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African Rhythms

Stewart Copeland

Meanwhile, Tim Goodyer finds The Rhythmatist, alias Police drummer Stewart Copeland, resting in his home studio after an African jaunt from which a single, an album and a video have resulted. All three come under discussion.

Stewart Copeland, the man behind the drums behind the Police, gets to his feet and finds a Fairlight, a video camera and Africa. The results are fascinating.

Copeland on Screen

As one of the few bands involved in the post-punk revolution to survive with their self-respect - not to mention the respect of their public - intact, it's an open secret The Police have been finding it progressively more difficult to live up to what's expected of them. They were doing a good job, make no mistake, with most recent recorded output equalling - if not exceeding - the standard of previous achievements with stupendous ease. But after seven years together, the mutually-agreed split that's seen the band remain quiet for the best part of 20 months has been a welcome relief for all three Policemen - singer Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland.

It's given them a chance to live, play and record outside the restrictions imposed by a rigid band format. More crucially, it's afforded them the opportunity to work alongside other musicians, to absorb new influences, and to come up with music that's entirely different in approach and colour to anything The Police have ever achieved.

Copeland does not appear to have considered his function within the band particularly confining (most of us are well aware of the true identity of Klark Kent, even if the BBC aren't), but his excursion into the world of the filmscore was a big, bold step to take. He was frequently to be witnessed at the safe end of a Super 8 cine camera in the numerous Police documentaries, and provided an excellent soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's Rumblefish in 1983.

That in itself is no big deal: plenty of other pop players have embraced the world of film music, and done so successfully. But what Copeland is attempting now, with the release of an album entitled The Rhythmatist that's taken from a video of the same name, is to create in the musical and visual media simultaneously. The video is around an hour in length, houses a single, somewhat arcane storyline, and falls into a previously uncharted area somewhere between the pop promo and the feature film.

It's an ambitious project, and a hazardous one - particularly when the location of the film (and the inspiration for its music) is black Africa. In Copeland's case, the interviewer's customary opening 'Why?' is a question that has wide, unpredictable implications. I asked it anyway.

'There were several different but converging factors. One was this idea of the video cassette as a medium for which there isn't really an art form at present. The video is either used in three-minute clips in its pop video form, or else they put a feature film on it.

'The other thing is my interest in Africa as far as rhythm is concerned. It's a continent with a natural sense of rhythm - it's a social characteristic of the place. There's a lot of variety in the culture of Africa, but one thing all the cultures have in common is the prominence of music in their society, and the prominence of rhythm in their music. Black musicians tend to regard it as a weird sort of racism to refer to their "natural sense of riddum". It's almost like a put-down, and I can appreciate that.'

If Copeland saw the use of rhythms indigenous to Africa as the illicit theft of ethnic culture for improper Western gain, he wouldn't have ventured out into the Dark Continent in the first place. But there are those who'd accuse him of doing just that. What's his reply to the sceptics?

'Using the music of Africa is no more or less plagiaristic than being influenced by something closer to home. The Beatles used Chuck Berry, Bach used local melodies. Music reflects the world that you live in, and that's a kind of plagiarism in itself.

'But I have had some people be a lot more forceful about it, saying things like: "How do you feel about stealing African music?" But wait a minute. I didn't steal it; it's still there for Christ's sake. When I left the village, they didn't look round and say: "Where's our music gone? It must have been that white guy who took it from us!".

"I went back and forth between cutting the film and writing the music, composing and creating - that's why it took nine months to do!"

'Not only that, but when I was there, nothing could have pleased the natives more than having their music recorded. The way of getting into them and turning them on was to say: "Look, we're going to record your music and take it to a far off land where people will he able to listen to it and appreciate it". And that's a big charge for them. This idea that I'm stealing their music couldn't be further from the Africans' perspective: it's something invented by people in London bistros wearing pointed shoes and yellow socks.

'I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but I've apportioned the amount of music that is African in origin on the LP and video, and the royalties go to a fund that will either go to Band Aid or more specific relief organisations for the areas that I was in.'

