Drummer-composer Stewart Copeland

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The renowned rocker—who describes himself as the progeny in equal measure of Stravinsky and Hendrix—imparts his unique wisdom on resisting pigeonholing.

Stewart Copeland rose to international stardom as the drummer with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, the Police—one of the most innovative bands of the post-punk era. He went on to pursue a career as a composer and has created a series of movie scores, including for the films, Rumble Fish (for which he earned a Golden Globe nod) and Wall Street, among others, as well as operas and ballets. Born in Virginia, Copeland spent his formative years in the Middle East, where he began taking drum lessons. He later lived in England and played drums for a progressive rock band. Immersing himself in the "serious music" world, his commissions include the score for the 1925 silent film, Ben-Hur.


Tavis: Stewart Copeland has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the most influential drummers in all of rock music history for his time with the Police. Those days earned him – earned the three, I should say – six Grammy awards and saw them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Venturing into composing, he’s written scores for movies like “Wall Street,” has also performed his own work with orchestras around the globe. Later this month, he’ll perform his new composition, his score for the 1925 silent film, “Ben-Hur.” Let’s start our conversation first with a look at a clip.


Tavis: Why “Ben-Hur?”

Stewart Copeland: Why “Ben-Hur?” Well, “Ben-Hur” kind of came to me. Years ago, I got an incoming call. A mad German impresario was building a huge arena show. They were going to do the chariot race, the pirate battle, the whole book in an arena, the 02 Arena in London, and then it toured across Europe. And he had hundreds of under-paid Ukrainian extras as Roman soldiers on horseback slashing through – you know, big, huge – so I wrote the music.

The show played, ran and ran around Europe. But because of a financial crisis, I at a crucial moment had to pay some bills and I ended up owning the copyright of the music. I owned everything that I wrote, work for hire, but now I own it, all the recordings that I made, everything.

And so I was looking to play concert with this stuff, you know, this music with which I’m kind of proud. And I was thinking about having like some Ben-Hur kind of pictures, maybe a bit of a chariot – you know, just something. So I found this movie, this 1925 movie that’s 40 years before the Charlton Heston film, black and white, silent and huge.

I mean, we had, you know, 200 or 300 Ukrainians running around. They’ve got thousands of extras. They’re crashing ships together in the sea on flames and those are real extras drowning because they’re wearing their Roman armor, but they said they could swim. But the ships really did catch fire, so the production film is huge.

The fact that it’s silent is catnip for a composer. All that absence of anything means that I can – so I get to play my drums. I have a huge orchestra and overhead is this big bad movie.

Tavis: The flip side of that is that the purity and the sanctity of a silent film has been bastardized now by your score.

Copeland: No. The film was made with the intention of having music playing. And it surprises me, but I’ve learned that the director didn’t hire a composer. You would think that he would try and get some kind of music written that he could send out at least on a chart so the local organist could come up with something, but they didn’t think that way.

Also, in the 60s, a score was written by Sir Colin Davis for a video release of the film and the last time the cans – you know, they gave me this 80-year-old movie, this 80-year-old celluloid in cans just around the corner here at Warner Bros.

They brought it out of deepfreeze. It took them 10 days to defrost it. And the last time it had been seen was in the 60s when they cut a video from it. And that’s when they added a score which was long after the director had gone, so that was like a bastardization right there.

Tavis: Yeah.

Copeland: But this is a concert. It began as a concert with the film as a backdrop. But then once I started watching this film, I began to drink the Kool-Aid and I began to realize the power. The film’s going to be moving forward on the stage and becoming more – and now it’s about the movie.

Tavis: This question is going to sound simple and maybe it is, although I know your answer will be much more deep and…

Copeland: Even more simple [laugh].

Tavis: More deep and philosophical, I suspect. So when you start watching this silent film and you start writing music for it and it’s all done and you’ve laid everything down, what jumps out at you from the screen of this film that you didn’t see?

Set your modesty aside. What jumps out at you from this film, from the screen, that you didn’t see before you put music to it? You know what I’m getting here is that it’s hard – I think sometimes we don’t really appreciate what a score does to us when we watch a film.

