Stewart Copeland on How The Police Found Synchronicity Under the Volcano

The Police recorded two albums at George Martin’s studio paradise, Stewart Copeland syncs the tracks.

Steward Copeland in Under the Volcano
Photo: Stewart Copeland

Gracie Otto’s documentary Under the Volcano tells the story of a rock star paradise which became a modern Atlantis. Air Studios Montserrat, the recording studio built by The Beatles’ producer George Martin in 1979, captured the truest sounds of the biggest musical acts of the 1980s before it succumbed to the island’s natural disasters. Custom-built in the shadow of the active Soufrière Hills volcano, AIR generated its own heat. Songs recorded at the studio burned up the charts, and reinvigorated burnt out artists.

Paul McCartney retreated to the remote musical getaway shortly after receiving the devastating news about the murder of John Lennon. Paul recorded Tug of War, one of his best post-Beatle works there, as well as Pipes of Peace. He flew in Stevie Wonder, who jammed at a local club until the early hours, for harmonic collaboration. The Rolling Stones reunited to record Steel Wheels, bringing Keith Richards together with Mick Jagger for the first time since their respective solo recordings. The Police took a different direction.

Formed in London in 1977, The Police rode the punk wave to international fame and the pressures of delivering on their musical promise. With Sting on lead vocals and bass guitar, Andy Summers on guitar, and Stewart Copeland on drums, this was not a three-chord, minimalist-mode trio. Merging rock changes, reggae-downbeats, and jazz-chord augmentations, they needed space to expand their reach.

To record Ghost in the Machine, they also wanted to be out of reach of record company suits. They went to Montserrat for the isolation, not only from the pop world, but for each individual track recorded. The studio afforded amazing separation. The band didn’t even have to be in the same room while recording at the same time. Stewart wound up playing drums in a dining room.

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The Police was Copeland’s band, Sting was just in it. Much like the era’s tabloids would’ve had us believe it was Sting’s world and we just lived here. Stewart founded the band, wrote its manifesto, and is still deranging its sonic possibilities. He spoke with Den of Geek about the documentary Under the Volcano, and how The Police lost and found Synchronicity at George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat,

Den of Geek: I was just talking to a drummer friend who left a band we were in to play in a Police cover band. He wanted me to ask about how you approach the drums.

Stewart Copeland: Usually from behind, which sounds really weird, actually. Let me rephrase that.

Did George Martin ever actually say anything about Andy dancing on the soundboard?

Not that I ever heard. In fact, I did a concert with him many years later and it didn’t come up. In fact, I did a television interview with him, a documentary about music that he was making and it didn’t come up. By the way, no damage was done. Those things are built to withstand heavy metal bands. And Andy’s only little. He had very sure footing. Didn’t break anything. And by the way, I’ve seen that console, that exact same console. I’ve seen it at the A&M #1 studio in Los Angeles. I’ve seen it in several other studios that claim that “that is the Neve [Electronics, which made the mixing console] upon which Andy danced.”

I also watched Jools Holland’s short film on the Police at Montserrat film from ’81. I wanted to know about “underwater golfing” and all the other non-musical pastimes that were available.

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Sting and Andy probably went underwater golfing a lot, but they never invited me, damn it.

Was Montserrat really the ultimate in rockstar privilege?

Yes, you could say that. Absolutely. There were a lot of rock and roll diversions that are available in Cleveland that are not available on the island. But as far as the paradisiacal environment, absolutely; and being waited on hand and foot. Great food, great situation. I think in the documentary, they mentioned how some bands kind of just hit the swimming pool deck chairs and never woke up and were half asleep. We weren’t because we tormented each other so fiercely that we were fully awake.

I know that you sent Andy Summers to ask George Martin about producing, but did he ever pop in while you were in the studio?

No. He popped over once or twice for dinner, studiously avoiding any moments that we might be working so that he wouldn’t be roped in.

I guess maybe he learned a thing or two in producing all the music that he produced. And one of the things he learned is to not get between rabid dogs who are trying to tear each other’s throats out.

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Would Synchronicity have sounded any different if you weren’t at odds with each other at the time?

It’s hard to say. If we had arrived at our decision points or the forks in the road, should we do this or should we do that? You know, saxophone solo or guitar solo? Punk version or reggae version? Other stuff, you know. If we had approached these debates more congenially, would we have arrived at a different result? Probably not. And I guess we’re all happy at the end of the day. The experience of making those records was very rigorous, but at the end of the day, we all appreciate the result.

