Semisonic drummer finds his groove in new expose

Friday, September 3, 2004

Semisonic's hit "Closing Time" held the top spot on the charts for eight weeks back in the late '90s, scoring 20-plus weeks of constant radio play, and selling more than a million copies of the band's album "Feeling Strangely Fine."

Still, the Minneapolis trio somehow found itself more than $1 million in debt to its label.

While talk of the music industry financially raping artists and being generally evil is nothing new, that's not all that's covered by drummer Jake Slichter in his book "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned My Way Through a Room Full of Record Executives and Other True Tales From a Drummer's Life" (Broadway Books, $21.95). In fact, among the industry expose is one of the year's greatest memoirs.

Slichter draws on old notes from his years of touring and recording to create a book laced with irony and good humor, as he struggles to find his own space in the midst of corruption, celebrity and chaos.

Thanks to the overwhelming success of "Closing Time," Semisonic enjoyed several years of stardom, playing for thousands of fans, starring in music videos and hobnobbing with Hollywood's elite.

Through it all, Slichter struggles with his inverted, existentialist qualities that set him apart from his peers. With countless interior monologues, he paints himself as little more than a passive observer, looking on detachedly as the fate of his band is decided by radio execs and hot-shot producers.

That said, Slichter makes no secret that he does desire to be famous, and the men in Semisonic are certainly not above acts that force them to sacrifice their integrity. They throw wet sponges on half-nude women on MTV, and parade on stage with a life-sized Guinness bottle all in the name of selling more records.

Oddly, as much as Slichter craves the limelight, he never seems to feel comfortable in it. He is anxiously calculated in front of cameras, hoping to appear cool and confident, while inwardly freaking out. He is never comfortable with the perks that come with his profession, such as eating in ritzy restaurants or wearing designer clothing, because he is so worried about the expenses catching up with him later.

Slichter details the obstacle course of how money is distributed among record producers, music-publishing companies and band members. The phrase "recoupable debt" is used throughout the book to describe the expenses the band incurs while making a record. The math doesn't seem to add up. Despite selling more than a million albums, the band is able to make just an average living. Slichter speaks often of working 15-hour days inside prison-like rehearsal spaces to save on recording costs.

Amazingly, Slichter's sweet nature never falters, not even when the band is outdone on the charts by such classics as "It Wasn't Me" by Shaggy. Slichter's nice-guy image is his most endearing quality (although one can't help but wonder if he is just playing it safe in case he has another recording opportunity).

Slichter's commitment to sticking to only music-related subjects is admirable, but his dismissal of all personal issues becomes almost too obvious. He pontificates thoroughly on the families, hobbies and lifestyles of his bandmates, but his own family gets but a couple of sentences. By the end of the book his hairdresser, Mimi, feels like an old friend, but we know next to nothing about his mother.

Nor is there any real climax in "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star."

Instead, there is a genuine feeling of accomplishment as Slichter learns the ropes of the music industry, and makes music he is proud of. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing that Slichter reveals about the industry is its fickleness. Even when selling oodles of records, playing for thousands of fans and appearing on major television shows, the band is always worried about its tenuous hold on top. Alas, Semisonic's worst fears are realized when it is dropped from the label as soon as the glimmer fades from "Closing Time."

Yes, Slichter's role as a rock star is seeped in grim irony. But more ironic still is the fact that he will no doubt be remembered more for this superb insight into the music industry than for being the drummer in a talented but short-lived band.