Ex-Police drummer and self-styled 'tech-head' Stewart Copeland discusses the merits of owning four Fairlight CMIs, why he's in a group called Animal Logic, and how to write an opera. Logical questions: Nicholas Rowland.
From his days with Curved Air, through his success with the Police and in film and TV work, Stewart Copeland has called technology a friend. Now he has a new band and an opera written on the Fairlight to his credit.
HOW DOES THAT old joke about jazz go again? Something like "Jazz is what all pop musicians want to play when they grow up". I can't remember the exact phrase and it probably wasn't that funny anyway, but lurking within the attempt at jest there does seem to lie a grain of truth. Certainly, I can think of at least half a dozen examples of musicians who having achieved the financial security which commercial success brings, have then seemingly turned their backs on the Bizz to End All Bizzes and begun to explore more introspective and experimental avenues. Of course, you usually discover that their roots have been in this kind of music all along, but that doesn't alter the fact that pop is widely perceived as the sport of the young, free and singles. Graduate with honours from this school of hard knocks and you deserve to indulge your idiosyncracies.
Which brings me to Animal Logic, a band hungry for commercial success. Recently signed to Virgin, they've already got the tools to make it happen: a single ('There's A Spy In the House of Love') an eponymously named album and a debut gig at London's Town and Country in the can for Thames Television. They've got a talented songwriter and powerful singer from Los Angeles in the form of Debbie Holland, a shit-hot rhythm section and a guest guitarist who can play a mean solo. The rest, as they hope, is history.
But hang on a minute, solid West Coast AOR this might be, but those reggae-influenced drum fiIls and snare flams sound familiar. And that guy on bass, hasn't he stepped into the wrong genre? Just what do Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke think they're doing playing together in a pop band at this point in their careers?
Copeland is, of course, no stranger to the world of hype and run. Remember that threepiece combo which was arguably the nearest we've got to the second coming of the Beatles? But if you've been following his solo career since handing in his Police badge, you'll know that he's been active in the world of film and TV soundtracks as well as writing music for stage. There was also that strange hybrid creature, The Rhythmatist, a cross between a pop video and a tongue-in-cheek documentary about the rhythms of Africa (see interview, E&MM, August '85). Fascinating dinner conversation, but hardly TOTP fodder.
And Stanley Clarke. The man who began his career with the likes of jazz greats Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, who formed Return to Forever with Chick Corea, who recorded the legendary School Days album, who is without doubt the quintessential contemporary bassman's quintessential contemporary bassman.
You might be tempted to draw a comparison between Animal Logic and Sting's flirtation with the contemporary, but you'd be wrong. This is no suite for metaphysical angst and sax, but a vehicle for Holland's heartfelt compositions with definite New Country leanings.
So what's going on? "lt's quite simple", says Copeland, "Stanley and I wanted to form a group". Except this time it wasn't going to be a fusion, experimental or exploratory group aimed at what Copeland calls specialist music listeners, Clarke calls "hard core music fans" and the rest of us call musos, but a pop group pure and simple. "We didn't want anything which could be perceived as an extension either of Stanley's career or the sort of line I've been pursuing for the past four years" says the drummer. "The sort of stuff which is easy because you just follow your instincts and which usually relates to how good a musician you are. If you're good, your music's worth something. If not, it's not.
So instead we thought we'd come down out of our ivory towers, the scuzziest of ivory towers and form a pop group and actually face the challenge of pop music with all the constraints it involves. Playing pop music has a certain excitement and contact with the audience and then there's all that stuff about watching the charts along with all the other young bands. Yet there's a certain artistic and musical challenge as well, because within those very strict parameters the challenge is to make something good, to apply your talent to verse, chorus, verse, chorus...
"Hey", interjects Clarke, "You sound like you actually believe all this."
"Oh", replies Copeland. "It's a speech I've given many times."
Two became three after Holland's demos got her an invitation to audition for the band. But one wonders how things might have turned out if the duo had stuck to their original plan of joining up with Weather Report (latterly Weather Update) keys virtuoso Joe Zawinul. "I went out specially to spend an afternoon with him comments Clarke. "Boy, did that knock that idea on the head." Andy Summers was also on the list of possibilities at one stage. I couldn't work out who talked whom out of it.
Clarke and Copeland both describe the unknown Holland as the main attraction, but while all the songs are hers, the production bears all the hallmarks of two musicians who happen also to be innovative stylists. Whilst definitely off-beat in places, the rhythm section doesn't dominate as you might expect. Both Copeland and Clarke agree that being producer tends to make you play down your instrument. "Perhaps we were too self controlled", adds the former.
To compose the basic tracks, Copeland trundled out his favourite gizmo, the Fairlight. But having used it to work out all the arrangements and rhythms, its function in final recording sessions was merely to act as a click track while most of the sequences were replaced by live parts. "No synthesised bass, no drum machines", says Clarke with obvious pleasure. "It'll sound really different on American radio."
Is this what Copeland means by operating within the parameters of pop, yet being more creative?
"It's part of it" he explains. "I think right now we're beginning to swing away from the view that playing doesn't matter, with everything being subdued to the song. Now people want to hear hot musicians again, real guitar heroes, so you've got to let that come through. But you've got to take risks in other areas too. Like we had a load of crazy violin and heavy metal banjo all over the tracks. Trouble is when it came to the final mix, it all disappeared. Perhaps we weren't crazy enough this time round."
