Way back in 2005, I was sitting at my desk when my cubemate Lauren asked me if I’d read “the book by the guy from Semisonic.” The guy she was referring to was the trio’s drummer, keyboardist, string arranger and occasional songwriter Jacob Slichter, and the book was “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” an amazingly candid and personable look at the triumphs and travails of a professional musician. I tend to devour any book about music, but this one was worthy of repeat readings. Not a morose cautionary tale nor a bitter rant, it was levelheaded, humorous, and honest. Having met more than my share of professional musicians, Slichter came across as a guy who you’d actually want to have a beer with. The fact that was 33.3% of one of (in my estimation) the most underappreciated bands in the past two decades was icing on the cake.
Jacob very graciously made himself available for an interview on Popblerd!, and my timing was (unintentionally) pretty impressive. As it turns out, not only was the band’s signature song “Closing Time” recently used in an episode of “The Office”, but when this interview took place, he was in Minneapolis, getting ready for a Semisonic benefit show this weekend. Contrary to my belief, the band never actually split up, and there will be more music coming from them in the future! I practically wet myself with excitement when I heard that.
Wait. I’m already giving away interview answers. Read on and see what Jacob has to say about his beginnings in a funk band, how he felt about the usage of “Closing Time” in the office, and whether “Dr. Evil” (you have to read the book) is still in the music business.
Obvious first question: what have you been doing since Semisonic split up and the book was published?
We never split up. I’m typing these words in Minneapolis, where the three of us have gathered to play a show. We do one or two a year. We’ll release another recording at some point.
Since 2002, when we scaled back our activities, I’ve been writing. My first book was published in 2004, and I’m working on a second book, with a few articles and essays appearing now and then. I’ve also done a bit of drumming and arranging here and there.
Can you at least give us a hint as to what the new book will be about? (gives puppy-dog look and gets ready to beg)
It’s a themed memoir, like my first book, but not about the music business. It should be done in a year or so.
“So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” showcased two things that musicians tend to not have a great deal of: humility and humor. Why do you think a lot of musicians take themselves so seriously, and why is it that you think your book resonated with so many people?
Actually, I take myself quite seriously, which is a focus of a lot of the book’s humor. I was dazzled by all kinds of daydreams about my destiny as a megastar and household name. The book gave me a chance to go back and look at myself as I went through the star-making machinery.
Everyone who walks on stage must take him/herself seriously. What fan wants to go to all the effort of going to a show and pay money to see someone get up and be humble? Walk on stage like you’re there to blow my mind—that’s what I want from performers.
Now it happens that the bravado necessary to excite fans can be attended by all kinds of insecurities. This was one of the many pieces of the broader music business insanity I was documenting. The whole illogic of the business has a way of taking over you. With all of its caveats about recoupment of advances and promotional costs, you wouldn’t sign a record deal unless you thought you were exceptional. “We’ll recoup. We’ll defy the odds. Why? Because deep inside I’ve always known it!”
There were other pieces of insanity, on the business side (for instance, viewing a platinum record as a disappointment). Readers found the book convincing, some because they were in the biz and recognized their own experiences, and others because insanity turns out to be a reliable component of human endeavor.
You were brought up in Illinois as a kid, then went to Harvard. You lived for a time in San Francisco and then set up in Minneapolis. Now you live in New York. Having been an East Coaster, a West Coaster and a Midwesterner, what part of the country do you enjoy the most?
My enthusiastic heart is Midwestern, my love of the outdoors and life in slow motion feels West Coast, and my impatience is East Coast. I’ve enjoyed all three modes, but I especially like my current mode in New York City, where my enthusiasm is viewed with skepticism. I do well with that kind of pressure.
Did any of the music execs you referenced in your book call you after the fact and get on your case about maybe “saying too much”?
A handful of people (one or two MCA execs and some radio players) were said to be pissed off, to which I say, “Of course you are.” Most of the label people told me they thought it was fair. More than fair, actually. I didn’t want to write a book in which revolved around villains, because that would only trivialize the structural nature of the insanity I saw.
Are you comfortable revealing the identity of the MCA exec you dubbed “Dr. Evil”? Is he still working in the record industry?
As far as I know, Dr. Evil still works in the biz and remains successful. I’ve always kept his name secret for the reason I stated above.
Needless to say, the music industry has changed dramatically since “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” was published. What do you think about everything that’s changed in the past few years?
