Paste was proud to welcome one of the great drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history to our New York studio—although he never touched the drums when he got here.
Stewart Copeland anchored The Police on drums from 1977 to 1986 (with a few scattered and short-lived reunions here and there), helping take the group to the pinnacle of arena-rock success with era-defining hits like “Roxanne” and “I’ll Be Watching You.” For most rock fans, that’s where his resume ends. But Copeland has always been a multi-instrumentalist and composer—his 1978 single “Don’t Care,” under the pseudonym Klark Kent, reached the UK charts a few months before The Police charted their first single, “Can’t Stand Losing You.” After The Police split, he wrote the music for dozens of films (including Wall Street and Highlander II) and TV shows (most recently The Life & Times of Juniper Lee on the Cartoon Network), not to mention videogame soundtracks and orchestral commissions by the Cleveland Opera and Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He was in bands with Primus’s Les Claypool and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, to name a couple.
Copeland said he often composes songs on guitar, which he’s been playing since childhood. “I write all over the place—one computer, on guitar, on a lonely train-station platform with the wind in my hair and the bitter loneliness of my heart, out comes a song,” he said. “I’m a drummer normally, that’s my day job. But the songwriting thing, you’ve got to have the wind in your hair.”
His new quartet, Gizmodrome, passes any test for “supergroup” status, but “was just an excuse to go to Italy and enjoy the Italian summer, under the Italian sky, playing in palazzo grounds on the piazza…,” he said. “It wasn’t even a project; you couldn’t even dignify it by calling it a project—no agenda, no promotion, no product. The agenda was pasta.”
It’s been a decade-long meal. The project traces back to 2006, when Copeland and pianist Vittorio Cosma, who plays in the Italian prog-rock band Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), wrote some music under the name Gizmo. Ten summers later, Cosma called to say that an Italian label wanted to make a record, and that they could probably convince King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew to join. “Well, if we’re gonna get Adrian, let’s get Mark!” Copeland replied, talking about his friend Mark King, who plays bass in English new-wave band Level 42. “About 20 minutes later, four of us are on our way to Milan.”
Copeland wrote most of the music on Gizmodrome’s self-titled debut album, which is out Sept. 15, and he does serve as this group’s drummer. The ideas are his, and his controlled-chaos drumming is unmistakable, but when you add Belew’s wiry pop guitar, Cosma’s jazzy organs, and King’s kinetic bass, all of the songs share an entwined sonic DNA. It’s prog pop—Tom Waits meets The Tom Tom Club—with the unusual ingredient of Copeland’s unrestrained, half-speaking voice doing the talking.
Copeland, who almost never sang with The Police, assumes the frontman role with apparent glee, despite the fact that Belew and King have years of experience singing in their various bands. “Live, I was supposed to be singing, but I’m too busy banging drums and chopping wood!” Copeland joked of his days in The Police. “But now with this guitar thing, I can sing!” The narrators in songs like “Spin This” and “Summer’s Coming” are grouchy Boomers, half mystified and half pissed-off, maybe lost somewhere a long way from home.
“They’re Stewart’s songs, for the most part,” said Belew, who has also toured and/or recorded with Talking Heads, David Bowie and Frank Zappa. “He sang them for us, and we said, ‘Well gee, we can’t sing what you’re singing, Mark King and I. We’re professional singers, we can’t sing like that. You’ve got so much character going on. That’s the personality of this music, and if you take that away, it’s not going to be nearly as playful as fun. It’s a compliment, believe me.”
As for the music, when Copeland presented his songs for Gizmodrome to Belew and King, he did it with the understanding that they’d sound a lot different when they came out the other side. “I wrote the songs, and I have a pristine image of how they should be, you know, ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” he said. “But no matter how pristine that idea, I know that Mr. Belew is gonna come up with stuff that’s gonna blow my mind that I never would have thought of. And that’s the deal, you see. You can’t make a rock album by getting session guys to do as they’re told. You’ve got to get the juices flowing.”
For their performance at Paste Studios, Gizmodrome were sans Cosma and King, so Copeland brought his guitar and ripped through two Gizmdrome songs, “Summer’s Coming” and “Strange Things Happen,” alongside Belew. The pair capped the set with a Police song written by Copeland (though originally sung by Sting), “Bombs Away,” from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta. “This is song was written in maybe about 1980, ‘81,” Copeland said. “But it has meaning today.”
Gizmodrome’s self-titled album is set for a Sept. 15 release. Watch their full performance above, and while you’re here, watch this exclusive video clip of Copeland and The Police performing “Roxanne” in 1980.