s only because his work and music has impacted so many different people in so many different ways that we’d each have our own unique list of comments and questions to bring to him. The best part of speaking with Stewart, however, is listening to him respond! If you’ve ever caught a moment of his interviews, he is funny, candid, intellectual and straightforward. So, pull up a drum throne; let’s savor the opportunity to speak with one of the greats!

Stewart Copeland: That's some vinyl you got there.

Evan Toth: I got a little bit. I always love that room on your interviews when I see them online. I love your room, too.

Stewart Copeland: Oh, well, thank you.

Evan Toth: You're welcome.

Stewart Copeland: Not so much... I got some vinyl, but I got nothing to play it on.

Evan Toth: Are you a vinyl guy still? Do you-

Stewart Copeland: No.

Evan Toth: No.

Stewart Copeland: I aspire to being a vinyl guy, but I actually am not. I like the idea of it, but I'm not even a CD guy anymore.

Evan Toth: Right.

Stewart Copeland: I'm a Spotify guy.

Evan Toth: All right.

Stewart Copeland: Or whatever comes up because tests prove that people actually enjoy music more when somebody else picks it. So I listen to SiriusXM and whatever they come up, I just stay on there and I enjoy it. It's choosing the songs, it's never quite, no, it's not "Foxy Lady", it's "Spanish Castle Magic", and so I just go with the flow.

Evan Toth: So it's one point for the AI playlist choosers.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, absolutely.

Evan Toth: I guess so. Well, speaking of vinyl, I wanted to show you, this is my copy of Ghost in the Machine, which I've had for over 30 years myself, and I wanted to share with you-

Stewart Copeland: Come on. That looks brand new.

Evan Toth: It does look pretty good, but I really bought it when I was seven or eight years old in a thrift store. I take care of my things, Stewart, and I wanted to share with you, because the first time I put it on my turntable, I put it on side two, and I was really terrified of the sounds at the beginning of Too Much Information. And it was just some of the creepiest, that guitar part just freaked me out at the young age of seven or eight. And I wanted you to know I had to run downstairs-

Stewart Copeland: What the hell's the guitar part at the end of that?

Evan Toth: I think there's a little tape, there's a little tape slur. The tape machine must've been coming up and it goes...

Stewart Copeland: Begins with a guitar effects and the guitar's already playing when the tape started, which gave that kind of jerk effect.

Evan Toth: I had to run out of the room and go see my mom, I think, Stewart.

Stewart Copeland: Oh, dear. I'll tell Andy that you made a little boy go run see his mama.

Evan Toth: So anyway-

Stewart Copeland: Who's now a big grown man going to kick your ass.

Evan Toth: That's right. And it's funny, I have a seven-year-old now, and I told my little boy the other day, I played it for him. I said, "Listen, this scared me when I was like..." He said, "Dad, I don't get it. That wasn't scary, Dad."

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, well, my kids, when they saw The Exorcist said, "I don't get it. I've seen all that stuff in cartoons by now."

Evan Toth: Right, right. So the new album is Police Deranged For Orchestra, and it's going to be released on June 23rd on Shelter and BMG. And what's the elevator pitch for the album? What are you trying to achieve here?

Stewart Copeland: Well, I'm trying to achieve playing these shows live. That's what it's all for, is playing these shows. And I'm playing the show, I think, hey, we ought to make a record out of this. And when all is said and done, I'm listening to it now. It kind of strikes me as the Police with the Supremes singing the songs and a big ass orchestra instead of Andy. The only way you can replace Andy Summers with a huge orchestra, and the only way you can replace Sting is with three soul sisters on the mic. So all those songs, Message in a Bottle, by the Supremes, or as I call them, the Derangettes, or more fondly, the D'gettes.

Evan Toth: The D'gettes. I like that.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Very sophisticated.

Evan Toth: Well, I'm glad you bring them up because when I first learned about the project, I assumed that your approach, I don't know why, but I assumed it might be an instrumental approach, but you have employed several talented singers to take the vocal reins here. And when you consider presenting the music of the Police again, what are the pros and cons of going vocal or instrumental?

Stewart Copeland: Well, I did do some of the songs, some of the more obscure ones earlier, Darkness, Miss Gradenko, and normally, I've been playing shows with orchestra for decades now. The Pittsburgh Symphony or the Dallas Symphony, they'd commission a piece and I go out and play it with them. But there was one summer that I did a tour of just general film music, game music, and such, including a couple of these obscure instrumental Police tracks. And they went over so well that the penny kind of dropped because the people who come to orchestral shows are slightly different from the people who come to rock shows.

