Keeping up the frenetic pace of touring can wear down many a band, but for those who thrive on music to stay alive, it can be addictive. Eric Sommer is a one-man guitar-slinger from Washington, D.C., who plays constantly up-and-down the coast and has been venturing to the Midwest frequently in the last half-decade. His spirit burns as bright as a million-candlepower spotlight, and his street-level philosophy captivates the listener’s yearning ear. In preparation for his 15-date Midwest tour in July, he spoke with Maximum Ink about his journey, his songwriting, and his alchemical on-stage ethos.
MAXIMUM INK: Tell me about how you became a traveling troubadour.
ERIC SOMMER: I toured for 15 years with a lot of big bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It all came to a head in Providence, RI, at a show opening for the Dead Kennedys. I was with The Atomics, which was the house band at Cantone’s. Everyone played with us; Mission of Burma, Gang Of Four, Dinosaur Jr., and one night it all fell apart, all over women. It was a true rock story, just ugly. The next morning, everyone’s girlfriend ended up at everyone else’s house. I quit, took everything I had, sold it, and tried to keep busy for the next ten years. It was very unsatisfying. It was easy to make money, but hard to make a difference. I was a cog in the wheel, in the machine. About five years ago, the Bayfront Blues Festival put me on to close out their acoustic stage. I did really well, there were standing ovations and I couldn’t get off the stage. It was really wonderful. On the drive out from some gigs in Virginia, I took notes and made it my regular route. Five years later I do 275 shows a year. I’m going to Texas in September and I’m in the studio right now with Ken Eddinger from Blondie. He’s producing five or six songs and getting me some radio interest.
MAXINK: In your words, what kind of music do you play?
SOMMER: I’m getting into new stuff. It’s Urban Gospel. “I Caught A Cab And Followed It Down” illustrates the ungodly and unholy relationship between man and whomever your maker is. It’s us and the surroundings which we have created, which are unnatural and unhealthy, and how we try to make sense of it. We live in a concrete world. We work in offices, and some do good, some don’t do good. My emphasis is for the not good to do good.
MAXINK: How do you get song titles like “Cover My Soul In Gasoline?”
SOMMER: I was at the Bowery Poetry Club on the lower east side of New York City. I was sitting in the basement doing a show with beat poet Bingo Gazingo, the last guy alive from Andy Warhol’s place, “The Factory.” I was sitting there in 100-degree heat waiting to go on, and I realized that it takes a lot of struggle, commitment, anxiety, and anger. There’s so much noise; to be heard you have to stand up and shout. It was about the anger and the pain and suffering on the other side of the creative process. Writing a song is like sitting down and opening a vein. It’s about struggling to communicate without losing your soul. If you jump into your madness and control it, you can come out. A gasoline bath will straighten it all out.
MAXINK:Talk about your influences a bit.
SOMMER: I was fortunate to work with Mick Goodrick, the guitar player for Gary Burton. Steve Howe and the British acoustic-groove people. John Fahey. The glue was a guy named Davey Graham. He’s so obscure. Still alive, though. He did a song called “Angie,” it set the direction. Jimmy Page took “Stairway To Heaven” from that song. The first Simon and Garfunkel album had it, too. John Redbourne. They set the tone. Green Day even has given a nod to those guys. When I was about 13, I got picked up by two about my age at Boston Square and we scored a bottle of blackberry brandy. They took me to this place that was in the basement of a music shop called “The Catacombs,” and who was opening but John Lee Hooker for the J. Geils Band. I got backstage and met John Lee. I thanked him for being there and for playing so many shows. He put his arms on my shoulders and his eyes just freaked me out. He said, “If you don’t play, you pay.” It blew me out of the water. Peter Wolf wrote about that night in “Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Moments Of Rock And Roll.” Van Morrison was at that show because he was living in Wolf's bathroom at the time.
MAXINK: So that’s what keeps you moving.
SOMMER: I kept going. It’s like the movie “Pleasantville,” the road just keeps on going. There are a few people out there who are committed, and they are a wonderful group; like Ellis Paul and Willie Porter. I’ve been doing it so long I don’t know anyone in my hometown, but I know people everywhere I play. I try to make a difference every night. I’m where the world has put me, and I might stick it to the oppressor while I’m at it.
Eric Sommer will be heavily touring the Midwest and will perform July 8 at the Melody Inn in Indianapolis, IN, July 11 at the House Of Rock in Eau Claire, WI, July 12 at the Mousetrap in Eau Claire, WI, July 13 at Beaners Central in Duluth, MN, July 14 at the No Name in Winona, MN, July 15 at The Reptile Palace in Oshkosh, WI, July 17 at the Brewhaus in Duluth, MN, July 19 at the Café Carpe in Ft. Atkinson, WI, July 20 at the Sugar Room in Mankato, MN, July 21 at the Art Bar in Milwaukee, July 22 at the Turf Club in Minneapolis, MN, July 23 at the High Noon Saloon in Madison, WI, and July 26 at the Bodega Brew Pub in Lacrosse, WI.