You worked with George Martin on the ’99 Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Beatles show. What was he like to work with?

Excellent. It mainly was working with his son [Giles Martin], his consiglieri, who’s also interviewed in the documentary. But working with him, he’s just a profoundly musical man. Music is what he knows, does, and he makes it very clear what’s needed, what everybody should do.

It was a strange thing. He rehearsed for three days for that show and the first day the word went out and I was the only person who showed up, me and my bass player buddy, Armand [Sabal-Lecco]. So, we learned the material. By the third day, everybody had showed up. Every guitarist in town, everybody, but I was already planted on the drums so everyone else can piss off.

But on guitar, all these session guys had every- who doesn’t know exactly the patch and the fingering of every single Beatles lick? And it was kind of interesting to hear everybody completely nail it in their different kinds of ways. And also on the drums, I was never that big a Beatles fan, but when I sort of made my own tape of the proposed songs. He sent a set list and I started playing [Sings opening of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”].

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I mean, I knew it. My hands knew it. My body knew the song without my brain ever thinking about how the song goes. You just know when the chorus is coming. Yep, this is the chorus. [Sings]. But you know, it’s musical muscle memory, and don’t even get me started on the connection between memory and music.

I recently did a piece on the Concert for Bangladesh and I watched Ringo and Jim Keltner double up and play in unison. I watched the video of you and Ginger Baker playing off each other. Have you ever played in unison with another drummer and who would you like to do that with?

It’s a very strange exercise. Non-drummers seem to think it’s a good idea, and I won’t mention any names, I don’t get it. Guitarists hate to have another guitarist plugged in, God damn it, you know.

Drummers love other percussion. Bongos, shakers, tambourines, you name it, bring it on. Let’s have everybody smacking something. But two drum sets? That don’t make it sound fatter. They don’t really complement each other. My preference would be a drummer, but not in a drum set, doing something else. Like the contrast that fulfills a different function. I don’t really get the two-drummer thing.

Do you still consciously count when you’re drumming?

Yes. When learning something, I count it out, figure out what it is, but then once I’ve learned it, I don’t count it anymore. I just know it. But yes, sometimes when things are tricky and you actually need to hit a certain hit because that’s what everything else is doing. Yes. It helps to count it out. “Ah, that’s where it is. It’s the end of three,” you know? And then once you’ve got that, you don’t need to refer to the numbers anymore. That’s just to find it.

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I subscribe to you on YouTube, and just this morning got an email blast about Police Deranged for Orchestra.

That is going to be a blast. That is going to be the most fun show ever. I’ve got Armand Sabal-Lecco on bass, Rusty Anderson on guitar. His day job is playing with Paul McCartney as it happens. He’s been doing that for 20 years or so. Armand from Cameroon, the Prince of Cameroon is a monster.

Moving up the hierarchy, the three singers, they’ve got three soul sisters on the mic singing the songs, but behind us is the mighty San Diego Symphony in San Diego. And when we get to Cleveland, it’s a mighty Cleveland Orchestra.

And then we’re playing in Atlanta, Buffalo, Nashville, L.A., and it’s really, it’s pretty exciting. I spent a lot of time creating the orchestral arrangements or derangements and some of the songs are quite faithful with the form, but others, I deranged.

There are two things. Why orchestra? I’m the drummer in a rock band? What am I doing in the orchestra? That’s a long story. With 20 years as the film composer, I had a forced education in orchestration. But why deranged is because back in the day I had a Super 8 camera, a film camera, and I shot all the stuff, the whole rise, and then put it in shoe boxes and forgot about it until they invented computers and hard drives and Final Cut Pro.

And I had a moment, I was busy making little movies of my children and I thought, “Wait a minute. I’ve got boxes and boxes of really cool stuff of the rollercoaster ride, the rocket ship of The Police.”

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So, I dug it all out, 52 hours, and made a movie. And it was kind of the home movie from hell. But somebody persuaded me to send it to the Sundance and the Sundance was, “Whoa, bring it on over.” And they invited me to participate in the festival. Oh, darn. I had to finish it and make it.

It ends up I sold it to Showtime and it became a feature film for which I needed music, preferably Police music. However, what I learned in film in my 20 years before the masters, the hired gun, is that music must serve the picture. And if the picture takes a left, so must the music.

