THE BACKSTAGE WITH ROBERT EMERY PODCAST
In this inaugural episode of the new ‘Backstage with Robert Emery’ podcast, RDCE talks to Stewart Copeland, the founder and drummer of the British rock band 'The Police'. Stewart talks about why he attributes studying 'Mass Communication & Public Policy' to becoming one of the worlds most famous drummers, why one of his balls is called Ben Hur, and how he grew up not knowing his Father was a spy.
Stewart is an American musician and composer. Apart from his most famous role as a rockstar, over the years he has produced film and video game soundtracks, written music for ballets, operas and orchestras, and in 2003 was inducted into the 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame'.
This whistle-stop tour of his life takes us through his nine years in The Police with Sting and Andy Summers, his solo projects as a composer, and his predictions of the status of orchestral and rock music in twenty years.
Hello, lovely people, and welcome to the inaugural episode of The Backstage Blog with me, Robert Emery.
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Hello, lovely people. Today I'm really excited to be having a chat with my friend, rock god and all-round crazy gentleman, Stewart Copeland. Stewart and I first met at a gig. He was hitting the drums as loud as he could to the soundtrack that he composed for Ben-Hur. Scarily, I was conducting the orchestra who were duelling with him. It was like a baked bean and a baked potato had forgotten which one was little and which one was large. From that moment I picked up the baton, I knew that not only is Stewart one of the world's greatest drummers, and not only does he compose like a modern-day maestro, but after 44 years in the music industry, he still has the passion and energy of an 18-year-old.
I'll be honest, it's my first time recording an interview with me being the one asking the questions, so please forgive me: like any good art, it’ll take a while to perfect. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this worldwide whistle-stop tour of Stewart Copeland and his life.
Robert Emery: Okay, so welcome, welcome, welcome. I think the first thing I would like to talk to you about is your slightly crazy childhood because I'm pretty damn sure this has had an effect on what you've done in life later on. I've done a bit of reading and I know you were telling me–we're here somewhere in Europe doing Ben-Hur but we'll talk about that later. I know you were saying the other night about you had a very interesting childhood because, if I've got this right, you were born in the states, you grew up in Lebanon...
Stewart Copeland: You missed out a bit. Egypt.
Robert: Oh did I? Okay, Egypt. But then you went to boarding school in Somerset, then you're in a rock band, and then you ended up back in LA.
Stewart: A couple of steps missing there but fundamentally that’s the story, that's the arc.
Robert: It's a bit of a strange, unusual upbringing. What is the reason for that? How did that happen?
Stewart: My father was a diplomat, otherwise known as a spy. He was, during the war, in the OSS. His job was obviously the Nazis, but as the war was coming to a close, they realised that the Soviets were the real problem. And so even as they were finishing up winning the war together, the Soviets and the Americans, they were getting into the beginning of the Cold War. At that point, the energy from the Middle East was very important and so the CIA... As the OSS was morphing into this new thing called the CIA, my father was down in the Middle East and his job was to make sure that the oil came west to our factories rather than north to the evil empire.
To enact that mission, they imposed dictators upon the people such as when I was born, my daddy was away on business. I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, which is a suburb of the CIA. He was over in Cairo installing Gamal Abdel Nasser who ran Egypt actually pretty well for the Egyptian people. Across the Middle East, in Syria and the other countries, basically, their job was to keep a stable system. They were not interested in social engineering or in democracy; they were interested in stability. All the people of that generation, they were completely comfortable with the concept of dictators otherwise known as monarchs. The idea of absolute power. These people were... My father used to like to describe himself as amoral. He said he would never have anyone assassinated with whom he would mix socially, and I don't think he ever had anyone assassinated either but, you know, he was a storyteller. What did you ask me?
Robert: Just about your childhood. But did you know when you were growing up?
Stewart: That’s why I was there. No, I didn't know any of this growing up. In fact, it didn't seem exotic to me at all. In fact, it seemed to be lacking anything exotic because we didn't have TV and at the American school... I was in Egypt very young, but my memories really begin in Lebanon in Beirut and there was the American Community School. For a while, there was a rumour that in my generation, that's when the Saudis first started sending their young princes to get a Western education: the ACS in Beirut was the western school, the American School in Beirut. From my gen, it was the first time we started to see Arab kids, Gulf state kids, amongst the Westerners who were being educated there and Osama bin Laden was one of those.
Stewart: Many years after me. Of course, if he'd been there when I was there, I would have kicked his ass. But we didn't have TV and the other American kids who had been home more recently would talk about this Xanadu, this fabled place called America. In fact, most people outside of America in my generation heard of America as the shining light on a hill where the streets are clean, and the people are, you know, everything works, and the systems are new and all this stuff, and... Then, gosh, there we were living in dusty old Beirut.
Of course, now looking back on it, I am so glad I grew up in dusty old Beirut. But then my father's best buddy, turned out to be a British double agent, name of Kim Philby, and his whole scene was kind of blown by that blow. My good buddy, Harry Philby, his dad disappeared one night. Two weeks later, he turns up in Moscow. True Blue English, he was recruited in Cambridge and was a mole and rose up in the Mi5 and there was three or four of them, I think. Anyway, my father had to ship his family out just like that. We were there for 10 years and then in a two-week period we are out of there.
I did one term in London, at the American School in London, but ended up in Somerset at Millfield. After that, I went to college in America and then came back to London where I met these other two guys.
Robert: So, it was after you went to the states and then you came back to London and that's where you met the other two guys as you call them. Okay, fine. But when did you start playing the drums?
