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Stewart Copeland of The Police: ‘You can’t beat an old song, but I bang the sh*t out of them’

The composer and drummer’s show, Police Deranged, at Galway International Arts Festival, recalibrates Police songs for a full orchestra

Stewart Copeland performing Police Deranged for Orchestra in Northridge, California in November 2021. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

As Stewart Copeland holds his mobile phone in front of him and walks in circles around his studio-cum-mancave (aka the Sacred Grove) in his Los Angeles home, there is a dizziness in talking to him that doesn’t come just from the motion. The man could talk for multiple countries. He stops occasionally to make a point, using his free arm to further emphasise something.

Copeland is a charmer: witty and informative, a musician used to walking into a room and naturally becoming the centre of attention. I ask when he last performed in Ireland. As he begins his circuit, he tells me he has performed here three times, each as drummer with The Police. “We played Dublin in 2007, at Croke Park, and in 2008 in Belfast, for our reunion tour. The first time was in 1980 at Leixlip Castle, Kildare. One of my main memories of that gig is of U2. They were way down the bill, I had never heard of them before, but you could just tell they had something. But enough about U2 – let’s talk about me-two.”

Copeland is at the other end of the Zoom line to promote his forthcoming performance of Police Deranged for Orchestra at the Galway International Arts Festival on Wednesday July 17th, the day after his 72nd birthday. The show features numerous recalibrated Police songs arranged for full orchestra, which is conducted by a long-time Irish friend and musical associate, Eimear Noone (who conducted Copeland’s most recent opera, The Witches Seed, during its Italian run).

“In the Police Deranged show, her arrangement of Every Breath You Take shows in sharp relief the difference between someone who knows what she’s doing, and me, who’s just stumbling around in the dark. I can’t claim to be a cute beginner any more, but Eimear’s scoring of that particular song taught me a thing or two.”


The drummer/composer is no stranger to writing and arranging for orchestra, having scored dozens of films and television shows over the past 40 years and, latterly, contemporary operatic works. He admits that his proceeds from The Police’s 2007/2008 reunion tour mean he can, within reason, now do whatever takes his fancy without having to scrutinise the bottom line.

“My only concern for commercial matters is that the people I work with don’t get burned. Because of what I’ve achieved, I have the luxury of being able to write opera, which is no way to feed a family. I feel blessed that I can do that.” He says he is no longer involved in film soundtrack work yet admits that “as a hired gun, my years in the business were some of the most valuable of my life. It turns out you learn more from being an employee than you do from being the boss, or from being an artist. My work taught me all kinds of things I never would have learnt as an artist.”

Foremost among them was when he started working on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film Rumble Fish. “One day, he turned around to me and said, ‘We need strings,’ so I had to hire some string players and write some string parts. From that point onwards began a long journey of exploration into all of the amazing things an orchestra can do. I never would have gone there as a drummer, but as a film composer, I had to. Many times along the way, a director would say, ‘Go there.’ I would go there and discover something that I never would have learned voluntarily.”

Stewart Copeland: 'I am now an artist writing opera, and I never would have learned all this stuff if I had remained a drummer in a rock band'

Another circuit of the Sacred Grove completed, Copeland continues apace. “The film composer is not an artist but rather a craftsman serving the art of the director. If a director wanted music in any particular style, then I would do the best I could to figure out the original emotion and cultural signature. By doing that, my skills improved. I am now an artist writing opera, and I never would have learned all this stuff if I had remained a drummer in a rock band.”

Growing up, Copeland’s mother, Lorraine, a Scottish archaeologist, listened to 20th-century classical music by Igor Stravinsky, Carl Orff, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, all of whom were influential. Meanwhile, his American father, Miles Copeland Jr, a founding member of the CIA (believe it or not) instilled in his son an appreciation of jazz. “And then along came Jimi Hendrix’s music, which was, of course, a total reset,” says Copeland. “As a 16-year-old, I’ve got Hendrix’s guitar playing in one part of my brain and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in another. The combination of all the cool stuff that an orchestra can do, and all the stuff that a rock band can do is what you will hear in Galway.”

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Copeland is aware that some might view Police Deranged as a different way to present legacy material, but he counters that by saying he’s able to look backwards because he’s comfortable with his forward creative momentum. “I have no problem looking over my shoulder because there’s something very good about doing that, despite it being viewed as nostalgia, which I know for some is a dreaded word. Most musicians, I think, would profess to be allergic to the concept of nostalgia, but not me because my experience, if not from academic studies, has revealed that emotions connected with memories connected with music are very powerful. Every artist, every rock band, knows that when you go out on tour promoting a new album, the material doesn’t go down as well as the songs from the previous albums. It’s simple: familiarity breeds emotional involvement.”

The Police - Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers and Sting - celebrate signing their record deal at the A&M offices in New York in March 1978. Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

Not for Copeland the creeping dread of revisiting the hits. He says the likes of Message In a Bottle, Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Every Breath You Take, Roxanne, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, King of Pain and Can’t Stand Losing You light up the room like nothing else. “The emotional baggage those songs carry is not something achievable with fresh material. New songs have to earn their place in your heart, whereas I just like to play fun shows that connect with people. I’m all good with the new stuff I’m doing, but I can’t resist burning up an audience with songs they know and love and have associated memories and emotions with. The saying is that you can’t beat an old song, but that’s exactly what I do – I bang the sh*t out of them.”

As we go more laps around his studio space, we notice a lifetime of keepsakes and memorabilia. “I’ve got my original guitar,” he says, pointing to it. “And there’s my amp from college ... And in a couple of shoe boxes, I’ve got all my diaries from the ‘70s when The Police were trying to make it through the Thatcher era. I’m a pack rat, so I keep stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever sold any of my musical instruments, and I’m not sure why, to be honest.”

At this point, as our allocated time draws to an end, Copeland slows down. His pack rat mentality seeps into his work – he never throws away any ideas. He admits this points to a never-ending curiosity. “I’ve been described as conscientious, which means that I care about getting things right and digging deeper into a topic. I admit there was a lot of luck involved and a lot of other associations with other talented people have got me here, but I’m supremely grateful for what my efforts have brought me and where I’ve landed. Every morning I rush through breakfast because I’m in a hurry to get back into this room and get on with it some more.”

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With such a work ethic, I ask what ideas are uppermost in his mind for next year. “I’m in the process of writing another opera, a commissioned piece with the Juilliard School of Music, but I don’t like to mention things before they come to fruition. I’m not superstitious, but somehow there’s been a consistency of mentioning something you’re planning and then it goes away.”

For what seems like the first time in 30 minutes, Copeland pauses for breath. “Not, however, for Police Deranged for Orchestra. I can safely predict this: Ireland, I’m coming for ya.”

Stewart Copeland’s Police Deranged for Orchestra, conducted by Eimear Noone, is on Wednesday July 17th in the Heineken Big Top as part of the Galway International Arts Festival