In the mid-'90s, Semisonic Shopped Their Single to Top 40 Stations, Answered Idiotic Interview Questions, Played Countless On-Air Jams, and Ended Up Feeling Like They Got Played--Even When Their Album Didn't. In Jacob Slichter's New Book, the Drummer Explains Why.
Daniel Corrigan for City Pages
MCA's goal was toget "Down in Flames" on the radio six weeks or more before the release date of our album--standard procedure. This allows time for listeners to hear a song enough times to get excited about it so that they rush out and buy the album during the important opening weeks of sales. Our album's release date was scheduled for early April, so MCA's target "add-date" of "Down in Flames" was mid-February. (In the world of radio, "add" can be used as both a verb and a noun referring to a song's addition to a station's playlist--for example, "They're adding the song," or "We got the add." The add-date is the day on which the label hopes stations will begin to play a single.)
Two weeks before the add-date for "Down in Flames," we flew to Boston and began a cross-country campaign of station visits, hoping to line up support for our single. Our chaperones for these visits were the MCA promotion staff, the locals. Each of the locals was based in a big city and covered a several-hundred-mile radius of territory. His or her job was to get MCA singles added to the stations in that region. The Boston local was an old pro who covered every station in New England. The San Francisco local was a former DJ who covered a huge swath of terrain all the way to Vegas. As far as I could tell, being a local was miserable work, where most of the day was spent behind the steering wheel, driving to stations, handing off new CDs from MCA's bands, schmoozing with the station bigwigs, and then driving to the next station while answering cell-phone calls from the impatient bosses in Los Angeles.
We met most of these locals at five in the morning. They would pick us up at our motel to drive us to the first station of the day for an interview in an on-air acoustic performance. As we opened our eyes to the predawn light, we'd ride down the vacant highways of some big city and toward a distant radio tower, sipping coffee and eating donuts thoughtfully provided by the local. The local, always one cup of coffee ahead of us, would give us a sketch of what awaited us. "This first station's the big alternative station in town. They haven't added 'Down in Flames' yet, but I'm working on them. This interview is gonna help."
At 5:30 a.m., we'd pull into the station lot and park, often next to a Humvee painted with the station's call letters. Then we'd yawn one last time before following the local through the station doors, past the receptionist, who knew the local by name, and down the hallways. Dan carried his acoustic guitar, and John lugged his electric bass and a small practice amp. I would scan the hallways for an empty water-cooler jug or a wastebasket that I could turn upside down and convert into a makeshift drum for our on-air acoustic performance. After snaking through the hallways to the back of the station, the local held open the door to the broadcast studio and we'd walk in, greeted by a wave from the DJ who was introducing the next song, shuffling CDs, and punching buttons to play and eject them in proper order. Within a couple of minutes, we were on the air.
We had been on the radio in Minneapolis a few times, and having seen Dan and John handle interviewers' questions, I had learned a lot. Being so well acquainted with my bandmates, I gleaned beyond their easy manner a certain delicacy in their answers. For instance, when asked to list our influences, Dan and John never mentioned the Beatles. Though we, like a majority of the musicians we knew, were intimately familiar with everything the Beatles had ever recorded, for interview purposes it was apparently better to name artists less likely to pigeonhole us--Elvis Costello and the Clash, for example. During the next interview, answering the same question, Dan and John might list other influences--Joni Mitchell and the Jam, perhaps--so we wouldn't be too strongly associated with a particular artist, I gathered. Only years later did I discover the truth: What looked to me like carefully managed answers were usually nothing more than random workings of my bandmates' brains.
The interview proceeded. "So, Dan, you guys are up awfully early this morning."
"We're on a whirlwind schedule right now, so we aren't getting much sleep." Whirlwind schedule was good. In reality, we were an unknown band who had actually come to this studio at this awful hour in hopes of ingratiating ourselves to the program director.
"How would you describe your music for our listeners?"