touring the world as the drummer of Semisonic, Jacob Slichter began
detailing his experiences in road diaries. Later realizing that
his memoirs might offer insight into the inner workings of music
industry, he decided to write So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll
Star, a compelling book that shows that there's more to the
life of a musician than just 'sex, drugs and rock and roll.'
SoundAffects: In a business that's like an ever-changing
river, what did you find most helpful for remaining focused and
grounded while a touring musician?
Mainly, I was helped by the fact that my band mates and I are such
good friends. If any of us faced any kind of personal crisis, the
other two guys would always be supportive. And while performing
is a tremendous high, it's also a good way of staying grounded.
It enforced a good kind of mental discipline on me, requiring me
to stay relaxed and to keep my ego from shriveling up or ballooning
out of control.
SA: What helped you to overcome stage-fright?
JS: Playing lots
of shows. Dan referred to it as "getting your sea legs."
That's a good metaphor. It took me a year or so on the road to finally
get comfortable with the crowds and the energy of performing. One
important insight was to realize that my panic attacks were feedback
loops: my body would send my mind the signals of being afraid, and
my mind would respond by amplifying those signals and sending them
back into my body. I learned to break those feedback loops by relaxing
my face and my breathing. That was an enormous help.
What role do you think things like music videos play in the development
of a band's career?
JS: As far as
I can tell, videos make little difference until you already have
a hit on the radio. I hate to think of all of the money spent on
our videos that might have been better spent keeping us on the road.
SA: What was
it like making the video for Closing Time?
JS: It was a blast.
The song was taking off on the radio, and the feeling of "hit
song in the making" permeated the video shoot. What I remember
most about that video was that it was done without edits, so as
we neared the end of each four-minute take, you felt a lot of pressure
not to screw the whole thing up by laughing or tripping.
SA: What elements
factored into the decision process when choosing a producer?
JS: You have to
think about who you are as a band. What do we sound like? What kind
of record do we want to make? Given how we sound and what kind of
record we want to make, what areas do we need help in? Then you
have to hope that when you meet the producer you want to work with,
you get along.
SA: For people who aren't aware of the ins and outs of the industry,
describe the role an A&R person for a major label plays in the
development of a band's career.
JS: A&R stands
for artists and repertoire. The A&R person is the person who
scouts out bands, signs them to the label, steers the selection
of producers, songs, and mix engineers. The A&R person is the
person at the label most responsible for the quality of the finished
record. If the record company bosses like what they hear, the A&R
person gets a pat on the back. If not, he or she might get fired.
It's a tough job, and we were lucky to have two great A&R people:
Steve Ralbovsky at Elektra and then Hans Haedelt at MCA.
SA: Did Semisonic ever consider continuing without a label or
starting an independent label?
JS: No. Dan and
John's previous band, Trip Shakespeare, had done that already. There
are reasons for and against the indy route. In our case, we thought
our songs had a shot at getting on the radio, so we went the major
SA: In the current industry climate, what place do you feel
that independent labels have?
I think one has to be careful not to lump all independent labels
into one pile. Having said that, the best thing about independent
labels is that they are much more patient in the career development
of their artists. I'm listening to R.E.M. as I type, and they are
a perfect example of a band that would never get launched on a major
label today, because it took them several albums to build a big
national following. So, the role of independent radio is to bring
us more great bands like R.E.M. who require patience.
SA: One of the
facts that I found particularly enlightening (or perhaps, frightening)
in your book was the incredible influence that just a few radio
programmers now have over much of popular music. What role do you
feel this shift plays not only in artists being heard, but in the
diversity of music that audiences are exposed to in general?
JS: The lack of
musical diversity on commercial radio is driven by the endless quest
for superior station ratings (which produce higher advertising revenue).
Program directors are merely doing their best to take listeners
away from their rivals, and they do this by playing the songs that
win the most people over in the shortest amount of time. Thus super
hook-laden songs get played, and songs whose appeal is less immediate
get left behind. It's a familiar paradox. When was the last time
a politician got elected by promising something other than a quick
SA: Describe the feeling of performing for a live audience as
large as the one at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.
JS: It was beyond
my teenage fantasies of playing for a huge crowd. There are times
when the power of a gigantic crowd can actually move you, physically.
In the case of our show at RFK Stadium, I was nearly knocked off
of my drum throne.
SA: What have been the most profound changes within the music
industry during the past ten years and to what do you attribute
JS: We signed
our record deal with MCA at the end of the "artist development"
era. Now we are in the age of the blockbuster, where labels have
no interest in developing bands over the course of two or three
albums. Today, you're lucky if your record gets two or three weeks
of attention. In response to that, there are more independent labels.
There are also more outlets other than commercial radio. This is
the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. We'll see how
far it swings.
back to when you first dreamed of rock and roll stardom, what surprised
you the most about the daily realities when it actually manifested
in your life? Did it meet your expectations?
JS: In most respects,
the reality exceeded my expectations. You just can't know the pure
joy of performing until you do it. The same goes for the immense
satisfaction of making a record. The downsides of being a musician
resemble the downsides of many jobs, long stretches of boredom--in
our case, killing time on a tour bus. But, if that's the biggest
complaint you have to make, you've got a lot to be thankful for.
SA: What inspired you to write about your experiences in Semisonic?
JS: I had always
wanted to be a songwriter, but realized that I would never squeeze
many songs on our records, given Dan's prolific output of superior
songs. So, I started writing road diaries in 1998. They caught on
with our fans, and I quickly had the idea of writing a book for
a wider audience, one that might not know or even care about Semisonic.
SA: With the gift of hindsight, what advice would you impart
to someone embarking on a career in the music industry?
JS: Enjoy the
shows and the making of music as much as you can. It's the very
SA: How do you define success?
JS: In my case,
it was simply sticking with music long enough to have a chance to
play in a band that I was proud of, and to be lucky enough to have
found an audience.
So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star provided such an accessible
glimpse into the day to day events of life in a band, as well as
an overview of the industry. Do you have plans for any future books?
JS: Thanks. I
do have plans for another book, but the ideas are too poorly formed
at the moment to say more than that.
SA: Where can
people purchase your book?
JS: Check your
local store. Most bookstores have carried the hardcover and now
the paperback. Amazon
Anyone who wants a personalized signed copy can order one from Seventh
Avenue Books in Brooklyn. 718-840-0188.