Jake from Semisonic, on Trusting Your Intuition

Jake from Semisonic, on Trusting Your Intuition

This is a re-post of an interview with former Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter and is one of the very first interviews we conducted for this website back in 2009. 

 

I was fortunate enough to meet with Jacob Slichter, the drummer from Semisonic and the Author of 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.  Jake is actually the first person I interviewed that I didn’t know whatsoever before interviewing, but I found his book so accurate and intriguing that I tracked him down.

 

Jake-music-business

Jake talked to me about his experiences playing drums and songwriting for a successful touring and recording band, why he was inspired to write his book and how the music industry has changed in the past 20 years.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Jake, First of all thanks for your time.  I guess let’s start at the beginning or close to the beginning.  What was it like at the time getting the attention of label guys in 1993-94 for Semisonic?  What did you do correctly to get their attention?

 

JS:

 

We (Dan and John) already knew them through Trip Shakespeare. Trip Shakespeare had been signed to A&M Records years earlier, so they had gone around and met A&R people from various labels, and so by the time Semisonic came along they knew a bunch of people who had all traded labels and were on the carousel of A&R people. So, number one, they already knew them.

 

Number two, we made really good-sounding tapes. I think also our biggest advantage was also our biggest disadvantage, which was that we were swimming against the tide at the time stylistically. Really at that time the landscape was dominated by Nirvana and then everything that was in that end of the spectrum – dark, angry, huge, amazing music that we were never going to be able to make. We weren’t interested in making it; it just wasn’t who we were, even though we were huge Nirvana fans.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Talk to me about that. Did you feel like there was ever a temptation to say, “Hey, maybe we should knock that off”?

 

JS:

 

We just never could’ve pulled it off. Never in a million years. It would just have been stupid to try. I think a lot of bands did try, and some of them did a fairly good job. There were a few bands that took the Nirvana direction and did great with it. We were never going to be that, and early on we realized that. I think when we were dealing with A&R people, ours were some of the few tapes that were bright pop music when all the A&R guys were looking for the next Nirvana. So our tapes stood out, and I think that helped us get attention. I think they were good tapes, and that was probably the main thing. Dan is just a really great songwriter, and I think we had pretty concise arrangements, and it sounded like radio-friendly music, so I think that also helped. I think the fact that we sounded as poppy as we did really made us unappealing to a number of labels, like Interscope. We had an A&R person there who really liked our tapes, but she knew it was really swimming against the tide of where the label was at. So she very wisely said, “Hey, this won’t be the place for you. If I sign you, you’ll just be buried.”  So we ended up really with two labels that were most interested in us – MCA and Elektra.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I guess that was a tough ride through that first album cycle. That must’ve been really difficult on your interpersonal relationships. I know a lot of bands break up over that first record, because they’re pushing you at breakneck speeds, etc.

 

JS:

 

I don’t know that they were pushing us at a breakneck speed, but we were going around the country. It wasn’t a strain on band relations anymore than any kind of touring is. Just being on the road with people is stressful. You don’t have a lot of personal space, so that’s why it’s such a strain. The band felt pretty tight, personally I think after that first album. I was frustrated, but I think Dan and John were kind of used to this because they’d been through it with Trip Shakespeare. I was kind of on a learning curve about how disappointment works in the music business. I probably took it the hardest. Actually everyone probably took it hard in their own weird way. I took it hardest in the sense that I probably was the most believing that the first record was going to break through. I always thought FNT would’ve done it. That was always my thought, but we’ll never find out.

 

Dan had written a bunch of songs, and I think it’s natural to feel disappointed when it’s the music you write. And John had been on the road for years with Trip Shakespeare, so I know he felt disappointment after that. And we all really felt proud of the record.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You toured with a lot of bands, played with a lot of bands. You were on tour for about ten years.

 

JS:

 

On and off, sometimes 200 plus days out of the year.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Of the people you met, was there a defining or unifying quality of the ones who made it vs. the ones who didn’t?

 

JS:

 

It’s hard to say. Not necessarily. There weren’t many bands that we toured with that I didn’t think were pretty damn talented on one level or another.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Talent is an X factor but were there personal habits of successful artists?

 

JS:

 

There were all different shapes and flavors in terms of personalities, etc. But there has to be a ruthlessness of commitment. You can be a very nice person on the outside and still have that. I think they all had that. It’s more than drive. It’s a belief on some level in your own intuition. That’s the hard thing about the music business. You can only really make good things if you are trusting your own intuition. But in the end it’s not your own intuition that matters, it’s someone else’s. So I think people get kind of hung up trying to tap into the intuition of the masses. It generally never produces great music. I think a lot of people think that massively popular music is made with the public in mind. I don’t think so. It’s made by people that have intuitions that are very much like what the public’s intuition is at the moment. But I don’t think you can do it by trying to guess where everyone else is at. I think you really have to commit to a belief. And if you’re lucky, the stars align and you make it. So that’s what I would say they have in common – a ruthless belief in their own intuitions. Some of them I was kind of amazed at how wrong they obviously were, and there might be some cases where eight months later that band was rocketing to the top of the charts or having some form of success come along.

 

Our first record sold 30-some thousand records, but in the universe of rock records it was pretty successful. It got written up in all kinds of places. So I think our whole experience was one that was a privileged existence in the world of rock.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You got to take the ride while there was still a mechanism.

 

JS:

 

They were putting money into it back then.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What’s your philosophy on social networking?

