Brain Meets Stewart Copeland

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We weren’t alone. Many have wondered what the heck happened to Stewart Copeland – the legendary drummer who, with the Police, introduced what once sounded like highly exotic reggae and ska rhythms into new wave-y pop, and foresaw the emergence of world music. Sure, he’s minted millions as a soundtrack composer while toying with orchestral compositions on the side. In short, the dude has little to worry about. But the last time Copeland actually banged a beat was with Animal Logic – the short-lived semi-supergroup he co-founded with bassist Stanley Clarke and guitarist Trey Anastasio – and hell, that was a long, long time ago.

Talk about synchronicity. Then we recently interviewed Brain, the current drummer with Primus and former DRUM! columnist. He talked about the band’s new album Antipop, and how none other than Mr. Copeland produced one of the tracks. Suddenly the pieces all fell into place. Knowing that Brain would work for peanuts, we asked him to interview Copeland for us. A media darling, Brain agreed to drop by Copeland’s pad while Primus was in Los Angeles with the Ozzfest tour and talk some trash for a few hours.

Why did we do it? Outside of the short time they spent together in the studio, these two drummers have very little in common. Almost nothing, really. Brain’s a groover with two feet planted firmly in ’90s hip-hop. Copeland’s a showy chopsmeister whose primary archive of pop work represents an era removed by several generations.

Ah, what the hell. We did it because we could, that’s all. The rest is history. Sort of.

Brain: What did you think this was for?

Copeland: I’m not sure. There’s not much I can say about drums. The last time I did a drum interview it was, like, my usual spiel, and the journalist gave me a copy of my last article. After he had gone home I looked at it and, “Wait a minute. This is all stuff that I just said – again!” Same anecdotes. Same punch lines. Same advice.

Brain: That’s why I freaked out last night, because we were watching Basquiat, and you know that scene where Christopher Walken is interviewing Basquiat? Have you seen that movie?

Copeland:: Yeah.

Brain: He’s interviewing him and Basquiat’s just bumming out because it’s an interview. And I was just going, “Yeah, this sucks. Stewart probably doesn’t want to talk about drums.”

Copeland: Well, you can.

Brain: So what are you working on now?

Copeland: I’m in very slow motion working on a record with exotic singers, since I don’t sing. Slowly, track by track, I’m getting there.

Brain: Who else do you have on it?

Copeland: I just got back from London, where I recorded with Martina, and I have this woman from Burundi – Kaja Nin – who is really cool, too. And this Arabic singer named Faudel, and I’ve got a track with Stan Ridgway, as well, but I’m thinking I’m probably going to go ethnic all the way.

Brain: Do you plan to take this project on the road?

Copeland: Yes, that’s why I’m doing it, as a matter of fact. I did a tour once called “The Rhythmatist,” and I’ve got another Rhythmatist tour coming up in the Spring of 2001. The reason why I’m working so long in advance is that it’s a different kind of touring. It’s fine arts. It’s funded by blue rich ladies. It appears in the program along with Zubin Mehta and solo cellists and stuff like that. So it’s different halls, different economy. And it’s all booked two years in advance. So I thought, “I might as well have some product for it. It’s about time I had a new record anyway.”

Brain: So you’re getting back into the drums. You’re not going to do the looping thing anymore?

Copeland: No, I’m going to actually play.

Brain: Since you haven’t played drums for a while, what have you lost technically?

Copeland: It’s the finesse, that’s what you lose when you go cold. To get that stuff back, it’s a matter of balancing the hands. Really slow single strokes, and thinking not in terms of speed but just getting them exactly the same, so you can’t tell which hand it is. And slowly speeding it up to just under your top speed, concentrating on being absolutely even. When you’re at that kind of top speed, change the dynamics. And the gradations need to be absolutely smooth. It will improve your technique faster than anything, that single-stroke roll.

Brain: Did you ever get into trying to do singles, paradiddles and doubles and making them all sound the same?

