Behind the Music with Semisonic’s Jacob Slichter

What it’s really like to be a rock star.

Jacob Slichter
Jacob Slichter, author of “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star.”

The fantasy is better than the reality. That's the impression one gets from reading “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star” (Broadway Books), a new rock & roll autobiography in which sexual misadventures and acts of destruction are conspicuously absent. But even though author Jacob Slichter can’t recall anything more outrageous than a panic attack or Rolaids binge, “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star” isn't any less compelling than a more scandalous music biography. In fact, it’s a refreshingly honest look at the trials and tribulations of life as an aspiring and, at times, exceptionally successful rock musician.

For the uninitiated, Slichter has spent a decade playing drums for Semisonic, the Minneapolis-based trio that reached its commercial peak in 1998 with the number-one single “Closing Time” from the platinum-selling CD Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA). The book is an extension of the author’s “road diaries,” in which he dutifully recorded the highs and lows experienced by himself and band mates Dan Wilson and John Munson. Popular music fans will be entertained as Slichter takes the reader everywhere from the stage and studio to the tour bus and boardroom. Musicians will see the book as a warning about the pitfalls of the music business, while Semisonic fans are sure to lament the band’s unrealized potential and bemoan the music industry-types who unwittingly did everything possible to keep the band from achieving mega-star status. 

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Slichter about rock stardom and whether an artist has control over the success or failure of his own career.

Why did you write “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star”?
I started writing road diaries because my songwriting was just not as good as Dan’s and I knew I wasn't going to be able to write enough great songs to get them on our records and have an outlet for writing. So I started the diaries, which were very cartoonish renderings of the exploits of the band. Then I thought, Well, there’s a whole story here.” I slowly realized that the story should be told not just to Semisonic fans but to a wider audience that might not even know the band. 

Who do you see as the audience for this book?
Mainly it’s for people who thought about being in bands or are music fans and want to know what goes on. I have had a couple of musicians tell me, I gave the book to my parents” or I gave the book to my spouse. Now they can know what I go through.” There are also a lot of people who don’t like going to rock clubs—who can't deal with the smoke, the spilled beer and the loud music—but are nevertheless interested in that world. 

You make it clear that being a rock star isn't necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Is this book a reality check for up-and-coming musicians?
It could be. My feeling about the 10 years that I wrote about is that the lows are probably lower and the highs are probably higher. So if it’s a reality check it’s not necessarily a downward adjustment from the rock fantasy. I split apart all the various elements you have to deal with and try to provide as accurate a picture as I can of those different elements. 

How did Dan and John feel about this project? 
They were very excited but also nervous because they were going to be characters in a book. What am I going to look like?” In the end they were both pretty happy about it. 

You don’t discuss your relationship with your band mates very much. How was your relationship?
Very good. Early on we told each other that life is more important than music. We weren't going to be one of those bands that made ourselves crazy working with each other. Dan proposed that we split all the royalties even though he was the [principal] songwriter. In return, John and I respected Dan’s leadership. So we never had many power struggles. 

That was a smart move from a friction perspective. 
It was a very smart move. It was Dan’s idea. I have to give him the credit. It set the stage for a good collaborative and trusting environment. I always say that all new bands should go out and rent The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. It's about three guys who go digging for gold and start suspecting each other of trying to make off with all the gold that they found in the ground. That’s a good cautionary tale about what can happen. Even before a band gets a record contract a lot of them think, So and so is getting all the attention” and So and so is getting all the press,” or The record people only want to meet with the songwriter. What’s going to happen to me?” In our case we had already told each other what our relationship was going to be. So it was solid from the beginning. 

What advice would you give someone who wants—or thinks they want—to get a record deal?
Get a lawyer, if not a manager, who is experienced in all of this. It’s a complicated thing. There are various things to consider. One is: Do you see your band selling millions of records or hundreds of thousands of records or thousands? That can really color the kind of record company you might try to get a deal with. A small indie will be excited about a band that can sell fifty thousand copies. A major label will spend more money on you but will also be disappointed if you sell a million copies. 

The main advice I have is to perform and record as much as possible. A lot of bands think that the way they are going to get a record deal is to sit in their rehearsal space all day, every day, perfecting their songs. The way to become a great band is to get out and play as many shows as possible because its by performing that you really learn who you are and how you relate to your listeners.

Why did you sign what appears to have been a bad” record deal? Even if you were personally naïve about the music business Dan and John [previously signed to A&M Records as members of Trip Shakespeare] knew what they were getting into, right? 
Well, yeah. But we wanted to get our music on the radio and its next to impossible without a major label deal. Only a major label has the hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend to get you on the radio. The thinking was: If we have some hit songs we’ll get the performance royalties, and if we’re a popular live band we can make a living from ticket sales. Even if you don’t recoup on your record contract—which is set up in a ridiculously impossible way—the band can still benefit from the promotional machinery that is the record company. 

Who is the most important member of a band’s team? Attorney? Manager? Publicist? Someone else? 
It depends on the personalities of the people involved. In our situation it was definitely our manager. When the record company wanted us to record more music because they thought Feeling Strangely Fine didn’t have any singles he advised us not to because he thought Closing Time” was a hit. He told us if we recorded anything else that’s what the record company would release. That kind of strategic perspective was really valuable to us. 

To what degree is a band in control of its own musical destiny? 
The band probably has more control than anyone else. But it’s not as much control as you think it ought to be. If I had to single out one entity that has a frightening amount of control it’s radio. The people who run radio—the program directors and independent promoters—have locked out the access to a huge number of radio stations. 

If Semisonic were starting today how do you think the Internet and current music industry climate would impact the band’s career?
When our contract ended with MCA we had definitely entered the era that we are in now which is the era of the blockbuster. There’s no such thing as a developing artist.” If we were starting now the record labels would probably be even less patient with us than what we experienced in the nineties. Our first CD [Great Divide] came out in 1996 and sold thirty thousand copies. Today, I don’t know if we would even have a shot at making our next CD because of all the pressure from the top of these multi-national corporations who own the record labels. The record company is not concerned with building a band’s career; they are concerned with hitting their third-quarter financials.

Is there any hope that the music industry will become more artist-friendly? 
Not of it’s own will. But musicians and fans are smart and I’m optimistic that someone is going to figure out a way that fans can enjoy music and musicians can make a living. I just don't know what shape the solution to the problem will take. It may come down to a visionary artist who comes up with a whole new way of doing things that really excites everybody and gathers momentum. 

Something has to change. 
Absolutely. I know a lot of music listeners who are turned off and don't listen to much music anymore. That’s a sad state of affairs. But I don’t think we're necessarily doomed to live that way forever. 

Do you believe Semisonic should be viewed as a one-hit wonder? 
I think that would be an unfair characterization. It kind of depends on how people define one-hit wonder. Technically, we did have one hit in the United States. But I think it’s a demeaning term that fails to take into account all that bands do to get their music out there. 

It seems that Semisonic is the antithesis of the one-hit wonder type of group. 
I always think of the one-hit wonder as the band with one good song per album and the rest a bunch of filler that's just taking up space. We really worked hard to make sure we had what we felt was a strong album that people were happy about having.

Are you sick of Closing Time”? 
No, I’m not. I’m not one of the people who heard it 100 times a day on the radio but playing it every night I loved it. I think it’s a great song. 

What was the single worst moment you experienced during your time in Semisonic? 
One really humiliating moment was at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when we closed out the televised broadcast of the Billboard Awards. We were halfway through the song [Closing Time”] when the network cut to commercial, which we knew was going to be the case. What we didn’t know is that they were going to cut the power to the stage. All of a sudden the power goes off, the house lights go up, and a voice comes over the loudspeakers saying, Thank you for attending the 1998 Billboard Awards.” Fifteen thousand people—including Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey and Carole King and all these show business legends—get up and file out as we’re standing up on stage looking like idiots. I was pretty pissed off about that. 

Looking back, how do you feel now about your experience with Semisonic? 
I feel great about it. If someone said, Would you do it all over again?” I wouldn’t hesitate. I would probably do it a little differently. I wouldn’t allow myself to get so caught up in the music business definition of success and worrying so much about record sales and radio charts. That can really dilute the thrill of rocking onstage every night.