What first got you into music?

Great question, but it would take a few volumes to round that one out! And my journey has been – and continues to be – a thread of coincidences and happenstance, a combination of being in the right place at the right time, only listening to people who made sense and keeping to my schedule of playing in the living room or where I could for hours and hours, reading off the Berklee Guitar Books #1-3 and trying to figure out what David Landau was doing when I’d see him in Harvard Square at The Oxford Ale House with The Chris Rhodes Band.

I started out as a 5-year-old kid with a Sears Silvertone my Dad got me at the PX. I had a few lessons and all I had to listen too was US Marine Band records, Perry Como, a few others Oh, and Stan Freeberg comedy records. One day my Mom took me down to Wireless Road and the USIS Auditorium to see Addison and Crowfoot – and early Americana Duo, and the asked if anyone could play something for them. I got up and played “Stewball was a Race Horse” and I never looked back!

I went away to school in India, at St. Josephs College, Darjeeling, and I bought a Sitar in Calcutta because the sound was so amazing. They took it away from me, but I was captivated by the sound and especially what the Beatles did with it on Sgt Pepper. I didn’t play a lot during my time in India, but I got my head and thinking aligned musically… and that saved me. It was very lonely in Darjeeling, being one of only three American/Canadians and there was very little camaraderie between us and the Sikkimese, Bhutanese, Tibetans, and Bengalis, so music – at least thinking and fantasizing about it – made my years there tolerable.

When I got to the US, I was in heaven. It was the incredible music scene in Boston that captured me while I was still in High School in Lexington, MA. I would spend every weekend in Harvard Square, listening to people, playing on a bucket in front of the Harvard Coop, on the steps at Holyoke Center, down on Charles Street, at The Nameless Coffeehouse on Church Street and at Passim’s Coffeehouse, then run by Bob Donlin. Soon enough I went to college in New Jersey, and a few years after that back to SE Asia.

When I left Bangkok, I worked my way through Tel Aviv, then Greece and Athens, and up to Geneva, where I stayed and made a few friends playing music and writing songs. Eventually I moved on, hitchhiked up to Amsterdam, and played on the streets in and around the Dam Square, and lived on a houseboat behind the train station. I got busted one afternoon, since I was making so much money, and they took my guitar away. I had to hire a lawyer and it was going to take about 3 months to get it back.

So I left Amsterdam, hitched up to Aarhus, Denmark and ended up living there for three years. I didn’t have a guitar, so a friend lent me one and I rehearsed for weeks in the sauna rooms at The University of Aårhus; I eventually got three gigs a week on a regular basis and wrote all my oen songs, played all my own material and did very well, and when it was time to head back to the US, I had a boatload of Danish Krone and landed in the US with some cash. I ended up back in Boston, and this time I was getting good shows immediately, ending up with Don Law, the biggest promoter in the area. I worked with him on and off for 15 years, touring with everyone from Little Feat to John Mayall and then back in Europe with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmonds, The Pretenders and John Hammond Jr.

By the time I had formed The Atomics, we were already a known quantity, and we were put on tours with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, The Dead Kennedys and Orchestra Luna… that went on for almost seven years, and then I had to get out.

The stage show was getting in the way of the music – I was writing and playing alright but not making progress and the punk/new wave scene had made its mark, scorched the earth, and moved on. There wasn’t much left, and I had been living in a South Boston Loft with no heat and no hot water, and I had enough.

So I shifted gears to Washington DC, dried out, quit smoking and drinking and got back to my acoustic guitar roots and never looked back. If you’re not improving, developing, and making a difference, what’s the point, right? I got back to my original loves of writing songs, playing acoustic guitar to small intimate audiences, and went back on the road to The Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth, MN. I toured solidly for the next 10 years, ending up Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I played a steady series of shows up and down the East Coast.

I formed “Eric Sommer and The Fabulous Piedmonts” a year ago, and we are recording and making new music daily. We are touring and I am writing constantly, working in and out of Nashville, left SESAC for BMI, and I am enjoying my new sound, content, and musical writing process more than ever.

This is a journey, not a race.

Who inspired you to make music?

It always seemed like a natural thing to do – there was always Classical music in the house and my Dad had a huge collection of Classical CD’s and Opera, so we were never at a loss for music. I was exposed to traditional Thai Temple music very early on, then when I was in school in India I was always listening to sitars, tabla hand drums and harmoniums in the streets and bazaars of Darjeeling, Katmandu, Calcutta and the various tea stations – there was always a new pop tune that was coming out of Calcutta.
The music of Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan was captivating, and although the school didn’t have any serious music courses, the most popular Indian music was always available on school outings into town; it was playing in the bazzar, at the shops along th main roads in town, up on the Great Mall; anywhere where people gathered. There was a significant Tibetan influence, as well as Nepali, and they merged with the India Pop music coming up from Calcutta, so I heard it all!

One unique musical style so prevalent among all these sounds was the “drone” notes that were laid down as an underpinning groove for melody and improvisation. I found that captivating and I have been experimenting with those soundscapes ever since. In fact, it’s quite interesting to me that “Shoegaze” takes a number of ques from those sounds which were around much, much earlier than the 1980’s when Shoegaze first began to appear in Ireland and British musical acts. Although the term refers to motionless musicians staring down at their array of effects pedals, the trademark “sonic drone” effects they used were inspiring.
Now, I am inspired every day by what I see around me, what I hear in the air and what I am creating in the studio.

How would you describe the music that you typically create?