Stewart: Hard to say. My father was a musician before the war. I’ve still got his trumpet; it's a 1942-con or something, I can't remember the year, I looked up the serial number. The fancy trumpet’s like the SG of its day. He only devotes two or three pages about his jazz life in his book but he played with both Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller–for him that's déclassé.
Robert: You grew up with music around you?
Stewart: When he started a family, he thrust musical instruments into all the kids and I'm the fourth child. By the time I came along, the house was full of abandoned instruments and I picked up all of them and I just was lost on all of them. My father spotted the tell-tale sign of a budding musician, which is “you can't get him to shut up.” Any kid that you have to say, “It's time for your piano practice,” don't waste your time or his time or her time. The tell-tale sign is that kind of autism... that you can't stop the kid, and I was on everything.
Trombone, I think, was the first lessons I had, but I couldn't get to the seventh position. But the buddy of mine had a catalogue, Slingerland drum catalogue, with pictures of drum sets which for me, I was like pictures of power, motors... Really, looking back now, as father of seven, I realise that the drum thing was partly because I was a very late bloomer. All the way through high school, even when I was 12-13, all my mates were growing faster. Their voices dropped, they started growing beards, they started turning into... and I was still that squeaky little kid.
The drums were power. Boom, bam, argh! Suddenly the squeaky little kid, now I'm a big silverback bastard motherfucker coming to eat your children. For a little 12-year-old who was this squeaky little 12-year-old, that was power. Looking back, adding up all the impressions and memories, I remember the first show–actually, the British Embassy Beach Club party at The St George Club. Janet McRoberts was there and I'm playing Don't let me be Misunderstood or an Animals’ or a Kink’s song or whatever, maybe House of the Rising Sun and there's Janet McRoberts on the dance floor with that look. And I thought, “Shit! Whatever this is, this is going to get me somewhere.”
Also, I remember at The American Beach Club, overhearing two of the 15- year-old girls talking. 15-year old girls are just like an impossible dream for a 12-year-old, you know, and they're talking about how Ian Copeland–who was the coolest kid in Beirut, by the way. He was the leader of the motorcycle gang, Ian Copeland was the coolest kid on campus. They’re talking, “Wow, I hear the Black Knights have got a new drummer. Oh, cool,” or hip or whatever. “Yeah, it’s Ian Copeland’s brother. Ian has a brother?” They’re talking about this mythical being, the new drummer in the Black Knights–is he cute? I’m standing there, I’m a little 12-year-old kid standing there with my ice-cream. These 15-year-olds are talking about Stewart Copeland as if it's somebody.
And so, these elemental, deep, crocodile-brain part of the drive, the emotional drive, are very powerful. My theory is that music is basically part of the procreative process of the human being. It's our mating dance. It's our mating ritual. As my mother the archaeologist would say, it's our plumage, and at that young age, particularly at adolescent age, music is so... With my kids, I see that music is so important to them. Here I do it for a living and I still wake up every day and can't wait to make more music but I can get through an hour without hearing music. My kids? It's the young mating dance. So that was a very powerful impulsion to playing drums.
Robert: So, you figured this is a very cool thing to do, you get lots of good attention for this and...
Stewart: Here’s is one more factor. My big brother Ian? Coolest kid on campus? Couldn't do it. Which was very unsettling because one of the American kids... What happened was the Black Knights’ drummer, his dad got shipped back to the states, the drums he was using which are borrowed or something like that were lying... And so they’re, “Well, let's get Ian. Let's get the coolest kid in the school to play the drums.” And he tried to do it and I could hear him in his room, the forbidden sanctuary. I could hear him trying to get it... then he’d roar off on his motorcycle and I’d sneak in on pain of death and I'd get on there, and I can do it. Wait a minute, that's not right, I must be doing it wrong for me to be able to do it what I heard him not able to do, my hero and older brother...
Robert: You didn’t have lessons?
Stewart: Immediately my father spotted, “Ah drums, great! Lessons!” And I had lessons at everything. The minute he spotted anything, “Lessons!” Yeah, right away.
Robert: Something definitely clicked with you with drums.
Stewart: Yeah and they stuck. The guitar kind of stuck, too. I played guitar all my life, never seriously, never took a lesson, never really developed anything beyond my favourite three chords. But those three chords? Ah, you can have a lot of fun on A, E and D. Throw a G in there, F sharp minor even.
Robert: Alright. The interesting thing for me though is that when I was growing up, I played the piano and I played the cello.
Stewart: Cello? Excellent instrument. A great blues instrument, by the way. You put that thing on your lap, play it like this, and it's a fantastic blues instrument.
Robert: But I couldn't do it. It didn't work for me. I just could not...
Stewart: The piano did, though, right?
Robert: The piano, I don't know why. I’d just sit there, play, it was easy, it just happened, you didn't have to think about it, I didn't really do any training to start with. It just happened. But cello, it did not happen. I could not get it to work. So did you try any instruments out when you were young?
Stewart: We’re going to have to work on a theory for that because pianotude you’ve got. That works for you. But two hands interacting to make one note seems to not work for you. I’m the other way around, see? Guitars, no problem. I can work on piano every day and I still can't play Mary Had a Little Lamb so you’ve got that gift.
Robert: Yeah. Yeah, but it's only piano. Piano conducting. But I tried many other things over the years, I tried clarinet for a while, couldn't do it, and it's just so concentrated what I can do with my music–what instruments. You sound like you're the sort of guy who can pick up anything, can give it a good damn go and have a bit...
Stewart: Whether I can or not, I will pick up anything and give it a damn good go.
Robert: And you have lots of instruments at home?
Stewart: I have the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy. I got trombone, I got bassoon. I got timpani. I got clarinet, I got viola, I got violin. I got cello. I got baby cello, I got bass guitar, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo. I got all kinds of instruments.
