Some bands have responded to the dramatic changes affecting the music business by taking direct control of their careers – not the easiest option for a band that’s yet to make the big breakthrough. Yet this is exactly what Fiction Plane have done, and their third studio album,Sparks, sees them entering the new decade with confidence and optimism. After two and a half years on the road, which took them from crowds of 85,000 at the Stade de France in Paris, to a sell-out headlining show at Amsterdam’s legendary Paradiso Club, Pete Wilhoit (drums), Seton Daunt (guitar) and Joe Sumner (lead vocals/bass) took an extended break before reconvening to begin work on Sparks. “We all felt this new album should be a true collective effort”, says Pete, so they rented a grimy basement in New York and jammed for three weeks, recording everything into a laptop. “Then we sifted through it all to find those little bits of magic,” says Joe.
Following a low-key New York show to road-test the new material, the band went into RAK Studios in London with producer Paul Corkett in February and March of last year, before completing the album at Moles in Bath the following September. “Before we started recording, we asked ourselves; what would we want to hear if we were listening to a band we liked?” says Seton. “We took the opportunity to try out things we mightn’t have tried otherwise” As Joe puts it, “We didn’t have anybody getting in our ear and telling us we needed a single, or that we’d be cleaning toilets if we didn’t sell 50 million records. It was a nice feeling.” This lack of external pressure has resulted in an album as stylistically diverse as it is adventurous, yet which still contains the bittersweet melodic edge and strong grasp of rock dynamics that’s characterised previous Fiction Plane albums. “All our different influences have come through on this record,” says Seton. “We’re all fans of Radiohead and Queens Of The Stone Age, but I’m also a big Dylan fan, Joe likes Pavement, and Pete’s into John Coltrane. We’re not really like any of those artists, but we tried to emulate their approach. It’s difficult to sell records nowadays, and you’re not going to automatically sell morerecords because you don’t take chances. You may as well just do what you want to do and have fun with it.”
The album’s opener, You Know You’re Good (The La La Song), a live favourite for two years before being reworked and recorded for Sparks, has a hard-edged, punkish drive, and its live-in-the-studio feel typifies much of the album. This isn’t the work of a band that’s ProTooled the soul out of their music. On the contrary, what you hear is a band completely at ease with itself, with a sound and a personality that’s much more than merely the sum of its influences. On several songs, Joe relished the opportunity to “be a lot more expressive lyrically”, particularly onRussian LSD, which was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’sThe Master and Margarita, and Humanoid, which takes a swipe at music business Walter Mitty characters. Both songs represent a musical departure for Fiction Plane as well. Russian LSD rises to a wild, free-form passage where everything falls away to just a kick-drum and sheets of squalling feedback from Seton, whilst Pete describesHumanoid as featuring “lots of different passages and shifting textures, almost as if you’re going on a journey. It’s really satisfying musically to have something like that on the record.” The album closes with an epic rock ballad,Denied, a song with all the hallmarks of a future classic and amongst the most personal on the album. So much so, in fact, that Joe says: “I didn’t actually sing the lyrics to anyone until we got into the recording studio,”
It’s clear that all three members of Fiction Plane are immensely proud of Sparks. “Even if it all fell apart tomorrow, we’ve made exactly the record we wanted to make,” says Seton. Joe puts it another way: “A lot of music nowadays is marketing first, but we’re going the opposite way, and I think people will find the record and understand it. I like to be surprised by music. I love getting blind-sided by something, and if people end up discovering this record in the same way, that’ll be wonderful.”