But it turns out that a lot of those orchestral, classical-type people, they had radios, and so they recognized those songs. And so management told me, "Look, dude, come on, play the hits." And I'm going, "No, no, no, no. That would be selling out." And your problem is? And it's what people want to hear, and something I know is that familiar songs have a much more dramatic effect on the audience than your new album. And that's just a fact. Familiarity makes people moved more by the songs because they have memories associated with that song. They've lived life to that song. It's just generally more powerful.

And it happened that I had my own versions of these songs, which I called derangements, which were the soundtrack to the movie that I made about the Police, the Super 8 film, and the music for that had to be Police. So I found all this obscure tangents, extrapolations, improvisations and stage moments and such, and created those versions of these songs. And I called them derangements. So when the penny dropped to actually play Police material with the orchestras, I thought, aha, that's what I'll use. I'll use my derangements and orchestrate those.

Evan Toth: Sounds like it worked out. And talk to me a little about the idea of the big band in your opinion. As you've mentioned, you've played with orchestras and big bands, but I was recently speaking with Bobby Sanabria, a great jazz drummer, and we were talking about the concept of the big band and how it's sort of an art form that's been a little bit forgotten, especially in the current musical landscape. But those of us in the know understand the power and the excitement that a great big band can bring. So how do you think about the big band as a thing, and do you have any particular band leaders or bands that you really have enjoyed in the past?

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, I was raised on Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.

Evan Toth: He's back here. He's over here somewhere.

Stewart Copeland: And of course, Buddy Rich. My father preferred Buddy Rich to Louie Bellson or Gene Krupa. They were kind of old way for my dad. And the big band is big, like an orchestra is big, but it's more specialized. So for drummers, it hits harder. You hit those... You have all those brass guys who play in that kind of band. They'll hit those hits real hard, so the drummer can have a party rocking out with all those punches. The orchestra can do that because I got two trombones, bass trombone, woodwinds and such, but they don't do it as hard as a jazz band. What they do is with all the strings and the harp and all the other stuff, they have a much wider vocabulary. And so they can rise high, they can dig deep, they can rage with fury, they can simper seductively, and they just have a wider vocabulary than big band.

And I can get big band out of them because I can make it punch. And so I sort of get a big band effect out of the orchestra. But my general rap is that I turn the orchestra for just one night, the Mighty Atlanta Symphony, the Nashville Symphony, the Vancouver, the Chicago, the Cleveland, whatever, just one night, folks, they are a rock band. And I figured out in my film composing, that's where I learned how to do this stuff is 20 years as a film composer, I figured out how to make an orchestra rock, and they really can burn down the building, particularly if it's with songs that people know.

Evan Toth: Well, and those songs are part of their vernacular, too. I guess 50 years ago when you think about-

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, it surprised me. I thought that they would all be all steeped in Brahms and Vivaldi and that they wouldn't know this material, but in fact, all of them know this material.

Evan Toth: Right. And when you think about the Beatles, say Sergeant Pepper or something, where Paul McCartney's explaining... Okay, those guys were probably like, "What's going on? What is this? What exactly has happened here?"

Stewart Copeland: Well, no, the Beatles were so huge at the time that the guys, well, the London session players are the best. The Abbey Road guys, those are the best players in the world. And so in fact, there's kind of a machismo to the Abbey Road, recording an orchestra in that room. They will not close their Daily Mail newspaper until the conductor's baton is on its way down for the first beat. They don't want their desk mate to see them trying too hard. But when that baton comes down, they nail it.

Evan Toth: Right. They're ready, but they want to look cool.

Stewart Copeland: In fact, I played a show in London a few weeks ago with the Novello Orchestra, and we got through rehearsal. I generally get two and a half hours to rehearse the whole show and doors open that night. And that's pretty standard practice here in America as well. The orchestras, they can do that. A rock band takes six weeks to figure a show out, but we kind of blew the rehearsal time. I don't know what happened, but we didn't get a chance to do the last song. And the last song was, oh, a little easy little tune called "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." Oh, piece of cake, right, like a slow blues in A. Not. But those guys, we come to the end of the show and there's one more song to play. It's the encore. What am I going to do, not play the song? Count them in, and they played it perfect, and nobody ever would've imagined that they were sight-reading it for the first time in front of a paying audience.

Evan Toth: That's it. That's why you hire the professionals. That's why you hire the pros.

Stewart Copeland: Well, sometimes, though, I do feel like Chuck Berry. I won't mention any names, but I pull into not one of the major markets, and I fire up the whatever symphony, and it's sort of like I feel like I pulled into town, hired the high school band, and count them in.

