Ahead of the launch of her first LP Information, Eliot Sumner chats to David Hillier about homeopathy, drug-smuggling and split-identities with one of indie rock’s most elusive forces.
Taken from the 10th Birthday Issue of Wonderland.
Blue linen mix suit ELIOT’S OWN, white cotton shirt by ICEBERG and leather loafers with fur lining by GUCCI (worn throughout)
It’s 10pm, and in six hours Eliot Sumner will depart for the most important tour of her career.We’ve sank an armada of drinks since the afternoon, and the turbulent bassline of The Horrors’ “Sea Within A Sea” cannons off the walls of her Belgravia flat.
“I’m basically taking half a suitcase of drugs with me,” she says. It’s fair to say these old ears pricked up. Partly for reasons obvious, but mainly ‘cause said tour is a 31 date, six week, coast-to coast- schlep around America’s heartland.We wouldn’t advocate the trafficking of narcotics at the best of times, but doing so now seems an especially awful idea.“They’re homeopathic drugs,” she adds, face cracking into chisel-cheeked grin.“Honestly, I’ve got so much echinacea. I’m a total hypochondriac. As soon as I feel a little bit of a symptom, I’ll be taking something for it.” Although clearly pleased that Sumner won’t be risking the wrath of the U.S Marshals, there must be a slight measure of disappointment spread across my face. She offers to open another bottle of the “birthday wine” left over from her 25th.
The tour, starting in Milwaukee, heads down to Texas, Arizona, snakes up to Vancouver via LA, before crossing the country again to finish virtually where it started – in Chicago. It is the main topic of excitable conversation throughout my day and night with Sumner and her band guitarist Nick Benton, and in support of her new album, Information. Sumner and her band went away last winter, when they supported Lykke Li for 18 dates around Europe. It was an experience she describes as “awesome.” Her and the Swedish chanteuse are “great friends. [It was] brilliant for everyone to just hang out.” But this time it is very different.
She’s heading into bandit country, carrying only a bass guitar on her back.
“We’re about to get into something a lot of bands don’t get to do.We’re really going to get into the sticks of America, play dive bars, really build the foundations in a whole new continent.
It’s really cool. It’s the old troubadour way of doing things.” So she’s prepared? “Um, yes. We’re well rehearsed, but I’m not sure how prepared you can ever be for something like this,” she says, working that grin again. It’s a smile that anyone with the briefest knowledge of pop music will recognise as inherited from her father, Sting. She also shares his rhombus shaped, ever-so-squinted eyes, and her voice has the same low-timbered, transatlantic patois that has set the pace for a million first wedding dances.
I have been told not to ask question about her family, however. So I don’t. Instead we discuss the album she released in 2010, under another moniker, I Blame Coco. The first incarnation of Sumner was a vastly different beast – a genre-flitting, electro cousin of the indie landfill. Kinda like Ladyhawke, but Paris never really got burning.
“I’m embarrassed about my former I Blame Coco self, it gives me anxiety thinking about it. And when people mention it.” Is there anything she does like from it? “I can play “Self-Machine”, but I can’t listen to the recording,” she says. “I haven’t listened to those songs in four years.” She is clearly keen for us to not dwell on it, and to focus on the present. Understandable, certainly, but doing so is difficult when the change is so marked. Not least in her dress sense. Before it was Hawley Arms barmaid on a hen do.
Nowadays, she says she likes Boris Saberi’s clothes, Rick Owens, the “tamer” stuff of KTZ. It’s the look of the artful, street savvy underground, of the beat-makers and sunrise chasers.
How important is image to her in music? “Well,” she wonders, twiddling the straw in her ginger beer.“If it’s good it doesn’t matter what they look like. I mean, there was definitely really great moments from that part of my life, and I did have a lot of fun. But there was no look then, and the music wasn’t good. So there was nothing to justify it.”The same cannot be said of new album, Information. It’s a record of which she is deeply proud, and its musical landscape is a world away from her previous project. It’s suggested that there’s Krautrock influences and she’s effusive in her agreement, name-checking Tangerine Dream, Closter and Neu! So was it pre-meditated – did she set off wanting to make a tribute to that genre?
“I didn’t set out saying, ‘I wanna make a Krautrock album.’ Not really. I’d already written an album, but it’s not this album, and as soon as I met Duncan [Mills – a producer who has worked with the likes of The Vaccines, Spector and Crocodiles] he said ‘you should write more songs like this.’And he was talking about the song ‘Come Friday’, which is quite Kraut-y. Then the song ‘Information’ came, and everything fell into place.”
What of this other album you mention? “Well, I lived in the Lake District for six months, totally alone, and I built a little studio up there. I get distracted very easily, so I knew I had to completely isolate myself from everything.” Because you wanted to make this record or because you wanted isolation for another reason? “Both reasons, really. I needed to reset myself.” It doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines and see an isolation driven by heartache. But Sumner is reluctant to discuss it, especially in light of her current relationship status, of which she says,“I am in a relationship and I’m very happy.We both work hard but are very much apart of one another.”
Though she’ll admit there is a bleakness in some of her lyrics, Information is an album powered by positivity; a grown-up pop album that’s not afraid to admit it’s still got some growing up to do.This is never more so obvious than on the song “After Dark”, which deals with her lack of self-control when the vagaries of the night take a hold. Or the hear-it-once-know-the-words chorus to “Firewood”: “We’re just firewood/too soon to burn but we can’t wait/ we’re just firewood/too lost to take the things we crave.”
Her favourite is “Dead Arms And Dead Legs”, one of the record’s slower moments. Reflective and insular: “I have been out walking with these dead arms and these dead legs”, it’s less suited for the Lazer Cave, and instead perfect for a whisky strewn garrett. In many ways the album feels like a distillation of the artist as a young woman – strong, yes, and forging a new path she’s laid all herself, but with a cloak of vulnerability that makes her and the music very appealing.
As I leave her flat at around 11pm, Sumner is knocking around in the kitchen, showing Benton where the pots and pans are. The two have decided to start making pasta, a somewhat unconventional choice considering they are going to be up again in five hours. I then get woken by a text from Sumner at 2am, thanking me for coming round, so maybe sleeping just ain’t on her agenda. Oh well. Only 31 shows to go. Good job she’s got all that echinacea.
Black wool knit turtleneck jumper by McQ
Black cotton t-shirt by DIESEL BLACK GOLD
Clockwise from top left: Black long sleeved jumper RIVER ISLAND, black cotton t-shirt by COACH(seen after) silver emblem necklace and suede cotton shorts both ELIOT’S OWN, black leather jacket with patches by SANDRO, t-shirt and necklace as before, black wool coat by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE and black knit polo top by FENDI, and black trousers by GUCCI, black cotton t-shirt by COACH and shorts as before
Clockwise from top left: Black wool coat by SAINT LAURENT BY HEDI SLIMANE, black trousers by GUCCI, black polo knit by FENDI and black jeans by ACNE, black leather jacket with zip detailing by McQ, grey t-shirt as before, suede and leather drawstring shorts by RICK OWENS and trainers by NIKE, SANDRO jacket as before, jumper and shorts as before
Black hooded jumper ELIOT’S OWN, black cotton t-shirt by DIESEL BLACK GOLD and black cotton trousers with patches by KTZ
Left: Grey cotton t-shirt ELIOT’S OWN. Right: Black trench coat with patches by SANDRO
‘Information’, will be released on January 22, 2016 following a UK live tour throughout October.
Fashion: Issey Brunner
Photographer: Fanny Latour-Lambert
Words: David Hillier