10.01.1980 - Musician's Only
As their album 'Zenyatta Mondatta' and single 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', top the charts within hours of release. The Police have consolidated the amazing success story of the past two years. And now fans are anxiously awaiting their unique charity show in a circus tent, at London's Oval Cricket ground, scheduled for next December. The Police have gained the widest ranging audience since Beatles days, from hysterical teenyboppers to serious music students. And they are thoroughly enjoying both success and adulation.
Stewart, their drummer, told Musicians Only at his West London home this week: "We've broken all existing records, attendance-wise and record-wise. In England we're almost too successful now. In America we appeal to an older audience the old sophistos who are really into the group. Every time we play New York, guys like Carlos Santana and Chick Corea turn up to see us. We're considered the hip revolutionaries! But in, England we're too successful to be hip anymore.
Copeland risks sounding cynical and conceited. But his opinions are delivered with a disarming mix of tongue in cheek humour and enthusiasm. He's unnervingly sharp and quick witted. As an American raised in Beirut, he could speak Arabic before he could speak English. His interests range from the mechanics of the pop industry to Middle East politics, from making his own movies to building his own recording studio.
"I'm restless," says Stewart. "I have to be doing something the whole time. The only problem I have in life at the moment is finding the inspiration to write more songs. I guess you need to be hungry to write good songs, and The Police aren't hungry any more!"
It was a bleary eyed Stewart who greeted me at his front door on a sunny midday. "I've just got up - how did you guess?" But numerous cups of coffee and cigarettes revived him and soon the Copeland dynamic drive was shifting into gear, as we talked and roamed around his small terraced house which a previous architect-owner had cunningly enlarged by tinkering with walls and split levels. He'd even dug out a basement, ideal for Stewart's own recording studio, where he spends hours building up tracks featuring himself on drums, bass and keyboards.
Copeland's eyes bore right through you as he delivers his views with rapid, unblinking force. Then he'll pause, to test that this guest is taking it all in and hasn't lapsed into daydreams or lost the thread. He'd make an excellent anchor man on Panorama or News Night and you could imagine him armed with maps putting Complex economic and military situations into perspective.
But he's just as happy to talk about more mundane matters like the way the new Police album was put together, how his drumming style has developed and the personality problems affecting the group - their aren't any.
"No, we don't hate each other yet," says Stewart with a smile. But he revealed that within the ranks of The Police, powerful forces were at work, bringing out the best in each of them, as they ensured that each was pulling his weight. Anybody who slacked off or opted for the easy ride was just as liable to get squashed as any member who pushed his views too hard.
Stewart admitted that getting two number one hit albums in a row posed the problem that if they didn't get another instant smash next time they would be considered to be on the way down. "It isn't a pressure because it's all good news. When it gets to number one, it's a release of pressure. But it sets a precedent and means the next one must get there too. As far as my own self esteem is concerned it doesn't really matter all that much."
Stewart explained that they had a month in the Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum to record the album. "We finished the album at four in the morning, and later the same day we played the first gig of our last tour. Which gives you an idea of how fine we cut it."
Did they record in Holland to get away from interruptions and phone calls, as Genesis producer David Hentschel recently suggested?
"Well that's a wonderful reason. That's the only reason. No... there are lots of good studios in Britain but it doesn't make financial sense to record here. Even working abroad can lead to trouble." Explained Stewart: "When the tape came back into England it was in the boot of the roadies' car, in with a lot of other stuff. The customs saw the big two-inch tape with Police written all over it they said, 'Ah ha, you are trying to import this without declaring it'. And it was just a piece of second-hand tape worth ten quid. But they said it was the new big selling Police album and slapped a value of thirty grand on it. But the fact is, it was just a piece of old tape. The quarter inch tape with the mix-down on it is worth the thirty grand or whatever and that was back in Holland. Anyway they reckoned it was illegal and slapped a huge fine and confiscated the tape. They were welcomed to it because we had finished with it anyway.
"But that's the sort of attitude that makes it impossible to work here, and why all the artists leave town. This is the country that generates all the talent. In my opinion it's the most important country, twenty times over America, as a source of talent. It's one of the things England does best and ought to nurture instead of discouraging legislatively. In Sweden for example, Abba are recognised as a major national industry."