Evan Toth: Right? Let's go, fellas. Here we go.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Y'all know "Roxanne", right?

Evan Toth: Right. Speaking of "Roxanne", the first time I heard "Roxanne" in my life was the scene in 48 Hours, of course, where Eddie Murphy is singing the song in jail. But the version that you offer up on the album may be one of the biggest departures of any of the songs that you've tackled, at least in my opinion, on the record. And I think it's one of my favorites. It's certainly one of my favorites on the new album. And what was your approach to this tune that's just such, again, ingrained in your mind and in everybody else's mind?

Stewart Copeland: On stage, we used to jam on that. We'd go off, and we'd just go off into a thing, Sting would do something different every night. Andy would come up with surprising stuff. It was a moment of all these total pop songs with a beginning, middle, and an end, "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing" and a few others, we would go off and just take it wherever it went. And some of the places that it went were really interesting. And when I was constructing the sound score for my movie, I found some of those improvisations and I used those. And so those are very Police-ish, but you've never heard them before unless you came to that show.

Evan Toth: So it was just stuff that you had in the archives, but also, I'm sure things that you remembered. As you said, when you guys would jam, these things would be probably places you would be comfortable going, and you wanted to flesh them out a little bit.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, well, sometimes they did solidify, like a track on our second album, it's called Reggatta de Blanc, the title of the album, and it derived from "Can't Stand Losing You". The jam that we used to go into just kind of solidified and became a thing itself. It became its own song, the call and response that Sting did with the audience and everything. And so, I've got them on the album combined as one track, "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Reggatta De Blanc".

Evan Toth: Yeah, if I had to choose another one of my favorites, that one is really, for my money, it's a tour de force, and listeners should know that they're really going to be on the edge of their seat listening to that cut.

Stewart Copeland: Well, it rocks. That's how we closed the set, is with that. And as did the Police, it's just a barnstormer of a track. It gets up to a tempo and hits a high thing and rocks out. And the call and response that you all know from the record, I've done some permutations of that, too, just to piss everybody off.

Evan Toth: Keep everybody on their toes.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah.

Evan Toth: Don't let them get too comfortable. As you revisit this music that you know so well, do you ever see a young version of yourself at the parts? Are you pleased to meet that version of you, the younger person, or would you pull up next to that drum stool and say, "Hey, look, do this," or, "Try this," or "Why are you doing that?" Or "Do this other thing."

Stewart Copeland: Yeah, yeah. I've often been asked that question. It's a good question. What would you tell your younger self? What would you, yourself, what would your listeners tell their younger selves after what they've learned from life? And in my case, most of my advice would be bad, namely, "Relax, dude, it's going to be fine. You don't need to beat yourself up." Because I was very anxious, which was where I got my drive. And if I wasn't so anxious, if I relaxed, I probably wouldn't have gotten here. So my advice would've been bad. But listening to that young drummer, I'm aware that that kid played what you hear on the album about 20 minutes after hearing the song for the first time. Sting would pull one out, show the chords to Andy, and while they're kind of figuring it out, I'm tapping on my knees, imagining the rhythm.

And so, "Okay, let's do a take." And so I go up there and we do maybe two, three takes. That's the first time I've ever played the song. Take two. "Let's go with that." "But wait a minute. I didn't quite figure out how to get to..." "Nevermind. Stewart, it's fine. It's fine." Just because they're lazy. Fortunately for them, I, too, am lazy. And so, "Okay, fine. Take two. Great." I'm going to hit the pool while they spend the next two months redoing all their stuff, all the guitar, all the bass, all the vocals at leisure. But those drums that I came up with in the first 20 minutes, that's the record for life.

Evan Toth: Which is really crazy because of all the bands in all the world, when you listen to a Police record, you really don't get that feeling. It seems natural, it seems organic, but it doesn't feel, well, you use the word lazy. It certainly doesn't feel lazy or slapped together or anything. And there's so much intricacy in there, so I'm really surprised to hear you say that.

Stewart Copeland: Well, the intricacy does derive from spontaneity. And I think because, of course, we would go on tour, or 40 years later, I would make an album, where now I know how to get from the chorus back into the verse. I figured that out. For one thing, I know where it is, which I didn't then. I was sort of guessing. And sometimes I would play through it. We'd have to edit the tape and go through stuff. So eventually I would figure out a much, much better way, a much slicker way, ergonomically superior way. But you know what? The record kind of worked, the original version. And my theory is that it worked because it had an exploratory feel, it had a spontaneity, which I think is something that listeners can glean for themselves.

