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Altered State

Dan Wilson on Semisonic’s First Music in 19 Years, Solving Songwriting ‘Puzzle’

Photo: Steven Cohen

With his 2004 memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter offered an unflinching look back at the band’s sudden whirlwind of success with their 1998 hit “Closing Time.” It’s the kind of intimate, rear view perspective that frontman Dan Wilson could never commit to undertaking. 

“I’m the least reminisce-y person,” he tells SPIN“I’m just not nostalgic and don’t really reminisce.” 

Wilson has maintained a forward-facing ethos over the past decade-plus: After the band’s 2001 record, All About Chemistry, he developed a second career as a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer, working with the likes of the Chicks, Adele, Taylor Swift and Pink. Still, his band’s past has never strayed far. 

He jokingly admits how Semisonic bassist John Munson has approached him every two to three years during this intervening period to suggest how great it would be for the group to record again. “Every time I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea,’” Wilson says. “But then whenever I tried to write songs for the band, it just has never sounded right.”

However, in 2017, after a serendipitous attempt to write music for OasisLiam Gallagher, Wilson says “it finally happened” – he found himself with a handful of tracks that could actually work as Semisonic songs. “If [Liam] had cut them, he would have made them his own,” says Wilson. “But really, they sounded way more like Semisonic – so much more. Later, when I realized it, I almost laughed out loud.” 

Building off this foundational creative breakthrough, Wilson, Slichter and Munson reunited in the studio for the first time in over 18 years. The resulting EP, You’re Not Alone, is expected to be just their first sampling of new material. In anticipation of the release, Wilson discussed the musical properties of a Semisonic song, his enduring relationship with Slichter and Munson and the malleable definition of “side hustle.”

SPIN: One of things I admire a lot about you is that you never broke up the band. You had to step away from it to take care of your daughter. You needed to step into a different role for her. And because the band never officially “broke up,” you never had to endure that stereotypical aftermath of resentment and damaged egos that a lot of bands have to overcome to even think about reuniting.
Wilson: You have to keep in mind that we never became ex-friends nor fell out of touch in any way with each other. I’ve spent serious time with John and Jake a couple times a year every single year. John and his family and my family have gotten together very consistently, and it’s the same with Jake. Our impressions of each other are so updated. So when we got together amid the new music, we were very much in the moment, up to date with each other. We knew what was happening intimately in our lives and didn’t need to catch up. It was much more a matter of just dropping into the musical experience.

It became more a matter of timing and having patience. 
Yeah. I think we would have come back together earlier if I had kind of magically solved the weird puzzle of writing songs like that again. But it just took me a while. I had to ignore it for a while, I think – or fail at it for a while – in order to just carelessly or casually be able to have a few things happen by accident. 

You mentioned that one of biggest hurdles for you was just being able to write a song that sounded like Semisonic. So what exactly does a Semisonic song sound like from your perspective?
Well, when we were first starting, I was very aware that when John and Jake played together, there was a certain kind of groove that happened. Jacob had played in basically funk bands all through high school. It was just a little bit different than rock. When John and Jake play together, it’s got this swing that’s not of typical rock bands. And when Semisonic was playing festivals with grunge bands, it was obvious there was a kind of bounce to it. And we were willing to just let the beat go on and on in a way, that the pounding downwards striking feeling of grunge rock. I also think in my lyrics there’s always been a kind of hopefulness — even if it’s a sad song. There’s a kind of a hopeful feeling or a kind of backlight, as if it’s like a movie, when there’s a little bit of a backlit feeling about the songs, even if there’s a shadow in the front.

Another thing is a kind of partnership vision of relationships. A lot of the songs are about relationships, but they’re not classic romance, smitten, one-sided emotions or things like that. It’s more about a sense of partnership, and that seems to be a thread if I thought about it. And then finally — and this is more a me thing or contrast to other music I’ve written — the best Semisonic songs you literally could learn in high school and play in your garage. There’s no what a friend of mine calls “posh chords.” You don’t need to change keys. I think the best ones are where you think, “I could definitely play this at a talent show in junior high.”

It’s fair to say you’ve gotten to enjoy a whole second career as this behind-the-scenes songwriter and producer. How do you feel that second life has impacted your perception of Semisonic? 

I love that question. I really have to almost preface any answer, just by saying this second career, this second phase was something that I really, really visualized a lot. I really visualized becoming a writer, like Carole King, for other people. And then I learned that you had to produce your own demos. So I had to have this dream of being a producer because you needed to present your songs properly for people to understand them. But when I kind of concocted those dreams, they were always going to be my side hustle on Semisonic. And then when the band ran out of steam and ghosted the world, I feel like my side hustle turned into the main focus. 

But I feel like when I was cooking up the notion of being a songwriter for other people, I really didn’t picture that several of the songs I did in that process would blow up to be so big. I kind of thought I would pump out cool-sounding stuff like Stephen Street or Steve Lillywhite, as a body of work — something life-changing but not gigantic, evergreen songs.

So is Semisonic becoming your side hustle again, only to turn into the main thing?
It is! Exactly! That’s exactly what’s happening! It’s a kind of unexpected treat. We’re on the radio in a way I didn’t expect to happen. The songs are going to have some kind of impact. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s nice to know that people are hearing them.