Throughout his long career, Stewart Copeland, former drummer for the Police, has continued to spread his talents across many fields, frequently surprising fans with what he accomplishes next. Whether recording as his alter ego Klark Kent as he did in 1980, making movie soundtracks or creating groundbreaking orchestral scores – as he did for Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ – Copeland is not just one of the best drummers of all time, but one of the most creative and experimental too. Copeland’s ever-exploring nature is on full display with his latest project, Gizmodrome, a genre-busting rock album from the group of the same name, which features him drumming and singing alongside friends Adrian Belew, Mark King and Vittorio Cosma. What began as a simple gathering of friends in Italy with no agenda or rules is now a full-fledged album due Sept. 15 – as well as plans for a tour and a follow up.
BMI caught up with the ever-busy multihyphenate to talk about his latest project, blending old-school techniques with new-school technology and the best way to inspire creativity with collaborators.
Last time BMI caught up with you, you were scoring Ben-Hur. Why this project right now?
Well, it completely came from left field. It was not on my agenda. I had a perfectly good working plan which was going spiffily. I was playing Ben-Hur with orchestras across America and Europe. And my other [orchestral] piece Tyrant’s Crush as well. But then I got a call from some old friends in Italy who suggested that I go record an album of something I’d been doing as a hobby for a decade or so. That hobby was going to Italy every summer and doing concerts there – playing the Italian summer concerts that are all outdoors either on the grounds of a palazzo or a castle or on a piazza. And they’re just great shows to play. I’d been doing that with my buddy Vittorio Cosma under the name Gizmo, really without any agenda – no promotion, no products, no campaign, just doing shows under the Italian sky. The only agenda was pasta. My day job was the big orchestral stuff. Like I say, the trajectory was following its course perfectly.
But then came a call from my Italian chum saying, ‘Listen there’s a record company interested in recording this stuff that you’ve been doing.’ And I said, ‘Heck why not?’ And my friend Vittorio said, ‘Why don’t we get Adrian Belew?’ And my response was, ‘Of course! And if we’re going to raise the stakes like that, let’s call Mark.’ And so a few phone calls later we soon found ourselves on our way to Milan to record this record, which we did really quickly in just a wild frenzy of enthusiasm and inspiration. Over two summers. We had two sessions and just blasted through making this record. Okay, the agenda wasn’t so much pasta as it was just doing something that we think is really cool. We just made the record on instinct. Like I say, this rock album with me singing was not on my radar at all. It just came and happened. Life’s like that sometimes.
It seems like a big theme of this record was about staying connected to joy and fun and exploration. Would you say that’s the message or takeaway?
Yeah, very much so. I couldn’t afford these guys to play on my record even though that’s sort of what got them in the studio. But once they were there, my mission was to infuse them with the feeling of this being their record. And this being a band. And that’s the way you get the real creativity from players like this, by switching on their core of artistry and creativity rather than telling them what to play. And so, the first rule to be dispensed with was the sanctity of composing. Even though I wrote the songs and had a pristine idea of how they should be in my head, they could only be improved by Adrian Belew and his deep creativity being applied to it. And so, all of the songs with the input from these guys are a two-way street. They made the songs better and their contribution to the songs made them feel better about digging deeper into their creative resources.
How’s the drum work on this album different from what we’ve known from you?
Well, it’s a little less retrained. In making pop music as I’ve done in the past, all the parts are very much in service of the song. And a lot of great music has been made with that format, and it’s a really great way to make pop music. Our brief was a little bit different in the Gizmodrome. We were there to just blast and see what kind of frenzy we could induce as players. And then some poor singer is going to have to sing over all of it. Well, since that’s me we’re going to be fine. I could ride this horse. And so the playing is generally way less disciplined. It’s inspired by what Mark’s doing on the bass and Adrian’s doing on the guitar. It’s a frenzy. When the singer dude comes on the mic, he’s got to just deal with it.
You’ve said that a lot of this project had to do with the fact that you all were all together. Is that a rebuttal of the electronic, collaborating-by-email process? How did recording together influence the music?
