Carlton Gholz: This is Record Detroit, our fifth week running at Urban Bean Coffee House. It’s November the 3rd 2014. And make sure you tip your baristas while we do our interviews here. Our first interview tonight is with Cully Sommers from the Detroit Public Library. And so let’s get a sound check here with our first question. Cully, thanks for joining us.
Cully Sommers: Thank you.
Gholz: Cully, briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music.
Sommers: Okay. Well I kind of feel like I have a double life. There’s my professional side, which has a Librarian and at the Detroit Public Library in the Music Department where I’ve worked or pretty much all of my adult life. And so I have a great connection to the music community at large through that. And then there’s also my personal life, what I do after work. And I pretty much described myself as a scene-ster in a positive sense of the word. I did play in a few bands in the nineties that were more of a experimental type thing. But I knew a lot of musicians in the scene. And so I feel like I have a deep connection both personally and professionally to Detroit music and musicians.
Gholz: What were the bands?
Sommers: The names of my band?
Sommers: My bands were Visitor and Ether, God & Devil [laugh].
Gholz: And see more one thing about each of them.
Sommers: Okay. Visitor was, the conceit of it was that we would have a rotating visiting person come and play with us every time. So we did have a lot of people in the Detroit music scene that we played with, you know, all the time. And then once we lost a couple of the core members, we decided to go really more experimental and really deconstruct what we do. And so it was very minimal and experimental type of electronic music.
Gholz: And then God and Ether?
Sommers: Yeah. Well that came from a quotation by Wilhelm Reich and that was the chapter of his book was Ether, God and Devil. So it kind of, we liked it a lot and just, it’s really difficult to think of names or like that works.
Just the electronic funk really blew me away. That was what I really felt like was my music.
Gholz: What was the first Detroit record you remember hearing? What was it? How’d you hear it and what do you think?
My mom and dad both worked for Creem magazine and my dad painted the MC5 van and painted the MC5 album cover. My mom made clothes for the Five.
Sommers: Okay. Because my parents were very involved in the music scene, so my mom and dad both worked for Creem magazine and my dad painted the MC5 van and painted the MC5 album cover. My mom made clothes for the Five. And so, I had heard stories about Iggy and, the Five and all these things. So I remember listening to that growing up. But to me a lot of that was my parents’ music. My mom managed bands, so I heard a lot of like East-side rock bands too. But, what I really started to think of was mine was when I would listen to Mojo and the Wizard, and, I really remember ‘Clear’ and, ‘Alleys of the Mind’ and you know, that kind of stuff. Just the electronic funk really blew me away. That was what I really felt like was my music.
Gholz: I was just at a Cream exhibit at the Birmingham Historical Museum. Can you, would you be willing to say who your parents were? How they…
Sommers: Sure. Absolutely. My dad was Robin Sommers and my mom was Cheryl Beck, at the time, Sherry Sommers. And they lived at the Hill House in Ann Arbor with the Five and got kind of out of it when things got political and when people started going to prison and stuff, they actually moved down to Detroit. My dad was a big part of Trans Love Energies and my dad actually ran the head shop. I can’t remember what the name of it was, but he was well known in the community for being the guy that sold records at the head shop on Cass.
Gholz: This is nuts. I already knew Cully Sommers was a cool dude. This interview is taking a turn. Motown is known the world over. Describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wished got more attention?
Sommers: Wow. I think that while I was in the music scene in the nineties, I was around for when the garage music explosion was happening. And so that was getting a lot of attention. But there were so many other things that were going on at the same time that I really thought were, just as seminal and important, there’s the whole space rock scene. I knew a lot of those people. And then, people like Adam and Nicola from Adult or Ian, I really thought that like LeCar was, just an incredible thing to come out of Detroit and that it was so underground, like a lot of, electronic music is, but then on the world stage, it was huge. But I really thought that while garage rock was getting all this attention, that there were so many other really important things going on at the same time that really deserved a lot more attention.
Gholz: I think maybe we were both at that Detroit contemporary show when I think Adult had their first gig. Yeah. One of the first gigs. So I feel like maybe we were both, we might’ve both been there.
Sommers: I was there for sure.
Gholz: Yeah, absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about, tell us about if we were a Detroiter or a long time Detroiter, but let’s say we hadn’t been to the library for a while. You know, kids go to library, a lot of times parents take their kids. Maybe as we get older, maybe we don’t go to libraries much. Maybe just tell us a little bit about what your job is at the library and why someone would come to the library. Like what kinds of things are we going to find there?
Detroit Public Library
Sommers: Okay. Well. One of the great things about the library is that we don’t throw things away. So we have all of the history, the common thing you hear is, well I can Google it or I can find it on the internet, but I think a lot more people are interested in the primary sources and you can actually go and look at that thing. And over time, being a youngish sort of, not so much anymore, but you know, that I was interested in a lot of the popular music and art that wasn’t being collected. So we’ve really tried to, give the people what they want, buy things that people are interested in. So whereas somethings like, how to DJ or how to rap, may not have been something that was on the radar of previous librarians. I think now that we really try, to have tattoo books and music books that people are genuinely interested in. So, I think with the music CDs that we have and still having all of the old records that we have is that we try and provide a total thing where we have the old and the new. And so I think anybody who would come into the library would be surprised at what we have. It’s almost too much to even talk about in one interview what we have.