The episode didn't hold up the album and A&M paid the fine. "But it was a way of getting us, and there's no reason why they should want to get us. I suppose it's a story they can tell their mates when they get home. Most of the time we get treated like royalty and the doors open for us, but sometimes you have a lot of fluster and extraneous bullshit. If you don't have a lot of signed albums and photographs to hand over to an official, he takes it personally, whereas he wouldn't give a shit if it was Dexy's Midnight Runners passing through." Stewart allowed himself a mildly malicious grin.
The new album has a remarkably 'clean' and sparse sound, with a beautifully nurtured drum and guitar presence, I observed. "Yeah, it doesn't have any of the heavy metal that I suppose was on the first two albums. But there are plenty of groups providing that already. There's not fuzzy guitar anywhere this time. The World Is Running Down for example started out as a heavy jazz number and then we Policeified it. We always do lots of overdubbing and employ the studio techniques to the fullest and there's a lot of cosmetic surgery on the tapes. We fill up the 24 tracks and more because we bounce down and by the end you could count up to forty or fifty tracks. But we don't use them all. By the mixing stage that's when we lose a few."
It seemed that the drum sound was particularly prominent and Stewart had no shame about this. "Well that's my usual contribution. You could set up a recording of me in the studio shouting 'More snare drum'. No I don't think the vocals are too far back. You can hear them okay. They are an important ingredient, I suppose. But a lot of bands forget that the drums are supposed to be loud. It's not just that the drummer gets some attention - the beat is really important. It doesn't have to be loud so much as there. Think of Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles. The drums were always positive and loud on their records."
I noticed that on some tracks Stewart stopped playing snare drums and just held the beat on bass drum and cymbals for a few bars. "I do that quite a bit because the back beat, which all drummers are brought up on, is important, unless you can provide another pulse which is understandable. It's easy to do. There are other things that will provide a pulse, a rhythmic hook to hang everything else on. The back beat has always done it in rock and roll up to now, but the watershed in drumming, which West Indian music has brought about means it's no longer so important. Alternatives have been discovered, such as bass drum four in the bar. Boom, boom, boom, boom. And instead of a back beat on two and four, a rimshot on three."
Stewart revealed that in the studio when putting down backing tracks he used a drum box but this was never used on the final product. "Sometimes Sting and Andy will put down some chords with a drum box playing. But we don't keep it in because it always sounds like a drum box. I'd rather duplicate it myself. Another of our favourite techniques, like on 'Message In A Bottle', is to record the song four or five times in a row without any kind of form. Just verse, chorus, middle eight - playing the different segments of the song in random order for twenty minutes and kind of build up a momentum. That way you don't think 'This is the take.' You can try a few things and when you've got twenty minutes down, get out the scissors and chop it all down. It's cheating, but then we're making records. On stage we can't do that and that's when we have to show we can actually play. And the general opinion is we are much better on stage than in the studio. So I suppose that means we can actually play the instruments."
One curious aspect of the 'Zenyatta' material was the number of fade-outs employed at the end of virtually every number. Stewart was refreshingly frank about this. Most musicians tend to get defensively hostile or outraged if you even hint at some flaw or imperfection in their genius.
"We often record ten tracks and find that there isn't a single number with en ending. We all scratch our heads and try and think of some endings. So somebody makes a cup of tea, we change the subject and never get around to it. A fade is a good way out because the tune never finishes in your head. I don't mind fades. It's a kind of cop out I s'pose. But it's not serious. I think we can be forgiven for that. Some of the tunes you'll notice, like 'Canary In A Coal Mine' and 'World Is Running Down' run straight all the way through, without any fluctuation in the beat. The drum pattern could have been a tape loop."
Stewart says he can get off on playing a 4/4 beat for hours and does a lot of it on the road. It's something that requires more practice than rolling round the kit. That's just icing on the cake. You have tokeep the beat and keep your ear s tuned. You have to lock in to a beat, dum-cha, dum-dum-cha," says Stewart began to vocalise a ferociously solid beat. The boy undoubtedly has rhythm. "I can play that for hours," he said, recovering. "But speeding up and slowing down are weaknesses of mine." I was surprised at this revelation from a drum master.
