Listening to the music of Fiction Plane, you might be fooled into thinking you were listening to a track by the Police… only rocked-out, jazzed-up, stripped-naked and covered in chocolate. Perhaps you’d be right: Fronted by Sting’s son, Joe Sumner, the vocal similarities between the two are striking and shows that talent clearly doesn’t skip a generation. The band incorporates ethereal acoustics with devastatingly powerful lyrics and beats to bring a new standard of music into the 21st century. After a busy year of touring, and prior to the release of their next album in Spring, Fiction Plane drummer Pete Wilhoit takes some time out to chat to Sophie Andrews about the good, the bad, and the just plane [sic] funny side to the music industry.
When did you decide that you actually wanted to be in a band? Has music always been your passion?
* Well, as early as a kid could decide, I guess. I was in the fourth grade, so… that puts you, I don’t know, how old you are in the fourth grade, maybe… 10 or something? So at ten years old, as cliché as it sounds, I started listening to The Beatles with a friend and we started a duo group called The Explosives. We started writing our own tunes and then at recess in our elementary school it rained and everybody came into the choir room and we started playing these songs. All the girls started singing along and I think at that moment I realised the power of music. At least maybe to get me chicks or something! But that’s when it really overwhelmed me as far as wanting to be a musician. I guess you could say I started music first, and then started playing the drums second. I got really serious about it in high school and decided I wanted to be a professional musician, so yeah, I think it’s always been a part of me.
So you mentioned The Beatles. What other influences have you had on your music?
* Tons of different bands! I listen to everything from Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, classical music and Jazz. I mean, I have a Jazz Degree: I learned a lot about Jazz and played for 10 years. I still play Jazz sometimes but not so much these days. But I think I was really drawn more to the rock thing because I was able to get more involved as a drummer. So, I mean, I love The Police, I love The Doors, I love Jimi Hendrix, all sorts of bands like that. I still adore bands that have great drummers. Right now, I’m really into the The Foo Fighters. There are so many bands I love, but I guess when I play I lean more towards rock, but I also have real Jazz influences as well.
How do you think it’s all lived up to your expectations? Has being a drummer professionally been everything you thought it would be?
* It really has. I mean I feel very lucky to first and foremost understand what it is I wanna do with my life, ‘cause I think a lot of people can struggle with that their entire lives. I’m really lucky that I have known for a long time that this is what I wanna do, and achieving so many things just as a drummer/musician is really been special. To be able to consider this my job… it’s kind of a joke! I have such a flexible schedule, and I’ve played some amazing shows at some really amazing places around the world. Basically, I’ve been able to see the world playing music, and been treated very well in foreign countries, purely because I’m a musician, so it’s a real honour and a real pleasure and I definitely don’t take it for granted. You know, I’ve had desk jobs and immediately sitting behind a desk at a computer knowing ‘This is exactly what I don’t wanna do’ so I feel really lucky to be able to do it as a career.
So if you weren’t in a band, what sort of jobs do you see yourself doing? What would you be doing by now if you hadn’t got into Fiction Plane?
* That’s a good question, you know, we always joke in the band that if you’re a musician – if you’re truly a musician, you really don’t have a plan B. So I honestly don’t have a plan B, which is probably a little bit foolish. I really don’t know; I guess if I had to, hopefully I’d be able to teach music, or I would have maybe wanted to be a Baseball player. That’s something I would have enjoyed doing.
You joined Fiction Plane in 2003 as the newest member of the band. How did you come to meet the other two members and did you find it at all difficult to establish yourself in the band?
* Well they were holding auditions in New York, looking for a drummer, and my old drum teacher knew their producer and so he pointed me in their direction. They were auditioning over a hundred people so I responded to their management and got an audition in New York City. We met in a rehearsal studio and started playing and I think we immediately hit it off, and not just musically; we were really at one with each other. I think there’s a certain type of connection when you play music and you can all be playing the same song and not be connected, or you can all be playing the same song and be really connected. I think there was an immediate connection between us. We all have similar musical aspirations, likes and dislikes, and that became apparent very quickly. And then you start talking person-to-person, and we all have the same sort of humour level. It’s all important stuff because personality has everything to do with why people get jobs and get gigs and why some people don’t. So I was really pleased once we played together and sort of hung out that we all got along and this was something that could really work. And it really has, y’know?
