All Eyes on Eric Sommer

  1. Introduction and Background

a. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your musical journey and background?

Hi Vibe Vault! It’s me, Eric Sommer, and I am delighted to be with you today!

Here we go:

I grew up in SE Asia where my dad was working in Bangkok: I went there when I was 5 years old and my Dad got me a Sears Silvertone Guitar to keep me busy and out of trouble. He found a guitar teacher for me, and by the time I was 12, I was playing in a bar called “The Trolly” in downtown Bangkok on Silom Rd and Rama V. I played there for three years and learned so much! When I returned to the US, I went to college for two years and then back to Bangkok.

When I left Bangkok, I made my way hitchhiking through Europe and ended up playing in Amsterdam and Living on a Houseboat behind the train station on The Dam Square. I moved to Aarhus, DK and played in two restaurants before heading back to the US. I landed in Boston and went to work for Don Law at the Paradise Theatre.

I learned a little guitar at Berklee, but then studied privately with Mic Goodrich from The Gary Burton Quartet. “If there’s a place for musical perfection, it’s wherever you’ll find Eric Sommer – A blistering acoustic style plus a variety of slide and open tuning formats will knock you for a loop…” wrote Studdie Burns, Melody Maker/UK in 2019. “How one guy can do this so well is remarkable, but if you look a little deeper there’s a batch of road miles around this lad… and it all makes sense.”

So, I really started my musical career in the Boston area under the eye of legendary promoter Don Law and was onstage at The Paradise Theatre in Boston for a record 40 appearances. I have been a regular player on many national and international tours and showcases and worked in Europe for two years with Nick Lowe and acts Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric; during this period, I worked on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston and formed The Atomics.

As founding member of Boston’s legendary pop/new wave cult trio “The Atomics”, who toured non-stop with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedy’s and were on the leading edge of several musical transformations I never lost sight of my acoustic roots, returning to my heros and mentors often: David Bromberg, Steve Howe (YES), Duane Allman (Allman Bros.), Bert Yansch, Davy Graham, Robert Johnson. My current project with power trio “The Piedmonts” shakes up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg influences with those of Randy Travis and British Rocker Elvis Costello – a remarkable mix.

I have been on the road, in the studio, on stage, in front of or behind everyone from Jerry Douglas, Leon Redbone, John Mayall, Dr. John to David Bromberg, John Hammond, Jr., Little Feat, Andy McKee, too many to name…

  1. Musical Influences

a. Who are some of your biggest musical influences, and how have they shaped your sound and style?

My Dad got me a guitar when I was about 5 years old, and I started playing what was happening at the time: the early folk scene in the US. That included Joan Baez, early Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and a touring duo called Addison and Crowfoot.

I picked up all those influences. On top of that I was exposed early to John Renbourn, Davy Graham, and several obscure folk-based guitar players. I was most influenced by a guy who gave me a set of fingerpicks one afternoon as I was playing a show in a small bar. That simple gesture opened a whole new world of fingerpicking-style guitar music for me. I never looked back.

When I was playing in Boston, I was a committed folk music artist, at least until I heard the Cars. Their sound, their energy and lyrics turned me around. I became a follower of the New Wave – The Cars, The Clash, The Pretenders and many other artists from those days and the amazing Boston music scene. I played in that style from then on, incorporating the acoustic style I had been perfecting for years which now incorporated harmonica, open tunings, and slide guitar.

At this time, I was listening to Steve Howe (YES), John Mayall, Duane Allman and I had become heavily into the jazz side, too. Joe Pass, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery became huge influences.

Now I try to incorporate all, yes, ALL those styles and influences into my daily practice schedule and then into our live performances of compositions and songs reflecting those influences.

b. Can you share a specific artist or album that has had a significant impact on your music?

There are two: Herbie Hancock and David Landau.

I bought “Maiden Voyage” at The Harvard Square Record Store, and it was the first Jazz record I bought. I was transported to a different Galaxy when the needle touched that vinyl. I was amazed that this first composition “Maiden Voyage” could be so powerful, could transport me to a universe and dimension I had no idea existed; and I fell in love with the cover art. As I found out, it was designed by the great Reid Miles, the graphic designer for Blue Note, and that has been a tremendous creative influence on me.

