Dan Wilson — frontperson for Semisonic, songwriter, GRAMMY winner, illustrator, and Harvard graduate. At this stage of the music industry game, Semisonic's body of work is instantly recognizable ("Closing Time" — yes, you can hear those opening piano notes, right?) and Wilson as an in-demand collaborator, working with everyone from Adele to newcomer Claud. Yet one of the most unusual aspects of a band — with bassist/keyboardist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter — is re-emerging full force into the swing of things and getting that new sound — Little Bit Of Sun, which dropped November 3rd — in front of an appreciative crowd. Not that Wilson has qualms about touring again...
You took a period of time off from touring and now you're getting back in. How has your body taken that?
You know, I've been traveling and making music, solo and with friends for different purposes, during the gap of Semisonic. Which the gap was probably between — a proper tour and this year — probably 22 years. And we've done a lot of shows together, but they've always been two or at the most, three nights.
You don't have enough time to get worn out. You don't have enough time to go to that place. When I first started touring on vans and buses, I would talk with my musician friends and everyone basically said, "Well, the secret is to get to that point of profound fatigue and then just ride along at that point for the rest of the tour." And that's very bleak and unpromising. Kind of, "Well, all you have to do is just get as tired as you possibly can be and then you can just kind of float along at that level for the rest of the time."
And I do think that that's kind of right about touring. But the band has only done short bursts of shows, a week with three shows in it, for example, in 2018 or something like that. We never had the chance to become maximally worn out and then ride it in that way. But we also didn't get the chance to get better and better with every gig, and that's what strikes me the most about this year's activity is that we actually have gotten better.
It's very strange now to have a lot of bands from your era coming back after so many years.
[Laughs] What got into our heads? Is it a strange trend, or is it something that's always happened and I'm only noticing it because I'm part of it now?
I think the question is really interesting. I have noticed a bunch of my peers from Semisonic's peak years, making new records and getting back on the road. I might be in an unusual position because Semisonic had a couple of giant hit songs. We had a circuit of gigs that we would headline around the country, and we tried to make sure to do that every year because we wanted to go directly to fans with the music. But partly because of some decisions I made about being a parent — my older daughter, Coco, is disabled and her early years were very fraught — I just couldn't be away for two-thirds of the time anymore. So we scaled back our touring because of me. Essentially during the time that "Closing Time" ascended, and great things were happening, I was less and less able to relentlessly, grindingly support the records and go on tour. We had success in the UK, in Europe and we went to Japan. That takes a lot of time and energy. I'm not complaining about it. It was amazing. But because of the limitations on my life, we didn't go all in to become a touring machine. That's a little bit unusual about us.
Secondly, the band sort of took a break and decided not to tour anymore. We were pretty burnt out on just literally the traveling and banging it out. Everyone wanted to have a life, and shortly after that, I ended up hooking up musically with Rick Rubin, who produced an album of mine [2007's Freelife]. Because it took a long time to make, he kept introducing me to people: "Oh, you should meet so-and-so." So I was writing with the Dixie Chicks and Josh Groban and writing and producing with Adele. I ended up doing what you could only call a fabulous sort of collaboration. And then I was putting out my own records in the midst of that, and that is fun, but I was certainly not paying the bills. It wasn't like I had my glory days and then things kind of died down and I was a hermit for 20 years.
If I was thinking about someone else going back to [touring], I would sort of imagine that they had gone to a real job and become a school teacher or sold insurance or whatever for 20 years and then they were like, "wait a minute, I want to get my musical thing going again because I missed that." But I've been in music the whole time and I didn't miss music. The main thing I missed, I think, was jamming with [bassist] John [Munson] and [drummer] Jake [Slichter.] That was something that was fun for me to contemplate getting back into.
I'm happy to write a beautiful song with Adele or Celine Dion. I think that's just great. I'm very happy to do that. But I had to get back in with the guys: Let's find a way to throw down as much as we can. That meant I had to re-learn how to write those songs and get back into it. But that was the motivation. I wanted to make some truly great rock music with the guys.
Having seen some comments for "The Rope," everybody is just ecstatic: "So glad you're back." "Love hearing this music."
That's really great to hear and it's actually important to me. But I have listened to many kinds of comeback albums and been dismayed, not even thinking that they're not trying, but it's not what I would want from them — selfishly, as a fan.
One of the things that I wanted to experiment with Semisonic this time was, I wanted to be where I am, right now as a songwriter. I didn't want to go back and try to be 1997 again. But I knew that we would sound that way when we started playing. It would just happen. And so I gave myself permission to have the lyrics be about my experience now and to have the melodies be what I continue to think of as a great melody. I don't know whether that's changed a lot. It may or may not have, but even the latest couple of U2 records, they sound more like the producer than U2 to me.
