Singer Joe Sumner is a man in the middle of a musical transition. The former angry young rocker, who led Fiction Plane through four albums starting in 2003 with the release of Everything Will Never Be OK, has found the message is not always in the shouting.
Although his father is Sting, Sumner’s musical awakening came with the discovery of Nirvana. At that moment, he knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. He learned to play guitar, joined a band and started writing songs. His tenure with Fiction Plane gave him an identity away from being a famous musician’s offspring, recording such songs as “Out Of My Face,” “Zero,” “Two Sisters,” “Cigarette” and “Death Machine.” Since 2015’s Mondo Lumina though, the band has been on hiatus.
About five years ago, Sumner married and started having children, which are the inspiration behind his recent solo song, “Jelly Bean.” His moving more in the direction of a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar in hand and less jumping around, is the path Sumner is currently on, as he writes and records songs for an album he hopes to release later this year. Although Fiction Plane has not been put out to pasture just yet, it may be a while before the guys get back together to see what music they can create.
Until then, Sumner is currently out on tour opening for his dad on his 57th & 9th tour. He is playing about three songs on his own each night before adding backing vocals through the main show. He also comes back up front to sing the David Bowie tune, “Ashes To Ashes,” about midway through.
While Sumner had a day off in Dallas, and nursing a slight cold, Glide caught up with him to talk about the tour, Fiction Plane and his musical evolution in progress.
How is the tour going so far?
It’s been fantastic, really awesome. It’s been really fun, very chill vibe and it’s a great show and the crowds have been great. I can’t complain about anything.
You are not doing a typical opening set, just a few songs. Why is that?
Well, instead of having the usual scenarios, like the band starts at 7:00 and nobody sees them, then another band comes on at 8:00 and then the headline band, instead of doing that, everybody goes in together. My old man starts the show with one song and then I’ll play a few songs and then the Last Bandoleros come and play with me and then they play their set and I’ll play with the Last Bandoleros. Then we’re all the backing singers for the main band. It’s like everybody is all in together. It’s great and it’s really fun. It also gives more respect to the opening acts, instead of like twenty minutes and leave. It really makes them part of the show.
I’m one of those who likes to hear the opening bands and I’m always there, even if I’m not working the show.
Oh God bless you. In my opinion, this is the way that all shows need to go from now on, instead of just throwing the opening band on with an empty crowd. It’s like, make them part of the show. It gives them a lot more respect and it’s a really nice vibe.
How are the Last Bandoleros? I’m not really familiar with them.
You will be tomorrow (laughs). They’re great, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, all four of them great singers. They’re calling it Tex Mex music, which I’m not sure exactly what that is, but they’re great singers, great songwriters and great musicians. They’ve got catchy tunes and they have an EP for sale at the show and you’ll probably have it by the end of the show and put it on repeat. It’s fantastic.
You play acoustic guitar during your set so I am assuming it’s more that type of vibe.
Yes, with my stuff I’m just on acoustic guitar and my voice and that’s it. We kind of build it from there. If anyone wants to join me, I let them. We get Emilio from the Last Bandoleros who plays drums on one of my songs but generally it’s just me.
Since we’ve never talked to you before, I want to kind of go back to the beginning: What was the first musical instrument that you learned to play?
Well, we had a piano in my house but I didn’t really learn to play it. I just went down and put my foot on the sustain pedal and hit all the keys. I was five years, whatever, and it sounds great, right (laughs).
I bet it did to you
Oh yeah, everyone else can have their own opinions (laughs). But it wasn’t till I was like fifteen and I got into Nirvana and I started playing the guitar. I pretty much heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and then I joined a band the next day. That was it. I decided that that was what I was going to do.
But why that song in particular?
Well, my favorite album of theirs is Bleach. I love Bleach. That’s the one that really gets me emotionally. It’s visceral and that album I can listen to on repeat all day. You know, Nevermind, I can’t listen to it anymore. I’ve played it out. It’s a brilliant album but it’s been produced by a producer and to me, Bleach, that’s what is genuine at it’s core. It’s just pure and raw and that never gets old to me.
Did that open up your songwriting as well or had you already been kind of writing little songs before that?
No, that was it. It was kind of overnight and I was like, cool, I want to write songs, I want to be a singer, I want to be in a band, that’s it.
So what were the first songs you wrote after that discovery?
(laughs) They sounded a lot like the songs on Bleach. A lot of screaming.
Were you an angry young man musically at that time?
Yeah, 100%. People who knew me back then know I pretty much didn’t speak until that point either. It was like, all of a sudden it came out.
When did you start to see a change in yourself as a songwriter?
After years of trying to be Kurt Cobain and you’re just not Kurt Cobain (laughs). You have to look at who you really are. Outside of the teenage years, I’m a more gentle, kind of romantic, bleeding heart liberal kind of person so my songs are starting to go that way.
So the acoustic guitar suits that well
Yeah and also my voice is my main instrument so the acoustic guitar doesn’t get in the way and supports my voice and lets me be free and kind of do whatever, just lets the melody soar. So that’s why that really suits me.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on an album. I put up one song on Soundcloud called “Jelly Bean” and that’s the first song on the album. I’m maybe halfway through it now but it’s me and my acoustic guitar and then I’ve started to add little pieces to it, with the goal of always having the lyrics be heard. And that’s the most important thing, the lyrics and the message.
Are they in that vein of “Jelly Bean”? Because “Jelly Bean” is a very far cry from the songs you did with Fiction Plane.
