Stewart Copeland, having been the driving force behind The Police, Animal Logic and Oysterhead, has influenced a generation of drummers over the last thirty years. But Stewart’s not content to rest on his many achievements as a drummer. He’s also one of the most respected and in-demand composers in the world, writing for film, TV and video games, but it’s his latest project …At The Sacred Grove, which sees a host of famous musicians jamming at Stewart’s home studio with no pre-conceived ideas or planning, that is currently garnering much attention. When Drummer recently chatted to the legendary musician at his LA home, he was clearly passionate about this latest venture.
“Well, this isn’t so much a project, but more a hobby,” Stewart enthusiastically informs us. “Deep down I’m really a roadie and have just been taking a break from it to play some drums and write some music over the last few decades. This is what I really love to do: wiring up instruments, recording tracks – I’m definitely an engineer at heart. My home studio, Sacred Grove, is a large space containing lots of different instruments, with each one being fully mic’d up, line checked and EQ’d so that all you have to do is pick-up and play and it’s all recorded immediately. These days, it’s easy to make music using MIDI on the computer, so I wanted to make it just as easy to pick up actual instruments rather than spend time searching for samples and doing everything on the screen. Every square foot of the studio is close mic’d and also covered by six cameras, so when anyone comes around for a jam I hit the record button and every minute they’re here gets logged.”
So do the participants know that they’re being recorded? “Not always,” Stewart laughs. “Some of the best moments have come from the guys forgetting that the cameras are rolling and the computers recording. It’s very casual – guys just come around to hang out and jam, everyone’s relaxed and things can get wild at times. What I then do is come back to it the next day and spend a couple of weeks editing the footage down, maybe overdubbing a few instruments and building it into a film that then gets posted onto my YouTube channel as …At The Sacred Grove. I’ve got about 20 so far.”
After checking out the videos, we were keen to find out more about the seemingly endless range of instruments Stewart has at his disposal. “I think I’ve probably got the world’s largest collection of cheap instruments, mostly that I found after I discovered the joy of eBay. I’ve got some wonderful brass instruments, including an antique E-flat valve trombone, although it’s very fragile so I got myself a new one from China that’s cheap and cheerful, but it plays superbly.” And can Stewart play all of these instruments? “Kind of… I can get notes out of any brass instrument from a trumpet down. Trumpet’s hard because the mouthpiece is so small, but anything with a bigger mouthpiece is fine, and as most of the stuff I record is only one or two notes I can easily cover it.” We also noticed that he has an impressive collection of guitars and amps: “I’ve got a 1978 Fender Stratocaster, and when people ask me where I got it, I always say the same: I bought it from a music store… in 1978. To go along with that I’ve also got a tweed-covered Marshall Cab from 1974 and a matching head from 1978, which I bought from a shop on Shaftsbury Avenue, and, man, it’s loud – it’s only 50-watts – but it’s a beast. I’m actually looking for a matching bass cab, so if anyone out there knows where I could get hold of one, please let me know.
“I’ve also got a Telecaster bass that was given to me by Tony Reeves of Curved Air in 1974. It’s a beautiful instrument and I’ve had guys like Stanley Clarke and Les Claypool playing it and they always complain about the amount of chrome on the front, particularly over the strings in the exact place that they usually play. It was actually designed to be played with a plectrum, but as most players tend to play finger style these days, they always take the chrome plates off, which is how this particular bass actually was, but I found all of the chrome work on the internet and restored it to how it was originally designed. Actually, talking of Stanley, I recently got an Ampeg bass amp to play the Tele through: he called them up one day and told them I needed an amp and they sent one straight out – I got it three hours after he called.”
We went on to ask Stewart about some of the visitors to Sacred Grove, in particular a world renowned rap artist: “The jam with Snoop Lion actually came about after his management called and asked me to work on some of his stuff, and when it came to money, I told them it would cost a ‘day-for-a-day’. After I’d worked on the tracks for a day, I told them that Snoop now owed me a day. Quite unbelievably, he showed up at The Grove one night at midnight for a jam. Man, the guy is an incredible musician: he played drums, trombone, keyboards… he nailed every instrument in the studio.” So who else has paid a visit to the Grove? “Well, the first session was Neil Peart, Danny Carey and Les Claypool. Originally we we’re just going to have a jam, but then we thought we’d also film it for posterity, which is how the idea of filming the sessions came about. That first video looks a little jumpy as it was all shot on one camera, but now that I have all six fully set-up, I’d love to invite them back for another session.
“I’ve also recently had the mighty Thomas Lang over – man that guy can really play. I’ve had so many great players come over. People like Stanley Clarke, Taylor Hawkins, Jeff Lynne, Andy Summers, Matt Stone, Chris Chaney, Primus… we just have fun.”
Finally, we wondered if there were any plans to release an album of the tracks? “No, not really. I just do this for kicks… my ‘day job’ is as a composer, whereas this is something I do simply because I love it. I suppose it could almost be seen as giving something back to the many people who have followed what I do over the years, plus it would become a real headache considering the amount of musicians involved to figure out the business aspects. That said, the tracks sound massively fat when you play them in your car.”
Thomas Lang on his visit to sacred grove…
“I was – and still am – a huge Police fan and Stewart was my teen drumming idol. I played Tama drums and I had them set up exactly like Stewart with splash cymbals on top of my three rack toms and I had my snare cranked to the max for years. I had met Stewart briefly before when we both played at the Modern Drummer Festival in 2006, but being granted permission to enter his studio and being able to noodle on the big man’s own drums was a whole other story. I expected a diva-esque rock star with plenty of attitude and not much energy left for a young gun’s dreams, but Stewart blew me away with his immense passion and enthusiasm for creative exploration and musical experimentation.
He was full of energy and exploding with passion and eagerness. He was kind, friendly and he displayed a wicked sense of humor. His Sacred Grove project is a pure and honest contemporary creative endeavor by a single artist and unlike anything else out there today. Stewart combines improvisation with composition both in audio and visual form and the results are pure Copeland-ish, with creative juice oozing out of your computer speakers. It’s the best of Copeland in many ways. It has all the elements we all love about Stewart Copeland; all the quirkiness, the youthful playfulness, the aggressive punk attitude and the sophisticated reflective consideration of an experienced composer and producer mixed into a perfect blend.
“On my Facebook site later that day I uploaded a couple of pictures from the session and called the afternoon ‘Best Hang Ever’ – which accurately describes how I felt about it. I am still excited about it.”