In The Tank #1: Jacob Slichter

Jacob Slichter is a musician, author, and teacher. He was a member of the multi-platinum band Semisonic, whose global hit “Closing Time” can still be heard pretty much everywhere, especially at bars or when a baseball team’s closer comes in to wrap up a game (not nearly enough for this Cubs fan).

I first encountered Jacob’s writing in his fantastic book, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life. It may be the finest book I’ve read about an artist’s life in the music business, in that it is honest, self-effacing, self-aware, and thoroughly entertaining. I’ve easily purchased at least a dozen copies for others, including friends and family members whose children are pursuing their own rock & roll dreams. Much of the book feels eerily familiar to me, as “Closing Time” was a massive hit almost exactly a year after a band that I worked with, Sixpence None The Richer, had its own worldwide hit with the song “Kiss Me.” The adventures of the band and their struggle to make sense of the massive opportunities and stardom, as well as pressures from a global record label, powerful radio stations, and broadcast groups. Then there was the puzzle of, “how do we follow up?” It’s a realistic look at a career in music that pulls back the curtain from the romantic myths of rock & roll excess and shows a talented, hard-working band trying to navigate a bewildering business. Jacob now teaches non-fiction Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence, and through a series of Kevin Bacon-esque connections to childhood friends of both my wife and I, I was able to connect with him and ask him a few questions about creativity, teaching, community and pulling back more curtains in life and work. Enjoy!

Q: One thing that comes across in your book is the sense that artists are commoditized by the industry – seen as products and not necessarily people. How did you and your band mates in Semisonic navigate the demands (and fear) placed on you by labels, radio stations, etc.? Looking back – do you see that you could push back more than maybe you did?

A: We made pop music and wanted to be pop stars, so in the largest sense, our ambitions were aligned with those of the record label. Certainly they wanted Semisonic to succeed, but they came to have doubts, and it’s hard to push back against doubt. With a couple of important exceptions they were totally surprised by the success of “Closing Time.” That and “Secret Smile” (a big hit overseas) briefly inspired the label’s confidence in us, but the confidence faded quickly. It wasn’t that they wanted us to do things differently. It was more like they stopped believing.

Q: Much of the book, to me, seems to dispel myths about the business of making music and the experience of being in a band. The lack of glamour, the pressures that have nothing to do with making music taking over the creative process, etc. Do you think that there are other ways in life that we can pull back the curtain and perhaps encounter others in a more realistic way?

A: One of the things I tried to do in the book was to reveal how the structure of the music business imposed all kinds of constraints on the people who worked in it—musicians wanting to be famous, and record company employees trying to keep their jobs. If there’s a villain in the book, it’s the business.

I think it’s important to look at the larger world the same way, to learn to see the limits that various systems impose on us. If we do that, we can get on with the work of replacing those systems with more humane alternatives.

Q: What things help you to be a better teacher? Are those things different when you’re teaching creative writing or drumming?

A: Whether teaching writing or drumming, I try to remember what my favorite teachers did for me. They were good listeners, gave honest encouragement, recognized their students’ desire to learn and improve, believed in their students’ intuitions, and left open the possibility that the students might have had insights that had not yet occurred to their teachers.

Q: You’re involved in a group called Music That Makes Community that brings people together to sing (without paper). What does that act of a group gathering to sing do for a person?

A: Singing with others is empowering, especially for people who feel embarrassed about their singing voice. Anyone who has sung along at a rock concert or a protest or a wedding knows this. Singing with others allows you to become part of something larger than yourself.

Q: So often we read, hear or see stories of the lone genius, without realizing that perhaps community has affected that person. What role do you see community playing in the creative process?

A: I totally believe that creativity is much more collaborative than we know. Most performers will tell you that live performance is a something like a dance with the audience. What may be less obvious is the fact that artists hold an imagined audience in their minds as they compose, edit, practice, and otherwise work things out. Creating a work of art invites the creator to imagine what an audience will think, and that audience includes non-artists.

I recently came across a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “One must be an inventor to read well.” I believe that. Among other things, it means that if you’ve been moved by art, you’ve encountered your own creativity, the same creativity that is in the air that all artists breathe. When fans listen to records and start imagining the record they want to hear next, I think those desires make their way into the minds of music makers. I know this sounds mystical, but I actually believe this. The lone genius theory feels deeply wrong to me. We all do this together.

Q: What’s your favorite song to sing a cappella?

A: I am so embarrassed by my singing voice, I never sing on my own. But I enjoy singing with others, especially anything with tasty harmonization, anything from a Palestrina motet to some pop gem.

For more of Jacob’s writing, visit his blog, Portable Philosophy.