“Closing Time” – you know the song. Yes, you do. Even you, snobby hipster scum, know the song. As soon as you hear the midtempo guitar, the chiming piano, the words arise unbidden in your Arcade-Fire-saturated brain. “Closing time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…[power chords]…I know who I want to take me home…” Like all one-hit wonders that haven’t become detestable over time, it brings you back, perhaps not even against your will. You are in the eighth grade or high school. You almost certainly have bad hair and embarrassing orthodontia. And “Closing Time” by Semisonic is the soundtrack to your graduation, your best friend moving away, your first breakup – any life event that calls for a bittersweet but anthemic backdrop.
And tonight, I’m with the band. Sort of. OK, not really. Jake Slichter, the drummer of erstwhile rockers Semisonic, is here in McCormick tonight for a sit-down interview with Princeton’s own Professor Alan Krueger. Music geek that I am, I am stoked beyond all reckoning. There is but one problem: there is nobody here.
At first, I don’t even realize that Jake Slichter is in the room. He does not look like a rock star – maybe a balding Ben Folds Six crossed with Steve Buscemi. The only evidence of his connection to the music industry is an admittedly kickass (and somewhat Dave Navarro-eque) white, fur-trimmed puffer jacket. While he chats amiably with Professor Krueger prior to the start of the program, he sounds more interested in discussing book deals and pop-cultural sociology than his music. He jokes about all-too-frequent misspellings of his name – anything and everything but Semisonic’s 1999 release, Feeling Strangely Fine, the album that simultaneously brought the band fleeting fame and doomed them to pop-cultural obscurity – the kind of obscurity where a band only resurfaces on VH1’s “100 Most Awesomely Awesome and Bad But in a Good Way 90’s Songs Ever!”
Who, after all, could blame him for reticence, when the premise of his likeable book, So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, rides upon the fact that the guys of Semisonic are a thing of the past? A passing reference to “my drummer’s ears” is the only nod to his past as one of the architects of what was, briefly, the song that you couldn’t stop humming no matter how hard you tried.
The room fills slowly, and it is almost a quarter after eight when the room, perhaps a third full, reaches critical mass for the night. By the time latecomers finish trickling in, there are still fewer than thirty people here.
Slichter, a Harvard graduate (“obviously this guy’s no airhead,” smirks Kreuger), is composed and entertaining throughout the evening. He seems unself-conscious, gesturing broadly with his large, bony hands and cracking jokes about his tragic lack of coolness: “I mean, look at Keith Richards – all he does is stand on stage and lean over.” I appreciate his good humor and the passion for music that he still conveys. When he talks about his first band, a funk outfit called Instant Kool, he is both sincere and intense. Slichter rhapsodizes about watching them perform and being hit with “the nauseating feeling of your first crush, [how] you just can’t get over how cool they are.”
His background in funk drumming dates from this point, being in “a black band with the one white guy…on drums.” “I took my drums over there, and really sucked,” he grins, but the band gave him a shot. “They kept me in the band and just kicked my butt for 6 or 7 months…and that was my first taste of really wanting to be a musician for the rest of my life.”
Slichter’s tour of duty with Semisonic began almost by accident. Singer/guitarist Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson were already in successful Minneapolis band Trip Shakespeare. “They were rock stars,” Slichter recalls, “they had unlisted phone numbers. I was thirty-one or thirty-two…all that time since college, I had been working day jobs. They were working at a very different point in their careers.” Slichter stood in for Trip Shakespeare’s drummer at a few casual gigs and parties, and when the band broke up after losing their record deal, Semisonic rose from the ashes in Wilson’s basement.
Being a part of Semisonic, even pre-“Closing Time,” was intimidating for Slichter. He muses on early gigs, confessing his stage fright because he “just knew everyone in the audience knew how to rock better than I did. You know, the guys who work at the clubs have ‘666’ tattooed on their arms…I felt like a little kid.” Ultimately, though, he admits that he probably “enjoyed it better than Dan or John,” who were “just burnt out in the end.”
Although an unabashed anti-snob who describes being raised “on AM radio in the 1970s,” Slichter is equally open about his distaste for MTV. “MTV is like the biggest radio station with the smallest playlist.” He speaks at length about the process of making a video. On budget: “The label tells you, ‘Here are some directors you’d be interested in,’ which means ‘directors you can afford.’” On video genres: “There were the death, mayhem, and torture videos – there was one with a guy tied up in the bathroom with his girlfriend smearing shit over him – and there were the puppy dogs and balloons, running in slow motion…we wanted something in the middle.”
He is more ambivalent when discussing the problem of getting radio play. Slichter talks with some frustration about the problem of classifying Semisonic’s music, which fell somewhere between alternative and adult album alternative (the so-called AAA). “It was Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins versus R.E.M., Beck, and Sarah McLachlan. We were too wussified for the skateboard, Mountain Dew alternative stations…but ‘alternative’ sells more records.” Under pressure from the record label, Slichter credits a “happy zeitgeist” with the success of “Closing Time.” “The pendulum swung away from ‘rage rock’…this window opened very briefly, but if we had been aiming for it, we would have missed it.”
Humility aside, what is really most endearing about Slichter is the depth of his passion for music. He is most alive when raving about his favorite concerts, which range from Björk to U2 to Radiohead to Janet Jackson. Although Slichter is quick to point out that since Semisonic’s third release, all of the band members have primarily turned to their own pursuits, he still speaks fondly about drumming on Wilson’s solo release, about songwriting, about listening to the radio, about the Internet as a new musical media. His face lights up when he recalls with awe how all the early Motown hits were recorded in single takes with a full orchestra in the studio.
So what’s the bottom line, kids? You missed out when you weren’t there. So go download “Closing Time” (or you could actually buy the album) and get it stuck in your head again. It’s the least you can do, and God knows it’s a song that deserves a place in your library.