Stewart Copeland: Brings A Different Sandwich to the Picnic
Although best known as the founding drummer of the Police, Stewart Copeland transcends the boundaries of a traditional rock and roller. His resume includes several film scoring credits, including Wall Street, Talk Radio, She’s Having A Baby and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, among others. In 1992, he began writing music for “Horse Opera,” which was featured in a four-part opera series on British television. A year later, he was a featured special guest of the Seattle Symphony, and then headlined a national tour with his own group, Stewart Copeland and the Rhythmastics.
Fast forward to the winter of 2000: Copeland is invited to perform with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Primus/Frog Brigade bassist Les Claypool for a show in New Orleans. He accepts and two days later is at Anastasio’s Vermont barn improvising, a practice that has not been part of his musical regimen as of late. The trio, later dubbed Oysterhead, has since recorded an album, The Grand Pecking Order, due out October 2 on Elektra, and will launch its first tour next month.
[Editor’s Note: Jambands.com’s own Jeff Waful has recently taken over the editorship of the “Phish Notes” section in Relix magazine. The October/November issue of Relix, slated to hit newsstands the first week of October, contains interviews with all three members of the band. It will include more from Jeff’s conversation with Stewart, in which the drummer describes his experience at a Trey Anastasio show as well as the Oysterhead "alpha dog" debates].
JW: Let’s start with the first time that you jammed with Trey and Les. Can you paint a picture of the first time the three of you played together?
SC: Meeting Trey was rather peculiar because he was six inches off the ground and has been ever since I’ve known him. There’s a good six inches of air beneath his sneakers. Les is up to his knees in solid earth and he has quite a grasp of the inner dynamics of the cosmos and the salt of the earth and the rocks that form the basis of any solid artistic endeavor. That was my impression of those two: one very solid individual and one very effervescent individual. We plugged in and started playing and that’s sort of the way the music went too. It was the power coming with Les and really getting me to throb and Trey soaring over the top of it.
JW: If Trey’s floating above the earth and Les is submersed in the muck, where do you fit in to that equation?
SC: I’m just a drummer.
JW: Well I think the beauty of Oysterhead is that the three of you come from such diverse backgrounds and have such stylistic differences.
SC: That’s true, but when we come together there is not much air in between us. It’s not like each of us is trying to pull in a different direction, it’s more like each of us brings a different sandwich to the picnic.
JW: When you first sat down and started playing up at Trey’s barn, was there a chemistry right off the bat?
SC: It really was clear instantly. I sat down at the drums and started a groove and instantly Les was in there and then this strange stuff started coming out of the guitar. In fact, that first jam, that first riff from that first moment became a track that is on the album, entitled “Rubberneck Lions.”
JW: Was the initial batch of songs that you played at the first show in New Orleans, written the same way as the songs on the album?
SC: It was slightly different because we were organizing material to play for a show, so we had that in mind. It was thrown together pretty quickly. The ideas were flowing fast and furious. It wasn’t so much a matter of “Oh God, what are we going to sing here? Any old crap will do.” Both Trey and Les were throwing lines at each other so fast that it was a question of keeping it down to five verses instead of ten. We ended up doing a two-and-a-half hour show. One of the things about Oysterhead is that one of my roles is to try to trim it down, because there’s so much material. These are very prolific fellows.
JW: Tell me about the New Orleans show. I know you had mixed feelings about it. What were your initial thoughts on that first live performance?
SC: Well, I thought we played too long. There were a lot of train wrecks, but I didn’t mind those. I don’t make any apologies for those. That was pretty much what the audience expected and what everyone knew they’d get. A lot of it came into really sharp focus and there was a lot that wasn’t so focused. I enjoyed the hell out of the show, but what I really enjoyed was screwing around with it afterwards because there was a Napster version. I pulled it off Napster and oh God, it sounded terrible, not just the sound quality, but the car-crash quality. The two-and-a-half hours of tape without the benefit of having the band physically in front of you was stretched pretty thin. I couldn’t stop myself from editing the hour down to 50 minutes and that’s when I really could see that the gems were there and if you clustered them all in one place, you’ve got a pretty sparkly thing.
JW: The way you recorded the Oysterhead album seems very interesting in that you had no idea what was going to happen and you just went in and winged it and came out with this beautiful album.
SC: Yes it seems kind of foolhardy and it’s absolutely not how you’re supposed to do it. In one half we proved that you can do it the way you’re not supposed to, but the half of whether or not it hits, we’ll find out. We made an album that we’re really happy with and we’ll find out if it’s a hit album. Before we went into the studio, the thought crossed my mind “What’s radio playing out there?” I tuned in for a while and realized that they weren’t playing anything I was going to make. So we didn’t really consider what our format would be. So I don’t know if it’s going to be a hit, but it sure works for us as a cool record.
