Almost three decades later when you get to hunt down a member of The Police, it feels nothing short of surreal. If you are a youth of the 1980s with an ear for rock and reggae, you couldn’t have not hummed ‘Roxanne’, the 1978 hit of the seminal band. The Police’s ‘Walking on the Moon’, ‘Don’t stand so close to me’ and ‘Every breath you take’ managed to nab die-hard fans. Vocalist Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers moved from one popular album to another till the band split in 1984.
It spurred Stewart to return to his classical roots. His concert works include BEN-HUR, A Tale of the Christ (commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra), Poltroons in Paradise (commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra), and Gamelan D’Drum (commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra).
Stewart was in Delhi recently for a private concert with his music partner, Ricky Kej. Stewart has come a long way from his The Police days. He is today as much a successful composer as a drummer. His most recent Grammy (February 2023), was for the album ‘Divine Tides’, with Ricky Kej. Stewart talks about the diverse expressions of his music — from rock band and opera to ballet.
India connection: My first visit was to Mumbai in 1981 for The Police concert. My brother Miles, who was our manager, had this brilliant idea to take us all around the world. It was not about making money but to have the cultural experience. Coming here for just one concert was really an excuse to come to India. I hope to come to India every winter, and go to Italy every summer. There is a familiarity of culture here.
On Indian music: India has compound rhythm, which is difficult for me to understand. I enjoy listening to Indian music, but again there are notes that I don’t know about.
Initiation into rhythm: I was the youngest of four siblings, skinny, but then I got hold of some drums. That gave me the power to be noticed. I’ve researched this, making sound is a primate dominance trait. My first time playing to an audience was in Beirut, when I was 12. In the audience, there was this 15-year-old girl dancing to my groove. It was exciting to have that kind of impact. Music is a gift I am grateful for, I don’t know where it comes from, it just comes like a river. I don’t know if you get better as a musician as you grow older. I listened to some music I wrote about 20 years ago, and I discovered it was the same melodies I would write even today. What’s changed is my skill set. I have also made music like a craftsman, a musician on hire, so to speak, and taken orders for the music I made. But that added to my art, I learnt so much. Otherwise, I would just be playing the guitar and drums. But when Francis Coppola said, let’s add some strings here, (‘Rumble Fish’; 1983), I learnt how to do that. I tell young musicians not to resist. Now I have the luxury to do what I want, work the way I want to.
Symphony and song: Today, I am working with the National Symphony, and the Chicago and Seattle symphony. We rehearse for about two hours, and we play the same night. With a rock band you would be rehearsing for months. Writing music for an orchestra is different. I learnt how to put every little thing on a page so it can be read by the musicians. It’s not just what note to play, but how to play it. Thinking of a melody takes seconds, figuring out how it will be played by many musicians takes months. Over the years, I have got better, I am no Mahler though. It’s challenging and I love it. My most favourite opera is always my next one. With The Police Deranged for Orchestra songs (shows where The Police hits are played with an orchestra), Sting is replaced with three soul singers; it’s like The Police sung by The Supremes.
Jazz notes: Well, with jazz, I can tell when people are faking it. Jazz is the easiest music to fake. In blues there are just four notes, and unless you have really felt it, you can’t fake it. But jazz is a great conversation starter, I quite like being an agent provocateur if it’s a really dull dinner party. Historically, jazz musicians sneer at rock musicians, so that makes them a good target. But on a serious note, audiences for jazz are so good, they hear every bit of the music, and are totally focused all the time.
The Police reunion: The Police reunited for about two years, but now we don’t fit together. We’ve changed as musicians. When we came together, I thought it would be like wearing an old glove, but it wasn’t like that. I thought we rehearsed too long, Sting thought it wasn’t enough. Yes, the concert tickets sold out within 20 minutes, the audiences were more fantastic than they were 20 years ago. We were happy to bond again. We went around the world together, but eventually returned to our individual worlds.
Ricky and I: One of the great blessings of my life is Ricky Kej. Years ago (in 2015), he sent me some music, and I was like wow, I love this. So, we worked together on the ‘Song for Kiribati’. Then a few years later, he contacted me for an album, and he asked if I wanted to collaborate. I loved the beautiful Indian music with elements of world influences. We went back and forth and put together this album, which won a Grammy. He is very passionate about things; really wants to save the world. I am just a musician, I bang things and now write operas. Ricky took my tracks, The Police Deranged for Orchestras even further, with Police Beyond Borders, that’s going to be released soon.