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Interview: John Munson chats about Semisonic's new record

John Munson of Semisonic performing at The Current's 18th Anniversary Weekend on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
John Munson of Semisonic performing at The Current's 18th Anniversary Weekend on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at First Avenue in Minneapolis. Darin Kamnetz for MPR
  Play Now [13:57]

by Diane

December 05, 2023

It’s probably safe to call John Munson a comedian — not just a bassist for one of Minnesota’s most iconic rock bands, Semisonic. He’s quite the expert at humorous stage banter, as displayed in his performances with jazz trio the New Standards. Munson even cracked a few “LOL” jokes throughout this interview.

Entertainers like him carry their personality wherever they go, including Minnesota Public Radio. When Munson came in to record our interview, the man couldn’t walk two feet without getting stopped by one of our employees for some good, old-fashioned chit-chat. Yes, he also used to work part-time here.

Turns out, Munson’s charismatic persistence was a motivator in persuading lead vocalist Dan Wilson to pull together Semisonic’s first full-length record in 20-plus years. Little Bit of Sun fits right in with the rock band’s bright, upbeat “20th Century Masters” repertoire. Not to mention, Wilson’s universally themed lyricism is a focal point. Optimism, hope, love, guidance, empathy, and reflection are just a handful of subjects any open-hearted soul can pick up on.

Munson spoke candidly about the making of this record, and also opened up a bit about the music industry.

What motivated this new record?

It's hard to say. I always want to take credit for just bugging Dan (Wilson) for years. And saying like, "You know, remember that time you said, 'When I start writing Semisonic songs again, then surely we will be the band to record those songs.'" And he'll go like, "Yep. And as soon as I start writing those songs, I will definitely let you know." And that went on for many years. And I would say, among the cohort, among the Semisonics, I was someone who was most persistent and calling for that for various reasons. I'm sure anybody might think, "Oh, yeah, I think I get why you would want that to happen." But to be perfectly honest, it was not about any lucre that was going to be tucked away into the vaults below my house (laughs). But there are no vaults below my house, just in case you're thinking to, like, come over, and like, "I heard those vaults down here, just keep digging!"

For me, really, it's like, I like to play rock music. I have a lot of other things that I do with the New Standards, and I produce records with different artists. But there's something that just satisfies my soul about putting on my bass and stepping onto a stage, especially with old familiars like Dan and Jake, where I just feel so at home. And it's nice to be at home, and to just be able to tuck into that vibe. And so when Dan said, "I think I've got some tunes, and I think they're Semisonic tunes. And I think we should try and record them and see what happens." I was just thrilled. Because it just shows you, again, persist. Keep asking for the thing that you want. And maybe it'll happen.

Dan talked about how he tested these new songs to see if they were right for you and Jake – for [your] playing style. What do you think he hears about your playing style specifically?

I think it has to do with influences that we all kind of grew up with. And we understand the commonality and understand that musical language as a collective ... It's not like it was easy. But you didn't have to work to develop a language and a basic understanding of what it was we were trying to do. When Dan said, "I'm kind of imagining the record sounding this way." It's like, "Okay, send me the tracks, and we'll just start working on it." And I think I knew right away what to do. And I think it was exactly the same for Jake. I don't think there was a lot of like, "Yeah, no. Try again." 

I mean, it's years and years of understanding, and stuff that is just very intuitive for us. And I try to explain, like, process in ways that I would like to approach songs when I'm producing with other artists or involved in a recording. And I kind of say, "Well, this could be a way that we could do it." And I actually found – I had an experience recording with the New Standards. We just recorded a new set of tunes. And I had this idea about how I wanted to approach this thing. And it was on the heels of just having completed some Semisonic recordings. And I said, "This is what I want to do. So let's just do it." And Steve (Roehm) and Chan (Poling) were looking at me like, "That's crazy. That won't work." And I was like, "Oh, that's right. This is a different group." It's not that group. It's a totally different approach. 

