Endless Sumner: Sting and His Opening Act, Joe Sumner, on Their Father-Son Tour and Why ‘the Audience Gets a Kick Out of Seeing Us Together’

Opening for Sting at the Hollywood Bowl makes for some album release show. That’s what Joe Sumner will be doing Saturday night, the day after his debut solo album, “Sunshine in the Night,” is released. If he’s taking it in stride, there is the fact that they’re father and son; the familiarity has been compounded by the recent months spent gigging together on the Sumners’ summer tour, now being followed by a fall trek that is bringing them around to L.A.’s most storied venue.

Spoiler alert: Joe hops onstage to duet with dad each night. Another spoiler alert: It’s well worth being on time, as “Sunshine in the Night” is a humdinger loaded with chamber pop ditties and swirling, synth-y power-ballads.

Sting’s last solo album, “The Bridge,” was released in 2021, but this is a greatest hits tour, a continuation of his self-explanatorily titled “My Songs” tour, encompassing hits from a remarkable career, both with the Police and not. Though Joe’s footsteps singing, playing bass, and writing songs eerily echo those of dad (and the resemblance is physical too), Joe’s set will reflect how he’s carved his own path, living in Los Angeles with his family, and vibing on his own muses, appearing unfazed by Sting’s dizzying achievements.

Joe, 46, his southern English accent crisp and fresh, and Sting, 71, his voice rounded by melodious northeast “Geordie”-inflected tones, talked to Variety via Zoom from a barren-looking room backstage at the Moody Center in Austin, Texas. They banter, rib each other and laugh a lot, situated in yet another arena — the kind of place Sting is utterly familiar with, and Joe is too, both with his early-2000s band Fiction Plane and, prior to that, as a kid practically growing up in them.

Joe, you’re finally releasing your solo debut, which was a victim of pandemic delays. Did the delay have you chewing your fingernails, or did you use the time to change the record up?

Joe: It gave me chance to go in and change a whole bunch of things. The idea of the album was it was going to be acoustic guitar and voice, and that was it. Then I went in and added every instrument I could think of.

Sting: It proves you were thinking…

Joe: Yeah, I was thinking a lot. It was a scientific process! I added strings, and big drums, and flutes and synthesizers. So my original concept failed.

Was this a good thing?

Joe: It was a very good thing. It is what it is; sometimes it’s not ready until it’s ready. Next time I make an album I want it to be a lot quicker. But they are a time capsule and you have to accept it.

It’s hardly your first go at the rodeo. With Fiction Plane you had a band career. How is a solo album different?

Joe: I get to make all the decisions and I get to take all the blame. That’s the main thing. I just found a very creative freedom of just being able to say this is what’s going to happen now. Then I mull it over in my head forever, but that’s OK.

So all you have to argue with is yourself, then?

Joe: That can be a problem, for sure. It’s different qualitatively than arguing with other people.

Sting, you have made 15 solo records. Is it a different baby from a band or other collaboration?

Sting: I think it’s a misnomer really. If you make a solo record you’re still working with musicians and bands. But it’s just as Joe said, it’s your baby and you make all the decisions. I’m sure we both invite comment. We invite advice, and collaboration. But at the end of the day the solo artist makes the executive decision. I think bands have this strange semblance of democracy. But it’s not really a democracy. [They both laugh.] It’s the guy who writes the songs and sings who’s the band leader. Even though the other guys in the band might object to that, that’s the truth.

Joe: I agree with that actually. I mentioned I have strings and a flute on the album…

Sting: You did not play the flute! [Laughs.]

Joe: I did not play the flute. I found this guy who just got me. I just brought him into the studio and said I want flute all over this and it kinda should go like this. I am not taking credit for writing those flute pieces, but he just got it. If I was a band that would be this whole other conversation.

Sting: (mocks) Well, maybe I should play the flute; maybe the drummer should play the flute… [As a solo artist] you’re directing. You’re not playing all the parts, but you’re directing.

Joe, do you recall the first time you saw your dad on stage and what your impression was?

Joe: I don’t recall at all. It was just always happening. It’s always been there.

Sting: Joe would be at rehearsals in his carry cot, propping up the bass drum. He’s never known life without me making an awful lot of row.

Joe: It was just always happening, just a thing you do. And I still don’t feel like I’ve done anything unless I do a gig.

Sting: But you’re not in your carry cot anymore, are you? [Laughs.]

Joe: No, but if I could fit in it…

Sting: No!

