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Stewart Copeland on Taylor Hawkins, an Acolyte Who ‘Had All the Chops’

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Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who died March 25 at age 50, took every opportunity to salute his musical heroes, the most frequently name-checked of whom were Rush’s Neil Peart, Queen’s Roger Taylor and the Police’s Stewart Copeland.

Hawkins, Dave Grohl and their Foo Fighters bandmates loved nothing more than to jam with their idols, whether it be in front of 80,000 people at a London soccer stadium or in front of friends-and-family audiences at the band’s cozy Studio 606 in Los Angeles. Copeland, 69, experienced that fun firsthand on a number of occasions when he sat in with the Foos, and came to know Hawkins well as a friend over the past 15 years both on-stage and off-. He spoke to Variety about some of these experiences, and why Hawkins’ sudden death is such a major loss for the tight-knit musical community they’d helped forge.

I understand you had just finished a show with your Police Deranged for Orchestra project when you heard the news about Taylor?

In fact, I was just coming off stage with the Nashville Symphony. It was a triumph. The hotel was a block and a half away. I go straight off the stage, out the door, over to the hotel and I’m in the shower before the audience is even out of the building. I’m loving life. The endorphins are pumping out of every pore. I got dressed and walked down to the bar, and that’s when I found out. The only way to get through that night was disbelief.

He is sorely missed. He was such a force of life that you don’t expect him to not be there. When Neil Peart went, he saw it coming. Everyone saw it coming. At one point he said to me, “I’m past my sell-by date.” He was still around a year later. With Taylor, it’s just so sudden.

How did you get to know Taylor and the other members of the Foos?

The first time I met them in 2005, they called out of the blue and invited me onto their jet to fly to San Francisco, do a song with them at a show and then do a runner over to New York, where they did 24 hours straight on MTV. That’s where I got to know the guys. Jesus Christ! That is some stamina for those youngsters. It was good fun. I hadn’t seen my drums in a long time, but I only had to get through one song, and they knew it. The other experience where they were the band and I got to do a Klark Kent song; that was the really special time. The schools we send our kids to have fundraisers, and whatever musical dads are in the school become the school band. Usually, they’re called something like “the Grateful Dad.” They were having one of those events and invited me over to do a song.

There I am, posing away with the guitar and singing a song at the front of the stage. I look back and Taylor is working. It was an epiphany. I look at Dave and say, “You motherfucker! You have never fessed up! You know more than anyone how much easier your guitar stuff is than that drum stuff.” He kind of smirked, because the drummer is carrying the band every foot down the highway. It’s really obvious when you’re playing guitar how much harder the drummer is working, so I never missed an opportunity to rattle Dave’s cage about how he got away with it.

Klark Kent was your pre-Police solo project and is pretty obscure, even for music nerds. I guess that goes to show how much you have meant to the Foos as a musical inspiration.

Yes! A high honor. In fact, the inspiration does a full circle, because I was so inspired by it that I went over to Italy and figured out a band I could play guitar and sing for. I got an easy introduction to the concept with the Foo Fighters as a backing band, which kind of rocked. The band I forged in Italy was Adrian Belew, Mark King and Vittoria Cosma. I guess it’s full circle. The inspire-er inspires the inspire-ee.

The Foos made it cool to worship your heroes and share in the fun of rock ‘n’ roll. How did it make you feel to join them on stage over the years?

No matter who you are, you’ve gotta serve somebody. In my case, that would be Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, Stones, Cream. There’s a simple hierarchy. Amongst musicians, we have a very simple rule to follow so that we can all relax amongst each other and enjoy each other’s company. And that is chronology: whoever went first is boss. I bow down before Ringo, and the people who came after me treat me as if I’m a Beatle, which is crazy.

In Taylor’s case, it was more profound. He was such a fan. Even though he was a huge star himself, he was a real fanboy. Whenever I’d meet up with him somewhere, he’d be wearing his favorite Police T-shirt from his extensive collection. [If Hawkins were] hanging out with Neil? He’s got his Rush T-shirt on. He studied all of those drummers and had all their chops. He never used them in the Foo Fighters. He was all business in the Foo Fighters.

He could play all Phil Collins’ chops, and everyone else. He was such a fanboy, but it didn’t actually affect what he played. Budgie of Siouxsie and the Banshees was one of his big heroes. Roger Taylor of Queen was a really important one, and Neil Peart of course was right up there at the apex. He was inspired to play drums by Neil, but when he got into the Foo Fighters, he made his own thing. All that other stuff was just for fun.