For sure. But yeah, they’re going in that direction. I really love a song that I can sing and have people understand the lyrics and understand the meaning of it instantly, and that’s what happens with “Jelly Bean.” When I play it live, afterwards people come up to me and they know the words a little bit so I’m like, okay, that’s the way I want to go. I want to sort of bring this intimacy to the big stage instead of being loud and rock-y.
How do you look back on the Fiction Plane songs now, especially the earlier ones?
When I listen to them sometimes I’m like, ah, that was pretty good. I wish more people could have heard it. But I have a feeling that through what I’m doing now a lot more people are going to hear my other work with Fiction Plane.
Is that band done?
No, but we definitely needed to take a break cause our lives have changed. We’re all doing different stuff and we have to figure out our own identities, if that makes sense, so we can have the band back.
Usually, when you do something like that you come back and there’s a whole new well of inspiration and sounds.
Right, absolutely, and I think that’s probably on the cards in the next year of two. We’ll probably get back together and just blast something out. That’s my prediction. Who knows if I’m right.
I want to ask you about a couple of those songs and I want to start with “Out Of My Face.”
The inspiration behind that was basically being on tour and being in the band. It was very, very intense and I remember one day I lost my voice on tour and I just got really pissed off and everybody wanted me to like feel better and everybody wanted me to cheer up and that was the most annoying thing of all. So the song is about, just leave me alone. It doesn’t help for somebody to try and put a smile on my face in that situation. It can be like scratching a cut or something where you keep opening it up. No, you just got to leave it alone. That was the vibe.
And the other song is “Zero.”
Wow, I haven’t even thought of that song in a while. I love that song. It’s kind of based on a Philip K. Dick book [The Penultimate Truth]. About how 99% of the population lives underground in a mine and it’s sort of like a Matrix kind of thing where they all live underground and they’re suffering and they eventually work their whole lives and they get to go outside for a day.
Do you have to feel what you are writing about?
It definitely helps cause if I don’t then it kind of seems ingenuine. Sometimes I do try and write songs as an exercise about someone else or some situation someone else is in. Sometimes you can get there, empathize enough with someone to make it feel real, but often it’s kind of like, no, that’s not you, you didn’t feel that, you didn’t go through that. That’s tough. There’s a song on the Mondo Lumina album called “In My Shoes” and it’s about, you can’t quite ever say that you know what someone is going through, not quite. Like you can get close and you can get the vibe but it’s just that people feel things differently, even if it’s the same thing.
Have you ever overthought a song that you were trying to write?
Yeah, almost every time (laughs). Sometimes you just got to like let it out and see what happens.
Are you a perfectionist?
Not a perfectionist but most of the time I go out of my way not to offend anybody and so I think about things, ways I could be offending somebody. But then the other 10% of the time, if I have a drink, I get a kind of rapier wit and sort of cut people to bits to the bare bones of their soul (laughs). So I’m a bit cruel divided there. But generally, yeah, I’m trying to make it so nobody is upset at all and there’s value to that but also value to being who you are and letting people deal with it.
But that seems like you’re putting a lot of stress on yourself
Absolutely. I agree with that.
Out of all the songs that you have written, what do you think has been your most powerful lyric, in your opinion?
That’s an interesting question. Wow. On Mondo Lumina I wrote this song called “Refuse,” which is just about being yourself. When I sing that, I remember that I’m sort of telling myself that, to just be myself, to believe in myself and to ask for help. So that is really powerful to me.
You did a song with Steve Nieve a few years ago on his record Together and he called you a fantastic artist when I interviewed him.
Well, he is a fantastic man. He’s just the best human being.
You ended up doing quite a bit on that record: playing bass and singing.
Yeah, I’d do anything for him. I went to Paris, played some shows. He’s just great. If he asked me to like run to Cairo right now, I would do it. There’re a lot of nice people in music and they don’t always get their rewards they deserve. But it’s something you need to go into really cynically or you go in with your heart open and people with their heart open are really serious lovers.
For you musically, what has been a big I can’t believe I’m here moment?
I just came off a little tour with David Bowie’s band and on the anniversary of his last birthday and the anniversary of his death, we played gigs in London and New York and LA with his whole band for the last thirty years and I got to sing a couple of songs with them. I got to sing “Life On Mars” and “Under Pressure” and for me that was the best like fantasy fulfillment.
Was Earl Slick playing guitar?
Yep, Earl Slick was on it, Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, all the kind of stalwarts, and it was a great experience.
And you are doing a David Bowie song during the show
Yeah, we’re playing “Ashes To Ashes.” One of my old man’s songs [“50,000”] is about how suddenly all of the great artists are popping off, especially in the last year, so this song kind of leads into that song and gives it that little context.
Did you ever get to meet David Bowie?
I met him very briefly twice, just kind of got to say hello and that was it. You know, a lot of his songs, until I got a bit older, they were very seminal to me, very influential for me when I was a kid but I didn’t even know they were his songs most of the time cause he’s so different. His stuff changes so much. There’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and then there’s “Ashes To Ashes” and then like “Young Americans.” I hardly even know where it’s the same guy.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
This tour goes till June, July, so it’s like six months and hopefully by then I will have finished my album. I set up my little laptop in hotel rooms when I have a day off, except for today cause I’m just resting, but usually I’m in here working away on the music. So I think I will be finished by then and hopefully I can play some festivals in the summer and then just get the record out right after the summer.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough