The Opportunity: A conversation with Stewart Copeland

by Michael Volpe

“Happenstance can be a big factor in success. You allow yourself to go along with events, and they may have seemed unimportant — or even shit — at the time, but turn out to be amazing.”

Hearing Stewart Copeland — one of the world’s greatest drummers in one of the biggest bands ever — pay homage to luck is surprising since he also says that “sitting behind the drums on these huge world tours — and playing the way I do — is damned hard work!”

Stewart Copeland is generally considered to be one of the most distinctive and influential drummers of modern times — in a field of bonafide legends, this is quite an accolade. As a drum-freak, I am aware of the way in which certain players are held in a kind of mythical esteem and Copeland certainly fits into that category. A natural, free-flowing player with exceptional attack and his own unique flourishes, he is basically a rock God. But he has many other strings to his bow and has composed countless film scores (over 60 of them), television music and even a long line of computer game music. Add several operas and other orchestral pieces and you begin to get a flavour of the ridiculously varied career he has had. In fact, it was his first film scoring job that set him on part 2 of his musical journey, one that is far removed from the world of stadium rock and adoration.

“Francis Ford Coppola called me and said he wanted me to compose a score for this sort of gothic teen movie he was making called Rumblefish. I had no idea how to go about this but I said yes. It was Coppola after all.

“I finished the main score and Francis came to listen to it. He loved it but said he wanted some strings — I’d had all sorts of weird noises and banged things up to that point but no strings. I had never scored anything for orchestra at that point so I had about 3 seconds to make a decision. I said I could of course create some string sections — and then began to panic.”

Having committed to create new music, Stewart arranged for a chamber orchestra to come to his studio — he’d created some textural parts and handed out the music to the players who sat bemused as he began to describe what he was after in his regular, wildly emphatic way. “The leader of the strings just looked bemused as I ranted on, and when I’d finished he actually just asked ‘do you want us to play what’s on these sheets or try to work out what the f*** it is you just said?’ I thought that was wonderful and these guys just played precisely what I’d put down on the paper and were done in 20 minutes.”

It was this precision that gave Stewart his enduring love of writing for orchestra. “When I play drums, I just play whatever comes into my head, it’s free and somewhat improvised. But orchestral musicians play precisely what is written down for them and for me that was a wonderful revelation. I had this new, magnificent instrument to play now and I have loved it ever since — it is just the complete opposite to how I operate as a musician.”

Taking the risk of telling Coppola he could do what he asked — even though he had no idea how he was going to deliver it — has essentially given Copeland a long composing career but he is still inclined towards considering these events as luck. Just as he considers bumping into Andy Summers, the eventual Police guitarist on the tube after seeing him play for a band called The Gong. “I think you and that bass player (Sting) have got something and you need me in your band, and I accept,” said Summers. Or when Copeland wasn’t even aware that Sting could sing until they did a weird gig in Germany as a backing band for a jazz singer and he wandered up to the mic to improvise, unleashing what became one of the most distinctive voices in rock. “I hired Sting as a bass player who could sing a bit. I had no idea he could REALLY sing!”

Copeland is convinced by happenstance.

Stewart’s early life was a peripatetic one, eventually settling in Beirut as a child and attending American school there. His father, Miles Copeland, was in the CIA. Living across Africa and the Middle East gave Copeland a whole cornucopia of musical influences that have found their way into his drumming style. I ask if he would consider himself to have had a privileged background; “We were skint upper class!”

Nova’s work on social cohesion rings a bell with Copeland because of his diverse upbringing. He lived in places that became bywords for division, hate and violence. “I was in London for years and the thing that always amazed me was how right in the middle of an expensive part of London, you would get this block of council housing. I always loved that and think it is quite unique. It is important that those two communities — the wealthier and the working class — get to know each other.”

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The Opportunity

In people’s lives, ‘opportunities’ can come in various guises, some can be clear and obvious and others may not be evident until after the passage of time. At Nova New Opportunities, we aim to create the conditions for people to take new life chances, and to see where it may take them.

‘The Opportunity’ is a series of discussions with successful individuals who recall a particular moment — or opportunity — that changed the course of their lives. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a particular moment would prove so important to their future, at others, it was a blazingly clear juncture that they knew had to be grabbed with both hands. It could be deemed ‘a stroke of luck’, or it could just have been that someone, somewhere showed a little faith, but these moments are when we recognise the turning points in our lives.

Welcome to Nova. We are a small diverse charity with a big reach and novel approach to social change.