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The strange life of a rock star

Semisonic drummer talks about new book

Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter
CNN Access
Arts, Culture and Entertainment

(CNN) -- You'd think it was all sex, drugs, fame and -- occasionally -- music.

But being a member of a hit rock band is a little more complex than that. There are the flat audiences, the endless travel, and always, always, the money. Record labels keep tabs on every cent they advance you; accountants play games with the cash you think you have. And that's not to mention the borderline activities it takes to get your song on the radio.

Jacob Slichter, the drummer for the band Semisonic, has seen both sides. His band struggled for success in the beginning; then it had a huge hit single, "Closing Time," and dealt with problems it never imagined.

Slichter kept track of it all and has written a book, "So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star" (Broadway). CNN anchor Kyra Phillips talked to him about his experiences.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Air guitar fantasies, adoring fans, fawning strangers. Have you ever wanted to be a rock star?

Oh, yeah, we all remember that tune, "Closing Time," The big hit from the band Semisonic. [The band's] drummer, Jacob Slichter, presents rival visions of the rock world in his new book "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star." It's a humorous look at the strange world of a rock 'n' roll star from a guy who knows definitely how to keep the beat. Jake Slichter joins us now live from New York. Hi, Jake.


PHILLIPS: Good. Good to see you. Do you just have nightmares? Does that song just go in your head constantly or have you been able to shelve it?

SLICHTER: You know, I always liked the song so I never got sick of it, but I wasn't tuned into the radio all day as it was hammered into everybody else's heads over and over again.

PHILLIPS: You just had to play that same beat.

All right, I got to ask you about the book: Why did you write it? Are you angry at the industry? Do you want to give young musicians a reality check? What was your thought process when you were putting this book together?

SLICHTER: I wouldn't call it an angry book. I really enjoyed the whole experience. I just wanted to tell the story of what it's like to be in a rock band from starting out when you're, you know, when you're on stage in small clubs battling stage fright to trying to get the record company guys to come out and see you and being flown off to L.A. and meeting with all the bigwigs and what are record contracts about and how do you get on the radio, what's it like making a rock video or going on "Letterman" and the Grammys and having a big hit song, all of that.

PHILLIPS: All the fun stuff.


PHILLIPS: Now ... I thought it was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but you stuck with rock 'n' roll and business. Why no sex? Why no drugs?

SLICHTER: Well, you know, that just wasn't my lifestyle. You know, I never really had the whole sort of long train of supermodels on the tour bus or, you know, big cocaine binges or anything like that, so that's not in the book.

Semisonic: John Munson, Jacob Slichter and Dan Wilson.

PHILLIPS: You were one of the normal ones.

SLICHTER: Yeah, probably.

PHILLIPS: Well, you do reveal what you say are some pretty weird priorities about the record business. Let's start off talking about how these execs truly do control your destiny. ... Tell us about Nancy Levin and what she did for you.

SLICHTER: Nancy Levin was the head of radio promotion at MCA in 1998 when we had finished recording our record that had "Closing Time" on it. When our A&R person Hans, who really believed in the album and took it into his bosses at MCA, they said, "You know, we just don't hear a hit song on here. We think you have to go back and record some more," and Nancy stepped forward and said, "You guys are crazy. This song 'Closing Time' is a huge hit. Let me get this out on the radio and I'll show you," and thank God we had her there, because ...

PHILLIPS: It went platinum.

SLICHTER: Yes, absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Now, someone who you didn't really respect and wasn't necessarily pushing for that next big hit, you [call] Dr. Evil in your book.

SLICHTER: There was a guy who I always called Dr. Evil at the label. Just because of his sort of vaguely menacing personality. He, according to everyone we talked to, always thought we were too old, and I think part of his opinions were based upon his discussions with his teenage son who everybody said played a big part in his decision-making. So I guess we never really got on Dr. Evil's good side, and he -- he thought that we were a bad waste of MCA's time and money.

