Stewart Copeland: interview with Jill Riley
by Jill Riley
The Current | May 6, 2022
Stewart Copeland rose to international renown for his work as a drummer for the innovative rock band, the Police. Beyond his work as a rock drummer, Copeland has also forged a successful career as a composer, creating music for films, television and the stage. He also recently won a Grammy for Best New Age Album for his work with composer Ricky Kej on the album Divine Tides.
Ahead of a visit to the Twin Cities on May 7 and 8 for a couple of events with VocalEssence, Copeland connected with The Current’s Jill Riley for a talk about his career as a composer, his friendship with the late Taylor Hawkins, and about John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the inspiration for Copeland’s work Satan’s Fall, which VocalEssence will perform on May 8.
Watch Jill’s interview with Copeland in the video player above. You can also listen to the radio segments and read a transcript of the video interview below.
Edited for length and clarity.
Jill Riley: I’m Jill Riley, you’re listening to The Current’s Morning Show. I have a special guest with me today: Police drummer and composer, Stewart Copeland, is coming to Minneapolis for an event on Sunday, May 8, of the VocalEssence chorus ensemble singers and orchestra, and some other really special guests, will be performing a new composition by Stewart Copeland it’s called Satan’s Fall. This is happening at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. And Stewart is going to be at the event. I know you’re going to speak before the concert and now want to talk about the upcoming event. But hey, before we do, just a hello, and welcome to the Twin Cities airwaves.
Stewart Copeland: Well, hello Twin Cities, both cities.
Jill Riley: Yeah, I’m happy to have you on the air with me here. I think some congratulations are in order first. I saw that you won a Grammy for Best New Age album.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah!
Jill Riley: So congratulations on another Grammy.
Stewart Copeland: Well, thank you. My favorite part about this Grammy is that the category is New Age. Now I know, I’m pretty sure — I haven’t done the research, but I’m pretty sure — that no rock drummer in history has ever won the New Age category. How cool is that?
Jill Riley: All right, well, congratulations.
Stewart Copeland: So I can tick that box at last.
Jill Riley: All right, you have the distinction! You know, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that album that you made, Divine Tides. So that was a collaboration with another composer. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
Stewart Copeland: Well, yeah, I met this guy, Ricky Kej years ago, he has a friend of the planet, and he does good deeds. And I’d collaborated with him on a track for some humanitarian mission that he was on. Then more recently, he sent me — he was making an album — and he sent me these tracks, these elements of tracks of extremely exotic stuff; Indian singing, you know, all kinds of elements from all over the world, very traditional, but the way he mixed them together was really not traditional. And he’s an amazing musician. And he’s sending me this stuff and I’m completely inspired. I’m mic’ing up my crotales, my timpani, my watchamacallits and all my cool inanimate objects upon which I love to address. Just banging stuff, you know. And it was really a rewarding experience. He’s very spiritual. I’m kind of a drummer in a rock band, you know; a fancy composer as well, but I got kind of infected by the general wholesomeness of his attitude towards the planet — and more importantly for me — his music. So we had a very good rapport and we made this record, which turned out to be pretty gosh darn cool.
I asked suggested that, “Hey, you know, you’re going for this Grammy with the New Age. Why don’t you go with the World Music thing?” He said, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s a cutthroat world.” You know, the dog-eat-dog world of the—
Jill Riley: I didn’t know that!
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, well, it turns out New Age is also a cutthroat world. That’s hard fought! And all the other — you know, once you get nominated — all the other contenders, it’s the same in every category, but I thought that was for like Album of the Year. But way down the list, you know, “Album Notes” Grammy, these are all extremely hard fought.
Jill Riley: I’m talking with Stewart Copeland. We’re just talking about the Grammy for Best New Age Album. And that record is called Divine Tides. Well, Stewart, one more thing that I want to hit on, you know, before we talk about, you know, your life really more of in the composer world, and you know, music-scoring world, in the rock and roll world, which — you’re very familiar with being a drummer in the rock’n’roll world — I thought that you had such a nice tribute to Taylor Hawkins in Rolling Stone. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, you know, Taylor Hawkins, you know, The Current we’re alternative and indie and rock. We play a little bit of everything here on The Current. But you know, I understand that you guys had a great friendship, so I’m really sorry for your loss.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, we did. He is a very effusive guy, very effervescent personality; very cheerful, very upbeat. He’s a fan, a super fan and I tried to “Please, dude, dude: you are, yourself, a rockstar, okay? You know, show a little disrespect.” But he’s in that strata, that bandwidth of people who were 16 when I was in my glory days; you know: Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine. I got a call from Jack White the other day, who I thought is just the coolest of the cool, but he came to my show. My god! You know, to be respected by the young is a big deal.
But you know, humans are like ducks. You know, the first warm thing a duck sees when a little baby duck comes out of its egg, the first warm thing it sees his momma. And for adolescent humans, the first bit of rage rebellion that they see when they hit puberty, that’s daddy. And so for Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Primus and that kind of age bandwidth of bands, I’m like a Beatle or something, you know, which is preposterous, because I know how when I am in the presence — the august presence, the divine presence — of Ringo Starr, I know who’s boss; he’s boss. And I suppose in show business, we have a hierarchy which makes it easier for us all to interact, you know; we’re like dogs, we know where we are in the hierarchy, so we can relax whether you’re at the top or bottom. It’s chronological, those who went before, are boss; those who came after, you are their boss. And it just makes it easy for us all to get along.
But I try and tell Taylor, “Dude, you are a major artist.” You know, they insisted on opening for us a Giants Stadium in L.A.; they are a stadium act! Dude, get your own stadium! But they’re fans, in spite of being extremely substantial artists themselves, particularly Taylor, he is fundamentally a fan.
Jill Riley: I like that you use this expression, “brother of the stick.” And I love that because for any friends I had growing up that played drums and, like you’re kind of talking about, have that admiration for those that come before; that there is kind of something special with drummers because there are so many different techniques and styles and uniqueness that I just feel like there’s there’s an admiration, drummer to drummer, that I see more than like guitar player to guitar player, or bass player to bass player or whatever it is, that there is a special bond.
Stewart Copeland: Guitar players are all at each other’s throats. And it’s very strange that in my, you know, my top 10 chuckle buddies, drummers and bass players. You know, mostly bass players. Bass players and drummers have this bond. You know, the the bass player kind of translates the music for the drummer. And when the keyboard player and guitarist are all talking like F sharp minor, you know, the drummer and the singer wonder what the hell they’re talking about at opposite ends of the jet, you know. In the middle of they’re, “F sharp minor, are they talking about you or me?” You know, the bass player, he knows about F sharp. He’s not so sure about the minor part, but at least he can help with the F sharp.
Jill Riley: Yeah, there is something to, you know, the rhythm section and, and maybe that’s it, too, that because you’re not out front, you know, maybe that’s part of it too.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, we are at the back of a bus, back of the stage, but in the front of the groove!
Jill Riley: Exactly. I’m talking with Stewart Copeland, the drummer from the Police, also a composer. Now, you know, if you’re a fan of the Police, and you’ve got your favorite songs of the Police, you know that Stewart Copeland is drummer of the Police, but you’ve had a pretty incredible career as a composer, you know, scoring films, and, I wonder, what was sort of your gateway into that world? Like, how did you how did you get into, you know, doing music for films or, you know, composing, you know, getting into more of the, almost the classical world?
Stewart Copeland: Well, I’d always had a torrent of music flooding through my head, mostly orchestral music because my mama raised me on Stravinsky and Ravel. My dad raised me on jazz — wrong jazz, Big Band jazz. But that didn’t take. The orchestral music did; 20th century — not classical music — 20th century orchestral music, which I’ve always found very exciting until, when I hit puberty, the first rock rage rebellion I saw was Jimi Hendrix and that’s it for for all that. … So the film business began with a phone call, an incoming call, from Francis Ford Coppola. And he just wanted to talk concept of this film he was making [Rumble Fish, 1983]. And so he flew me over to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they were rehearsing with Matt Dillon and Diane Lane and the rest of them. And we got talking, we got into the concept, and we bonded, and he just took a chance, said, Okay, do it. And I immediately set to work. I had no idea how you’re supposed to do it, which is kind of what he liked about it. Totally non-traditional approach. I don’t know how you’re supposed to do it, but and he told me, “It’s got to be happy here. It’s sad there. And a million gradations and varieties of human emotions as well.” And that was the mission. Okay, happy: “Plonky plonky, plonky — oh, that’s happy!” And I just kind of made it up, which made it kind of revolutionary because I didn’t know any better.
Jill Riley: I’m talking with Stewart Copeland, and Stewart Copeland is going to be in town. Not too far away, you know, in the near future, Sunday, May 8, for an event with VocalEssence chorus, ensemble singers and orchestra. They’re going to be performing this new composition by Stewart Copeland, and it’s called Satan’s Fall. It’s going to be at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Now, let’s talk a little bit about that new composition.
Stewart Copeland: Let’s talk about Satan!
Jill Riley: Yes, let’s talk about God and Satan and Adam and Eve! I read in the description you were inspired by, or it’s based on, Paradise Lost, which I’m, of course, of pop culture, growing up in the Catholic Church, I’m aware of what it is and what the story is. I certainly haven’t sat down with the 10 to 12 books or whatever it is. But I wonder what was it about Paradise Lost that gave you inspiration? Because I mean, this inspiration has come up in music and art; I guess what was it for you?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah. Well, exactly the same experience that you had: They rammed it down my throat in high school; English literature A level in England. It’s a major English literary giant, and so they teach it to you. And it makes no sense at all. It is a huge epic poem about Adam and Eve, and they, you know, they lose paradise. That’s why it’s called Paradise Lost. But there’s a story within this enormous epic story, which is the story of Satan. The archangel Gabriel comes down and explains to Adam and Eve, “Guys, there’s a problem up in heaven. There’s this guy called Satan; keep an eye out for him.” And so, as he tells the story, he explains why it is, this great mystery: How can the almighty creator of all things have an adversary? What’s up with Satan? What’s his problem? Come on! He’s up there in heaven, and why did he pick a fight with the big guy? This is that story.