However, those original Police recordings didn’t take a left. They carried right on because they had some other agenda, mainly being a song. So, I had to cut the stuff up and I had to go back into the masters. But once the scalpel was out, this is fun. I got all the masters of those recordings, as well as live recordings. I found long lost guitar solos, other lyrics.

And I found that Sting’s songwriting was quite modular, so I could take the lyrics of this song, put them on the riff of that song. And I went a little batshit crazy on the whole enterprise and kind of overdid it. And when my colleagues heard, “What is Stewart doing? He’s over there taking our master tapes and cutting entirely new music?”

“Calm down guys. It’s just for the movie.” And so, they calmed down and I think they actually kind of appreciated the result at the end of the day, as long as I’m not trying to make a record and rewrite Police history. But now I am rewriting Police history. By taking those derangements, those weird arrangements where I found all these different melodies and guitar lines and put them in the orchestra, that’s what we’re doing.

About half the material is the original song, and I did make the orchestra do very cool stuff with it. But the other half are these different versions of songs, different melodies and so on. With the three women singing, I get to get all of the Sting harmonies that he did in the studio, as well as the improvisations he did on stage, and the same with Andy.

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This exercise has really reminded me, in fact, even more than reminded me: it’s really woken me up to the genius of both of those two guys, the stuff they came up with. I was busy banging shit. I hardly even noticed what Andy was doing, but now I’m deep into what Andy was doing with a much higher degree of appreciation.

As you’re developing all of this for orchestration and ripping it apart, and also with the benefit of knowing how each of you developed post-Police, where do you think the band might’ve gone musically as a continuing unit?

Just the other day, pursuant to flogging the Police Deranged orchestra shows, and I’m sort of looking for images to use for posters, I came across the orchestral performance that I did in Germany, where I’m actually on the podium conducting. We did do “The Equalizer” theme and I’m conducting with a drumstick. The orchestra are all totally, you can see in the picture, they’re all leaning forward. They’re really into it, it’s a really intense thing. And I’m up there waving my stick and it’s this big ass orchestra.

I sent it to Sting a couple of days ago. And I said, “This is how we should have run The Police.” And he wrote back and he said, “So I’m second fiddle?” To which I responded, “Stingo, you will always be first fiddle.”

Also, knowing all this stuff from the inside out with the notation and all that, how do you think The Police would go forward now as a creative unit moving into new territory?

Not so much because we know what we’re doing. And my humble estimation is we got two more albums out of Sting than we deserved. So, he actually was the reason I was overcome by homicidal rage and I felt the urgent necessity of throttling him was because he would come over and say, “Hey, do this or that with the drums.” “Fuck off.” You know?

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What made it so urgent was that he wasn’t wrong. He sort of does actually know how to arrange a song and arrange the band and his ideas are pretty good. That doesn’t mean I listened because I was a young prick myself and I had my own ideas, which would prevail. But he’s really good at that stuff.

We, today, if we tried to recreate that, are too independently minded and we have continued to grow in the 30 years since our last collaboration and in a different direction. And at this point in our lives, music has a different function for us. For me, it’s this. The reason I make music is for these reasons, and this is what I like to achieve with music. And for others, they have a completely different agenda of what music is for and what it’s supposed to do and how it’s supposed to be made.

It requires more patience. I’m actually more patient. I would say that for me, there is not one musical truth, because I got beat up. For 20 years, I was told exactly what emotion is required. And I had to learn to create exactly that for my boss, the director who is actually the artist. I’m just a craftsman.

So, I learned to be very malleable but also didn’t really understand how to work different emotions very specifically. Other members of the band who have never suffered under the lash of cruel employment are unrestrained, and have a strange idea that there is only one musical truth and no experience in life has ever shaken that core belief. Which means that when I’ve got to deal with that mindset, it’s unrewarding.

And by the way, I say this with love and admiration in my heart, this is not a gripe, believe me. I’m just explaining why we enjoy each other’s company over dinner and really have a deep abiding admiration and love. But just we get into the studio together and we’re not copacetic.

Going on stage, by the way, playing those songs. That’s a different thing. That’s really exciting because of the emotional charge that it has on an 80,000 people stadium, well, that’s exciting. For the audience, that’s exciting. Never mind my ideas about what music is for. Who cares? Look at that audience going like that. That’s why I’m here on the planet.

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Under The Volcano is available On Demand and Digital now.