One legend bows to another
Unsurprisingly for a man with a CV as dazzlingly diverse as Stewart Copeland, when MusicRadar chats with the legendary musician he is spinning plates.
While his past works have included playing drums for one of the biggest bands on the planet in the shape of The Police, scoring film and video game music and working with some of the finest orchestras on the planet, today he is in London paying homage to another musical great.
Copeland is at the Union Chapel deep into rehearsals for A Life In Music, a live show celebrating the work of iconic producer Tony Visconti. Copeland’s role in the production is multi-faceted, not only will he sit behind the kit for a trio of tracks (Dancing In The Moonlight, Rebel Rebel and Get It On), but he is also acting as a mentor for the young talent also part of the performance. The whole thing is being recorded for a 90-minute special which will be screened on Sky Arts later in the year.
Typically, however, that is not all that Copeland is up to. He’s also on the promo trail for his Gizmodrome project. The band, also featuring Adrian Belew, Mark King and Vittorio Cosma, will release their debut album in September.
Plenty to talk about then, and, as always, the larger-than-life 65-year-old had plenty to say.
How did you become involved in A Life In Music?
“It was a telephone call. I guess Mr Visconti decided that he needed a little bit of bedlam on stage.”
What attracted you to this show?
“[Tony Visconti] is a legend. One can only bow down to such a legend. It turns out he is also a really sweet guy. That is what you will find with these big producers, one of the main talents that they have is what we call bedside manner. They make the artist, whether it is David Bowie or a brand new kid, relax and give their best.”
What has it involved thus far?
“The people making this show have a pretty clear sense of fun so I’m having a blast. The new players who are amongst all of the wizened, seasoned, flinty-eyed professionals are actually kind of enjoying the ride because the flinty-eyed professionals are actually quite kindly.
"We are here to give an envelope in which these new folks can be comfortable and shine. The mission of the professionals is to make the non-professionals really give it up and go for it. So far, they’re really giving it up and going for it.
"The stage has a really good sound. This church, unexpectedly, has a pretty crisp sound for a seemingly echo-y room. When they get on there with a great PA, great instruments and monitors and really slick professionals and technicians, that is a pretty comfortable place for them.”
You’re working with unsigned acts as part of the performance; has your role included talent-spotting?
“[Musical Director] Nitin [Sawhney] and Tony have done most of the talent search. Once they figured out all of this cool talent I got to waltz in and give them pointers and tips that I have picked up along the way.
"I saw them a few months ago when they were very raw; they have been working on them, and already you can see a big result. There is the parable of the old coach watching the kids in a race and one guy with perfect technique comes in first, and just galumphing right behind him is the guy with bad technique and he comes in second.
"The coach will want to work with the kid that came in second because he can improve that kid and teach him the right way to do things and the right technique and then that kid will go faster. Even with bad technique he is almost as fast as the other guy.
"That is the case with these musicians; they are uncut diamonds in the rough. Nitin and Tony have been able to discern the real talent. They have looked at this hill and they could sense the gold in them hills. They’ve just got to get rid of all that dirt!”
Have you been hands-on in your role of offering advice?
“Oh yeah. There’s a rock band and they’ve got in-ear monitors and it is a new environment to them. I went up to them and said it was okay for them to ask everybody to stop for a minute and to make sure they got their monitors right.
"That’s what they’re here for, if they need to hear more drums, less guitar or whatever, don’t be shy, just tell them and they will fix it in a heartbeat. A professional musician at the soundcheck knows what to ask for. The crew is there for you; all you have to do is tell them what you want and they will get it for you. You can be comfortable in this environment.”
If you were able to go back to that early stage in your own career, what advice would you have for yourself?
“Everything I know now would probably have been detrimental to my ride. I would tell my younger self to relax, but if I had relaxed I probably wouldn’t have gotten to where I got to.
"I was angry, I was an angry young man and that kind of worked. But now I am a kindly old grandfather. Telling that young kid to relax is kind of the wrong advice, although if they do relax they will be able to get more power.”
Do you see a new wave of bands coming through?
“The most exciting thing about music today is music that I hate - and that’s good. For half a century, it has been guitar, bass, drums playing E, A and D chords and that’s how I like it. But Kanye, Kendrick and all these new guys are making music utterly alien to me and that is what they’re supposed to be doing.
"There’s no guitar, no drum set, it is a completely different way of making music which is utterly sacrilegious of course, but at last there has been a revolution in music. When I drive my 17 year old to school I am exposed to this music and I have enormous respect for it but I will go back to listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan, because I’m an old bastard.