Copeland: Yeah, yeah. You know, I’ve been on panels where we show a scene in a movie with a funny, you know, car chase and it’s a funny scene with scaredy music and the whole scene has an entirely different meaning. But in fact, this music I wrote before looking at the film, I wrote this music to go with the live show and I had to imagine how long is it going to take for the Roman soldiers, the Ukrainians pretending to be Romans on horseback, to charge into the arena, beat up a bunch of people and exit with their prisoners? Is that 20 seconds? 15?

And I have to kind of imagine that and then write a piece of music with that scene. Anyhow, then at the end of the day when I discovered this film, I found that the jealousy theme between Judah and Messala. I’ve got that jealousy theme, the love interest. I’ve got Tirzah’s theme. I’ve got Esther’s theme. I’ve got the chariot race. I wrote a huge piece of music for the chariot race and for the pirate – all these pieces of music I had.

So then the thing was to cut the movie and the music that I had written together which is kind of a unique way of doing it. I’ve got a two-hour and 20-minute film and I’ve got 90 minutes of music and to cut the two together and I extended the music here and cut the music there for a 90-minute concert.

But you asked what jumped out at me in getting into this movie, which I didn’t discern. It’s been a long time since I saw the Charlton Heston one, but I don’t remember there being such a powerful spiritual message in the not-original Charlton Heston film, which was called “Ben-Hur.” The book on which that film was based was called “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ” and that’s also the title of this 1925 movie.

And that aspect of it, the spiritual aspect of the movie, I’m a left coast libertine, you know, a sinner. But even my crocodile libertine heart is moved by the power of the message of Jesus Christ in this thing. You know, I was raised a Christian, but I’m not that much of a believer, but I get the power for the faithful.

For people of faith, this movie is really going to feel very strong in the message, that part of it. You know, I expected the chariot race to rock. I expected the pirates to be amazing. But what I didn’t expect was this really powerful and emotionally uplifting spiritual message.

Tavis: I wonder if you know why they dropped that subtitle, “A Tale of The Christ,” and just called it “Ben-Hur” with Charlton Heston, the version everybody has seen. And if you don’t know that, why did you offer the need to bring it back for your production?

Copeland: I don’t know why they drop it. But I felt that just watching the movie, the full title fits. You know, I’m a lefty left coastist, but I am saddened by a lot of misperception and conflict in this country where people don’t allow other people to be who they are and believe what they believe and judge people.

And I want to not judge people and I want to take the message I’ve learned from Jesus Christ in this film and offer something to those people for whom the film was made.

And I think for normal religious people, there’s a film out now called, you know, “Noah” where I think a lot of people are upset that atheists made that film. They don’t mention God. They mention the creator.

And the way they use peoples’ own religious mythology and their texts back at them in, I think, a possibly disrespectful way, I think on both sides of the political divided America, we’re guilty of judging each other and not accepting each other.

And I want to be a change to that. I want to show people a faith that I may be from California, but I love you all [laugh]. And I think you’re going to like this movie, you know. The religious aspect is not me talking. It’s Fred Niblo who made this movie 80 years ago talking.

And it’s General Lew Wallace who wrote this. He was a Civil War general. That’s how old the book is. In fact, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ” was a Broadway hit for 25 years. This is a story with legs. I mean, 25 years on Broadway, then the biggest silent film ever made, then the biggest color film ever made. This is a story that has legs.

Tavis: I’m glad you raise that issue about – if I could put it this way – this notion of religious tolerance or religious intolerance. I’m going to have to do a show about it. I got to talk to my producers about this. We may need to do a show about this. I think this issue is – I thought at one point we’d kind of put this to bed in our society…

Copeland: Yeah, but it rises up again.

Tavis: Yeah, but I see this issue rising up again. I was on a plane last night coming back to California and reading this story about a major CEO in Silicon Valley who just got pushed out by the gay and lesbian community because he wrote a $1,000 check to a particular proposition…

Copeland: You know, we’re all just folks. Even if we’re on the right side of an issue, we’re still just folks and we still get carried away. They pushed that guy out.

