Just A Rhythmist

The following interviewis from the August 1983 issue of Music UK magazine. The author was Max Kay who talks with Police drummer and well-known “rhythmist” Stewart Copeland. What is refeshing and eye-opening is Copeland who uses the “drum box” moves beyond self-confines of being a just a drummer and relates his view on what is and what it takes to be the rhythm section.

Stewart Copeland has a background with bands like Curved Air and knows his way around a kit. Famous for his rhythmic feel, Stewart talks about his style to Max Kay.

There are no two ways about it, the Police have made it; an opinion reinforced by record buyers the world over. Unlike most musicians in his position, Stewart constantly busies himself with projects like the one he’s working on currently for Francis Ford Coppola, a soundtrack for the forthcoming movie “Rumblefish”.

When Copeland shows me into the studio where most of his energy is employed, I imagine for a fleeting moment that I’m in a West End music store and demand to purchase a set of strings, gauges 008-042 if you don’t mind. This studio is positively bulging with musical accessories and hardware, and there’s me still saving up for a Fostex!

I begin by asking Copeland if it was easy to stick to what is a very simple drum pattern on the recent single Every Breath You Take.

“Yes, it was,” he confirms. “In fact, the drum box played half of it and I played the other half. Sometimes it’s cleverer to do less and, in fact, I’m proud of my playing on that record because I’m known as a busy player, but I do have taste! I thought I was being very clever, a lot of work went into what I did play. But I just didn’t play very much at the end of the day.”

Copeland’s use of drum machines more than qualifies him to give an opinion on the “musicians versus machines” argument that is constantly bandied about by the press.

“In learning to play with drum boxes you don’t learn to develop your wrists, but that’s not so important. The important thing is a talent for rhythm, to be clever at rhythms, to think up rhythms as well as to be able to play them. If you can think up rhythms that’s half the job. If you can play rhythms but you can’t think of anything terrific to play, that’s only half the job too, and you need both. If you already play the drums then it’s a good idea to get a drum box because there’s things a drum box can do that a drummer can’t, and it’s not a question of a drum box taking your job away because your a rhythmist. You will still need to have to think up the rhythm and put it in the drum box – that’s what talent is.”

In the early days Stewart was trying to move away from the doctored studio drum sound of the time that found engineers falling over themselves to make every percussionist in London sound like Elton John’s drummer. Another was incorporating his talents within the confines of a band. Not for nothing was he known as Cliff Hanger and the Drumfills.

“I think the main problem for new drummers starting to play,” he says, “is adapting their favourite drum licks they’ve learned whilst banging away at home, to holding down a steady beat for sixteen bars and then playing one lick or no lick if they’re tasteful, then going on for another sixteen or thirty two bars, keeping the same tempo. To really hold that rhythm together you have to listen, and that’s a talent you don’t learn at home by practising.”

On the subject of drums, Stewart is very much a “one product” man.

“I only endorse one product (Tama) and those are the drums I play. I’ve been offered free kits by other companies and I’ve never taken them. There was a time when I had a deal with our second American tour because I couldn’t bring mine over, so I bought one. I was prepared to buy the drums that I was endorsing and I feel very strongly about that. I would comment that it is a pity that people who can least afford it pay the highest price, and the other side of it (which isn’t such a pity) is that people who can afford it most, get the lowest price. But never mind, it’s the other side of the coin that’s the problem.”

For a long time now, drummers have been saddled with an image as the resident klutz or token ‘thikko’. Although Stewart has an extremely gauche quality (due mainly to his gangling 6’2″ frame), he’s incredibly articulate in his own right, and donates his full thirty three and a third per cent to the Police when he’s not achieving in numerous other directions.

“There is an attitude that the drummer isn’t really a musician, that anyone could get up there and do it. I don’t resent it, but it’s a fact of life. My generalisation is that the drummer is usually the band accountant, tour manager and so on. I remember in the days before there were tour managers, it was the drummer who kept the books and got on the phone. The same with the Police for that matter. I mean it was me who booked the trucks, hustled the agent – I was the one who called up record stores and actually sold the record to the shops. Sting was busy writing songs – lucky for us. Very few bands ever reach the point where each member has his /her own persona, recognised as such by the public. The Police have gained that glorified status along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

