Music News & Reviews

Educating Ephraim: Pursuing his muse through academia

Ephraim Sommers put his successful local band Siko on hiatus while he pursues a master’s degree.
Ephraim Sommers put his successful local band Siko on hiatus while he pursues a master’s degree. COURTESY PHOTO BY GRACIE WRIGHT

T he band Siko had been on a roll — attracting interest from record labels, performing to large crowds at the Concerts in the Plaza in San Luis Obispo and touring the country—when lead singer Ephraim Sommers left the band to pursue a master’s degree.

But the Atascadero native, who is pursuing his MFA in creative writing at San Diego State University, hasn’t given up on music, putting out a new CD, “Stones & Smoke.”

The published poet plans to return to San Luis Obispo County —hopefully, to teach at either Cuesta or Cal Poly—when he’s done with his studies. And when he does, he’ll probably get back with funky, college-friendly Siko.

Sommers recently spoke with us over Skype from England, where he was visiting with his girlfriend.

Q: How'd you end up with a girlfriend in England?

A: We actually met in San Luis Obispo, oddly enough. She was just traveling through about a year and-a-half ago. She and I just kind of ran into each other, had similar interests, and one thing led to another. We’ve been doing the long-distance relationship for a while now.

Q: It looks like you toured (with Siko) just a couple of months before going back to school. Was touring a disappointment?

A: Not at all. I knew I had gotten into school as we were finishing up the album ( “Paint the Town”). I was in town bartending and stuff, and I needed to progress as a person. And so because of that, I was like, “OK, we’ll go on tour and I’ll head off to school after that, and we’ll keep playing.” And we did. But we’ve been on hiatus for a while.

Q: When did you get the idea that you wanted to teach?

A: I think academia is kind of a shelter for artists. I talk to a lot of writers, and it allows them to write, and they don’t have to work 40 hours a week. And when you teach, you can get paid really well if you’re published.

For me I want to be able to pursue all the things I want to do creatively. And that’s harder to do when you’re working a 40-hour workweek, and you’re barely making enough money to get by.

Q: Everybody in poetry deals with a ton of rejection — how do you deal with that?

A: I just try to have 20 to 25 submissions out there, and when they dribble in, it’s not a big deal because I know there’s more out there. I’ve never been a person that gets upset when somebody doesn’t enjoy whatever it is that I’m creating. I don’t expect people to like whatever I’m making because there’s a lot of art I don’t like. I never get my feelings hurt.

Q: What books are influencing you these days?

A: I would say a lot of sound-based poets have been influencing me, like Dylan Thomas. Williams Carlos Williams, I’m really into. Just stuff that’s really sensory.

Q: How has studying poetry influenced your solo work?

A: I would say it helps me focus more on when you’re telling a story — it’s just the craft of writing more. What does the reader need to know in this story that I’m telling? What point of view am I telling this from? Do I want it to be more surreal, do I want it to be more narrative? So with this album I kind of just

tried to focus on telling stories as opposed to trying to get a message across, which I might have done in some of the Siko stuff, which was like, “Let’s try to have a good time all the time.”

Q: “Brewhouse” is a song about a badass who eventually meets his match. Was that influenced at all by “Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce?

A: I didn’t even think about that. It wasn’t, but it is definitely influenced by that kind of ballad idea, where you tell a story of someone all sorts of different things happen to.

I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan at the time — “Blood on the Tracks” — those kind of story-telling ideas. I think when you try and strip the song down and just focus on the lyrics and not so much on trying to maybe show off instrumentally so much, I think it can kind of be more interesting.

Every single piece of the song needs to fit with the song as a whole, and that’s an easier thing to do when you’re a solo act than when you’re with a band. Because when you’re in a band I think you sacrifice your stuff. You’re four people with equal say, and so a song is not going to turn out 100 percent like you want it.

Q: Have you ever been in a bar fight?

A: I haven’t, but I worked at Frog & Peach for a long time. I was a doorman and worked my way up to a bartender. So I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of them and had to pull people away.

I’m not the fighting type.

Q: What are some of your favorite lyrical songs that are written by somebody other than Dylan — because that’s too easy?

A: I think Amy Winehouse did a really good job of taking old forms — taking ’50s and ’60s doo-wop — and then bringing that to today. And you can tell how well that record did — “Back to Black.” The songs are honest. And you can really get a sense that she’s really living the things she’s talking about. But also that sound is great. It’s that soul song. And lyrically it’s very hip. It’s very up-to- date.

Any of those English soul singers, like Corinne Bailey Rae, Adele, Duffy. Lyrically, another one is Regina Spektor.

Q: On your MySpace page, you wrote that “Bill Withers is GOD!” Which is better: “Ain’t No Sunshine” or “Lean on Me?”

A: I would say probably “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But as far as his songs go, “Use Me” would be my favorite. What I like about him is the groove. A lot of times what I’m going for on this album is that groove.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.