Enter Oysterhead, an all-star ensemble composed of Trey Anastasio, guitarist/ frontman of Phish; Les Claypool, bassist/frontman for Primus; and Stewart Copeland, drummer/recluse/deified legend, formerly of the Police. The group's deft, vivacious debut CD, The Grand Pecking Order, makes it hard to discern which is the bigger surprise: the fact that these guys are even together or that they're actually a worthwhile outfit.
First convening at a New Orleans one-off "SuperJams" event in May 2000 (previously, Claypool had jammed with Anastasio in Phish, and Copeland had produced a track on Primus's 1999 Antipop album), the boys have since morphed into an honest-to-God band that recently embarked on its first tour.
Since the Police split in 1986, Copeland has passed his time becoming a film scorer of considerable repute (Boys and Girls, Pecker, Very Bad Things, She's All That -- well, at least the scores have repute). He has but two things to say on the latest matter: 1. He is not a professional drummer; he once was, and 2. he is thoroughly enjoying himself, though he never did previously.
"All I know is, when I was a professional musician and I did this for a living, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I do now with this band," Copeland explains. "The Police was always really exciting onstage musically, but it was a job, and I remember that I was miserable most of the time. Oysterhead, as soon as we convene, I just get these waves of bliss and joy, because it's just too much fun.
"We really are just following our instincts on this. You know, we all have day jobs. I'm a film composer; that's my vocation, career, and livelihood. I'm just a semipro drummer. And for that reason, I have more passion and joy in the whole thing than any pro."
Passion and joy (combined with monstrous instrumental chops) thus constitute Oysterhead's main attributes. The Grand Pecking Order avoids the quagmire of most supergroup side projects. Though it jams like Phish, menaces like Primus, and bursts with percussion like the Police, it somehow manages a singular, separate identity. It's a quirky, acid-washed jam-rock trip, loaded with nonsensical lyrics and bombastic instrumental backflips.
Subtle? Coherent? Particularly tuneful? Nah. They're just "pissing about," as Copeland puts it, but can you think of three guys you'd rather hear pissing about?
Didn't think so. So Claypool gets to maniacally slap his bass and marshal prog-rock freak-show marches like "Army's on Ecstasy" and the title track. Anastasio gets to tune in, drop out, and smoke through atmospheric back-porch jams like "Radon Balloon" and "Birthday Boys." Copeland gets to remind everyone that he's The Man -- a jazzy, quietly busy presence who splendidly fills the cracks in between. His talent for turning simple rhythms into complicated percussive gold (think "Wrapped Around Your Finger" or "Walking on the Moon") remains intact.
What's even better is when such dominant personalities cross and recombine. A soaring Anastasio solo rescues Claypool's lyrical drudgery on "Pseudo Suicide," and the pair ping-pongs vocals and temperaments on the excellent "Rubberneck Lions." And if it all gets too esoteric (inevitably, it will), Copeland swoops down and takes over.
In short, Oysterhead has a bona fide band dynamic, which is saying something in the ego-dominated supergroup milieu. Copeland certainly remembers that.
"In the Police, we all had humongous egos. I had a much bigger one when I was younger, and we still were able to make halfway-decent music," he says.
"But this is not a big bunch of superstars here. They're just loosey-goosey, funny guys. Trey, at all times, is like six inches off the ground [no word on whether this requires chemical assistance]. You ever see Amadeus, with Mozart and his little laugh? That's Trey. All that talent, and he's just a cheerful guy. He's got a funny little laugh, too. It's not as idiotic as Mozart's, but it's a funny little laugh."
It's not so funny, however, for legions of obsessive drummer types who worshiped Copeland as a god ("'Message in a Bottle' rulz, dude") and have welcomed him back as such.
"This month, I'm on the front cover of five drum magazines around the world," Copeland reports, incredulous. "Germany, Japan, England, Italy, and America. It's funny. I guess I can cope with it. It's a fun story, but it's actually true. I really did give up the drums, and I guess, to those editors of drum magazines, it adds a little drama. 'The Master Returns,' you know?"
Copeland has no such delusions, and he realizes that most folks interested in him now stoke that interest with two words: Police reunion.
No. Maybe, but not now. Early last year, Revolver magazine published a riveting interview reuniting Copeland with his Police cohorts: Andy Summers (guitar) and Sting (bass/vocals/tantric sex). The result revealed both mutual respect and ego-tainted contempt ("I always liked you; it was your fucking guts I hated"), which should make any further partnership volatile and fascinating, in a Jerry Springer sort of way.
Another word for it: "Unlikely."
For now, Copeland will stick with the "waves of bliss and joy" Oysterhead generates for him. The Grand Pecking Order certainly won't break any of Sting's solo sales records, but, well, screw him.
"I don't have any such expectations that lightning will strike twice and Oysterhead will be so fortunate to be the thing that everyone wants to hear today, but never mind," Copeland says. "I had that little spot, and Oysterhead is another deal. It has its own rewards."
This has gotta end sometime, obviously. Anastasio and Claypool have almost violently beloved main gigs to return to, and Copeland remains dedicated first and foremost to his film work (he's completed three scores since mixing the Oysterhead disc, including the new romantic comedy On the Line).
So how long will this last? Don't ask.
"We enjoy ourselves so much because we're making it up as we go along," Copeland says. "Right now, if we had a nine-month program of 'touring here, then going to Europe to do a tour, then coming back and doing some dates, and then recording from such and such,' which is what life in a band is actually like, that would really put a different atmosphere around the whole project.
"We're just having too much fun, and there's no possible way we're not gonna reconvene. The reason we're enjoying it so much is because there's no tomorrow."