With SXSW upon us it is due time to catch up with Eric Tessmer, the Austin-based guitar slinger, who is headed home for a short stint in an otherwise world-wind start to 2018.
The intense musician with “guitar face” on stage has gained national attention more so for wickedly punishing his ’59 Strat and melting faces than quoting Eckhart Tolle. Having just played three House of Blues joints (Dallas, Houston, New Orleans) in three consecutive January nights, and then with Nancy Wilson of Heart in Los Angeles in February, we found some time prior to SXSW to connect in cognitive crossfire.
SXSW every year. A lot of locals, and even musicians, bitch about the traffic and the crowd it brings. Your thoughts?
The music industry comes to me in my backyard. What’s gonna be good enough for you (as a musician)? You’re a total sissy if you’re only waiting for the ideal situation. If nothing is ever good enough, then we have every excuse in the world to not succeed.
#2017onblast – your hashtag last year. What did you think 2017 would bring, and what surprised you?
I kept an open mind about 2017. I spent a lot of time when I was younger working my ass off, just kicking around in circles, keeping up my chops, but there’s a difference to moving forward, taking the chances and going for it. 2017 was about staying in motion. I was constantly pushing. It was an exercise in discipline.
How do you maintain focus and energy on the road?
Red Bull… I am really stubborn. But I have learned how to let go of stuff. The van I’ve had for thirteen years, I finally had to let it go. Things can become part of your identity as much as thoughts. So I got a newer van. Part of it is de-clogging your mind. So 2017 was about letting go of stuff.
As far as things you’re attached to, how’s the ’59 Strat feel about the new surf green Strat? Is it jealous?
I think it’s happy for the break. Fender told me they would do whatever it takes to keep the ’59 going. It may not take another fret job. But I don’t want to lose the original rosewood fingerboard that is getting pretty thin. That’s my baby. But the new one, I’ve started to really embrace it. I was at the Fender Custom Shop (in California) and I was like, what’s up with these pickups? They don’t sound right. I’ve researched magnets they used in the ‘50s, and they still have these magnets, but they don’t use them. The surf green guitar feels great, it plays great, I love it, but the pickups just weren’t right. So one of them pulls out these magnets and this old jar of lacquer, which is what they used to (wax) pot pickups with in the ‘50s. They don’t do that any more because lacquer, when it dries, it tightens, and it can break the windings on the pickups. But I’d rather have great tone and run the chance of a pickup going down than sign up for this homogenized, boring tone. So they twisted them up for me like tamales and I got this killer set of brand new 1950s pickups.
When you’re writing lyrics, do you focus on external subjects or does it come from personal experience?
It’s more introspective. So like my song ‘Fortune Teller.’ I had a girlfriend who went to a fortune-teller in Las Vegas who said we were soul mates, but she still made some tactical errors in our relationship. So I was trying to write a song like The Turtles or The Zombies—that ‘60s well-produced, psychedelic pop song. The first line just came to me as, “My cards are down, but you’re not around to see ‘em.” My favorite songs deal with metaphor. It opens it up for perception.
Putting your own frequency out in the world, how does your life change when you do that?
Test the waters. The universe will react. What you put out and the level of commitment, the universe will respond to you. Yet we live in a really weird time. Cynicism is at an all-time high and is just like smoking cigarettes: you feel like you’re cool at first but it’s really killing you from the inside out. You create your surroundings. It’s really healthy to be objective.
There was an old photo on your Memory Man guitar pedal of a woman, who is that and what does she mean to you?
I go through thrift stores for hours and find old photographs, and I was like dude, that is somebody’s sweetheart picture, on an old car, and she’s dressed like the 1940s. That is my wheelhouse.
Do you think, in another life, you lived in the ‘40s or ‘50s? It seems to be your motif.
My fianceé and I feel like we were born in the wrong decade. When I was born I had a type of cancer in my intestines. At seven months old I had emergency surgery and died on the table for a little bit. If I had been born in the ‘40s or ‘50s: gone. Not a chance. So I was born right on time. I am interested in that time period and it resonates with me, and yes, everything happens for a reason, but when you happen is for a reason. And you don’t always know what that is.
Did that experience help you figure out your purpose? To become a great guitarist?
I don’t think you should be as concerned with what you’re doing, as how you’re doing it. It strikes a chord in me when people are so concerned with the payoff or what they’re getting out of it, but you should concentrate on infusing everything you do with value. How you do something, do it the best you can do it. Like Eckhart Tolle said, if you’re walking up the stairs, walk up the stairs the best as you can. The payoff will be, you’re too valuable to lose.
You have Gasparilla Music Festival coming up, Mountain Jam in June. You’re working on EP2 and EP3, and collaborating with Anders Osborne—2018 is taking off! Do you have a 2018 hashtag yet?
Not yet. I will come up with one, as it’s an accountability enhancer. Things for 2018 are bubbling up that have me insanely excited.
I like that.
Click here for latest on Eric Tessmer at SXSW. Cover photo: Tracy Anne Hart/www.theheightsgallery.com