Evan Toth: After so many years in the studio and recording your own projects, and of course the work you did with the Police, any interesting information about the technical details that went into recording this new record? Anything you really wanted to address sound-wise with this piece?

Stewart Copeland: Well, I had to piece it together. I had to stretch every penny of the budget to get as much bang per buck as possible, literally. And so I recorded the orchestra in Dublin, Ireland. The singers all recorded in their home studios as did Armand and Rusty on guitar and bass. And so did I. I recorded on my drums right here in my room. It was a challenge to bring it all together, but we ended up making it into one thing.

Evan Toth: And of course, you just mentioned a few names. You do have a really interesting group of talented musicians on this project, and you mentioned Rusty Anderson. I'm a fan of his from his work with Paul McCartney, of course. And your vocalists. How did you kind of connect with everybody and how did you kind of come together and what do they all bring to the table for you?

Stewart Copeland: Well, on bass, Armand Sabal-Lecco is the love of my life on bass. We've been playing together for 30 years now. He's from Cameroon, and he has that African lilt, that African sensibility, plus chops out to here, but mainly just his musicality. We've been playing together, we're in the pocket. It's the same as I felt with Sting when we first got together. There's a pocket. I know where he is. He knows where I am. It's a pocket, it's a groove. I can get on the other foot, and my buddy is on that other foot, too. And so with Armand Sabal Lecco, he's a really close collaborator and a big event on stage. He's very charismatic. It's all Armand.

And the singers, Carmel, Amy, and Ashley, they are quadruple-scale, top-class LA singers. I exhorted them to step forward into the spotlight and to take it and run with it, which they did, big time. Each of them has a very distinctive voice, but they are such professionals with such skills that they cohere as the Supremes when necessary.

Evan Toth: Right. They work together. They form a singular unit.

Stewart Copeland: Absolutely.

Evan Toth: You're one of the greatest rock drummers on Planet Earth, if you don't mind me saying so. And are you comfortable sharing with our audience some of your favorite drummers? Growing up, I know we talked a little bit about big bands just a little while ago, but what are some touchstones that you carry, and who do you look at towards for inspiration today? People know you have a great musical appetite, but what are you listening to today? What do you love? What really inspires you now? What inspired you in the past?

Stewart Copeland: Well, here, I'm going to really lose you a lot of listeners by recommending Sleaford Mods, a group. This is probably for some, this is like the time I said to my brothers Miles and Ian, "Hey, you got to check out this really great group, man. They're called Nirvana." And they gave me a pitying look. But I just saw them. I was over in England, doing a television show with Jules Holland, and he has a lot of different bands on the show, and one of them was just two guys. And one of them, they come out with no equipment except the laptop, and one of them hits the space bar on his laptop and just starts dancing around, not like dancer dancing. This is audience dancing. He's just sort of grooving, well, obviously he made the music. His work is done, so he's just there on stage, grooving.

But the singer is psycho, and he's got these weird dance moves, and it's sort of like Rage Against the Machine with techno instead of Tommy and Brad and Tim. But the music is really cool, driving, hard, and the singer is very pissed off, shout singing, and I don't know. It got me. I'm just watching these guys. What are those guys? And he's got these weird dance moves. What is that? And it just kind of stuck with me. So I got their album. I've been listening to that. That's my new fave rave.

Evan Toth: How about albums in your past, albums that you really loved growing up with or-

Stewart Copeland: Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy. Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. Pretty much Jimmy. And Mitch. Mitch should be at the top of everyone's list for drummer of the century, but he isn't for the same reason that he is in the top 50, which is Jimmy. And how are you going to make an impression when there's Jimmy on stage doing all that stuff? A lot of people didn't notice that Mitch Mitchell had it all going on. I'm sorry to say this. There will be people becoming up the hill with pitchforks, but even more power over me than Bonham or Baker or any of the other, or Keith Moon by a long shot. Mitch Mitchell had it all. He had the technique and he had the power, but he was playing with Jimmy Hendrix, so who noticed?

Evan Toth: Yeah, he was totally overshadowed.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Bonham only played with Page. Come on. That's not a fair fight.

Evan Toth: It's true. It's true when you think about it. I'm going to help fight off those people with the pitchforks. I like this. I like this idea.

Stewart Copeland: It does upset me when I'm in the top 10 of drummers and yeah, well, where's Buddy? Where's Mitch? Which means the list is kind of meaningless.

Evan Toth: Right. Well, lists are crazy anyway.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah.

Evan Toth: In the fall of this year, you're going to release a book about the Police titled Stewart Copeland's Police Diaries, published by Rocket 88 Books. And can you tell everybody a little bit about that project?