“Sting is obviously the main front of the group”, explains Copeland. “He’s the magazine cover shot. the face that most people recognise. He has his own career as a movie actor as well, he’s also a songwriter and, apart from just being a face up front, he’s a very talented, serious musician. Even if he was ugly, he’s still got an incredible depth of music which probably isn’t recognised as much as it should be. He’s pretty much regarded as a beautiful face with a lovely voice and people really don’t understand how good he is – I mean his classical piano playing is really very proficient. He’s much more serious than a lot of people give him credit for. Andy, I think, is regarded as the technician of the group. A lot of the fancy sounds emanate from the guitar…the clever element of the band probably emanates from Andy. I suppose I get credit for the weird rhythms, for the animal element, for the tribal aspects of our music…”

I put it to Stewart that he comes across as clownish at times, something that most of us associate with Andy Summers.

“Mostly that’s through clumsiness,” he volunteers, “not through any genuine comedy talent.”

When I inform Copeland that his gauche image is an endearing one, he thanks me for my observation, appears genuinely touched and then replies, “It pisses me off. I like to think of myself as elegant and dignified – I’m 6’2″, I just appear taller. Intellectually, I’m much taller,” he laughs.

The conversation drifts into the merits of stature with regard to the height of the average famous guitar player, who is almost certainly smaller in the flesh than you’d imagine.

“I’ll tell you something,” confides Copeland, “this is an inside truth. Andy is always standing on two telephone books in every shot. Every time we go down the studio for a photo session Andy says ‘Oh no, not the telephone books!'”

On an altogether more serious note, I quiz Stewart on the limitations of the 3-piece set up and draw parallels with Cream who split up when they’d travelled as far down that road as they could go, or as Stewart prefers, “when they’d exhausted the technology of the time”.

“It is a challenge, certainly, to continue to get bigger and bigger and make more and more noise on-stage, but we have bass foot synthesisers, we have sequencers that can play our keyboards for us, and rum boxes that do rhythms. On our next tour we’re gonna automate some of our new material, which means I’ve got a second riser behind me where I can play keyboards and screw around with different percussive devices while the remaining rhythm is coming from Mr Oberheim.

“A lot of bands are using drum boxes instead of drummers because the keyboard player, perhaps, has a talent for rhythm and he doesn’t need some guy who’s got talent for rhythm and can play the thing, because his talent for rhythm will do as far as setting up the machine. But he’s limited there because a lot of the excitement in music comes from what’s gonna happen next. If the audience feel the band doesn’t know what’s gonna happen next, that the band is out on a limb, it really gives much more tension. You do get more tension released that way, and that’s what art is all about.”

Whilst Copeland admits that replacing musicians on-stage with sequencers is deplorable, the Police intend to do just that, albeit to a limited degree, on their next tour, although we’re likely to see some backing singers on-stage, too.

As with most artistically inclined people, Stewart Copeland constantly travels along with that very thin line that divides failure from success, and nobody is more aware of the inherent dangers than he.

“My self esteem is based on what I’m doing now. All these gold records I’ve got all over the house are how good I’ve been over the last five years, and I’m in terror of losing my talent because I’ve seen it happen before. Most musicians do mellow out and lose their fire, that’s what really scares me, and I’m not allowing myself to be comfortable and rest on my laurels. I enjoy accomplishing things. I can’t get to sleep at night unless I’ve done something, unless I’ve made progress somewhere. I am comfortable as far as the house goes and everything else, but in my soul there burns a fire. Can you print that with a smirk?”, teases Copeland.

Again on the subject of rhythms, I question Stewart on his flirtation with, and eventual marriage to, the reggae beat.

“I could never crack it until Sting sussed out the bass. One day I lent him some Bob Marley albums for a party, and suddenly he wasn’t listening to anything else. He came down to the next rehearsal having sussed out the bass lines, and how it actually works, and suddenly I was able to achieve that intake of breath that you get from the weird reggae dropped beat, and it worked. So the turning point was when I had a bass player who could play the bass line, I mean it doesn’t happen unless those two elements are working together, you king of push and pull each other.”

One of the original motivating forces behind Stewart’s career was his father, who is perhaps better known for his, er, diplomatic activities in the Lebanon on behalf of the CIA.

“I just wanted to play drums form a very early age and my father, who was a jazz musician, sent me for trumpet and trombone lessons. Ian, my older brother, had borrowed a set of drums from his friends in a band and whenever he left the house I tried to do what my older brother did. That’s the story of my life of course, the lot of a younger brother, but somehow I was actually better at it than him. Now to be better than your older brother at something is really quite important, and I suppose it was just the first thing I could do really well that I seemed to find easy.. Everything else seemed to be so difficult – I was lousy at ball games. You know when they choose teams ? There was always me standing last with the kid that had Pepsi bottle glasses!”

