Stewart Copeland Talks Gizmodrome, Oysterhead, The Police (and Acid)

Dean Budnick on December 28, 2017

“We’re not a supergroup; we’re a supper group,” Stewart Copeland says with a laugh of his new quartet Gizmodrome, which also features guitarist Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads), bassist Mark King (Level 42) and keyboardist Vittorio Cosma (PFM and Elio e le Storie Tese). Gizmodrome came together when the Italian government enticed The Police and Oysterhead drummer to visit for dinner and a performance. Cosma and some additional local players joined Copeland for that initial trip over a decade ago and the lowkey gigs eventually morphed into Gizmodrome’s self-titled debut and upcoming shows far outside the Italian borders.

You’ve played in Italy over the years with other guitarists. How did Adrian come to join you and Vittorio?

We met years ago. He can probably remember the date because he’s a guitarist and he’s like that. Stanley Clarke, Adrian and I were all called by a film festival in San Francisco because we were all involved with film in one way or another. So we did a little trio thing.

In all of the intervening years, we intended to get something together, but life is complicated. In fact, we’d been courting Adrian to join us in our summer adventures. And the pitch was: “Look, the little town in Italy gives us a villa to stay in for a couple of weeks. There’s a beautiful little bijou opera house to rehearse in.”

We’ve done this in a few towns, in Longiano, on the island of Elba and so on. They set us up with this idyllic circumstance in return for a concert on the village green. By the time we play the concert on the village green, the whole town knows the songs because we’ve been banging away at them all week in the little opera house. So it’s always a blast. And with Adrian on board, I said, ‘Fuck it; let’s call Mark.” And so we did. Mark was in within 20 minutes of me texting him.

Did you just play one gig with Stanley and Adrian?

Yes, although Stanley and I did get together later and form Animal Logic. We go way back. One year, he even got me—my friends can’t believe this—to play jazz festivals in Europe. You see, I’ve got a rap that I use at any dinner party: “You know, the problem with jazz musicians is that they all suck.” [Laughs.] Any social gathering can be vastly improved with a comment like that. It doesn’t have to be true. Who cares? It gets the blood flowing.

Now, Stanley and I are best buddies, and he is a god of music, regardless of genre. His set, by the way, is six songs, which brings me to another point about jazz—however much I love to sneer at the 90 percent of jazz musicians who are bullshit, I love the jazz audience. That is one of the most beautiful audiences on the planet to play to. They don’t need you to sing a pop song that’s really easy to comprehend. They want to hear everything you have to play—all of it. Just turn on the faucet. And that suits me fine.

Do you see any analogies between the jazz audiences and the audiences you were playing to with Oysterhead?

Yes, they were very similar. And with Les [Claypool] and Trey [Anastasio], I discovered that setlists are for wimps and material is for wimps. [Laughs.] With the jamband experience, the audience wants to have never heard it before, and for no one to have ever played it before. With The Police, the audience knows when the big chorus is coming up and then it hits them right between the eyes just like they were expecting it. It’s catharsis right there.

There were times when we were playing Bonnaroo [with Oysterhead], where although we had been blazing, now we’re not blazing. I’m looking around and we’re dead in the water: Anybody got anything? I’m feeling a little wimpy. But then I can see, from the looks on the people in the first few rows, this is what they came for. This is all straight from the hip. And if it’s straight from the hip, there’s going to be dull spots. And then there’s that surge—all of a sudden, Trey’s got it, Les picks up and bang, we’re raging again! And the lift from the audience when they discern that—it comes in and it lands on something—is just like the buzz when we hit that big pop chorus. It’s the same release, everybody goes hog wild and that’s damn exciting.

Speaking of Bonnaroo, what are your memories of The Police’s set in 2007?

We all dropped acid—OK, I wanted us to drop acid. Sting is usually game for that kind of thing, but we didn’t. So I wanted to start a rumor that we had. And it never caught hold, so fuck it; we didn’t drop acid. We should’ve; we intended to. Now with Oysterhead… I’ll just say that Oysterhead had a great show at Bonnaroo.

I also think The Police did a really good show. Since Bonnaroo was not a Police gig I wanted to eat all of those other bands, burn them all down and show them who’s boss. I really enjoyed the Bonnaroo show because of that urgency. I got a particular thrill hearing that buzz from the audience and knowing that we had to earn it, rather than it being there all along.

I wanted The Police to do something different for Bonnaroo, but I don’t think my colleagues really understood that Bonnaroo has a different kind of ethos. Besides, The Police doesn’t belong to us anymore. It’s not for us to screw around with. The Police is a litany. The Police is a liturgy, even. It’s a sacred service. It’s not about: “Oh, so now we’re going to do some tracks from our new album.” “Fuck that. I don’t want to hear your new album. I want to hear ‘Roxanne.’” That’s the way I felt when I saw Paul McCartney. He might as well have just said, “OK, time for you to go buy a new T-shirt because I’m going to play a song from my new album.”

For newness, for experimentation, for musical exploration, that’s Les and Trey. That’s what Mark and Adrian and Vittorio are all about. It’s what me writing music for big-ass orchestras is all about. The Police experience is almost unrelated to that. It’s about playing those songs that have such emotional baggage. I can’t wait to get out there with Gizmodrome because it’ll be new and exciting and fun and weird.