Best known as the drummer and founder of The Police, the reggae-influenced pop-rock band which had become the world's most popular rock band by the time they disbanded in 1984, Stewart Copeland has scored many successful films and television shows including, Rumble Fish and Pecker. He has also recorded and performed with Animal Logic and most recently Oysterhead, a collaboration between Copeland, Les Claypool (Primus) and Trey Anastasio (Phish).
GC: What are you working on now, what are your latest projects?
Copeland: Right at this moment I just finished a film for MGM called Deuces Wild and I'm just on a series for TNT called Breaking News. I'm also preparing to record an Oyster Head album in April and May. We're going to go to Vermont, to Phishdonia! Each member of Phish owns a county in Vermont and then there's a fifth county dedicated to the studio, this kind of barn on a lake that they've reconned as a studio.
GC: Do you have material written for that?
Copeland: We all have songs that were bringing to the party. We have some songs that we've worked up for this show that we played that no doubt we'll do also. The most exciting part for, though, will be constructing material out of the incredible jams that we do. Both of those guys are really great!
GC: You play Tama drums, could you describe your current kit?
Copeland: Well, I have a kit that actually I'm thinking of stripping down. I play this kit with 3 toms in the front and 2 on the floor. But I've got 2 kits in my studio here and the other kit is just the bare stripped down Charlie-Watts-type-kit. And you know what? I just prefer playing the smaller one! I just have more fun playing it and there aren't all these drums in the way.
GC: What cymbals do you use?
Copeland: Paiste. I've used them for years. Not only do they make really good cymbals but they also make a real variety of different types of cymbals for different applications. In film music particularly I need all these different applications for different effects. Where as playing in a rock band you know you probably get one set of cymbals that would work for you. But in my world, I need all kinds of different gongs, cymbals types and so on. Similarly with Tama that's one of the reasons why I stick with Tama is because they make all kinds of weird sh*t!
GC: I've read that you often use the same kit to record as you do for live stuff.
Copeland: As far as kits I've used, I don't make a distinction between live and studio. In fact you mentioning it, is the first time it ever occurred to me. There's a cool idea! I'll call up Tama and say "Hey I want another drum set...for touring!" But, I've already got 5 drum sets of various kinds. Recently I've started to like their Starclassics which are thinner-shelled. The cool sound that I recorded all my hits on was the thick 9-ply original Tama, very thick drums. I had a lot of fun with those over the years but I like this new thing, which kind of harkens back to Gretsch. Sort of rattley more ambient-sounding drums. They've got more high-end crackle. Then I use one snare for everything. In fact, Tama has finally been able to replicate that snare for me! I had this snare and nobody knew where it came from but it's just the best sounding snare! It was originally a pearl snare. But I bought another pearl of the same model and it didn't sound the same.
GC: What was the sound it had that you were looking for?
Copeland: It had body, but also crackle that cuts through yet it's not wimpy. It could be high pitched without being small. So I sent it to Tama and they analyzed it. The metallurgists over there just got deep into it and they reproduced the drum. They just figured everything about it! We went back and forth. They'd send me a drum that still wasn't quite right and I'd make more suggestions. They had it about 2 or 3 times back and forth and they eventually got it perfect. In fact, that's now the drum I'm using. It's a miracle!
GC: So is that going to be something that's available to the public or was it just a one-off thing?
Copeland: They did this thing called the Signature Snare. I don't know what that all involves. In fact, I really didn't pay that much attention at the time, all I cared about was that they were ready to try and put a lot of resources into replicating this snare drum! I went along with it and I kept working on it to get it right because it made me very nervous to have this one ancient snare drum that I've completely bonded with to the point where I kind of feel something is wrong if I'm playing any other snare drum! What if that snare got stolen or lost one day? I'm now much happier that I have a whole line of them! Anyway, it turns out that they have these other drummers who've also done signature snares. At the NAMM Show recently, I went around to the Tama booth and looked at all these other signature drums and went, "Aw shit! I really missed an opportunity to have cool metal inlays, strange finishes, odd triple latched snare-release mechanisms and all kinds of cool stuff that I didn't get into it all!"
GC: In other words the Stewart Copeland Signature Snare...
Copeland: ...is the least flashmetronic of the whole bunch! But I'll bet you it sounds better than any of them! It doesn't have any dual-action snare release or any bullshit like that. It's just a snare drum that sounds great for me and my playing. In fact, it's the cheapest one of the lot by a couple thousand dollars it turns out!
GC: What's the coolest recent edition to your drum setup?
