Prior to Saturday's Hotel Cafe Tour at the Avalon Theater, Stu and I had a chance to sit down and chat for a few minutes with Dan Wilson. For those of you unfamiliar with Dan's work, he's the lead singer of the 90's alternative band, Semisonic (and Trip Shakespeare). He has also produced a number of albums in the recent past, including Mike Doughty's Golden Delicious and Absentstar's Sea Trials. He also co-wrote a grammy winning song with the Dixie Chicks!
The only real downfall to the experience was that my damn camera decided to die, so no photos.
Obviously, we were quite thrilled with the opportunity to speak with Dan. Hope you enjoy it!
Kraig: Well, I guess let’s get this thing started! I got a hold of a couple of albums you’ve been producing recently: Mike Doughty’s Golden Delicious and Absentstar’s Sea Trials. I know you’ve done some work in bands with Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic and now your solo work but I don’t really know how you got into the production side of things - how did that all work out?
Dan: It was kind of ass-backwards, actually. I had this idea that, not like an original idea but a notion, that I wanted to be writing songs for other people’s records. I had this idea in about 1998. I suddenly started telling people “I wanna write with other people, I wanna put my songs on other people’s records”, because I always had all these extra songs.
You know, if you’re in a band you get to put out 12 songs every two years - maybe. Maybe a couple of b-sides. If you’re prolific (which I was really trying to be prolific at the time) it’s frustrating to have this limited number of slots. It’s like one song every two months is how it works out. So I was noisily telling people that I wanted to write for other people’s albums.
As I was doing that I started to write with other people I found that the music business people would be very literal about the demos I’d give them. They’d say “yeah, we were kind of hoping for something with drums” And in my mind I’d think “Yeah, you could probably put drums with this and it would be really great. That’s how it always works, you sing the song and then the drummer plays.” I learned after talking to people and laughing about it with my friends, was that you had to make a demo that would sound like the record - then they could copy it exactly and then it would get released. So, I realized that to be this “songwriter to the world” I’d have to learn how to produce albums.
So then I went to Sweden and Norway and I worked with some amazing producers there. Since they were “digital world” producers they were very open with their tricks. Analog engineers and producers are very secretive it’s kind of a “I have a little box under the table, you can’t see it” type of a thing. Computer culture is all about “information is free” and I’ll just tell you how to do it - so everyone just taught me how to do it. I went around for about a year - I went to England and I want to CA for a while. I made demos and wrote songs with people and learned how to do it. So the next time I started writing songs with people, like Mike Doughty, I would say, “Okay, let’s make a version so you know what it’s going to be like”. With Mike, when he and I wrote together we wrote “American Car” and “Your Misfortune” and those demos are basically what’s on the album. We added a few things, but once we did those couple of tracks, Mike was saying “Why don’t I just have you produce the record? This could be pretty simple”. So, it’s kind of ass-backwards but that was how it happened.
Kraig: That’s kind of funny because I remember following Semisonic for a while and all of sudden Semisonic wasn’t doing a lot, then out of the blue I’d see a Dan Wilson produced album!
Dan: It was funny, all 3 of us in the band, we took our last recording with MCA - we didn’t know it would be the last recording, but it turned out to be the last recording -“All About Chemistry”. We really just turned that into a playground and learned how to make a record. We were really hands on because they were too sterile or not lively enough. We learned a lot about how to make sure it still feels lively.
Kraig: Yeah, it’s definitely an art
Dan: Well, it’s not for everybody either.
Stu: I know you won the grammy last year - congratulations on that. I was wondering, when you’re writing for someone else do you write a song with someone to sing it in mind or do you just write a song and think “maybe these guys” afterwards?
Dan: Well I’ve actually done it both ways and it turns out that currently my favorite thing is to get together with someone and write with them. I’ve found that when I’m writing for someone else I really want it to sound like them. i want it to sound like their concerns and their phrasing and their attitude about the world. I think if I just wrote a song on my own and sent it, it would work, but to me it’s more fun to be the guy who’s gently helping the person to achieve their own idea of a what a song should be. I especially think for me that it’s okay to do now because I can make my own records and stand on stage and have an audience, so I have my own outlet. When I go in to collaborate with someone else I can be in a really, really helpful, low ego mode. Which is fun, you know - less stress.