The “head” or initial melody was so controlled, so dimensional when the other brass joins in and utterly captivating. It is the most elegant example of motif building, and it has guided me in so many things I have done sense.
David Landau was the first guitar player I’d seen live that made me want to him. Watching him with the Chris Rhodes Band at The Oxford Ale House on Church Street in Harvard Square was one of the most pivotal moments in my life – it showed me what could be achieved in a rock/pop setting with the right approach and musical vocabulary. So…what was he doing, is what you’re thinking, right?

The band di a cover of “Bloomdido”, bebop a tune by Charlie Parker. It was melodic, it was quick and it was a mesmerizing display of guitar wizardry, the likes of which I had never seen. It changed my style, re-focused my attention to my practice schedule, and made me want to play and practice 8 hours a day. I was energized: David had shown me the road, and I went thru the doorway and down that path willingly and aggressively. It changed my playing style, it made me open my eyes to the world that came into view when mixing bebop and jazz phrasing in with pop and rock formats.

  1. Creative Process

a. What’s your creative process like when you’re composing or writing a new song?

There are many ways to get that song out, and sometimes it’s easy, sometimes the song writes itself, and other times it is hard – here are some approaches I use from time to time… I start writing every morning at 6:30 or so, never later than 7:00am. My head is fresh, the vision clear and I dig right in. To warm up – if necessary – I look at a series of pictures, Edward Hopper is my favorite, and I go over stories in my mind about what is taking place in the scene before me.

Then I might look thru early comic books or the newspaper – there are lots of interesting headlines and sub-heads that get the motor running and the ideas flowing. Once something grabs my attention, I focus in, and I may write a series of song titles and then try a chorus or a middle eight based on the ideas before me. If I am stuck, I have a large bag full of story ideas, song titles, interesting scraps of paper and notebooks full of ideas and lyrics, words that I find interesting and sets of words that convey some sort of emotion… I have been collecting these for years, so I am never out of source material, and always have what I think is one of the best emotional and wordsmithing references at my fingertips: “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”, by Harold Bloom.

He lays out in detail what The Bard’s many accomplishments were, and the most important – from my perspective, at least – is the difference he makes about the point in time before Shakespeare and what came after Shakespeare: before him there was characterization, and after Shakespeare there were characters. That’s what he means by The Invention of the Human as in the title. It is also a critical point in songwriting as discussed by Clay Mills: what furniture do you put in your song? It all has to define, describe and support the necessary ingredients: character, context and surroundings, or something like that.

When I am stuck on anything: character, emotional eloquence, a phrase, or a hint of a phrase tied to some emotional twist I need to finish a line, a moment in those pages works very well.

  1. Favorite Song

a. Among all the songs you’ve created, do you have a personal favorite? If so, what makes it special to you?

That choice is difficult only because there is something that I love about all the songs I have written, played, performed or recorded. There are two that stand out, however, and they are “Panic in Passaic” and “White Knuckle Girl”.

“White Knuckle Girl” is a story about loneliness, hopelessness, and the sense of being lost, looking for someone who can handle the harsh reality of the private hell that’s surrounding the storyteller… White Knuckles refers to the thing that happens to your hands as you grip the steering wheel tightly to avoid losing control. In this song,
the chord progressions are lush, with resolutions and chorus repeats, 3 part harmony and a haunting bass solo…

“Panic in Passaic” is a ballad that describes an event I witnessed in Passaic, NJ on a hot August night around 3am. It is a beautiful story, told simply and with a soft, melodic tapestry that serves as a bed for this tragic tale.

b. Can you share the story or inspiration behind that particular song?

I used to hitchhike all over the US between high school and into college. I would go anywhere the road or the ride would take me, and one time, coming east from Kansas City, the truck driver let me out in front of the Passaic Docks, in Passaic, NJ. It was in the summer, and it was one of those sweltering nights that was hot, humid and you couldn’t find a breeze for any amount of money.

