Tue, Jul 27, 2004
Drummer rolls with fame game
Jake Slichter’s book about life in a pop band totally rocks
By ERIC BARTELS
Jake Slichter worries a lot. When he was playing drums for the band Semisonic, he fretted about all kinds of things, even after the group put a succession of singles on the Billboard charts.
Now that he’s drawing raves on all sides for his new book, “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star,” a smart, funny look at life inside the pop music world, he’s feeling pretty good. But that could change.
“If you talk to me next week,” he admits, “I might be a complete basket case.”
With his musical career in a holding pattern — the future of Semisonic is unknown at this point — Slichter is getting a big confidence boost from the favorable notices on the book, a project that required him to step into the solo spotlight.
“I do feel a little bit more like, ‘I did it,’ ” he says. “I’m definitely reveling in more attention than I’ve ever had.”
Slichter’s love-hate relationship with public scrutiny is what makes the pages of “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star” sail by. His persona, equal parts keen ambition and almost pathological self-doubt, makes for honest reporting and not rock-star bombast.
His eagerness to prove himself while drumming behind his more charismatic and — in his mind — more accomplished bandmates and the group’s determination to succeed set up an engaging thrill ride.
When Slichter is first recruited by singer-guitarist Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson, former members of the widely admired Minneapolis band Trip Shakespeare, he lives in terror that his nerves will betray him onstage.
He fears, he says in the book, “complete meltdown, losing my mind and perhaps even vomiting in front of the crowd.”
But as the band becomes more battle-tested, Slichter gains confidence, learning in puckish fashion to draw the camera’s attention to himself during video shoots and television appearances.
The reader feels Semisonic’s pain when its first album on MCA, crippled by bad label decisions and the group’s own hard-to-define sound, flops. But disappointment turns to giddy elation when the single “Closing Time,” from the band’s second record, “Feeling Strangely Fine,” hits the charts with a bullet, eventually reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s modern rock chart.
“I ran up and down the bus pumping my fists and whooping like an obnoxious sports fan,” Slichter recounts in the book.
The roller coaster offers the expected highlights — working with the legendary Carole King, appearances on “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” red carpet turns at the Grammys and thunderous audience responses from arena-sized crowds around the globe.
“As the band landed on the downbeat on the first chorus,” Slichter writes of a Washington, D.C., show, “a titanic roar swept across the field and slammed into the stage with such force that it shook me. Only concentration kept me from screaming.”
But the low points are equally rewarding in Slichter’s hands: early concerts before audiences more enthusiastic about nearby skateboard exhibitions, the drudgery of downtime on the road and repeated rebuffs from disinterested rock idols at parties.
Slichter does a masterful job of detailing, in comprehensible terms, the venality of the record industry, where careers of both executives and artists can end in a heartbeat and gargantuan egos and cold, hard cash call the shots.
The drummer’s humanity and sense of humor remain intact throughout.
Apart from songwriting, Slichter, 43, had never really written for publication. “I never felt I was qualified to do any of that,” he says. “I had submitted things to magazines over the years and collected the rejection notices.”
He was only too happy for a chance to puncture misconceptions about rock life. “Most people think of rock musicians and they think of hairspray and leather pants and strippers in hotels,” he says. “Musicians are kind of weird. There are a lot of nerdy people hauling around Tolstoy. Probably a lot of them got beat up in high school and junior high school for being weird and introverted.”
Slichter, a Harvard graduate, isn’t sure about his career path now. “I can’t retire on Semisonic,” he says. “Each day there’s one less feather in my nest.
“I’m thinking about doing more writing, for sure. I would like to do more. In my secret fantasy, I would like to be someone like John Sayles. He does films, he writes books. I would like to have a variety of creative pursuits.”
He’s had to adjust his expectations to fit the more modest scale of the literary world. “You don’t make book videos with the author’s hair blowing back and models rubbing his stomach as he reads.
“Book sales are a different ballgame,” he says. “If they were record sales figures, I’d be slitting my wrists. Rest assured, I’m cheering my horse down the track.”
Slichter, who lives in New York, is also awaiting the completion of bandmate Wilson’s solo album. At that point, Semisonic will huddle to decide its next step. “I think our best record is still in us,” he says.
And yes, he hates to think his rock-star days might be behind him.
“When you’re onstage as a band, you make that incredible, magic connection with the audience. You change the music according to the crowd. That’s why people keep doing it.”
Jake’s Book Tour Info
Reviews Of The Book
Jake’s Commentaries on NPR
Jake’s Road Diaries
CNN Interview Transcript
The Original Jake By Jake Page