My musical catalog is a combination of all my influences, run thru a meat grinder, and then rolled up into individual songs… I have a unique sound because I incorporate my acoustic guitar skills – fingerstyle, slide, open tuning – into a pop sound with a driving rhythmic center.

There may be people out there who have a similar sound, but I have not heard anyone who comes close to doing what I do. On some songs I use overdrive and heavy feedback that pours out of my little Stage Roland c90 and then I play with the feedback. For the stage show like the recent show in Greenville, it is remarkable and has an amazing affect on the audience!

So, I really have no way of describing it – I always refer to Bill Hand, ZZ Tops first manager – he never let them do Tv or Video – he always said “if you want to hear them, you got to come and see them”.
Can you discuss a career achievement you’re aiming for?
I am simply trying to be creative without fear, free of the constraints inherent in live music, performance approaches and audience reactions. I am focused on writing and communicating thru songs, stories, vignettes and spoken word. Am I making progress on any of these? Well, I think I am.
I want to create a productive life for myself – I want to write good songs, keep playing live and make records. And, in the process, I’d like to think I am making a difference.

There are many kinds of success. Making money is a very small part of that success. Sure, you need to live, but the richness of my creative life isn’t based on money – it is based on fulfillment, on your contributions to society, on the amount of joy you derive from doing something that you love!

How do you overcome writer’s block?

I take a page out of Quincy Jones’ solution to that bit of occupational malaise: you gotta get back to the alpha state and bring the problem with you – you will emerge refreshed, ready to tackle the next song, score or lyrical challenge. And it works! But the key thing is to realize it’s not a block – it’s part of the process. Look, it’s all about the program and programming the 88% of your mind that’s the subconscious: the remaining 12% is your conscious mind, your “now” head, and unfortunately, it’s full of crap. You’ve got to engage that part and take yourself further down into the subconscious, or the alpha state of mind, and bring the task with you. It’s not a block – it’s a process.

You have to completely relax and let the creative mind take over, give in to the subconscious – it already knows what you want. Count back from 10 and learn how to put yourself into that completely relaxed “alpha” state. When you do that, as Quincy Jones says “I’ll wake up a few hours later with so much music in my head it’ll take 10 pages to write it out”.

What album do you recommend everyone should listen to?

Now, that’s a tough one because we have several releases out there and I like ‘em all! We have a new release titled “Song Portfolio”, which is a collection of recent compositions and previous recordings remixed and remastered. Why a bit of previously recorded materials? Simply put: with a few tweaks and additional vocals here and there it’s a great listen because it has a wide range of musical landscapes, and it has a few tracks produced by Patch Boshell in London.

Can you share one of your favorite music-related memories?

Whoa! These are tough questions, Beat Pulse!! And here’s why: I have so many amazing memories and stories to tell that boiling it down to one is impossible. Here are a few highlights, and we can delve into anyone of these at a later date: The first one which comes to mind is when I was on the bill with McQuinn, Clark and Hillman (The Byrds without Neil Young) at The Berklee Performance Center; I climbed up into the rigging above the stage after my set, and looked down at them playing “Chestnut Mare” for what seemed like foever! Then I finished a solo show in Greenville and was swarmed by the audience and photogs – such an affirmation of the songs I’d been writing and the strength of my presentation. I was driving through rural Mississippi and it was raining, it was so dark even the shadows had gone home and I saw a rural, ramshackle little grocery store and gas station, barely lit up by a single light bulb above the gas pumps. I pulled in, and looked over at the big white van on the other side of the gas pump island and it said ”The 5 Blind Boys of Mississippi” along the side. I spent 60 minutes talking with these legendary gospel singers until the rain moved on. Boom!

What’s your go-to song or artist when you need a boost?

I have three, since I can become drained in different ways with different emotional triggers; When I need an intellectual boost, something to sharpen my ear and my “play soul”, it’s either Pat Martino or Wes Montgomery. Their clarity, authenticity and creativity are infinite, and constantly inspirational. When it’s grit and emotional turmoil that I need, to either sharpen my technique or add balance to the calm waters, I end up somewhere between Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons and Jeff Beck. And for an internal wake-up call, especially when the field is writing, either prose, lyrics or creative fiction, I use a combination of Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas and a bit of Shakespeare.

Do you have a favorite venue to play at or attend concerts?

Here’s the thing about venues: for me, they each have wonderful qualities, and I can find something wonderful about each and every venue I play, show I do or stage I ‘m on: small rooms, large halls, concert venues – I don’t confuse volume with value; this is live music and they all have their place.

Who would you swap lives with for a day in the music industry?
Quincy Jones.

What’s your favorite music decade and why?

I like them all because I can learn and grow from each on. It’s like a Travel Guide to the music of my life: each time have special songs and each year special memories.

What’s a truly unforgettable concert you’ve attended?

This will sound a bit over the top, b I have fond memories of all the shows I have played, all the shows I have seen and all the remarkable musicians and industry folks I have met along the way.

Tell me about your most recent released song

We have a few on the horizon, but my favorite is “Boom Boom Titty”, a slide guitar and harmonica romp that is as fun as it is campy. It came to me at The Mousetrap in Eau Claire, Wisconsin one night when I needed an extra song in my last set so I pieced a few lytics I had penciled on a paper cup earlier in the day, added a chorus and made up the verses on the spot!
I finally recorded it tis past year, but didn’t get around to working on the mix until recently.
Thank you, Beat Pulse!