Stewart Armstrong Copeland, famously known for his association with Sting and now multiple-Grammy award winning Indian composer Ricky Kej, is best known for his work as the drummer of The Police from 1977 to 1986 and again from 2007 to 2008. The popular percussionist and now opera and ballet composer was in Delhi for a show of Divine Tides, a collaborative project with Ricky and Indulge caught up with him to talk music and lots more. With his latest release, Police Beyond Borders (also a collaboration with Ricky Kej) just out, we speak to him about his journey as a musician, what the future holds for The Police and what he has in store for India, in the years to come. Excerpts from the interview:
You’re renowned across the world as a percussionist, why did you choose the drums in particular as your instrument of choice?
When I was 12 years old, I was the absolute runt of the litter. All of my friends were growing up and becoming men — shaving, hairy chests and everything — but I was late. Eventually, I grew to 6’2” but that was later. And this stayed the same till I hit a drum for the first time. It was very empowering and just creating a rhythm on that turned this skinny 12-year-old into an 800 pound silverback swinging through the trees. It was a power-trip for a little kid. More importantly, when I joined a band and we played our first gig at the American Embassy Beach Club at Bierut (Lebanon) and I was playing a James Brown song and I looked up… there was a 15-year-old girl who was way out of my league as a 12-year-old — and you can only imagine, how inspiring it was for me to be creating her groove, she was dancing to my beat — that was the impetus to do this with my life. Years later, when I was in boarding school in England, I had that epiphany — which was to impress, to make a bigger noise. It was the Christmas service in Wells Cathedral and I had only one job that night, one song, but I just felt the power, the depth of it. It was now more than just impressing girls. This was now also deeply spiritual and really important. And so, the combination on one end — of just to be impressive — and on the other end — to dig deep into a spiritual beauty — and everything in between those two extremes — is why I make music.
You’ve now worked on several film scores and you’ve been part of an amazing band, The Police — how did you come to where you are today?
A lot of it happened in spite of my plans. My plan was to be a journalist. I started a magazine. I worked in the music business. I was a roadie. I was a tour manager. I did the lights. I’ve done every job, but every time, just somehow, the band pulled me in and I ended up in the band. With my first professional band, Curved Air, in the ’70s, I was the tour manager, but I also played with them. I’ve been a musician ever since. With composing, Francis Coppola called and said, “hey, you think you might be any good at doing film music?” And I said, “I don’t know.” So, he flew me over and we talked. Then I started making music with his films and it worked. I got a Golden Globe nomination for my first film score and I realised that this is really great work— to combine story and music. So, for the next 20 years, I did around 50 movies, but also composed for television and games. Eventually, I found the industry and the business to be too oppressive and so, I retired. But I do the same job now, just differently, with opera. It’s not about making money. It’s about creating something beautiful and important and deep. That’s where I am now. It’s a very small world. It’s no way to earn a living, but fortunately, The Police took care of that. And so, this is art for art. For 20 years, I was a hired gun, not an artiste.
You’ve gone from a rock band to opera to creating music for ballets and now you’re in this whole new age music scene and collaborating with other artistes like Ricky Kej. Has this journey been an organic one?
These transitions have been organic. When I was playing in a rock band, I never thought I would become a film composer. After being a film composer, actually during being a film composer, I got a commission to write my first opera. I thought, this is what I want to do. And then the same thing with ballet. In fact, ballet came first. Ballet led to an opera and here we are today.
Everyone knows Stewart Copeland. But at some point, you also performed under the name of Clark Kent?
Well, in the beginning of The Police, they were all my songs, really dumb songs with the three chords that I knew to play on a guitar. The reason we played those songs is because we were a punk band. When I first talked to Sting and persuaded him to come down to London, I told him I had a band with material and the miracle is that when I played him recordings of that ‘material,’ he didn’t run away. I do have some mercy in my heart. I could not make him sing these dumb songs because he’s so deep. Eventually, when Andy (Summers) joined with his harmonic sophistication, that’s when Sting’s musical ears opened up and he started to write the songs that are the reason The Police is what it is. So, that early period of the crap songs, some of them became Clark Kent. And I had success with Clark Kent. I played all the instruments myself and by some miracle, had a hit. Fortunately for me, Clark Kent disappeared without a trace.
So, will The Police come back again? We know you do keep making comebacks every now and then?
You know, I’m an optimist. I would say that there’s a 0.000002 percent chance of it happening again. We get along so well now. We enjoy each other’s company. We enjoy what we created together.
How different is Sting from you?
You know, as soon as we get into a room to try and make music,we are at each other’s throats because we are birds of a different feather. Sting is quiet and deep. I am noisy and shallow. If I’m having a party, having fun, laughing with my goofy friends, I’m going to have fun. I get along well with my chuckle buddies. Sting walks in and suddenly I’m not funny anymore. If he’s having a moment of beauty and serenity and calmness, I walk in, the bubble is popped. If I’m carrying a beer, I’m probably going to spill it. We are just very different types of people. We love each other, like siblings. But musically, he needs a steady platform from his drummer and his rhythm section. A steady platform from which he can leap and soar into the sky. I’m not that. I’m World War III. I am a cacophony. That’s what I do. My mission is to burn down the building.
And yet you won seven Grammy Awards. Do you have a few more Grammys up your sleeve?
Well, I think the Grammys are manna from heaven. And the first five were with The Police. The last two were with Ricky Kej. And he kind of made that happen. But that’s not the purpose of it. I heard his music and that just inspired me. And we made this record together. In fact, we’re working on another record, right now.
You’re in Delhi as we speak. You’ve been here before, has your opinion on the city or India changed?
Well, arriving in India after 40 years… the last time I was here, it was a very different place. And I would say, India is a sleeping giant. They were saying that 40 years ago. My observation is that giant is waking up and in some cases has already woken up.
Finally, what are you working on, next?
Well, I have a few things. I’m still playing concerts with the Police Deranged Orchestra where I show up with the Chicago Symphony, I rehearse for two hours and play a show. I also just finished a tour in Italy doing the same thing. I go to Italy every summer because I just like it there. And looking around here, I think I’m going to have to come to India every winter because I like it here a lot too!
Police Beyond Borders is now streaming online.