We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When the nominations for the 2022 Grammys were announced late last year, the media, as they are wont to do, focused on what are considered the “main” categories—Album of the Year, Record of the Year, etc.—extolling those nominees while ignoring most others. But anyone who took the time to read all the nominations might have been surprised when they came upon those for Best New Age Album and saw the names Ricky Kej and Stewart Copeland listed for their Divine Tides. Hang on. Stewart Copeland, the former drummer of the Police? Stewart Copeland, the film composer responsible for the scores of more than 50 movies including Rumble Fish and Wall Street? That Stewart Copeland? Yes.
Over the last 40 years, Copeland has methodically built a music career so diverse—from punk to opera—that it is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Just how did he go about mastering so many genres? It all started in Virginia.
Born in Alexandria in 1952, Copeland started life as any child of a government worker would, assuming that the parent (in this case, his father, Miles Copeland, Jr. ) was a founding member of the CIA. “Yeah, when I was born, Daddy was away on business installing a dictator in Egypt,” Copeland tells City Paper matter-of-factly. “I didn’t find out about it until I was in college in California. He wrote his first book and there it was in the liner notes. But there had been talk. One of our family jokes is that one day, Miles, my brother, comes home from school and says ‘Dad, are you a spy?’ And my father says, ‘Who wants to know?'”
Due to his father’s career as an international man of mystery, his family moved to Cairo shortly after his birth, then to Beirut when he was 5. Copeland’s father, a former jazz musician, insisted that his children play musical instruments. For Copeland’s older brothers, Ian and Miles III, playing did not take, though both ended up in the music industry—Miles managed the Police and cofounded I.R.S. Records; Ian became a promoter and booking agent. For Stewart, a pair of drumsticks were placed into his hands at the age of seven and have yet to be removed.
The music studies continued. First, when his family moved to England when he was teen, then when he enrolled in San Diego’s California Western University (which has since evolved into two different schools). It was in a composition class taught by Dr. Mary K. Phillips where the first inkling of a burgeoning career as a composer reared its head.
“One day when she gave us all our homework,” recalls Copeland: “Write 16 bars with no parallel fourths or fifths, obeying all the rules. ” Not a natural pianist (“I can either play the chords perfectly out of rhythm or play the cool rhythm with it, with the wrong notes”), Copeland brought his composition to class for review.
Phillips went through her students’ work, praising each of them before playing Copeland’s. He recalls her noting that he included parallel fourths, “‘but I kind of see why you did that because it created tension,’” he says, quoting his teacher 50 years later. “Stewart,” he remembers her saying, “there’s all these mistakes, but this is actual music.”
“That sounds like, you know, faint praise! But how did I kvell!” Copeland says. “It’s true, of course, every musician has delusions of grandeur, and to have just any inkling of affirmation is very big.” (Fun fact: Those 16 bars eventually made their way into “Does Everyone Stare” off the Police’s second album, Reggatta de Blanc).
Copeland returned to England after college, acting as a road manager for Curved Air and eventually becoming their drummer. Gigging his way through the U.K., he met one of the Englishmen that changed the course of his musical career: bassist Gordon Sumner (aka Sting). Forming the Police in 1977 as a punk trio with original guitarist Henry Padovani, Copeland and Sting also worked as session musicians. That’s when musical kismet intervened.
“Sting and I, we were hired by Mike Howlett [bassist of Gong] to play on his solo album,” says Copeland. “It was totally prog [rock] and so he wanted us to blaze away. … We could just play all our chops, of which we had many, and we had a hell of a time. It so happened the guitarist on that session was a guy that we had heard of by reputation but had never met. In walks in this triple-skill ace guitarist named Andy Summers… Soon after, Andy says to me, ‘Look, you and that bass player, I think you got something but you need me in the band and I accept.’”
With Padovani out of the band, Summers canceled all his upcoming session gigs, save one with the German composer Eberhard Schoener. Since Copeland was booked as the drummer for the session, the two of them convinced Schoener that “he needed a bass player who can sing a bit.”
