Q&A: Stewart Copeland of the Police Speaks on the Gaza Strip Conflict, ‘Fancy Friends’ Jam Sessions, Sting

"I think for Israel and the Palestinian people to get to where they need to be, it's all about 'Kumbaya.'"

By Brian Ives 

Recently, Radio.com reported on a new compilation called 2 Unite All, a benefit album produced by an organization called Project Peace on Earth, to raise funds for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

The album, which is out now, includes contributions from Peter Gabriel, System Of A Down‘s Serj Tankian and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, among others.

Since publishing the article, Radio.com reached out to Copeland, who has more insight into the conflict in the region than most rock stars…or most Americans. That’s because he grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and spent much of his childhood in the Middle East.

In a lengthy phone conversation, Copeland spoke even-handledly about the Israel-Gaza conflict. But he was also up for discussing his Sacred Grove sessions (jam sessions that he records with his “fancy friends” at his house) and what could be the most unfortunate hard drive crash of all time. He also addresses his former band, Oysterhead…and that other one, too.

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Radio.com: How did you get involved with Project Peace on Earth and the 2 Unite All album? 

Stewart Copeland: Well, a year ago, they were over [in the Gaza Strip] organizing events. There was one last Christmas, which was all about seeking to promote accommodation between the various tribes of that region, and it was about eschewing confrontation. I got interested in them at that point. And then they were making this album to provide relief, and that’s when I volunteered a track.

In the press release announcing the album, you said, “Our music may not be able to rebuild homes nor bring back victims of violence, but at least it can soften hearts. Hard hearts allow violence in the Holy Land and softening up allows persuasion.” Unlike a lot of other musicians or celebrities, you don’t seem to judge either side, you’re just recognizing that a lot of people are suffering in the region.

That’s right: it’s aid, not advocacy. We’re not advocating for, or against, anybody. We just want to get that aid there.

On your song on the album, you collaborated with Serj Tankian of System Of A Down, who had a more incendiary quote in the press release [“It’s the least we can do for a people that have suffered under an occupation, embargo, and invasion.”]. Meanwhile, you said, “‘Kumbaya’ is more credible than ‘They Must Go.'”

They Must Go is a book written by Rabbi Meir Kahane. It’s the embodiment of the supercharged Zionist spirit on one side of this equation. And I just think “Kumbaya” is the other extreme. And I think that, given the situation that the region finds itself in, “Kumbaya” really is a lot more credible than “they must go.” There’s been 60 years of war… the “right” and “wrong” of how we got to where we are today are a little bit irrelevant in facing the problem. These folks are stuck together. All kinds of forces have been brought to play—by fair means and foul—to separate them. And it just hasn’t succeeded. There appears to be no political power that can separate these two people on that one piece of land. Which leaves us with a very logical, unemotional solution. I’m really not being a hippie here when I say that “Kumbaya” is really the way forward.

Back in the 1980s, it would have been hard to imagine you doing this much “Kumbaya-ing.”

[laughs] It seems really kind of “hippie,” but they do have to look for ways of stopping the incendiary conflicts, the provocations, the blame, the shouting. Everybody needs to turn the temperature down!

The peaceniks can be derided as being unrealistic. And the reason I chose the most unrealistic sounding meme, if you like, is because it really is that way. I’ve looked pretty closely at this: I’m a child of Beirut, since the age of 6. I was there during the war in 1958. I’ve been following Middle Eastern events very closely. And even with a very hard-eyed view, what’s needed there right now is accommodation. Not blame, not advocacy of one position or the other. It’s all about the real problem that Israel faces today, which is not how to send off a hostile Palestinian state, it’s how to accommodate 4 million Palestinians into the one state of Israel.

It’s surprising that you’re so optimistic that that can work.

I’m not optimistic. and I don’t prescribe the “one-state solution” as a solution. The de facto situation is one state, I’m afraid. The Knesset controls Ramallah much more than Washington, D.C. controls Los Angeles. It’s actually more integrated in the security sense, and the political sense, than the United States are, in a way. It would be wonderful if there were some way of separating them. I don’t think the “two- state solution” is possible. I think the ship has sailed on that. Security can’t be guaranteed on one side, and the gift of the land can’t be made on the other side. Neither side has what the other side needs to come to the table. The best minds, and the worst minds, have been working on how to separate these two people to create two countries on that land, but I feel there’s just no possible way it can happen.

This is not a value judgement. This is not what I want to happen. My analysis leads me to the conclusion that it can’t be separated. Which brings us back to “Kumbaya.” They just have to figure out how to coexist. And I think that rehashing the last 60 years of history—establishing blame, advocating for one side or the other, going over the injustices and the cruelties—that doesn’t move the ball down the field. I think for Israel and the Palestinian people to get to where they need to be, it’s all about “Kumbaya.”

You have a very objective view of this. One reason why it seems so difficult to discuss the Gaza conflict is that any hint of critique of the Israeli government is sometimes interpreted, or misinterpreted, as anti-Semitism.