As the gates closed, I found myself, stranded, at 3 o’clock in the morning, in the middle of an industrial wasteland.

There was a one lane access road that ran in front of the gates, along the fenceline both ways as fas as I could see, and there were huge white-hot floodlights 30 feet up and spaced every 15 years or so: the place was very well lit. So I stood there for about 30 minutes or so, trying to figure out what to do next, when two cars came speeding up the access road towards me, and screeched to a halt, barely 3 lights away from me.

I watched as two guys jumped out, one from each car, and began screaming at each other. The more they screamed, the closer they got, and they started swinging at each other. It didn’t look like either of them were landing any blows, but they kept swinging wildly at each other, and then I got it. Their bright white shirts started to turn deep red, and it wasn’t a fist fight – it was a classic knife fight, complete with screams as the girls in each car got out, screaming in Spanish, and began pulling the two guys apart, their shirts now showing little of their original white. It had all been replace by the dark, deep red of human blood.

Then, in an instant, it was over. Everyone got back in their cars, the screams and chaos disappeared, the cars vanished into the night and the taillights disappeared down the road just as the first cracks of light appeared in the eastern sky out over the Atlantic…

This song is about what I imagined the story might be behind this early morning brawl – what was it that led to this violent confrontation? Boy-Girl stuff? Someone done someone wrong? This song is an attempt to figure it out.

  1. Latest Song

a. Let’s talk about your latest song. What’s the title, and what’s the story or message behind it?

The title of this recent tune is pretty fun: it’s called “I’ll Let My Drinkin’ do My Thinkin”

It’s the “slice-of-life” observational homage to an experience that happens every day to guys all around the universe and on this planet in particular… Guys generally get very tongue-tied when face-to-face with a pretty girl, and even more so what it happens unexpectedly.

The common solution is to hit the bar, take another shot of courage (disguised as Jim Beam, Vodka, Whiskey or Jack Daniels), and try to get the right words out. That approach is generally filled with pitfalls, and the solution this song presents is a different approach… it advocates the direct approach, tell the girl how you feel, don’t worry about the results, just be honest, direct, and above all be your authentic self.

  1. Live Performances

a. Share a memorable or unique experience from one of your live performances.

I played the East Coast almost exclusively when I was just starting out, and I was working under Don Law, the main music promoter in Boston at the time, I got a call from his partner Fred Johansen to open a show at The Berklee Performance Center for a group called “McQuinn, Clark and Hillman. Huh? That’s how little I knew about music history at that point, and the culture I was anxious to become part of.

When the show came, the house was packed to the rafters – 2500 tix sold and everyone was there. My set was to the largest seated audience I had ever played for – and it was a transformative moment.

But when I was finished, I took a series of bows and got off the stage. In the dressing room was a reviewer from The Boston Globe and she did a beautiful interview and apparently it was clear that I didn’t really know who the next band was – it was “The Byrds” minus Neil Young! Now it all clicked. this was at least 10 years after their heyday and their huge hits “Turn, Turn, Turn” and their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tamborine Man”.

A lot of people were in my dressing room, and slowly the room cleared out, and when it did, I made my way up to the rigging and the rafters, high above the stage. I stood there with my hand around the rigging, looking down on the stage, listening to “The Byrds” play “Chestnut Mare”…

  1. Hobbies and Interests

a. Beyond music, do you have any hobbies or interests that you’re passionate about? How do they influence your music?

There are a few things I like to do as a relief from the music business, and I have been doing these things for some time. I have always been painting – my Mom was a painter from the Chicago Institute of Art, and she always encouraged my creative endeavors. I liked graphite and pencil, and really love working on large canvas projects with acrylics and mixed media.

At the moment I am working on a number of creative projects, and I have a few going on in mixed media, and I am always building things in wood, string and glue. I have been very fortunate in my early days in college, being close to the works of Brooke Larsen, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Willem De Kooning. I was influenced by all of these artists, and have drawn a lot of my writing and literary influences from visual artists, and especially Edward Hopper.

