Stewart Copeland is a name which most of us would relate to the legendary band The Police. However his role of a drummer in one of the biggest rock bands of music history is just a fraction of his activities. In the past decades he was involved in recording soundtracks, documentaries and also expanding his gear collection as a respected multi-instrumentalist. He is surrounded by all of shopaholic discoveries in his home studio. But don’t worry he can use them all in the spectrum of his projects. On the other hand he went out of his den recently and formed band called Gizmodrome with other top class musician buddies.
Hi Stewart. Thank you for finding time for this interview, which will be for gear oriented magazine Muzikus.
Gear, equipment? Fantastic! Let’s talk about amps!
Sure. You play number of instruments and I saw footages from your home studio, where you have number of unique pieces. So, please tell us which amps you own.
My whole life I wanted Marshall Stack. Finally, I found it on eBay. I found 1974 tweed 51 Marshall head and 1978 matching tweed cabinet. It was tough to find and that thing is LOUD, god damn! I remember back in the day we use to have 200 watt Marshall stacks. I can even imagine how loud that must have been.
Spending a lot of time browsing eBay lately?
Well, I look for instruments all over the place. When I am looking for something specific I go to eBay. There are other sites as well where I go to.
Have your been recommended some amplifiers from your co-players, let say Andrew Belew from Gizmodrome?
Well, he doesn’t use an amplifier in Gizmodrome. He goes straight into the sound system with his massive pile of gear. An amplifier, as a box with four speakers, is not part of the equation.
I saw him few times live and we can agree, he is still very experimental, not only within guitars.
Yes, yes! With Gizmodrome, we will have terrifying alley of Marshall Stack and he is plugging in baby. But he will not be the only one to plug into that big wall of Marshalls, because I will plug into that thing as well.
Give us some idea about songwriting please. How many of the songs did you write together during your wild fun session and how many were from your endless well of unused songs from the past?
What made it so quick and inspired was the fact, we had a lot of songs that Vittorio and I had been working on for about a decade. As we had songs, we could get straight to the playing part. Super groups usually get to the room, look at each other and they say: “Ok, now what?” In our case, we had number of songs and all we had to do was to chew them up and turn them into Gizmodrome.
Super groups usually get to the room, look at each other and they say: “Ok, now what?”
How much space was there for other members to get creative? There were plenty of moments, where I could hear let say Adrian signature wild solos.
I think there were a lot of opportunities and he was looking for them to come up with loud solos. We were also just beginning to expand the singing when we finished the record. I believe with the next record we will spread the singing a lot more. Because we discovered some cool tricks with Adrian and I singing together. We sound like fucked up The Everly Brothers.
Your vocals are quite unique and to be honest I heard some aspects of Nick Cave and even Iggy Pop there…
How about Barry White?
Hm, was not even thinking about that…
Damn, I was gonna suggest Barry White…in my dreams. (Laugh)
Talking about group vocals and especially back-up vocals, have you seen early Rocky movies with Sylvester Stallone?
Yes, about hundreds years ago.
It say them on a TV lately around the same time I came across Gizmodrome album. I remember those street vocal groups standing next to a burning trash can…
Oh yeah, I remember those! However, as we say in Gizmodrome: “There are no backing vocals. There are only verse and chorus vocals.” (Laugh)
I was also wondering what let you to dive into prog rock lately? I heard somewhere you were really into the latest work of Deep Purple…
Yes, I was always a huge fan. Well, not only a fan but I was also roadie for bands which supported Deep Purple. So I saw them a lot. But my prog roots are absolutely secure. I was a member of Curved Air, who were one of the definitive prog rock groups. So my credentials as a prog musician are pristine. I might fucked it all with a punk thing, but we don’t need to talk about that anymore, do we? (Laugh)
Well, with all the respect, I feel elements of Klark Kent in Gizmodrome.
Yeah, it’s Klark Kent with actual musicians. (Laugh)
Did I understand correctly partial credit for forming this band goes to Foo Fighters boys?
One song was a request from Taylor Hawkins to give him a drum solo. He was collecting drum solos for his solo record. I missed the part where we wanted just four bars. So I built up this four or five minutes track where I used every drum I had my room. Dong drum, timpani, octobans, spin gong, you name it. Well, he used four bars and Gizmodrome used the rest.
Last year, during an interview for Artist Series, Stewart mentions an experience with Foo Fighters members, which helped Gizmodrome formation and gave him a desire to stand in front of people: „I got a call from Dave Grohl who is a big fan of my early days project Klark Kent. He invited me to play a show at a school where our kids are going. Our line-up was quite interesting and especially for bands as Foo Fighters, Primus, Tool or Rage Against The Machine there were all sixteen when I was in my glory days. So they treat me nice and they look at me as I was Paul McCartney. (Laugh) Dave placed me in the front and even asked me to sing as Klark Kent includes vocals. I was maybe little bit nervous but I followed a philosophy that I teach my kids: “I can do that!”. I felt great and I wished to experience something like that more often. Taylor Hawkins was sweating one t-shirt after another while I had a great time in the front”.
