I’m Gonna Surprise Them All: Semisonic’s A&R Man Tells All!
It’s a bane of any sort of success–the follow-up. Why are some bands destined for greatness, while others are damned to “one-hit wonder” status? That question can be answered in numerous ways: distribution, record company promotion, the band’s promotion, or, simply, a mysterious and unquantifiable failure to connect with a larger audience. existential
Such was the case with Minneapolis-based trio Semisonic, whose chart-topping single “Closing Time” was ubiquitous in 1998. Feeling Strangely Fine topped many end-of-the-year best-of lists–mine included. A seamless album from start to finish, its songs range from loud, fun rockers to soft, introspective ballads. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of “Closing Time,” follow-up singles “Secret Smile” and “Singing In My Sleep” failed to connect with the listening audience. The band’s third album, All About Chemistry was released in 2002, and was a further maturation of their previous two records. Yet the record was virtually ignored, and the band was unceremoniously dropped not long after its release.
“Our story is really an example of the existential conflict between commerce and art,” proclaimed Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter. His 2004 autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Rock Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life, is a cautionary tale about the other side of success, told in a hilarious, fast-paced manner, with self-effacing humor serving as a salve to the burns caused by a cold, indifferent–and soon-to-be-dying music industry.
Part One: Commerce
Fascinating New Thing:
“I was working at Interscope at the time, when my coworker Anna gave me a demo tape of this band named Pleasure. She liked it, and thought I would enjoy them–even though they were too soft for the Interscope sound–and she was right,” declares Hans Haedelt, the A&R rep who signed Semisonic to MCA in 1994. “I loved the rawness of it, yet I could hear that these three guys were excellent musicians, and that there was something special about them. They just needed the right kind of polishing. I knew of Dan and John’s previous band, but honestly, I never quite got into Trip Shakespeare–so I was surprised that these guys were doing something different, something much more engaging.”
Was there ever a doubt that they would be a success? “No,” says Haedelt. “I wanted them the instant I heard them, because I knew that they would make a hit. It was a little tricky because I was in the process of changing jobs; I was at Interscope, but I was getting ready to jump over to MCA, and in my mind, I wanted them to be the first band I brought to the table. I didn’t get my way, unfortunately.”
It was Wilson and Munson’s previous working relationship with Elektra’s Steve Ralbovsky that led Pleasure to choose Elektra. “At the time, I was bummed, but I thought about it, and I could understand their decision. MCA was not a great label in the least, Elektra had prestige, and it also came down to that relationship they had with Ralbovsky. Dan and John knew him quite well; he had been the A&R man who signed Trip Shakespeare to A&M, so they already had a close relationship. I sort of feared that he would swipe them up, and I resigned myself to that even before they signed their deal.”
Pleasure would soon get its first taste of record-industry turmoil. First, their stay at Elektra was short-lived. The top management at the label changed, with Sylvia Rhone becoming the president of the company. Soon, the trusted A&R was gone, and the band negotiated its way out of its contract. It couldn’t have been a more inopportune time, as they had started working on their debut album, The Great Divide, with producer Paul Fox. Pleasure would soon become Semisonic after it was discovered another band had a copyright on the name.
“It wasn’t a great time for the guys,” says Haedelt. “Here they are, working on their debut, and then they have to stop suddenly, because they no longer have a record deal. As a young band, they had no clout, so they didn’t have the resources to continue. The annals of the music industry are filled with many, many stories of young, promising acts who are squelched before anyone hears them.
“But they took a risk!” Haedelt emphatically declares. “They took a really big risk signing with MCA. As Jake highlighted in his book, the label was a joke. It was inept, it was floating by on catalog artists and albums, and they really had nothing going for them in terms of alternative rock. They were an older, more conservative record label, and the alt-rock rush of the early 90s caught them off guard. They didn’t know how to handle it. They didn’t know the market, and they made some really poor decisions.
“What I find interesting about that time, although it seemed like MCA was their only option, had the band waited a year or two, they might have been able to get greater label interest. At the time labels still wanted loud, heavy, guitar-based alternative rock, and that’s never been Semisonic. That started to change after Kurt Cobain died–labels wanted something that was different and cool, but not so “different” that a wider audience couldn’t appreciate it. In other words, cool yet commercially viable. Bands like Weezer, Hootie and the Blowfish, Matchbox 20, and Counting Crows were achieving international success. I always believed–and still do–that Semisonic belonged in that pantheon. Not that they were ‘soft rock’ or anything like that, but there was a definite stylistic change coming, and Semisonic had the potential to be a part of this softer, more intelligent musical wave.
“Their debut, The Great Divide, proved frustrating, It received a great amount of positive, favorable press. I don’t really recall very many bad reviews of it. For a debut album–and especially for the debut album by a band that had little to no radio play in advance–critically, it did really well. Yet it didn’t sell, and that was another one of the many frustrations Semisonic faced. It wasn’t for a lack of trying–those guys are all hard workers, they gave 110%, and many people knew it. Thankfully for them, some of the MCA executives knew it as well.
