Stewart Copeland is always game for an intellectually-stimulating conversation. He’s proved it time and time again over the years, and roughly a year after he was featured on these pages as a Rock Cellar TV interview subject (conducted at his beautiful home studio in Southern California), Jeff Slate caught up with him about some exciting new releases in his world …
Stewart Copeland, the drummer for The Police, is one of those larger than life rock and roll personalities who lives up to his reputation.
Known as whip smart, opinionated, and, of course, one of the most distinctive drummers to come out of London’s New Wave scene — he was voted as one of the Greatest Drummers of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2016 — he also has a reputation of being one of rock’s great loudmouths. But, even though he has sales of more than 60 million albums worldwide under his belt — evidenced in Every Move You Make: The Studio Recordings, a 6-LP box set of his former band’s studio albums — when Rock Cellar catches up with the man who put the driving, percolating beat behind fellow band members Sting and Andy Summers’ remarkable songs, he seems astonishingly humble, and eager to talk about every aspect of his extraordinary, 40-plus year career, and as just as much a fan of his erstwhile band as anyone.
The occasion is the home video release of Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out (pick up on Blu-ray or DVD), the unique, raw, first-person account of the band’s ascent to worldwide fame from the point of view of Copeland’s vintage Super 8mm films from those heady days of the late-1970s through the mid-80s.
Featuring Copeland’s dry, humorous narration as the perfect foil to the footage, as well as rare live performances and what Copeland calls “studio derangements” of classic Police songs, the film was originally screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Released later that same year, the film offers Copeland’s view on touring, while capturing the reaction of the band’s ever-growing legion of fans at pivotal moment in the band’s career.
Copeland — who has also produced numerous film and video game soundtracks, and written musical pieces for opera, ballet and orchestras, which you can catch him playing on the road currently — told Rock Cellar the tale.
Rock Cellar: The last time I interviewed you was for the release of your book, and before that the original release of this film.
Stewart Copeland: We’ve already had this conversation? Well, that was 14, 15 years ago. I guess we can just do it all again! [Crashing sound.]
Rock Cellar: Whoa. You still there?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, I’m still here. I’m just knocking over things.
Rock Cellar: You drummers, you’re all the same. Always pounding something.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Inanimate objects beware!
Rock Cellar: So how did it come about that this is getting re-released now? It’s been quite a while since the film originally came out.
Stewart Copeland: Well, for a long time, strangely, when it came out, Police world was a different place. I was only able to get licenses for a limited amount of time for the materials that were in there. But after the reunion tour, the atmosphere is very different.
Now we all love each other and we’re in a wonderful, happy place! And so I was able to get all the rights I needed to put it out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and a couple of new media that didn’t exist back then.
Rock Cellar: When you say you all love each other, is that for real? Or or do I detect more than a little sarcasm sarcasm?
Stewart Copeland: We always did love each other, we just weren’t aware of it. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: That’s a nice way to get out of my questions. But I saw you a few times live, back in the eighties, and literally saw you guys fight onstage. I’m not alone in that, obviously, and I’m sure you recall all that pretty well. But even though it’s a well-known part of The Police’s story, that’s not really what this documentary is about. It’s really more a love letter to that time, isn’t it?
Stewart Copeland: I was inspired to pick up my camera and shoot stuff that was fun and interesting. When we were screaming at each other, I was not inclined to pick up my camera. So I didn’t get many shots of that. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: But having a Super 8 camera handy at the time, it’s not like having an iPhone or even a video camera handy. It had to be somewhat cumbersome, somewhat inconvenient, and yet you captured quite a lot. There’s a ton of amazing footage in the film, that really only somebody on the inside could get.
Stewart Copeland: My camera was permanently strapped to my side. I had it with me at all times.
I was obsessed with peeling off the strange adventure we were experiencing and putting it in my pocket. And filming it all as it went by was a way of doing that.
Rock Cellar: What are your abiding memories of those times? There’s a great moment, pretty early in the film, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in, at Glastonbury, and you’re talking about how you guys were on during the day, because the big bands were on at night, with the light show, and everything, but how that wasn’t where you were at. But you say in the narration that this was going to be your first conquest of Europe, and that your plan was to to take the world from that point. And then you immediately cut to a shot of you guys on stage, from over your shoulder, and Andy looks at you, and mouths quite grumpily, “You’re playing too fast!” What I loved about that is that it’s both macro and micro. This is a band of young, ambitious guys, with all that goes along with that. So you see the audience, which is very rare in these things, from your eyes, but you also see the tension.