Kraig: Here’s a random question for you! Outside the venue here we noticed that there’s a handful of Canucks out there. They traveled 14 hours to get here. I guess this is the closest you’ve come to Calgary on the tour. Do you get a whole lot of people following you around from that kind of distance or do you get a whole lot of people following you from show-to-show on this particular tour?
Dan: Wow - I think if I were kinder I would just play more shows that were closer to them. Definitely, on this tour, because everyone has an audience and there’s people who will snap up tickets, it’s been tricky for people to get tickets in time for any particular show. It’s just harder to get the seats. Like in Minneapolis I know lots of people went to Chicago or Madison because they sold out slower so there was an element of people traveling around. I think that may be an extreme amount of distance and time though. I hope I sing really well.
Kraig: Definitely give a shout out to those guys - that’s a hell of a trip.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, definitely. That’s amazing. I think also it’s been quite a long time since I played in a lot of places. I’ve done a lot of gigs in Minneapolis in the past several years. I’ve played in New York a lot or if not a lot, several times. I’ve played in LA regularly but I haven’t done a whole lot else in between.
Kraig: Honestly, I’m not sure you’re missing a whole lot.
Dan: No, no it’s actually good. It’s interesting, I took a walk today and walked to the Valley Fair Mall. There was a scrap-booking nook, Willey’s bail-bonds, Amigo Insurance Company. It was a very strip-mall, industrial thing - not the most picturesque scene on the ground. But ringing around the view there’s a 360 degree view of unbelievable mountains and I was completely transported by it. I was walking through what in Minneapolis would be flat version of that, nothing transcendent about it.
It’s also good to get to other places. Minnesota culture is real different from everyone else and it’s good to be reminded that I’m not like everyone else and it’s not the same everywhere. You have to be able to relate to people. So it’s good to get out of the house.
Kraig: So you like being on the road?
Dan: I do, it soothes me. I have a wife and an 11 year old daughter, so it’s harder to leave, there’s a little pain every time. But then you get on the bus and get into the mode...
Kraig: Stu got his hands on a copy of a live show you did in Dallas of last year. You told a story about Closing Time that I totally wasn’t expecting - is that song really about your daughter?
Dan: It’s really a giant pun about being bounced from a bar and being bounced from the womb. I thought it was going to be pretty obvious to people when I wrote it but it turns out no one got it. I guess I was too clever.
Kraig: I didn’t get it, that’s for sure.
Dan: Well, you’re not alone! I still have this philosophy that you shouldn’t explain songs too much because I’ve almost never been happy with an explanation of a song by an artist. By not happy I mean that it’s never been as good as what I thought it was about. If a friend asked me “what’s such-and-such song about” in private, I’d probably tell them, but I feel like it’s almost in imposition on the listener if I tell them what the song is about. Now, I kind a figured that enough time has passed and Closing Time is a little landmark on culture somewhere and it’s not going anywhere, so I feel like I have a right to talk about it. It’s almost like it’s not my song anymore - I can put my gloss on it, I can put my own wiki on my own song but it’s going to get erased by everyone else’s.
Stu: Speaking of Closing Time, after it became a hit did you feel a lot of pressure from your label to match that and write another “Closing Time”?
Dan: Yeah, yeah - here’s the deal with that. That was kind of difficult. I had a friend in the music business, a really smart guy who really loved “The Great Divide” - Semisonic’s first album. That album didn’t sell well and I had really thought it was very commercial. I was really trying to write singles on that album. I thought FNT, Delicious and If I Run were all singles. I guess they were but they just didn’t click. Maybe the time wasn’t right. This friend of mine, Jim Barber told me when I was venting to him that the way to succeed in music is to make the same album twice.
