On The Line with Jacob Slichter of Semisonic

I recently interviewed Jacob Slichter, the drummer for Semisonic, responsible for the 1998 smash hit, Closing Time. On top of that, he also wrote the enlightening autobiography, “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star”, engaging readers through his point of view as the band’s drummer, finding his way in the music business through releasing albums, touring on the road, getting signed, dealing with record companies and radio stations, and much more.

Alex Obert: What are you up to lately?

Jacob Slichter: I’m writing, playing music, I’m teaching a writing class this semester at Sarah Lawrence College.

Alex Obert: What are you listening to currently?

Jacob Slichter: I’ve been thinking a lot about song bridges lately. And so I’ve been listening back through a bunch of old songs that have bridges in them. Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald singing old Cole Porter stuff. One of my students laid some Egyptian music on me, some Egyptian folk/pop of the mid-century. All kinds of different stuff.

Alex Obert: I hear it in your music a little bit, are you into Foo Fighters at all?

Jacob Slichter: I like the Foo Fighters. I haven’t listened to enough of them to feel like I’m influenced by the Foo Fighters per se, but I’m definitely influenced by Dave Grohl. Dave Grohl and Semisonic probably share influences in common.

Alex Obert: Where were you when you first heard Nirvana?

Jacob Slichter: Minneapolis. The thing about Nirvana was they dominated the musical landscape when Semisonic was coming into being. One of the huge things about Nirvana that everybody talked about was Dave Grohl’s drumming. I was haunted by Dave Grohl. There was no living up to him. He was the standard by which all drummers were then judged, it was an impossibly high standard.

Alex Obert: He sort of redeemed you and Semisonic for the Billboard Awards experience that you talked about in your book. He performed with Foo Fighters at the Grammys in 2012 and he wore a Slayer shirt.

Jacob Slichter: (laughs) I didn’t know that. That’s awesome!

Alex Obert:  Speaking of which, I’ve always been curious, what heavy music are you into? Heavier than what you normally play.

Jacob Slichter: There’s a lot of stuff heavier than Semisonic that I listen to. Led Zeppelin, for starters. When we would play shows, I made a CD of all my favorite drum fills and a huge, long stretch of them were just various John Bonham fills. And so I would listen every night before we went on stage to all of that, just so I could have in my head what my favorite kind of drumming was all about. So then when I went on stage, I was really in touch with what I like in drumming. I’m not a big metal fan. But there’s great metal groups I like such as Van Halen. I’m not a huge Metallica fan. There are really heavy groups like The Melvins who I probably can’t listen to very long, but I find totally amazing. Those are a few at least.

Alex Obert: Let’s get into some areas of your book, with Dan and John and their previous band, Trip Shakespeare, why was that the band name?

Jacob Slichter: I don’t know. It has all kinds of possible meanings. I mean it was trippy music and Matt, the main songwriter, loved Shakespeare. Maybe that’s what he was thinking. I never asked them. I hardly ever ask anyone about their band name.

Alex Obert: What are some of your favorite band names?

Jacob Slichter: Death Cab For Cutie is pretty awesome. There’s some band names that are so ridiculous that you just know the band is going nowhere, but they’re entertaining nonetheless. One of the favorites of those was Jon Cougar Concentration Camp. (laughs)

Alex Obert: I’ve heard there’s a band called Diarrhea Planet that’s backed by a label.

Jacob Slichter: That’s interesting. So you hear a band name like that and you kind of know whose going to the show and how old they are. It doesn’t really scream out to me, but it’s interesting. I always felt like in all the years I was in bands, one of the points I hated the most was coming up with a band name. I think at a certain point, you just have to make up a name, just take a name and go with it. It’s kind of how Semisonic got our name. Some friend of ours was in a bar listening to the radio and he said, “Why is everything on the radio this semisonic bullshit?” And Dan heard the word Semisonic and filed it away, when we needed a band name, he said, “What about Semisonic?” And we said, “Sure.” It just seemed to work. Semi, as opposed to Supersonic, which was taken anyway. Semisonic sounds a bit more midwestern.

Alex Obert: It’s funny because my friend who let me borrow your book, he was originally in a band with several of our friends. When they were coming up with a name, they combined the phrase “Ambiguous Ego” to form Ambego.

