A Separate Peace

When Trip Shakespeare broke up, Matt Wilson marched off to war against his muse. Five years later, this exacting songwriter returns from the front with his first solo album.

"I kept trying to write with the same kind of ferocious attention, shutting myself in and writing conscientiously. But the stuff I would come up with would be crippled. Anyone would listen to it and see that it wasn't happening.

"And simultaneous to that, but not in response to that, Dan, who has always been very verbal and always kept a journal--he was starting to emerge from the rule that I wrote the words. He was starting to write songs. And eventually he and John and Jake [Slichter] started having this side project that Dan's songs would go into. And then Dan became very prolific. Like out of nowhere, all of a sudden. And he was putting some songs into Trip Shakespeare that we were playing.

"And they were good. They had his usual musical flair. The kind of fully formed how did you come up with that. They sounded like they were born in B.C., like they'd been written by God in a time forgotten. They had that usual thing, but they also had these words. And the words--they were like Semisonic words. They were really great in their own way. But they weren't really quite as well-formed...he keeps improving. And they didn't fit where I wanted to go. They weren't...umm...I didn't write them. And it was a big problem."

At this point a tangent seems to be in order: an update on the fate of Dan Wilson and John Munson's one-time side project, Semisonic, and the seeming inevitability of the commercial success of their second album on MCA Records, Feeling Strangely Fine.

The story begins when the album's first single, "Closing Time," goes into heavy rotation on the Los Angeles radio station KROQ. Subsequently, the night before I visit Matt Wilson in the South Minneapolis apartment he shares with Munson, Semisonic appears on the syndicated radio sex-advice show Loveline, featuring hosts Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla. Four days later the band delivers a somewhat jittery performance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, hosted by Andy Richter and Conan O'Brien (who, coincidentally, is a college acquaintance of Matt's).

Originally I had intended to feature Semisonic, and particularly Dan Wilson, quite prominently in this story. To that effect, I called MCA Records publicity representative Christine Wolff, who grilled me for 10 minutes about my intentions re: the potential scope and ambitions of this article; my inclination to include the history of Trip Shakespeare in the article; whether or not I had interviewed Matt Wilson and the topics raised in that interview; the other planned features in issue 907 of City Pages; and any number of topics related to what utility the article and City Pages might have for Semisonic as a breaking national act receiving heavy rotation on Los Angeles's KROQ and many other modern-rock-formatted stations.

Christine Wolff was fast on her feet and she was assertive. If I were Semisonic there is no doubt but that I would want her on my team. That said, for the next five days she would neither accept nor return my calls. When we finally spoke again a week later she explained that no one in Semisonic would be able to provide an interview for the article, and that the band had spent the preceding two days in the MTV studios recording an upcoming segment for the 120 Minutes program, hosted by the famously huggable Matt Pinfield. She said that Semisonic's first single, "Closing Time," had been added to the recently resuscitated MTV "Buzz Clips" and would be climbing from #3 to #2 on the Billboard modern-rock charts in the coming week. She said that Feeling Strangely Fine had sold 25K copies, as certified by Soundscan, since the album's release at the beginning of the month, and had reached #20 on a Billboard chart called "mainstream"--a format which I pretended to recognize. She said that it looked like Semisonic might be a hit, and I congratulated her, and by mutual assent the call was terminated.

The truth is that Christine Wolff had done me a favor. Sometime around my third or fourth call I had found myself beginning to hope that Semisonic would refuse the interview--or, as might have actually transpired, that she would do it for them. See, I had planned on writing an article about dueling ambitions and fraternal jealousies and the toll that success has taken. It was to be a moving article, all right, full of artistic differences and broken loyalties and frustrations and resentments. Maybe a pitched grudge or two. And to these ends, there is a pad on the side of my bed where late one night while listening to Lulu I scribbled the line, "I believe that Cain got a raw deal." I'll continue to stand by that assertion as a piece of Biblical interpretation, but as a framework for an article it now seems more than a bit prejudicial.

Though I'd informed Christine Wolff that I had only the noblest of intentions--I told her that the Brothers Wilson article (and that's what she called it, too) would be no opportunistic quickie--I began to have doubts about my ability to summarize the situation with any measure of truth.

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