Robert: And you’ve tried them all?
Stewart: Oh, yeah. Well, I get on eBay, then I haven't got a mellophone. So, I get on there and I look for mellophones or euphoniums; I love brass instruments above all. In fact, today I played an Alpine horn which is 15 feet long and guess what? A- Extremely light, made out of bamboo or something. B- really easy to play. Doesn't require a lot of breath at all, it's like playing on a trombone. Very impressed out there... [Makes a trumpeting sound] You know, not that hard.
Robert: Let’s just rewind back in time a little bit. You formed this band called The Police. How long was it from your starting point to all of a sudden something happened where you just went sky high?
Stewart: It was incremental, but every step headlining the marquee felt like a stellar, “That's it. We've made it. That's it, we're done. We're there now!” And then the next step happens and like climbing a mountain you think there's the shoulder there and we just get to there and that's going to be the top of the mountain–you get there and there's more mountain. It was very much like that. But we did star for a good two years, where we were playing the clubs and all of our gigs pretty much were cancellations by the genuine article punk bands of the day. We were a fake punk band. We were using the punk haircut as a flag of convenience because really, it's all about the hairdo. The stance.
Sting and I were both on the cusp, born in the early 50s. We were the tail end of the hippie generation where so by the time we got into our teens and wanted to rock out and be young adolescents or young adults, it was old and stale. Even though we were steeped in it–he was in jazz and I was playing in Curved Air, kind of an art rock band–we were still the tail end of the last generation. It was all stultified and everything, along comes Johnny Rotten and the Punk-O-Rama, and suddenly it’s just “burn it all down, bring it all down.” Musically, I had nothing in common with that except the fact that I like raw aggression in music. I like it. It's comedic actually.
I liked all that and they were like children and so Curved Air was running its course as an art rock band, so no problem. Cut the hair, peroxided blonde, turn my collar up, and let's go punk. And we did but the critics *[18:59] spotted us in a heartbeat as not the real thing. But fortunately, all the real thing, The Clash, The Damned, Eater, The Jam, all these bands, they didn't know how to hire a truck or a PA. They were managed by one of their mates who didn't have a clue, and so most of The Police's early dates were cancellations by other bands. I’d get a call on a Thursday afternoon saying, “Generation X can't make it.” I can. I got a Rolodex, I know three guys with a truck, I know three guys with a PA, I can get that together, I can get out to Islington, pick up that truck, the PA. “Fred, the PA, can you make the date? Sure.” I can pull it together and get that. And so all of our dates were like “not Gen X”...
Robert: I'm going to pressure you on this because I know you say it's incremental and I know you say it's like climbing a mountain, but I still believe that there must be one ... There must be a gem somewhere, a little story, a little something happened which put you on that clear direction.
Robert: What is it? What's the one that comes to mind?
Stewart: If I had to pick out one, it's hard to say the one that was the payoff of all that which would be Shea Stadium where the Beatles played. And when you play at Shea Stadium, that's officially you have conquered America and you're in the footsteps of The Beatles. That was pretty darned exciting and it turned out to be the best show ever. We were a pretty hot band but some nights just really went to another level and we amazed ourselves. Actually, we were pretty full of ourselves most nights, but that was a particularly good night. Our first stadium, too. Then we got sick of stadiums.
Robert: So that was your first stadium, yeah?
Stewart: I think so. It felt like the first anyway but then we got to the top and then stayed there for a couple of albums before we were right at the top. There was no sign of the... The ascent was on a straight line when we threw in the towel because we had that folly of youth. Well, actually it turned out not to be folly. It turned out to be wisdom in a way of, “I don’t need these guys.” Usually when you hear band members say that, you try and advise them against it. But in our case it actually sort of turned out to be a good thing that we threw in when we did. We never saw the other side, the inevitable other side of the parabola. And so when we picked it up 20 years later, our thing was still pristine.
Robert: Crazy. So, you've done many, many things in your life and you've achieved an awful lot and I'll talk about composing in a minute. But first of all, do you have something that you have not yet achieved?
Stewart: Conducting. Watch your back, mate! I've been advised no matter how gifted I think I am, how easy I think it would be, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't. I'm already trying to establish myself as a real conductor.
Robert: Real conductor or...?
Stewart: A real composer. Throw in amateur conductor and the learning curve with that, and there's been a 30-year learning curve with writing for orchestra. I didn't pick this up overnight: I've been working at this and trying to figure this out for decades, and I'm sure conducting would be the same sort of journey. Which I would be really happy to make that journey. I'm in for the long haul on things. I'm good for the long mission. I conduct small-scale all the time–my singers, my soloist when I'm working in the studio, bringing the singers in, and I understand how to breathe for them and so that the indication... There's more than just there it's [breathing loudly] there. Those nuances and I understand the rhythm and I took a conducting seminar and I really enjoyed it. I did a movement of... What the hell was it? It was a big huge Bach movement or something. Not Bach... Anyway, it was fantastic.
Robert: How many players did you have?
Stewart: The musicians union sent about two or three chairs of violins, one of the brass. It was pretty skinny but all the different choirs were represented and it was really, really a lot of fun. The most fun part was that my reading’s much better now than it was then and putting the things in two, three, and... I just love that because the first lesson I’ve learned was the opposite of drumming where you groove and you are the groove and you feel the others... And there, you have to run ahead of the cart and you’re ahead. You’re not grooving with the band; you're pulling them. You're out in front.
Robert: I’ll do you a deal. The next time we do Ben-Hur, and we have time...
Stewart: Ben-Hur is hard.
Robert: Then I get you to conduct that, yeah?