As a child of Beirut, I shouldn’t necessarily be that kindly disposed towards the State of Israel, after the conflicts between Lebanon and Israel. But in fact, I love the people of Israel. We have a common bond of humanity. I disagree profoundly with many of their political decisions, but I understand—I think—why they make them. Their fears are not baseless. And I love them, and I want them to have a better world with the 4 million people who I think they are stuck with. I think most of the Palestinian people don’t want to be part of Israel; there’s national pride involved, and tribalism, and I understand that as well. But, all of that is naught against the reality that they all find themselves in, which is in one country, together.

One reason that this gets so difficult to discuss is that the actions of the State of Israel are often equated with Judaism.

The war of the last 60 years, in my humble opinion, is a war that both sides lost. The Palestinians lost their quest to create a nation of their own. And the thing that it appears that Israel will lose is its exclusive Jewishness. It will still be very Jewish, because it will have the highest proportion of Jewish people in it of any country in the world, but it won’t be only Jewish. The great Zionist dream of a Jewish state, a homeland for the Jewish people, I get it. With the history of the Jewish people, I totally get the dream. But history hasn’t played out that way, and I don’t think that’s attainable or sustainable. It’s not for me to say what happens next, but I think that Israel will be a multi-ethnic state.

The demographics of Israel are changing regardless of the conflict anyway.

That’s not a matter of choice or a desired outcome, that’s just the way it is. I think the sooner we start grappling with the real problem, they will all start singing along with me, “Kumbaya, my lord!”

Related: Roger Waters’ Israel Stance Draws Music Industry Outrage

When you hear Roger Waters—who is very passionate and seems to be a humanist—speak about this issue, it gets interpreted as being a bit anti-Semitic.

One reason for that…is that often Israel is singled out, and unfairly. I don’t know why, but for some reason the Palestinian cause does get people more riled up than much more desperate places in the world, like the Sudan or various other parts of Africa. There are worse places, and worse players, in the world. As Americans, we can’t cast aspersions on Israel, we took our nation from an indigenous population. And we killed 100,000 Iraqis by mistake and re-elected the guy who did that, so we can’t cast aspersions or single out other countries as Roger Waters and others seem to be doing. I’m not quite sure why they’re so focused on this. I know why I am: because I grew up there.

There are still mosques in Jerusalem where people are free to pray. You couldn’t say that about some of the neighboring countries in the Middle East. You wouldn’t find temples or churches there, where people could pray freely. It seems like Israel is a bit more progressive in that respect.

Well, it certainly is. And that’s why, unhindered by national pride or tribalism, I think if Palestinians become citizens of the modern State of Israel, ultimately, their grandchildren will thank them. And also, the grandchildren of today’s Sabra, the modern Israelis, their grandchildren will thank them, when they’re the most advanced country in that region, when they’re dealing freely with all of their neighbors. Once again, I’m not proposing this as a solution, but I think it’s what’s happening, and “Kumbaya” will get us to the “happy place” where all of the population of Israel conspire together to make the country a dynamo in the Middle East.

So, tell me about the song that you did with Serj Tankian. I know it came from your Sacred Grove sessions, but the song on the album is called “Spinning Mysteries at the Sacred Groove.”

Did I misspell it? It’s supposed to be “Sacred Grove!” I completely misspelled it! And by the way, this track is one of the first Sacred Grove sessions. In fact, the reason I set up the Sacred Grove was because of this session. Serj had a buddy with a camera, and he just shot it. Since then, I’ve shot lots more videos, got lots more gear, and I have six cameras and every square foot of that room is close miked. So I just hit “record” and the whole room starts recording. Since then I’ve had Snoop Dogg, Ben Harper, Stanley Clarke, and I cut these little videos of the sessions for YouTube. People just come over for dinner and then it’s like, “Hey, let’s jam.” Now people are bringing their guitars when they come over.

Are you still doing them?

Well, I had one tragedy. I had the Rush guys, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson, over here, and we jammed through the night. We banged every drum, Neil and I had the drum battle from hell, Alex played every guitar, cello, horn, it was just music all night. And then I started cutting it and putting it together, and Les Claypool came over and he sang [Rush’s 1975 epic] “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” or something like that over the sessions. And so I’m editing it together, and I pull out my fancy-schmancy film-scoring tools, my orchestral samples, and built this huge track. And then my hard drive crashed! And I sent it to two or three different “drive doctors,” who all charged a fortune, and none of them could rescue the disc. And I hadn’t even done a rough mix. I was a little crushed by all that. That kind of popped the balloon on the whole thing.

I have, I don’t know, a double album worth of tracks. But Serj and Omar [Fadel, who also plays on the track] are coming back over soon. I think I’m going to start easing back into it. My plate is kind of full right now, and each one takes about two or three weeks [to edit].

Would you ever release the sessions as an album? 

I would like to get them available because I’m very proud of them. They sound great in my car! I would love other people to enjoy them in their cars. But I don’t have a business plan. In fact, even giving this track [“Spinning Mysteries”] away for this album, suddenly there’s managers and now it becomes “property,” and we have to establish the copyright and yadda yadda yadda. It’s really just, my buddies come over, we play and I put it up on YouTube for all to enjoy.

