it pulls something out of me: a conversation with jacob slichter of semisonic
Jacob Slichter is the author of the excellent book 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, a book chronicling the rise of his band Semisonic and tracing its trajectory through the music industry, often in great detail. It's a fascinating memoir of a songwriter and rock star in the making, but more interestingly it's an excellent insider's guide to the bewildering machinery of the record industry and how to navigate it—or not. He is also a professor of creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence. You can find a lot of his writing and thinking about music and writing and the bridges between the two on Portable Philosophy.
As a part of the 2017 March Fadness tournament, we sat down with Slichter to talk about the book, the band, music, and writing. As a coda to this year's tournament, we include selections from our conversation here. —The March Fadness Selection Committee
March Fadness: One of the things I really liked about the book is that while it is a memoir, there’s that thread to it, where you make yourself a vulnerable character amidst this much larger industry, it's also a long essay on the machine of the industry. You spend a ton of time in the book detailing—in incredible detail—the mechanisms of the industry behind the songs that we hear on the radio or see on MTV. Why did that become the focus for you?
Jacob Slichter: I myself had always viewed the music business as happening behind curtains, basically. I didn’t know how it worked, but I just knew that I wanted in. I didn’t do enough to advance my own cause early on. I hopped on to the Dan [Wilson] and John [Munson] express, because they had already had one pass through the system with their band Trip Shakespeare. So I experienced the first half of Semisonic—at least—as playing catch-up and learning how it went, because I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I’m sitting on conversations where I’m meeting with A&R people and I knew that I didn’t want to ruin things, or didn’t know how my ignorance might get in our way, so I did a lot of listening and trying to learn, and so part of it is my own learning in order to not blow it for Dan and John.
What’s even more interesting to me is how my own mind started to adopt the illogic of the music business. I started to think the way these motherfuckers were thinking! After a while I heard it enough and I started to say oh yeah, Semisonic is too old. We’ve gotta look younger. What’re we gonna do to be louder. We have to write louder songs! I had imbibed all of the weird thinking that the business does, and it really gets into your consciousness and start to make decisions for you if you’re not careful.
MF: Did the book begin from those Road Diaries that you published on the Semisonic website?
JS: All along I wanted to be a songwriter, and I happened to get into a band with a much more prolific—and amazing—songwriter. After a while, I had some co-writes on the first album, and I had a song of my own on the second and last albums, but I quickly realized that if I wanted my voice to get out there, I’d have to find some other outlet. So I started the road diaries, and they actually became a big hit first with the people at the record company. The president of MCA Records starting sending it around in emails to his employees, and our publicist saw it and showed it to NPR, and they invited me to do some road diaries as commentaries, and the book came out of a series of these as a book. The ones I published on the blog were very cartoonish, and I wouldn’t call them memoir, but they were the inspiration for what became the book, which I had to think about more deeply as I sat down to work on it as a book.
So in 1993 or 1994 when we went out to LA to record The Great Divide, I had been reading the work of an intellectual historian named Russell Jacoby. His best-known book is called The Last of the Intellectuals, which I thought was smart and interesting. I wrote him a letter—this was at the beginning of email—and said Professor Jacoby, I’m going to be in LA recording with my rock band, and I’m sure you don’t normally get letters like this, but I’d love to buy you some iced tea and ask you some questions for half an hour. He said come on up and have dinner with my family, and I did, and they were wonderful, and I got to know them. They had me out again, and there I met a novelist named Brian Morton, and then Semisonic happens and I write my book, and in August of 2013 I get a call from Naomi, Russell’s former wife, who asked on Brian’s behalf if I’d be interested in teaching. It must have been a last-minute thing, this being August, and we did an interview over the phone.
I’d always fantasized about teaching writing. I’d prepared for it by imagining how I’d teach it, and I’d thought about the things I’d learned about writing music that I thought would be applicable to teaching writing. So he hired me on in 2013 and I have really loved it. My wife—who’s a poet—and I, we don’t have kids, so it’s a chance to get my nurturing muscles working.
The weird thing is that I hate most music. I like one sliver of it so much that I became a musician. It’s not necessarily one genre—I listen to all kinds of stuff. I like writing about aspects of music, like an aspect of drumming that gets talked about in analytical terms: hearing musical time, which is a crucial part of drumming [blog links to these]. I guess I like thinking about it and putting those thoughts down. But I wrote a whole series on song bridges, how they show up in literature, for instance, or film. I like writing about the musical characteristics of lit and film because music is part of our thinking about anything.
