His Story : Eric Sommer

Can you take us back to the beginning? What are your earliest memories, and how do you think they’ve shaped who you are today?

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.
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!

As you reflect on your life, are there any key moments or turning points that stand out to you? What made them significant?

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.
That’s a tough one, because I have so many, 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…

Who were the most influential people in your life, and how have they impacted your journey and development?

That would have to be the night that I first saw David playing at The Oxford Ale House in Harvard Square – on the corner of Church Street and Palmer Street. When I walked in, the place was packed, and I went right up to the stage, found a post to lean against where I could see the band, and David Landau was on fire.

But it was what he was playing and how he played it that was so captivating – they did a cover of Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido” that was so musical and so uplifting and watching him do this, work this magic live, was something that drove me to up my own game. I had never really heard that sort of bop, and sometimes hard bop, played on a guitar and in that fashion and it changed my life.

I started playing the Bill Lawrence Guitar Books I & II 6-7 hours a day and tied to learn all the scales and all the modes I could, and worked on that in the front room of my house in Brookline, up near Boston College. I worked on an old round table, and smoked Winston Cigarettes incessantly, up to two, sometimes three packs a day. It took me a long time to build up the fluid approach that Charlie Parker had and especially the approach I saw live from David Landau.

That changed my playing, and changed my life since I could see in front of me what was possible playing at that high level of execution. It has been a goal that I am just now reaching, and I am so grateful every day for having seen David back then. I eventually took lessons from Mick Goodrick, who David studied with, and who was the guitar player for The Gary Burton Quartet

What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?

I drove the Zamboni at the ice rink at the National Gallery one winter in Washington, DC. It was so much fun! And I was still able to tour so my schedule was very flexible. I enjoyed working for those people at Guest Services, so when summer came along, I asked to work at the boat house on the Potomac at Fletcher’s Boathouse.

It was mindless stuff – but I was outside, it was always warm and sunny, and I could ride my bicycle down to the docks. I enjoyed pulling out the skulls, and the only thing was, the crew working there were all friends, and I was an outsider, the new guy, so I was sort of left to my own devices. I would cut out the sports pages from the Washington Post and put them up on the wall and do things like that to keep the boaters happy and engaged.

Apparently, that wasn’t what they had in mind for me, and didn’t appreciate me doing a few different things to lighten up the place. So little by little the “staff people” had me doing dumb, mindless work, like cleaning out the buoys, washing the boat ramps and putting the yard in order. I was happy to be busy, happy to do it and I never complained. And I think that made the little “Boathouse Cabal” even more annoyed – I think they were waiting for me to quit.

One morning I got in and there was a little kid there who was supposed to be my helper and give me a hand with rentals. So we got pretty busy that morning and I was making change from the register and instead of putting ¢35 change back in the drawer, I put it on the register ledge above the drawer, to be placed in later. My little “helper” immediately told management, and I was dismissed.

That was too bad. They were just looking for ways to get me out of there since I didn’t quite fit in, and they finally found one. It was a really low down thing to do since I had been an excellent employee at the Ice Rink and did a very good job for them at the boat house. Too bad because I really enjoyed that work!

On the musical side I have had plenty of challenging and sometimes very disheartening experiences, so many, in fact, that there isn’t enough space to list them all. But

If you were to pick a theme or a lesson that runs through your life story, what would it be?

It’s fearlessness and that means meeting every challenge, meeting every opportunity head-on. It means facing adversity or disappointment with strength and control, mastering the situation by approaching it calmly and without any ego.

It’s all about trying to find the best path forward, come what may, in a way that deals decisively and fairly with any difficult situation.

Are there specific accomplishments or milestones that you’re particularly proud of, and why do they hold such significance for you?

I think putting so many dates together and putting together and keeping together so many bands over the years is pretty good for starters. I have recorded 6 records, hundreds of radio shows, I have been through 4 cars each totaling over 500,000 miles before they died, done over 10,000 shows and written 2300 songs… so I am glad I have been – and stayed – focused for so long.

I have been in this business for a long time, and I love it more every moment, and it keeps me alive, focused, invigorated every time I write a new song, play a new venue.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the next chapter of your life story? What legacy do you want to leave behind?

The focus of my musical life is to create! Constantly being creative in music, in arts, in letters and prose is the goal – 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.