“When a band fails to connect or sell, there’s usually animosity, there’s plenty of finger-pointing– and often there’s a bit of firing. That didn’t happen. Sure, there were some tense moments, but several of the key executives said, ‘This is great, they’re getting excellent press attention now, and when it comes time for the second record, we can use that to sell it to radio and to press.’ I was happy to hear that, because I believed in them 100%.”
Heard Your Voice In Between the Lines
When Semisonic began to record their second record, they faced numerous pressures. MCA expected a hit record; they had earned critical acclaim, and now it was time to bank that good press into a successful record–a pressure that can be overwhelming during the creation process. Internally, they feared this was their last chance to prove themselves. Yet it was a personal crisis for Dan Wilson that would overshadow the work on their then-untitled new record.
“The Feeling Strangely Fine era felt like the best of times and the worst of times,” recalls Haedelt. “Just as they started working on the album, Dan’s wife prematurely gave birth to their daughter. Coco was born two months early, had to fight for her life, and was in the hospital for quite a long time, and one could tell that Dan was dealing with this by delving into his psyche and writing these great songs. Nick Launay, who was producing Feeling Strangely Fine was great; he was supportive of Dan–we all were–and allowed him to work at his own pace, letting him work in between hospital visits.
“As an A&R guy, my policy was that I trusted my artists. Executives don’t get that. They’re thinking of the bottom line, which I can understand, and my job was to convey to the band what MCA’s interests were, and sometimes having to do that was not a pleasant experience. When Jake describes in his book the scenario of me talking to him about what Dan was doing–I hated having to do things like that.”
In his book, Slichter describes a conversation that ended with Haedelt screaming at him to tell Dan to “listen to the fucking radio,” so he would be able to make a radio-friendly hit. It was a difficult position for a person to be in, admits Haedelt. “Those sorts of things really put me in the ‘bad guy’ seat, and I hated that. I considered them friends, but yet we were in business together. See, I’m not a musician; I don’t have the deep musical background, Ivy League-trained education like Semisonic did. I trusted their ability to write songs, but I had to serve as a go-between, shuffling between a creative bunch of guys and a label that just didn’t understand them.
“When they handed in Feeling Strangely Fine, it blew me away. I just knew we had a massive, successful record on our hands, with a majority of the songs worthy of being radio singles. ‘Closing Time’ would be a hit. ‘Secret Smile,’ I knew it would do well. If you go back and listen to that album, you’ll hear song after song and you’ll think, ‘Well, why wasn’t this a hit?! This is GREAT!’ I was excited, because I knew that this was a great record, a very deep, intelligent record that wasn’t mere top 40 tripe.
“Jay Boberg, the label president, didn’t have a discerning ear when it came to recognizing hits; he’d misjudged The Great Divide, so we really weren’t surprised to hear the label say that they didn’t hear any hits, and that we needed to go back into the studio to record some more songs. Jim Grant, their manager, held firm. I held firm. We weren’t going to do that. Fortunately, our luck changed when Nancy Levin, who was head of radio promotion, went to Boberg and said, “What the fuck are you talking about? There’s a hit here! “Closing Time” will be a smash!’ She was right.
“Some executives felt that the momentum behind ‘Closing Time’ was merely a fluke. A few openly bad-mouthed the band around the offices, saying that they were too old, that they weren’t loud enough to maintain any kind of radio success. Instead of being happy for the band, it felt like the success of “Closing Time” only made them dislike Semisonic even more. I still don’t understand that logic. Don’t you want your moneymakers to make money, to be a success, to pay for your blow, your whores, your houses and your swimming pools?
“The overseas success of ‘Secret Smile’ a year after ‘Closing Time’ is part of what I think really hurt the band. On one hand, it’s great that they’re having international success. On the other hand, it’s not so great, because it’s coming on the heels of a record that was already a year old. It’s a real Catch-22 situation. You’re wanting to move on and build on your success in your home country, so that you can sustain yourself and maintain your career, yet you’re having to stop the progress, because you have a chance to conquer the world. What do you do? It’s a hard question to have to face, with no right answer and a 50-50 chance of ending in failure.”
A Bad Tendency to Explode:
After having to delay their creative plans to deal with unexpected international success, the band begin working on their follow-up. Commercially, Semisonic had done well, which meant they had more leeway to do what they wanted to do for their third album, but it also meant that what they did would come under greater scrutiny. After some haggling between band and label, it was decided that Semisonic would produce the record themselves, in their own studio space.