Tavis: They pushed him out. I was struck by Andrew Sullivan’s piece who’s one of the most prominent gays in the country, struck by the piece he wrote condemning gays and lesbians and saying this is what our movement has become, forcing people out for their own beliefs, I don’t want to be a part of this movement.

I mean, my point is there are people on both sides of this. But this whole conversation about religious intolerance, I think, is once again front and center in our country. I don’t know what to make of that, though, but I think it is.

Copeland: I think that co-existing is what this country is all about and tolerating people which is why we insist on freedom of speech. We insist on freedom of religion. You know, contrary to the Ten Commandments, the United States Constitution guarantees that you can worship any idol you want and that’s kind of what holds it together.

But, you know, we’re complicated. There are many of us with different points of view and sometimes those points of view get heated on both sides. I think with the civil rights movement, there was a very honest cause with a real purpose, but there were some within that movement who overstated the case and gave ammunition to the other side.

I think the case of Mozilla and the guy who was forced out, I think the gay and lesbian community, some among them, may have overstated the case so that they’ve given a poster child to their intellectual opposition, if you like.

Tavis: I may need to come back to that one night on this program to kind of see if we can figure some of this out.

Copeland: Sure.

Tavis: That said, let me come back to your career now. We all know about your work with the Police. We’ll come to the Police in just a second. But after the Police, why composing? Why did that tickle your fancy so?

Copeland: It came and got me just like the drumming did. You know, I went to college. I was going to be in media. I was going to be a publishing mogul or whatever. But I just liked playing those drums. It just came and got me, you know. I tried to go to school and get an honest job, but it drew me back.

And what drew me back was playing drums. I had studied composition, you know, when first my eyes blinked open. There was this river of music and my daddy, who was a musician, he got me into lessons right away and all that stuff.

When I went to my life in a band, I didn’t use any of the formal music education that I had had. It’s just bang on the drums. It’s E, A and D chords and, with Stingo around, there’s going to be some F sharp minor [laugh].

And Andy and Sting are pretty sophisticated harmonically, but it wasn’t my job. I would do crossword puzzles while they were arguing about the harmonics. When that went away and I became a film composer, I have to put music on a page ’cause I need an orchestra to play it or I need some guy who’s going to walk in and leave two hours later.

I got two hours of his time. How do I get him to play exactly what – well, I can say I need it to kind of groove and be kind of sexy here and just have fun. You know, I haven’t got time for that. I got to put it on the page. That requires a music education of sorts and alacrity with the written note. And from there came composing for ever larger ensembles and now I got the 90-piece orchestra going ba boomba.

You know, in orchestral, there’s this word “classical” music. I don’t even know how that applies to me, but it is orchestral and the 70-piece orchestra is a mighty instrument that is capable of huge power and emotional versatility.

And although great works have been written, you know, Bach, Mozart, Ravel, Adams, Stravinsky, they’ve all written eternal masterpieces for the orchestra, but I know there are still more cool things that 70 guys can do to rock the joint.

Tavis: I just had not so long ago on this program, in this very chair in fact, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the great conductor and composer…

Copeland: He rocks a lot.

Tavis: He does rock, a great conductor, great composer. You guys sound eerily similar. What you said now sounds like a repetition of what he said. Esa-Pekka, like you, said to me…

Copeland: He was here and he said it first [laugh]? I wish you’d had me on like a week before that. Then I could have said it first.

Tavis: They say great minds think alike. But I’m just fascinated. Like as soon as you said it, it just took me back to that conversation because his point was that, one, he thinks we got to do away with the word “classical.” It troubles him as it troubles you, number one.

And number two, even though he has conducted some of the most wonderfully and brilliantly written pieces ever by some of the composers you just referenced, his thing is we got to do new compositions. You know, he’s always writing new stuff anyway.

So he kind of felt the same way that you feel, that we got to get rid of the word and there’s still new stuff that we can do. Doesn’t have to be Bach or Beethoven or Brahms or whomever.

