Stewart Copeland: Life after rock‘n’roll

Stewart Copeland is as happy as a composer and dad as he was as drummer with The Police, writes Ed Power

Stewart Copeland: Life after rock‘n’roll

WHEN rockers The Police reunited in 2007 for a lucrative 18-month world tour, drummer Stewart Copeland had an unpleasant realisation. In a rock band, it’s not enough to make great music; you have to dress the part, too.

“For 20 years, I’d earned a good living composing movie scores,” Copeland says. “I would drop my kids to school, come home, work all day on music. It was a great life. I was a suburban dad.”

But nobody wants to see a suburban dad on stage, especially not in the company of the perpetually slender and cheek-boned Sting. After a rehearsal, the management broke the news to Copeland: he had to think about his image. The embarrassing trousers had to go.

“I had forgotten I was once a member of this rock band,” says Copeland, in his earthy American accent. “They sent the stylists over to burn the suburban-dad wardrobe and put me back in tight pants — and I was 50something at the time.”

As a composer, Copeland had forgotten the importance of image to rock music. “That’s the weird distinction” he says. “In rock, the artist is the product. You’re not just the beans in the can — you’re the face on the can, too. Your physical person is relevant — they’ve got to gussy you up, make you look rock’n’roll again. That was odd — my kids were mystified. The younger ones were quite intimidated.”

The tour was a one-off and it is unlikely The Police will ever record together again (Sting has just announced his latest solo arena jaunt, in the company of Paul Simon). Nonetheless, Copeland enjoyed the band getting back together. Who wouldn’t receive a thrill playing to tens of thousands of fans every night? “It is very exciting to walk in front of 80,000 people screaming. That is an unbelievably exhilarating experience — it really is quite magical to be able to play and perform,” Copeland says.

The Police’s hits, such as ‘Message In A Bottle’ and ‘Roxanne’, were beloved by a generation. These songs had been pivotal to people’s lives — the soundtrack to their adolescence and young adulthood.

“For a legacy band, such as The Police, everyone knows the music. Nobody was coming to the show for something new. They were coming for songs they had grown up with.

“They knew every word — sang along with the choruses, which arrived as they had expected. That knowledge of the songs is what gave it power. People fell in love with that music — or they may even have hated it every time it came on the radio. Nevertheless, they were exposed to it — like it or not, it is woven into the fabric of people’s lives. You play a new song — it could be the best song in the world — and it wouldn’t have that impact,” Copeland says.

Copeland is friendly with Sting and guitarist Andy Summers — he scoffs at rumours Sting is sniffy about his ex-bandmates. But rock music is no longer his focus. He is a composer. He has written for screen and stage. One of his latest commissions is a percussive concerto, Poltroons In Paradise, for Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which will open the National Concert Hall’s new season on Wednesday.

“The classical world is very different to rock’n’roll,” says Copeland. “The type of musicians that play the music are different, the audience that listens to it is different, the attitude and experiences are different. I bring my rock’n’roll roots with them — that’s what I know.

“If you simplify certain aspects of music, you can delve deeper into other aspects. Now, my rhythms are not at all simple. But they are based on a discernible pattern. So I bring that with me.”

Copeland’s childhood is straight out of a Graham Greene novel. His father was a CIA operative; two months after Copeland’s birth, the family left the United States for Cairo.

Up to 18, Copeland spent his life in the Middle East. He recalls feeling isolated from his surroundings, yearning for the sights and the sounds (and, yes, the comforts) of the West.

“What I was most cognisant of growing up was the absence of TV,” he says. “That and other material matters of importance to a 15-year-old. I had been born in America, I felt American. I never actually saw the place very much. American kids in Beirut would cling to one hour a week of the Voice of America radio show, which played jazz and pop. All the westerners in third world countries, I guess, cling to their home countries.

“When I got back to America, aged 18, I realised I didn’t know any of the TV stars, I had no idea what [fast food chain] White Castle was. It was somewhat of a shock.”

The Police played Dublin on several occasions in the late 1970s. Indeed, Copeland has a 33-year-old son with Marina Guinness, of the Guinness family. Though he won’t be at the NCH, he was back in Ireland recently for his son’s wedding and speaks warmly of the country.

“I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but there was a ‘quaintness’ which you didn’t find elsewhere,” he says. “Even after the tech boom, the modernisation, all that, all your new gleaming freeways… it still has that feeling. There is a congeniality that is part of the Irish make-up — you probably don’t even notice it, because everyone else is that way, too.”

He is a huge fan of James Joyce — one of his unfulfilled ambitions is an opera adaptation of Finnegans Wake. He almost got the project off the ground several years ago. Alas, negotiations with the author’s estate broke down.

He would like it to be known that, if any Irish opera festivals were interested in commissioning such a work, he is ready and willing.

“It truly is an opera, this piece,” he says. “The impenetrable novel would be absolutely clear on the stage. When approaching Finnegans Wake from such a perspective, you see it is very musical. If Mr Joyce had been a composer, this would have been an opera, without question.”

- Copeland’s Poltroons In Paradise will be performed at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Wednesday

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