Stewart Copeland: The whole thing about this movie is that it’s the first-person shooting it. It’s not a documentary about a band, where the camera’s here, and the band is over there. It’s a documentary from inside the band. And when you look at the screen, your name is Stewart. Andy will turn around and look at you, the viewer, and say, “Too fast, you cunt!” It’s a first-person shooter.
Rock Cellar: And you and Andy did commentary for the new edition?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, we did. It was an extra thing. Andy came over here, and I had my shots of tequila, he had his fine wine, and we watched the thing and just bullshat our way through it. Many have said that’s a more interesting version of the movie than the proper one with my narration.
Rock Cellar: Tell me a little about how that went down and what you maybe learned from that experience, watching it a little bit drunk.
Stewart Copeland: We had another similar experience where they got the three of us on the phone — Sting and Andy were in Italy at Sting’s Palazzo drinking wine in the evening, and I was in California, drinking coffee in the morning. The three of us went down all the five albums, track-by-track, and reminisced about them.
I don’t know what ever happened to that, actually. They’re in the vault somewhere, I guess. But as we continued, and they were getting drunker and drunker, and I was getting more and more caffeinated, it became sort of a microcosm of the band itself. [Laughter.]
Rock Cellar: That’s the band in a nutshell, right there.
Stewart Copeland: I forgot what we’re talking about.
Rock Cellar: We were talking about what you learned, and how the dynamic grew, as you and Andy were doing the commentary. It sounded like that was a pretty interesting experience.
Stewart Copeland: As we were doing the commentary for the film, we were just watching it, and chatting away, reminiscing as it went by and pointing out little details. “Who was that guy?” “Oh, that was the guy … What ever happened to him?” You know. And since the narration is there as the factual guide to what you’re watching, the version with me and Andy is as if you’re over here with these sacred gurus, and we’re telling you about what we experienced.
Rock Cellar: Some people I’ve interviewed, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson, they can remember what they were wearing, who was in the room. Other guys, like Bowie, there were whole decades he said he didn’t remember. Where do you fall on the spectrum there?
Stewart Copeland: Hard for me to say. I remember everything. I have diaries of everything. And film, too. But I have all my diaries dating back to the early seventies. I’ve got the page where I have all the possible band names: Chief, London Youth, London Chief, Chief London, Police, Anxiety Attack. But Police is in there with a circle around it.
I’ve got the accounts as well, like when we played Barbarella’s in Birmingham and we got paid 30 quid; 7 for the P.A., 10 for the truck. And, in fact, that’s how I was able to put everything together in this film. Because I’ve got lots of my receipts, and I’ve got all my notes. “X-amount for curry dinner. One quid for dope.”
Everything. The film, I guess, is part of the same instinct. It’s scraping off life as it goes by. Now I do that on Instagram. So I’m still at it. Every day that something exciting happens, I like to play with it, as I did with this film. But now there’s more filters, to make it look real pretty. But with this new version of the film, even though the Super 8 footage was already really pretty, I’m a real tinkerer; I’m a lover of applications. So the application that I did this on was Final Cut Pro.
Rock Cellar: And tell me a little about the process of putting it together. Because I have to imagine you’re dealing with mostly really short clips.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah. No establishing shots. None of the building blocks of a documentary. It’s all very reactive. So there were limitations. But the organizing principle, I guess, was chronological. It was 55 hours of footage, added up. The easy thing was just to do it chronologically. But joining the themes and the shots together required voiceover and so on. Very rarely do I go away from the original Super 8 footage.
For instance, when it came to the Us Festival, I figured, “Let’s have a look at the band playing the damn show, all the way through a song.” So I used the footage that was shot of that all the way through “Message in a Bottle.” And there’s some news clips and other things like that, but it’s about 98 percent the original Super 8 footage.
Rock Cellar: Most readers know all too well a band dynamic. I’ve always felt that there’s a very different dynamic in a three-piece band. You’ve certainly played in large and small ensembles. Do you identify with that? Certainly those three people, whoever they are, have a lot to do with it, and you guys were certainly combustible. But do you identify with that, that a three-piece is a unique pairing?
Stewart Copeland: Yes. When there’s four, it sort of starts to dissipate a little. When it’s five, it goes into factions. And it’s a three-piece and a two-piece. It starts to subdivide.
When it’s a three-piece there are no subdivisions. It’s two against one. Democracy. We’re done. Move on.
So decisions are arrived at very quickly; and you are much more codependent. There are two other guys to deal with, rather than three. Everything is concentrated. The relationships among you are more intense; the music that you make, I believe, is more intense, as well.
Rock Cellar: How do you see this as different than Can’t Stand Losing You?, Andy’s documentary? They’re very different films shot from very different points of view.
Stewart Copeland: Mine was 100 percent nostalgic. It was 100 percent using the impressions that were ordained on the day, in the past, which means they’re not as in-focus; they’re not as high quality, in ten different ways. But they’re kind of visceral. That’s what was going on that day.