"I suppose most drummers suffer from it, but I worry less about it. A lot of our tracks speed up and slow down, which makes the later editing stage more difficult. I usually speed up. Well it's organic innit," he said slipping in to his West London accent. The echo gadgets I use on stage have done a lot towards improving my consistency of tempo. But if I get excited, I tend to speed up."
Stewart denied that he used any overdubbing on his tricky closed hi-hat patterns on his album, although he had in the past, causing problems for those drummers who have tried to copy Police arrangements. "I heard an album in a series called something like Top of The Pops where they hired session musicians to play all the current hits. I don't know how they made it cheaper that way but they only have to pay session fees and publishing royalties. Their 'Message In A Bottle' is really a killer because all of the drum fills are totally random, and there is this drummer who has learned them all studiously and they're all present and correct. The poor guy, it must have been hard for him to work out the meaning of all those noises, crashes and bangs. 'Cos I do a few percussion overdubs on our records. If there isn't enough bang when a verse goes into the chorus, I'll overdub cymbal and bass drum and go "kerrrash," at the beginning of the chorus."
Stewart uses syndrums, two digital echo machines, claptraps, and as he says, "almost as many knobs and gadgets and flashing lights as Andy. I don't use the syndrums in the normal way. I use it on the bass drum, tuned so it goes 'bow'. A kind of electronic enhancement of the bass drum sound. Also in long jams, I've been known to make sci-fi noises with it. Through the echo it sounds pretty neat. I've now got repeat hold; which I used on the last tour and means the drums literally go into auto-pilot. I can jump off the kit and run around the stage holding the claptrap to get synthetic clapping, while the drums are automatically pounding through the PA. It's a great pose. And it's dynamite to be able to run around halfway through the set and stretch my legs and see what the audience looks like from close up. I've been on stage four years now and never been closer than five feet. I can shake a few hands and kiss a few babies.
How were The Police standing up to the work load, which included their remarkable world tour to Egypt and India, and the success rate? "Pretty well. We moan about being away from home so much but that's part of being any band. At least we can afford telephone calls home. But we're bearing up pretty well. Morale is high and we're not hating each other yet. We've got the Oval concert coming up soon. It was suggested when we were at Milton Keynes by Harold Pendleton. We had already wanted to do a show in a tent even though it's going to be in December. So we'll do a show at the Oval in a great big heated tent."
Why a tent for God's sake?
"Because other venues in London are just not ...adequate. I've never really enjoyed a concert at Wembley. Even when Stevie Wonder played there. But you can get a really good sound in a tent. We did some in France. The first gig Sting and I ever did with Andy was in a tent, in a band called Strontium 90 - another one of our scams. That was in the early days when we perniciously sold our musical talents in return for transportation to France. Strontium 90 was really a Gong reunion. They had all the different line ups of Gong, and the spin-off groups which included us, patched together for the show. While we were there with our equipment we did five or six Police gigs as well and then used the plane tickets they'd given us to get home. That's the story of The Police all the way down the line. It seems like a long time ago now but it actually isn't."
One problem The Police have learned to surmount is bad reviews and hostile criticism from the jealous and professional hatchet-persons. "We used to want to kill if we got a bad review but now we've got over that. It's all entertainment. I may hate what somebody says about me in the newspapers but it's all part of entertainment. The press is like a mirror and you don't always like what you see." Stewart disappeared towards the kitchen to make more coffee and we continued our conversation at a shout. Did 'Zenyatta Mondatta' mean anything? I bellowed.
"It means everything," he yelled back. "It's the same explanation that applies to the last two. It doesn't have a specific meaning like 'Police Brutality' or 'Police Arrest', or anything predictable like that. Being vague it says a lot more. You can interpret it in a lot of different ways. It's not an attempt to be mysterious, just syllables that sound good together, like the sound of a melody that has no words at all has a meaning."
I suggested that Jomo Kenyatta might be good for their next project, and Stewart listed some of the rejected titles they had come up with. "Miles (Stewart's brother and group manager) came up with "Trimondo Blondomina". Very subtle. Geddit? Like three blondes and the world. Then somebody thought of "Caprido Von Renislam". That rolls off the tongue. It was the address of the studio. That lasted until next morning."
