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Q&A: Copeland Breathes in Police

Drummer discusses the best and worst of his former band

Over a five-album span beginning in 1977, the Police won Grammys, racked up smash hits and fought. Flirting with pop, punk, jazz, reggae and rock, and finding success in all directions, the Police could have gone any which way they wanted after the release of 1983’s multi-platinum Synchronicity. Instead, they simply went their separate ways, as singer/bassist Sting broke up the band in favor of a solo career, turning his back on the group that gave the world “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle.” All are included on the new anthology, The Best of Sting & the Police. Drummer Stewart Copeland served as the Police’s backbeat during their seven turbulent years.

How do you feel about greatest hits records?

I like ’em. I like the original albums to be available as well, because my favorite tracks are often not the ones that are the hits. But then sometimes when I feel like some Santana I go get the compilation because you get three different albums’ worth of sort of your favorite songs — it’s just a different animal. And a slightly different running order kind of illuminates different aspects of the tracks too. I get into, “Ah, this is an early one, this is a later one, listen to how different the snare sounds,” professional stuff.

Is that what you hear when you listen back to these records?

To my own records, yeah, how different the snare drum sounds, important stuff like that.

What other kinds of things like that?

What pizza we were eating that day, that’s the strangest thing, whenever I listen to the music I’ve made I remember whatever food was from the nearest restaurant. In the last two Police albums in Montserrat there’s this kind of Caribbean cooking and actually the whole experience of being on Montserrat off of this emerald isle in the middle of the Caribbean, a twelve-hour flight away from the nearest record executive. It got really ugly towards the end of Synchronicity, but if I listen — as I had cause to do recently — we actually had a great time doing Ghost in the Machine.

Was there anything you wanted on here that isn’t?

Yes and no. The tracks that are on there, the ones that have every aspect of the group more or less, and there’s other tracks that are personal favorites like “Shadows in the Rain,” “Tea in the Sahara” and “Regatta de Blanc.” They’re kind of personal favorites, because they’re obscure aspects of what the group did.

What are your favorites that made the cut?

“Message in a Bottle,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take,” of course — actually I’m just making that up. This compilation was released in Europe, and it was amazing what happened there: It went straight to Number One and the interest was quite startling, so it’s come out here and the tracks have been slightly reconfigured. I’m not actually sure what’s on it. I think the really cool thing about it is the fact that there’s two artists that are related but quite distinct on the album and I think when Sting went off to do his solo career there were a lot of Police fans that didn’t buy into the jazz vibe, didn’t follow Sting into the many places he went musically after the Police. There’s an even larger group of people who discovered Sting as himself doing the music he did without the Police and developed a taste for that and he built up a pretty distinctly different fan base on his own music. And the Police guy who never followed Sting and the new Sting fans who aren’t really aware he was in the Police, I think both sides would benefit from exposure to the other.

Are you rankled at all that this collection is titled “Sting and the Police?”

One part of me says that changes the band name or the trademark or whatever, but that’s all small potatoes. I think the Police achieved enough so that I don’t need to be too sensitive. I like getting to all those fans Sting has earned by hard work over the last twenty years. I like having Police music exposed to those people. I hear so much snide stuff about Sting. Most of it I hear just because people think they can ingratiate themselves with me by slagging Sting, and I can’t tell you how wrong that is. It would do them good to hear some of Sting’s own stuff, which I think is great. I’m still susceptible to his harmonic sensibilities, his poetry and every other aspect of it, and, even if he plays with other musicians who wouldn’t have done the same thing with the material that I would have done, I still like the material.

I’m going to throw some song titles out there and I want to get your first impressions or what you remember from recording them: “So Lonely.”

We were on a roll with “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely,” so those three songs sort of go together. I prefer “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Roxanne” to “So Lonely” personally, but all three had that kind of crossover feel. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is one of my favorites. There’s two versions of it. In fact I have a version I’ve cut up just for fun, called “My Police Derangement.” It’s the original studio backing track with the 1986 vocal. We recorded that song in 1986, it was a different version of the song and Sting did a huge, cool thing with the vocals but the band was not as good because I was in a game of polo, my horse did a somersault, I was obliged to dismount and I landed on my shoulder and broke my collarbone, so there were no drums. It was a drum box but the vocals were really cool, so I put the 1986 vocals with the 1979 backing track, and it’s kinda cool. It will probably appear on one of these subsequent Police re-releases. I’ve got a whole bunch of those tracks. I took live recordings and studio recordings original masters from the studio recordings and mixed them all up, put wrong words with the wrong backing track and really fucked ’em up.

Did you have thoughts of putting those out?

I did have thoughts of that but my colleagues quite rightly point out that if there’s going to be a Police album out there, they ought to be participating in it. These are just doodlings of mine at home and they’ll probably just appear as bonus tracks.

“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”?

That was Sting’s rebellion against the punk world that we put ourselves in. It wasn’t until our third or fourth album that we had earned the right to play whatever we fucking well want. He had had that song since way, way back in the beginning and we never considered it part of the Police oeuvre because it was such a bare-faced pop song. It’s almost like that Paul McCartney song, funny little love song or whatever it is, except that I think Sting’s song is much better.

Was there an actual conversation about that, like, “Are we allowed to put this out?”

I remember him writing it in the back of a tour bus where all these punk bands were in a coach going down to the South of France for the punk festival at Mont-de-Marsan. The Clash were there, the Damned, all the groups were on the bus and Sting was in the back all grumpy because he thought they were all jerks and idiots and assholes pretending to be musicians and he was sitting there singing “Every little thing she does is . . .” and he was writing this pop song as a rebellion.

Are there any songs on here you got sick of playing?

No, the reason for that is because I haven’t played any of ’em in twenty years. I’d give anything to play any Police song right now. There were never songs I was sick of, because we were fortunate to have good songs to play.

Can you remember any particular fights about a song that went against what you wanted?

Two songs: “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Every Breath You Take” — two of our biggest hits. “Every Breath You Take” was a song where Sting brought in a keyboard thing, and we fought tooth and nail. Andy and I insisted, ‘No, we don’t want a keyboard song. We’re a guitar band,’ and Andy came up with a guitar part and there was a lot of screaming and shouting about that, but the quality of the part eventually settled the argument. But that was a big shouting match and Sting gave that one up and we got a great record out of it, and I’m sure he’s fine about it now, but there was a lot of shouting on the day. On “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” it was exactly the opposite. We each owned a full recording studio, so instead of him bringing in a couple chords and a lyric, he’d bring in a fully produced master and we struggled against that, not going to turn it into our own thing and we fought and fought and fought and finally we did it his way. After all the shouting we couldn’t argue with the fact that it sounded better that way. And I just overdubbed drums to the demo he had already made and I’m very proud of the result now, but I wasn’t on the day. I guess I’m glad “Every Breath You Take” is a guitar song and that Sting stuck to his guns and insisted that we stick with his original concept for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

You mentioned that you’d give anything to play Police songs again. How likely is it that you would re-group?

Very, very unlikely.

What would it take to make it happen? What’s holding it up?

Sting’s stellar career is holding it up. If he was starving, maybe we could do it.


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