Dan: Yeah. I thought that was really interesting too. He said “Just write a bunch of great songs and if there’s things on the last album that you did and you really liked them, just do them again”. I thought that was a real interesting approach. The only thing I really changed was I decided I was going to make it a big “art project” and I wasn’t going to worry about singles or commercial success. I was going to put that out of my mind. I just treated The Great Divide as a template for an art project and improved it.
So, Feeling Strangely Fine was fixing what was wrong with the other record, but kind of doing it again but totally as an art project. Then it was a huge success! I knew after that the the thing to do would be to do it again, but I couldn’t do it “again, again”. I didn’t have it in me. I’d already done it again and I did it with sort of an an art project attitude, not thinking about success.
I think Semisonic almost had a backlash with All About Chemistry. We kind of let our more nerdy sides show in a big way and let it all be more keyboardy. It was a whole different vibe. I think that was because I may have been rebelling against the idea of writing another song about a bar or something.
It was interesting because then I had an interesting experience with Rick Rubin while doing my solo album because I sensed that he was almost avoiding listening to or talking about Semisonic. It was like he wanted it to be a completely fresh start, we weren’t going to be referencing or comparing. It wouldn’t be a sequel of any kind.
Stu: Just a different thing completely?
Dan: Yeah, just “what you’d do alone”. That was a really beautiful thing. I think next I should just do Free Life again! It just seems to me like I’ve figured out a lot of stuff. I’ll fix what was broken on Free Life - I haven’t figured out what it is yet, but eventually I’ll have some criticisms about it and I’ll just write it again. It’ll be a nice little repetitive cycle of life.
Kraig: It seems that lot of times when a songwriter is working with a band for a while they end up with some songs that “don’t fit” with the band. Were the songs you recorded for Free Life older songs that didn’t quite work with Semisonic, or was this all new stuff?
Dan: Well, that’s close. All during the period of time I was writing Free Life I was thinking “If I write a song that sounds like Semisonic, I’ll ask those guys to cut it with me”, but it just didn’t happen. I kept writing Golden Girl or All Kinds or Free Life. I kept writing songs that didn’t sound like the band. They weren’t cast-offs before, it was just quite clear that something was happening that wasn’t related to that band, so I just had to do this other thing.
A DJ put me on the spot recently and said “So the title Free Life, does that mean you’re free of your band mates, John and Jake?”. I was horrified! I hope they don’t think that’s what I meant by it at all. “Oh, I’m so tired of them” or whatever. We’re still friends, we get along great and we do stuff together.
Kraig: They were on the album too, right?
Dan: Yeah, they played on the album. It’s a funny thing. I hadn't really thought about it. It’s probably my sub-conscience rebelling against them.
Kraig: Do you think you’re going to play with or record another album with them again?
Dan: I would like to. I’ve been thinking about it. I was out of the song-writing flow for about a year. I decided to change some things on Free Life right before it got released so it was kind of a really stressful 6 month period and the label was mad because I was changing things. I was adding songs and they thought it was all wrapped up. They had every reason to be irritated. But I wasn’t in a song-writing flow. I was producing Absentstar and Mike Doughty and finishing my record. I was not in the “outer-space” feeling I need to be in as a writer.
There’s this weird thing I relate it to. I’ve never been pearl diving before but I’ve been snorkeling at twilight. With song-writing it feels to me like the world is almost unrelated to your life and you need to have time in the day to dive down into that. There can’t be anyone asking for stuff or coming around. You can come up maybe an hour later or maybe right away with something great or something unexpected. To me, that’s what it really feels like. For me, I have to set my life up to do that. So right now I’ve just cleared the decks, I just finished Jeremy Mastersmith who I was producing and I just finished the new Standards album. All of my promises are kept now I have nothing now.
Kraig: So now it’s Dan time?
Dan: Yeah, so now I’m going to do a lot of “diving”. I’ll go down into that dark part of my mind and find things and bring them back up. My heart wants to make a new solo record right away but I’ll just have to figure that out when the songs come. I might write a whole bunch of songs that are for other people to sing, I don’t know. But I hope I can do another solo record really quick.