Stewart Copeland sees the role of the drummer as a balanced relationship somewhere between an analytical process and primitive animal juices. “You can’t do it without both”, he insists. Perhaps the most striking difference between Stewart’s drumkit and most other drummers, is the sheer size of it in terms of accessories such as tuned percussion, which most drummers would avoid like the plague, plus of course the addition of a drum machine.

“I think most drummers regard drum boxes as a threat, which means that they are loath to turn over any duties to a drum box, and that’s the first barrier drummers have to overcome. I’ve always been lousy at tempo so I was very much relieved when somebody invented a machine that would take that problem away from me.”

When I asked Stewart about the Tama kit he’s playing at present, he surprises me to say the least.

“Three tom-toms in the front are (shrugs shoulders here) kinda small, one tom-tom on the right…”

‘Can you give me the sizes?’, I probe hopefully.

“No…I can’t,” admits a slightly befuddles Stewart Copeland. “Well they’re small, they’re generally small. The only comment is that they’re small with very thick 9-ply shells, and I’m not sure if that’s the Imperial Star, the Superstar or the Wonderstar or whatever. They sound very deep and thick, even when you tune the heads really tight. You can actually get more control over the sound of the drum the smaller they are, within certain limitations of course. But I mean I’ve found I can get a bigger sound with little drums. Okay, I have one bass drum which I think is a 22” – possibly, and a snare drum, a hi-hat, a ride cymbal, a China type, an assortment of crash cymbals and the only thing that’s different I suppose as far as cymbals go, is I like to use little tiny ones. Most of these cymbals are Paiste with one or two Zildjian in there. The little tiny ones are really good, ‘splish’, ‘splash’ and ‘splosh’ (a great name if the Police ever decide to undertake any low key personal appearances). With a big cymbal you have to hit a bass drum or a snare drum at the same time to give definition, but the little one will cut through all on its own.

I’ve augmented the kit in interesting ways for stagework. The bass drum has a contact mike on it which goes through the Tama drum synth, and with it I can electronically enhance the bottom end of the bass drum, really give it a hard definition. It seems to me I have the deepest bass sound of any group. Y’see that’s why I use Tama – because they make all this neat shit.

“Different parts of the drum kit at different times go through the digital echo machines here, and I have a footswitch next to the hi-hat. I can click on a repeat echo and have a dialogue with myself. It’s what people do in dub, in reggae dub.

“Currently my drum roadie, our man from Juilliard, explores the technology for me. If I say I want such and such a thing, he’ll go around all the music stores in New York or LA to find it. He’s looking for a tuned percussion synthesiser that you play with mallets. We saw an advertisement for it somewhere a long time ago, and he’s looking for whoever makes it. It’s probably some obscure little guy in Chicago, but we’ll find him…”

In the early days Stewart was influenced by Ginger Baker for his animal sound, Buddy Rich because his Dad liked him, and Mitch Mitchell who inspired most of the young Copeland licks at that time. Steve Gadd, interestingly, does not figure in the Copeland Hall of Heroes.

“Steve Gadd is the epitome of what is wrong with music, he doesn’t impress me at all. He impresses me in the same way as a drum box impresses me, but I’d rather have a drum box. The reason I have this hostile feeling towards him rather than indifference is not his fault. It’s the fault of musicians I was playing with before I could insist on my own style. When I was the baby of the group, everybody would say, ‘Look, that’s what drums are all about,’ and it was the epitome of the controlled Trident Studio drum sound, the Elton John sound. All the musicians I knew at the time were all involved in trying to repeat the successes of elsewhere.”

Throughout our conversation Stewart refers to the word ‘talent’ over and over again, as though it holds the key to some mystic power for him. Now, towards the close of our interview, he tries to shrug off his own share of the talent, as if it were heaven sent to selected interested parties for their approval.

“I don’t practise particularly hard,” he confesses. “I can’t think of anything I’ve done that other people haven’t done. I mean a lot of drummers practise much more than I do, but don’t get as afar as I get. I think either you’re born with it, or not – it’s not a question of hard work.”

Hard work or not, Stewart Copeland is an original – and that’s what counts. Yes?

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