You have an adaptability about you ... Because you have been basically a lifelong musician playing with so many different projects.

Yeah, I really have been, but a lot of that time was spent with Dan, really, from a very early age. I was playing with Matt (Wilson). And then I was playing with Dan and Matt. And then I was playing with Dan and Matt since I was 22 or something like that. That's a long time. I think we get each other pretty well. I think we make each other completely bananas, but I think there's a real love there. I don't think that's being too presumptuous, you know. Because Dan can pretty much play with whoever he wants. I think it is the case that, at this point, I think Dan can probably call up whoever he would wish to and say, "Let's get together and write," or "Let's get together and record." And whoever that person is on the other end of the phone would probably be pretty thrilled to get to work with him. Because he's just so good. And he's a wonderful finisher, which is I think a thing that is a quite a rare quality. He has this ability to just work at it until he feels like it's done. And whether it's right or wrong, at the end of the day, you have a thing. 

Yeah, there's a certain work ethic he has. 

It's definitely a Norwegian-Scandi thing. It's real. I mean, what can you say? It's bred in the bone.

Both Dan and Matt [Wilson] are such beloved musicians and artists, especially in Minnesota … And you played with Matt in Trip Shakespeare, and then Dan with Semisonic. And they're both incredibly gifted –

Smarty pants people.

In a nutshell, compare and contrast the two men.

(Laughs) Matt and Dan?

As somebody who's worked very closely with them. I mean, obviously, Dan more.

I've worked a lot with Matt. Matt and I had a group called the Twilight Hours. They're very different in terms of their process. But it was really interesting, you know, I will say this. There's many more points to compare than there are to contrast, although I think people are kind of more interested in the ways that they're different. But to be perfectly honest, we sang, the three of us, at their mom's memorial service earlier this year. And everybody eulogized Ginger in this remarkable way. They all have their own version and story about what it was about her. But the thing about her that I heard was that she said, "Go deeply towards beauty. And go find it, and then bring it back to me, and sing for me, and show me what you've made." And she was so supportive in those early days. 

I mean, I got this kind of support from my parents also. But it really reminded me that you need that, as a creative person, to be reminded that what it is that you're doing is serious. It's important work. It's the stuff that makes the culture better. And hearing everybody speak about Ginger and what it was that she felt about the work that they were doing, and the way that she supported them, and Dodd, too, their dad. That gave me a glimpse into the root of what they arose from. And that's the point of comparison. And that is the thing that they both have is that they take the work of music and art creation really seriously in their own ways. But they have that. They know it's important.

There's a timelessness to a lot of the music that Semisonic has released. At one time, I was just playing a song on the radio, “You're Not Alone.” And I was like, gosh, this song sounds like a classic. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, it was only released (three) years ago." There's this incredible prowess to the songs that y'all put out. I'm thinking about how a lot of people are streaming music these days. And Spotify of course, is a huge –

A huge what?  

A huge ... (Laughs)

It is a huge. I find it also to be a huge. I want you to elaborate on that (laughs). Let's go there.. 

You got me, John Munson!

I don't know what they are, but they are definitely huge. Definitely a huge transformation in terms of how music is distributed. You know, it's fascinating.

Do you have thoughts on that?

I don't really know what my thoughts would be. I think I've evolved to the point where – what is it? There's some kind of, like, "Lord, teach me to not give a rip about the stuff that I can't control." Isn't that what it is? 

(Laughs) It's AA. One of the 12 Steps.

I think Apostle Paul taught us that – that we need to set aside the things that are just kind of beyond our capacity. 

Well, anyways, Semisonic has 3 million monthly listeners. About that. 

Do we? 

Yup.

Is that a lot? Is that good?

It is right up there with some of the greatest musicians of all time.

Ah! That's good. I don't know if I'd necessarily put myself in that category. 

I look at Spotify numbers a lot. 

Do you? 

Of course.