I have been on the road for almost all my life, and I started writing what I call “Road Prose” since I took my first bookings. I love this process, and it’s my impressions of what I see, what I have seen, what I heard and I try to tie it all together in a poetic form. The remarkable thing about the English language, or the American Language, specifically for that matter, is that it is the most flexible and malleable language every created – you can make it up as you go along.

My visual style was greatly influenced by Ed Ruscha, and I feel in love with letter forms and their meaning and how they could be manipulated. I used pray paint, stencils, tape and cardboard guites to create these pieces.

They proved to be popular, and in the process sold quite a few; I have had a number of exhibits in New York, and smaller exhibits all over the place. What I did in New Jersey, in my parents’ basement at the time, was build a series of machines out of wood, string and glue – very reminiscent of Alexander Calder’s “Circus” from his days in Paris… before the Mobiles, the Stabiles and his woven tapestries, there was a performance he did in this living room for friends that featured characters created out of wire, corks, little wheels and glue. It was magnificent, and although all that’s left are the photos, it is still inspirational to me, primarily because of its freedom, the wonderfully childish creativity and the fact that it shows what can be achieved if you let go of the past inhibitions and explore new creative frontiers!

I see creativity everywhere: perhaps on a table, the arrangement of napkins on a counter, the objects on the wall, a special way the trees bend in a certain gust of wind – these are all influential and legitimate departure points for musical compositions, splashing color on a canvas, drawing in crayon on aluminum foil… so many possibilities that it becomes an exciting exercise to simply choose the medium.

Lately I have been listening to Beverly Sills, the great Opera Tenor and I marvel at her creative philosophy and what she does to bring her voice forward and how she looks at her career and especially performing.

  1. Collaborations

a. Is there a dream collaboration you’d like to pursue in the future?

I am not sure about the idea of “Collaboration” – I mean, it’s fun to trade off with other players, maybe fill in a few lyrics now and then, and I have been in plenty of Writer’s Rooms in Nashville and we came up with a few good songs, but nothing as good as what I created on my own. My work is autobiomusical – it’s about my personal experiences, my impressions and things that I feel and respond to. Somehow, it seems to get diluted when I try to have someone else interpret those feelings with me, for me and through me.

Sometimes I have been able to pull lyrics together from different sources, and I collab every time I am playing with an ensemble – we are trading lines, emotions and musical constructs every second we’re playing together. That’s a kind of collab I am anxious to expand, explore and continue with, but in terms of writing actual lyrics, that’s a personal process I am going to keep to myself for the foreseeable future.

  1. Advice for Aspiring Musicians

a. What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who are just starting their journey in the music industry?

Choose who you want to be, and then work tirelessly to get there. There are many kinds of success in the music business, choose what kind of success you want, and choose it early on, understand what it takes to reach that goal, and get to work!

  1. Upcoming Projects

a. Can you give us a sneak peek into any upcoming projects or new music you have in the works? What can your fans and listeners look forward to from you in the near future?

There will be a lot more experimentation, and by that I mean more interesting musical elements, and more electronic applications. It is very expensive to go into the studio and spend hours on creating a something that follows your vision. It has become a place where you can waste hours on something that might not work out in the end; the answer is building your own studio, learning the tech and producing your own projects.

I will be doing a lot more of that, as well as continuing to write, compose and play live with a variety of ensembles.

I have a few film projects I would like to explore, and also work with my cello and write and perform songs on the cello, and a few other ideas:
If you put a baseball card on your bicycle frame so that it flaps when the spokes catch it, in makes an interesting sound. I was thinking of 10 bicycles, all with different weighted cards in their spokes so that the sounds can be manipulated and pitch adjusted for an exciting group sound.

I think I would like to add a looper to a cello piece and see what happens, and what sort of composition might come out of it.

Those are just a few thoughts; I have a bulging notebook with hunderes of scraps of paper on which I have scribble ideas, musical constructs and performance ideas that can move the audience to new reals of musical experience.