Copeland: Oh, the extra bass drum pedal! So you can, with one bass drum, use two pedals. I saw this band Slipknot the other day and that kid does some very cool stuff with his kick drum and I figured, "I ought to get me one of them!" He actually had two bass drums, which I used to have back in my goth-rock days and it ruined my playing for a long time 'til I finally got rid of it and suddenly could play drums again! So I had a prejudice against two bass drums all this time and I frowned upon it. But then I saw this guy with the Slipknot doing some really cool stuff and holding a beat. So it can be done! And that's the addition that I've done. I think of it in terms of a single bass drum playing but, every now and then, there's a few chops that you can throw in there. You know what, it's going to f*ck me up! I know I should probably get rid of the damn thing! The other thing is I'm spending a lot more time on my little kit, which is more a work of art then a drum set. It sits there and I've got it all decorated with all my more exotic percussion stuff and it's got all Tama hardware holding it together. Its my first record company bought drum set. But when I'm recording properly I use the big kit that's in the booth. It's all miked up and it's got the cool drums you know. That's my main Tama drum set. But I've got this other one with all the percussion in the big room here, which is just for screwing around. It's much smaller. My studio is kind of open plan, but I've got a drum booth on the side.
GC: Could you describe your home studio?
Copeland: I've got a Euphonix console, which is a really good console, only I'm looking at the space it occupies and thinking, "I don't need a console." I use Digital Performer and I'm considering going to ProTools. It's going to be hidden behind Performer. They've assured me that I can have ProTools and all of Digidesign's hardware and power but never have to look at the software.
GC: What about monitors?
Copeland: My garage is full of wrong speakers that I've had for monitoring my studios and never liked. At my workstation I've used NS10s although at my own work station I use Alesis monitors because they're the same as the NS10's, but they're just more flattering. They're probably not as transparent, but they're more flattering. When you're composing you just want it to sound good, it doesn't need to be so accurate!
GC: What about mics?
Copeland: Shure microphones mostly. I've got some AKG's and some Neumanns and some other things, but I've been talking with the folks at Shure and I'm very curious about some of the new microphones they've got.
GC: Any tips on drum miking?
Copeland: I've found that I've started to really like the sound from my inexpensive Shure Unidyne 58 that's set up on one side of the room just because occasionally I want to get a riff down almost to remember it. I just stick the mic up and run it straight into Digital Performer. It's just one mic for the whole kit, but there's a vibe to that sound that I'm beginning to bond with.
GC: How far away from the kit is it?
Copeland: The drum booth is down a couple steps and the mic that I use is on a stand right next to my workstation where I pick up a guitar, pick up a tambourine or whatever and record it to a track of Performer. I drag that stand over to the doorway of the booth. I guess it's about six or seven feet away from the kit way over on the left so it's mainly pointed at the high hat and snare but the kit kind of fills the room with a sort of a trashy boxy sound. Mono! It's one of those lucky happenstances of just mic position that kind of works to create a specific sound! I don't know if I'd record a whole album that way, but that's my latest miking tip!
GC: You've worked with some great and influential bassists. As a drummer, what would you say you were looking for in a bassist?
Copeland: For some reason I've been blessed in my life with really great bass players. You know, I love them all. Sting is the most fun to play with bar none. He's the best bass player I've ever played with without question mainly because he's busy singing the song! He has great fingers! He used to have huge technique, but that kind of gradually diminished as he became more and more of a songwriter. I first met him and hired him as a bass player who could sing a bit. I had no idea he could write songs and he was really flash in those days. It's sort of like what happened to Phil Collins' drumming...
GC: Which is to say he became more focused on songwriting and less on flashy playing?
Copeland: Yeah, Yeah! Okay then there was Stanley Clark, the towering god of low frequency. That was interesting because he had so much charisma and personality. He's one of my life long friends now too! That was an interesting collaboration. Of course he comes from the jazz world and he and I would have long conversations arguing. These would often start with a perfectly innocent statement from me like, "The problem with jazz musicians is that they're all crap!" And for some reason he would take umbrage at that and a conversation would ensue. But he has a protégé named Armand Sabal-Lecco who's really impressive! This kid, he loves the low frequencies, he's got all the technique and more! He's from Cameroon, and he comes up with a lot of completely unexpected stuff plus he just likes to groove and that makes me happy. Then there's Les Claypool who's another completely unrelated animal as far as the others are concerned. He's a lot of fun to play with because he also has that huge technique and real strong fingers and he also likes to groove! That's the main thing for me an adoration of groove. Technique is not a real big deal. It's just choosing you know like, Tina Weymouth ( of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club) is a great bass player! She takes great bass lines, which are fun to play with! Not that I've ever played with her.
