by Sheldon Birnie
The Sumner Brothers are a Vancouver based indie-roots act made up of, you guessed it, the brothers Bob and Brian Sumner. Effortlessly blending traditional themes and sounds with a fully contemporary language and feel, the Sumner Brothers craft contemporary roots music at home both within rural honky-tonks and urban dive bars where the bourbon flows free. Releasing their debut In the Garage in 2006, the Sumner Brothers have been at the vanguard of a resurgence of folk music in Vancouver. With the release of their fourth disc, I’ll Be There Tomorrow, the boys hit the road running last week, and are pulling through Winnipeg on the Hillbilly Highway this weekend with two shows lined up. After discussing their influences (large fans of Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt, and Johnny Cash), Stylus jumped into the following discussion with Brian Sumner, as the boys enjoyed a rare day off in Edmonton.
Stylus: Apart from like recording artists, are you guys influenced as songwriters by any other sort of writers? I noticed that Bob [Sumner] had been involved in a Bukowski night recently out there in Vancouver.
Brian Sumner: I think, yeah. Like Bob and I both write about half the songs. Mine are mostly sort of retrospective and based on my own experiences. Bob has a lot of songs like that, but he also reads a ton of fiction. So he’s reading like Steinbach and a kinda who’s who of American novelists. Then Bukowski’s in there for sure. I think my brother is heavily influenced by that stuff.
Stylus: I haven’t been out to Vancouver and checked out any of the folk scene out there in years. What’s the folk scene like out there today, and how do you guys fit into?
BS: It’s pretty good. I mean we’ve been doing it for so long that, we’ve been doing it about seven years I guess. So we were kind of out in front of the whole thing, picking away on banjos and that kinda crap, and we felt alone for a long time out there. And we had to kind of, my brother and I are dual citizens, so we used to, we still do play in Seattle quite a bit. There’s a lot of guys down there that we sort of bonded with. It took a while in Vancouver, but now the scene has grown and there’s a good crowd. There’s venues, the college radio around here support it. And then we put on a night called “For the Sake of the Song Sundays,” that kind of gives touring musicians, singer songwriters an opportunity to play on Sundays. So that’s kind of taken off, we average over 100 people at that. It’s becoming more accepting and people are getting into it.
Stylus: When you come through Winnipeg, what kind of memories do you have of this place?
BS: We’ve only played the one place there, and we’ve played there a bunch, the Times Change(d). And it’s starting to feel like home. It’s just, I don’t know what happens, we always have a real good party night when we’re there. Winnipeg’s such a far drive from Saskatoon or Regina, so we haven’t had a lot of time to hang out. But we have two full days this time, so we’re hoping to kind of get out and see the city. But the people are great, from what I can tell, hanging out at the Times Change(d).
Stylus: You guys spend a fair amount of time on the road. How does that affect your writing, or the way your band works?
BS: I don’t know if it affects our songwriting too much. We do most of our songwriting at home. I think what it does is it’s a good bonding mechanism. We are actually traveling as a trio this time. We’re doing something new with our bass player Joseph on stand-up. And we can feel it, we’re starting to get tuned into our dynamics. The more subtle aspects of performing that you can’t really dial in on once a month when we’re playing in Vancouver. Yeah, it’s a real positive in that sense. And also on a personal sense it’s great for bonding. Not that I need to bond any more with my brother.
Stylus: I was going to ask, how is it being in a band with your brother? I have a brother, and I couldn’t imagine being in a band, or doing such a collaborative thing on such a high level with him regularly. How does that work out?
BS: It’s intense. But it’s really easy. We don’t have any of the sort of dynamics that a lot of bands have, where you’re never really sure what everyone else is doing. What their long term plan is, or if their girlfriend or wife has their ear or whatever. Music is what we do, and it’s what we’re going to do. We never have anything to worry about like that. And then we can sit silently in a car together for eight hours. We don’t feel the need to make small talk or anything. But when we blow up we blow up pretty good. Probably more than two band members who aren’t brothers.
The Sumner Brothers play the Rose N Bee Pub on Sunday, September 30 with Grant Davidson and Keri Latimer, and a house show on October 1. For more details (and info on the House show) and to take a listen to a sneak peak of I’ll Be There Tomorrow, check out thesumnerbrothers.com