Semisonic Plays With 'Chemistry'

Chemistry may be difficult to define, but that unseen spark that creates an electric attraction between elements is undeniably crucial to a band's sound and, ultimately, its success.

Chemistry may be difficult to define, but that unseen spark that creates an electric attraction between elements is undeniably crucial to a band's sound and, ultimately, its success.

Semisonic has already proved it's got that special something that connects a band with an audience. "Closing Time," the 1998 top-20 hit about those last minutes before a bar closes shop, apparently struck a chord with the many who have experienced "last-call desperation."

Thanks to its insistent piano tinklings and bittersweet lyrics, the song helped take the Minneapolis trio's "Feeling Strangely Fine" to No. 43 on The Billboard 200 and platinum status, earned a Grammy nomination for best rock song, and has also hit the top-20 in regions as far away as Singapore and South Africa.

With Semisonic's new album -- "All About Chemistry" (MCA), released Tuesday (March 13) -- fans, in a sense, get to hear about what happened in those hours before the tavern closed or the party broke up for the night.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dan Wilson says someone told him that "Chemistry" sounds as if it could be the prequel to "Feeling Strangely Fine," and he agrees with the analogy.

"I feel like 'Feeling Strangely Fine' sounds like somebody sitting alone in the wreckage and debris and sorting out, 'What the hell just happened? It's four in the morning, and I'm sitting here alone, and I'm still trying to sort out the crazed events of the night,'" Wilson explains. "I had really wanted 'All About Chemistry' to be more like the crazed events as they're happening -- the party itself, not the aftermath."

Bassist John Munson and drummer Jacob Slichter are the other two musicians responsible for bringing Semisonic's brand of mellow pop/rock to life. For this album, Slichter doubled as the arranger and conductor of the chamber orchestra that graces a few of its songs. Munson sings the cut "Who's Stopping You?" and contributes trombone and guitar to other pieces.

Wilson's talent for using simple yet poignant turns of phrase remains the same: A key example is "Get a Grip," a reggae-like tune whose lyrics contain witty double-entendres about what exactly listeners are supposed to get a grip on. First single "Chemistry" is a lighthearted rock jingle that sings about "nothing but good intentions and a bad tendency to get burned" when two people are trying to make a connection with each other.

"What's funny to me is that when people tell me that something I write is clever and then they quote it back to me, it always sounds like just normal, everyday conversation," Wilson says about his lyrics. "It's interesting to me that the things that sort of strike people the most are the ones that could almost be quoted from somebody walking past. It could be just part of somebody making a crack or somebody making a comment."

Semisonic got to work with a writer whose best-known hit made a mundane situation sound momentous: the legendary Carole King ("It's Too Late"). Wilson had wanted to write a song with someone outside the modern rock genre, and John Titta from Warner/Chappell (Semisonic's publisher) suggested her.

"I asked her if she wanted to do it, and she said it sounded cool to her," Wilson recalls. "Of course, I fell off my chair, 'cause I hadn't said, 'Oh, find me a living legend to write a song with,' you know? I think the best part is she's a wonderful human being. I was extremely taken with her, and honestly, there's much to admire in what she's done. But she radiates such grace and humor. It was so cool, and we got a damn good song out of it, too."

That song is "One True Love," a ballad on par with "Closing Time" about a hopeful romantic who has always wanted to leave a party on the arm of the woman of his dreams. King also duets with Wilson and contributes electric piano on the track.

"Chemistry" was produced by the band, a process Wilson says was definitely a challenge. "There's an organizational element that a good producer brings to [a project] that seems natural," he says. "It doesn't get in the way, but it keeps things kind of more sane. And then there were times when I had to believe in myself a lot more than I wanted to. I want to be able to have my doubts. I mean, if I have an idea, and everybody thinks it's stupid, it might be because it's stupid, and it might be that it just sounds stupid. I'd love to be able to sort of entertain those doubts also. Because we didn't have a producer in there, I had to be maybe more steely about things. With a producer, you can kind of be looser that way."

Wilson says he is proud of "Feeling Strangely Fine," but "Chemistry" is "more of a treat for me almost, despite all the twists and turns of the process. And sometimes we felt like we were never going to finish, in that it would always be work and never be music, and for it to turn out as sort of stunningly close to what I was dreaming of was a wonderful feeling."

Semisonic kicked off promoting "Chemistry" by touring the U.K. in February with Scottish pop act Texas, playing two dates at London's Wembley Arena prior to the set's Feb. 19 release in Britain. Another nice boost to the band's profile was a mid-January performance at the Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah, which was simulcast on the Web. A four- to six-week large-club tour of the U.S. starts this month.

The single "Chemistry" shipped to modern adult, alternative, triple-A, and adult top-40 stations Jan. 8. A videoclip directed by Liz Friedlander (Blink-182, R.E.M.) is being sent to all major video outlets, MCA VP of marketing Paul Orescan says.

"I think the strongest thing about marketing the band is radio," Orescan notes, adding that although some alternative stations may hesitate to pick up the "Chemistry" single because harder-edged rock currently dominates radio, "there's always a demand for a smart, well-written song, and Semisonic does that. [The band is] brilliant at tapping into human emotions.