Stu: Since you were just talking about the songs just “coming to you”. Is that how it is? Do you just kind of wait for it? I’ve never really written music or anything so I wonder if when you write a song is it something that’s coming at that time or do you have to “nudge it” out?
Dan: It’s a combination. Those are both true. For me, there's labor in it and I have to be in ‘the mode”. It’s that distracted, slightly melancholy state of mind. I have to be trying to write songs. Most of them suck. Usually by a surprising or a backdoorish way a real idea will come and because I’m in that “song capturing” mode, it’s easy. If a great idea comes that’s really inspiring it’s like it comes into your mind from the side and it presents itself and I think “whoa”. Since I’m in that labor-intensive mode of writing it’s not effort anymore. I just go, “boom”, and then it’s done. It’s kind of weird because I’d like my best songs to be the ones I work the hardest on but that’s not true.
Dan: Yeah, it’s the ones that I’m walking down the street or waiting for a cab and I take out my memo thing and sing, then I put it back. A week later I’ll think “Oh, what was that thing I put in my memo?” and I listen and think “Fuck, that was great!”. So I can’t really savor the process. There’s no, “Oooo, I’m writing a great song” about it.
Stu: It’s over before you know it, huh?
Dan: Yeah, it’s over before you know it. It’s not even like you’re a participant. It’s more like you’re an observer - it’s almost like you’re not even there. You get all music-y and then it’s over. Mostly for me, I end up saying “How did I do that? I can never do that again! That was the last song!” It’s neurotic, I know. But it’s funny, it’s both - it’s conscious effort and then just inspired accidents. My wife can tell. I’ll be talking to her and then she’ll say something interesting and I’ll get this distant look in my eye. I’m trying to pay attention to what she’s saying and she’ll ask “Are you writing something?”
Kraig: You’ve been doing the “solo thing” right now. You’ve done the “band thing” with Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare. You’ve been the record producer and the co-writer. Which aspect are you enjoying most right now?
Dan: Well, this tour has been really fun. It’s been a particularly special setup with a lot of talent in one bus. It’s a pretty low ego-level scene on the bus, it’s pretty cool. Everyone is really clever and really talented. It’s really fun to be in this setting. I’m really, really savoring it and loving it a lot. It’s my last day on the tour and I’ve just been trying to drink it up. At the moment I’m really loving touring and playing for people.
It might also just be an element of getting tired of one thing and you get to go to your distraction or switch to something else. Like, “Oh, I’m sick of this I’m going to go produce an album” or something. Do you guys have dogs?
Kraig: I’ve had one, but not for a while.
Stu: I’ve had one too.
Dan: Could you picture this in your mind? A dog lying down in one of those doggy beds the ones with the big round pillows. The dog gets on the pillow then goes around and around and around. Just circling and circling. It starts to lie down, then gets up and goes around and around. It takes forever and you just want to hit it on the butt to get it to sit down. To me, songwriters are that way. They’ll think “Oh, the lighting is too bright I’ll adjust the lighting. Ah, perfect! Oh, maybe my electric would be good here” and they’ll run upstairs rand get the guitar. “Oh, maybe I should get a Starbucks”. It’s this circling, circling, circling thing. Lots of times you end up writing a song on the way to Starbucks.
I try to keep myself in this distracted state - I don’t do it consciously but for me, as an artist, I like that distracted state. I like having the option of working on different kinds of things. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, when and if it arises, of writing more songs with the Dixie Chicks. I have to make sure that I don’t over-serve myself with co-writing because I want to be excited about that. I don’t want to get greedy about any one thing because I want to maintain that feeling of excitement about whatever it is I’m working on right now.
Kraig: Well, I don’t think we’ll take anymore of your time. Thanks so much for sitting down with us - we really appreciate it!
Dan: No problem, I hope this makes for a good piece!
Kraig: Thanks again - we’ve both been big fans for a long time. Good luck tonight!
Buy some music from Dan Wilson: Amazon | iTunes
Visit Dan online: Official | Myspace
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