PHILLIPS: Interesting. And look what happened. Now, you also thought that after this big hit, they were just going to keep on coming. You had another reality check, didn't you?

SLICHTER: Oh, absolutely. I always believed that, you know, getting that first hit is the hardest, and it probably is. But I really thought once we had that -- once we got over the hump -- that all the other hits would just keep coming and coming and coming. I think if I had to do it all over again I would have told myself "enjoy it while you've got it," because trying to get the next one you can drive yourself crazy.

PHILLIPS: Well, your book is so revealing with regard to the business side of things. Now I want to get a little personal. As you look back, the best moment for you when you guys were just huge?


SLICHTER: We played at RFK Stadium in front of 40,000 people when "Closing Time" had just hit No. 1, and I'll never forget the experience of being on stage and just feeling a tidal wave of energy from the fans hitting the stage and it literally, you know, made my skin tingle and shiver and I almost fell off the drums. It was so -- such a big feeling. Another time we played in Mexico City and, you know, the 10,000 fans there would flick their lighters in time with the music. All of that stuff is even better than you would imagine it would be.

PHILLIPS: You had what we are calling here at CNN "a Prince moment." Tell us about this and how you got a little nervous.

SLICHTER: Well, anyone would get nervous around Prince. He is -- he's so cool he had to be called The Artist Formerly Known as Prince for a while, as you know.

After we got done playing a show at the Beacon Theatre in New York he was backstage visiting with Sheryl Crow and my bandmates were so nervous they actually just scampered down the stairs to the dressing room. But I pulled myself together and went up and introduced myself and shook his hand and told him how much we loved his music and he just -- he mumbled a few words that I just couldn't tell. But I was so nervous I didn't ask him to speak up and thanked him and just kind of slinked away. (Ed. note: Both Prince and Semisonic are from Minneapolis, Minnesota.)

PHILLIPS: You just pretend that you understand Prince and you move on.

SLICHTER: Exactly.

PHILLIPS: How about the worst moment?

SLICHTER: We played a show in Las Vegas for the Billboard Awards in front of 15,000 people at the MGM Grand, and it was a star-studded audience that had such legends as Stevie Wonder and James Taylor and Carole King and Lauryn Hill, and all the stars of today and yesterday. Halfway through "Closing Time" they cut the power to the stage. The lights came on and a voice said, you know, "Thank you for coming to the Billboard Awards. Have a good night." And everybody filed out as we stood on stage with our guitars and drums looking like idiots.

PHILLIPS: Fame, what you pay for fame.

SLICHTER: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Now, why is it such a nightmare trying to get your song on the radio? It is really political and it's expensive, isn't it?

SLICHTER: It is expensive. The political part of it is the very biggest stations like, for instance, K-Rock (KROQ) in L.A. is such an influential station that if their program director likes your song, as in the case of "Closing Time," it really can persuade a lot of other stations to play it. Other stations, unlike K-Rock, take money in order to get your song on the radio -- kind of. It's a sort of sneaky way around the payola laws using people called independent radio promoters.

In the case of "Closing Time" I think MCA spent something like $700,000 trying to get "Closing Time" on all these other radio stations. So it is very expensive.

PHILLIPS: Well, let's bring up your Web site, And here we go. Here comes the shameless plug. I know every day you guys are waiting for another contract. Meanwhile you're at home checking to see how many people are buying your book. Now, can people log on to and say, "OK, Jake, hey, we'll give you a contract. Let's go, we're ready for another Semisonic album."

SLICHTER: My e-mail address is on the page right there. You just e-mail me and we'll be happy to call and discuss contractual negotiations.

PHILLIPS: Strike a deal. Can I have 5 percent if something comes of this?

SLICHTER: Absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Jake Slichter. The book is "So You Wanna be a Rock & Roll Star." It's a great book. It's funny, it's smart. What do you expect from a Harvard grad and an awesome drummer. And good luck on your engagement, Jake. Thanks for being with us.

SLICHTER: Thank you, Kyra.

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