In my nonfiction course I talk to students about bridges, and have them write bridges for some piece they’ve already written. I have them look at a principle of architecture and then show them how it shows up in the Great Gatsby. I ask them to go out and find some principle from some endeavor that isn’t writing and show us how it shows up in writing. The important thing about this kind of analogical thinking skillset is that our writing predecessors is that they just read a lot more than we did. Today we don’t have that advantage, but we do listen—and view—a whole lot, and understand things that they haven’t yet named. So to the extent that I can have them take those lessons that they’ve learned, it’s low hanging fruit. They’re able to start making moves in their writing that they recognize from these other art forms.
One of the things that I’ve brought to writing from music is the ability to sense that something’s wrong and to be able to say to myself: this isn’t working but I don’t know why yet. To start asking myself questions, and you get better at it the more you do it. Am I writing away from the problem instead of into the problem. These are questions I learned from making—and failing at—and later succeeding at making music. Even this morning when I was writing, there was a little moment in a particular thing where I realized that a moment needed a more continuous sweep to it. Right now it’s told in little moments and it wants to be one long shot instead of a bunch of short ones.
MF: One of the funny outcomes of the tournament was that we got to revisit a lot of the videos for these songs. The video for "Closing Time" is really quite good. You talk about how it came together in your book, but reading that reminded me of how almost haphazard the video can be, and the tenuous relationship many of them have with the song. It's a weird way to judge a song.
JS: Right. It can often be almost accidental: whenever I think about "Closing Time" I think of when Dan first played it for me in his house. I think of when we learned it and when we recorded it, and the very first time we performed it. When I went on the March Fadness site, I was surprised by the video, thinking oh yeah, there’s the video, which was super fun to make, but it came much later. But then I think: that’s how everybody knows the songs. So many times how the videos turn out have little to do with the artists. You can imagine: the budgets are beyond the artist’s hands, who will work with the artist—or is available to—how much the artist has to pay those people: that’s limited. What can go in the video is often heavily policed by the record company or MTV. Sometimes the song just blew up and they’re like we have to have a video, let’s go, so any number of factors can result in a non-great video.
MF: I'm also struck, revisiting these songs and listening to them over and over, and often revisiting the albums that the songs are on, how the quality or the ubiquity of the song often had nothing to do with the quality of the album. I was reminded how it almost seemed inevitable how I'd hear a good song and buy the album (maybe from Columbia House or BMG, a strange and powerful ritual that you also talk about in the book), and there would be the one song and a bunch of junk. Feeling Strangely Fine is an obvious exception, and like it, about a third of the albums with Fadness contestant songs on them are actually really quite good, or at any rate quite consistent.
JS: I grew up listening on headphones, and looking at album artwork, and listening for 18 minutes at a time, and flipping the album over, and that’s such a different way of engaging with it. The order of the songs is such an important thing for listeners like me. Everyone should just release albums as apps, and you can only listen to music within the apps, and in order, and you can’t leap around, and right now mp3 players or the way streaming works, you just skim across the surface. You get a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and you never go deep into Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness' First Finale, and just live in it for 40 minutes the way we used to.
I’ll tell you where deep listening went. Music used to be our portal into the world. Now it’s in the internet. Back in the day of LPs you’d have to wait months for this Rolling Stone interview with Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, now you can just google what you want and find it out immediately. The Internet is now our portal, and it has real bandwidth, and you can just get everything all the time. Music used to be this church you would go to to get little peeks at what was going on in the rest of the world, so we really invested it with that much more importance. And we just don’t any more because we don’t have to.
Now you can just google whatever the hell you want and find it out immediately.
MF: Okay, let me play you a few of these songs to get your take on them, if you're game. First up, House of Pain's "Jump Around" vs Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn."
JS: "Jump Around" is a pretty slammin’ track, though it’s up against Torn. That’s a rough region, man. Between those two, it’s such a tough call since it’s such opposite sides of the brain. I always thought that Natalie Imbruglia was sort of—I think my sense of her is borne out by the love she’s received in the tournament. I always thought she was underrespected. She was a soap opera star in Australia, and the song always kind of moved me, and I was embarrassed to listen; I had to enjoy it privately I guess. I don’t know if it was ever the song I’d listen to five times in a row. I don’t think it was, but I always had a soft spot for that song. It’s her singing more than anything. She’s got a voice that expresses somehow. I don’t know any of her other music. I gotta go "Torn."
