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Semisonic Drummer Pens Memoir

By Simon W. Vozick-levinson, Crimson Staff Writer

When alums run through the luminous list of famous names who have passed through Harvard’s ivied halls, a few rockers sneak in among the Supreme Court justices, laurelled writers and high-ranking politicians: Bonnie L. Raitt ’72, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ’86 and Weezer frontman and sometime Harvard student Rivers Cuomo all did time by the Charles. But few would likely mention Jacob H. Slichter ’83-’84, whose years in the music industry have left him far from a household name—and yet, as the drummer for power-pop trio Semisonic, Slichter has left his own indelible mark on listeners’ minds.

Remember “Closing Time”? Those are Slichter’s insistently-shaken maracas in the first verse of the tuneful 1998 hit, his exploding backbeat charging the song from the moment the first chorus hits. Fellow alum and bandmate Daniel D. Wilson ’83, meanwhile, propels the number—which he wrote along with most of Semisonic’s three-album catalog—with his high-pitched earnestness.

For a time, as most current undergrads began to navigate high school, “Closing Time” and a follow-up single or two made Slichter’s band positively ubiquitous, in a faceless kind of way. You’d never recognize them on the street, but it was their tune whistling in the background of countless malls and dances. Just as quickly, of course, the fickle charts dropped Semisonic, and critical acclaim could do little to keep the trio in the spotlight.

Now, with a recently-published memoir of his still-unfinished musical career getting raves in venues including The New York Times, the Washington Post and Playboy, Slichter is making one more bid for the public’s attention.

FASCINATING NEW THING

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 (Broadway Books, $21.95), based on online road diaries Slichter penned while Semisonic toured, opens a good-humored conversation about an often overlooked side of fame. Neither dominating pop culture for any substantial amount of time nor laboring away without any success, Semisonic and Slichter have walked a much more subtle path. The stories he has to tell of the music business’ endless convolutions are not quite sordid, but neither are they ever boring—Slichter’s voice is vicariously thrilling at the highs even as it chronicles the maddeningly banal roadblocks to chart domination.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Slichter has a unique take on the nature of fame. After all, the subject’s been on his mind his days as a joint concentrator in Afro-American studies and history at Harvard in the early 1980s.

Back then, he remembers spending his free time playing in “a lot of sort of funk cover bands,” with a sometimes-unfocused eye towards the stars.

“I wanted to be the most critically and commercially successful person I could be,” Slichter recalls when reached by phone at his New York home. “My plan, to the extent I had one, was—‘Well, I’ll just be really special and that will somehow work out to me being successful.’ It doesn’t quite work out that way.”

It would be years before Slichter left his post-grad day jobs to join John Munson and freshman-week friend Wilson in the band that would become Semisonic. Still, by senior year at Harvard he had hit on two-thirds of the Semisonic formula, playing gigs with Wilson and another in The Floating World, which Slichter recalls now as an Anglophile act “with a sort of r-and-b approach on the drums.”

The Floating World didn’t take Slichter far upstream, though, and he says he spent most of his years in Cambridge watching a “pretty lame” music scene at the College go by with occasional highlights. An extra year studying jazz composing and arranging at the Berklee College of Music, he says, turned out to be “more like a boot camp for musicians.”

Slichter’s memories of academics by the Yard are no rosier. He recalls rewarding hours of study on topics including intellectual history—reserving high praise for Trumbull Professor of History emeritus Donald Fleming, Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies Werner Sollors and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes. But in his memoir, Slichter refers to the College as “a place for which I was poorly prepared and which in every regard…annihilated my self-confidence.”

A part of one of the first classes subject to the Core Curriculum, Slichter says now that those requirements were the least of his worries.

“If there was a controversy I never heard about it,” Slichter says. “You have to fill in your squares across the bingo board, and the Core is one of then, so just shut up and do it. I went through Harvard in such an academic daze that none of that affected me one way or the other.”

And when it came to his final project, about African-American literature, Slichter says he barely got by.

“My thesis was basically laughed out of its binder holdings by the professors who were grading,” he says now. “They very politely allowed me to graduate with honors.”

Even Slichter’s memories of the housing process are less than idyllic. In the days before randomization, he recalls, his blocking group was placed in the “abandoned, musty, dusty” North House—later renamed and renovated into Pforzheimer House—by a chance mishap.

“We felt there was one place that was even worse, and we stupidly put [North] down as our third choice,” he says. “The computer was licking its chops when it saw we had put it anywhere on our list.”

Still, Slichter—true to his modus operandi of finding silver linings when they’re least expected—says there was a peculiar kind of solidarity to the House that he remembers as “the gardening tool shed in the back” of campus.

“The one nice thing about North House was, the only thing anyone had in common was bad luck,” he says.

OPEN ALL THE DOORS

Now, three years after their most recent album, Slichter says his group’s future is up in the air. Slichter recently contributed to a solo album being recorded by his old bandmate and Harvard pal Wilson, as did Munson, but he says he has no idea if the three will return to the studio as Semisonic any time soon.

He’s sure, though, that he won’t be setting out again without Wilson and Munson.

“It’s really hard to imagine getting out on the road with another band,” Slichter says. “I just feel really they’re like brothers…We have that kind of relationship where we don’t even have to say anything to each other.”

So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star spends many pages talking about the many months it took to get a recording contract. When it came to landing a book deal, Slichter says he found much more immediate results with a proposal for the memoir.

“I printed it out and [my agent] sent it out on a Thursday afternoon, and by noon Monday I had a book deal,” he says.

Then again, Slichter says, the book industry is a lot less glamorous than the world of music. When he embarks on a 12-date book tour—kicking it off with an appearance in Brooklyn yesterday, and looking forward to a July 19 event at WordsWorth Books in the Square—Slichter will eschew the big buses of his days in Semisonic to drive himself city to city.

And though it’s too soon to say how long he’ll stay in this part of the entertainment industry, Slichter is approaching authordom with the same wry optimism that got him through the Semisonic rollercoaster.

“It’s going to be performing again, which I’ve missed, but a very different kind of performing, and one where I’m very much in the spotlight as opposed to the edge of the spotlight,” Slichter says of the book tour. “I suppose it will be higher pressure, but then the potential for fun is also higher.”

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.

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