Copeland: Yeah, I do that. I don’t need to do that anymore. I seem to have those for life – paradiddles, throwing in two on one hand and stuff like that. The only reason for paradiddles is for navigation. To free up a hand to hit a crash or move across the drum. It’s not a creative exercise. It’s mechanics. I don’t find that I need to practice them anymore.

Brain: I told everybody on Ozzfest I was coming up here. Everybody’s interested to know why you played traditional grip.

Copeland: Because I started way back in the ’60s, probably around the time when rock music was beginning to happen. But my dad was a jazz musician. I started out with traditional drum training at the age of eight and I learned all the rudiments very strictly.

Brain: So you learned all the 26 rudiments.

Copeland: No, no, no. I don’t know if I learned all 26 of them, but I learned mammy-daddy paradiddles and really correct orthodox technique, which I think has been really valuable. That’s how I started, but the reason why I think [traditional grip] is better – because I played match grip as well – is there’s just a lot more power you can put into it.

Brain: You think you get more power with traditional grip?

Copeland: Absolutely.

Brain: These are things that bothered me for years. Because I tried to do traditional grip after seeing you play. I just felt I could get more power from match grip.

Copeland: Change the position of your snare drum.

Brain: Yeah, I changed it. I angled it. I did the whole Buddy Rich/Gene Krupa thing. I switched to match about four years ago.

Copeland: You went through the whole thing? You used to be a match grip guy.

Brain: I used to be a traditional guy. I practiced four hours a day on it. I sat there with Stick Control. But for some reason I just couldn’t get the power I wanted. That’s why when I see old tapes of you with the Police, you’re just totally shredding. It looks rad. I was wondering, what did you think of all the drummers that Sting worked with after the Police broke up?

Copeland: I really like Vinnie [Colaiuta]. But he’s dead. They’ve parted company. They’re sick of each other. And he’s not playing like Vinnie anymore.

Brain: What about Manu [Katche]?

Copeland: I like Manu. He’s very light, though, which is nice for some things. He’s very light. And in fact Sting tried him on his new album coming out, and he’s too light for him.

Brain: Really? Who’s he got now?

Copeland: I think he got Vinnie back.

Brain: He’s got Vinnie? That story you told me is classic.

Copeland: Which one was that?

Brain: The one where you sat in with Sting, and then after you got done playing Vinnie played again, and his roadie looked at you and said, “He hasn’t played that way in years.”

Copeland: That’s right. Vinnie’s been playing with Sting about four or five years longer than I did. The Police was eight years, and it’s been about 12 or 13 years since then.

Brain: That’s another question I wanted to ask you about. When you toured with the Police did you get bored? Did you just think, “Oh no, here’s the same show. I’ve got to play the same thing.”

Copeland: No. Never. The show was always really exciting.

Brain: And you would switch it up every night.

Copeland: Every night. Inevitably, there would be the occasional bad show when there were too many shows back-to-back, getting homesick. But it has nothing to do with the music. It has nothing to do with the band. You’re just too tired. You’ve been there.

Brain: Well, we’ve been on the road for two months now. I’m lucky enough because we can stretch. But I’m looking at the other bands, like Rob Zombie, watching John Tempesta play. He plays to a click track, so it’s the same thing every night. I’m just going, “He must want to just kill himself.”

Copeland: That’s why we kept it exciting. On some of the songs we’d just run them through. But I’d never play the same licks twice. There would be a few that I knew worked, so I’d kind of play that there. But even on the last gig, I was still looking for the perfect way to get into the chorus, or something like that.

Brain: Wow. So you would record, then go on tour, instead of learning songs on the road first, then recording.

Copeland: As far as the vibe of the album, I think that’s good. Just for me personally, listening to my chops, they’re not as happening as they were six months later after playing that stuff on the road. But that’s just a personal thing. I’m really unsatisfied with all of my recorded work.

Brain: All of it?