"I went with my daughter to see Flying Lotus, it was just one guy, no band, a very intense light show, but just one guy.”
Is it tougher for bands now compared to the early days of The Police?
“Any kid in his home can make a record today. In olden times, you had to go to the man to give you the money to go to the studio. You could only make music with a record deal.
"Nowadays, you just need a laptop, you don’t need the man, you don’t need the studio. That is great for culture because it is campfire music. It means that the talent pool is much wider, more people with the gift have access to making music.
"The bad news is that every damn fool is out there making records so the competition is way stiffer than it used to be. I think it is a net gain; the fact music is more easily made means there is more of it and more for us punters to choose from.”
"When you have a buzz like this you don’t take your foot off the throttle..."
How about your own music; you’re known for welcoming all kinds of guests to your Sacred Grove studio…
“I am backed up with jam sessions in terms of cutting them up and putting them on YouTube. I have fun parties over there when my chuckle buddies come over. The studio is already rigged up, the drum sets are miked, the organ, the timpani, everything is ready to go. I hit one red button and the entire room is recorded.
"I also have six cameras around the room; when the doorbell rings I turn on the cameras. I use the world’s cheapest recording engineer - myself. There are no recording professionals in the room, it is just the musicians and that brings a different vibe.
"We’re not there to make a record, we’re just there to hang out and play. There’s a very different kind of performance that you get in that environment.”
You also have a brand new band, Gizmodrome. How did that come to be?
“I had no plan at all, I am Mr Serious Classical Composer Dude writing concerti for the big orchestra and it was going smashingly. Then I got a call from Italy.
"Every summer for the last ten years or so I had been going to Italy to hang, just to be under the Italian sky and play shows there. There was no project, no agenda, the only agenda was pasta. We did it to just get up there and enjoy the evening. I’ve been paid for rock ‘n’ roll and this was just for kicks.
"Then a call came on saying a record company wanted to record these songs. It was Vittorio Cosma my Italian buddy and he said he thought he could get Adrian Belew. Well dang, that raised the stakes. I contacted Mark [King] and he was in. Within 20 minutes the four of us where on our way to Milan.”
Was it clear right from the off that line-up would work?
“We spent ten days down there with this material that I had and made a record. I tricked Adrian and Mark. They thought they were coming in to overdub on four tracks of Stewart’s album. We didn’t let them out of their until we had 12 tracks.
"Pretty soon, they started to feel like it was their album, which was my plan all along. I can’t afford these guys so the idea was to get them into the studio, have a blast and we felt that we were a band. I wrote the songs but the trick is to dispense with the concept of the sanctity of the composer.
"Just because I wrote the song, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear where those guys are going to take it. When you give them that freedom that is when the really cool stuff happens.”
So it came together quite freely and quickly?
“We would work on songs for maybe 20 minutes and then start working on takes. We might do three takes, sometimes maybe four but we had a short attention span. We would do a few takes and then we’d be ready to pick one and move on. Usually we would end up with take two.
"The first one was a bit scrappy, take two was more in focus, take three was well in focus, but take two had that exploratory feel, it had that freshness, a wildness and the mojo. I think the listener can discern between session musicians playing what they’re told and a band going for it.”
Is there a plan to tour the album?
“The buzz we’re getting has been so profound. We had no idea if it was any good until we started hitting the promo trail. The journalists are giving us a real buzz about it. When you have a buzz like this you don’t take your foot off the throttle. We’re planning shows and already have thoughts of another record. Live shows will probably come in the New Year. We will let the album drop and hopefully make an impression and then book the dates.
"The cool thing is that I get to stand at the front of the stage and play guitar and sing. I’ll play drums too, because I like it, drums are fun. But people have been asking if I am going to do a Don Henley and sing while playing drums. No, no, no, I’m going to do a Dave Grohl.
"I’ll have a huge amp and I’ll be playing big power chords and doing all of the guitar faces while Adrian Belew actually plays the guitar.”
We assume you used you Tama kit in the studio?
“Yes, I used my Tama kit. Tama uses the best woods and gets the best sounds. Also, their design, the way their stands work, they are always innovating; things like the octobans, that is a Tama invention, the gong drum is a Tama invention.
"They are a very creative company. They don’t just do snare, kick and toms.”
You have worked on many orchestral projects in recent years, is that something you will return to?
“I really enjoy it, it is a completely different world. I enjoy playing with the Dallas Symphony, the Chicago Symphony or even the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Participating in that world makes me feel like an actual musician instead of just banging and clattering.
"This rock ‘n’ roll thing has just dragged me back [laughs].”