Stewart: Let's do that. I will take you up on that with Tyrant’s Crush.
Stewart: And you can play drums.
Robert: You don't want to see that. You absolutely don't want to see me play drums. I’ve tried before.
Stewart: You threw down the gauntlet.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you said you wanted to conduct. I never said I wanted to play drums. I’m happy playing...
Stewart: What's the quid pro quo here then?
Robert: That I get to laugh at you conduct.
Stewart: Done. Deal. I’d love it. I mean, who's got rehearsal time with 60 highly-paid musicians?
Robert: Okay, so you're a very busy guy and you've achieved a lot, you've conquered a lot, you've had very different aspects of your career, which means that you are a very driven person. You must be a guy who gets...
Stewart: It doesn’t feel like driven.
Robert: No, but you are. You must be.
Stewart: Compared... To me, other people they talk about this thing which is probably just as much as a mystery to you. The strange word, the strange concept called “procrastination.” Can you imagine? I mean, how's it possible to watch TV when you’ve got a mission to do? It's not a matter of being driven, it's just a matter of “there's a mission to do–let's go do that.” TV is for when you haven't got a mission or any... Eating food or sleep is for when you haven't got a mission. It doesn't feel driven or anything, it's just like...
Robert: What are the tips or the tricks or anything that you do to keep yourself energised, to keep yourself going, to get up in the morning to go and do what you need to do? Do you have like a ritual you have every morning for breakfast, or do you...?
Stewart: Well, yes. At my age, I have a ritual for everything because the running repairs on this battered old frame... You just figure out that if I go to bed this time and if I eat that and do this and don't do that, I guess my day is going to be better–and you have all these rituals. But I don't think any of these rituals are connected to motivation. I learned very early in life that daydreaming is a critical activity, that daydreaming isn't just wasting time. In fact watching TV– I'd rather stare out into space and imagine some great fantasy that I get to play my drum for the huge orchestra and I get to write all the music myself! And it goes [triumphant tune] and it's really fantastic. Just imagining this and imagining this...
If you have a daydream that really sticks and you keep going back to it, and you fill in the details of it and to make the daydream work better, you start filling in the details... It has to be realistic so the details that you add need to be substantiated by, “the way I got to being able to play with that big orchestra was that I met this guy. How did I meet a guy? Because I was...” Actually, what you're doing is concocting a scheme as the daydream. If it's a really powerful one that really draws you and you keep chewing on it and going back to it, you're actually working up a plan. Like we get the band with just three guys in it and one of them's got to sing. I have the guitar and the bass player’s... got to be a singer because my singing is terrible. And it'd be great... Before you know it, your daydream is a mission.
Robert: Do you think that has any connection whatsoever with the fact that you're a very talented musician and you've got an amazing gut feeling about music? Do you think the two are interlinked in any way, shape, or form?
Stewart: My oldest brother Miles, he is driven. He's driven, and he has excellent musical ears, but did not get the gift of creating art himself. He is a brilliant receiver of art. He understands the Zeitgeist and he's picked hits and he's had hits after hits after hits that he's had. My other brother Ian as an agent, same thing. Neither of them can play. Ian, the coolest kid in school, tried to play the bass and he can just about, but he did not get that gift. The driven thing...
Robert: So you believe you it is a gift?
Stewart: Yeah, absolutely. It is a gift. I don't know where it comes from, I'm so grateful for it, I'm humbled by the fact that I was granted this. I kiss the ground beneath my feet that I've been granted this gift. I do not feel that I earned it. I do feel an obligation in a way to service it and to... It is such a gift that I feel that it would be a crime for me to let it languish in a way. I don't know where that idea came from. Maybe my daddy taught me that or something.
Robert: Okay. So we’re doing here, in Basel, Ben-Hur...
Stewart: And you are the big orchestra and I get to write the music!
Robert: You’re such a crazy guy.
Stewart: That only took me 64 years to get that.
Robert: You went from being a drummer, a rock star, into a composer. It's a bit of a strange leap. I can't really think of anybody else who has done that...
Stewart: Once again, it wasn’t a leap. It wasn’t A and then a B. It was A– I guess the biggest leap was I got an incoming phone call from Francis Ford Coppola who says, could I come down to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he's prepping–rehearsing, shooting a movie–and would I come there and just kind of like hang out and talk music and concept and stuff? So I get down there and the cast at that time, they're all kids. Every single one of them has now won an Academy Award. Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, I’m so terrible with names... Laurence Fishburne, Mickey Rourke, all of them. Dennis Hopper, they've all... But they were just kids; that's a diversion.
Anyway, so he just wanted to talk music and I got in there. Okay, I'm a little bit obsessive, and I said great. We talked high concept and he had this idea that... the reason he called me is time ticking, I remember like high noon... I want this teleological, inexorable movement of time with rhythm concept. You know, I love concept. Daydream: the result, the produce, the fruit of daydreams.
Robert: So he called you because he realised that the rhythm was such an important part and...
Stewart: Because his 18-year-old son says, “Dad, you gotta call Stewart Copeland from the Police.”
Robert: Okay, and then...
Stewart: And he did and I got in there, we bonded and his deal is that he finds people that he just senses has something, and he gives them their voice. He doesn't direct them. Oliver Stone told me every single note, “What's that note mean?” But Francis, once he got a connection, you're on the wavelength, he just turns you loose which he did and I had to figure out myself how to score a movie. Which I played that one all myself and I played mallards and weird guitar parts and funny little sounds. For them, since I didn't know how you do it, I had to invent the wheel for myself which is another word for–others applied this term and I was happy to accept it–revolutionary. That's not how you're supposed to do it but it's still...wow, that worked.
