Going ‘Off the Score’ with Stewart Copeland: The Interview

Going ‘Off the Score’ with Stewart Copeland: The Interview

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Stewart Copeland is many things: accomplished, world-class drummer with the Police, songwriter, composer, filmmaker, and public speaker.

Naturally, the chance to speak with him one-on-one is an undeniable treat, so we did just that…enjoy our March cover story below.

Rock Cellar Magazine: We caught your keynote address at the H.O.T. Zone event at the NAMM Show in January. It was arguably one of the most entertaining chats we’ve ever seen, and it seemed like everybody in the room felt the same way. 

Do you have any takeaways from that event and the experience overall?

Stewart Copeland: Well, it’s a lot of fun telling stories that people are interested in hearing. As always, I cringe a little bit when I think of some of the laughs that come from some of the aspects of my stories. But I tell them with love and admiration in my heart, even if they do leave my colleagues at the wrong end of the gag, sometimes.

I try to remind myself to remind my listeners of that, and that we’re enjoying a snicker at the expense of my highly-esteemed colleagues.

Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s an interesting way to put it, because a lot of times people of your stature talk about “well, back in the day, this crazy thing happened…” and there probably is a fine line regarding making somebody mad and just having some fun with the stories.

Stewart Copeland: Hey, I’m just looking for laughs. And by the way, I excuse myself by putting myself at the wrong end of the gag as often as I can.

Copeland at the NAMM Show event.
Copeland at the NAMM Show event.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Had you done anything like that at NAMM before?

Stewart Copeland: I’ve done various things at NAMM. The previous year was TAMA’s 40th anniversary so I said a few words on their behalf. In fact, I only needed to speak very few words.

I didn’t need to go into their superior technology, their wonderful materials, design. All I had to do was refer to the fact that I’ve been playing them for forty years.

“Any questions?”

Rock Cellar Magazine: Your new tour is particularly interesting. It’s only hitting a few college towns, it looks like –

Stewart Copeland: Well we’re ironing out the kinks, sort of ‘trying it out’. We’re off Broadway for the moment.

Rock Cellar Magazine: For anyone unfamiliar with the tour, what’s it all about?

Stewart Copeland: Well, it’s about the tension between two very different kinds of musicians. All musicians can be divided into two camps: although there is overlap there are fundamentally two different kinds of musicians: those who read and those who play.

The ones who read you’ll find in orchestras, and they devote their careers – they start the beginning of their musical experience as learning to read from the page. Their connection with music is visual. They read the notes off the page, they follow the tempo of the conductor’s baton with their eyes. It’s very much a re-creative process, they take something that has been created and they bring it to life.

SAC walk out

And because they’re conscious of the fact that they do it as an ensemble, they have to obey the page. Their whole ethos is about religiously obeying the page. What they’re doing, what their fingers are doing, arrives via their eyeballs, whereas the players don’t follow the page. Players connect to the music through their ears. And they improvise with their fingers – they could be staring off into space, they’re not looking at a page. They’re not looking at a conductor, they’re listening to the other guys. They’re connected with their ears, and what their fingers are doing largely comes from instinct.

There’s knowledge – they are playing a known composition, but basically the feel, the emphasis, it all comes from the player. They create the nuance. For the composer, it’s very different – you compose and you’re looking for those reader guys. But when you’re a member of a band, it’s not about homework, it’s about thinking on your feet.

Bringing these two worlds together is what ParCo is all about. Where the rubber hits the road is when it comes to improvisation. People like Jon Kimura Parker, a concert pianist…he’s the guy who parachutes into the mighty symphony to play Rachmaninov or whatever, he’s the virtuoso pianist. But as he’s playing these great works, the great classics, he’s thinking “man, this is what’s on the page here but I could do that!” and his creative process is sort of inspired by this.

He’s always looked for a way to bust off the page and do some crazy shit with Stravinsky.

We both have the same agent, and our agent said to each of us “you gotta meet this guy.” And so we did, and it’s perfect synergy – I understand the printed page, I understand what’s on the score. I read the damn thing. As a composer, I put it on the page. The drummer guy is a different guy. I don’t read nothin’ when I’m playing my drums. I do it completely instinctively, which can be a disaster, but I connect it with my ears and it’s all instinctive. It’s all improvisation, even when I’m performing Ben-Hur as a ninety-minute score with a giant orchestra closely synchronized with picture. They’re all reading the score, I’m just making shit up.

Rock Cellar Magazine: And it just happens to sound great, yeah.

Stewart Copeland: Well I know what the music’s doing, so I do what I can to push it. And so, Jon Kimura Parker – who we call ‘Jackie’ – he’s really fascinated by this world of leaping off the precipice into improvisation. In the classical world, they regard improvisation with a kind of awe and dread in exactly the same way a lead guitarist regards those who read music: with awe and dread.

You know the old joke, “How do you get a guitarist to turn down? Put a sheet of music in front of him.” Or “How do you get him to turn his amplifier off? Put music on the page.” “How do you get an orchestra to stop dead? Take the music away.”

There’s a really great advantage to me, getting to work with these musicians. I’ve discovered that as I get into the classical world, the technique, the proficiency, the ‘chops’, of those orchestral players are far beyond anything that I’ve encountered. Even considering the studio cats of Los Angeles, where there’s high competition and the best of the best of the best are right here, for hire.


These classical guys blow them out of the water. The stuff Jackie does on the piano…oh, Jesus, I don’t know anybody that can do that here in L.A.  Those classical guys start younger.

Rock Cellar Magazine: So everyone’s pretty much in awe of each other. You’re in awe of Jon Kimura Parker’s skills, he’s in awe of the other musicians, and so on. It seems like everybody’s in awe of each other’s skills.

Stewart Copeland: Well that’s what it takes to make a great band.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Have you practiced enough as a unit to know how these performances are going to flow together?

Stewart Copeland: The University of Texas at Austin very kindly commissioned this whole thing, which means that they gave a hall to rehearse in and put us up in order to organize all this so yeah, we have a pretty good idea. We had a chance to try a bunch of stuff, and it’s about half of my material and half from the classics…composers dead long enough to not rise from the grave…

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