Do you spend a lot of time with each other outside of work?
* Well we do as much as we can. I live in New York City and they live in London so [laughs] that definitely involves a plane ride – unfortunately for the ozone layer! But we do get along really well and we all share similar life views. They’re really great guys. I’m lucky to have found a band like this. I was in a band for 11 years with mates growing up, and that was a special relationship because we all grew up in the same town and we were friends from a young age. This is a similar feeling even though we never grew up together. It feels like we’re brothers, and for that I’m very grateful.
I first saw you guys performing in 2007 when you were supporting The Police for their Reunion Tour. What was it like meeting Sting?
* Well you know it’s a strange thing, because I was a big Police fan growing up, and then in some way to get this weird connection with Sting and The Police was something I never thought would happen. So you know, I got to know Sting as Joe’s dad, and knowing somebody as your friend’s father is very different to seeing them as an artist and this legendary musician. So, you get this real special insight as to how everybody ticks and how everybody gets along. You know it was tough in the beginning for Joe, because he’s never wanted to ‘tag along’ and be second fiddle. He’s a really talented guy and is doing something he loves to do and is very good at. So it’s hard to always be compared to your father, but eventually he realised that you have to take this head on and it’s not going to change anything by not facing the facts. We got this opportunity to tour with The Police and we all decided we’d be crazy to turn it down. You know, it was a very unique tour and the biggest tour we’ll ever be on. We played at amazing venues and we got to go out there and do what we love for 45 minutes… and play whatever we wanted. It was quite a gift that was handed to us, and we were very appreciative of it. It was an amazing experience: It really opened a lot of doors for us as a band.
Does Sting ever have any input on the band? Does he ever give advice as a sort of mentor?
* You know, if you’re having a close personal talk with him, every now and then he’ll give you some advice but you know, it’s usually the kind of motivational stuff like, “I know it’s tough boys, just keep at it”. There are so many bands and so many musicians that it’s difficult, especially nowadays, to break through as a band. We’re in a market where the product is hardly a product anymore unless you’re talking about live shows. The Police were lucky enough to break through at a time where you could still sell CDs and became massively successful. I think Sting understands how difficult it is, and he always tries to encourage us within reason, because he doesn’t want to insult us [laughs].
Well, speaking of trying to get into started in the music industry, what’s your view on programmes like American Idol and X Factor?
* I think there’s always been a market for shows like that. More now than ever it seems like that is where a lot of people discover certain talent and certain pop artists. That’s probably the most precious thing for aspiring musicians – if you can get on the television – because people still watch television, so you can still sell CDs or at least get your artist to a point where they are a special commodity, where you can get them in movies, get them in television shows. You can have a built-in audience that is going to be intrigued or at least want to buy into certain artists. So, for pop artists that are young and up-and-coming, it’s an amazing thing. If that’s the genre you wanna be part of I think it’s a super special tool that if you’re lucky enough to get on, it could be really good for you. For rock bands, going up and slugging it in a van across the country, I don’t think it really helps. It becomes the butt of many jokes because, y’know, it’s a different world. It’s two different things: one is showbiz, and the other is blood sweat and tears [laughs], and a lot of sleeping on floors and bad hotel rooms and late nights. It’s not all bad, but it’s a different reality, that’s all.
Outside of work, do you still enjoy playing music? Or does it become ‘just work’?
* Oh no, I absolutely love it! It’s never a chore unless I’m just really not enjoying the gig and there’s some other external factor that’s pissing me off or whatever. I really enjoy it, and we went and did this Police tour and were playing all these amazing venues, and then I come back to NY and play with a singer songwriter for 50 bucks from one till four in the morning and I enjoy it. As a musician, you learn at an early age that it’s a long road and it’s full of ups and downs, peaks and valleys.
Have you ever had any really bad gigs?
* Oh yeah, I’ve had some terrible gigs where I just wanted to disappear, click my heels and go back to Kansas [laughs]. I’ve had shows where I honestly couldn’t believe I was sitting behind the drums, and had to do a gut-check of my life and say “is this where I’m supposed to be right now? Is this what I want?” [laughs] Yeah, I mean, not to get too specific, but there have been times where I’ve just bitten my bottom lip and made it through just to tick it off the list of “I will never do that again”. I think everybody has those jobs, you know?