GC: You've talked a bit about Digital Performer and your writing workstation. Could you talk some more about that?
Copeland: Well, I started out with Fairlights. I was an early Fairlight user, got a garage full of Fairlights! Sadly they're all retired now. Then I moved to Kurzweil, which I load up with all my sample CD ROMs, you know, (Spectrasonics) Distored Reality and all the others. The next generation after that has been the Tascam/NemeSys Gigastudio. It's a PC running the GigaStudio software. It's presented as if I was buying a Kurzweil or other sampling workstation but really it's a computer! What it does is it loads the first blip of every sample. And, having given you that, it goes and finds the rest of it when you need it. So I've got maybe 15, 20 CD ROM's of Distorted Reality and others. Hans Zimmer's Guitars or various string CD's. They're all loaded all the time! So I could throw out my CD ROM collection because I have loaded everything I own and more! Then I can search it! For starters I go, "basses." You know type in "basses" and it gives me all the basses I got! "Afro" or "African" or "drum" or anything. You can type it in and it'll bring you everything! You just drag it up to a slot and it's loaded! Then I've got two M-Audio Delta 10/10 ten channel audio cards. And my PC has two sixty gigabyte external drives, for storing all your sounds and everything, which for a Mac user like me is mind boggling! I mean, I get all reverent when confronted with 18 gigs!
GC: What's your songwriting routine or method like?
Copeland: Well I don't really write songs that much. My songwriting routine is to go to France to a songwriters retreat at a castle there and work with lyricists and singers and things! But that's not really what I do, what I do is compose for film. And the process is that I get the film on a video normally. I make a quick time movie from that, which I run in performer. Pretty much I live in Performer. I record all my audio in Performer. I edit everything in Performer. And since Performer got digital audio, I got the audio portion of it fired up too! I've started to get weaned off of MIDI, and I'm doing a lot more audio manipulation. I'm kind of learning and shopping for, you know, plug ins, and cool DSP!
GC: So you're sitting and watching the quicktime version of whatever it is and...
Copeland: Yeah, and I can project it onto a big screen as well. I've got a screen at the other end of the room. And I've got my Kurzweil K2500X. All I want is the ivories and a couple of faders. That's all I need. I look at the scene. The guy is walking at me. He walks out of the apartment. He walks over to the car. There's somebody watching him. You know they drive through the city. There's a montage. She looks at him and says, "I love you darling!" You know, whatever! And then I think it up. I usually lay it out on a chunk of performer with some MIDI information to kind of give the skeletal structure of what needs to be happening as far as the film. Then I start pulling out odd shaped instruments and recording audio! Mainly guitars and stringed instruments. I've got various things. I'm kind of getting into it more and more. Just record something and then f*ck it up!
GC: Could you compare the writing process in the various groups you've been in? Say, the Police versus Animal Logic or maybe Oyster Head?
Copeland: Well in the Police, we would all write songs and then we would arrive in the studio with our fully mastered songs, which was the problem actually. It was much better when I got the song on a guitar! But eventually we all had studios at home. We'd show up with finished demos. And then it was a question of "May the best song win!" Those were usually Sting's songs because he's a great songwriter! Animal Logic was more of a thing where Stanley and I pretty much decided that what we wanted was...you know we found Deborah Holland, for her songs! And so we looked to her for the songs. We'd show up at the studio and we'd sift through all of her songs and harass her as she was writing. But basically she did the writing. That was her job in the group. Now with Oyster Head, we improvised. There hasn't been much Oyster Head stuff yet. I mean, we did one show! Plus a couple of other special appearances where we'd show up and ham it up for a couple of songs. But what we've done so far is we first met over in Vermont and just jammed all day and they recorded a two-track of it, which I brought home and cut up. I Edited the 25 minute jam down to 4 minutes. And damn it's really good! And so that became material that we started from when we were organizing material for our show in New Orleans which is the one real concert that we played. That meant that Les and Trey came up with the lyrics to go with those riffs that we had come up with in the previous jam. So when we show up in Vermont, we're gonna have that material, which is pretty cool. Plus, we will do more improvising. And they've got books of lyrics, both of them, which we will apply to these grooves we come up with! Plus we all have songs we will bring. And after we've used up the inspiration of the improvisations, we'll buckle down to the proper songs. I'm sort of hoping that most of the album will be derived from the improvisation. Because that's really where the band has something that I've never heard from any other bands that I've played with except for the Police. Which is this thing where the improvisation isn't just an endless guitar solo while the bass goes (mimics repetitive bass line), which is what most people confuse for improvisation these days. In Oyster Head, it's not like that at all. And it wasn't like that in the Police. We really would go on journeys that the whole band would go off into a strange place. We'd throw each other curve balls. And Oyster Head is very much like that, maybe even more so.