It's one of contemporary music's strangest paradoxes that those who've sought to incorporate low-tech, ethnic elements into pop culture have turned to high-technology to help realise their aspirations. The gurus of cross-cultural experimentation (Gabriel, Byrne, Jarre et al) have all been seen, microphone in hand, in search of sounds that have remained unchanged for generations. Then they record them, take them home, and send them into an obliging Fairlight.

As for Stewart Copeland, he's never been in danger of being accused of shying away from technological innovation ('Shit, it's like Cape Kennedy behind the drums at a Police gig'), so it comes as little surprise to see him seated alongside a CMI within the first few frames of Rhythmatist, the video...

'The Fairlight's a great machine with lousy hardware', he curses, trying to coax his model into accepting input from the alphanumeric keyboard. 'My favourite sounds on there at the moment are some of the string sounds. There are some really good ones that nobody's using.'

The primitive, occasionally eerie-sounding effects that populate the Rhythmatist album were captured on location with the assistance of a Sony PCM F1 digital recorder the Policeman carried around with him on his African beat. That was in addition to the equipment used by the sound crew recording the soundtrack for the video. 'I recorded samples of different sounds and whole songs on the F1, and transferred them to the Fairlight when I got back to the studio', the artist recalls.

The studio in question is Copeland's own. It's situated where any self-respecting, self-made rock star builds his private studio - in the back garden. And it's equipped with an enviable assortment of keyboards and outboard gear that includes the inevitable DX7, a conspicuous video monitor, and several video machines to keep the Fairlight company.

'I think the most valuable samples I made were the vocal samples. I mean, a drum sound is just another drum sound. I've got a million different drums and I can make all those sounds here in the studio, but the vocal sounds were the ones I found most special - and most useful.'

"Native African music has a cumulative effect. They don't have 15-minute dance versions of songs, they have six-hour dance versions."

Sure enough, the samples currently inhabiting the floppies at the Copeland studio aren't the sort of thing that's easy to even envisage, let alone construct, on your average Poly 800. But once you've collected countless unlikely-sounding samples and 12 hours of film, how do you go about turning them into a video and accompanying soundtrack?

'Well, the film was cut in London and Los Angeles. The first rough cut of the video was done in LA, where it was cut down from 12 hours to three hours. After that we moved to London; I've got a place there and we set up a cutting room in the basement.

'When I'm scoring a Hollywood film, I stick it on and just score to the picture, but with The Rhythmatist, the concept was to approach the two elements - picture and music - simultaneously. That made it a lot more involved, and it also meant more work. It's easy enough to score to a picture that's already there, but to get more ambitious and say "What we could do here is this...", and then to have to go back into the cutting room and re-cut the picture and so on means a lot more work. I went back and forth between cutting the film and writing the music, composing and creating - that's why it took nine months to do!'

Recording technicalities. A project as complex and as potentially open-ended as Copeland's needs a lot of technology at each stage of its production, and the recording side of things is no exception.

'I'm a tech-head really. Both my colleagues in The Police bought recording studios around about the same time as I did - and both had sold them six months later. Andy because he couldn't get the hang of it and because it took up space and eventually cheesed him off; and Sting because he realised that if he wants to go and doodle in the studio he can afford to call up Utopia and book himself in there for six weeks and it's no big deal. Those of us without his songwriting publishing to pad the old bank account have to rough it!'

At the heart of Copeland's studio system are Q-Lock and SRC synchronising devices. These are run in conjunction with a Sony/HHB CLUE (Computer Logging Unit and Editor), a sophisticated autolocator that uses a QWERTY keyboard for input of information and floppy disk storage of cues. The results are mastered onto an Otari 24-track machine and a Fostex B16.

'The arrangement enables me to sit at the mixing desk and look up at the film onscreen', explains Copeland. 'For every inch of film there are two inches of the two-inch multitrack master, so I just lay the track down onto the picture. I set up a program pn the Fairlight and I can speed it up, shorten it, edit it or whatever until the sound and picture match. Sometimes the music will want to do something that the picture's not doing, so then I go back into the cutting room and cut the picture until it does do what the music requires of it. It's a two-way process.'