Stewart Copeland: Well, back when we was starving, I kept these diaries, and I've got every gig we played, how much we got paid, how many people were there, how well we did, as well as the receipts for the truck, the PA, because I was managing the band, and I had to have all... And I've got my phone list of clubs to call and record stores to call to flog records to them, and I've got all that stuff. The interesting part of the Police story is not the later part, about which I made a movie because I got a movie camera, the stadiums, and so on. That's kind of repetitive, actually. The early part when we were starving and desperate, that's the kind of interesting part of the story. It amazes me that we stuck together because we had that pockets thing, and I just had a pocket before Andy even came along.

We didn't have material. We didn't have any "Roxanne". We didn't have "Message in a Bottle", "Every Breath You Take". We didn't have anything. We had crap bass lines that I wrote for Sting to yell over, fake punk songs, songs of convenience. And yet, we stuck together, and the trials and tribulations of the proto-Police with Henry. And then when we met Andy and the conniving to get Andy into the band, and it turned out that Andy also was conniving to get into the band, was amazing. It just made no sense at all for Andy to leave his triple-scale, super supremo guitar legend status session player to join a couple of fake punks going nowhere without "Message in a Bottle". And I asked him recently, "Dude, what were you thinking?" And he said, "I don't know, mate. Should have stayed with Neil Sedaka."

Evan Toth: Right. He knew, though. He knew. He could hear-

Stewart Copeland: Well, he could see everyone could see the rhythm section. We did a lot of sessions, actually. We were a very much sought-after bass and drums.

Evan Toth: So the book is going to be an interesting kind of hypertext. You got a lot of these physical documents and things.

Stewart Copeland: Yes, it's a coffee table book, so you can actually see my bad handwriting. And I've got current commentary on what that poor bastard was going through and the backstory of various things. But my accounts, I was not a great arithmetist, good rhythmatist, but my arithmetic not so much. And my accounts are not necessarily completely accurate, but it's fun to look at as well as to absorb the story.

Evan Toth: Right. I meant to ask you, the big closer on the project is "I've Been Watching You", of course, and features an interesting orchestral introduction. Where's that from? How was that constructed?

Stewart Copeland: Now, I did all these songs, all my favorite songs, and one of them was not "Every Breath You Take", because that song for me is about the lyric. It's an amazing dark lyric. And by the way, I've got to call Sting to piss him off. I'm going to ruin his day later on by telling him that someone told me that their wife giving birth to their baby sang that song to their baby. No, no, no. It's supposed to be about a stalker, a bad person, not about a mother looking at her baby that she just delivered. No, I'll be watching you. Every step you take, every breath you take, I'll be there.

Evan Toth: I'll always be watching.

Stewart Copeland: That's a loving song from a Loving mother to her... That's going to ruin his day. I cannot wait to piss him off with that one.

Evan Toth: That's funny. I would love to hear that conversation. So where's that piece from? It's a beautiful piece.

Stewart Copeland: Oh, okay. So I did them all without that song and then woke up one morning and said, "They're going to kill me, more of that pitchfork action. They're going to come for me if I don't do that song." By which time I'd kind of burnt out on the orchestrations, I'd done all of them and obsessed over every page, every staff. So I farmed that one out, and I found a really great, actually, they're a husband and wife team, Eimear Noone and Stuart Garfinkle, and they did that arrangement between the two of them. And also, they've got the chops. I had an idea for the show of a James Brown moment, where give me like a one-minute instrumental, and then I walk out. Ah, stupid idea.

Evan Toth: You could have a cape.

Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Oh, man. How would I love to have a cape? Drummers can't have capes because we're working too hard. We actually bust a sweat. The rest of the band, they can wear capes. They can wear feather boa, they can wear a jacket. Drummers are working here. T-shirt, that's what you get. And so I realized that was a dumb idea, but I still had that really cool arrangement that they did, this big symphonic piece. Now they're the real thing. I kind of learned how to orchestrate on the job as a film composer, and I do my humble best. I think I've got some cool skills in there-

Evan Toth: You've done okay.

Stewart Copeland: ... that I've worked up, but these guys went to school, and they know how to do it. They've studied their Brahms and their Mahler, and so that's what makes their arrangement of that song, particularly the introduction, which is just this big, huge symphonic piece, that's kind of cool.

Evan Toth: Right. It's cool. No, it was a really nice little intermezzo there before the big ending. Well, Stewart Copeland, I thank you so much for your time, and it's a real pleasure to talk to you. And best of luck with the album. Best of luck with the tour. I hope it's safe and sound, and thanks so much.

Stewart Copeland: Well, thanks for listening.


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