Copeland: Well, you know, there are sensibilities that come from a life in rock and roll, four on the floor rhythm, a steady tempo, certain harmonic textures. You know, the blue note. These are features of American music by however arrived at, but American music has these elements which I was steeped in, you know, growing up and they’re a part of my life.

And to write orchestral music that didn’t have or doesn’t utilize all this language in the voodoo, the communication with the audience to get them moving and rocking which you do at a rock concert, there’s no reason why 70 guys can’t get the same effect as three guys with a lot of amplifiers.

Tavis: So your rock influences – your being steeped in rock, it influences your orchestral writing?

Copeland: Oh, absolutely. I use what I have learned. And it’s a kind of a more general thing. I know what works with an audience. I’ve been in front of people. I know what gets them to go like this and to get them to start to feel it, you know. I have that instinct and I want to use these 70 guys to get that thing going as a physical you’re here in the room with us, let’s rock it, you know.

And I think that, you know, when Shostakovich is writing and Debussy, they’re alone in their piano and they’re thinking of a very different kind of audience. They’re thinking of a very different thing, so they’re going to write different music, you know, very beautiful. I love it and I love to go to that place that they create, but I come from that place and that’s what I want to engender.

Tavis: I want to jump to the Police in a second. Before I do that, though, tell me about this project. You’re rolling this out of Virginia later this month. Tell me about the performance in Virginia.

Copeland: Well, there’s going to be a big old orchestra.

Tavis: April 19, I think.

Copeland: April 19 on Easter. There’s going to be a big orchestra, me on drums. In fact, I got two drum sets. That’s how crazy it’s gotten. I got like a regular drum set and then, behind there, I got crotales and bells and odd percussion stuff. And overhead is this giant movie.

Tavis: The Virginia Arts Festival.

Copeland: The Virginia Arts Festival at the Chrysler Hall on the 19th. They commissioned the piece, so all props to them. My big shout-out to those guys who kind of put this piece on the map, and then it goes on from there. The mighty Chicago is going to play.

Tavis: So if you’re in Virginia or in Virginia, you can get a ticket to see Stewart Copeland and the orchestra do this “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ.” You’ll want to see that. I can’t let you out of here, and I’m glad I got some time left here, a few minutes, ’cause I’m a huge – a bunch of us are. We’re all huge Police fans.

So now that there’s some distance between now and then, you guys took a hiatus in 84, as I recall, officially broke up in 86. See, I told you I’m a fan. As you look back on that period…

Copeland: You’re showing your age.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, that too [laugh]. As you look back on that Police era, what do you think now with this distance in the rear view mirror?

Copeland: I wish I’d been nicer. The bounty that came from that eight years in a pressure cooker is resounding 40 years later.

Tavis: When you say nicer, you mean by that what? You wish you’d been nicer. What do you mean by that?

Copeland: You know, you get confused when suddenly you’ve been struggling, you’ve been struggling, one day the door opens, the light rushes in and you’re there and everybody wants to hear your voice. Everybody loves you, everybody surrounds you with weird – you see people shape-shifting in front of you and behaving in ways that they don’t behave amongst each other.

It’s weird. I probably don’t even need to tell you that it’s weird. And at that level, at that age, so suddenly, it gives you a sense of vertigo and you can misbehave.

It took a while to learn that I’m still the same jerk and it does upset me if I’ve upset somebody else even though they’re still smiling because I’m mister celebrity who said something hurtful. I wish I hadn’t done that or said that, you know. So I wish I had known now about humility and had practiced some of that then.

Tavis: I’m so glad you raised this because I have often struggled in my own life with how you navigate forward with that kind of angst behind you. It’s not like you can go back and relive those moments.

Copeland: Well, you can’t go backwards. You can pay it forward.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me more about that. Now that you’ve come to this realization of the kind of person you want to be, the kind of life you want to live connected to your humility and your humanity, how do you pay it forward?

Copeland: Okay. See that intern right there?

Tavis: Yeah.

Copeland: That intern, no-account, probably the lowest guy on the totem pole and here nobody even knows their name? He’s gonna be president of Warner Brothers. That person’s still gonna be here 20 years from now. We’re gonna be doddering. That person’s going places.