And I love U2 so much. But I know that many artists do get trampled by the producer and that's what they're in it for. But I don't like that as a fan, from anybody. I want to hear the artist with somebody producing who has a very light touch. One of the things that I wanted us to do in these recordings was cut it live, do stuff that we could envision bringing to a stage. One reason that the fans are loving "The Rope" I think, is because it's a depiction of the band. Basically sounds like us, just being righteously loud and ecstatic.
There is also an incredible slant for hopefulness and happiness. I did want to mention this: I had "The Rope" on and there's a very small bit of instrumental and I'm thinking 'This sounds so familiar.' And I'm listening closer: "Hitchin' A Ride" by Vanity Fair.
You probably meant it intentionally.
No, no. Any cops that I do are accidental. But that's an era of music that I really love — Blue Suede's "Hooked On a Feeling." It's not bubblegum, because it was almost like a professionalized niche of pop music that was bubblegum and yet those bands were touring. Whereas bubblegum was like a couple of actors and the Wrecking Crew. Writers would write the song, talent would sing the song, the Wrecking Crew would be the band. But then there was this kind of post-bubblegum rock era.
That was when I was a child and it really got in my bones, and I think that was one of my crimes against grunge, you know? Grunge had a lot of blues in it and a lot of Black Sabbath. And it was pretty obvious that Semisonic had actually zero Black Sabbath in it.
Had you done any work on the songs before the actual recording?
Oh yeah, well, like "The Rope." The lyrics are mostly me and Amy Allen. We wrote it with Eve Rothman, but we wrote it in a writing session that we didn't really know what we were writing for! We were just writing to have fun.
Amy and I have written a lot of songs together and it just took on this kind of Exile On Main Street throw-down kind of vibe. And yet the demo that I made was like a strumming acoustic guitar, probably more like the Sweet and less aggressive than the record. We were focused on the lyrics, and the lyrics have this kind of "I'm breaking up with Los Angeles" kind of undertow, which I think is really funny. It's a good, solid breakup song but it keeps talking about LA in a funny way. It's me being annoyed with Los Angeles, like a lot of people who moved here, you know.
But also, I just kept thinking this could be a Semisonic song. I'm not sure, but I couldn't figure out how to make that happen. So I did one last really great experiment, which is I gave the song to Josh Ostrander — Mondo Cosmo — because he and I have written a bunch of songs together and he's kind of a master of the soul review like "leave it all on the stage when you quit, when you're done." And I asked him "Can you make a demo of this sounding like Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street?"
He did a demo, and labeled all the different parts with the name of the musician that he was satirizing or copying. One of the tracks was labeled "Keef" and another one was labeled "Charlie." I think he might've had one on there called "Jeff Beck." It was as though he got his imagined all-star band, and he made a recording of "The Rope" for me and it has some resemblance to the Semisonic thing, but mainly it turned it from a kind of easygoing folk-rock story song into a f*****g jam!
That opened up the path and Josh gets all the credit for that. So the band learned it and we kind of made it our own, but it sounds like it's from the same neighborhood as the Josh thing.
The other thing that really threw me for a loop was the shortness of the songs.
Well, I mean, I can't help but be affected by the things around me. And I work on pop records. I was doing a track with Ricky Reed producing and Leon Bridges was the artist. The track turned out so beautifully and [Ricky] listened to it and I was like "Wait a minute, how long is that?" And he said, "It's two minutes 40 seconds." And I said, "That's the first time in a long time that I've been part of a song that's under three minutes long."
But with Semisonic we had always had like four-minute songs, and I didn't want to just do that out of force of habit. It seemed kind of exciting that a bunch of the songs don't have a bridge. A verse and a chorus and you're done. And that seemed interesting for us, given the fact that my comfort zone as a writer was maybe get it under four minutes. I think "Closing Time," on the radio edit, is like 3:45.
I was really stunned to see that.
I feel it's possible that because of my experience working with Ricky Reed and other people on pop records in the past ten years, I feel a shorter song was back on the menu for me. But as far as an aesthetic decision or an emotional decision, I wanted the words to be pretty primary: get in, say what you want to say, get out. If you're confident about the melody, you don't need to repeat it again. It's fine to just do it twice. I think that was something we thought about on the record.
John Munson has always been a proponent of removing stuff from the songs. I would try to do the Beatles thing of having two bridges. He would always go, "Let's do it with one bridge. Songs never need two bridges." And I would say, "Well, what about 'We Can Work It Out' with the Beatles?" And he goes, "No. That doesn't count!" So I think that John would never be one to press for the songs to be longer. I think we had a good meeting of minds.