Gholz: And when did you, and maybe you could just speak, you told us the year,I think, you said, 87. I think you’re willing to say that out loud here. So just maybe tell us a little bit about how you came to be at the library,and what series of events led you to that?
Sommers: Okay [laugh]. Well, I had gotten expelled from school [laugh] and my mom grounded me and then she said the library’s hiring go get a job. So I took the bus down and on my application I had put that I was interested in music. So they said, okay, go up and work in the music department to shell books for minimum wage. And so I did and then they told me to come back the next day. And then, soon after that I kind of realized I had an affinity for this kind of work. So took the clerical test and became a clerk, which was a step above shelf shelving, books for minimum wage. And I got to be really hands-on with everything. And then after a certain amount of time, I realized that this was my calling. So I ended up going to library school to get my degree so that I could, actually have a say in making decisions and what we collected and what we did there.
Gholz: It’s the best expelled story I’ve ever heard in my life. What do you think, you talked a little bit already about the past and the present and not so in throwing things away and, those kinds of things. What, do you think we lose if we do not preserve Detroit’s musical history? What do you think we lose if we don’t, take special, timeout for that?
Sommers: Well, I think we lose a lot of, I noticed that a lot of music history, and this might be kind of hypocritical is oral history. And so you’ll, if you know a lot about something and you see that all of these people have their own agendas, but when you have primary things and you can see, that what was really going on at the time. So I think that even though someone telling a story adds some nuance to it, it also, I think sometimes leads away from it sensationalizes what was really going on. And that when you can see everything laid out that it really helps you get an understanding of something that, may have been forgotten that actually existed and may have been even more popular. Just not with the right people.
Go big or go home
Gholz: Becomes less of the who you know and more of what you’ve saved. Yeah, no, it’s powerful. I want to ask you so many other questions related to your music history, but, we also have a standard question here. Advise us. We’re a young organization, only two years old. You helped us with our music conference. What should the DSC be concentrating on most in the coming years? What should we be doing? To further our mission? You know, give us some advice.
Sommers: Well, my advice would be to continue on the course that you’re going on because I really think the way you’re going about it by recording these oral histories with the people that you don’t necessarily think about right away and collecting physical things. You know, I really liked the idea of documenting the flyers and the music and, you know, trying to get money. That’s, you know, I know everybody wants this chasing paper, but you know, to use the clout that you have and because I think that it’s a very noble thing to preserve these things that, you know, I really liked the work of preserving the clubs or just acknowledging that this building that’s about to be tore down was a really popular place. So I think you’re focusing in all the right areas. I really couldn’t give you any device… advice in a to go on a new direction, but, to just kind of, you know, supersize what you’re doing and, go big or go home.
Gholz: We got to go big or go home without, just one last thing about the conference. We did have our conference, with the Music, Arts & Literature Department this last Memorial Day weekend, Friday, last week in May and we’re going to have another conference. It’s pretty much I think a done deal. We’re going to do it with marketing and said yes. So May 22nd, 2015, an all day conference, with maybe some sort of after glow. And maybe you could just say, a little bit about that day and whether you thought it was successful. I know you and I have talked about it. Maybe you can just talk a little bit about that and in any of the other kinds of events that Music, Arts & Literature has done. I know you have a Tumblr, I think we’re allowed to say and yeah. Anything else?
Gholz: Yeah, the conference was great. I kind of made time so that I could go around and hear all the different speakers because there were so many things that were interesting to me personally as well as professionally. But to hear people talk, you know, in depth on something that they knew and to really, you know, I guess a lot of my life I felt that music was looked down upon us as something to be interested in. It was thought of as well, you know, that’s not serious. That’s not important. And, to see the serious treatment being given to these things that really captured my imagination. I loved it. And you know, just to hear all the different speakers and sometimes, you know, in two different rooms there were, I was like, well I’ve got one back and forth because I really want to hear both of these things. So, to be able to bring all those people together and you know, to see people that were really fascinated with what was being talked about, I thought it was a great thing. As far as the library itself, other things that we’re doing, we do have a kind of unofficial official Tumblr page for our department. And so we kind of, we take pictures of things that interest us and post them. A lot of our old books from the stacks, a lot of art and illustration, some old records or you know, whatever. We basically find whatever, you know, I go on the stacks and say, Ooh, this is really neat that we have this. I’m going to take a picture of it and post it. We try and do concerts. We haven’t done as many recently, but I’ve had, you know, a couple of years ago we had Tyvec play on Halloween and I’ve had, you know, opera singer sing in Strome Hall and the Webs, an Americana Bluegrass type group singing the fine arts room. So, you know, that’s something that I really want to have. The current musical scene be a part of the library because all in all the time that I worked there in the past they were very involved with, you know, all of these different musical groups that were in Detroit and then it kind of tailed off and I want that to be part of it again where you know, like we partner with DIME and you know, pretty much anyone that has to do with music, which is kind of what got the Sound Conservancy to come there was that we are the hub for that. The library is a free, open place for the public where we document the musical life of Detroit. And so anyone that’s involved in that in any way, especially in some sort of group, should be involved with us. That should be of major importance to us.
Gholz: Were you a card carrying member of the Midnights Ponds Association?
Gholz: Cully, thank you so much for joining us. This is Record Detroit. It’s Monday, November 3rd. We’re here every Monday nights from six to nine o’clock.