We did trade files back and forth, but we started with – the animal that we were working on – the body on the slab was created – with a band all in a room. And then we used every facet the studio has to offer it to add subtract, tweak and move. You know, it fully uses all you can do. But the fundamental material is four guys blazing. A lot of very valid music is made [by trading files]. We’re kind of a throwback. We’re doing it old-school, old fashioned. But that doesn’t cast any aspersion on modern techniques including sampling, building music without guitar bass and drums. Having hit songs with no backbeat. Has the world gone mad? Yes. And the wheel turns. As it should. So yes, we are a throwback. We actually played in a room together, making the s*** up. And by the way, very similarly to the way we make Police records. Every take you hear, the band never heard that song 20 minutes before recording it. So, it’s really fresh. You sacrifice precision in having all the components of the music exactly line up and it’s a little bit chaotic, but there’s an X-Factor that you get.
Next time you listen to a Police record, consider that the drummer on the track you’re listening to never heard the song 20 minutes before making this recording. And it’s kind of exploratory. With Gizmo, as in the Police, we would chew on a song for a half an hour – Adrian and Mark never heard it before – Vittorio has because we were working together but they never heard it. And we chew on it: here’s the voice, here’s the chorus and we do something here and do that. And as we’re doing it they come up with stuff. We work it out for maybe 20 minutes. Then we go into the big room and play it. Do maybe three takes, sometimes four. But we almost always would end up on take two, where it’s still a little bit out of focus but it has that X-Factor of exploration. With these songs, you go out on tour and you figure out how to get from the chorus back to the verse in a really slick way. And I wished I’d figured that out for the record, but you know what, the record doesn’t suck. What you lose in slickness you gain in X-Factor is my philosophy.
Would you say this project is a culmination of all the rock work you’ve done or an alternative to it?
Well, if I had to pick between those two I’d have to say alternative because it’s not the culmination – it’s the complete diversion from my plan. My plan is writing big orchestral music and getting better and better working with those forces which are very engrossing and complicated to work with. I love that s***. But meanwhile, they say it takes a lifetime to write your first album, but you get six months to write your second album. These songs, while I have been the orchestral composer dude, have been piling up in my cookie jar. I’m sitting on a lonely train station platform and a song just arrives in the mind. A client, during my years as a hired gun film composer, wants a song about this that or the other. They said, ‘Well, we’ve decided to go in a different direction.’ I’ve still got the song in my cookie jar. Various meetings over 20 years, I’ve been collecting these songs. Actually, it’s been 16 years since I’ve recorded an album. So, these songs have been gathering in the cookie jar. And we’ve been using them under the name Gizmo in Italy. So, these songs have been kind of percolating. But they have not been the mission. So, I guess of the options you present this would be a parallel unrelated that has popped to the surface and is what I’m doing now.
In the past you’ve taken on another persona, Klark Kent. Did you have another in mind when you were making this?
Well, I am in fact a suburban dad. But the guy singing these songs, I’m not so sure about him.
Have you given him a name?
I should! Trick Wave.
Do you plan on doing another Gizmodrome album?
Yes, we’re already thinking about it. Even as we were finishing the record we were coming up with new ideas. Adrian and I – it turns out we sing pretty good together. Kind of like a twisted Everly Brothers. He’s really good at those high harmonies and he’s got that kind of talking blues syntax that works well with what I do. So we’re all hot to get back in the studio and try some more of that. At the last minute, Mark came up with some MP3s of stuff and there’s more of their cookie jar. This one here is my cookie jar. Turns out Adrian, Mark and Vittorio also have some cool stuff. So, we’re looking forward to getting back in the studio again, probably next fall. Orchestral work, I am still full on. I’m just closing a deal on another big piece that will keep me busy for the next two years. That is what I do at home on my desk. Meanwhile, I’m figuring out how to how to play guitar and sing songs at the same time. That’s a new mountain to climb.
Did you use any special equipment that uniquely impacted the creation of the album?
Not really. My Tama drums are the only piece – the rest of it was all software, microphones, a wide spread of different kinds of gear. I can’t say the gear really impacted it. In fact, my philosophy is, ‘Plug in and play.’ Whatever the gear is, plug it in and play it.
How has your partnership with BMI benefitted the process, particularly as you take on new projects?
What has been very inspiring about BMI is the places Doreen Ringer-Ross has put me. Into a conducting seminar. Into panels at Sundance, where I interact with really interesting people in many different ways. Quite apart from the accounting, BMI has introduced me to people, introduced me to ideas and places and events that are beyond the call of duty that I’d say have contributed hugely to my creative machine.