I'm originally from Boston and I looked at the video for "Grow Your Own" and you're name-checking the Nervous Eaters. Then you're stealthily name-checking Aimee Mann. I was wondering how did this all come about? Were you going to talk about Willie Alexander or Mission of Burma?
I could have mentioned the Real Kids. That would have been a band that I would want to put in the song. And Mission of Burma was like, intimidatingly arty and sort of more New York than Boston to me. But I went to [see] the Young Snakes. Aimee Mann was in that band.
I wanted to see how quickly the "bass player from 'Til Tuesday" reference would get back to her. We put a clip of it on Instagram and she liked it instantly. I was actually wondering if she'll think I was teasing her to just simply call her the bass player from 'Til Tuesday, 'Cause she's obviously a lot more than that.
I did run into two of the guys from the Nervous Eaters who said they had just seen me at one of my band's shows!
You placed it in context of the time period, and also by including [vintage] videos of where you guys were going and what you were doing.
It's funny because I feel even if nobody knows what the references are, you can still tell that it's about me obsessively going to see bands and wanting to be part of that world. In the making of this album, I wasn't really afraid of nostalgia. I've just been growing and changing this whole time and probably been massively influenced by the artists I've collaborated with. But I had to think hard about whether I would want to speak about the past in the songs and I decided I did. I could have probably written it during Semisonic's '90s period. But I don't think I realized at that time how important those experiences were.
I was going to Harvard and I was taking the T down to the Rat, and seeing bands. And my freshman year, my roommate and I made some illegal but great-looking fake IDs to get into clubs. We went to see the Neighborhoods and when I was in those settings, I really wanted to be part of that. What do you have to do to be one of these people?
Those bands are the reason I've done what I did with my life and here I am. "Don't Fade Away" is a series of pictures of life happening. The north woods of Minnesota and trips that I've taken there in the past several years and going back to my homeland and reconnecting with nature. I felt like as long as I was doing some of the songs about exactly what's happening now, then I could write a song like "Grow Your Own" and kind of try to explain where I come from and why I'm doing what I do.
Here's a question: How would you feel about an AI version of your music?
Maybe someday it would happen. You could say to the computer '"Make me a new Semisonic song from 1998." And maybe it could make a great song. Maybe that's going to happen, at which point I don't think I'd be bummed. I think I'd be kind of excited, but I don't know. This is a goofy example, but Jacob Slickter writes one song for every Semisonic record, and he just is a slow songwriter but his songs are really, really good! If he could do it 10 times faster, he could write an album every couple of years.
But some of his best songs are when he tries to make fun of something, a style, almost satirical. But then we'll be like, "Yeah, but actually, that's a really great song." I've heard some things. I've heard some people cop Semisonic in a loving way but make a fake Semisonic song just for fun, and I've always enjoyed that, and so I think I probably would like it if a computer could just do my thing. I wouldn't have to do it anymore. [Pauses] It'd be kind of interesting.
There's a lot of controversy around AI music, too, because now there's potential for a song that was written by a human featuring the AI-vocals of The Weeknd and Drake to be eligible for a Grammy.
But that song is not that great, is it really? I don't think it's that good.
It's an homage.
It's provocative and super interesting and brilliantly done, but it doesn't get to me the way it should.
I think that there's a thing where it's lacking a little soul.
[Thinks a moment] Could be. Hard to say what that means. I mean, will AI music always lack soul because there is no soul there? Or will it at some point get so good that it actually has soul? I feel like much of the music we hear that we think is soulful is made by terrible people like that. Is it that they're just a brilliant musician? I think a computer could be soulful. Just has to be great.
Maybe they'll get to the point where the AIs will be making really cool songs, but the biggest fans of those songs will be other AIs. They need something they can relate to. The human music is not relatable to me because I'm an artificial intelligence and I just need something made by someone. I want to see my face, my artificialness, represented in the music, and so I only listen to artificial intelligence music because I am an AI. [Laughs]
So when the album's released, what's the sort of general plan through the end of the year?
There'll probably be some shows this year. I imagine that we'll play some shows this year that will probably be sort of some one-offs here and there. I think the spring [of 2024] will be more concentrated touring and then maybe come summer we'll do another long tour.
Do you look to pair up with other bands?
I think it would have to be somebody that we would vibe with, but I think that would be really nice. Maybe Nada Surf would do a tour with us. That would be fun.
I was thinking of the Smithereens. Marshall Crenshaw is their lead singer now.
And I just listened to a Marshall Crenshaw song in my mind, a couple of days ago, which was really fun. I think I got through the whole thing. I knew all the words. "Someday Someway." I played it on the radio in my brain and it was really awesome.
Maybe you could have a slideshow as your opening act where you have all Sweet songs in the background. Or Vanity Fair.
Yeah, just give people the reels. Let them drink from the source. [Laughs]