The other film, Andy’s film, he got much fancier cameras, and he built the film using a lot of modern footage. And he has also his incredible photograph collection. We tell the same story, but with very different media. And I like them both. I think one fact that’s different about my movie is that he was able to tell the fully-rounded tale of how miserable a lot of it was. I don’t have any of that in my movie. In my movie, it’s all the fun.
And, in fact, big picture, it was all fun. The shouting matches, now years later, with band therapy, we now know what those conflicts were all about. There were really no crimes committed; it was just different motivations. With great respect and love in our hearts, we would disagree over fundamental issues with regard to our collaborative effort. Those differences of opinion were honestly arrived at and fully valid. But they did cause conflict when we were young.
Anyhow, that’s all by way of saying, big picture, it was a blast. And that’s what my movie says.
Rock Cellar: Did you have any inclination to revisit the footage and recut it in any manner for this release, or are you still happy with what you achieved in 2006?
Stewart Copeland: Yes. It was a labor of love. I made it just for my own amusement, until a buddy, Les Claypool, suggested I send it to Sundance. That night we were on the phone talking to each other, and I dialed it up right there, sent 30 bucks, or whatever it costs to register, and a miracle happened: Suddenly it was in the festival, and it was not just my little home movie anymore.
It was like … A movie! Capital M! So I had to finish it. And I was obsessive over it. Then, to make the real version of the movie, I re-telecined every frame, and then had an editor rebuild my cut, dissolve for dissolve, matte for matte, frame by frame. But with a higher resolution telecine.
Rock Cellar: It’s been more than a decade now since the reunion tour. So you have to have a fairly big picture view, I imagine. All the squabbling has, as you said, fallen by the wayside, because you can see it from a different point of view. And also, you’re older and more experienced, and more grounded and in a different place in your life. So there’s a lot that go into how you feel about those days, but when you see a film like this, or you talk about those days, there’s still a lot of energy in your voice.
Does it make you want to work with Sting and Andy again, or either one of them individually?
Stewart Copeland: I think Sting said it perfectly with his first solo album after the Police. “If you love somebody, set them free.”
Rock Cellar: Is that your stock joke response? It’s a good one.
Stewart Copeland: No, I’m absolutely serious. I visited Sting last week in New York. We get along so well. We laugh and we enjoy reminiscing, or bullshitting about the future, whatever. Just buddies.
As long as we’re not trying to make a plan for being a band, it doesn’t matter if he wants to play it faster or slower, because we’re not playing it. And although when we did it on the reunion tour, that pressure is still on us, of that result of walking out in front of those folks and playing those songs, with all that emotional baggage.
Regardless of what geniuses we are on our own, there’s nothing that can compete with the emotional baggage of those songs. They are charged, for good or ill.
To play “Roxanne” or “Message in a Bottle” in front of 80,000 people is a buzz that can’t be replicated with my new album or Sting’s new album, or even a new Police song. The 40 years of people’s experiences with those songs impregnate them with a mojo that it takes 40 years to make.
So that aspect gets our attention. But when it comes to the musical exercise, that’s tough, because we have different ideas and different reasons for playing music.
I’m in heaven when I do my musical thing the way I’ve earned the right to do, with a giant orchestra. I’ve played music that I wrote and arranged and orchestrated in beautiful halls.
So life is beautiful. To go back into Police world, where although we love each other and get along, godammit, as soon as we’re in a rehearsal room, it all starts up again. The things that we don’t agree about, and the things that do rev us up, namely music, are still there.
But music serves a different purpose in all of our lives. I was actually talking to Sting in the context of a BBC documentary that I’m currently making called What is Music and Why? It’ll be three hours on BBC4, looking at — not the history of music or great musicians — but what the hell is it, and what does it do to us as humans?
And it’s a lot more profound than we really think. We know we like music. We like the bands we do; we like to sing songs and stuff. But what we’re not so aware of is how deeply it controls our behavior.
Music is the only art form that can usurp motor control and make you do an overt sexual display in front of everybody, shaking your pudenda. Rembrandt doesn’t do that. Shakespeare doesn’t do that. So we’re looking at the power that music has over us. It’s very deeply ingrained. And I’ve been talking to scientists, Steven Pinker, for instance, plus Steve Reich, Sting, Bobby McFerrin, Patti Smith; all kinds of people. I met with Francis Coppola, and talked about how he uses films in storytelling.
I’ve been down to Mississippi, holy rolling, getting saved, trying to find out about the spirituality of music, and how it gets inside of you. All these different parts of what music does to us.
That’s what I’m engaged in right now.