Schoener, like Howlett, requested: “‘Go for it guys! Blow my mind!’ And so we did. And it was there that Andy and I discovered that ‘ol Sting-O can sing!,” says Copeland. “On the first show, there was a gap because it’s kind of under rehearsed and ‘ol Sting-O walks up to the mic. And just the sound that comes off soaring. I think he himself was pent up by playing this fucking punk music. Here’s his opportunity to remember that he was an actual musician with a heart! With a searing agony of his soul and his voice rising up unto the heavens and electrified the room! And Andy and me standing next to him going ‘Fuck! Shit! Where’d that come from?’”
When the trio returned to England, Copeland says, “Sting was freed up to write songs because Andy could actually play them. Our first guitarist only knew three chords… Anyhow, what’s relevant about that is that when you free people up, there’s more under the hood than what you can see.”
From the rerelease of “Roxanne” in 1979 (another fun fact: “Roxanne” flopped as a single when it was first released in 1978), the career trajectory of the Police was straight up. Their canon became legendary as did their penchant for fist fights (mostly between Copeland and Sting). Peaking creatively and commercially with their final studio album, 1983’s Synchronicity, the band took the old showbiz adage of “Leave ‘em wanting more” to heart, playing just a handful of gigs after their stadium tour ended in 1984. Two years later, they returned to the studio to re-record “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for inclusion in a greatest hits package.
But Copeland’s pastime of playing polo played a key role in him not drumming on the Police’s final song. At a match, Copeland was thrown from his horse, breaking his collarbone. (“The horse was leading with the left…and I wanted to go right, and he crossed his legs, did a somersault. I was obliged to dismount.”) Unable to play, Copeland and Sting fought over which drum machine to use. After this recording, the Police were officially kaput.
Polo, however, remained a longtime hobby of Copeland’s, who played at the Potomac Polo Club when he visited the DMV area. But today he lives in California, replacing polo with his children and grandchildren.
This is typically the part of the story where the drummer of the defunct rock band is never heard from again—at least, not until the band’s reunion tour several decades later (which, for the Police, happened in 2007-08: “That was very humbling for the three of us,” says Copeland. “We’ve all achieved great things in our careers doing what we do, but to come together under this thing…. it’s bigger than ourselves.”)
Yet Copeland had already started laying the groundwork for what would be his creative life post-Police, composing his first movie score—for Francis Ford Coppola‘s Rumble Fish—in 1983, earning a Golden Globe nomination along the way. A multitude of movie and television scores followed, which Copeland produced at a frenzied pace, starting with CBS’ The Equalizer, which ran from 1985-1989.
“It just came fast and furious,” he says. The show would arrive to him on Tuesdays and be shipped out with a score on Friday. “Churn ‘em and burn ‘em,” is how he describes it.
“The interesting thing was that it had gotten deeper and deeper, and the ideas flowed quickly….I go back now and I realize that some of the deepest, most profound music I ever wrote was when all filters were removed.”
Years before, Copeland took the same “fast and furious” approach to laying drum tracks on Police recordings. “I had heard the songs maybe 20 minutes to half an hour previously for the first time,” says Copeland. “While Andy and Sting were chewing on the chords and Sting’s showing Andy how it goes and Andy’s coming in … I’m sitting there tapping on my knees. Okay, let’s do a take. And I go bang on the drums and we do a take, maybe two or three takes, rarely four, because we all were very impatient.”
Being a sought after film and television composer would be enough for most people; Copeland still kept his toe in rock, playing in supergroups Oysterhead (which formed in 2000 and reunited for two shows in 2021) and Gizmodrome (which formed in 2017). Yet Copeland added a genre to his ever expanding career in the late ‘80s, one that most drummers would run screaming from: Opera. Librettist Jonathan Moore, who has worked with Copeland on several operas, recalls meeting the drummer at an English National Opera symposium. (“A place where you didn’t meet most rock stars,” Moore jokes.)
“We were all put into little study groups,” recalls Moore. “There’s this bloke … he looked like a scruffy geezer and I thought ‘Who’s that bloke? Oh, fuckin’ hell! It’s that bloke from the Police! What’s he doing here? This is really weird!”