Jacob Slichter: Oh, I kind of like that!

Alex Obert:  And it’s just one of those names that sticks, names like Def Leppard, Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re band names that you remember. Some of the best names are the most ridiculous.

Jacob Slichter: They are. I really like the name “The Beatles” with the changed spelling with the second E changed to an A. I think that’s kind of smart. With a band name, you just have to claim your band name and you can’t ask people what they think of it. You just have to go with it. Because any time you start asking people about your band name, they’re gonna pick it apart.

Alex Obert: There are people that might go to shows based on the band name.

Jacob Slichter: Maybe. Boy, I don’t! I am so skeptical of all rock shows that I practically need sworn statements from a handful of trusted friends before I go to a rock show.

Alex Obert: Who have you seen live that you didn’t know of previously that blew you away?

Jacob Slichter: I remember the first time I saw Tom Petty way back in the 1980s. I went to go see Bob Dylan and Tom Petty was the backing band. The main thing I came away with after the show was, “Boy that fuckin’ Mike Campbell is just amazing!” The guitar player. There’s been lots of bands like that over the years. There’s a band that I don’t think anyone has heard of since or not outside of Boston called The Stompers. Dan took me to see them back when we were in college together playing in a band. And I was like, “Oh my God!” It was just a great, local band. And I’ve had plenty of experiences like that. Or the first time I saw Soul Asylum. I had heard all about how amazing they were and then I got dragged down to First Avenue in Minneapolis to see them play and it was unbelievable.

Alex Obert: Getting back into your book, what were the notable reactions after its release?

Jacob Slichter: I would say the main thing I’ve noticed is that I get a lot of e-mails from musicians who say, “Oh my God, this is exactly how it went for me!” or “So much of this experience was familiar.” And a number of them say things like, “I gave this book to my parents/partner/spouse to let them know about what I do and how it is.” Those are the biggest reactions that mean the most. I know that for instance, Dan, who is out in LA now and does a lot of collaborative work out there, is always running into people who say, “Oh, I read your drummer’s book!” And he tells me that everybody out there has read it. So that to me is the most gratifying part. Everybody at our old label, MCA Records, read it and almost all of them responded very favorably to it. I think a couple of people were kind of pissed off. But that’s not surprising.

Alex Obert:  How would you describe to those who are interested in picking it up?

Jacob Slichter: I would say it’s a behind the scenes look at the music business through the eyes of a performer who chased after stardom with failure always on his heels.

Alex Obert:  If another musician wrote a similar book, who would you want it to be?

Jacob Slichter: Oh God, there’s so many musicians whose book I would love to read. There were just lots of people we toured with. We toured with a band called 3 Lb. Thrill, there’s a great writer in that band named Pete McDade. Or any of the other guys in that band are just hilarious and insightful people. Sean from Harvey Danger wrote a book, I believe. I have to track that down. Some of the guys in the Sheryl Crow band, I always found interesting. Aimee Mann is someone who’s experience might be really cool to read about. Dave Grohl, who we’ve bumped into on various festival stages or we walked by him here or there. Anybody like that.

Alex Obert: What was meeting Dave Grohl like?

Jacob Slichter: Well, I never met him. I just sort of made eye contact and I didn’t wanna bug him. I just figure here’s a guy who’s being hounded all day by everybody. But it was amazing to be there and see him perform and just watch what he’s up to. It’s amazing. He’s this amazing drummer who then just became an amazing frontman, guitarist, singer, songwriter.

Alex Obert: Do you feel there’s a misconception about viewing musicians like Dave Grohl as larger than life?

Jacob Slichter: Well, some of them actually are larger than life. We met Prince, he’s definitely larger than life. I met Jay-Z, he’s larger than life. I would say one thing about every musician I’ve met such as Sheryl Crow, and this includes Prince and probably Jay-Z too, every musician I’ve ever met is kind of a nerd. I think that’s one thing that most people don’t know. I think most people don’t know that most musicians are kind of geeky nerds, even the people they revere as being cool stars, inside I think most of those people are kind of nerdy geeks.

Alex Obert: Who have you gotten along with from touring?

Jacob Slichter: Pretty much everybody we went out with. Our first big tour was with Aimee Mann and was really nice. The main thing I remember about that was just the soundchecks and being able to sit in a club and listen to Aimee Mann sing for like forty five minutes with two other people in the room and just feeling like, “Wow! How does she do it?” And Sheryl Crow and her band, we did a lot of touring with those guys and she, her band, and her crew were all just super nice and really fun to be around. We continued to keep in touch with those guys.

Alex Obert: How many shows have you played in the last couple of years with Semisonic?

Jacob Slichter: Not that many. I think we played two or three shows in the past couple of years.

AO: So how do you adjust from being in festivals and on big stages to a semi-normal life? How do you go back to that?

Jacob Slichter: It’s hard. You miss it. There’s trade offs. I mean the thing you miss, of course, is the rush of performing. I miss it every time I hear music. On the other hand, the thing I don’t miss is all of the travel. It is really nice to just have a life where you can wake up, get out of your own bed, go to your favorite coffee shop, have a life around you that is just like a routine. My wife is with me every day and I don’t have to be apart from her. I like that. Another thing I miss about the touring is Dan and John, who are super, super close friends.

Alex Obert: A moment you had with Dan and John, how do you describe to people the machine-gunning story?

Jacob Slichter: (laughs) Well I just tell people that I was really nervous. The machine-gunning story refers to a time when we had to perform for our new record label, which was MCA Records at the time. We had to perform for some executives at MCA and we had to perform for them in an executive conference room in the MCA offices. And this was in their building on Broadway in Manhattan. And so, we go up to the twentieth floor and we’re gonna perform with an acoustic guitar, a small bass with a small bass amp, and then bongo drums. And I was so keyed up and so nervous about all the pressure and all the weirdness of performing in front of executives. It feels a little bit like having sex in front of your parents. I was so keyed up that as I unzipped the case that had the bongo drums in them, I pretended to pull out a machine gun and then blast everybody in the room as a start. Dan and John quietly laughed and shook their heads. And we laughed it off at the time. But when I look back at it, the main thing I get from the story is it was an inside into my anxious mental state.

Alex Obert: Where were you when you told yourself that you were going to be writing So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star?

Jacob Slichter: I think it was after Semisonic decided to take some time off. So I was back in Minneapolis and National Public Radio had seen some of my online road diaries and asked me if I want to read some of them on the air. And I said sure and I did a couple of those. And then the response was positive and I got a call from a book editor and so then I started to think, “This would be a great idea for a book!” And then I tried this and that and I contacted a book agent that some friends of mine met and sat down with him. He’s my agent, his name is Dan Greenberg, he’s awesome. We just sat and talked about it. I kept sending him ideas about what the book would be. We had an extended correspondence and series of meetings that lasted probably six months. The whole time, he took me through the process of outlining what the book would be and really thinking it through. Once he felt I had really thought it through, he then sent it to some book editors, then we sold the book.

Alex Obert: Looking back, if you could have added anything to the book, what would it have been?

Jacob Slichter: That’s a good question. I think more about shortening it than lengthening it. I don’t really look back and think how I would have done it differently. I’m sure I would have written a different book if I wrote it today. But I don’t really look back and think I wish I had done this differently or that differently. The only reason I say shorter is just because as a writer, I’m always looking at anything I wrote and saying to myself, “That could have been shorter.”

Alex Obert: Back into Semisonic’s music, a song title that I’m very curious about, “This Will Be My Year”, how did that song title develop?

Jacob Slichter: It’s a song about the perennial disappointment of New Year’s for me back then. How I was thinking, “Oh, here’s another year gone by. I still haven’t made it. I still haven’t found all of the things that I want out of life.” What do I think about that? So that’s what that song was about. It’s about the hope that you need to hold on to as you stave off perennial disappointment.

Alex Obert: An issue you touched upon in your book, what do you feel is the honest issue with FM rock radio?

Jacob Slichter: You know, I don’t listen to the radio anymore. So I couldn’t comment on the current state of radio. I can say that back in the late nineties and the early 2000s when Semisonic was on the radio, the real problem was the fact that so many of the stations were owned by so few companies, so few people. There was also the problem that whatever got on the radio was pretty much bought and paid for by the record companies, so the diversity of what you were hearing, the access to the airwaves, was really locked up.