And the result of all this well-planned medium-switching? A video with a rather tongue-in-cheek plot that has the Rhythmatist (Copeland) racing around Africa - with fairly spectacular visual results — in pursuit of a fictitious rhythmic 'truth'. Watching the thing, it's not difficult to see where a large proportion of The Police's joint sense of humour originated.

The music, however, is a good bit less frivolous than the pictures, and it makes rewarding listening in their absence - something not many soundtrack LPs succeed in doing. And abundant though the African sampled-sounds may be, they're juxtaposed with a healthy dosage of Copeland's own instrumental handiwork.

"The single didn't shoot up the charts because it's in a funny language, and because it has a very off-beat musical form."

'Native African music has a cumulative effect. They don't have 15-minute dance versions of songs, they have six-hour dance versions. Their songs last for literally hours, and they build up a momentum that you have to experience. The smells, the sounds and the atmosphere of the village contribute very much to the power of the music. When I was making the recordings, I thought: "This is incredible, it's fantastic. I can't wait until I get it back home".

'But when I played it back over the speakers here - without the smells and the sounds, the ambience of the village - and listened to two hours with the knowledge that I had to make two minutes out of it, it just didn't have the power. A record is not the best medium for that kind of music, and that's why I swamped it with my own stuff.

'Another aspect was that my objective was not to provide a record of African music as such. Because I'm interested in those elements, I wanted to screw around with them myself. Mostly I've played with them and used them in the same way that I use electronic gadgets - I've used them for layering and things of that sort.'

On a more personal level, does Copeland feel he's gained anything from his experience in Africa that's since re-emerged in his music?

'I can't honestly say that I learned from my experience in that way. It would be much more romantic and poetic to be able to say that I did, but it's not as if I learned new forms of the paradiddle or anything like that. But the ambience does sink in, and it comes out in very nebulous ways. The atmosphere comes out as atmosphere, not as specific licks or sounds that you can put your finger on.'

But has the project been a success, and if so, in what terms? How do you judge an art form if, as Copeland claims, it has no precedent?

'I'm very pleased with the results, except that it took so long to finish that it doesn't have the same freshness as an LP that takes two months, and ends up being so fantastic that I play nothing else but that LP for six months afterwards.

'It's been successful as far as I'm concerned, in that I achieved what I wanted to achieve artistically. And in the marketplace it's successful, because it's sold at least one copy! It's not doing badly - better than I expected, in fact. I had no hopes for it zooming up to the top of the charts. The album and single that have been released are just by-products of the video. The single didn't shoot up the charts because it's in a funny language, for a start, and because it has a very off-beat musical form. I had no expectations that Radio 1 would play it, but they did and it sold a few copies, so in a modest way I'm pleased with the commercial results, too.'

And in African quarters...

'Ray Lema (vocal participant in the soundtrack album's production) played it to all his Zairese friends and they all went apeshit over it. They think it's fantastic, and he says it's a big hit with all his chums there. He really loved it himself too!'

And what of the future? Copeland is non-committal about what The Police will or will not do in the coming months, or even years. Sensibly, he refrains from taking decisions that depend on the co-operation of others, but he's well aware of the direction his solo career is taking. Unusually in the field of megastardom, Copeland's right hand knows what his left is doing. Will they leave Africa alone now?

'I think The Rhythmatist is a one-off. I've done it and I don't feel that there are any more stones to turn. I'm quite an ethnic music buff - I like Indonesian music and some South African music as well, and there are a lot of other ethnic regions that I want to explore.'

So unless Copeland sees fit to resurrect him to help unravel further mysteries from other parts of the world, the Rhythmatist's race is run. Thankfully, the same can't be said of his creator.

More with this artist

Previous Article in this issue

Sting in a Tale

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Aug 1985

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler

Interview by Tim Goodyer

Previous article in this issue:

> Sting in a Tale

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> Out-Takes

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