Finding His Way: Jacob Slichter of Semisonic (Part I)
Many of us have fantasized about rock stardom: the tours, the sold-out shows, the adrenaline rush on stage, the after-parties, the groupies, the awards, the magazine covers, the fame and glory. But not many of us have had our rock and roll fantasies turn into reality. Jacob Slichter did.
Slichter is the drummer for the Minneapolis-based trio, Semisonic, but before he joined forces with Dan Wilson (guitar/vocals) and John Munson (bass/vocals), he was recording demos in his basement, embracing the idea of being a musician but not really taking the necessary steps to achieve rock and roll immortality. A couple of years later when Semisonic’s single “Closing Time” catapulted the band to superstardom, Slichter’s fantasies became a reality. But did the reality live up to the fantasy?
Slichter kept a detailed account of the music business—performances, recordings, the tours, record promotions, awards ceremonies and boardrooms—with what he called his “road diaries.” In 2004, his memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star (Broadway Books, 2004), was an extension of the “road diaries” in which he diligently recorded the highs and lows that he and his band mates had experienced.
Riffraf: I identified with your post-college experience. You weren’t really working. You weren’t really a musician. But there you were, fiddling around with your four-track in your basement.
Jacob Slichter: (Laughs) It’s important for people to claim their identities as writers and musicians and poets even when they’re not making money from it because it takes about ten years, even longer, to actually get to the place where you’re as good as you think it needs to be. Your critical powers are always far out in front of your actual abilities. You write a song and go,” Shit that sucks.” How come my ears are so much better than my ideas? You have to hang in there with it, but it’s lonely. You go to parties and you feel like a loser.
Riffraf: When you met Dan Wilson and John Munson, you weren’t really playing much. Do you consider yourself lucky?
Jacob Slichter: Completely. I’ve had the most charmed life. Especially in my music career. I basically hopped on the Dan and John express. Not to put down my drumming, but I definitely hooked up with two guys who are fantastic. We were on the landscape from the very beginning.
Riffraf: You hitched your wagon to two guys who were ready to take off. You had to catch up a bit in the beginning.
Jacob Slichter: Completely. I had to catch up with the whole routine. I hadn’t really been in bars. I don’t drink. All my music had been in my head and in my basement. A sequestered fantasy. I didn’t really have a plan. I’ll write some songs and then at some point I’ll be a famous musician. Stupidly, like Mr. Magoo it kinda worked out that way. Not because I knew what I was doing.
Riffraf: You come from a funk & r&b background. What was it like to play with two guys who came from different musical backgrounds?
Jacob Slichter: They had to train me to become a rock drummer. They had to teach me how to rock. It’s easier to go from a funk drummer to a rock drummer. With funk and r&b the groove is so undeniably the issue. It really is the issue in rock. People listen to Dave Grohl and think it’s about being loud, but what they miss is that Dave Grohl has an amazing stellar groove. In a rock trio you really have to crash each other into the boards a little more. You’ve got to make some fireworks happen. I was used to laying low behind the backbeat, so they had to teach me to be more aggressive.
Riffraf: Did they want more cymbals? More foot?
Jacob Slichter: No. More ummppphhh (makes strenuous sound). In rock you might give equal emphasis to every eighth note on the high hat (demonstrates by playing air drums) to give that sense of urgency. You’re trying to eliminate the silken contour, the groove you try to achieve in funk.
Think of a quasi r&b song like “Lowdown.” It starts with that Jeff Porcaro fill (plays air drums again). It’s filled with accent and a lot of subtlety. You’d never play that in a rock band. You just want to go full board the whole way through.
I really had to bare my fangs a little bit. That took some work and that happened to dovetail with another issue, which was learning how to hold my stage presence more aggressively. Especially now that I really didn’t have anybody standing in front of me. It’s one guy to each side.
They were both regionally well-known musical personalities because our band followed their previous band Trip Shakespeare, a national act, well known in the Mid-West. From the very beginning we didn’t have the days of playing for seven people. We started off with two hundred people and went up from there.
From the very beginning, I had major issues with stage presence, stage fright and all of that contributed from having to go from being on defense to going on offense. It took me a couple of years to really get my sea legs.
Riffraf: So there you are in this three-piece band, and you’re immediately playing in front of two hundred people. I can understand the insecurities and doubts.
Jacob Slichter: The other thing is at that point I was in my early thirties and was having panic attacks onstage. And I thought, “Holy shit, I’ve made the wrong choice.” All these years I thought it would be as easy as playing in my basement. It’s not that. It’s getting out onstage and blowing people away. I hadn’t realized how frightening that would be. I was not only scared about the performances but also wondering if I had made an insane miscalculation.
Riffraf: It’s a scary thing when you’re faced with your dreams and aspirations.
Jacob Slichter: There’s a song that the three of us wrote. I wrote the chorus. It’s on our EP Wishing Well. The chorus is “I fell in a wishing well. Now the damage is done.” It is literally “be careful of what you wish for.” And it turned out great. I enjoyed touring even more than Dan and John.
Riffraf: In the beginning it sounded as if you were turned off by touring.
Jacob Slichter: It’s lonely and depressing. The shows are amazing, but everything in between is hard.
It’s work. It’s drudgery. For the aspiring musician, I’m sure that passage is an eye-opener.
What’s really grueling is being around people all day. The best way to explain this is think about going to a large Thanksgiving dinner and you see your extended family relations. You kind of have to be on at all times, and you can’t wait for the evening to be over so that you can sit down and zone out. Think about how exhausted you are after a four-hour Thanksgiving dinner. Now turn that into eight hours every day where you’re around people being cordial; you have to be on.
One of my favorite places to be at a party is in the kitchen washing dishes. And that’s one of the things you don’t get on the road. You don’t really get much of a refuge. I didn’t really find this out right away.
Our very first food stop we made was at a McDonald’s. When I went into the dining area, I saw my two band mates and our soundman each at his own table. I thought that was weird, so I found my own table and sat there. This is really cold and lonely, but then I realized you have to take advantage of every opportunity of alone time that you can get. For the rest of the day you’re thrown together with other people and not only your close friends in the band but the business people who are trying to help you make your career happen.
Riffraf: But then you wrote a book, and there’s nothing lonelier than writing a book. Why do you think you wrote it?
Jacob Slichter: I always wanted to be a songwriter, but I just ended up in a band with a guy who was amazingly prolific and a fantastic songwriter.
Riffraf: And wins Grammys.
Jacob Slichter: And wins Grammys for those songs. I would usually get one and a half, two songs on an album.
Riffraf: Like George Harrison.
Jacob Slichter: Yeah. I didn’t want to shoehorn a song onto an album. I was proud of all the songs that got on our records, but I didn’t write enough of them so I turned to writing road diaries and people started responding to them. That got a little bit of a buzz. I got on NPR and was able to read some. I thought this is the way my voice can get into the world. The book was a natural next step.
Riffraf: Another thing that I was taken by in your book—and I’m sure you heard this before—was your honesty. It’s humorous, and you really put yourself out there.
Jacob Slichter: I didn’t necessarily plan on that when I went into the book. When you pitch a book proposal you sort of hype yourself, and I went around to publishers saying that I “played in a band that has ‘Closing Time.’ You’re going to learn all about the inside world of a rock star.” And then I sat down and started writing and went, “Christ, I’m not really a rock star, am I?”
It became therapy for reconciling the person I had wanted to be with the person I kind of ended up really being. I started out with rock star bluster, and I realized that it just felt wrong. It was kind of dishonest. It wasn’t the whole story. The more I tried bringing in the other side of it the more alive it looked to me on the page. I wasn’t trying to engage in a moral exercise of being honest.
I did realize that the honest book turned out to be the more interesting story. I was thinking about readers and suddenly it occurred to me “maybe they haven’t read a book about someone with stage fright. Maybe they don’t know that you freak out about the Billboard charts and in an uncool way pay attention to things that a cool person wouldn’t.” I started looking for ways of bringing the whole story into it.
Riffraf: You portray yourself as the Ringo character.
Jacob Slichter: I was the Ringo character in a way. When we go out and play shows, everybody is still enthralled with Dan and John. A few people want to talk to me. By now I’ve gotten used to it (laughter). When you’re a kid and you’re fantasizing about being a rock star, you don’t fantasize about being the third most appealing guy in a trio (laughter). You want to be Sting, not Andy Summers.