But at one point he did turn around and say, “I need some emotion. I need strings,” and immediately alarm bells, he's going to get some schlock artist in here, who’s going to like string... Francis, I got that. Yeah, you're right. We need some strings.
Robert: And that was the first time you'd worked with an orchestra?
Robert: So, you threw yourself into it at the deep end?
Stewart: Oh no, I’ve played in the school band.
Robert: Okay, yeah, but I mean as a professional... You threw yourself into the deep end as a composer who...
Stewart: I had these chords that I had worked out and I can play them one at a time. Okay that chord, okay stop the tape. Okay, play that chord and when it comes to the next chord it's... Okay roll the tape... Bang! And I can do that kind of thing. So for strings, all I had was footballs. Holders [singing sound]. I didn’t know how to write anything else. So, the first question is I call up a contractor and he says okay how many strings would you like? I go, how many? I don’t know. Strings.
Robert: Just strings.
Stewart: Strings. How many is strings? He says, Well, two guys is strings but it’s going to sound like two guys. If you want like I guess what Francis wants is a big wash of emotion. I don’t know, I think we ended up with maybe a dozen-20 guys, something like that. Somebody else looked at the chords and put it on a chart properly and I'm going, Yeah, I remember that from school. I actually did learn in college–I was at the California School of Performing Arts where I learned figured bass harmony and the fundam...
Robert: Figured bass, the most boring thing in the world ever.
Stewart: That's as far as I got.
Robert: If anybody out there doesn't know what figured bass is, don't even bother trying to Google it.
Stewart: It's critical.
Robert: No, it's not. It used to be critical. It’s now very, very boring and confusing.
Stewart: No. But what it did tell me is to not just do a barre chord up and down the neck like that, like a guitarist would do, and it tells you that you can use inner voices, let everything move in a different direction, and so on and so forth.
I was in a music school with other kids who'd studied the piano since the age of seven and I was the runt of the litter. One day she said, “Okay everybody, here's your homework. Write 16 bars.” Well-voiced chords for 16 bar. I had a million tunes in my head so I figured out something that I already and figured out applying the rules that I’d learned in her class to something I already had and she goes to the class and she plays okay by Johnny and she plays Johnny’s piece. Yeah, very good. Okay, yeah, good. Okay, Stewart... You’ve got a parallel fifth there and you haven't really resolved that but it’s kind of interesting the way that doesn't resolve there and resolves here. Now, you're not supposed to do this here, but there's kind of that note there. This would be what I would teach next year.
Robert: I remember this from being a kid.
Stewart: Yeah, and she finally ends up with, “Stewart, this is an actual piece of music.” And that totally at the bottom of the class, everyone just... They can sight read, they've done their ear training... I was just trying to become... I was starting at college age to learn the fundamental building blocks of music where everyone else in class had started much younger. I might have started playing music very young, but understanding the building blocks, the DNA of it.
So, as long as I was there. When I went to University of California in Berkeley, I didn't get into the music school. They gave me the ear training test and they played eight bars of a tune and transcribe it. They play me an interval, identify it, all this stuff: fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. I studied instead, mass communication and public policy.
Robert: Mass communication and public policy!
Stewart: That's how I conquered the world.
Robert: Holy crap. Okay.
Stewart: Much more useful. If I had actually gotten into that music department at UC Berkeley, I would now be the timpanist in the Ohio Symphony.
Robert: Okay, so I'm going to try and back you into a corner here for something because you told me you've got a kind of philosophy about something. I forget what the phrase is that you use but something to do with being dumb.
Stewart: The dumb shit.
Robert: There you go. It’s the dumb shit. Okay. Can you just explain that?
Stewart: Well, artists, for instance, have very bad taste in whatever their art form is because we're slobs. The popular music, I hear it and I can dance. I don't mind it, I like it I guess. But what I really seek out are the things that are a little challenging that put a gimp on it that are .... I don’t mind pop music, I love it like everybody else. But what I seek out is something a little beyond and so I'll miss a hit.
My brothers... That's a hit! They can identify it and so on. I'm a little bit further out there. So, when I'm writing music or working on something, my manager will come and say, Stewart, that’s great but what's that? That's the best part! You see...Then like, you call it the best part–sounds like a wrong note to me. Oh. And I have to reconsider–it's the dumb shit. Actually that’s dumb ass. Sorry.
Robert: Dumb ass and dumb shit.
Stewart: Totally different things. Sorry, sorry, forgive me. I’m going to finish dumb ass first. So, he comes in with dumb ass in comprehending, unsympathetic to how many hours I've put into that artistic revelation. I need a dumb ass every now and then to come and pop my bubble and say, “I'm sure it's really on some intellectual plane, I hear what you're saying.” You need your bubble popped every now and then. Every artist needs some dumb ass, usually provided by spouses.
Robert: Okay. Yes. My experience...
Stewart: You get some dumb ass at home? Careful, careful, careful. Who’s in the corner now, bitch?
Robert: Yeah, you got me. Yeah, fair enough. She’s going to kill me.
Stewart: Let's talk dumb shit.
Robert: Dumb shit.
Stewart: Let's get into some dumb shit. A good example of dumb shit. I played the Letterman Show, big national American TV show and it's drum solo week. So I go in to play a drum solo and I have a piece of music that I wrote for a ballet, I work up a chart for the Tonight Show band and they're cracking players, those guys. We work up a thing and play, and I play my drum solo and at the end it took a lot of music to build that thing. Format, the piece of music, the writing, there’s the education writing, the charts that I practice. Years, a life in music went into making that thing–serious application, a vocation. And at the end of it... throw the sticks up there [swishing sound].