MEANWHILE, COPELAND'S fascination with technology ("Tech-head" is the word Copeland uses to describe himself) continues to surface in all manner of unexpected places. Since writing the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's Rumblefish, he has added Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Talk Radio and See No Evil, Hear No Evil starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder to his list of screen credits. There's also George Lucas' TV cartoon series Ewoks and Droids. But on the small screen, he's perhaps best known for his music for The Equaliser, recently released along with other work as The Equaliser and Other Cliffhangers on his brother's No-Speak label.
The dark mood and complex rhythmic textures of The Equaliser material further develops the style of The Rhythmatist, the solo LP which accompanied the video release. Conceived, written, fiImed and produced by our man Copeland, this pseudo-documentary about the search for rhythmic truth saw him running around Africa, Sony PCM F1 in hand, recording the songs and sounds of that dark continent. The most atmospheric sounds were later sampled into a Fairlight Series II, becoming the basic foundation for a composition which largely featured Copeland's own playing, an inspired reaction to the ambience of the places he'd visited.
"Any book can tell you what range you can expect from a soprano or a baritone, but you have
to learn which notes go with which mood."
The past year has seen Copeland diversify into bigger projects. A commission for the San Francisco Ballet's version of King Lear meant his first score for full orchestra. Recently completed is an opera - Holy Blood and Crescent Moon - to be premiered in October by Cleveland Opera.
Asking about this new work immediately produces guffaws of laughter and the explanation that no-one could be more surprised at the idea of a Copeland opera than he is.
"It only came as a direct result of a flippant remark I made at a press conference following the ballet. Someone asked me if I was going to write another ballet and I said, 'Oh yeah, just as soon as I've finished my opera you know'. The only trouble was that the comment ended up being broadcast on a programme called Entertainment Tonight where it was heard by the teenage son of the director of the Cleveland Opera. He said, 'Dad, dad, dad this guy wants to write an opera and he's real cool'."
A phone call and a commission followed. And while Copeland admits to knowing nothing about opera, he says he fancied the idea of the huge sets, the big orchestras and the cast of thousands enough to take the offer seriously.
Copeland's eventual choice of theme was the Crusades. "Yeah. That was due to my rather confused notion of what opera was all about. I sort of got all mixed up with William Tell and swashbuckling and thought that you had to have a lot of swordfighting between bunches of guys in tights. So since I grew up in the Middle East I thought OK, the Crusades."
Having concocted the basic story, Copeland turned to a dramatist friend to produce the libretto, which he then set to music using the much loved Fairlight... well, actually one of his much loved Fairlights since he's one of those regular kind of guys who just happens to be able to afford the luxury of two Series III machines and a Series II.
The opera was eventually to be scored for a 65-piece orchestra, but initially Copeland created the composition with a slimmed down facsimile ensemble. The Fairlight's maximum of 16 mono voices were divided between the various sections - woodwind, brass, strings, percussion - with vocal samples standing in for the singers. Once the basic structure was completed, "acoustic singers" came into Copeland's home studio to try out the vocal lines for real.
"I had to rewrite a lot of it because I discovered I wasn't using the best parts of the singer's range to convey the right effect. Any book can tell you what range you can expect from a soprano or a baritone, but you have to learn which notes go with which mood. If it's the mad scene and someone's tearing their hair out, you want someone to really push their voice to create a dramatic effect. But try the same register with a lullaby and it sounds horrible and shrill."
Turning the Fairlight orchestra into parts for 65 acoustic players also took some care. For this, Copeland got in old associate from his Curved Air days, Darryl Way, to help orchestrate the piece.
"Where I had string samples or brass samples", he recalls, "I didn't know exactly what type of acoustic string or brass instrument the notes would sound best on. I also didn't know technical things like if you've got three french horns blasting, how many strings do you need playing to balance them out? Whereas you can just push up a fader in the studio, with a full orchestra you have to mix your track by the way you write the score."
But technology still came in useful once the piece had been scored, since all the parts were printed out via notation software on the Mac.
"The first time the orchestra played it through, it was absolutely amazing to hear all that human feel and interpretation come into it. It sort of pointed up the many things that technology just can't do, like swells and legato passages. The Fairlight is On or Off, this note or that note."
The Fairlight may not be perfect, the company may have gone bust, but Copeland still remains one of its biggest fans.
"To me, the beauty of the Fairlight is the program itself. The Fairlight may be easily outgunned by something like the Synclavier, which has much more in terms of brain power and options, but the Fairlight programs are much more cleverly and sympathetically written. In fact, Synclavier have been on at me to buy one of those things for years. They'll lend it to me for a month and l end up just sitting there tearing my hair out over all these menus and options and functions and things. My production rate just goes down, down, down."
So while Fairlight the company may have ceased to exist, the Fairlight machine itself can still count on Copeland's loyalty for some time to come. As too can Animal Logic, since all parties are adamant that this project is definitely long term. And while for Copeland (or Clarke for that matter) there will always be plenty of other things going on, one suspects that they will always enjoy the opportunity to get out on stage and confront the audience eyeball to eyeball.
On stage, the band sports nothing unusual in the way of hi-tech gear. Clarke changes bass a lot, Copeland occasionally uses a delay line on his otherwise totally acoustic kit, while guest guitarist Micheal Thompson has an impressive stack of effects whose main function seems to provide a secondary lights show. I wonder whether Copeland happens to be one of these guys who believes that technology is better left in the studio.
"Not by any means", comes his reply. "The only distinction worth bothering about is what you're able to do on stage. At the moment, it's enough to remember how to play all the songs. As for the technology, we'll grow into that. We all like it. But when it's your first gig and you're playing the meanest city in the world, in front of God and everyone, then you just worry about getting the songs right."
Interview by Nicholas Rowland
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