“MCA was not fond of that idea,” says Haedelt. “Dan could have asked for any producer he wanted–the ‘we can’t afford it’ mentality that had existed before Feeling Strangely Fine was gone; you sell a million records, suddenly your label will offer you more opportunities. Dan talked to numerous producers, and we came close with a few of them, MCA’s impatience often clashed with the busy schedules of the producers they approached, because the label wanted them to start recording RIGHT NOW. The one producer Dan almost hired was Steve Lillywhite. Now that would have been an interesting album to hear,” laughs Haedelt.
MCA became impatient; they wanted an album, to pick up sales. MCA hoped All About Chemistry would be a hit, but once again, everything MCA did backfired. “Chemistry” was chosen as the single, but not without some reservations from the Semisonic camp; Dan wanted ‘Act Naturally’ to be the first single, a song that in no way resembled the upbeat rock of “Closing Time.” Boberg insisted–and being the boss, got his way. MCA had gone so far as to play a very early version of the song to a number of influential radio executives, to show what Semisonic was going to offer next.
“When they did that, it was embarrassing, because the record itself wasn’t finished, it was really against the wishes of the band, and the radio suits did not care for the song at all. If you play someone something to a roomful of people who know nothing about art, and they hate it, do you think there’s a chance they’ll like it when you play it to them later? But what can you do? Haedelt sighs. “We had a great record, but in the back of our minds, we sort of knew it was doomed. MCA itself was having obvious issues, with firings, layoffs, and rotating executives. Jimmy Iovine also had a hard-on for obtaining MCA, which, of course, eventually happened.”
Buck-Naked Banging on the Bathroom Floor
“As for me, I was at a deep personal impasse. I loved that Semisonic album, but I absolutely hated MCA. I wanted to quit so many times, but I knew if I did that, All About Chemistry would be dead in the water, and by that time I was one of only a handful of MCA employees who were rooting for Semisonic. I felt loyal to them–I stayed out of my loyalty to Semisonic.
“It wasn’t just the battles with Semisonic that caused me to feel that way. As they were working on Chemistry, I started working with Shaggy, a reggae artist we’d just signed. He handed in his debut, Hot Shot, and like with Feeling Strangely Fine, we were told that there were no singles, to return to the studio, and Shaggy did just that. I felt that the label hadn’t really listened to the album, because they dismissed it so quickly. The singles they selected from those post-album sessions were dreadful, the album sank like a stone, and MCA quickly stopped promoting it, which did Shaggy a major disservice. But that was MCA logic for you.
“But then, this guy named Pablo Sato, a DJ in Hawaii, illegally downloaded Hot Shot from Napster. Bad thing, right? That’s what the RIAA will tell you. Pablo loved what he heard, and started to play “It Wasn’t Me,” and it became a local sensation, which then spread regionally, and then it simply blew up, that and “Angel.” It sold nearly twenty million records, all based on songs that MCA thought weren’t single material. I felt vindicated,but at the same time, I resented that I had to get my vindication that way. That’s when I started to feel like the music business was no longer what I wanted to do, because my ideas were being ignored, I was being told my ideas were wrong, only to wind up eventually being proven right–which they would never acknowledge, either.”
Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End
“When the band was dropped, I left. I had given many, many years of my life to music, but I started to think to myself that at thirty-nine years old, I might be unemployable. A&R? The music business? Very exclusive, and the outside world really doesn’t understand how it works–nor does it necessarily take ex-music biz folk seriously. A&R guys seem to be thought of as frat-boys, cocaine-snorting sex-driven hipsters, not business-minded, not professional, to be avoided. So I decided to make a complete career change, moved away, and started working in real estate.
“As for Semisonic, by the end of the Chemistry cycle, they were emotionally drained. Dan was writing songs that weren’t in the Semisonic style–softer, singer-songwriter stuff, and he’d begun working on a solo record. I think they just wanted to rest. MCA killed the golden goose. I don’t blame the guys for hanging it up after what they’d gone through with Chemistry. They deserved better; they’d made an excellent record, which I still love and adore to this day. But this industry–it changes people, it makes you hate what you love, and sometimes, when you love something so much, sometimes you have to walk away for the sake of that love.”
He pauses, in reflection on the band he worked with. “Dan–I can’t begin to describe that man’s songwriting. Is there any surprise that he’s written hit records for others? (Two of his co-written songs, The Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Adele’s “Someone Like You” have been international, Grammy-winning hits.) John, he’s doing his thing and happy with his life, making music and working with musicians, and Jake– he’s a brilliant, funny musician and arranger and a great writer. I was nervous to read his book, but I did…and loved it! And I read it again..and then again…and then again and again,” laughs Haedelt. “He’s a great writer, and as great a songwriter as Dan, which can be evidenced by his songs on Chemistry.”
“Semisonic should have been like the Beatles; they really were at that level. Look at their three albums; each one is a great record, but each one is distinctively different from the other two. It’s a shame the world didn’t recognize their greater talent, it’s a shame a shit record label didn’t recognize the jewel they had, and it’s a shame that this industry killed such a great group. But at least those records are out there, waiting for people to discover them.”