Listen to this track by jam-oriented power trio supergroup Oysterhead. It’s “Oz Is Ever Floating”, a cut off of their sole (to date!) album The Grand Pecking Order from 2001. The song was a highlight on their associated tour around that time, having played it on their Late Night with Conan O’Brien appearance, among other musical locales.
The band was comprised of some very heavy hitters, instrumentally speaking. On guitar and other (sometimes very bizarre) stringed instruments was Phish head boy Trey Anastasio. On bass was Primus main mover Les Claypool. On drums was Stewart Copeland, sticksman for The Police and well-known film and soundtrack composer by the beginning of the century. His film and TV work was his day job, involving very meticulous processes and meetings with directors in order to satisfy its demands. Not very rock ‘n’ roll.
It would take a brash proposal to get Copeland out of film-and-TV-score land, and to get him behind the kit again, a role he’d virtually ignored for almost a decade.
In collusion with Anastasio on who they wanted, and after a promoter asked him to put a band together for the Jazz Fest in New Orleans, it was Les Claypool who buttonholed Copeland . “You should be playing your drums”, he said very simply. Copeland was skeptical and reticent at first. For one thing, he had a lot to prove to crowds, once known for his status as drum god and out of practice by 2000.
Another factor was lack of material and the short time they had to work some up. Working with Sting, Copeland’s expectations of being in a band centered around solid songwriting and arrangements that are meticulously planned beforehand, with every cymbal crash mapped out, and not always by Copeland; one of the reasons he and Sting butted heads so often! This time, he was assured, crowds wanted to hear him cut loose and just jam. Material would come out of that approach during rehearsals. So, Copeland was in.
This song was one of 13 that would appear on the record, an Anastasio composition and featuring his lead vocal. The song makes reference to Dr. John C. Lilly, a singular figure and something of a renaissance man in the development of sensory deprivation tanks, psychedelic drug experimentation, and communications with dolphins, sometimes mixing all of those things at the same time. So, that’s pretty much well within the band’s neo-psychedelic freak-flag territory, right? It was bound to be relatable to obsessive Phish fans who perhaps generally are very acquainted with the concepts of human consciousness and the altering of it, with or without dolphins and deprivation tanks.
Lilly died the year the band put out their record at the age of 86, and this song is something of a tribute to his efforts in marrying the worlds of philosophy and Eastern spirituality together with the world of science and medicine. In many ways, the subject matter connects to a greater theme about ignoring the barriers between things and just moving forward to see what the connections are or could be. That could certainly be applicable to the band itself and to its members, drawing from three different fan bases, and perhaps too risking a collective misfire given the strengths of each individual player. Maybe that risk was the tension that held it all together.
The three principals involved never rose above their parent bands with Oysterhead as far as signature tunes and smash album sales. But they did manage to put out a record that reflected the talents of its members, while also showcasing the musical cohesion between them. That’s the goal of any supergroup. They certainly had fun on tour, and were received well by crowds. For Copeland’s part, he was re-acquainted with the world of rock music again after an extremely varied career in the 1990s spent on soundtrack work, and throwing in the odd opera while he was at it. By the end of the Oysterhead tour, Copeland had re-established his drum god status.
For the next few years of the 2000s, Copeland expanded his ensemble playing interests, performing regularly with Italian musicians and playing a fusion cuisine of sounds that ranged from classical to Italian folk to a rock hybrid style, all while stationed behind his drums. By 2006, he performed a one-off with Oysterhead at Bonaroo. All of this prepared him for a larger scale and higher stakes reunion tour that perhaps even he never would have expected; The Police reunion tour. When it came to coming together with two other unique musicians, this would test his mettle even more. Sometimes, coming home is like that.
To learn more about Oysterhead, here’s an interview with Anastasio, Claypool, and Copeland around the time they formed.
To learn more about Stewart Copeland, I highly recommend his autobiography Strange Things Happen.