March 07, 2005

WRITE ON TARGET

Semisonic drummer's book strikes a nerve

Jacob Slichter.jpg

Intense pressure to impress record company executives. A satisfying set that drew a roar from the crowd in the cramped club. The makings of a palpable "buzz" in the industry.

Jacob Slichter, drummer for the Minneapolis rock trio Semisonic -- best known for the 1998 hit "Closing Time" -- can vividly recall the circumstances of his band's showcase performance nine years ago at the South by Southwest music festival and conference that preceded the release of its debut album.

On March 16, Slichter will again be featured at the annual event in Austin, Texas, before an audience of assorted music industry professionals and journalists.

This time, however, there figures to be much less nervousness. And he won't play a note.

Slichter will kick off SXSW '05 with a panel discussion of his recent memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer's Life (Broadway Books). It is an honest, endearing and often laugh-out-loud look at life in a touring rock band in the post-grunge era, and the major-label machinations that can make or break an artist's career.

Slichter book.jpg

As such, it documents Semisonic's three-album journey on MCA Records between 1996 and 2001. The band enjoyed multiplatinum sales and did score a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart with "Closing Time," but also endured two albums that flopped.

And while Slichter's account, full of his dry, self-deprecating wit, does sometimes cast record-company and radio politics in a less than flattering light, he has no qualms about addressing -- and taking questions from -- a roomful of people from those sectors of the industry.

"I don't anticipate any problems," Slichter said in a phone interview last week from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "Everyone I talked to [who has read the book] said that's exactly the way it is. I don't think anyone is going to stand up and call me a liar. There are maybe one or two people who don't come across favorably. But I tried to hold myself up most as the butt of the joke. I probably skewered myself more than any record executives."

In the book -- which stemmed from tour diaries he published on the band's Web site, and later read for broadcast on National Public Radio -- Slichter's perspective is that of the anti-rock star. He is a music-biz neophyte who, in the beginning, seems thrilled just to be along for the ride with band mates Dan Wilson (vocals/guitar) and John Munson (bass), veterans of the Minneapolis scene from the band Trip Shakespeare.

The book's charm is that the uninitiated reader has his eyes opened, just as Slichter's were to the often costly, heavily political, behind-the-scenes process that not only can determine a hit record, but also whether an artist ends up indebted to its label even after achieving chart and sales success.

The reaction from his peers in the business has only made the project that much more worthwhile to Slichter.

"I've heard from musicians and people who have gone through what we do, other bands who were on MCA," he said, "bands who have tried to make it and have gone through the whole thing. For a lot of reasons, the response has been very positive.

"People who worked with Semisonic and have just been in the business enjoy having it portrayed in a book. . . . One of the things I heard from music biz people who read the book is that they feel as trapped as musicians do."

MCA dropped the trap door on the band after its third release for the company, 2001's All About Chemistry, failed to deliver a hit. The trio has been in a state of limbo since. It still performs occasionally -- Slichter said the band's last show was "about a year ago" in Minneapolis -- and Wilson is readying a solo album for release on Lost Highway Records, which is owned by the now-dissolved MCA's parent company, Universal.

Slichter contributes drums and some string arrangements to Wilson's album, while Munson also appears on bass. "We'll definitely work together on projects that aren't Semisonic -- Dan's record, John's music," Slichter said. "The big question is: Will we make another Semisonic record? The jury is still out on that."

In the meantime, Slichter has plenty to keep him busy even without a full-time music career. The 43-year-old, who is engaged, already is mulling his next writing project, and he had a Grammy preview article published in The New York Times last month. Besides, since moving to New York toward the end of Semisonic's run, he has not had room for a piano in his apartment.

A drum kit would fit, but that would constitute a no-no, says Slichter.

"I can't imagine anybody in good conscience playing drums in their apartment in a place like New York," he said. "The neighbors are so close to you."

In other ways, life as an author seems to have proven a refreshing alternative to the corporate, hit-chasing music-business model he outlines in his book -- a complex world of well-paid independent radio promoters, song "research" surveys over the phone and pricey videos that get nowhere with MTV.

"It's much harder to get a record deal," Slichter said. "It's just cheaper to make and promote a book. The editor we signed with is a big music fan; he really understood what it was. That's all you need. Whereas in the music world, it's so much more expensive.

"You don't have to pay Barnes and Noble $1,500 each to carry your book. There's no $100,000 video of yourself reading your book. Traveling, you're just by yourself. You don't have to rent a tour bus."

-- By George Henn

Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter will be interviewed in Austin, Texas, by eMusic's Michael Azzerad on March 16, the first day of the South by Southwest music festival and conference. Visit www.medleyville.us during and after SXSW for news updates, features, recaps and reviews.

Posted by medleyville at March 7, 2005 08:22 PM
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