There’s very little Stewart Copeland can’t do. At 68 years young, the veteran artist has amassed a resume that reads less like a musician and more like a renaissance man. He’s written scores for video games and films. He’s made films himself — and even acted in them. He’s written pieces for operas and ballets. And, yes, he founded The Police, proving to the world in less than a decade that he’s one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Lately, Copeland has been bringing his talents to the mic — no, not to sing, but to tell stories. He’s created a new series for Audible called My Dad the Spy, which dials back the clock to the 1940s to trace his father’s involvement in the CIA. With help from his brother and sister, Copeland cracks open the once-locked filing cabinet on his father’s secret past. What he stumbles upon is a wild world of international politics and espionage.
“It makes me smile, and I know it would have made him smile,” Copeland tells me one October afternoon. “In making this podcast, we — my brother and sister and I — kind of remembered what we could remember. And then with backing and resources from Audible, we sought out and found historians who could either disprove or prove or eliminate or fill in the gaps of what we discerned as kids. But, generally, the stories were true.”
So are the stories Copeland told Consequence of Sound as part of its latest 10 Years and 10 Questions series. Below, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer revisits his entire career — or rather, chips away at the mountain of work he’s built for himself. He revisits his youth in the Middle East, his reasons for creating Klark Kent, the expectations set upon The Police, that infamous exchange with U2, Sting’s wedding, Oysterhead, and so much more.
What are some of your most vivid memories of growing up in the Middle East?
Well, playing in my first band at age 12 at the American Embassy Beach Club in Beirut, Lebanon, I suppose, was the starting place. I was playing with The Vultures, playing James Brown, Kinks, Stones, and Animals. And I suppose, even though that was guitar, bass, and drums, American style, I was surrounded by Arabic music all day, every day. And the two types merge together. The two different musical cultures that is. It was my secret sauce, if you like, that I had that rhythmic sensibility that was just a) different from everybody else and b) very useful for figuring out reggae and playing it convincingly.
You once said that you take a lot of inspiration in your melodies from South America and the West Indies. What other areas of the world have proven influential to you?
It’s hard to talk about influence, because that’s very subtle, but others that I’ve been tied to are Bali, India, two regions that are very separate from each other, but each of which has a very rich, intricate, and subtle musical vocabulary, a lot of which doesn’t apply to Western music. Because their scales have notes that don’t exist on our scales and total relationships that are just not a part of our musical vocabulary. So, you can’t hear it in my music, necessarily. But it’s there. It’s informed. It’s inspired by it.
One amazing thing that I can tell a young musician is that it [the desire to make music] never quits. It is still as firing, intriguing, maddening, and uplifting as it ever was. You know, every day — and here I am at sixty-something years old — I walk across the garden to my studio, and I can’t wait to get started on making more music. It just doesn’t run out.
Looking back, would you say Klark Kent was a way to keep writing in the wake of Sting? Did you see it as an outlet for any frustrations?
Well, that’s putting a fancy shine on it. Some songs were really, really cool. And then he pulled out “Message in a Bottle”. By the way, the main thing was that you can’t imagine Sting singing those dumb, puerile teenage lyrics. Could you? It just wouldn’t be right. And so he wrote important songs, and I wrote fun stuff. And actually, when I did record those songs, Stingo was really supportive. He was my biggest fan. He was really encouraging, and, you know, rare praise from old Stingo.
Given his persona and everything, he wouldn’t have been, you know, comfortable singing those songs. So, I made them. You know, this is what musicians do. You’ve got to do the stuff that comes into your head. And it sort of made it easier in The Police to just say, “Okay, you do The Police songs, and I’ve got my Klark Kent thing.” And so we could all play nicely … for about 10 minutes.
Recently, I unearthed all the magnetic tapes, which I’ve been digitizing. I’m hearing my 4-track Teac recordings. I was considering releasing … it was Klark Kent on the Kryptone label in green vinyl. This would be Klerk Kant on the Craptone Label in brown vinyl, which is the demos of all those. And, by the way, on those same tapes are songs that did end up on Police albums. If the riff was cool, Sting would rewrite the lyrics. And if the lyric wasn’t idiotic, he’d sing it.
Your first world tour visited a number of remote destinations: Mexico, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Greece, and Egypt. What do you remember most about this run?
Well, I had a Super 8 camera stuck to my eye most of the time. And decades later, they invented computers. I could digitize all that Super 8 footage. Back in the day, I couldn’t even look at it without scratching it, let alone edit the stuff. So, soon after inventing computers, they invented cheap memory. So, I could Telecine my 52 hours of footage. So, my memories of the world tour are pretty much through the lens of a camera. And then I spent some time cutting those clips into a movie, which I made and released called Everyone Stares. So, pretty much my memory of everything that I didn’t shoot and edit and become familiar with is kind of in a different memory box from the stuff that I can remember that I shot on film.
But the main thing I remember was a pervading anxiety. The traveling part, the working part, the overwhelming part — that was all just in a day’s work. When you’re young, you just do that stuff every day. There’s not enough stuff to do in a day. And what’s the consequence? You know? But the anxiety part had nothing to do with that. It was just this weird kind of social vertigo. The stakes are higher. Anyone else can walk into the room. When you’re in that position, you’ve got to walk into the room and be 10 feet tall. Sustaining that mojo takes calories.
It’s the 40th anniversary of Zenyatta Mondatta this month — most of The Police’s albums, with the exception of Synchronicity, were released in or around October. Was that a happy accident, or do you really love the spooky season?
Hilversum, Holland, recording Zenyatta Mondatta, which is our third album. Our first album, we had all these songs, so we recorded them slam bam, thank you, ma’am. The second album, there’s the old adage that you have your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second album. And we benefited from that because with less material but lots of mojo, we were so full and confident. Having just carved our way across America with our first record, we were jamming every night, and we were just really in the pocket. So, we went into the studio, and Sting had some really big hits. That’s all we needed. The rest of the stuff we just made the shit up in the studio and had a blast. Okay, that’s another hit album.
Okay, now for the third album, boys. You’re doing well. Now, if you want to go to the top tier, if you want to keep this rocket ship going up, or start seeing the other side of this parabola, we need a really big album and really big hits. And so going to record the third album, that was in our minds more than it ever had been before, and we literally had record company executives in the studio with us chewing their fingernails staring at the floor and listening, ears perked for the hit. And that was kind of a buzzkill. And that was sort of when the anxiety and the vertigo began.
The October thing never crossed my mind until … Like everybody, I run four or five social media platforms, your Facebook, your Instagram, and whatever. Someone organizes the material, and then I look at it all. They set up a week, and then I put some funny captions or a comment on things to personalize it, and then I forget about it. I thought there must be some mistake: we got three albums celebrating their birthday this week? It turns out, yes, three albums did have their birthday this week. So, go figure. I didn’t notice that before. And the next album, Ghost in the Machine, turns out is a birthday present to Sting [laughs].
Read ahead to hear about his work with Francis Ford Coppola and passing the torch to U2…
Your first film score was for Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. How close did you work with the director?
It all came from Uncle Francis, who is such a generous man, not only in his social interactions but with the art. He spots a talent he believes in and then gives you free reign. And to start the journey into film music with such a man was just one of the great blessings of life. He encouraged innovation. He, you know, he didn’t want to hear the same old, same old. That’s why he called me and just gave me plenty of rope to hang myself with. And he was very encouraging of the result.
I didn’t know how to score a film. I had no idea, but I worked very closely with him on the mission, which was Steven’s scene. Here, we need to feel the fact that he’s going into a fight. I need to feel that even though he’s here with his girlfriend, his mind is elsewhere. She loves him. He’s trying to keep her sweet, but he’s on his way to the big fight and the tension is building, and I need to feel that in the scene. Okay, I don’t know how [to do that]. But I need some kind of tension and danger. And I just kind of made it up and came up with something that kind of worked. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it, but that’s sort of why he hired me. And so his creative generosity is what really set me off on the good foot.
In John-Pierre Dutilleux’s The Rhythmatist documentary, you played drums in a cage surrounded by lions. I imagine this was one of many wild moments during this time. Did you see this as a spiritual retreat for yourself?
I don’t know about spiritual. Adventurous and adventure-rich, I guess. It was all completely crazy every day, but we had about two weeks of shooting that we stretched out over two months. Because my buddy the director, the intrepid Belgian Indiana Jones, the real deal J.P. Dutilleux … he stretched it out, and he wouldn’t just go check into the hotel. He would find in the other ends of the village the cheapest place out there, and he’d chisel the guy down to like three, you know, whatever it is.
So, we set our budget and crossed the equator on our hands and knees pretty much and had one heck of an adventure. The lion booth was one. The night we spent in jail in Zaire. That was an adventure. There were all kinds of things. The two or three days I spent chasing giraffes on horseback. That was an adventure for which I think we got 26 seconds of film with Serengeti, giraffes, and me in the same shot. Getting arrested in Kinshasa was weird, though, unsettling being handcuffed…
Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope. You leave the stage for U2. At the time, did you see this as a passing of the torch as Bono stated?
Oh, we all made a big passing-of-the-torch moment out if it because that gives it a bit of drama. It’s showbiz, after all, and the joke among the bands was that Andy [Summers] was under a lot of pressure to hand over his guitar to Edge out of tune. Needless to say, he was too much of a gentleman for any such dastardly deed. And it was great. To this day, I’m still very, very tight with the U2 guys, good buddies. We had actually met them many, many years previously in Ireland, at the Leixlip Festival, where they were some local band way down the bill. But you could tell backstage that they had a vibe. They were going someplace, those guys.
So, when we did the Amnesty thing, I guess that was what felt appropriate. It was a funny moment, though, because I handed over my drumsticks to Larry [Mullen Jr.], and I went up to the front of the stage, and there’s three blonde heads on the mic, singing some song to which I do not know the words. And then I feel a nudge on my shoulder. I look over, and it’s Elton John. Oh, okay. And then I feel another nudge. Oh, it’s Mick Jagger. So, I guessed I had to make some room for actual singers, so I kind of weeble off the stage somehow.
And I get around to the side of the stage and look back, and the drum set now has five drummers on it; everybody was hitting a cymbal or something. There’s a keyboard over there, and there’s like five guys on the keyboard; everybody gets half an octave. Ten guitars plugged into, god, I didn’t even know there were that many jack sockets on stage. At the front of the stage was a row of the top celebrities of the time all singing their hearts out. But from behind, I was looking at the backs of all the heads, and there’s some record company executive and his wife getting a selfie. And I think, Wow, that is a cool shot. You know? Yeah, that guy got a memory there.
You broke your collarbone while working on a sixth album — do you ever look back on that and wonder what if? Was there ever a point you felt like a sixth studio album was realistic?
No, there was never going to be a sixth studio album. Looking back on it, I’m grateful that we got five albums. Because beginning with Zenyatta … Sting writes great music. He’s a master musician on every count, on every side of music: with his fingers, his dexterity, his ear, his composition, his lyrics … a complete deal. Playing in The Police, we were all very opinionated and very earnest about expressing ourselves in this band, which meant that for him, he had to have his songs go through the mill of judgments and change and compromise and dealing with some other intrusions on his already perfect idea. There were many songs that he wrote for The Police where his demo was absolutely something, a guaranteed smash or whatever. The guy knew what he was doing, and less and less did he feel like putting up with other opinions being imposed upon his work. But he stuck it out for three more albums, for which I’m grateful.
How did the improvised set at Sting’s wedding go down?
Ah, it wasn’t improvised. We played “Roxanne” and some other Police song. And it was awkward. It was kind of expected of us, but it was awkward. I was glad when that moment was over, so we could go back to having a great time at what was a particularly wild party. Sting and Trudie [Styler] did throw the best parties.
Keep going to hear stories about Oysterhead, the Police reunion, and his father the spy…
How close were you with Trey Anatasio and Les Claypool prior to them asking you to form Oysterhead?
Les called up one day out of the blue and asked if I could please produce a track on his record. So, we cut a track with Primus and bonded. Shortly after, he said, “Hey, look. There’s this festival in New Orleans, where there’s a jam band phenomenon … you go and you jam. And I got this guitarist. He’s really great. He’s huge in this world.” And so I flew out to Vermont, where I met this funny, little guy with red hair and a beard, who played one heck of a fucking guitar. Shit, are you kidding me? And we were in the barn there and just played it and played and played it. And the fun part was that when I asked about material, they said, “Ah, we don’t need material. That’s the whole point. We just make it up.” And I’m a pop guy. We have songs, chorus-verse-bridge structure — that’s kinda how it works.
But we played that show, and there were times when we were dead in the water, where the band hit rock bottom, and we’re looking at anybody for anything, and I am absolutely mortified because it breaks every show-business rule that I grew up with. And I looked at the front rows, and they were enthralled. That’s what this is, what they came for. This proves that it’s not some preconceived, rehearsed moment. It’s a real thing. So, we’re dead in the water in this instance, and they’re all excited to see what we make up to get out of it. And then Les comes up with something on the bass, and I’m immediately on it, and then Trey… wow. And we’re off again. And the lift in the room — the Oysterhead lift — is really something to behold. It achieves the same thing as a pop band when we get to the chorus and we’re waiting for that hook line. It’s that same rush from the unexpected that you get from the expected. Go figure. So, Oysterhead is kind of the opposite. And, man, my heart swells with love for the Oysterhead audience because they’re just the most fun people to play for.
The cool thing about it is that even now it’s ours. We go out there, and the Oysterhead audience isn’t expecting to hear the hits. They’re expecting us to do whatever the fuck we want on that day, which is a very, very different mental place to go on stage with that kind of trusting bond rather than rigid expectations.
Do you prefer playing prepared material or jamming with Oysterhead?
I like them both for different reasons. Because when you have a structure, and you can pace yourself, that’s cool, too. And when you come around and head to that chorus, you just know it’s going to hit, and bang, you unleash that missile, and it rocks the joint and feels good. But the advantage of the Oysterhead version is the freedom. The Police is a huge corporation. And it’s not about even Stingo. We all three have to subsume ourselves for the better good of all mankind. Okay, all Police kind, whereas with Oysterhead, it’s just let’s play now.
Are you still planning to perform post-COVID?
Everything’s rolling over. All of our Phish, Primus, orchestral work, and Oysterhead are all just rolling over into 2021. Oysterhead could be 2022, because Trey and Les will probably be busy with their bands. Phish are gonna want to go out. Primus also. So, Oysterhead finds these little moments. But we did play that one show in Denver, which rekindled the fire. We just had so much fun doing that … and obviously the audience. We got a really big buzz from the audience. You know, a lot of times, and I don’t know if audiences are aware, but there are many instances where the audience saves the band. You may be at each other’s throats, but then you go out and you feel this love for the corporate personality that is a band. Then, you think, “Okay, maybe he’s not such an asshole after all.”
The Police reunite. Did it go as you had planned or did you wish you could do more?
It was very different from what I expected. Better in many ways. Not better in the sense that I was just describing, where it didn’t feel like our thing anymore. But better in what I also described, which is the feeling from the audience was so powerful, so overwhelming that it made us put aside our tiny selves and enjoy the rush of 80,000 people.
When we played London’s Hyde Park, towards the end of it all, that was just magic. Because that was our town. We’re a London band even though I’m American. We’re London fans. We arose from the city, and I could look over from a drum riser, and I could see that’s the street corner where I got kicked out of the pub, and over there is where we rehearsed.
It felt very much like a homecoming, and we just rocked it. Another great one was the Hollywood Bowl here in LA towards the end. By the end of the two-year tour, we were getting along pretty well. We’ve figured out our slot and how much we’ve given up or need to give up, and we’re happy with the price we’re paying to just enjoy the ride, knowing that it is finite.
There was a period there when there was a lot of pressure. That “C’mon, guys. Do an album, do an album.” And I could just see Sting wilting, just thinking, “Oh, my god,” and you knew he was just not firing to write a Police album. If he’s gonna write some songs, why put up with the fucking negotiations? I could see that. So, finally, I went to him and said, “Dude, there’s no album. Relax.” And it’s cool. I told him, “I know, there’s this fucking racket coming over your left shoulder. It’s not the end of the world.”
So, we started counting down the days. And even though it seems to be a celebration of the diminishing time we would have to spend in that state, it actually got more and more cheerful. And by the time we played our last Madison Square Garden show, we were having a heck of a time.
It’s only natural that you would eventually land in podcasts given all of your stories. How did you settle on My Dad the Spy? And are you a fan of podcasts and true crime?
Well, I like the spoken word, even though I don’t listen to it. I like the idea of storytelling and that medium. I’m very interested in what Audible has achieved in carving out a world of entertainment of education, literature. So, it’s all of those things yet none of those things, which is very intriguing. At the same time, I have this story, you know, the pop star people point microphones at: “Who are you? Where do you come from?” Okay, the first part, I don’t know. The second part, I say the CIA in Beirut. So, that’s always been there. It’s kind of a story totally irrelevant to being a rock star. And just kind of sitting there.
But I’ve been interested in it because it’s always such a conversation-stopper and also a curiosity about this exotic fellow who was my father. How many of those stories were true? And the reason I even asked that question was I didn’t think they were true … until in the last decade or so, I started to see these books about the history of the period, and they mentioned my father very prominently, doing all this stuff historically researched. But I had just assumed it was a dinner tale to amuse the children. But they turned out to be true, even the wildest ones.
It makes me smile, and I know it would have made him smile. Because when it gets read or when discussing Miles Copeland [does stuffy voice]: “Miles Copeland presents the eminent historian with somewhat of a conundrum…” which would have made my father howl. [Continues in stuffy voice] “One never knows what to believe in Mr. Copeland’s rather colorful stories.” And then the eminent historian goes on to establish that the stories are, indeed, true. So, in making this podcast, we — my brother and sister and I — kind of remembered what we could remember. And then with backing and resources from Audible, we sought out and found historians who could either disprove or prove or eliminate or fill in the gaps of what we discerned as kids. But, generally, the stories were true.
In the story of the Damascus raid on our house, where they staged a raid on an American diplomat’s house, our house, so that they could call for all the armies to take over the palace and the radio station. Great dinnertime story complete with a funny punchline: “I’ve got a hang up now. They’re shooting at me personally.” Okay, it turns out that happened.
And then there was the million dollars in a suitcase that my father had in Cairo to bribe Gamal Nasser, the recently installed president of Egypt. Nasser and my father were actually pretty close, and he believed Nasser was good for Egypt and America, too. Meanwhile, Castro and Tito and all these despots are wondering why all their plans are going nowhere, and it was basically because we had a CIA agent among them who was president of Egypt.
So, to maintain this relationship, somebody in the State Department got the idea of putting a million dollars cash into a suitcase and giving it to my father to give to his good buddy Gamal. So, my father crosses Cairo in the car with the million dollars. Ultimately, Nasser spent the money on building a tower, which is called the Penis of Nasir. It’s kind of a middle finger to the United States. So, he spent the money on building this phallic symbol. Google it and you’ll see at statue in the shape of my father’s penis.
At the moment, I’m very gratified that Audible, with all the illustrious lineup of talent that it has, has chosen this piece to support for a nomination for a spoken word Grammy. And I’m gratified and humbled by this considering all the other stuff, but I guess maybe some of their enthusiasm comes from it actually charting in England. I was up there in the top five for a minute along with Michelle Obama.
What else have you been working on during this strange year?
Well, I’ve written two operas, concerto. I was just finishing one when the lockdown happened, which was for the Deutsches Nationaltheater in, Weimar, Germany — very, very fancy, the national opera of Germany — about Nikola Tesla. And I was just finishing that up and then started on another opera for an Italian company, which hasn’t been announced yet. The Tesla piece was supposed to go out this year. That is now going to open next year.
Next summer, I’m gonna have two operas, back-to-back world premieres in Europe. That’ll be a blast. I’m also arranging this concerto that I’ll now do next year on tour, which is Police arranged for orchestra, where I took these arrangements I did for my movie of Police tracks, and I’ve orchestrated them for a big band orchestra. So, my two buddies, you know, Sting and Andy are pretty much irreplaceable. The closest I can get are three women soul singers and 60 hearts.