Interview with Stewart Copeland: The drummer boy who jumped the rhymes

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer - Credit: Archant

Musician Stewart Copeland relives his Somerset school memories with Bernard Bale

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer - Credit: Archant

Stewart tells me he had “an unusual childhood”.

“I think my time at school in Somerset gave me some kind of stability,” he says. “When you think about it, there I was the son of an American diplomat. Well officially he was a businessman.

“I was the youngest of four and I was only about two months old when the family moved to Cairo. That was in 1952, I don’t remember much about it of course but I am sure it was OK. In fact five years later we moved again, this time to Beirut. That was before it became the centre of a war.

“We became family friends with the Philbys – Kim and Eleanor and their daughter Miranda and son Harry, who became my pal. I remember that we often did family things together such as picnics and so on. It was a bit odd really because my father was really involved with intelligence and he was just about to expose Kim Philby when he vanished from the scene and later turned up in Moscow.

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer - Credit: Archant

“Miranda and Harry came and stayed with us for a little while as their dad’s disappearance was investigated. My dad had suspected that there was a mole in British intelligence for some time and was just about to name him when it all took off. My dad’s cover as a businessman was then blown so we had to move again.

“In a roundabout way that is how I ended up in England and at Millfield school. I had been attending an American Community School in Beirut and it was, of course, very...well, American. We even had a dance band and I had learned to play drums from the age of 12 so, by the time I arrived at Millfield I was an all-American drummer boy with a Virginia acccent.

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“Millfield was a bit of a culture shock when I arrived in 1967 because mostly everybody was very, very British and also mostly from wealthy families who thought it was a good idea to send their children to a boarding school, perhaps to remind them of how comfortable they were at home. I was surrounded by very English accents and I kind of liked that, but I held on to my American accent just the same.

“There was nothing wrong with Millfield but there is no place like home. I made the best of it though. While I was at Millfield, we used to go out on horseback and leap across these ditches called rhynes. They were for irrigation, or so I was told. I think they were just put there to challenge life and limb. Jumping them required not only that you look terror square in the face, but also have the nerve to push right on through it. Closing your eyes was always a good idea.

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer

Stewart has become amazingly successful as a composer - Credit: Archant

“Things could, and did, go wrong of course. I remember one kid ended up in the ditch and they had to get a tractor to pull his horse out. It was an experience I will never forget, and it’s also the title, Jumping the Rhynes, of a concerto I wrote for the Millfield choir and orchestra in more recent times. It was premiered in London and I got a real kick out of that.

“When I was there we used to do our music practice in a Nissen hut but I understand there is now a brilliant recording studio as well as a great hall for concerts. It shows how things have moved on since my day.

“I think that my time at Millfield gave me a positive approach and a sense of team spirit. You always got that in Britain. I don’t think it is quite the same now, Britain has changed. I sent one of my sons to Rugby School and expected that he would develop a very proper English speaking voice but he didn’t and I was told that speaking ‘posh’ was not actually encouraged these days. Shame.”

Stewart Copeland went on to become drummer with the internationally acclaimed band, The Police. Although he is naturally left-handed Stewart learned to play drums with his right hand.

“I have always loved drums of all kinds. There was a lot of drum work in Lebanese music which I took to when we were in Beirut. In my early music days I was a big fan of Sandy Nelson, Ginger Baker and Mitch Miller of the Jimi Hendrix Band. I used to try and play the way Mitch Miller did, he was a great influence on me.”

Stewart has also become amazingly successful as a composer and his list of TV and film successes is breathtaking. You will know many of them such as the theme for Highlander II, See No Evil Hear No Evil; The Equalizer and countless others.

“I still keep very, very busy but I take time out and go roller skating or cycling,” he explains. “That’s the sort of thing you do when you live in California. I have pals of my own age and we go out on our bikes and just enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. It is a great break from being in a studio and I love it.

“For all that though and my being a total American I have a great love for Britain and British things. I am a big fan of Downton Abbey and love to watch it. My early days in Britain were nothing like that of course. After leaving Millfield I wanted to make it in music and I lived in London, starving most of the time but now and then having enough money in my pocket for a fry-up or even a curry. Those were precious days and I never forget them. Life is different now but I sure miss those fry-ups in a little London cafe.

“Like America, Britain has a very diverse culture now but there is still some of the old Britain left if you care to look for it. That’s great.

“I do have happy memories of Millfield and I still sometimes think of jumping the rhynes one more time just for the sake of it. Let’s face it, there are some beautiful places everywhere in the world but I like the British countryside and there is none better than you find in Somerset.”