You’re also on the song that Peter Gabriel contributed to 2 Unite All, “Across the River.” He’s played it live over the years, but the original 1982 version has been out of print for a long time.

I remember the day [we recorded it], because it was the day during the Falklands War where the H.M.S. Sheffield got blown up. Suddenly, 125 English soldiers were dead, a British battleship was blown out of the water. It was just a shock. It didn’t feel like they were at war until that day.

We were in his studio in Bath, England. He had called up and said, “Come down to the studio,” so I did. And we just spent a day working on this odd track that he was doing for a W.O.M.A.D. collection. [Violinist] Shankar was down there…we came up with the track right there.

I know you also played a bit on So a few years later. It seems like you and Peter Gabriel could have been in a band together at some point.

Yeah, we have very close musical sensibilities. I get everything that he does, I love it all. For So, the way he worked was quite mysterious. By then, he had a real studio, and we just played a bunch of stuff, [bassist] Tony Levin was there, I kind of banged and clattered on pots and pans and had a hi-hat. It was just creating rhythms and vibes. And during the next year or two, Mr. Gabriel got out his scissors and used these recordings as the building blocks of the songs. By the time the album came out, I hadn’t heard any of those songs, but the credits on the album said I was in there somewhere! I don’t know, I got a couple of platinum discs out of it!

Related: Interview: Primus’ Les Claypool Talks Willy Wonka, Changing Drummers and the Jam Band Scene

Speaking of Les Claypool, we spoke with him recently and he said that, regarding their new album Primus and the Chocolate Factory, you thought he lost his mind for doing that.

That’s an accurate representation of our conversation, yes. I’ll stand by those words. I was never a fan of that movie. That’s because I’m a different age group. I thought it was a horrible, mean-spirited film. And I hated the music. When Les told me he was doing that, I said, “You are out of your mind!” Since then, I’ve heard their record, which is really cool! It’s completely out there. He undertook a challenge there, which is what we expect from Mr. Claypool.

Which leads me to ask about your great former band, Oysterhead [the supergroup that featured Copeland, Claypool and Phish‘s Trey Anastasio]. Would you guys ever do a second album or another tour?

We haven’t actually all been in the same room at the same time for quite a while. I saw Trey not too long ago, I see Les all the time, and we all say, “Yeah, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it!” And we all love the idea, but the two other guys have working bands. I’ve got what I’m doing, but I’m probably a lot more available than they are. But when a hole in both of their schedules emerges, we’ll probably do something. I’d like to get both of them over here to the Sacred Grove, just to do a Sacred Grove track just for a start.

Tell me about the Ben Hur project you’ve been working on.

Years ago, I was hired, as a professional composer, to write the music for an arena production of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. With the whole story, the chariot race, the pirate battle, everything. We did the whole thing on the floors of arenas around Europe. In the English speaking countries, I got to be the narrator and ride a horse around the arena. And at the end of the day, I owned all of the music that I wrote.

Are you going to be touring behind that in America?

Well, it opened at the Virginia Arts Festival a couple of weeks ago, and I played it in Chicago with the mighty Chicago Symphony, that was pretty magnificent, being on stage with 60 guys, and I’m there with my drums. I have a few more of those coming up. I’ll be doing that for a long time. They’re one-off shows, they’re few and far between. But they’re exciting when they come up.

Are you still scoring films?

No, I’m kinda out of that business. I’m pretty much into art for art’s sake at this point. Right now, I’m writing an opera, my fifth. I’ll tell you more about that when it comes closer to fruition. Today I’m working on the piano score.

Have you seen this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot?

No I haven’t, who’s on it?

Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, one of your former bandmates….

Sting! Run that list by me again?

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Green Day, Joan Jett….

So far, Sting outranks everyone….

Kraftwerk, the Marvelettes, N.W.A., Nine Inch Nails, Lou Reed, the Smiths, the Spinners, Sting, Stevie Ray Vaughan, War and Bill Withers. 

With that field of horses, Sting still rules the pack. The next four slots go to…damn, that’s really hard! There’s some one-hit wonders in there and that really screws up the calculation. Kraftwerk had one hit [1975’s “Autobahn”], but wow, what a hit. That was a life-changing hit. Whereas others had many hits. The others are more distant, but no less deserving, the rest of the pack is quite difficult.

It’s interesting to hear you say that about Sting.

Well, I’m partial to his musicality. Whether he’s playing with me or with someone else, I still like it.

Have you seen any Broadway shows lately?

I’m not planning on going to New York real soon, but when I get there I’m certainly going to see his [The Last Ship]. I got the record, love the record. That first song, I saw him play it on a TV show, and I swear to God, the next morning I could sing the tune to you. It’s a really catchy tune. With a beautiful lyric. So I bought the record.

It’s nice that your supportive of his career; it seems like you guys make better ex-bandmates than bandmates. 

My experience with the Police was that it was one of the more harsh environments, there’s just a few bands that get along even worse than the Police. But we actually get along pretty well [now], there’s a lot of conflict, but there’s a lot of honest reasons for that conflict.

And no hard feelings, actually. Even though there’s a lot of yelling and screaming involved, there’s a lot of hugging involved as well. And a lot of “Kumbaya.”

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