Whether he likes it or not, Stewart Copeland will be primarily remembered for his role as drummer for the multiplatinum rock band the Police.
But increasingly that celebrated-but-short chapter in his nearly 40-year career (the Police only lasted about nine years in their original run in the '70s and '80s, briefly reuniting only once, for a world tour in 2007) is being drowned out by a vast and eclectic body of work that has greatly expanded the 63-year-old Copeland's profile as a musician.
In 2016 alone, Copeland has debuted his percussion concerto "the Tyrant's Crush" with the Pittsburgh Symphony; performed his new, live soundtrack to the 1925 silent film version of "Ben-Hur" several times; and reunited for several gigs — including one this Saturday at the Germantown Performing Arts Center — with the improvisational chamber group Off the Score.
"There's a lot of variety in my schedule," he says modestly. "It's absolutely true I get to follow my bliss. And I am extremely grateful for that, by the way. It couldn't possibly have been in this life, cause I just don't recall anything that great that I've done to deserve any of this."
Even before the Police disbanded in 1986, Copeland was branching out into composition, starting with film, television, and video game soundtrack work ("Rumble Fish," "Wall Street," "The Equalizer"). From there he transitioned into more fully realized "classical" works — concertos, operas such as "Holy Blood and Crescent Moon" and ballets such as "King Lear," commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet.
In fact, for a long stretch after his post-Police band Animal Logic with jazz bassist-composer Stanley Clarke, Copeland didn't play the drums at all, focusing instead on writing. It wasn't until the 2000s that he picked up the sticks again, playing with Les Claypool and Trey Anastasio in Oysterhead and jamming with the reunited Doors among other projects before the Police 30th anniversary tour.
Since then Copeland has more consciously incorporated his drumming into his music. Many of his newer works are more percussive, including his "Ben-Hur" soundtrack, which draws on his childhood growing up in Beirut the son of a CIA agent, a fascinating story in itself, told in some detail in Copeland's 2009 memoir "Strange Things Happen: A Life with The Police, Polo, and Pygmies."
Off the Score, the project that brings Copeland back to the Memphis area, where he first performed with the Police in 1979, is in some ways the perfect encapsulation of the drummer's career, a melding of classical composition with rock improvisation. The group was born when Copeland's manager, aware of his long held desire to not just write for but actually play with classical musicians, suggested he team with another artist on his roster, pianist Jon Kimura Parker. The two quickly recruited a diverse ensemble that also includes Metropolitan Opera head violinist Yoon Kwon, double bassist Marlon Martinez, and Judd Miller, who plays electronic valve instrument, sort of the electric version of a trumpet.
"We start with a score, and then we screw it all up," Copeland says of the group's approach to composers as diverse as Stravinsky and Aphex Twin. "The screwing up part makes better sense when you've got the really tight organized sections. It's the contrast between the two, that kind of tension and release."
Off the Score performs sporadically as its members' schedules allow. Copeland, for his part, is finishing up his opera "The Invention of Morel," a "period, sci-fi, romantic black comedy" set to debut with the Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera next season. Copeland also hosts "Sacred Groove," a regular video series — viewable on his website, stewartcopeland.net — that shows him jamming in his California home studio with famous friends like Snoop Dogg, Neil Peart, Ginger Baker, and Police partner Summers.
That may be as close as fans will get to a Police reunion anytime soon, however. During their tenure, the band was as famous for being combative among each other — the sharp-tongued Copeland describes being in the band as "both heaven and hell at the same time" and likens the experience to a Prada suit made of barbed wire — as they were for hits such as "Roxanne," "Message In a Bottle," and "Every Breath You Take." But with sufficient accomplishments outside of the group, Copeland is more philosophical about the group's place in his career.
"(The Police) songs have built up power," says Copeland, who quickly dispels any hope of another reunion with band mates Sting and Andy Summers. "Even if all three of us artistically and musically might have something else to say, it's just the ritual of it, the litany of it, showing up on the day and playing that music. Its not the music that's in my heart, but it's the music that's in the heart of 80,000 people's hearts. And they're beating right in front of you. That is exciting. But then we're all artists with stuff to do, and right now 'Roxanne' ain't it."