Drumming legend Stewart Copeland has cemented his place in music history. He was a huge part of The Police, and has crafted a second career arc through soundtrack work on movies and video games—as well as experimental side projects like the jam-band Oysterhead, featuring Les Claypool of Primus and Trey Anastasio of Phish. Now he’s branching out into new territory that combines all of his musical worlds.
Stewart Copeland is bringing his “Police Deranged for Orchestra” show to Fantasy Springs on Saturday, March 25. Police classics like “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and “Every Breath You Take” will be performed with the help of a full orchestra—alongside Copeland’s classic and experimental drumming, of course.
“(The songs) were originally ‘deranged’ so I could use Police music to score a film that I made about the Police, which was comprised of all the Super 8 footage that I shot back in the day,” Copeland said during a recent phone interview. “The film went to Sundance and had a career of its own, and the music for it, I got by taking live recordings and studio multi-tracks that I found, because I wanted it to be kind of alternate. For one thing, the Police music didn’t do what a film score is supposed to do, because it was pop music, so I had to change it around a little bit. Also, I was looking for more obscure elements to give a little bit of a twist, and I found lost guitar solos, stage improvisations and other cool stuff that the Police came up with spontaneously. I used these altered versions, which I called ‘derangements,’ to score the film.
“Later on … I’ve been doing orchestra work for decades now, and I had the idea of doing some of the hits that people liked, because songs that people know are always going to have more impact than anything else. I went to these ‘deranged’ versions, and I orchestrated them. These orchestral versions are very different, because it’s an orchestra instead of a rock band—except that I turned the orchestra into a rock band for just one night. … Some of them are more or less normal. ‘Message in a Bottle’ is like a diamond; it cannot be cut off, so it’s orchestral, but it’s the basic form of the song. Others I have ‘deranged’ up good.”
Transforming these classic songs was frightening to Copeland initially.
“I did think that people would come after me with pitchforks—but, in fact, they don’t, because they recognize their favorite parts, even if in a slightly different context,” Copeland said. “You can still sing along to ‘Roxanne’ just like you remember, but there are new twists and turns it takes that are unexpected.”
Copeland has long been experimenting with improvisational music. A few Police B-sides dive into the jam realm like “Masoko Tanga” and “Voices Inside My Head,” and the Oysterhead project has him at his most musically spontaneous. However, working with an orchestra has allowed Copeland to somehow meld improv and set-in-stone musical styles.
“The orchestra, the ‘orcs,’ are absolutely on the page,” he said. “They do not deviate one jot or tittle from the ink on the page; that’s what they do. … I, however—since it’s my name on the ticket—fuck it all up. I will do any damn thing that pleases me in the spontaneity of the moment, and I get the freedom to do that, because the orcs are all following the page. I know where they’re going to be, so I can run circles around it.”
Revisiting Police tracks in this creative way has allowed Copeland to appreciate his former bandmates and their songwriting process even more than before.
“I’ve been playing those songs for years, without really paying much attention to what’s going on in front of the stage,” Copeland said. “I’m just listening to the riff on the bass at the back of the stage, banging shit. I don’t know what he’s singing about up there; all I can see is the back of his head. Since I’ve gotten into ‘deranging’ the songs and getting into it, I’ve really discovered that the guy was a heck of a songwriter.”
Copeland recently announced a soon-to-be released new book, Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries, a collection of the drummer’s journals from the early days of the band, 1976-1979. The new book has also given Copeland another form of appreciation for Sting and Andy Summers.
“Oddly, what the book reminded me of, was that we bonded as musicians before we knew what music we were going to play,” he said. “For the first two years of the Police, we were playing my songs, which were just crap basslines with the yelling, so that we would fit into the punk scene. Sting had not yet written ‘Roxanne,’ nor ‘Every Breath You Take,’ nor any of the big hits. Andy Summers joined us; he insisted on joining us, leaving his lucrative session career behind to join fake punks. I asked him about this the other day: ‘What were you thinking?’ And he says, ‘I don’t fucking know. What was I thinking? I was an idiot.’ But we’re both glad that he insisted.”
Copeland shared an anecdote about Sting’s reaction—or lack thereof—to these new Police arrangements.
“Sting’s very keen, because I’m playing his songs,” Copeland said. “I sent him a giant book, a hardbound book of the scores. It’s an enormous volume with all of the orchestral scores in it, and he was very appreciative of that—but didn’t comment on the contents within. I don’t know how his reading skills are. I did not send him audio, just so that I can imagine him going cross-eyed.”
More Police music has received the deranged treatment than what one will see in the show.
“I only get a couple of hours, 2 1/2 hours, so I can’t just throw more material in there,” said Copeland. “This points to the actual miracle, which is, ‘You’re kidding—2 1/2 hours?’ … I have more arrangements, and I occasionally switch them out. I’ve played the show maybe 20 times, so I’ve been tweaking it slightly, but I’ve got a lot more songs that I have in reserve.”
Copeland has an extensive orchestral history. He worked on the score for the Spyro the Dragon video game, as well as movies like Wall Street and Good Burger. Through 20 years of composing, he learned how to use an orchestra—and, more importantly, how to interact with the performers.
“I always do something which most rock musicians working with an orchestra do not do, which is consider them to be my fellow musicians,” Copeland said. “I used to be this way when I first started working with orchestras for film. They’re kind of alienating, and a mass group of musicians squinting at you can be intimidating. They, too, are intimidated by musicians who get paid too much money, wear tight pants and can improvise. That fucks them all up, so usually, there’s kind of a wall. I have worked with orchestras enough now to love them and appreciate what they do and how they do it, so I mingle in rehearsal. I’m all over the orchestra. I’ve got my chat-up lines for the viola players; the brass, I ask about their mutes, and I just generally schmooze. It creates a very, very different atmosphere in the rehearsal and even more onstage, because it’s really about the orchestra. It’s not a rock band with an orchestra as set dressing; it’s about the orchestra, and the rich sounds, and exciting, dramatic things that the orchestra can do.”
Stewart Copeland will perform ‘Police Deranged for Orchestra’ at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 25, at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, in Indio. Tickets start at $49. For tickets or more information, call 760-342-5000, or visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.