Interview: Eric Sommer

Can you tell us about the origins of your musical journey?

I got my first guitar when I was about 5 years old. I worked on it a little bit, tried to learn a few songs from my father’s collection of folk records and slowly made progress… I was surrounded by music in those early years because I grew up in Bangkok, Thailand and we were always visiting the temples. I heard so much traditional Thai music, which is breathtakingly beautiful, that it inspired me to keep pushing forward.
There were a few people that I took lessons from in our circle and our neighborhood, that I slowly got more confident in my playing. I had to make a lot of it up because there was nothing in the PX or the Base Exchange that was guitar based in a musical sense. Then I found some Pete Seeger records, and that helped a lot.
On day my mom took me to a cultural event at USIS, downtown on Wireless Road near the US Embassy. It was Addison and Crowfoot, a Folk/Americana Duo, and I got up and played “Stewball Was A Racehorse” that I had learned off a Folkways Record. My voice was just above a squeak, the guitar was big, but I did it and the waves of applause were overwhelming.
Yup, I was hooked.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in music, and how did you get started?

I really liked playing, and performing, and I kept at it when I returned to the US; I ended up in Lexington, Massachusetts for the last two years of high school, and I was in wandering around Boston and Cambridge every weekend playing on the streets and in the coffeehouses which were everywhere in those days. I never stopped.
After 2 years in College, I went back to Southeast Asia, then worked my way around to Europe, busking in Amsterdam and then heading up to Aarhus, Denmark. I got a job playing in Denmark two nights a week and living in the empty dorms at the Design School. I rehearsed songs in the empty saunas and showers which had amazing acoustics with all the tiles, and made enough money to get back on the road.
When I made it back to Boston, I was tied in with Don Law, and began playing at the Paradise Theatre with everyone from Little Feat to Leon Redbone and dozens of other national acts!

Who are some of your biggest musical influences, and how have they shaped your unique sound? Can you share a specific instance where one of these influences had a significant impact on your music?

So, there I was in Boston, and it was an amazing time. Music was everywhere, and in particular, there was a new band called “Captain Swing”. It featured Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr. When they added Dave Robinson , drummer from “Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers” he had a new name for them.
The Cars.
I was captivated by their sound – I loved to stark clarity and the blues based progressions, the styled vocals and the pop sensibilities. This was a major influence on me for years to come.

Touring can be an incredible experience. Could you share a memorable tour anecdote that stands out to you, whether it was a challenging moment or an unforgettable performance?

That’s a tough one, because I have so many I could mention…
Imagine pulling into a gas station in central Mississippi, in a night so dark even the shadows went home. There’s a steady rain, and at the pump is a white van, and on the side of the van is an image of a church and the words “The 5 Blind Boys from Mississippi”! I had heard of them a few years earlier when I was working in a record store in Boston, it was them and “The Mighty Clouds of Joy” … anyway, I met them all, we had a few bottles of RC Coal, and they drove off into the night.
When I was living in Boston, we had rehearsals in Brighton, and I was standing on the corner of Comm Ave and Beacon Street with my thumb out trying to get a ride, and a black Porche pulls up, the door opens and it’s Joe Perry from Arrowsmith! He was the kindest, nicest guy and he gave me a ride all the way to the rehearsal space – he wanted to know all about our band, what we were doing, where we were playing and what kind of sound we had going on… amazing!
I was in Terlingua, Texas, waiting to play at the Starlight Theatre the following evening, and I stumbled into a small amphitheater made out of shale rock and it was a beautiful pale tannish brown in the fading Far West Texas light… there were 20-30 people sitting on the shale steps and on stage were Guy Clark, David Bromberg, and Jerry Jeff Walker, all holding a guitar, and just trading songs, making jokes and having a wonderful time…

Many musicians have a pre-show ritual to get into the right mindset before hitting the stage. Do you have any special rituals or routines that you follow before a performance, and if so, what’s the story behind them?

I have been doing this long enough that when it’s show time, I am ready to go. However, I always take a moment and stretch out my arms, get centered, and calm my emotions and internal noise so that I can give the best show I can.
I pick up influences everywhere I can, take ideas from all over the world that work for my songs, but I make the final decision on what goes into my songs.

Collaborations can be a powerful creative force. Could you tell us about a memorable collaboration you’ve had with another artist and how it influenced your music or expanded your artistic horizons?

I appreciate the idea of collaborating and working with other songwriters, but at the end of the day I like to author my own material. I am influenced by all the music I hear, all the interactions I experience in a day, and these influences are rich and creatively exuberant.

While I appreciate the collaborative approach for songwriting, it’s not something I find useful when writing my material.
Over the course of your career, you’ve likely encountered various challenges. Can you share a particularly difficult moment you faced in your musical journey and how you overcame it?
One of the craziest moments I had was on the way from Boston to Washington, DC for a show. The train had a malfunction in the middle of rural Connecticut and everyone had to leave the train and get onto the buses which took an hour to arrive. It was a train siding, and all the passengers had to exit the train, walk across three train tracks, hike up the embankment in the dark and wait for the busses.
Not only that, I had to get the five guitars, cases, show gear and road cases up to the busses on my own. I had to do it in three stages.
Once I had everything in the bus, and all the gear in the bins under the bus, we headed out for the next stop where we could get back on the train. When we got to the next stop, two hours later, I had to move all the gear from the bottom of the bus to the new train – and then we headed to Grand Central Station, where I had to move everything from the pick-up train down the main stair way to the concourse, across the plaza to the escalator and move everything down the escalator to the new Accela platform to take me to Washington DC.
That was a physical nightmare.
Musically, when I was starting out in Boston, I couldn’t play the way I wanted – and I was determined to be a good player, so I got the Berklee Guitar Books 1. 2 and 3 and sat in the front room of our place on Winthrop Road in Brookline and sat there for two years, smoking Winston’s endlessly, doing all the scale exercises til my hands hurt and, with incredible frustration, I slowly developed my skills; but that amount of woodshedding has paid off in spades years later. Many thanks to Hilary Nicholson for putting up with that nonsense.

Your latest album has received critical acclaim. Could you take us through the creative process behind it, from conception to completion, and the overarching themes or messages you aimed to convey?

Our methodology for recoding depends on the costing of the studio and the sessions. If we have loads of time and a deep budget, we take our time and work thru the material with deliberation and make all sorts of creative additions as we go.
We try new sounds, new studio techniques, add voice doubling and focus on the highest quality production values we can. When it’s a tight budget, we run thru our current set, which generally includes new material that we have worked up in a live format.

Touring can be both exhilarating and exhausting. How do you balance life on the road with your personal life and creative process? Any tips for aspiring musicians who are just starting their touring journey?

I am not sure I believe in the idea of “balance”… the thing that drives the musical experience is “chaos”, and balance has nothing to do with it and, in many cases, it is a dulling blanket of passive complacency. The creative process is all about conflict, conflicting ideas, and audio, all looking for an way to be heard.

Every artist has goals and dreams for their musical career. What are some of your long-term goals or aspirations, both in terms of your artistry and your impact on the music industry?

The focus of my musical life is to create – write music, write songs, play shows and share my thoughts and music to as wide an audience as I can find. Playing live shows is the best way I know of the connect with my fans and audience.

The music industry has undergone significant changes in recent years. How do you see the future of music evolving, and what role do you envision yourself playing in this ever-changing landscape?

I have no issues with the new changes coming in the future to the music business, and I will continue to do exactly what I have been doing. The music business survives on music, and I will continue to make music.

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