What’s been your best experience on stage? Ever had anything really bizarre happen?
* Oh, tons of bizarre things! I don’t even know where to begin! I guess I’ll say, I was in a band called The Cutters for 11 years and we drove around in this green van for months doing gigs across the country. We were in the middle of New Jersey somewhere, probably 40 miles from the city after playing a gig where they had booked us as “The Clutters” rather than “The Cutters” – they’d misspelled our name which I thought was very Spinal Tap! So we were driving home, and we’re at this gas station at about three in the morning, and this green van pulls up beside our green van, and these four guys get out, and we’re like, “Hey, they’ve got a green van just like ours, they’re probably a band”. So we’re getting gas and chatting, and I say, “Hey, you guys a band?” and they’re like “Yeah we’re a band”. So I ask the name of their band and they say, “We’re called The Clutters”. And I literally had to stop and look around and was like… “Am I being Punkd right now, is this a weird television show?” But you know right, those little experiences happen a lot in the music industry. It’s a really small world when you get down to it, especially now with the internet. There are so many little strings that attach us all, and you find these hilarious moments where so-and-so knows so-and-so, or you went to school with this guy, or used to play in a band with that guy, whatever. You know, it happens all the time.
You guys do a lot of touring – Do you find it hard to keep relationships going with all the travelling on tour?
* Well I’m a happily married man. I’ve been with my wife for 18 years so we were lucky enough to understand how each other ticks and how a lasting relationship works in this industry. Which is… let’s say it’s not the norm – I’d say we’re the minority. There are ups and downs, but when you have somebody who loves you so much and understands how you tick it’s foolish to wanna do anything to sacrifice that. So it’s pretty easy for me, because I’m never really ‘looking for a relationship’ like that on the road. I’m just enjoying myself and happy that I’ve got a loving family that supports me. So the only thing that becomes difficult is purely the scheduling and trying to juggle everybody’s happiness and make it all work. ‘Cause it’s not just a trio, there’s the ripple effect of everybody who’s connected to that trio, and every relationship that’s affected to that trio is affected by everything we do. So like any other band, it’s a juggling act, but it’s one I’m happy to do. It’s all about balance.
I’ve just got a few more questions because we’re running out of time now. I’ve got to ask, do you ever listen to your own albums?
* Once in a while. It’s usually when we’re deciding on what songs were gonna put on an album, or whether this was a good take, but outside of that I will probably not listen to the band because we’re touring and playing the same music. So we get up on stage, and the first thing I don’t do is listen to Fiction Plane [laughs]. I say you need to give your ears a bit of rest and it’s nice to let the album sit for a long time and listen to it after a while because it’s usually progressed from what you recorded into something new and exciting . But it’s an interesting thing to do once a year or so.
My last question then: there are loads of young musicians trying to get into the business. At the Uni alone there are hundreds of people trying to get their work out there – busking, playing in pubs and bars. Have you got any tips or stories you’d share about your early days?
* Yeah, you know, the one thing that seems to be the last beacon of hope for musicians is that live touring will always be there – it can never be replaced. You can never replace live musicians with a downloaded show: It’s just not the same. So the thing you have to do is cover all your bases. You have to do the Myspace, you have to do as many YouTube videos as you can. Do all this multimedia stuff. Just to do it, because everyone else is doing it and before you can make yourself stand out as a band you’ve gotta make sure you don’t get left behind. As a band, get your music out to as many sources as you can, because it’s basically your little ball in the numbers of the lottery. So do all that that you can, and my suggestion is find guys that you love to play with, and all have the same goal, and go out and bust your ass playing as many shows as you can. Find those pockets of fans that are there, because if you can find the fans early and play consistently to them, you’ll have them for life. Unfortunately, there’s no equation that equals success in the music industry, or any job for that matter. It’s a matter of giving yourself a chance to get lucky. It takes luck for sure. Just like anything else, you’ve gotta bust your ass so you can get lucky.
Fiction Plane’s new album will be hitting shelves in the Spring. Until then, why not follow them on Twitter?