The electronic musician will celebrate the release of new album 'Travel Time' with a concert at the Summit tonight
Two moments from Jacoti Sommes’ childhood serve as a road map to the electronic-based music that he’s explored much of his life, but particularly in recent years.
The first occurred when Sommes’ father seated the youngster in front of the family’s stereo and put on an album. “He was like, ‘This is mono,’” the Columbus-born Sommes said during an early February interview from his East Side home. “And then he flipped a switch and was like, ‘This is stereo.’ And it was like, whoooaaaah. That blew my mind. … I can still remember the sound I heard as a kid. It’s still imprinted. And it wasn’t even the particular song, but what it meant, what it felt like. It was the spatial quality of it. I could envision it. And I always strive to make that sound.”
The second instance took place years later in the midst of a late-night drive home from Alum Creek State Park Beach, when the family pulled over on the side of a deserted road next to a cornfield, seemingly miles from existence. “It was pitch-black, and me, my brother and my sister were afraid to get out of the car. It felt like we were on the edge of the planet, which was why we were so scared, like if we got out of the car we’d all of a sudden be floating in space,” said Sommes, who was 14 at the time. “That was the first time I saw all of the stars at once, even the Milky Way. And once your eyes adjusted to the dark, you realized the stars were creating light, shining on the car, shining everywhere. I haven’t seen anything like that since, and I’ve tried.”
From that moment, Sommes has nurtured a fascination with space, which has become a recurring thematic element in his music, including new album Travel Time (available digitally and on cassette via Orange Milk Records), an immersive instrumental electro-funk album that doubles as the score to a sci-fi film that exists solely in Sommes’ head. For Travel Time, this journey begins in some far-off nebula, continues down to the surface of a glowing water planet and then crashes through an asteroid belt before returning to Earth, though a version of the planet where everything is… slightly askew.
Throughout, the music mirrors these unseen moving images, liquid notes and gurgling synthesizers spinning listeners underwater, and shorter, sharper tones hitting with blunt force as the spaceship navigates the asteroid field.
“Every single song I write, I see it. I can watch it,” said Sommes, who will celebrate the release of his new record with a concert at the Summit on Friday, Feb. 14. “Every album I make has a storyline to it. There’s always an arc, even if it’s unspoken.”Help continue the Alive arc by signing up for our daily newsletter
The stories can unfold myriad ways, too, some doom-laden and others portending hope, since Sommes, still best known locally for his time in much-loved (and sporadically active) Hugs & Kisses, is equally fascinated with dystopian and utopian futures. One scenario currently kicking around in his head could take drastically different turns, depending on his whims. The first exists in a version of 2020 in which humankind continues to make repeated successful return treks to the moon. In the other, the moon is gone, obliterated in the midst of a global arms race.
While the musician’s interests tend to be intergalactic, he hasn’t completely abandoned his home planet. Album track “Everything Is Fine,” for one, serves as an instrumental commentary on this current social and political era (think of it as a musical twist on the “This Is Fine” meme), building to an ecstatic thrum before closing with a crash that sounds like a piano being dropped from some height.
Sommes programmed the song’s apocalyptic piano passage into an unmanned player piano at Graves Piano & Organ Co., and that final collapse is the sound of most of its keys being “struck” at once. “It was weird to watch the whole piano just sink and then a couple of keys just pop up,” said Sommes, who described the experience as ghostly.
Sommes’ interest in sci-fi and his shape-shifting music are both rooted in a long-held technological fascination, which he traced to his father’s photographic pursuits. (Sommes’ house is decorated with several magnified photographs of insects, along with a self-portrait of his dad and a picture of Sommes as a child, all taken by his father.)
“Dad was an amateur photographer … and since I was a kid, man, he would explain to me what was what,” said Sommes, who developed a similarly obsessive interest in analog music equipment, which lines tall shelves in several rooms of his home. “I remember one time I was bugging him about what everything was, and he sat me down and showed me every single thing. He only went through it once, but he told me what a capacitor was, a transistor, resistor, and what all the functions were. … He had a huge box of wires, and to keep me busy he’d be like, ‘Unravel these.’ And I got really good at it. It was lovely. It was like a puzzle. All of these things are a puzzle. It’s all about experimentation.”
The musician has taken a similar approach to each piece of audio equipment he’s picked up along the way, treating it like a puzzle to be solved. After reading the manual cover-to-cover and internalizing the basics, Sommes will spend years stretching the machines in ways that manufacturers might not have anticipated, searching for new tones that can better help him capture the sounds that run in a near-constant stream in his head. (Sommes said he doesn’t listen to the radio in his car or while working his day job as a plumber because his brain provides him with a running soundtrack.)
“If you know a machine inside and out, you can push it way past its limits,” Sommes said, adding that patience is also required to unlock these new applications. “It’s like you’re sitting there and you’re fishing, and part of fishing is being patient. You need to lower your expectations to where you’re just happy to be there, and you’re not thinking about what you need to do or how it’s going to work. And usually it’s then something will come to you. And once you get in that flow, there’s nothing like it. And you can just ride that wave.”
Ideally, listeners can then tap into this wave, experiencing the same transportive sensation that Sommes seeks out during creation, a time when he allows the increasingly prevalent responsibilities of adulthood to fade into the background.
“When I sit down to work, it’s a matter of tricking my brain, relaxing my brain. I need to just be in the moment, like, ‘You’re here now. You’re not at work. They don’t need you. Put down your phone. You’re good,’” Sommes said. “That’s what I hope comes across in anything I make, that you go to the place where I go when I’m making it. Just be gone and disappear.”