I heard his solo album Kota and that’s quite experimental piece, with elements of synth pop too.
There was one track on it, if it’s the right album that has bunch of four bars solos, from all of his chuckle buddies.
Staying in the prog rock world, I remember watching recently an interview with Rush, recorded back in the early eighties where Neil Peart was commenting very nicely about The Police. It’s very interesting you still influence young musicians like Taylor Hawkins but also influenced legendary drummers throughout the history.
I am glad to hear that. Especially as Neil and Rush would be a definitive prog rock group too in the matter of fact. Proud to be prog that’s my new motto.
Czech version of this interview came out in April 2017 issue of magazine Muzikus
How do you consider Gizmodrome in that sense?
I think it’s prog without the indulgence. Prog records tend to be very long and I believe you cannot accuse Gizmodrome of being indulgent. We go for it but we keep it concise. The songs are under four minutes.
Positives in tough reality
As a well-known musician with such a long career, are there any charity activities, you are involved with?
Well, I have been involved with charities, but I am not very good at it. I go to the meetings, have great ideas, there is a concert and these sort of things. But it’s not really my thing. However if things arise, like Haiti or Porto Rico, I do stuff. But I am not an organizer or something like that. Btw there was one thing which positively surprised me: Syrian football team! I like positive things. Especially when Syria, which went through so many bad stuff, there is a national team almost qualified to the world cup. They just had to beat Australia. You know, a squad of Syrian guys on the field having a good day. That’s worth of celebrating.
This was also a great opportunity for some of them to been seen by agents and possibly get a contract from some foreign club.
Country with so much to feel bad about having one little piece of sunshine is a good thing. Even though its government sponsored team and all of that political bullshit.
Well, I was asking about a charity, as I would like to share with you that I am organizing music presentation sessions for blind and visually handicapped in Prague, for the past couple of months. I would love to include a Gizmodrome track in a future. Which one would you personally pick?
Thank you. But why exactly this piece?
It tells a story of what is going around the world now. Under covers where you can sense it with sensibilities other than your sight. What you see is what you get.
I would now love to go back to the period of The Rhythmatist album, when you travelled hell of a lot. I was just wondering, as I am personally stuck in an open space and I love to travel, how were your travels through the Africa? Were you traveling in a team or did you love to travel alone as much as you could to be just with your mind?
Rarely alone with my mind. Usually there were two minds alone. JP, the director and myself, we went out ahead in jeeps. That was how we mostly spent our time, bouncing on the roads. Our crew would catch up with us. We would go ahead to find locations and adventures, while the crew was holdup in a hotel cleaning their cameras. When director and I found some spots and things to do, then the crew would show up and we would do stuff. While they would start to clean their cameras again, we would go ahead again. So there was not a lot of time alone with tribes and the deeds of Africa. Although being there with just two of us out there had an impact.
What about today? How are you trying to stay away from people and stress?
I have the other problem. I spent most of my time in a meditative state creating out of a thin brain. Everything comes inside my brain. I don’t go find it underground or grow it in the field. I make it inside my brain, which requires a lot of focus, solitude and retrospection. That’s what I spent most of my time doing. The effort that I have to make goes the other way. I have to occasionally come out of this deep space, walk the streets and be part of the world. Let say, I am composing music for giant orchestra and choir right now. I am all alone here and the door is locked. In the case of the band, the door is opened and you are having a party. It’s an interaction. It is life and basically walking down the street with your fellow musicians. Doing stuff as a football team. On the other hand, when bands go off to a remote place for recording alone, they usually come back with too much indulgence. Therefore we are in the heat of the city.
Could you tell us more about your today’s activity?
I got in to the studio at seven o’clock and until the phones started ringing at nine, I was working on a part for a tenor. He is narrating the Satan’s fall from heaven as told by John Milton in Paradise Lost. He is telling a story of heaven and hell, the great battle between gods and anti-gods. So I got the tune but it has to fit the tenor’s voice where he sounds really good when he gets to that A. Above there, there cannot be much of a talking. In order to keep him narrating, you have to keep him between C and F. That’s where he will be able to articulate words. On the other hand, sometimes you want him to go deep down. But when he goes down below to middle C you also have to think about the orchestra. There are many elements you have to consider. Therefore I start with the words and their rhythm. (Starts to sing rhythmically and adds loud interpretation of a tenor) So, I have the words but I need the tune within those parameters. Luckily on YouTube there are many inspirations and I am just cross referencing. It’s my fifth opera and I getting pretty good in it, but I still need some additional sources. Especially, when the guy gets to that G or B flat, he has to put so much energy into that. So, I check these things carefully and it takes a lot of my daytime. Therefore my mission before lunch is to adjust the tenor part higher or lower, so he can handle the (starts even louder operatic singing).