 

JS:

 

I don’t understand it. I’m a Facebook member. I don’t use Twitter, and I don’t understand why anyone would be interested in what I Twitter, and I am not really interested in what other people Twitter. I was interested in the Iranian uprising, reading the Twitters when you couldn’t get news coverage. But, “Hey everybody, I’m going to Colorado to go skiing” or “Hi everybody I just had stuffed grape leaves for lunch” … I think they’ll figure it out, and they probably already have. Twitter and Facebook, since I know about them can’t possibly be the cutting edge of where this stuff is. They’re always catching up. I don’t think it’s possible to say, “What would’ve happened with Semisonic if we had been around when Twitter was around?” We would’ve been a different band.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I was curious if you had used them extensively, but if you haven’t …

 

JS:

 

I think the thing I would have to say there is, you have to have a really clear idea of who you are, and then you have to have a really clear idea of who you think wants to hear or read what you’re up to. The social networking just gets plugged into that knowledge. Even faking requires a bit of self knowledge and knowledge of who you’re faking out and what they want to be faked out about.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Were you writing this book the whole time, or was this something you did completely in retrospect?

 

JS:

 

I wasn’t thinking as I was writing the road diaries, some of which got incorporated into the book, “This could be a book.” All I was thinking was, “Well, if I can’t write as many songs as Dan, maybe I’ll write some road diaries and get my writing up in that way.” And then once we decided to press the pause button, I said, “OK, I have to write a book.  That will be my next thing.”

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What was the experience of re-purposing a musician’s skills to a different commodity?

 

JS:

 

What did I learn by being a musician that I applied to getting a book deal? It’s all the same stuff.  To get a non-fiction book deal you have to submit a book proposal. And a book proposal is very much like a demo – “Here are the things I’m going to be talking about, here’s a sample chapter, here’s my outline, here’s who I think I’m talking to,” etc.  It’s very similar to music because whether writing a book proposal or submitting a demo, they serve different purposes to different people.  For a band or an author, a book proposal or a demo is like a map – “Here’s where I’m going, here’s what I’m going to do.” If I feel like I’m getting lost, I’ll come back and consult this and think about what my original intent was and just try to stay on track with that idea.  For a publisher or a record company, these things serve a very commercial purpose – “How are we going to market this thing?” These are things most bands aren’t really thinking about.  I almost think you shouldn’t think about them. You should try to focus on making the clearest thing that is truest to your vision.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

More often than not now when I read about an artist I’m reading about their marketing and not their music.

 

JS:

 

I think that’s the era we live in. Some people are really good at it, so if they are good at it, why shouldn’t they? But I think you do run the risk of getting off target.  That’s one reason I don’t really talk about what I’m writing. I don’t want to get into thinking about who’s going to read it and what their reactions are going to be.  I just have to sort of go away in my head and write it. It’s either going to be accepted or not, but I have to cross the finish line in my own mind along the path that I set out on, not someone else’s.  I know a lot of bands that say, “Here’s our marketing strategy.” If you’re marketing strategy is more interesting than your music, you’re really in pretty big trouble. And maybe you shouldn’t be a musician. Maybe your real gift is to be an A&R person.  There’s a kind of magic to that – how to put together musicians with people that are going to like the music. And figure out in the flow of the world, how is all this going to work? That’s an important decision. I get e-mails from a few bands that send out these really dazzling e-mails and have all these bells and whistles around their promotion, but the bottom line is, the music is just not that great. If I want really great bells and whistles about something, there are all kinds of fun Web sites where I can waste time. If I want music, I’m not so interested in how well a band markets itself. I’m only interested in the music. I think everybody else is pretty much the same.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Would you say as Semisonic was winding down, the landscape had become competitive?

 

JS:

 

No. We started out in the grunge era, and then there was a softening of the radio that happened right before “Closing Time” was released where there were things like “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve and “Brick” by Ben Folds 5. “Closing Time” sailed through that open moment. And then it got as soft as N’Sync and Backstreet Boys and then it took a hard turn back towards Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Korn – really loud impressive music. And our last record came out in that era, and it was not an alternative rock record. Our record company thought it was, and we were unclear ourselves. Regardless, I just don’t think it was the right time for that record. I really think that’s what it was about. I think we were lucky with “Closing Time” and our other two records had a lot of great songs on them, but just weren’t lined up with where people’s heads were.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What changes have you noticed in the way the industry functions or in the way we consume media?

 

JS:

 

One change I see is that people conceive of coming up with one great song as the arc of their band’s life. I think that’s a little more possible with YouTube. You make a cool YouTube thing, and you may not ever see another great YouTube from that same band, but that’s fine. People go on and make another one. I think that may be one thing we’re heading towards; instead of having an enduring band identity you break off and do other things.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Some combination of the singles model vs. what movie studios do with other combinations of producers, directors and actors.

 

JS:

 

One great thing about the music business now is that it’s so much cheaper to record that you don’t really need the studio. Most people don’t. They are at home, have their computers and are making recordings that 15 years ago would’ve cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. There’s probably a lot more music you can get to right away, but that makes your job harder as to how you’re going to weed through it. I think they’ll figure it out eventually. I don’t know how, but maybe someone with really cool tastes will gain followers and point out what’s good. I think one thing about the Internet is that it seems to me that there’s more impermanence. Things are more fleeting.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

So people will only get 15 seconds of fame rather than 15 minutes?

 

JS:

 

I never bought the 15 minutes thing. Many people have been famous way longer than 15 minutes.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What do you make of the fact that there hasn’t been anyone that has risen to icon status in the last decade or so?

 

JS:

 

Give it time. I do think someone’s going to come along and think of the perfect way to think of the perfect way to exploit all the things the internet has to offer. It’s complicated, it’s tricky and it’s always changing. There are so many things you can do with it. That just makes it harder.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What do you make of the pay-as-you-will Radiohead premium model?

 

JS:

 

An important thing to consider in the case of Radiohead – I think it’s awesome they did it – is the way they got to it was in part by being a major label band. What I’d like to see is, who will be the first band that will rise up from the Internet with no label backing?

 

Please check out Jacob’s 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”