Finding His Way: Jacob Slichter of Semisonic (Part II)
Editor’s note: This is Part II of Riffraf’s interview with Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter. For last week’s Part I, click here.
Jacob Slichter: Whenever your ego starts to swell, you get these reality checks. Maybe it was after Feeling Strangely Fine, while you’re in London, a girl asks you to take a picture. You think she’s going to take a picture of you, but she wants you to take one of her and her friend.
Most of the action in the book happened between the ages of thirty-two and forty, for me. I wonder if it had been from twenty-two to thirty if I might have had a little bit more the benefit. My ego might have had the benefit of youthful momentum. I don’t know.
Riffraf: Age puts a lot of things into perspective.
Jacob Slichter: I was being told all the time that I looked too old.
Jacob Slichter: It was one of many problems that they had. They had a tough job. It’s tough to market any band. Mainly the problem was that we didn’t fit easily into the radio formats. Radio formatting is less of an issue today than it was then. Were they an alternative rock band? Were they a Triple A band? Were they an alternative rock band like the Smashing Pumpkins or Green Day or were they a Triple A band like R.E.M. or Sarah McLachlan or the Counting Crows? Or were they a rock band like Van Halen, Sammy Hagar whatever? They had to figure out where our band belonged.
We actually got played in all those formats, but a little bit here a little bit there, and none of them could grab onto us for very long with the exception of “Closing Time” when they all grabbed onto us. We were not loud enough for alternative rock. We were not macho enough for active rock. We were too loud for Triple A. We really didn’t fit nicely into any of those niches out there. MCA had a legitimate problem.
They really wanted us to succeed in alternative rock where most of the records were being bought. We might have had a longer career if they decided that we weren’t as loud as they wanted us to be. Hindsight isn’t even 20-20 in this case. You really don’t know. Really, Semisonic is a success story—an improbable success story. Whether or not it could have been a bigger success story, I don’t know, but I’ll take what we had every time.
Riffraf: You’re a musician, a writer, a Harvard graduate, and yet you got caught up in the whole celebrity of it all.
Jacob Slichter: I’m sure I’m not different from other musicians who got into the business to impress people they had crushes on. I am very much a performer. I look forward to getting up onstage. I look forward to book readings. It’s hard for me to go into a rock club and watch anybody play the drums. I just want to be up there. It’s partly musical, but it’s mainly performance. Part of the thrill is that you’re taking a dive off a tower and you want to look cool in front of all these people. You want to nail it. That’s part of the thrill. There’s a flip side. Massive insecurities. Anxieties.
Riffraf: One of the brilliant things on Dan’s part was that he made the band a democracy.
Jacob Slichter: He made it an economic democracy. Which is great. First of all, it was very generous. With that move he solved two problems that every band faces. Who makes the decisions and who gets the money? He basically said, “Let me have my hand on the rudder of the ship, and I’ll split all the royalties” and that made it so much easier for me. When you’re shooting a video and the camera is on the guitar player and bass player, and you just feel like shit because I’m the balding drummer in the back. You don’t want to show me. Then I’d remember that at least Dan and John think of me as their equal. There’s no more concrete way of demonstrating that than splitting your royalties. That was really important.
Riffraf: Have you met anyone that you had been in awe of?
Jacob Slichter: I had a conversation with Lionel Richie, and told him that I played some Commodore stuff in my high school band. We met George Martin in Canada and that was amazing. We met a number of people.
Jacob Slichter: Like Carole King.
Oh, Carole King. My god. She praised my drumming. I could retire right there. Don’t play another note.
Jacob Slichter: That must have been intimidating. To collaborate with Carole King . . .
It wasn’t intimidating to me because the collaboration happened beforehand with she and Dan. Dan got all the intimidation. So they wrote this song, and we recorded it. And she overdubbed on top of it. She came in for the mix.
Riffraf: She just turned 70 a couple of months ago.
Jacob Slichter: Is she? She’s amazing. I wrote a drumming article once called “The Drum Lesson From Carole King” because I learned a lot about drumming from listening to her play the piano.
Riffraf: What did you learn?
Jacob Slichter: Her feel. Piano and drums are a lot alike. They’re percussion instruments. The influence the piano has over the feel is massive, so playing air piano over Carole King is great training for any drummer.
Riffraf: Do you remember what you talked to George Martin about?
Jacob Slichter: First of all, what I remember is we met in Toronto and George Martin had flown that day from England to Toronto, so he woke up two a.m. Toronto time, got on a plane, flew over to Toronto, and did a day of promotion for his new record, which is exhausting. He was in his seventies. He’s at this dinner where all the people are there for him and he’s having to hold court because everybody is expecting him to be charming. We walk in and he has no idea who we are. He pushes back his chair, stands up and proceeds to talk to us for like fifteen or twenty minutes. Very quickly we got on the subject of making music and The Beatles. He talked about the Beach Boys and how impressed he was with Brian Wilson who not only had to be John and Paul but also George Martin because he had to do all the production. The whole time I was amazed that this guy was standing on his feet. I mean I was exhausted. It was very humbling.
Riffraf: Do you have a favorite Minnesota band?
Jacob Slichter: Probably The Replacements. I wouldn’t call Prince a band. I’d call him an artist. Then you’d have to include Bob Dylan.
Riffraf: Dylan or Prince?
Jacob Slichter: I wouldn’t want to make that choice. They’re so different that fortunately you don’t really have to. Did you read the Dylan memoir? That’s an amazing memoir.
Riffraf: Yeah, but he skips over the ’60s.
Jacob Slichter: It’s interesting how he skipped. He wrote about the build-ups and the pauses in between all of the action. I was very taken by that. There have been so many films about the action. All the documentaries document the action. He filled in the in-between places.
Riffraf: I read somewhere that you’re working on a new project.
Jacob Slichter: That’s right. I’m writing a different memoir that’s not music related. I don’t really discuss it.
Riffraf: Is the new memoir similar to anything else we might have read?
Jacob Slichter: It’s like my first one where it’s a themed memoir. Me finding my way.