Eliot Sumner

by William J. Simmons

“I rotate my clothes so everything is equally worn”*—Where the synth-friendly English rock musician sits in for Will Ferrell during his “anxIety-free joyride”*.1 with Rolling Stone
Here she comes now, down the page, around a comma, a strong woman with staunchly angled eyebrows. She stops in front of a Mexican restaurant, unassuming, like any preconceptions of one. Entras! Take two seats at the bar, hypothetical as they are. “I like to characterize music by what it smells like. It smells like jet fuel. It’s got that energy,” Eliot Sumner tells me. “The margaritas are good here,” I say, “like jet fuel, for the soul.” Indeed, like jet fuel, Sumner’s music—pure rock at its bass-heavy, synth-flaring finest—blasts listeners out of the vast landscape of expected chart-topping sameness i.e. what Sumner rightfully calls “brainwashing music.”

Motion, yes, but where will she go? Sumner’s forthcoming album Information has been many-a-margarita-a-coming, but it should be worth the wait. Things to forget: Sumner is the daughter of famed musician Sting, but this detail’s as relevant as the number of salt granules on this fictional tortilla chip. Sumner taught herself how to play guitar and began writing at the age of 15: “I started writing music out of enjoyment, and maybe it was an outlet for things I was dealing with. If I like it then I’m happy; I’m not doing it for anybody else. And if I like it, maybe someone else will like it. Or not.”

Recognized early on for her unique sound, Sumner amassed an impressive career as the front woman for an English indie band, including collaborations with La Roux, and Robyn, before she launched on a new trajectory. In 2014, after a two-year break, she released an EP, also titled Information.

Sumner then teamed up with producer/songwriter Duncan Mills for a suite of five songs, Early Reflections SMPLR, in August. This teaser for her forthcoming album feels cohesive—a blended margarita of dazzling synth layers and Sumner’s signature vocals, dreamily masculine and coolly compelling. Though her new album will be the result of years of hard work, Sumner speaks humbly of the effort: “Most of my favorite songs I wrote in 20 minutes. With ‘Dead Arms & Dead Legs,’ I went on a walk one day, and when I got back, it started coming out of me. I gave it a little edit and arrangement and I thought it was inspiring enough to try to do it again.”

And like a good night out, surely the results will be thrilling. Drawing on Sumner’s interest in krautrock and the hardcore straight edge movement, the album will be a diverse reflection of her wide-ranging influences, from Rick Owens to Chris Cunningham. Though Information will be released under her name, Sumner’s new music always, in her estimation, belongs as much to her as it does to the band, “When you take ego out of music, things become lighter, fresher, and easier. There is a community aspect to music.” In fact, she built Information with the help of guitarist Charles Rowell of Crocodiles, drummer Sam Doyle of the Maccabees (who is extraordinarily handsome; could someone set us up for a mezcal tasting? Thank you!), and Haydn Bendall, who worked behind the scenes on five Kate Bush albums.

“You have to treat songwriting as your job, as work, instead of saying, ‘Oh maybe today I’m going to write a song,’” she says brimming with palpable fervor. Moreover, when I mention that my dad is a vintage amplifier repairman, she unexpectedly lights up, “I could talk about gear all day. I’m a big synth-nerd. ‘More is more’ when it comes to gear. I’m actually picking up a Silvertone, a cool little suitcase amp that weighs nothing, but it sounds really, really nice.”

What sets Sumner apart is a beautiful lyricism that belies this technical proficiency and career-oriented intensity. Sumner conjures a well-known vision, “I don’t consider myself part of mainstream music culture, and I don’t think I would ever want to be part of that world. I’m a musician first. That’s how I would describe myself. I would never say ‘songwriter’ because people have that image in their head of someone with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica around their neck.”

And by interview’s end, salsa trays and chip baskets emptied, Sumner graciously invites me to her show that night at Baby’s All Right. Fictional drinks downed, made-up bar tabs settled, she adds: “This is something fresh and new, and I’m confident in this album. I’m really excited.”

As are we. Viva la artista Eliot Sumner.

Photographer: Mason Poole at masonpoole.com

Stylist: Sean Knight for Jedroot.com

* Hedegaard, E. “The Beautifully Empty Mind of Will Ferrell,” Rolling Stone, March 2012.

*.1 Ibid.