Joe Sumner is not quite comfortable with who he is, even though the lead singer/songwriter/bass player of Fiction Plane has toured the world over the past three decades, gaining critical praise along the way, a solid fan base and decent record sales. One could blame that on his father. But this is not simply a case of a child with “daddy issues” as Mr. Sumner’s pops is the legendary frontman for The Police, Gordon Sumner, aka Sting. Hell of a musical shadow to grow up in.
Luckily the younger Mr. Sumner’s talents extend far beyond that looming family musical history. Fiction Plane’s CDs, including their latest, “Mondo Lumina,” are full of smart lyrics wrapped inside well-crafted rock tunes with killer hooks and tight transitions.
Mr. Sumner took a break during a session at the legendary Henson Studios (the old A&M Studios) in Hollywood to discuss dealing with his place in the world and Fiction Plane’s brilliant new CD.
Question: Why was there a large gap between records?
Answer: There was an 8-year gap since we did a U.S. release. We were kind of happening in Europe, had a new European manger. It was all good. Then some [stuff] happened at the record label. It was owned by a French billionaire, and he was doing some weird stuff. Something to do with money. Very strange.
So we finished the record. And they were like, “Well, the label doesn’t really exist anymore.” [laughs] We end up on Roadrunner in Europe, which is a respectable, great label mostly focused on hard rock. I’m against genre labels big-time. I know now why it matters. When you’re selling stuff you’ve got to say what it is. You go and put 20 grand down for a car and then get a bicycle or a fish. That’s an extreme example. After that things dwindled away.
Q: Was there any period of time where you stopped making music?
A: After that record didn’t quite work out, the band kind of took a chill pill. I moved to L.A., had four kids. That keeps you busy. Suddenly everything changes. There was a point where it was not totally certain that we would make anymore records.
Q: What brought the band back together?
A: We had a guy who just joined a new label who used to love us, and he said, “I’m gonna make it happen.” He gave us 500 bucks to make a demo. Because we could pull some favors, we recorded it here at Henson. We did a demo of the song “Refuse,” which is on the record.
Q: What is that song about?
A: That song is basically about realizing who you are, admitting it and saying to everybody else, “Come on. Be who you are! Or just piss off!” That song galvanized us. We realized we need to still be doing this for sure. We were like, “We’ve got to make music. And we’ve got to do it together. There’s some magic there.”
Q: “Refuse” is about admitting who you are. Was there a time period where you didn’t want to admit who you were?
A: For sure. I’m still there. People know my background. They’ve got Google.
Q: Was having Sting as a father a blessing or a curse when you were starting out?
A: Both sides are true. That first record was totally built on our own merits. I know that. We had a clause in our contract that said no publicity to do with anything that is not us. As soon as you got out in the world, it kind of took over a bit. People said, “You can go on Carson Daily right now!” We said, “OK, sure, but we’re a band that plays to 50 people. Can we build it up from there?” The response was, “No.” You’re up here anyway so just … jump off the cliff!” I wasn’t ready for that mentally, emotionally.
Q: Did leaving the major label to go the indie route allow you to build things your way?
A: You would think so, but not really. People just use the same tactics. I’ve had to just come away from it and be like, “I’m not gonna worry about how you build world domination.” I’m just gonna play music and see.
Q: Have you ever considered leaving music behind?
A: A lot of days I think, [to hell with] this. In the last four years I actually started two technology companies. I made an award-winner app in 2012 called “Vyclone.” It’s a multicamera video app. You go to a show or a birthday party, and six people have their phone out filming, and the app bring the videos together. It’s cool!
Q: What does recording in a historic space bring to the CD?
A: The best people are here recording. That’s the main thing. The place doesn’t bring that much to the music. But being here is a great experience; everybody here is very nice and superprofessional. It sounds awesome.
The other side of that is you kind of think you’re doing something far more important than you are. You can get lost in the glory of the incredible speakers.
Q: Will Fiction Plane tour?
A: I have seen firsthand what the classic tour does to people. It’s pretty much get married, get divorced, then maybe get married again or just die of alcoholism. Through the whole ‘80s I saw that happen. I care about my family, so I don’t want to go on tour for 18 months unless it’s going to be absolutely amazing. This time out we’re gonna let it grow organically.