There’s a video of you playing the Police’s “Next to You” with the Foos at the Forum in 2008, and Taylor comes up onto your drum riser and is air-drumming and jumping up and down. It was pure fandom shining through.

Yeah, God bless him. When the Police played Dodger Stadium, Foo Fighters insisted that they open for us, and they’re already a stadium act. It was like, guys, come on. Play your own damned stadium! They were absolutely amazing. The Foos were on fire. They burned down the house, so that when we came on, the place was already raging and we could ride it all the way. It made it even better for us. That was a heck of a night for the people of Los Angeles. 

Taylor brought his own style to the band and didn’t try to emulate Dave, who is obviously one of the greatest rock drummers of all time.

Taylor is a very social guy, and he was a central, unifying factor of a lot of drummers hanging out together. Taylor had the toughest job of all: working for a drummer as boss, and Dave is one of the best. Whatever gripes we might have in our various bands, we all gave it up for Taylor for that.

Did he ever talk about being in that role or how he handled it?

Yeah, but we’ll keep that amongst ourselves. Basically, he was full of respect. That was the overriding thing. We’d remind him: look at what great music you’re making. It’s certainly really cool.

Do you hear your influence in his playing?

Actually, I don’t. He’d tell me it’s there. In fact, the first time I heard of the Foo Fighters was something like, “Hey, there’s this band out there selling a gazillion records, and the drummer says it’s all your shit.” So I checked it out, and I didn’t hear any of my stuff. I heard his stuff. Maybe that might have been the source of his inspiration, but he certainly did his own thing with it. I think he gets all the credit for his stuff, although I’ll gladly accept two percent or something [laughs].

In your estimation, what made him special as a drummer?

Well, one of the most difficult things to do is to give a slightly different edge to something that’s very basic. Rock ‘n’ roll is not supposed to surprise you. It’s supposed to excite you, lift you up and rock you. Surprises are not what it’s all about. And yet he, with very simple ingredients, was able to be surprising. Like I say, he had all those chops. He could do the Neil Peart 19 tom-tom single-stroke roll all the way down. He could do all the paradiddles and ratamacues, but he chose mostly not to, which is very, very sublime. We’re talking Charlie Watts sublime here.

You described him as being “in that John Bonham school of drumming.” How would you describe that?

Drummers who do a lot with a little. Bonham had serious chops, but like Dave and like Taylor, they’d come in as a decoration of something much more important, which is the big ba-boom-ba.

You featured Taylor in your recent BBC series “On Drums.” What was that experience like?

I went over to Taylor’s place to grill him about drums and drumming and drummers, and we had a riotous time over at his drum house. At the end of his grounds, he had a guest house that he turned into a drum palace. It’s filled with all kinds of mementos, obscure drums and cool stuff, and also posters of all of his favorite drummers. The BBC crew is there and he’s got his best Police T-shirt on, of course. It probably took him all morning to choose between the 50 he had in his collection [laughs].

When did you last see Taylor?

We didn’t see each other during the pandemic, but we talked a lot. He was actually engaged in secret operations recording with people, but wasn’t allowed to talk about it. The last time I physically saw him was at Neil Peart’s memorial. We were there with [Jethro Tull’s] Doane Perry, [Tool’s] Danny Carey and [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Chad Smith, lamenting the loss of our guiding light. When Neil first passed, I got a message that afternoon from one of his crew. They met up that night in a restaurant. When I went down there, I was kind of cheerful thinking about how Neil had outlived his diagnosis. Of course, his family and [Rush’s] Alex [Lifeson] and Geddy [Lee] were just devastated. A couple weeks later when they had the memorial, they had recovered a little bit and were able to smile and remember the good times.

Meanwhile, for Taylor, Chad and us brothers of the stick, it had sunk in that Neptune is not around anymore. The Professor is gone. That hang is no more. Both Taylor and Neil had unique personalities that brought a special thing to the drummer community, and there is a drummer community. We do have a special bond, much more than, say, guitarists, who are all jealous of each other. Us drummers all love each other, because we understand that the work we do makes everything possible. Taylor was at the center of all of that.

It must be so difficult for bands in this situation to determine whether they should continue playing.

You can’t say. For Geddy and Alex, that was it. The Rolling Stones went on. I could not speculate as to how Dave and the band will figure this one out, and I’m sure it’s going to take a minute.

Do you have any parting memories of Taylor you’d like to share?

I never got to figure out whether he really was a surfer. He certainly felt and sounded and looked like one, more than the Beach Boys. He was the ultimate Laguna Beach surfer dude, whether or not he had a board. I will miss that gruff laugh of his forever.

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