Copeland: Pretty much. Obviously, it worked since it made me very wealthy. But the stage thing, that’s where the cool stuff happens. That’s where I came alive. That’s where I love playing. But listen to the records – for one thing, we learned the song that morning, recorded it that afternoon. That’s it.

Brain: Yeah, you never sounded like a studio musician.

Copeland: And also, I was out of practice [laughs]. Because when you’re on tour your chops get really hot. And then you go off and we all write for a month or two, and then you reconvene and I’m just that little bit stiffer.

Brain: But it makes that difference in feel.

Copeland: Yeah, but I’ve got to live with that lack of perfection for the rest of my life.

Brain: But that’s what makes it.

Copeland: Yeah, I don’t lose too much sleep over it. It obviously worked one way or another. Well, how many times have you ever done a demo …

Brain: And it’s way better [than the final master].

Copeland: And it’s way better. It isn’t recorded as well. You didn’t finish the bridge. There isn’t the section you added later. But, it’s the “platinum demo factor,” where this is better than it ever got. Because there’s that experimental, exploring vibe.

Brain: So you were telling me that “Every Breath You Take” was the most produced?

Copeland: That is apart from everything we just said, from all of the above. I got a snare drum and a gong drum, made the backbeat. Now I would have played it once and sampled it. But I played them all. There were a few lame ones I had to drop in. We obsessed over that for a day. And then cymbal swells, I did those separately. And then in the end I added the hi-hat instead of the drum box. I actually like that, because it’s not a playing thing, it’s a composition thing. I’m very proud of that arrangement. How long have you been with Primus?

Brain: Three years.

Copeland: Because you’ve had a whole musical life before you joined that band, which might be a completely different kind of music.

Brain: Oh, it was totally different. I mean, it was working with the avant garde, it was working with Bill Laswell and that whole scene of different players. But I wanted to try the rock thing, so it’s definitely different. At first I didn’t quite get the whole Primus thing.

Copeland: Well, the Primus thing is a shitload better since you joined, if you don’t mind my saying so. That guy Herb had all kinds of chops. Zero groove.

Brain: It’s definitely a different style. We’re totally opposite. I never understood it because of that. Everything I listen to was always coming from the soul side of things and with a feel. So I never understood it either, but at the time I was thinking, “It sounds like something to do.” Plus it shows you off. You can play. But with the Ozzfest, it’s kind of frustrating because it has nothing to do with music. It doesn’t really matter if you’re that good. It’s just like, “Well, you know, your face is painted red.”

Copeland: Well, that’s what the whole punk thing was about, as well, is that attitude and energy was the finesse. That’s where the Police cut through all that, because we had a bit of finesse, which actually was a problem for us in the beginning. All the musicians – Joe Strummer would come and cop licks. But the journalists tore us to shreds until we started having hits in America, and came back as the conquering heroes.

Brain: Remember when we were talking about attitude and you made the comment about Miles? I know you liked the early jazz stuff like big bands …

Copeland: Big bands. As soon as they stopped going “ting, ting-a ting,” that’s when they lost me.

Brain: You didn’t like the attitude that Miles had?

Copeland: I liked Tony Williams, but after that, fusion stuff started getting too cold for me.

Brain: So after the period of Miles in the ’70s, when he was just gone, and it was all about experimenting, and –

Copeland: It did nothing for me.

Brain: You just hated that.

Copeland: I went through a period, in fact when I was moving in here, I went down to [a record store] and bought Thelonius Monk, Miles, all the real icons, and I’m sitting here unpacking boxes, listening to these records. I’ve done these jams. There’s nothing magical. I can just hear five guys stoned out of their brains. They’re on smack. I was on pot. What’s the difference? It’s just totally self-indulgent. “A Love Supreme.” Get the hell out of here! There was some cool Miles stuff, though. The early stuff where he had Tony Williams with him. You get the vibe out of that. Have you ever been through a Mahavishnu thing?