I think I don’t yet know the full extent of the changes in the biz, perhaps because things continue to evolve.
You got a degree in African-American studies at a time when that must have been a somewhat odd degree for a non-black person to hold. What possessed you to choose that field of study?
I was asked that question constantly in school. I did feel awkward about it. If I had majored in French or German or Russian, no one would have batted an eye.
Black culture has had a huge effect on me, and the history of African-Americans has always captivated and inspired me. I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard. Who can help having been influenced by this vital piece of the greater American experience? I think African-American studies would be an obvious choice for any American trying to understand him or herself, or for any non-American trying to understand the country as a whole. My next book goes a bit further into this question.
When you joined Semisonic, you had done most of your drumming in soul and funk bands. Obviously, you had to change your style as a bit to fit in with Dan and John’s sound. Which musical style serves as your go-to these days?
I’ll always be rooted in those early drumming experiences, where the over-arching priority was “Make It Groove.” I love a wide variety of music, but 70’s soul seems to be the closest thing I have to a musical point of origin.
Is there one song from your funk/soul days that you want to never hear/perform again? (adapted from a question that Mike Doughty told me to ask you when I mentioned that I was interviewing you…more specifically, he asked me to ask you about “the disco days”. He also said you should show me pictures.)
There were plenty of songs that rubbed me the wrong way when I was playing in cover bands. Everyone was obligated, for instance, to play “(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love Again” by LTD, which never did it for me.
Other songs activate traumatic memories of when I was learning the ropes. Whenever I hear the opening horn blasts of “Shake Your Rump to the Funk” by the Bar Kays, I have terrifying flashbacks to high school, when my fellow funk-band members harangued me for my many funk-drumming infractions: “Stop rushing!,” “Stop dragging!,” “Lift up your heel and kick that bass drum!,” etc.
As for disco, I love it, good disco that is. Give me a kick, snare, high hat and crash cymbal, sit me down on the stage at Studio 54, and fire up the mirror ball. This is one edge of the soul/funk tradition that is derided and was slammed back in the day. I walked along in platform shoes, slacks, and Hollywood shirts (those colorful polyester numbers you see on countless funk album covers) and saw a lot of people wearing “Disco Sucks” shirts. They didn’t even know what disco was. Someone would hear P-funk and say “Disco sucks,” and I’d think, “Well, a) disco does not suck, b) neither does P-funk, and c) P-funk is not disco you fucking twit.”
(ed. note: I never saw any photographic evidence of Jacob’s “disco days.” Wait…I just did. Wow.)
If you could go back and change one moment from the Semisonic days, what would it be?
I don’t feel the need to change any of it. If I did it all over again, I’d just tell myself to ignore the business side of things and enjoy the shows and the recording.
Semisonic’s biggest hit, “Closing Time”, recently was exposed to a new generation of listeners via “The Office”. Did you see the episode in which it was featured, and how did you feel when it came on?
I saw a clip online, and I’m honored that it has endured.
I met Dan once and he seemed like a phenomenally nice guy. Is he really that nice?
Dan and John are both super nice. All three of us remain close friends.
How difficult is it to play both drums and keyboards live? Did you ever have a brain fart and start whaling away at the keyboard with your sticks?*
The key to playing drums and keyboards simultaneously (keyboard with my right hand, drums with the other three limbs) is NOT to think about what you’re doing. Focus on the groove and let your hands and feet do the rest. I never hit the keys with my sticks, but I wacked myself in the face a few times.
Whatever happened to “Jake by Jake”?
My tour diary page, “Jake by Jake,” has languished since touring stopped and book writing started. I don’t write fast enough to be a blogger. The best bloggers crank out great first drafts. I can’t seem to do that.
Has Rolaids offered you stock options yet?
Rolaids had their fucking chance when my book came out. I gave them product placement like you wouldn’t believe. I waited by my phone. “When will Rolaids call for an endorsement deal?” Nothing. Well, guess what? They went out of business. Ignore me at your peril, Tums.
Top five funk bands of all time. Go!
Sly and the Family Stone
I’ve got to thank Jacob for indulging my silly questions with as much honesty and humor as I hoped he would. I should also thank him for not telling me to do better research, otherwise I’d have known that Rolaids went out of business. Now I know what *not* to ask for next time I go to the drugstore.
*Question provided by the honorable Dave Lifton, Esq.
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