Being the musical son of a rock star can be a mixed blessing: It opens doors, sure, but it also raises expectations. This is familiar territory for Joe Sumner, son of Gordon Sumner – Sting. On Feb. 1, Sting kicks off his 57th & 9th album tour at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom – an intimate venue compared with his usual concert stomping grounds. Joe Sumner is one of the openers. Sumner, 40, is the front man for the band Fiction Plane, but this time he's out solo and has a new single, Jellybean. The Globe and Mail spoke with Sumner from Los Angeles, where he lives.
Some artists who have followed in parental footsteps don't want to make much of it, but you seem to have a different approach.
I had that exact approach for a long time, where I didn't want to have anything to do with it at all. You kind of get into this weird world of people adulating you before you've done the work, before you deserve it and you feel grounded in what you do. So it can make you feel strange. People can applaud a very poor performance or they'll rip you to pieces no matter what you do. My intent with music was to create something genuine and heartfelt and with credibility and not be using celebrity connections to further it. And as I got older, I realized that by denying it, hiding it and staying away from it, I was missing a huge part of who I am and therefore I wasn't creating something with integrity and genuine. I was creating something that was sort of off to the side, hidden, an incomplete shell of a thing. And I had to kind of let my life into my art a little bit to let it shine properly. So now I'm taking the approach of rather than shunning it, I have to ride it and then hopefully soar above it.
It makes sense when you're starting out: you want to establish your own identity, you don't want to have an easy ride on your dad's coattails – not that it's easy, I'm sure. But I understand those concerns.
For me to be on this tour is easy because I have the connections. But the emotional work I had to do to get to the place where I was okay with it was not easy. So that's kind of the lying-on-the-shrink's-couch version of it.
I imagine there was a lot of music in your home as you were growing up. At what point did you realize that you were musical?
There was a piano downstairs in the hallway and I always played it. But I actually shunned music as a thing to do until I was about 15. And then I got into Nirvana. Nirvana was the band that changed my life. That's what made me want to do music. It connected with me on a very visceral level. I think I pretty much formed a band the next day after I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was so aggressive and abrasive but completely accessible to my ears. It was a very cool combination. Subsequently I ended up liking the first Nirvana album Bleach much more; that one connects with me. But the song that hooked me in was Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Did your parents encourage this career path? Discourage it?
A mixture, really; it's a tough career, but what are they going to say? Are we going to tell you not to do it? So I did it. After a while I kind of established that I had something to say and some level of talent, so they were cool with it. They've always been very nice and supportive.
Did you take music lessons? Did you learn to read music as a child?
I did take music lessons, didn't really enjoy them, and rejected a lot of that stuff. I wasted a lot of time. Because right now I'm studying piano and sight reading. And I look back and I think if I'd just have sucked it up and done it then, I'd be a maestro right now. But it's very satisfying to now go backward. When I was a kid I didn't know why you needed to know the music you don't care about. But now, I get it.
I'm going to quote that to my son who protests when he has his piano lesson.
For little kids, it's tough – the balance of inspiring and just getting a bit of basic work done and then putting them off and making them feel it's all about work and drudgery. It's a very difficult balance.
Other than Nirvana, who are your big musical influences?
I loved Madness and the Specials back in the day. The Stranglers. Rage Against the Machine was huge for me. Parliament as well and even Kool & the Gang; Jungle Boogie is the ultimate riff for me; it's just the best.
In what ways has your background helped your music career?
I get to be around people who are the best or the greatest at what they do, which, if you read any kind of self-help manuals, they tell you, whatever you want to do, go hang out with people who want to do the same thing or are doing it, or know more than you about it. The downside is it puts a lot of pressure on it. Because if somebody just picks up a guitar and starts learning it, then that's one thing. But for me to do it, it's kind of like: is he going to continue his family legacy and all that kind of stuff. Right now I'm older and wiser; I'm kind of ready to handle it. But definitely as a teenager that was very annoying. But over all, I wouldn't complain about my situation at all. The problems I have are kind of very trivial compared to many people's, but they're real to me. So I have to acknowledge them.
Have you played the Commodore before? It's a great venue.
Canada's full of those. A lot of those venues are closing down. [Live music] is being disrupted by TV, mobile phones. It's funny that there's now 25 trillion people and you can't fill a room with them. It's like a weird irony of the modern world.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Sting plays the Commodore Ballroom Feb. 1 with special guests Joe Sumner and the Last Bandoleros. They play Toronto March 5 and Montreal March 6.