Extended Q&A: Former Police Drummer Stewart Copeland Talks Symphonies, Drumming and What It's Like Telling Sting to Fuck Off
This Friday and Saturday night, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will perform "Gamelan D'Drum," a concert percussion piece written by Stewart Copeland.
The former drummer of The Police was specifically commissioned to write the concerto for the Dallas Symphony in conjunction with the local drum ensemble D'Drum. And though the piece was originally supposed to debut tonight and has now been postponed due to inclement weather, Copeland is still scheduled to be in attendance for at least one of the performances happening later this weekend.
Recently, we caught up with the composer to talk about his latest work as well as his time in one of rock's most legendary trios. Read our print piece here, and, for the full Q&A, click through to after the jump.
How did the collaboration come about with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra?
It's all about the percussion ensemble, D'Drum, some of the members of which are also in the Dallas Symphony. The ensemble did a show at the hall and the symphony folks were so impressed that they told the group that they had to get them a big commission. They cast about for a composer and they landed on me.
How close was the collaboration? Did you spend a lot of time in Dallas?
With the orchestra, I did not collaborate. I have attended concerts and was way impressed. The collaboration has been with D'Drum. They have their Balinese instruments that I went and catalogued them. I had to take a video of each of their instruments and figure out what scale they play in. I went back home and wrote 35 minutes of music for them and the orchestra.
What was it about the Balinese drum the gamelan that intrigued you so much?
Since I was in college and listened to a Nonesuch Explorer series, I've always loved Balinese music. It's the most sophisticated music harmonically outside of Western music. It's the only other kind of music with chords. It's rhythmically very sophisticated and harmonically very sophisticated, which is rare outside of Mozart. The idea of taking this exotic instrument and putting it alongside an orchestra has been tried before, but not with a great deal of success. It's always been a problem with pitch. Orchestras have always had to detune and retune. Each village has always had its own set of instruments, so tuning has always been an issue. In this case, they actually have a set made in Indonesia that is in concert pitch. This opens up all kinds of possibilities. I could be much more versatile. The piece still has the flavor and ethnic vibe of the instruments' homeland, but I could take it all over the place. I could modulate. I could use the orchestra in many different ways.
Have you always been interested in composing classical pieces?
For quite some time. I wrote my first orchestral piece twenty three years ago. As a film composer, I've had to use orchestras a lot. The kind of music that I write for a movie is very different from a concert piece. I think my concert, orchestral music would probably kill any movie that had dialogue in it. I've gotten better and better at writing concert pieces. It's a very complicated process. Writing music that comes out sounding nice through speakers takes a few minutes. Getting music on a page, getting charts for it, communicating directly with the players on how to play it, the hairpins, the dynamics, the articulations and everything, that takes a lot more time. At the end of the day, it's worth it.
Do you enjoy the work of neo-classical composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Riley or Terry Reich?
Absolutely. John Adams is the king of all of those guys, I think. Compared to some of those names, Adams is a relative newcomer.
How did you come to score the theatrical presentation of Ben-Hur?
Once again, that was an incoming phone call. They had this huge, huge story that had no lines. It's being done again this summer in Rome. They fill an arena with dirt like a tractor pull. They stage the whole movie including the sea battle as well as the chariot race. I recorded an enormous orchestral score for it using every known drum and inanimate object that can be aggressed upon. That was a lot of fun.
You've scored operas, ballets and choral music. What's next for you?
Probably more orchestral music as a matter of fact. I have an opera coming up in London. It's the old Edgar Allen Poe story, The Tell-Tale Heart. That's what's next after Dallas. I just finished the score for that. The Dallas piece took a fat two years to write and I delivered the score two months ago. I'd almost forgotten about it. It's such a long lead time. It's not instant gratification.
One member of D'Drum is quoted as saying that your concerto is unlike anything ever heard before. Is that hard to live up to?
A lot of my music has been described like that. That doesn't mean it's going to be commercially successful. It is artistically rewarded. No one has heard exactly this piece before. I think it is a pretty cool piece and I think it's going to rock. The Dallas Orchestra is a rocking orchestra. When you have those five wild Texans on those gamelan bells, the place is going to be rocking.
Is it important to you to keep trying new things?
Yes, I enjoy rock music, but it's very limited in its scope. I still enjoy power chords. On the other hand, there is more interesting stuff to explore. Pushing parameters is important to me.
A few years back, Rolling Stone had a list of the top 100 drummers and you were number five. Would you have been content to be six or seven?
It's just a matter of opinion. In my wife's eyes, I am number one, but in my eyes, I am at the bottom of the list.
Are there rock drummers that you admire?
Yes, that guy in Slipknot. That guy is terrifying.
What about Bill Bruford from King Crimson?
I did a concert with him and we had a drum-off. He had a show and I had a show and someone had the bright idea of getting us both on stage. The problem was that his musical persona is very delicate. On drums, that's not me. For me, playing drums is a very hairy-ass, silverback, male-dominance, noise-making experience. He had to play louder than he ever had in his life and I had to play quieter. When I sit at the drum set and start playing, it's all primal.
Do you consider yourself influential as a drummer?
It's hard to say. I didn't set out for something different to do; I just did what I liked. As a composer, I suppose I am bit more intellectual. But as a drummer, I just sit there and the animal takes over. I grew up in Beirut. I was surrounded by Arabic music and that music can get pretty wild.
Did your family move a lot? Did that influence your drum technique?
We really did not move that much, not like army kids. My dad was in the CIA and was stationed in Beirut. I was born in Cairo and we were there for ten years. My dad's cover was blown. Actually, his best friend, a British guy, was a double agent. My dad was just about to catch him when they guy jumped ship. He was a Soviet spy. My dad had to get his family out of Dodge. I was sent off to boarding school in London.
You've scored a lot of movies. What is it about your music that lends itself so well to films?
Not much, actually. I really have to clip my wings to get my music into films. My music doesn't really belong in every film. There are a few concert composers who also do film scores and it takes a different kind of sensibility. Film scoring is more collaborative. It has to be part of what is going on on screen. My proclivities are to be more of a concert composer, but I can trim it back to write for films. I can support the film and not run over the dialogue. The cool thing about film composing is that it made me think about music on paper. For the first half of my musical career, I never had to look at a page of music. When I started working with orchestras, I had to get back to working with charts, to music written on a page. I've learned a lot. It's a great learning experience when you are in Studio M at Paramount and you've got 90 musicians in front of you and some nervous producers behind you, who have just paid you a lot of money, all waiting to hear what you've got to say.
Did you have a lot of contact with Francis Ford Coppola when you were working on Rumble Fish?
Absolutely. He got me started in the film scoring business. It was very lucky for me. He actually gave me a false sense of security. He was looking for originality. I was the rock star brought to the party. It was much later on when I became more of a professional that I had to learn to conform a little more. The things you learn as a film composer is exactly how to get to the perfect emotion. The director says to you, "Give me sixteen bars of music that is happy, but there is kind of an interior sadness to it, a twinkle of comedy, but there is an uplifting arc underlying a general, pervading sense of dilemma. OK, go." Ironically, some of the best music that I've done is in the worst movies. Some of the movies were so strong that they didn't need my music. The best music doesn't necessarily go with the best film.
Besides films, your music is used in many interesting places such as on The Weather Channel and on some PlayStation games. Is there any place where people can't hear your music?
There is no escape from my music. My mother-in-law comes to stay with us every so often and she thinks that I go off to work, but I am not working. I am doing what I love to do. Nowadays, I pretty much do art for art's sake. I don't write commercial music. This is what I want to be doing every day. After half a century of it, it just doesn't get old.
So you don't have any interest in doing rock music?
I love rock music. I play rock music on a recreational level now. As far as film composing goes, I love the work but hate the business. I like playing with a band. I try to do so as often as possible.
You've played with Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits and Les Claypool, among many others. Are there other rock musicians you would like to collaborate with?
Yes, a lot. Too many to mention, actually.
Is it true that you were a part of a reunion of The Doors?
Yes, that was very brief in 2002. It seemed like such a good idea because I was such a Doors fan. But it wasn't really The Doors because Jim Morrison was dead. Although the guy they got to sing sure sounded like Morrison, very convincing. I did three or four shows and it was pretty clear that my playing just doesn't sound like The Doors. When I am on the drums, I am not a thinking, sentient being. I am just an animal flailing away. It just didn't work.
Didn't you injure your hand during that time?
Yes, that did happen, but that just gave everyone an excuse to part company.
It wasn't long after that that rumors of a Police reunion started popping up. Was the 2007 reunion tour a difficult undertaking?
Yes and no. It was not difficult because every amenity was at our disposal. We were pampered like poodles. Just dealing with each other was a big problem. Each of us was used to being masters of our own universe. Having to put up with another emperor in the room was difficult. I am not used to having my bass player turn around and give me his opinion about my playing. And the bass player was certainly not used to telling the drummer to play something and having the drummer say, 'Fuck you'. It was an adjustment for everybody. But the crowds were amazing. It was an incredible honor to play in front of that many people each night. I never thought The Police deserved the popularity. You learn over the years to accept it. It's very humbling. I know that the music of The Police has worked its way into the fabric of people's lives and their memories. I never get tired of hearing those songs. People wanted to hear "Roxanne" the way that they remembered it and we gave it to them.
"Gamelan D'Drum" premieres tomorrow night at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center