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Stewart Copeland on Life in Quarantine, Mourning Neil Peart

The former Police drummer discusses his time in isolation, reuniting with Oysterhead, and his memories of his late friend from Rush

Manuel Nauta/Nurphoto/Shutterstock

Right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Stewart Copeland reunited with Oysterhead, his jam band with Primus bassist Les Claypool and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, for a pair of shows in Broomfield, Colorado. The February concerts marked the group’s first time together in 14 years, and they had more shows mapped out, only to be postponed as the virus began to spread.

“We were all really looking forward to that,” the former Police drummer says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “The shows were so much fun that we were just really psyched to get out there and play a bunch more.”

Instead, Copeland has spent his time in quarantine doing what he calls “a lot of desk work,” composing and practicing in his home studio, the Sacred Grove. “I’ve been very busy, fortunately,” he says. “I finished an opera, which I just delivered to the German National Opera, which won’t be going up in August 2020 [as planned]. It’ll go up in August 2021 instead.” He’s also been working on music for Police Deranged for Orchestra — another planned tour with an uncertain future — in which he’ll reinterpret songs by his old band using new orchestral arrangements.

Copeland spoke to Rolling Stone about life in isolation, his views on the pandemic, whether there’s any chance the Police will reunite, and more.

How are you holding up?
Well, [I’m] thankful about where I am, but mindful of 70,000 of our neighbors. It’s a very strange form of apocalypse, where it’s around the corner. It’s not in our face. I thought the apocalypse would be just like the movies we’ve seen, where the devastation is observable everywhere. In Los Angeles, we can’t actually see the apocalypse, because we’re all in our homes surrounded by hedges. One starts to feel a little bit like Stalin. I have to remind myself as I look out at the clear sky, and I get through a day without the phone ringing, and no dinner parties — thank God! — all the blessings that come with it.

What exactly is Police Deranged for Orchestra?
I’m orchestrating these Police tracks and I’m deranging it, which means that I’m taking lyrics from this song and put them on that song. I’ve taken this Andy [Summers] guitar riff from what he played in “Can’t Stand Losing You” and put it on “Walking In Your Footsteps.” I’ve kind of mixed and matched all these different figures that they’ve played at one time or another. These derangements came from when I was doing the soundtrack for Everyone Stares, my little movie that I made from my Super 8 footage of back in the day. I’ve got singers; the other tours that I’ve done have been instrumental. Andy and Sting are, of course, irreplaceable.

I started in the world of fine arts after I got out of film composing. I was writing concerti for the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Colorado Symphony, and doing these very fancy shows where I’m on the bill with Stravinsky and Ravel. I started to feel like an actual musician. But then I was tempted into playing some of my film scores — some music of mine that people are more familiar with — and that really was a blast. I toured in Germany and England, playing with a 60-piece orchestra. It was just an amazing musical experience. Then my arm was twisted. Look, I was doing a couple of Police songs, ones that I wrote. Obscure ones, interesting ones. But this time, I’m going full “Roxanne.” “Can’t Stand Losing You.” “Message in a Bottle.”

Have you learned anything new in quarantine?
All of my musician buddies are experiencing personal growth. They are learning how to operate their own studio. Younger musicians do that, they make all their hits on a laptop. But nobody of my age group can start their day’s work until the engineer arrives. And since I’ve been doing this for years, since [I’m] basically a glorified roadie, they call me, and I’m guiding my buddies through. It’s gonna be hell for engineers when it all comes back. All the musicians are going to be discovering the joys of walking into your own goddamn studio at any time of the day or night, flipping a switch on and getting to work in blissful, creative solitude.

I too have experienced personal growth. The dishwasher is now my slave. I own the dishwasher, family. Back off my dishwasher! With plastic gloves I haven’t worn since I was in college. I can handle slime. Send me your slimy plates, I shall handle them into the dishwasher! Back off my dishwasher! So this has been my personal growth. My friend knows how to operate his Pro Tools, but I’ve learned how to deal with a dishwasher.

The concert industry is reeling, and no one knows what the future holds. Can you imagine a world where there are no major concerts before 2022?

Would you feel comfortable performing in public before a vaccine has been distributed?
No. I love playing concerts. I can’t use the word “tragedy.” It’s a disappointment. A tragedy is 70,000 of our neighbors. That’s a tragedy. That I don’t get to go to show off in front of lots of people is a disappointment. I mean, I do enjoy it. It really is the meaning of life for all musicians, but it isn’t actually lifeblood. Making music is, and making music with other musicians is. My Sacred Grove is populated by one solo musician in here, but it’s not the end of the world.

It’s especially strange for bands like Rage Against the Machine, who were set to reunite. Imagine if the Police had planned to reunite!
It would be very inconvenient for everybody. Darned disappointing. I have friends who will tell me, “If I don’t get on the mic, I gotta start selling stuff.” I hear that. It’s the apocalypse, it hits people really unevenly. In a strange way, the heroes of the apocalypse, the fighters, are not our soldiers — our best and brightest young men and women going into the battlefront, training with the weapons. The heroes in this case are just the most commonplace. The delivery drivers, the people working at the grocery store. The nurses and the doctors, of course. They may expect a little credit for their work in life, a little bit of gratitude from society. But whoever would have thunk that we would be thanking the delivery guys for going out into the world for us? It’s sort of beautiful that some of the more mundane walks of life have become the heroes of our time.

The crisis is definitely unevenly distributed. Here in New York, police have been accused of racial bias in their arrests during the pandemic.
In my social group, we’re all talking to each other a lot more on the phone, reaching out to people I haven’t talked to in years. But of my world, there is a huge racial distinction. My African American friends, they know 10 people who’ve died. My white friends don’t. And that’s really weird, because the African Americans that I know tend to be affluent, same socio-economic place as me. The only thing different is that experience of growing up, living while black in America. And yet here, this apocalypse seems to be going after them in an observable way.

