Since his early days with the Police, the world's most popular rock band in the mid-'80s, drummer Stewart Copeland has been heavily involved with technology. Today he's a Mac-based composer for film, TV, and opera, having scored more than 60 soundtracks including Wall Street, Talk Radio, and Dead Like Me. In this live fireside chat with David Battino, co-author of The Art of Digital Music, Copeland reveals his innovative recording techniques, lays out his dreams for the ideal music software, and even recalls his skin-piercing sampler shootout with Sting.
"I'm more fanatic, more a complete gearhead, than I ever was before," says Stewart Copeland, co-founder and drummer of The Police, about re-entering the rock world after a ten-year hiatus during which he became an acclaimed film composer. "I'm doing it for the fun of it. I even love practicing. Every time I sit at the drums now, I realize it's a gift."
Beginning with a 2000 call from Primus leader Les Claypool to join Phish's Trey Anastacio in the jam band trio Oysterhead, and most recently an invitation from Ray Manzarek to help resurrect the legendary Doors, Copeland has stepped outside the film scoring studios and returned to the rock stage.
"Film composing is a better job than rock star," says Copeland, whose upcoming credits include the feature I Am David as well as Showtime's "Dead Like Me," for which he just received an Emmy nomination. "But there's nothing like the instant gratification of 50,000 people in a stadium yelling 'Yeah!'"
Copeland has of late also probed The Police catalog with what he has dubbed "derangements." "They are Police tracks lobotomized to concoct new recordings," he explains. Mixing live and studio versions, instrumental tracks of an original with the vocals from a later version, the jam from mid-"Roxanne" with the lyrics to "So Lonely," and so on, these derangements are expected to be heard as bonus tracks on new reissues following the 2002 release of The Very Best Of...Sting & The Police.
For the member of The Police, a band that exited the stage as the world's most popular--sales of more than 60,000,000 albums and winner of five Grammy awards--a homecoming of a more unusual nature involves The Doors. "I'm in the bullseye of The Doors' fan base. 'Strange Days' transformed my life. When I sat in to rehearse, I already knew all the songs. Playing 'L.A. Woman' and 'Light My Fire,' I'm 13 again trying to master John Densmore's licks."
Even before The Police went into hibernation as a group in 1986, Copeland had begun to move beyond the rock arena by creating the memorable score to Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film, Rumblefish. Copeland thus became one of the first rockers to move into film composing. Earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Score, he has since gone on to write some of the most innovative and groundbreaking music on screen.
His adventurous style, fed by a lifelong interest in exotic music (he was raised in Egypt, Lebanon, England, and California), brought him to the attention of Oliver Stone, for whom he scored Wall Street and Talk Radio. He has enjoyed successful collaborations with other acclaimed directors as well, including Bruce Beresford (Silent Fall), John Hughes (She's Having A Baby), John Waters (Pecker), Ken Loach (Riff-Raff, Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones) and Bruno Barretto (Four Days In September). He has also been heard with cutting edge scores to Wide Sargasso Sea, Rapa Nui, and Fresh, and on recent films from Deuces Wild to She's All That to Very Bad Things. While he does studio films, Copeland notes his niche is art movies: "A Robin Hood policy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor."
Copeland has also ventured into other musical worlds--opera, ballet and orchestra. "The success of The Police was an enabler," he says, "encouraging and empowering me to explore more original music. It never bothered me that I was learning in public; perhaps that's the best way to learn because you don't fit into a box. It wasn't so much thinking outside the box," he adds with a laugh, "but 'What box?'"
He composed King Lear for the San Francisco Ballet and Holy Blood And Crescent Moon for the Cleveland Opera, performed by a 90-piece orchestra and 60-member chorus. He penned the new Horse Opera, commissioned and broadcast by the U.K.'s Channel 4, and wrote the music for the one-act opera Cask Of Amontillado, based on the short story by Edgar Allen Poe, and Ballet Oklahoma's Prey.
In 1993, Copeland made his first appearance as a Featured Guest Percussionist with a major symphony orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, performing original compositions including a world premiere entitled Solcheeka and an excerpt from The Stars That Played With Luck Joe's Cards. In 1995, a collection of his compositions was recorded with the Albany Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Alan Miller and with Miller's avant-garde ensemble The Dogs Of Desire. Between those two efforts, he headlined a national tour featuring a diverse group of musicians including UAKTI from Brazil, Percussion de Guinea, Vinx, and Ray Lema, supporting his solo album The Rhythmatist. (His other solo album, under the pseudonym Klark Kent, was 1980's eccentric Music Madness From The Kinetic Kid.)
Copeland also performs worldwide in the format called orchestrali, for which he travels on tour and to festivals where a 20-piece orchestra plays his arrangements of original opera, ballet, etc. Additionally, he has delved into interactive media by scoring the PlayStation series Spyro The Dragon.
For more than a decade, however, he put aside his rock 'n' roll drumming. "You do less and less and eventually none at all," he says. Then came Oysterhead. When they first convened, he was "completely blown away with their virtuosity and that we were all on the same musical wavelength." The 2001 album The Grand Pecking Order and a one-month tour followed.
"In film, you're no longer the artist, the director is, so you serve someone else's vision. That's fine; I'm a team player and since your collaborator is not a musician you get to do all the music yourself. But bands are intense experiences. The tour was a blast of fun, energy, and excitement. When you're a kid you have to take on the world. But with this I could just keep my head down and bang away on the drums." An album follow-up is likely in the near future, as is an album from the new Doors.
From the very beginning, says Copeland of The Police, "we assumed we would achieve world domination. We wouldn't have done it otherwise." Accomplishing that, the band's success has helped propel Stewart Copeland's own original work onto the classical stage and the silver screen, creating one of the most fascinating bodies of work of any modern musician.
This session is one of many from the IT Conversations archives of the Mac OS X Conference presented by O'Reilly Media, October 25-28, 2004.
This free podcast is from our Max OS X Conference series.