Their meeting turned out to be a fortuitous one, leading them to work together on several operas over the last three decades, which have been staged at venues including Royal Opera House in London and Chicago Opera Theater. In 2019, the duo was commissioned to create Electric Saint, an opera based on the life of Nikola Tesla that made its debut last year during Germany’s arts festival, Kunstfest Weimar at Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar.
Gregor Bühl, who conducted Electric Saint, noted a variety of musical influences throughout the opera.
“It’s not at all rock music,” says Bühl. “It’s not at all pop music. Although you can find some, let’s say some pop influences. But it’s more going into the direction of minimal music and film music … What I find refreshing about this whole thing is that since [Copeland] comes originally from a totally different world, he is not afraid of anything. When you talk to opera composers, you know that you have all these histories and all these traditions and he just simply doesn’t care or simply/partly/probably also doesn’t know them.” Bühl concludes, “That’s kind of refreshing.”
Indian music composer Ricky Kej, who was first influenced by Copeland’s drumming with the Police (“I was always mesmerized by the drums—they were always so poetic”), found himself collaborating with him on a song from his 2015 album Shanti Samsara. The idea of doing a full album together was born. Divine Tides, their Grammy nominated album, was created as the two collaborated across oceans during the pandemic.
“It was fortuitous, you know, in this time of two years of great hardship across the land. Some people really had to pay a price for the apocalypse and others kind of weren’t touched by it. And composers in ivory towers really got a free ride from all those heroes out there who brought us our food and served us,” says Copeland. “I’m very thankful to all those who did carry us through the apocalypse. Meanwhile, I was making cool recordings with excellent Indian music. And because there were no dinner parties, there was no social life to be able to concentrate on just experimenting with the sounds.”
And Copeland is quick to dole out credit: “I have to say up front, Ricky Kej built this album, and he gave me the great privilege to mess with it, to bang stuff, and mic up interesting instruments and mess with his rhythms and play with it.”
Kej, who was used to creating and composing music entirely on his own, found collaborating with Copeland an inspiring experience. “I made a very strong decision that if I’m going to be working with a person like Stewart Copeland, then I’m going to trust his judgment completely and just do everything the way that he wants me to do it, and then live with it for a while,” says Kej. “Then, if after a week or 10 days, if I still feel the same way, then I will talk to him about it.”
As it turned out, Kej never needed to speak with Copeland about his musical suggestions, realizing that they always worked out. “It was the greatest masterclass I could have ever imagined, working with him,” says Kej.
Copeland’s readiness to share his talent and time, in addition to his unique approach to drumming has shown its influence with younger drummers, most notably the late Taylor Hawkins, drummer of Foo Fighters. On the song, “Generator,” from Foo’s 1999 album There Is Nothing Left to Lose, Hawkins interpolated Copeland’s drum part from “Synchronicity II,” thanking him in the album’s liner notes. During City Paper’s conversations with Copeland, Hawkins came up: “It’s an honor and I brag about it which makes it a good thing. In the case of Taylor, he brags about it too so we’re all good!” Hawkins passed away on March 25 at the age of 50, while this piece was being edited; upon learning the news Copeland posted on Instagram: “Taylor was a force of life, with a forward momentum that seemed unstoppable. He was all energy and cheerful enthusiasm. It’s inconceivable that he’s gone.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Copeland and Moore are currently working on a new opera that will be staged this summer in Italy. “He’s a really rare and remarkable person,” says Moore. “He’s still incredibly ambitious and hungry to do new work. … He constantly surprises you. He’s got this just inexhaustible energy and is just great fun to hang out with.”
For Copeland, his reserve of creating music doesn’t look like it will dry up any time soon. “It’s a river that flows,” says Copeland. “It just comes out. And people who have this river that flows, they compose. None of that is to say that it’s any good. If it comes out and if you’re very lucky, the stuff that comes up matches the zeitgeist and other people like it too.”
Another potential first for Copeland may happen next week. Should he win the Best New Age Grammy on April 3, he will be the first drummer to do so. At this rate, it looks like Copeland has plenty more under that hood.