Prior to the pandemic, you performed two Oysterhead shows in Colorado with Les and Trey. What was that like for you?
Fantastic. Performing-arts centers are my normal thing. To play an arena, that’s my favorite kind of gig. The stage, there’s room for lots of lights, and the Oysterhead lights are just killer. They’re actually the Phish lights, with [Chris] Kuroda, who’s a genius.

It was a fun, exciting event, and we had not played together for 14 years. We’ve always been planning on it, it’s just that those other two guys got happening careers going on. Waiting to go on, the startup tape, which is like the beginning of our album, [it’s] this whining sort of sound. As soon as it hits and we’re waiting to go on, the noise from the audience just took our heads off, and we walk onstage and the buzz in the room is just incredible. Now, my experience of that buzz — my normal, previous experience — was going onstage with the Police. But what a different atmosphere of Oysterhead. The Police, we go out there to perform a ceremony. There’s a 200-man crew getting this shit. I am just one cog in a giant machine. We don’t own it. The audience owns the music, the crew owns the show.

But Oysterhead, geez. Les and Trey and I just go out there and make shit up for two and a half hours! We go out there with what’s loosely described as material. It just gets us started. Then we take off and we throw ourselves off the cliff, and who knows what the hell’s gonna happen? We don’t. Of course, we hit the rocks occasionally. We’re dead in the water, look at each other. “OK, anyone got some?” And as a pop musician, I’m mortified by that. Dead. But in a jam-band audience, which are the best audience in the world, that’s what they’re there for. It’s  proof. This has never happened before. It will never happen again, and these guys are just making this shit up onstage in front of our eyes. It takes a particular kind of audience to pay money to go and experience that. You can just feel the room light up, kind of in the same way as when a pop group hits that big chorus that everyone’s waiting for.

Do you think we’ll appreciate music more than ever after all this?
No [laughs]. I think people will be a little more … not wanting to press together in the mosh pit. I mean, who knows the human psyche? We’re just guessing here. But it’s kind of a buzzkill, the communal experience.

You were close to Neil Peart. I imagine you’re still in a state of shock over his death.
Yes. It took longer to hit me than his family and so on. He was a really good friend and a unique character. And a big part of my enjoyment of life was going down to the Bubba Cave and shooting the shit about cars, or him coming over here with Danny Carey and others to have it up at the Sacred Grove. I am very sad to miss those times.

When he first passed, I was pleased for him, because [his illness] was a two-to-three-year process. At one point during it, he said, “Look, I’m a year past my sell-by date. I’m still here.” And then another year went by. So when he passed, my first thought was, he had an incredible life. What a great way to go out. He saw his train coming and he got a first-class seat. That’s him. Then comes me, thinking, “Wait a minute. He’s not there anymore. I can’t call him up anymore.” I started to just miss him. I just wish he was back. Like, “That was really cool, Neil! Wow! You really aced it there, buddy! OK, you can come back now.” And that’s the part that sticks with me. I just wish he was here.

Can you tell me about the last time you saw him?
It was at his birthday party, [four] months before he passed. He still had his dignity. You could tell he was appreciating to still be here, but you could see it was beginning to take its toll. It went from not great to really bad very quickly. It was a gradual, gradual impairment. Socially, he was still Neil. He was still the Doctor, still the Professor. Still Neptune on high! But he said, “I’m not getting on my motorcycles again and I’m not getting on a drum set anytime again.” And those were disappointments to him, but he was still glad to be here.

Do you have a favorite memory of Neil?
A few … the favorite is bound to be him over here at the Sacred Grove. Because usually, everyone says, “Wow, saxophone! I’ve never played a saxophone!” ‘Cause I’ve got the world’s largest collection of the cheapest instruments money can buy. I’ve got one of everything. I got tuba, I got baritone saxophone, I got cello, I got timpani. Most musicians come over here, it’s like a candy store. Alex Lifeson came over here one time. Snoop Dogg comes over, he just picks up everything. Neil, he gets behind the drums and commands the chariot for the duration.

The public perception of him was as this very quiet, serious guy. But he was obviously very funny and engaging.
Yes. Very dry, very deadpan. He had some quirks. One of the stranger quirks, which any Rush fan probably knows, or anyone who has loved Neil, [is that] he cannot take compliments. He cannot take adulation. It just touches a button. I should be speaking in past tense. He had, I suppose, a dour exterior, but that craggy, dour exterior just made his wit more piercing. If you’ll forgive the pun. 

There have been a ton of virtual reunions in this period, from bands to former cast members of television shows. Can you see something like that happening with the Police?
We have been in touch. Strange thing, all my singer-songwriter buddies — without naming any names — they’re online operating their own studio, looking at their cellphone and playing their guitar, singing at the camera. Something about “Everybody be safe, wash your hands,” and it’s … not their finest work.

On the other hand, my drummer buddies are blazing. Chad Smith, Travis Barker, Pocket Queen, Sheila E., Brad Wilk. For some reason, when Ash Soan or Elise Trouw get on Instagram, that’s their home. It’s working. The drummers seem to be making better work of the online phenomenon than singer-songwriters.

As for bands, I don’t know how that would work. We communicate as we’ve always done. And also, Les and Trey, we have a constant repartee of graveyard-humor video clips that we’re sending around. A lot of memes out there. So, yeah, we’re in touch with each other. Just not getting so far as the Zoom thing.

Is there anything else you want to say to fans right now?
Remember love. The love is easy. It’s the remembering part that’s tricky — just gotta keep remembering. If somebody cuts you off in the street, [or] you see somebody without a mask, you can judge, and then love.