Stuff that they’ve learned here in your studio today, they’re gonna take with them. And just because somebody is a no-account right now doesn’t mean that 10 years are not gonna go by, 20 years are not gonna go by, 40 years are not gonna go by.

I’m 60 years old. I am now aware that time does pass. These people are gonna move on. They’re gonna grow and the people you abuse on the way up, you will meet up on the way down.

Tavis: I think Quincy Jones – my mother watches. Mom, plug your ears. I got to say something you don’t want to hear right quick. Okay, good. Her ears are plugged. Quincy Jones – I’ll clean this up…

Copeland: Ma’am, I’ll tell you what he said later.

Tavis: I’ll clean this up for PBS. Quincy Jones told me years ago. He said, “Tavis, be careful because the toes you step on today may be connected to the behind you have to kiss tomorrow.” [Laugh]

Copeland: That’s absolutely right.

Tavis: So I’ve tried to always remember that.

Copeland: You know, the thing is that humility is what it’s all about. And not only that intern – you’re gonna be great. Not only that, but you yourself, even though you’re 28 years old or 31 and you’re on top of the world, 30 years hopefully are gonna go by.

And when you get to 30 years out, 40 years out, it’s gonna be a different world and you’re gonna get humble. Why not start – you know, I like to tell all those youngsters who are going through it now, you know, you’ll feel better later if you start being humble now.

Tavis: But that almost feels oxymoronic, though, Stewart, because you’re suggesting that we should grow in grace and grow in humility as we also grow in stature, and that is so oxymoronic.

Copeland: You’re right. I mean, you can’t. In a way – okay, I take it all back. Okay, you young football star, movie star…

Tavis: Be arrogant, be pompous…

Copeland: Right. Love it, live it. You know, you will be forgiven. You can completely dump on your friends. They will forgive you and you’re gonna learn that you can get away with stuff that actually you shouldn’t get away with in life. But eventually you will learn, you know.

It might not be the day after your career ends, the day after you release a single that doesn’t chart; you do a tour that doesn’t sell out. You probably won’t be humble the next day or the next. But five years will go by, 10 years. It’ll come to you. So blow it now. Blow it early. Blow it hard [laugh].

Tavis: But I think this is also more acute for celebrities because celebrities get away with more stuff than the average guy does anyway.

Copeland: It is weird.

Tavis: So it’s almost impossible not to be a jerk at some level than by accommodating everybody because you’re a celebrity.

Copeland: It’s sort of like being a little old lady. People open doors for you, they pick up your tab. Are you okay? I’m a 28-year-old monster…

Tavis: Rock star.

Copeland: Yes, I’m fine, but go ahead and open that door for me.

Tavis: Okay. I’m glad we raised that issue. When you look back on the music of the Police era, you got to love the music, though.

Copeland: I do. I’m kind of partial.

Tavis: It’s great stuff.

Copeland: I still am partial to both those guys. Andy picks up that guitar and I just know something exciting is gonna happen. Sting picks up any instrument and you know something beautiful is gonna start happening.

Tavis: Yeah. And you’re happy, though, with this state of your life vis-à-vis the work, the compositions?

Copeland: Yeah. It’s very engrossing. You know, rock music is fun, but as you grow up and your life experience becomes more textured and your tastes become a little more convoluted and you learn more stuff and therefore what turns you on needs a little more stuff, so my composition.

So rather than writing E, A and D chords for a rock band, I’m writing multi-textural nuances for an orchestra which has the way the woodwinds work beautifully against this and that and then of strings. You know, all that texture and all that subtlety and all that nuance which you pick up over the years.

Tavis: Stewart Copeland will be in Virginia, the Virginia Arts Festival, April 19 on Easter this year, Easter weekend, with a bunch of strings for his production of “Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ,” if you can get in. I wish I were there. I’ll have to catch you when you get back this way, I guess.

Copeland: Yeah. We’ll try and do it here.

Tavis: Here in Southern California so we can see it.

Copeland: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Copeland: Good to be here. Good talk.

Tavis: Great conversation. Good to have you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm