The Police’s drummer heads to Minneapolis to deliver a message in an oratorio
Stewart Copeland is going choral with VocalEssence and says no more Police reunions.
Stewart Copeland has written scores for movies and TV shows, composed operas and oratorios and music for ballets and video games. He’s directed a rockumentary, authored a memoir and performed with orchestras. This year, he even won a Grammy for best New Age recording.
So, it turns out that Sting wasn’t the only Renaissance man in the Police.
“I remember that term back then,” said Copeland, who was that trio’s drummer. “I once asked Sting why he doesn’t write instrumentals and he said, ‘Because I’m a songwriter.’ That’s enough career for any man. But since I have a crap voice, my musical outlets are more diverse.”
Copeland is coming to the Twin Cities Sunday to give a pre-show talk when VocalEssence performs his oratorio “Satan’s Fall” at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.
“Philip Brunelle is a force of nature,” Copeland said of the choir’s founder/artistic director, a go-getter who has worked with everyone from Aaron Copland to the Rolling Stones. Brunelle attended the premiere of “Satan’s Fall,” inspired by John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” a few years ago in Pittsburgh. He invited Copeland to the Twin Cities.
“It is a piece for a giant choir,” the composer said. “When you have a giant choir singing in that beautiful church setting, you need quite a celestial tale to tell. It’s the tale of Satan and why he fell from grace.”
Known for mixing reggae, rock and global music with the Police, the Rock Hall of Fame drummer, 69, got swept up in large choral sounds hearing “Carmina Burana” as a child.
“The actual name for that stuff — oratorio — didn’t occur until many years later,” he said. “That is a fancy word.”
As a kid, he was always hearing music in his head. “It flows constantly,” he said. In college, he learned the fundamentals of chords and harmonics, “but I had a career in rock ‘n’ roll where none of the music theory — the reading, writing and arithmetic of music — had any bearing at all. I never saw a sheet of music for 10 years.”
But when he was scoring his first film, “Rumble Fish,” in 1983, director Francis Ford Coppola turned to him and said, “We need strings.” So the neophyte rustled up a string section and was amazed how efficiently they worked compared with rock musicians.
At first, he hired orchestrators. Finally, a dozen years ago, he enlisted a USC music professor to teach him scoring.
Copeland composes mostly in his head. Then he goes to his computer, creating the notes with an app called Digital Performer and another app, Sibelius, to do the scoring.
Every instrument but piano
“I’ve got the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy here,” he said from his Los Angeles studio. “I’ve got trombone, tuba, cello. I can bang drums, I can slam on guitars, I can even get a tune out of a tuba.
“The piano is the one instrument that doesn’t come naturally. I can’t play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on the piano even though I use a keyboard every day.”
Copeland is working on another opera, “The Witches Seed,” with British playwright Jonathan Moore, to be staged this summer in Italy. It has some rock elements, including electric guitar and five songs written by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
With all this musical activity, what pays better these days — Police royalties or composing?
“It’s about even, I guess. The Police income is in the background because I’m busy doing new music. My hand-to-mouth existence has me more conscious of the work I’m doing now.”
He squeezes in gigs, like with the supergroup Oysterhead (featuring Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Primus’ Les Claypool), which played in Atlanta last weekend, and his “The Police Deranged for Orchestra” featuring three female vocalists, including former Prince protegee Ashley Tamar Davis. They did three nights with the Nashville Symphony in March and will head to Europe this summer.
Copeland also found time to record with Ricky Kej, an Indian composer and keyboardist. Last month, their “Divine Tides” snared the Grammy for best New Age album.
“That’s a first: rock drummer wins the New Age category. Even drums can love,” he said.
Copeland last won a Grammy — actually two of them — in 1984 with the Police. “That’s a gap, I’m not sure if that’s something to brag about,” he said. “Yeah, let’s brag about it.”
Re-forming the Police
The youngest of four children, Copeland grew up in Beirut and London. His mother was a Scottish archaeologist and his father a cofounder of the CIA.
He went to college in the United States, finishing at the University of California, Berkeley, where he couldn’t get into the music school so he majored in mass communications and public policy.
In ’74, he returned to England, where he drummed for the prog-rock band Curved Air. Three years later, he cofounded the Police, which became one of the world’s biggest bands thanks to such hits as “Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take” and “Message in a Bottle.”
Despite the best efforts of Copeland’s brothers Miles (the Police’s manager) and Ian (their booking agent), the Police turned into a clash of egos, dissolving in 1986.
Sting, Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers reunited in 2007 for a 30th anniversary Police concert tour, which was often rocky, not in a good way.
Now they continue on their separate paths. Last year Sting released his 15th solo album, “The Bridge,” while Summers, an exhibited photographer, offered his 13th solo disc, “Harmonics of the Night,” and eighth book, “Fretted and Moaning,” a collection of short stories about fictional guitarists.
How would Copeland characterize his relationship these days with Sting, with whom he used to bicker like brothers? “Very good. We are not birds of a feather, but we appreciate very deeply what we brought into each other’s lives.”
What’s the likelihood of another Police project or reunion tour? “I’m very optimistic,” he said sarcastically. “I’d give it a 1% chance.”
Copeland still performs Police songs — and not just with orchestras. He’ll appear at the Mall of America with VocalEssence at 2 p.m. Saturday to participate in a giant sing-along to Police tunes.
“I have no idea exactly what that entails, but Philip [Brunelle] has got that in hand,” he said. “I will be singing along, hopefully obscured by the multitude of other people singing along.”
Who: VocalEssence with Stewart Copeland.
When: 4 p.m. Sun.
Where: Central Lutheran Church, 333 S. 12th St., Mpls.
Tickets: $20-$40, vocalessence.org.