Gear and touring
Therefore I guess, you can be quite picky regarding microphones. Which ones did you use during Gizmodrome recording sessions?
We used a lot of microphones. Of course there were some pieces from Neumann, AKG and Sennheiser. But my new microphone discovery is a Swedish microphone called Ehrlund with triangular diaphragm. It’s an amazing ambience mic. It cures one of the problems of recording drums for instance. Usually you put two Neumann mics at the end of the room, but you also get that woo-wah sound. You don’t necessarily hear it with your ear but it is part of the character of that compressed ambience sound. It’s not real and this microphone eliminates that so you get the ambience in the room. That’s actually how the drum should sound like.
I guess within the drum kit, you relied on your signature pieces as 22” cymbal Blue Bell Ride from Paiste or your own snare from Tama.
Various cymbals for various occasions. I switch among them quite often. However the “Big Blue” is for playing a stadium. That motherfucker will cut through and let all eighty thousand people get earache from that thing. But as I said I have plenty more. Let me see what I have around. For those readers of yours, who have to play very quietly, let say acoustically with an orchestra and no amplification, will enjoy Paiste cymbals with holes in them. They hit and you have a crash, but the decay is very quick. They are quitter than a splash cymbal but they last longer. If you take an orchestra, where you have sixty guys on a wooden stage, without a single microphone, normal crash and ride cymbals just take too much space.
Talking about concerts, what are the touring plans of Gizmodrome?
Yeah, I cannot wait to hit the road and play drums. However, I will also go down to the front of the stage strap on a guitar and to sing, god damn it!
Proud to be prog! That’s my new motto.
Any plans for Europe?
We will be rehearsing in Italy but doing show at distant places. Before we get to Europe we want to get ready and polished in obscure corners of the world.
We are getting towards the end of our time and I would like to use this opportunity to kindly ask you for a birthday wish for my father, who had birthday yesterday. He is a massive The Police fan. There are only four posters in his work room and there are all from The Police. Therefore, if I can kindly ask you to say “Happy Birthday Vladislav” I would really appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Let me write it down. Ok, let’s go. “Happy Birthday Vladislav, you old bastard. I hope you agree life gets better with every year.”
Thank you very much Stewart! If I can ask you one question, on your father, I remember you said in plenty of interviews, he pushed you a lot to get involved with jazz. Let say my father used to push me to English and German language lessons, which I appreciated years later. Do you believe that even though you hated it, the jazz lessons created a music base, on which you build up even today?
Absolutely. I derived a great deal from my jazz upbringing. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like that music. Jazz has become a refuge of technicians and those without talent. The music that your father turned you onto was pop music and the reason he liked it was because it was popular, mainstream and you can dance to it. There is a reason why The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix are popular. It’s not sophisticated, it’s not elite. The music that my father was trying to educate me in was extremely elite. That’s what he liked about it. But when I discovered Jimi Hendrix and electric guitar, it was connecting with an audience here and now today since I was sixteen. That was turning away from my father’s elite music. In your case, your father turning you onto Led Zeppelin was something which would interest a sixteen year old. This is my theory of the cultural divide that happened between my parents and me. I believe the watershed between saxophone, jazz and big bands compared to guitar, Chuck Berry and The Beatles was the biggest divide I can imagine. It’s an amazing to me, I am on the same side of the watershed with my children now. You and your dad, as well as me and my kids we listen to the same music. You know guitar, bass and drums. UNTIL my seventeen year old, my last child, she started listening to a music with no guitar, bass and drums: Kanye West. All of my friends hate it. (Laugh) I don’t mind it, I respect it, as there was finally a revolution after quarter of a century. I totally respect innovation and reinvention of music. But as soon as I drop the kids off at school, I switch back to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Jazz has become a refuge of technicians and those without talent.
For the final question: As there are also plenty of trumpets in your collection, I was just wondering as a “half-Yugoslavian”, if you also love Balkan music?
I love Balkan music! In the Balkans, you cannot even call yourself a musician unless you started playing at the age of two. I respect great musicianship and those Balkans are…oh man! I scored a film that was set in Romania some time ago. While the team was there, producer went into the nearest store and bought all the records he could find. They were in Cyrillic, so we couldn’t even read the titles! They gave me these boxes with records and told me: “We were surrounded by this music the whole time. Give us something like this!” I checked this stuff out and dived deep into their harmonies. They are simply impossible. It’s not about how it is written. It is about how it is performed. I could go on forever about Balkan music.
Last summer, I went to a Serbian festival called Guča. It’s in a village, in the middle of nowhere and icons as Goran Bregović are coming. However, on the streets there are gipsy crews playing for audience enjoying rakija and grilled meat.
I would really like to see a competition between Mexican Mariachi and Balkan trumpet player!