Alex Obert: If you had your own Sirius channel, which bands would be on it?

Jacob Slichter: I’d really want to have a very diverse group of stuff. I think it wouldn’t just be bands. I would love to have popular bands, all of the popular music that I’ve loved over the years. I’d love for there to be the kinds of bands that are a little lesser known to the wider public. I’d love to have bands that were influential on me that I wish people today knew about, like Big Star or Television. Some of the R&B I grew up listening to, some of the album tracks from Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder that maybe the people who only know the hits haven’t heard yet. I might want to play Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Eric Dolphy or some kind of jazz artist occasionally. I would like it to be a diverse playlist.

Alex Obert: Tying into music, if you could have a drum battle with anybody, who would it be?

Jacob Slichter: (laughs) I would never have a drum battle! I would wave the white flag immediately. The thing is is that I really don’t like drum battles because they seem to all be about flash. My favorite drumming is where it’s all about the groove. Everybody loves Dave Grohl, they think they love him because he’s so loud, but I think what they really love and they don’t know about him is that his groove is so amazing. I love Al Jackson, who was the drummer for all those Stax hits such as Al Green, Otis Redding, all of that stuff. He played really simply. James Gadson is a famous funk session drummer from the seventies, he played on Beck’s 2002 album, Sea Change. I think he still plays on other stuff. I listened to him when I was growing up and his feel is so beautiful. Another long time favorite of mine is a guy named Earl Young who played on a lot of the Philly Soul records of the seventies. And these are guys who don’t get into Modern Drummer magazine and they don’t sell a lot of drum sets. They’re not associated with mindblowing drum solos or anything like that, but they are truly great drummers.

Alex Obert: Are you a fan of Animal from The Muppets?

Jacob Slichter: For sure! (laughs)

Alex Obert: Are you aware of the drum battle he did with Buddy Rich on The Muppet Show?

Jacob Slichter: Oh yeah, I love that. That might be my favorite Buddy Rich moment.

Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, I’m going to do a speed round with you. I’ll ask you questions, answer the first thing that comes to mind.

Jacob Slichter: Okay, cool.

Alex Obert: Favorite guitar riff?

Jacob Slichter: The intro of Reelin’ in the Years by Steely Dan. (The guitarist who played it was Elliott Randall)

Alex Obert: Song you wish you wrote?

Jacob Slichter: Norwegian Wood by The Beatles.

Alex Obert: Which bands have you been asked if you’re apart of or the drummer for?

Jacob Slichter: Everclear and The Replacements.

Alex Obert: First concert you ever went to?

Jacob Slichter: Chicago.

Alex Obert: If you could have picked a different band name for Semisonic after Pleasure fell through, which would it have been?

Jacob Slichter: Dan and I once had a band called The Floating World. I always loved that name.

Alex Obert: Movie you wish Closing Time was in?

Jacob Slichter: Good question. I’m trying to think of the right vibe. The Wizard Of Oz. (laughs)

Alex Obert: Strangest place you’ve heard Closing Time playing?

Jacob Slichter: I haven’t heard it in that many places. The strangest place I’ve heard of Closing Time playing was in a delivery room at a hospital when a baby was being born.

Alex Obert: If you could have dinner with any three musicians, living or dead, who would it be?

Jacob Slichter: John Lennon, Beethoven, Louie Armstrong.

Alex Obert: In regards to sites you want to plug, is it currently just the Semisonic website?

Jacob Slichter: Yeah, there’s also a Dan Wilson music website. I think it’s danwilsonmusic.com

Alex Obert: Does the band post regularly on the Semisonic Facebook page?

Jacob Slichter: Someone started that page. That’s not us. I don’t know who has access to it, someone just started a Semisonic page. I don’t know who the hell they are. I don’t know that anything ever even happens there. (laughs)

Alex Obert: You’ve gotta be careful with those things, I guess.

Jacob Slichter: You totally have to be careful.

Alex Obert: I’d like to thank you very much for your time and a great interview.

Jacob Slichter: Yeah. Absolutely, Alex!

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