Part of the fact of going in there without material is vindicated, because it’s very fresh. That’s the main thing that you get from not building up a body of material, rehearsing it and then turning on the red light. It is that the performances are 1000% more spontaneous and we did use a lot of first takes or second or third takes. A lot of the time, we were recording it as we were writing it and constructing it in all different kinds of ways. When you get a band that rehearses a song and plays it in one take, that’s a certain kind of reality, but it’s a certain kind of dusty as well because it doesn’t have that spark of the first time you ever played that riff. In Oysterhead, we’ve got some songs where we were jamming and we cut them up and we made a song out of them. There’s a different kind of reality there. It may seem unreal because it’s cut up, but it’s much more real, because that’s the sound of the band playing and improvising the inspiration as it hits. I think there’s a value to that too.
This is one of the discussions that we have around the table. Most of the material is regular, written stuff like “Rubberneck Lions.” We not only wrote it before we recorded it, but we had played it in concert before. We didn’t need to rehearse it, so that was pretty much a first or second take because we already knew the song. There’re moments on the album that are the raw, real thing for me.
JW: There seems to be a lot of diversity on the album. There are pretty acoustic songs like “Radon Balloon” or “Birthday Boys” followed by heavier tunes like “Little Faces” or “Rubberneck Lions.” Was there a conscious decision to write certain songs with the structure of the album in mind?
SC: Not at all. It was kind of the other way around where we had all the different elements. There’s an Oysterhead sound that we knew we had. There were other things that sort of tickled our fancies as well. “Birthday Boys” isn’t necessarily the Oysterhead sound even though that’s another song that we played in New Orleans without lyrics. It’s sort of outside of thrashing bass, intellectual drums and cerebral guitar, you know? It’s a different mix of things. The idea was more to bring it back into the Oysterhead world as well as to stretch the Oysterhead world out as far as possible to include things like that.
JW: What are some of your highlights on the new Oysterhead album?
SC: I particularly like “Armies on Ecstasy” and “Polka Dot Rose.” I think I’m the only member of the band that doesn’t think its album filler, but I love it. I like the guitar solo in “Mr. Oysterhead.” I like all of the lyrics on the album. I think both those guys are really great lyricists. All of Les’s lyrics paint a picture. It took me a while to get Les’s singing actually. I remember thinking that to myself when he asked me to produce Primus.
I live in this ivory tower; the other two guys will confirm this. I don’t know shit about what’s going on out there and I don’t really care. I listen to the radio and pick up things occasionally, but I haven’t got those professional ears that I used to have where I knew every group: who was in it, where they were headed, who there record deal was with, who their agent was, everything. I’m not in there anymore, so I don’t know what’s going on.
JW: How was it working with Les as a musician after being his producer on the Primus album?
SC: Well, we knew each other. The thing is, both Les and Trey are both producers and they’re both band leaders as well. All of us know how to go about making a record. There was so much band momentum. One of the things that really surprises me about Oysterhead, which is really different from say, Animal Logic or other short-lived, super group concepts that have come my way, is that there’s a momentum of the band itself. When we start playing together it’s really clear to us what the band’s sound is. There isn’t too much discussion about whether we should do this or we should do that. The artistic policy, the sound, seems to be there and we’re just riding it.
JW: Moving to the upcoming tour, every show will be taped and heavily circulated among fans. That’s something that I assume you aren’t used to. Everything you play will be put under a microscope. What is your reaction to this?
SC: Every note we play will live forever. The good news is that you play a show and it’s not all over that night. It’s great. People get to take it home and listen to again tomorrow. I love that. I wish I could give them a better recording of it, in fact, to follow the whole thing through. I’d rather that we make a really great recording ourselves and distribute it to those who want it. Of course our business suits would land on us like a shark pack if we tried to do something like that. You know I have an ambivalent feeling about Napster. Every musician primarily wants to be heard and secondarily needs to earn a living. As 10CC said, “Art for art’s sake, money for Christ’s sake.” The basic feeling before you start thinking about it is that you want to be heard.
JW: All the songs on the new album are under six minutes in length. Will any of the material be stretched out into 20-minute versions in the live setting?
SC: Yes, they will stretch out. I don’t know about 20 minutes. I’m the pop guy in the band, I guess. My inclination is that less is more.
JW: There was some speculation among fans whether or not taping would be allowed.
SC: Oh yeah. We are going to play absolutely by Phish rules because that is a really great audience. Those are people that I want to play for. When I went to the Phish show and the Trey show, I was just really impressed by the vibe there and that’s who I want to play for. So, tape away kids.
JW: Will the tour feature any new material that’s not on the album?
SC: At the moment the only material we have is what’s on the record. We have a few covers we could play for encores or something, but that’s it. We’re going to get together in September and what seems to always happen when we get together is that we kind of move forward and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a lot of new material by the time we hit the stage.