GC: It sounds like that produces better results.
Copeland: Well it's just more interesting and more out of the ordinary. I find that when there's a song, with a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, I go into a back beat and that pretty much seems right for the lyric and the song. To do anything fancier than that is just an ego trip! In other words, once you get into the straight jacket of "We're writing a song here." Then I become a producer, not a player. And I might say "Let's just have a steady rhythm please with a backbeat." You know!
GC: Some people would say that's kind of boring.
Copeland: Well, I think so too! Which is why I'm hoping the most exciting stuff will come from our improvisations. And we can marry the set songs to the improvisations. It'll be cool!
GC: That brings up an interesting question. When somebody else is writing the song, and you're there as the drummer, for instance, as opposed to being the composer, do you wind up taking a different approach to how or what you play?
Copeland: Well there's the old nemesis of many groups known as the sanctity of the composer, which drives everybody else in the band nuts! I can thoroughly understand it though because, as a composer myself, when I write something, I don't just come up with a couple of chords, and then think, "Great I'll take this to the guys. They'll finish it for me!" You know, my mind keeps going and by the time I've gotten together with the rest of the band I've finished the thing. I hear the bass line just like this, with a certain inflection. You know, I've been there a million times saying to a bass player or guitarist, "Look here, I wrote this part here. This is sort of the general thing but, you know, make it your own!" But then, the minute I hear them making it their own, it's like "Whoa! When I said, 'Make it your own.' I actually meant make it just like I originally conceived it!" It's just a law of nature I suppose. I mean, if you've written something, you kind of want to hear it like that! And, even though the other idea might be better, you actually have to make a mental effort to say goodbye to that cherished idea and say hello and bond with this new version of it!
GC: I've heard a little about some sort of swimming pool exercises for drummers that you have.
Copeland: Oh, Itchy Pokey: Martial Art of the Swimming Pool!
GC: Can you tell us at all about it?
Copeland: Just thrashing around in the pool and not suffocating!
GC: Are you making drumming-type motions?
Copeland: No, it's polo-type motions actually. Imagine you're sitting on a horse. In other words, your legs are wrapped around an imaginary horse, which means they're sort of in a spread position. You're sitting on a horse without a horse. Now imagine you're taking your near side backhand, which involves reaching with your right hand over and hitting a ball on the left-hand side of the horse. Hitting the ball backwards, which requires leaning right out of the saddle so that your right hand shoulder is over the left hand side of the horse. It's like a golf swing, so that the club and arm can come down in a straight line directly over the ball! And the issue is, since you're in a swimming pool, not drowning!
GC: It sounds kind of complicated!
Copeland: It is a little complicated to describe.
GC: Do you play at all before going on stage?
Copeland: Some people get themselves pumped up, but I sort of get myself pumped down. I've discovered that the more I can relax, the more power I can get. It really seems to work out that I can actually get feats of superhuman strength from a starting position of utter relaxation, rather than getting wound up!
GC: Do you have any advice for young drummers who might be struggling for success out there?
Copeland: Get on the mic! Anyhow you slice it, the drummer is basically working for the singer, or the lead guitarist or whatever the top line is. You know, drums are really fun instruments to play, but as a career, you're working for the singer. You're always gonna be waiting for that singer. You haven't got a job unless the singer says you have a job! You know what I mean? The singer can do a job without you, but you can't do a job without a singer! You can go ahead and do a drum solo, but that's pretty rare!
GC: I really have only one more question...
Copeland: What's the main thing I would like to buy at Guitar Center?
Copeland: Well I'll tell you. Over in the guitar section, there's this Marshall, 100 watt stack! It's the only thing in my life that I've never achieved, playing through a huge stack! I've always wanted one. You know, classic! But, you know, like, where am I going to put such a thing since I actually don't use it. I've got all kinds of things in here that I do use! But, over at Guitar Center, I saw a facsimile of such a stack, which is actually only about 3 inches deep!
GC: Oh right! I've seen that display!
Copeland: It's just the front! I want one of them!
GC: I don't think it makes any sound though!
Copeland: Well, I've also got the little Marshall Mini Stack or Mini Amp, which is about 3 inches high, which I use all the time!
Copeland: Yeah! But I just want a Marshall stack so I can lean up against it occasionally.
GC: And look cool!
Copeland: And look cool!