Since his days playing with the Police, Stewart Copeland has been widely considered one of the world’s best rock drummers. Growing up in Beirut, where his father worked for the CIA, Copeland developed an esoteric and precise sense of rhythm on the drum kit. After the Police disbanded in 1984, Copeland forged a decades-long career as a composer of film soundtracks for movies like Rumblefish and Wall Street.
Now in his sixties, the gregarious musician with seemingly bottomless energy has been commissioned by the Royal Toronto Conservatory, the Royal Opera House of London, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra as a composer of opera and symphonies. The Long Beach Opera staged Copeland’s operatic version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” in 2013, and last fall, he premiered a new soundtrack to the classic silent film Ben Hur at the Virginia Arts Festival.
Copeland’s latest project, Off the Score, which comes to the Green Music Center on March 8, finds Copeland joining forces with classical pianist Jon Kimura Parker for a kinetic take on chamber music. Between it all, he jams at his home studio with famous friends like Neal Peart, Les Claypool, Snoop Dogg and Ben Harper, posting the resulting videos on YouTube as the Sacred Grove Sessions. It’s all in a day’s work for the Grammy award-winning multi-instrumentalist.
From his home in Los Angeles, Copeland spoke with KQED about his career as a composer, “burning down the house” with an orchestra, and how he came to share the stage with two stars of the classical music world.
What’s the story behind Off the Score?
It was actually our agent that brought Jon “Jackie” Kimura Parker and I together. He represents both of us, and he said to each of us, ‘You’ve gotta meet this other guy.’ As Parker is playing his Stravinksy, he’s always thought that he could mess with it, but he doesn’t because he comes from a world where the mission is to recreate what Uncle Igor put on the page. Even when musical possibilities present themselves to him, he doesn’t usually deviate because in his normal environment that’s not what you do. So we said, let’s create a different environment where it’s okay to do that. Um, how about that drummer guy who is a raging inferno of cacophony and energy? And so the two of us came together and it was a meeting of minds.
From my point of view, I get to play with players of the caliber of Jackie and Yoon Kwon. For film scores, I hire the triple-scale guys. The best of the best of the best are available for film composers here in Los Angeles, but none of them have the chops of these stars of the classical world. Yoon Kwon plays first violin with the Met. And she also has been longing for an opportunity to step outside the world of the visual page of the music. Those are the forces that brought us together.
The most important thing is that it’s a meeting of two worlds of music, which can be defined as players and readers. Readers are trained from their earliest moments of their interaction with music to follow the page, to connect with the music with their eyes, the visual connection. They’re reading the notes with their eyes on the page, and then they are reading the baton with their eyes for the cue that holds them together rhythmically. The players can have their eyes closed. They connect with their ears and their feel for what the other guys are doing. Whereas orchestral players and conductors worship the score. They look for every minutiae of detail that the composers provided on the page, and they seek to understand it and to express it as they think, or hope, the composer intended. Because that’s the only way that ninety guys can swing together. It all has to have that basic fundamental ethos of playing what’s on the page.
The players improvise. They might play it slightly differently every time because there’s only four guys on stage. They have a lot of latitude to add their own expression to what their part is. There’s just five guys on the stage and they are ten feet away and their looking at each other. It’s a very different relationship with the music, and those two worlds are coming together in this mission.
Were you trained classically as a child? Did you listen to classical music before getting into prog and then new wave and punk music?
Well, I was raised to be a jazz musician. All of my instruction in my early years was all about jazz, which is where I learned how to read music. My father was a jazz trumpeter back in the day. Meanwhile, my mother was playing mainly modern expressionist composers; the 20th-century and turn-of-the-century composers. The jazz didn’t hit me emotionally. I got training in jazz, but my heart went emotionally to the classical music.
And that was all fine, until the day when Jimi Hendrix appeared in the world. For me, it became all about guitar. At that age, when you’re expressing young, male frustration, the blistering aggression of a Stratocaster through a 200-watt Marshall amp puts hair on your chest. I was a late bloomer and putting on loud, hard, and heavy music was a way of borrowing chest hair. My voice might be a little squeaky, but I turn up that amplifier and it becomes a manly roar! I’m a sixty-something father of seven and grandfather of two, and I still have fun with heavy metal music and the expression of rage, even though my sense of humor prevails.
In a recent interview, you said that you’re all about “art for art’s sake” right now. What does that look like for you?
It looks like I can afford to be a professional orchestral composer and turn aside from the more lucrative film composing. Which, by the way, has been a great blessing in my life. Film composition taught me more than any school could have taught me, way more than I would have learned as an “artist.”
A film composer is not an artist, he’s a craftsman. As a craftsman, you have to develop skills. You have to go to places where an artist wouldn’t instinctively go. I’ve been forced to study Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes because they bought the rights to use those themes, and I’m forced to incorporate them into the score, so I have to study that drivel. And guess what? Those guys really knew how to write a song and I learned a great deal from something from having my nose rubbed in something I would otherwise have stayed away from.
As a film composer, you are forced to look for emotional messages and textures, and you really get to the nuts and bolts, of where the rubber hits the road with melody, harmony, and emotion. Twenty years of doing that, I’ve got a pretty clear idea of how music can drive emotion, which is why I’m so keen on opera — which is the most fun a composer can have with his clothes on.
By day, my desk is heating with wonderful and engrossing missions. By night, I turn my chair around and face my Marshall amplifier, guitars, and drums and I rock out. I feel pretty happy and pretty blessed. My studio here, for me, is a giant train set. I have the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy. I have trombones, saxophones, tubas, cello, timpani, all kinds of drums, amps, guitars, basses, whatever. I’m an eBay nut. So my buddies come over here, my illustrious friends, my fancy friends, and we jam. Plus, I have six stationary cameras around the room, so when they arrive I just flip the cameras on. I’m basically a glorified roadie, and I spend some of the happiest hours of my day under the gear, wiring stuff and trying different microphone techniques. It’s a really fun environment to play, and ideally set up for a musician’s every need. Then they go home, and the next day I wake up with a helluva hangover, and I check the tapes, and I listen to the tracks, and tinker around with them, and then put them up on YouTube. It’s called the Sacred Grove.
Those Sacred Grove sessions on YouTube have garnered a lot of views. Do you have a favorite session?
Actually, one of my favorites doesn’t have all the stellar names. It’s called ‘This Drummer’s at the Right Gig.’ Thomas Lang came over. He’s one of the world’s most incredible drummers. He’s never really played with a huge bands in the top tier, but his gifts and abilities are way high on the list. Amazing player. And he came over and we did a fun little jam. A couple of days later a woman came over who was making a documentary about drummers, and so she sat down and set up the cameras and we did our shoot. I ended up overdubbing her playing a gigantic baritone sax, and I overdubbed her onto the footage with Thomas Lang. That is one of my favorite tracks.
Now that you are doing so much composing, do you consider yourself more of a classical musician?
People think of an orchestra and they think it’s classical music. I don’t play classical music. I’m not Brahms. If you come to my show, it’s not going to be Mendelssohn. I’ve come to the conclusion: If we’ve got 90 guys on the stage, how about we burn down the building? And I know how to do that with guitar, bass, and drums. It ought to be possible with 90 guys, and it turns out, it is. I’ve been having a great time playing shows with orchestras where we really do rock the joint. That’s my intention, to use an orchestra to rock the joint.