We descended into the basement to inspect Stewart's music room and recording studio. Tucked in the bay under the upstairs window was a small drum kit which he showed no inclination to play at such an unmusicianly hour of the day. His regular kit is a Tama outfit, which make he has been playing for several years. "Tama are really innovative as far as design goes, and expanding the whole instrument using synth drums and oddly shaped drums. They're still exploring the technology of drums whereas the other companies' drums are designed by retired jazz drummers who just didn't understand that today's drum set gets a lot more wear and tear. Tama are up to date and they sound better. I have really thick wood shells on my drums and some of them are 9-ply. I've got three of their kits. The first one they gave me way back in Curved Air days and the second one I bought because I needed a kit in America and it was cheaper to leave one there. The third one they gave me back in England. But if they were to cut me off, I'd still go out and buy a Tama set."
Stewart has his drums very tightly tuned and despairs of the tendency of most rock drummers to tune their toms very low. "You can't hear them, they just don't cut through. So I have mine tuned very tight and without the PA they sound like tin cans. But with the PA you can fake a lot of roll on bass and get a very fast response while they still sound heavy. That's what I like about Tama. They have a heavy sound on very small drums. I use three tom toms on the front and one on the floor. That's plenty. Some guys use eight, but there just isn't any difference. And I'm much too busy for any stuff like rolling round eight tom toms! You can get that effect just the same on four drums. Sandy Nelson used to do that all the time. Ginger Baker only had four and he was Mr Tom Tom. My snare drum I keep rock hard too. It's really easy for my roadie to tune my drums. He just tightens everything until his knuckles turn white. My roadie is Jeff Seitz and he's a really good drummer himself. All our roadies are good musicians and you get to a soundcheck and find them playing 'Message In A Bottle'."
Stewart explained the working relationship between him, Andy and Sting. "We don't have to shout at each other but you have to have a good record of being right. If you are wrong then you've wasted everybody's time and you feel like a twit, and the other two definitely rub it in. So there's a lot of pressure to be right. On the other hand if any of us sits back and doesn't put in ideas, whether wrong or right, then they start getting hassled as being baggage. We definitely ride on each other, all the time.
"I'll turn up with songs, but Sting turns up with many more songs. On the last album I had three songs and Sting had ten. But for a start, I have trouble with words, because I'm not singing them myself, and I have a hard time putting myself into his shoes and trying to write a song which would mean something to him. I'm automatically in a false situation, unless I try and sing it myself and I personally don't like my own voice. I don't like the noise my larynx makes and I'm embarrassed. So I can't write songs for myself to sing. Besides, why should I sing when there's Sting around? But I participate on Sting's material."
Stewart has a 28 channel Allen & Heath Syncom desk and when he first set up his home studio he got hold of a load of second hand tape which included some stuff by Siouxsie & The Banshees. Bombs Away was written on a Siouxsie & The Banshees backing track. I changed the speed and did things to the EQ to change the drum pattern. So with the desk I can get my song playing, then press a switch and there's Siouxsie singing away."
But these are just fun and games for Stewart in between the hard work of keeping Police out on the beat. "Younger and younger kids are coming to the gigs, but I don't think we're losing any of our older audience. It's funny, in America, the local versions of Julie Burchill hate the Cars, because they reckon that's where the Police should be at, whereas in England we're the ones too popular. There isn't any competition. A year ago it was us against Blondie and Elvis Costello. We were in the top thirty bands, along with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Now, as far as Europe is concerned, there isn't anybody between us and the Beatles. We've broken all existing records as far back as the Beatles, at this point, in terms of speed of record sales, the kind of hysteria... There hasn't been such a clear lead for one group, ahead of all the rest. The last group who had a clear lead were Queen, but we're bigger now than Queen were then. We're probably bigger than Led Zeppelin too, because they never had any teen appeal or hysteria. I suppose the Bay City Rollers had hysteria, but they didn't have any music. The fact that we combine those two things, means we have pushed back as far as the Beatles. We'll never surpass them of course. They beat us to it!"
Stewart despairs of America in terms of bringing out new bands. "We're still the hot new band there, and it's three years since we first toured the States. Since then there has been the 2-Tone thing. But we're still their top new band."
He must be satisfied with life and feeling fulfilled. "In some respects. But success leads to dissatisfactions of a different kind. Sometimes the ideas don't come, and artistically, I'm suffering from a lack of hardship! Here I am in a beautiful house with a car and I can do whatever I want, but I can't because what I want is to write tunes, and that doesn't get any easier."