Brain: Yeah, a little bit. But I was never a Billy Cobham fan. He just bugged me.

Copeland: Really?

Brain: Yeah.

Copeland: I liked the first album and the second album. Then I lost it from there. He’s quite stiff. He doesn’t groove at all. If you listen to his albums now they don’t survive well at all. Not like the Beatles do, for instance, or Led Zeppelin. It gets better and better. Every year that goes by, when I hear a Led Zeppelin track, it’s even better than it was.

Brain: It’s funny that you say that, because on the Ozzfest there’s no band that actually has a swing or a bounce to it. It’s been six weeks on the tour, and the other day we got done playing and Rob Zombie’s about to come on and they put on Zeppelin, and all of a sudden I was in the music again. I was like, “Now I know why I play.”

Copeland: It sounds like your attitude on this tour is the same Sting had in the early days of playing punk gigs, where he got off on the energy … but the musical world, all these lame groups that don’t swing, don’t have any soul, and don’t have any pulse – they just get up there and they’re angry. The audience was great. The bands, our peers, they all sucked.

Brain: So you had a lot of power because you guys could actually play.

Copeland: Yeah. We could blow them all away. We didn’t have any hits in the beginning. We didn’t have that material. When we started it was my material. I just had these two-chord tricks, and they weren’t great lyrics and they weren’t great tunes. It wasn’t until Sting started writing those songs with those lyrics and those melody lines, which he couldn’t do until we fired our first guitarist and got a new guitarist who could actually play some interesting chords, that’s when we started to actually get somewhere. In the beginning we didn’t have the material, but we had the chops. And we could play harder and heavier than any of them. But we were uncool.

Brain: But that’s what got you through.

Copeland: Well, the fact that the other players in these bands were the dollies of the press, like [the Clash’s] Paul Simonon really loved his bass and actually really wanted to be a good bass player, and he would practice. But don’t tell any of the rest of the band he was actually doing scales and things! He never got that good.

Brain: When you guys were recording did you ever think about what the feel was supposed to be? Did you think, “I want to make this a little behind the beat, or a little ahead of the beat.”

Copeland: No. We didn’t intellectualize. The band might bitch like, “You know, this just isn’t grooving.” It’s like, “Groove more.” It’s all about listening.

Brain: So it’s all about the vibe.

Copeland: Yeah. We didn’t consciously say, “I just heard this great record. Let’s try to get a groove like that.” With our image, with everything, we would be embarrassed to discuss it. We were very aware of it, but we would never acknowledge that we were very aware of it. Image was very important. Packaging was weird, too. We’d never talk about, “Okay, how about I wear a black shirt and you wear a white shirt,” that kind of thing. We wouldn’t be caught dead having those conversations, but each of us secretly would … Sting would practice in front of a mirror. He realized that his job is to be a product, is to have an image. It was all of our jobs. You have to look cool – even if it’s grunge, you still have to have the X-factor, you have to have charisma. Eddie Vedder might deny, deny, deny, but he has charisma expressed in what looks nonchalant, but is actually an image.

Brain: So the Police will never –

Copeland: We won’t ever record another album. That just isn’t going to happen. Another two-week tour in support of the rain forest, save the whales, build a school, something like that. That’s the only way that’s going to happen. That’s what I’m working on. We’ll give all the money away, just because I enjoy the thrill of it. Those two guys are the two guys who really light me up. It’s pretty obvious why. Everyone else can hear it. That’s why we sold so many records.

Brain: Right, right.

Copeland: The reason why Andy [Summers, Police guitarist] is so good for me is because he plays colors. Sting and I were the groove, and Andy would waft around it, which gave it atmosphere. So I would very much like for the Police thing to happen. I’m working on it, but I’m not holding my breath.


DRUMS Tama Starclassic Maple (Blue Sparkle Finish)


Stewart Copeland also uses Tama hardwareRemo heads, and Vater signature sticks and mallets.