Jill Riley: So in the story, for the composition, that you’ve made, Satan’s Fall, and I guess my question is: what actually is Satan’s character? I mean, is it like a protagonist? Is it still antagonist?
Stewart Copeland: Well, it’s interesting that you ask, because this story has inspired a lot of art, a lot of visual art; [Gustave] Doré and [William] Blake and others have illustrated these epic, celestial — literally — events. And I think it was Blake who said that actually, [John] Milton was in the camp of Satan without knowing it. And the reason that it appears that way is because Satan is very colorful; his arguments are logical, complex, multi layered. God is one dimensional: “Because I said so.” And at first that may seem that may diminish God, because he’s so simplistic, but in fact, I think the point that, unknown, you know, misunderstood by Blake, but I think Milton was trying to make the point that good is good, white is white, black is black; there’s no — shilly-shallying gradations are the work of Satan. And, you know, monolithic good is monolithically good without further explanation.
And, you know, the instigating moment is when God looks around to all of his angels gathered around him. And he says, “I’ve got me a son. And he is now boss of everyone and everything under me.” And this is where Satan became jealous. And God makes no explanation. He just says, “Because I said so.” And it’s Satan that has arguments and slippery, slithery… he gets all the best lines, of course, and his character is much more interesting. And in this case, the Messiah — and I did this years ago, before it became everyone started doing it — I figured, why not have a soprano play the Messiah? Because I thought that would be interesting and thought provoking. Now, it’s common as muck that we go across gender and everything, you know, it’s great, but, you know, so I was revolutionary when I first wrote this piece, I don’t know, five or 10 years ago. But it kind of makes you think, and that’s what I think the purpose of all art is, is to make you think a little. It’s to beguile, to entertain, to lighten up and to you know, all that, but a little bit of thought isn’t bad.
Jill Riley: The event is coming up with VocalEssence. They’re going to be performing Stewart Copeland’s composition, Satan’s Fall, Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Sunday, May 8, and, Stewart, I know that you’re coming to town, you’re coming to the Twin Cities to be there.
Stewart Copeland: Well, yeah, this is the best part about being a composer, you know, when I’m banging drums, I got to come and chop wood for two hours; physically, an exertion, which I’m gonna be doing with Oysterhead in a couple of weeks over in Atlanta at a festival, banging stuff. But the composer gig is very nice. I get to watch this huge choir, and VocalEssence of Minneapolis is world famous. It is a huge, powerful onslaught of vocal power. It is an enormous musical instrument if you like. And so I get to go and watch other people work. And, you know, I write it here in my studio, and it’s all very, very personal. But it goes, the piece goes out into the world next week. It’s playing at Pepperdine University; you know, it’s played, and it opened in Pittsburgh. And, you know, I create the piece, and then it has a life and a career of its own. It goes and it’s, you know, Satan’s Fall is on tour. I’m sitting at home, except I’m coming out to Minneapolis, because your choir in your city is particularly huge, and I don’t want to miss that show. But I can get to sit back there and watch everybody else work and bring this creation to life.
Jill Riley: Yeah, and as a composer, it’s got to be pretty incredible to see it all, to see it all unfold.
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, you know, I don’t have to bang anything.
Jill Riley: Yeah! Unless you choose to while you’re sitting in your seat. But I know that you’re going to be speaking at that event, too. I wonder, you know, do you kind of, do set up the concept and talk about the piece to the audience?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, just sort of explaining, you know, what it’s all about. A little bit of background doesn’t hurt. I think that, I hope there are surtitles where you can see the words as they go by, but even even not so, I mean, people are big fans of opera, including me, when they don’t understand a word; it’s about the music. But if you do understand the words, and you have got the words, it’s an incredible literary masterpiece that is the foundation of all this, but the music is kind of cool.
Jill Riley: I’ve been talking with Police drummer and composer Stewart Copeland. You can check out the VocalEssence website. Very easy to Google. You’ll find information about this performance of Satan’s Fall at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Stewart Copeland, I hope you enjoy your time in Minneapolis.
Stewart Copeland: Oh, looking forward to it!
Jill Riley: Yeah, thank you for checking in with the with The Current.
Stewart Copeland: Well, thank you for listening.
Stewart Copeland – official site
VocalEssence – official site
Guest – Stewart Copeland
Host – Jill Riley
Producer – Luke Taylor
Technical Director – Evan Clark