Well, go on social media, how'd that go down? It's all about the [swishing sound] Did you see how he threw the drumsticks? Yeah, wow, the drumsticks... That Copeland man it’s like he plays with these... the drumsticks!
It’s the dumb shit. No matter how much vocation went into every other aspect of that performance, it was the dumb shit.
Robert: It is the dumb shit that the audience identified.
Stewart: It’s something that stands out. I mean, I’m sure they were very impressed by everything else, they wouldn't have been impressed by the thing unless they were impressed by all the rest of it subliminally, but the thing that caught their eye and that they're talking amongst themselves about is that odd little piece of nothing, that throwaway little something.
Robert: Okay, so here comes the corner. You like the dumb shit, the audience likes the dumb shit, but you don't write music which is dumb shit. You write music which is not always easily accessible. It can be but not always. It's very intelligent music.
Stewart: You're answering your own question.
Robert: No, I'm not because I don't get it. If you know an audience likes dumb shit, why don't you write dumb shit?
Stewart: Here's the two things going on. Remember how here's the main stream of where everyone else and I'm kind of running parallel and not quite bull's eye level? That's me here, see? All the dumb shit’s here, see? Up here, trying to connect with that thing, occasionally I throw in some dumb shit and that's the connection. And I understand that my music is a little astringent for some, perhaps. What I find to be a comfortable easy place in musical atmosphere might be not... Sort of disturbing or not... People gravitate towards feeling good and what makes me feel good sometimes it makes other people feel sad.
Robert: But why are you not...
Stewart: As a professional film composer, I got pretty good at identifying exactly what chord has... You know, this is happy, that’s sad, this is happy sad, and this is sad. There's a big difference, believe it or not. Now, as a technician, I understand perfectly how to go for this emotion or that emotion but my personal taste is you describe it as being slightly off centre and I'm flattered. I take that as a compliment.
But the dumb shit is to drop the barrier, to break the ice, to welcome aboard... I use it as a way to break the ice. Instead of being alienated... Oh, that was weird. Oh, ha-ha-ha, that's kind of funny at least, or whatever. So, I’d be careful that I have first of all, I do my thing, then I get a little dose of dumb ass... Telling me, dude, this is like a little out there, and then reminded by dumb ass, then I go and apply some dumb shit.
Robert: And then it makes everybody happy.
Stewart: Well, it makes me happy. It seems to work. I've played my... I’ve used it in front of really adverse audiences and seemed to get a result.
Robert: You're so good at answering questions, I genuinely can't tell whether I managed to back you into that corner successfully, or whether you wriggled out of it. But I don’t care. You’re very good at it.
Stewart: That's the briar patch. Please don't throw me into the briar patch. No, not the briar patch. Oh, you're throwing me into the briar patch! No, no, no. Okay.
Robert: Tell me. 20 years’ time, what's the business going to be like? What do you think is going to be happening with orchestras, with pop, rock music? 20 years’ time, what would be your prediction?
Stewart: I don't know how orchestras will survive but I would say that they will probably be branded and that because they have a champagne quality that applies sophistication to a product, that they will be useful as... and hopefully government institutions will recognise the value of here's an art form, here's a body of our culture that cannot sustain itself commercially. It cannot. An orchestra, 60 guys or 90 guys or 110 guys, they cannot sustain themselves as a commercial enterprise. They need either private donations or government donations. Where’s the world going to be in 20 years? I would suspect that orchestras will be, as they are now, be vehicles of what they can do, which is impart dignity upon a product.
Robert: Okay, and what about rock, pop?
Stewart: It will always be here. It always has been, always will be. For rhythm... Simple EAD chords, all the revolutions of music. It’s all about the haircut, change the haircut, change the style of music, first you grow it long and then you cut it short. I remember my mom saying, “Stewart, why can't you have long hair like all the other nice boys and girls?” Because mine was like [scraping sound] peroxide. Everything about my outward appearance said, “Fuck you, I'm going to eat your children.” That was the intent. Whereas I was a little soft little...
Robert: Oh, you were a timid soul inside. Bless you. All right, so that's your prediction. Just jumping back a bit.
Stewart: Well, here's the thing. There will always be rock music because if there isn't rock music, there will not be sex, and if there is not sex, there will not be anybody. It’s a part of our natural process.
Robert: It is now, but what...
Stewart: It always has been.
Robert: Well, you say that, but what about when Beethoven was around?
Stewart: When Beethoven was around was not early.
Robert: Beethoven was the kind of rock music of his day. I mean, he was so challenging when he wrote some of his music, and I'm sure that would have been the element of it.
Stewart: I suspect that Beethoven was not the rock music of his day. I suspect that Beethoven was the pampered servant of rich people and their sophisticated sublimated carnal desires. But out there on the streets of his town, the people were dancing into the streets, not to Bach music. That's my suspicion, I just made that up. That’s going to be a guess. Your readers or your listeners will write in and say, No, no, no, not sex. But I'm sure popular music of his day would have been rhythmic and would have been dancing and would have given the male of the species and the female of the species an opportunity, an impulsion and an audio permission to thrust their pure dander at each other, and to display their genetic superiority through body motion inspired by music. That's what music is.
Mozart? Bach? Those are sophistications like many other of our crocodile- brain behaviours. Are sophisticated and turned into a high form; humans do this. We take fire and we turn it into a jet or the internal combustion engine. That's what we do to fundamental building blocks of physics, that's what we do. And the fundamental building blocks of our music, which is part of our libido, which is part of our mating dance, you can develop that and it turns out the combination of physics, the human mind and sex produces high forms of art. But that's not what's really going on. Those are like the caveman drew on the painting because he had... High art painting is not necessarily where it came from, but that throb, rock ‘n’ roll, Bach was not that. Bach was not rock 'n' roll. He's like the rock star of his time. That's his position in society but that's not the function of his music.
Robert: Yeah, but for instance, Paganini who of course...
Stewart: He was popular.
Robert: Yes, he was like the rock star of his time and he went bankrupt...
Stewart: And Mozart too, by the way, was in the streets and inspired by music the people were actually dancing to.
Robert: And Vivaldi Four Seasons, it's incredible music but...
Stewart: I'm surprised that they have any population in Europe at all. I'm surprised that they’re here... In fact, my whole theory, I'm just here begging to throw it all because I just made it up anyway as I was talking. Out the window. You see, Europe would be depopulated now if they were trying to procreate to the sound of Vivaldi. If that's the only reason humans procreate, is Vivaldi, we would have been fucked.
Robert: That's a brilliant quote. That's going to be the headline quote on this podcast. Great, okay, fine... Who knows, who knows? It’s a prediction about what’s happening in 20 years’ time...
Stewart: Get this. Who would have ever (thought) that the most effective music that gets right to the deepest part and releases all social training and everything and gives young males and young females of our species utter permission is a mechanised rhythm that comes from a machine. [EDM sounds] To the extent that it’s human is to the extent that it's less effective in releasing the libido and permitting these behaviours that would be utterly unacceptable without the presence of a strong beat.
In fact, people standing in a room, they’re not interested in procreating. There's music going but they're not even thinking about it. Their body’s moving to it. There's more to it than meets the eye. There's something deeply physiological, something evolved very deeply in our human behaviour.
Robert: Okay. And you yourself, you live quite a simple life, you don’t have a big empire with 100 orchestrators and...
Stewart: No. I don't have an engineer. I used to. All the people of my generation, their work day begins when the engineer shows up and when the engineer “got to go home to see my family,” then the artist, that's the end of his working day.
Robert: And this is kind of a bit of an ethos of yours, is keep it small, keep it to yourself.
Stewart: Absolutely. The Police was three guys and it was designed that way. I wanted this... Let it be three guys. And I have my own record company that I did my gosh darned self... What's the cheapest studio in London? Pathway, an eight-track studio. Well, let's go there, and I call the guy and I chisel him down. Yes, strip it back and strip it back so that you've got manoeuvrability is the main thing.
Robert: But do you not think though, if you have more people working with you, collaborating, working for you, that you can achieve more in life because more people are doing the stuff that you don't necessarily need to do?
Stewart: Actually, that has been someplace that I'm getting to. I am in the process of arriving at that happy place where I can give it up. All during my young Pac Man years and adulthood, I've always been very greedy of artistic “boss hood.” I want to play every instrument myself, and I want to record everything myself, and I want to mix it myself, and I don't want anything to happen with me out of... I got to be in it, I want to be into everything. The video-I want to make the video, and the video should be like this and it should be... Just like the idea of not owning every aspect of it is kind of alien.
But now with the passage of time, I've discovered that like a producer is really cool because all I have to do is do this and then he has to clean up the tapes and figure it out and do all this stuff. I've learned to give it up, to let other people play with the ball, and the results can be really good. In a band, you collaborate. I'm not talking about a band collaboration because there, it's a corporate identity and I feel that I don't have to do everything in the band, but the band has to do everything. The band has to decide on the album cover, the band has to decide what the video is going to be about. We're not going to have anybody tell us what to... And so in a band, it's a corporate identity. The band is me, it's my band, even though there's two other guys who call it their band. For each of us, it's my thing.
The thing that I will never have, even as much as I'm prepared to give it up artistically, I will never acquire an empire. I have no need and no desire for an empire. I look at fellow composers who have built empires, some very effectively. One of my erstwhile competitors, Hans Zimmer who’s a big film composer and he does incredible work...
Robert: He’s Swiss, of course. Swiss.
Stewart: Is he?
Stewart: Of course, is he? I always thought he was German or Austrian but okay, Swiss. He has an empire. He has 10 guys. He learned to give it up. I don't have to write every bar. Or he writes the theme and I don't have to apply it to this unit, apply that theme to... I can have somebody do it for me, then check it. Then when he's done all the donkey work–of here's the start time, there's the art time, this is the BPM that lands on the chord and does all the... The craftsmanship part of it. He’s written a tune and that’s the art. Then the craftsman applies it to the scene and then the artist comes by and says, okay that works but you know what I'm going to do... And so he gets all the fun part.
But he has to give it up and let other people do it. He has to hire those guys and to hire those guys, he needs an empire, and to feed an empire, he doesn't actually go and get to be an artist as much as I would need to be. He has to take a lot of meetings, he has to get every action picture that's being made, he needs to get that work to sustain his empire. He can't like take a job every now and then like an independent... Like when I was doing that, I was independent. A job every two months would feed my family. He needs every movie being made, he needs to have like three or four Triple A action pictures in his studio being made at all times, or else having that Empire...
Robert: And that doesn’t interest you.
Stewart: In one sense, you can turn things over and like that. On the other sense, running the empire. There's a difference between having an empire and having a collaboration, and letting the creative ball, letting other people play with the ball sometimes.
Robert: Okay and one of your balls, of course, is Ben-Hur, the reason why we’re here. You wrote the music for the live performance that happened and launched at The O2 Arena a few years ago and now you've set it to play and run with the edit you did for the 1925 film. Do you have any other projects and films that you would like to do that? Have you ever seen another silent movie and you’ve thought, I'd love to score a film and... Or is Ben-Hur such a special thing for you that that's the one that's...
Stewart: Well, Ben-Hur came and got me. It was an incoming call to score as a hired gun composer, to score a stage production of Ben-Hur. I did that, the show ran its course. A huge, huge behemoth of a show. Started in The O2 Arena in London and it ran its course. And then I wanted to do the concert and so I found the 1925 film and that became a different journey. It's sort of like it came for me. I didn't select that film.
But other films, I've looked at some other films by Fred Nibler the director, but there’s just such a... It's such a huge... It took three years and it was kind of fun and I could easily do another one. Not right away, because I'm having too much fun with Ben-Hur. I mean, I haven't finished playing Ben-Hur yet. I also write opera, in year three of an opera that I'm writing for Chicago in Long Beach. I'll get around to do another film one day, I suppose.
Robert: Okay. All right. So, last thing. I’m 32-33 actually. I can’t even remember my own age now.
Stewart: You're bit young to be lying about your age, pretending you don't know how old you are.
Robert: What advice would you give somebody like me who is hungry, relatively young, passionate about what I do, and I want to make sure that when I'm a little bit older that I'm still hungry, passionate about what I do? What general sage advice would you give me, because I know you’re like a grand papa...
Robert: Stu-daddy! Do you have anything that you look at me, you’ve worked with me now for the past week...
Stewart: Well, I would say having worked over the last week, I would say that you have a couple of gifts that will take you where you want to go. You also have a surfeit of energy which takes you into empire building, we have discussed this. For your viewers, there's a backstory here: I've been lecturing this young man about casting aside the empire and getting on with the music because you don't want to end up like a man who I respect deeply but do not want to be like Hans Zimmer. Where he spends all his time in meetings, having to do the “not music” part of the enterprise.
I would say that at your age, you've got energy to burn, so go ahead build an empire. But I suspect that one day you will start getting that empire out of your life. There’s been a couple of times we've been on the streets, we were on the Swiss Riviera the other day and you're walking around the streets and you're on the phone dealing with something. I don't know what you were dealing with, but it looked important. Without an empire, I don’t have anything to deal with. I'm enjoying the day. [He whistles]
Robert: Very chilled.
Stewart: There you are, young man, young Pac Man.
Robert: Can that be my nickname from now on for you? You just call me Pac Man.
Robert: I like that. That’s very retro.
Stewart: Well, I have sons, several who are older than you.
Robert: You have seven children.
Stewart: I have seven children.
Stewart: Yeah. Four boys and then three girls, and I'm proud to say that some of my sons are also Pac Men.
Robert: Yeah. So you like Pac Man?
Stewart: Well, that's what I try to raise them to be. At this age, from 25 to 35, that's your chance. Take no prisoners, just remorseless, just bite off as much as you can get and do it while you've got no baggage and just you know... Fight, scramble and then there will come a point where you want to put down roots and take it a bit easier, and that's called midlife crisis.
What the crisis is all about is you realise that that's the peak. That's where your youthful vigour got you and the rest of your life is the result of that 10 years span. That 10 years is setting up what the rest of your life will be. I would say, you asked for a piece of advice, focus your attention on the things that you know you'll still want to be doing–which apply to your gift, not to your acumen.
Robert: Okay. Well, I'll see you tonight on the stage.
Robert: Thanks, mate.
Stewart: We’re going to rock the house.
Robert: Thank you very much.
Stewart: In your bare feet.
Robert: Hey, it's me again. Sorry to bug you but as this is a new podcast, I need your help.
If you enjoyed listening to the fun I had with Stewart and you'd like more, then please head over to thebackstageblog.com, sign up and receive the next podcast directly to your inbox. It's also crucial that you get as many friends on and off social media to take a listen by sending them a link to the show.
Now, remember, this episode is brought to you with the help of Lat_56, the smart, sharp and efficient baggage company. So, until the next time, appreciate the music and the musicians will appreciate you.
Stewart's Father, Miles Copeland Jr., is a spy [03.51]
Key points from Stewart’s childhood [04:45]
His father’s best buddy was Kim Philby, a double-agent. [07:20]
Stewart took up drums partly because he was a late bloomer. [10:03]
Why he believes that music is part of the procreative process of the human being. [12:07]
When his father spotted his talent, Stewart was signed up for drum lessons. [14:00]
The Police was modelled as a punk band and enjoyed huge success after Shea Stadium. [17:02]
A grand aspiration: Stewart would love to conduct a large orchestra. [22:00]
Stewart and Robert strike a deal for the next Tyrant’s Crush performance. [24:04]
The biggest leap from drummer to composer happened when Stewart got a phone call from Francis Ford Coppola. [29:15]
How he failed to get into the music school at University of California, Berkeley. [35:19]
A lesson in Stewart’s philosophy of the dumb shit and the dumb ass. [36:10]
Stewart’s prediction for the music industry in 20 years’ time. [42:16]
Another theory: without rock music, there will not be sex. [44:06]
If the only reason humans pro-create is Vivaldi, we would all be fucked. [47:03]
Stewart has no desire for an empire. [51:10]
Books, Music and Videos that feature Stewart Copeland
Strange Things Happen: A life with The Police, polo and pygmies - an autobiography from Stewart covering everything you need to know
Dare to Drum - a story of the rock star composer teaming up with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Ben Hur live by Stewart Copeland - a CD performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra
Orchestralli (+ bonus) - a 2 disk set of Copeland performing in concert with a select group of classical musicians on tour in Italy
Gizmodrome - a record of Copeland’s latest band, featuring Mark King (Level 42), Adrian Belew (ex King Crimson, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads) and Vittorio Cosma (PFM and Elio e le Storie Tese).
The Police: Everyone Stares - The Police Inside Out - DVD filmed on Super-8 giving an insider’s view of the band’s rise to fame and eventual split.