Stewart Copeland’s new composition “Microkosmos” premiered at “An Evening with Stewart Copeland” – the opening night of the Tromp Festival in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The night was in honour of a most influential drummer who developed from a rock star, being the drummer of “The Police”, to become an all-round and prolific composer, with solo albums including “The Rhythmatist”, to composing scores of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish”.
Whilst Copeland didn’t perform ‘Microkosmos’ that night – this was  done by Elbtonal, a stunning German quartet of skilled percussionists – he performed with the New York/Brazilian band Forro in the Dark, BEAM, violinist Daniel Hope and string quartet ETHEL! In “Microkosmos” several aspects of Copeland’s compositional skills come forth: the rhythm is omnipresent and gives the melody a drive throughout, thus creating Copeland’s own percussive microcosm. The composition, which consisted of four short pieces, started gradually, growing into a bombastic apotheosis of notes and chords. The two quiet pieces were more repetitive, minimalistic and the use of marimba and vibraphone was rather unnerving at times, whilst the two faster parts were more dynamic, pulsating and impressive.
200% spoke with an animated Copeland in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Amsterdam, three days prior to the concert.

200%: The information posted on the website “Drummerworld” doesn’t say much about the period before you started playing with The Police. What was the drive to take up drumming?
Stewart Copeland: The very beginning – a magazine from the Slingerland Drum Company that had pictures of drum sets. The first page was with the small sets, the beginner’s item and, when you flip the page, there’s a larger set with all the tom-toms and bass drum; then, finally, you reach the last page to see the largest drum with two tom-toms on the front. It looked like a chariot of fire.
200%: Your brother Ian was already playing the drums?
Stewart Copeland: No, Ian had a bunch of buddies who played in a band called the “Black Knights” – American kids coming to the American community school in Beirut. Their drummer left town suddenly for some reason. Then, Ian, as the “coolest kid” in school, was the band’s obvious choice to be the drummer – but he couldn’t play.
I remember that they dropped the drum set off at our house and Ian would blast away on it trying to get it together. I was outside the door listening to what he was trying to do. When he was out I would sneak in – under penalty of death – play on his drums trying to do the things he was doing: but there was something really strange about it: I could do it! I’d hear Ian tap ‘tsitsidada tsitsidadda’ and he’d exclaim: “Oh no, try it again.”
200%: How much do you have to be innately talented (i.e. possess natural rhythm) to play the drums, or do you consider that anyone can learn to play the drums through practice?
Stewart Copeland: I think people have gifts for different things, in a different mix. And maybe people don’t even find the combination that takes what they have as an individual. It works. Drumming is maybe a cluster of genetic traits in the neuron system; which means, for some reason, I find certain aspects easier than another person. It’s not because I am smarter, or I work harder or practice more. I just sat on it until I could figure it out. There is a biological, neurological difference that means it happens.
200%: In the documentary “Does Everyone Stare” about The Police you say your style comes from Lebanon. Can you tell a little more about that?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, the Baladi rhythm. It’s not like reggae, it comes from a completely different cultural source and in the roots there are no overlaps with the beginning of American music. Baladi and reggae, though, have two aspects in common. They share the use of ‘negative’ space, which is when the rhythm is constructed in a certain way – in that there is a gap in the construction which the drummer can fill with his own interpretation. The other aspect they share is that they emphasize the third beat in the bar – to which they gravitate – not emphasizing the second or fourth beat.
200%: Did that influence the way you were playing at first?
Stewart Copeland: Well, in Lebanon I wasn’t specifically listening to Arabic music, but I was surrounded by it. My ears were gravitating to my own cultural roots, i.e. American music [Copeland’s father was a CIA agent stationed in the Middle East where he spent his childhood years]. Whilst I had no memory of having ever lived in America, I was an American kid in Beirut, who thought “I am an American, God damn it” and, with all the other American kids, we could at least try to pretend what it’s like to be an American.
We had the BBC with an hour a week of the “Sounds of the 60s” and there was the “Voice of America” [An American radio station] which included two or three slots per week of American music. Everyone at school gravitated around those shows and understood whatever was going on. That American stuff I was listening to was just three or four hours a week. The rest of the time, every taxi, every shop, everywhere was this Arabic music, all the time. So that is kind of infused (in me).
200%: Does this influence your current work?
Stewart Copeland: Oh, it’s all from there. When you’re creating something, you have on one hand a target, what it is you want to create; whilst, with the other hand there is the resource, the oil well of whatever it is that it supplies – so you balance those two aspects to achieve a result. And that Arab music is part of the resource. 
200%: You also recorded under the pseudonym Klark Kent. Were the songs written before, or during, the first The Police album?
Stewart Copeland: Before. The Police was already a group at the time. Sting was a big fan, very supportive of Klark Kent. The Police, though, wasn’t going anywhere (for a while). I had these songs: I knew this guy with a studio, so I recorded them. One of them [“Don’t Care”] became a minor hit in the English charts. Radio One had it on the play list and suddenly, with Klark Kent, for the first time in my whole life, I was gaining some recognition – having a hit: loved it. That was a great experience. Initially, the Klark Kent songs were ideas for Police songs that didn’t make it to our first album ‘The Police’. They were the rejects – the ones with dumb lyrics.
200%: Do you have an explanation as to why Western drummers are drawn to African drumming and rhythm?
Stewart Copeland: I don’t know particularly that they are. A few American musicians (not just drummers) have been curious about the roots of American music that came from Africa. There was a part of American music that was a cross between European chord structures and African rhythm, which produced music that dominated popular music for fifty years. But, as to what’s the African part…? We know the Mozart part, we all know that. We all know from where G and the C-major chords come, and the well-tempered scale. We know how harmonies are built from a Western concept of music. But it’s not specific from where the African influence originates.
200%: In terms of playing together, is there a special bond between the bass player and the drummer in a band?
Stewart Copeland: A mystical relationship between them, you mean? Strangely, it’s actually true. I have nine best friends who are bass players, maybe one or two guitarists, and actually a few drummers now. For some reason, some of my best friends are bass players: Stanley Clarke, he is one of my best friends; Armand Sabal-Lecco, Les Claypool [the bass player of Primus and Oysterhead] – he is one of the closest people to me – Trevor Horn, who is a producer, but he is also, basically, a bass player. Then there is Sting. On stage it’s a matter of getting the feel of each other and there is a particular mission that the bass player and the drummer need to do. Part of the punch of the bass comes from the kick drum, and the melody from the kick drum comes from the bass. So in a way we are both playing the same instrument.
200%: What is your favourite drum song?
Stewart Copeland: I would say ‘Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. One of the reasons I enjoy saying that is because it’s one of the most sublime pieces of recorded music and the drum solo is just amazing. Anyone who loves John Bonham [the drummer of Led Zeppelin] should have to understand the connection between simplicity and sublime power.
The other reason why it’s fun to mention is because most jazz people would howl DAVE BRUBECK? Apart from that song maybe “Blue Rondo a la Turk”.
My friends would call it ‘wrong’ jazz. I like to criticize jazz because a lot of my friends are jazz musicians. With Stanley Clarke, who considers Dave Brubeck the epitome of wrong jazz, we “go at it”, insulting each other’s music: but that’s what friends can do.
200%: You were also inspired by Buddy Rich.
Stewart Copeland: Buddy Rich is the master. He’s the Mozart of drums. He is the guy that took it to the point “Okay, that’s what you can do with drums”. And everything else came from that. So Stanley has to get over that one. [laughs]
Interview written and conducted by Marcel Harlaar (11/2010)
Picture: Friso Keuris