When did you begin touring together? Was that something that came naturally?

Sting: We’ve done it a lot. When Joe had a band in school, sometimes the support act would not turn up and we’d get his band to come in. Ferry them in. Then they did a tour with the Police — a big tour with the Police.

Joe: Yeah, we did. I have to say, in the beginning of my career I was dead-set against it. I did things like, in my original record contract I was like you cannot mention any of this connection in promotion of the album. I was trying to defeat this elephant that’s in the room by going around it. I decided the only way is to go through it. You know what, if there is an opportunity to play for an audience and we get to be together, which is very nice, I’m going to take it.

Sting: There’s no way I would let him do it if I didn’t think he was any good. I would have fired his arse immediately.

Joe: I can attest to this!

Sting: But he is good and it feels natural. If you were a carpenter a hundred years ago, your dad was a carpenter, and his dad was a carpenter. So I’m a musician… I’ve never given Joe any advice on his work. The only thing I’ve given him is he sees me practice every day; he sees how hard I work to get better as a musician, get better as a band leader. I’ve shown him by example, but I’ve never given him any advice. He wouldn’t take it anyway.

Joe: No. Direct advice goes in the wrong direction.

When Joe joins you on stage and you are belting out a song together, how does it feel?

Sting: I feel very proud he’s my boy. I have a natural dad’s pride. But at the same time it’s a kind of out-of-body experience too, because he’s doing what I do and I recognize there are elements in his voice he gets from me. But I recognize there are elements he does not get from me. It’s a double world for me: I recognize me, but I know he’s completely unique too.

Joe: For me, it’s very natural. It took a long time to find my voice as a kid, because I did not speak at all. There were no noises coming out.

Sting: No, he didn’t speak at all.

Joe: So once I found there were noises coming out, that’s when I realized it was working the right way. It took a lot of hard work. I basically had to sing over a drummer in a rehearsal room for five years. Then at the end of that I could sing. It feels like where I am supposed to be.

If you sing together, it’s a bonding experience. You get closer together just…

Sting: Harmonizing.

Joe: …harmonizing. Even just yelling together; it just feels good. Like football crowds enjoy themselves so much singing together.

Sting: I think the audience gets a kick out of seeing us together. He’s bigger than me, but we look sort of similar.

Sting, you’ve been at this a long time…

Sting: Since the Second World War.

Not quite, but 50 years or so. Any itches left to scratch musically, artistically?

Sting: I’m led by my curiosity about music and also the desire to learn more about music. There’s no way any of us can say, “Oh, I know enough now about music.”  I am the eternal student, and I invested that in Joe, too. We’re curious about how things will pan out and also we want to deliver surprises. We want to be surprised by what we do. I think the essence of music is surprise.

If someone plays me a song and I’m not surprised within eight bars, then I stop listening. I desperately want to be … I want novelty; I want something I haven’t heard before. Something I can learn from; something I can steal. That’s what keeps me going.

Have you heard anything steal-able recently?

Sting: No.


Sting: No. Maybe Joe’s record. I might steal a few ideas off that. I think I have the right, don’t I?

Joe: You can borrow the flute.

Sting, when did you realize Joe would enter the family business?

Sting: When he turned up with a band one day, and a guitar. I didn’t teach him guitar. I might have bought him one, but I didn’t teach him. It was of his own volition that he wanted to do that.

Joe: I listened to Nirvana one day and I was in a band by the end of the session!

Sting: The band was called Santa’s Boyfriend.

Strange name.

Joe: Is it?

Sting: You should have kept it.

Joe: We should have kept it. Nobody forgot that name. Playing music you kind of have to get obsessed with it on your own otherwise you’re never going to put in the work.

Might there be a Sting and Son album at some point?

Sting: It’s certainly not out of the question if things transpire that way. Joe needs to go and discover on his own, away from me. Maybe we’ll collaborate at a later date when he’s learnt something and so have I. I don’t think we’d do it at the moment. We like working together on stage, but actually getting in the studio? I mean, who would be the boss? [Laughs.]

Joe: I will just say that I already have another album’s worth of songs in the can, so that’s going to be my next thing.

Sting: Without me.

Joe: Without you! And I’m really interested in getting into scoring TV and film. And once this tour is finished, I am going to strike out [on tour] on my own. Sink or swim.

So, Joe, you’re basically saying you’re too busy to make a record with dad then?

Joe: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! “Sorry, no, too busy.”

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