MF: I think that’s probably the correct prediction, but what do I know? [As it turns out, "Torn" won it all; we'd only know that later.] I did my bracket and I’m still blown away that anyone could have taken down Sir Mix-a-Lot’s "Baby Got Back."
JS: You know, speaking of "Baby Got Back," so our song "Closing Time" almost never made it to be a single. We handed in our record and the record company said no, you don’t have any singles yet. And I knew we had singles, at least two of them, which did become hits. Both our A&R guy Hans and our manager Jim thought that this was crazy, but they weren’t in a position of power to do anything about it, and then thank God for the new head of promotion at MCA, Nancy Levin, who came in and said to the president and more importantly the people around the president: you guys are insane. I’m gonna get it played on KROQ today. And she drove it over to Kevin Weatherly and got it played that afternoon, and literally that was the beginning of the hit song.
What’s interesting though is that Nancy was involved in the promotion of "Baby Got Back." She was like a local radio or retail rep in SF and she went to Tower Records on Broadway, Broadway and North Beach maybe, there used to be a Tower Records, and someone should do a map of where all the Tower Records used to be, and she went in and convinced them to put up a giant sculpture of an ass. And evidently this was part of breaking the song in SF. She died a few years ago, and that’s when we heard this story, at her funeral, and Nancy Levin can be credited with breaking both "Baby Got Back" and "Closing Time," and God love her for that. So I’ve always had a soft spot for "Baby Got Back." What’s that up against?
MF: It lost already to Canadian musician Tom Cochrane. It’s a good song, but it in no way should’ve beat "Baby Got Back," which is a colossus of pop music of the 90s.
JS: If BGB lost, I feel much better about going down in the second round.
MF: That was also shocking, but the thing that was interesting about it was that the song that y’all were up against had a video essay by Elena Passarello—she’s a really good essayist with a new book out called Animals Strike Curious Poses that got a great review in the NYT. And she listened to RoTM for 24 hours straight, and people responded to the self-punishing stunt quality of that. What we found in part from the comments was that no one really dislike RoTM, and no one really loved it, but there were super passionate fans for "Closing Time"—
JS: —and also those who couldn’t stand it—because it was played so much, among other things. It did get played to death. Though as you’re talking I’m also appreciating that people are voting not just on the songs but on the essays. And you have songs that you think are shitty versus songs that you think are great, and sometimes the shitty song wins.
MF: As it does in life. You could be indelibly shitty in a way that makes you want to vote it through. Here’s another example: we have that Chumbawamba song "Tubthumping" against "Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite. I’ll play a snippet of it.
JS: Oh yeah. I’m going with Deee-Lite. I actually love Chumbawamba and think they’re way undervalued. Their song is regarded as a novelty song, but they’re an anarchist collective of hardcore folks, and I’ve always respected them for that and felt like Jesus, finally a band like that broke through and had a hit song. Hallelujah. But I don’t know that I can listen to "Tubthumping" very long, whereas with "Groove is in the Heart" I can listen to not only the 12” mix but the 24” mix of that. Where a few bars of “Tubthumping” I’m already done, even though I’m secretly cheering for them.
MF: Alright, let me give you one more. How about "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak which is up against a song by Joan Osborne called "One of Us."
JS: [Immediately] Oh, I’m going with "One of Us." It’s got some terrible rhymes in it but I feel—this is just an aesthetic thing for me—the Isaak thing is very coiffed, figuratively and literally, and Joan Osborne just ripped it right open with that song. I don’t think she even wrote it. It’s the Hooters guy who wrote that. I love it. I really love that song, and feel like it. I watched a lot of teenagers sing along with it in a sentimental way and yet I don’t feel like the song is actually sentimental. It takes a very ambitious stance. It’s almost clunkily theological. I’m actually interested in theology, and most of the time when theology shows up in music it is clunky except in weird cases, like Sweetheart Like You by Bob Dylan, in which I’m convinced that no one else but me hears as theological, but I hear it as super theological. In spite of its clunkiness, it’s too awesome to deny. It’s like Chicago. "Question 67 or 68 by Chicago. You’re embarrassed by the lyrics, and yet it pulls something out of me that—you know—is just too… it’s more important that that thing gets pulled out of me than the fact that I’m embarrassed that it happens.