I don't like that. 

I don't either. I would never ever base someone's worth on their Spotify play. But anyways, it kind of shows, though, that there is still this legacy and this timelessness to your guys' music. And then I think of the song "Closing Time." That was the hit. It was the hit that pervaded American culture. And as someone who spent many, many nights till closing time at a bar –

Is that right? You're that girl?

Absolutely! I'm a musician.

I'm glad that you're talking about the fact that you're out there playing shows because whatever happens on Spotify, whatever happens on the radio, whatever happens on The Local Show … I'm just speaking to listeners out there who may be musicians, or may have bands, or who are making recordings and are really excited about that. But you will learn so much about what it is that you do if you actually go out and experience the instant response that you get when you sit across, or you stand on the stage across, or you sing into a mic across from somebody who is listening to what you're doing in that moment. And you will know right away what it is you've got. Right away. It's like the most magical thing.

I want to talk a little bit more into this new record of yours, Semisonic. Got some great, incredible special guests – Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Jason Isbell. And there were a few others.

Amy Allen. Yeah, she performed with us. Actually, she came and performed with us at the Greek in Los Angeles. And it was a huge thrill. And there’s another woman who’s an unsung hero of the record, although we’ve tried to kind of push her out into the world a little bit more and trumpet her qualities because she’s amazing – Sarah Mulford, who’s Dan’s assistant in his studio. And she did so much on the record and made such a difference, just great stuff … She felt like an old friend. All her moves were like, that is such a great move. 

It's fun to get to work with people like that. But honestly, when Dan said, I think I'm gonna ask Jason Isbell to play guitar on this record, and I was like, “Wow, that's cool.” I mean, I'd met Jason several times when we did Wits at the Fitzgerald Theater and he came just as a solo artist … and he was definitely quite a qualified guitarist. No question about it. But mainly I was like, “Wow, what a singer.” He's just got such an expressive voice. His poetry is really real. He really knew what to do on every single song and it was a reason for rejoicing. And then Jim James co-wrote the tune and played guitar on "Beautiful Sky," and I love that song.

How about the song that you wrote or are featured on?

That one kind of came about in a slightly circuitous way. When Dylan Hicks and I were – he called me up and he said, "I want you to make a record with me." And we made his record Ad Out, which was really fun. And he had kind of predicted that we would hit it off. I mean, I don't know if he put it exactly that way. It's kind of an old way of putting it, but we're very friendly. And we have a very similar sensibility. And he's a beautiful hang. And I had been thinking that it would be fun to make a musical. And he is so funny, I adore this guy ... I was thinking it would be like a 1990 – it's gonna be like kids living in an apartment, and maybe we'll co-write this thing. And I would say it was probably about three days later, or maybe four, that he had the whole thing written, including all the dialogue in the songs. And I mean, it was like, Jesus, what am I supposed to do with this? You know, he's just so prolific. And I think the idea of co-writing with me, for him, was like, “I don't know if I'm down for that.” Because he's got his own ideas, right? 

But I did have this one song. And it's that song, "If You Say So," which appears on Little Bit of Sun. And over time, I kind of watered it and cultivated it. I showed it to Dan, played it for Jake. Jake added drums to it. And it just kind of took shape over probably two years, which is really not the kind of creative process that I normally would kind of do. But in this particular case, it worked out great. And a number of people have commented that it's kind of like, you become an unreliable narrator of your own life at a certain point. And I think it does kind of speak to that a little bit – maybe that idea of a wobbly takeoff or something. But it was a pleasure to do it and to record it up over at creation with those guys was really, really fun. And then the Barenaked Ladies and Del Amitri would come out and sing it with me for, like, probably two-thirds of the tour ... And that lifted me extraordinarily high.

How would you compare the record to your entire catalog?

This record is incredibly deep. And as you go into the record, you may find yourself surprised that some of the deeper tracks are tracks that you might really love. I'm thinking of "Only Empathy", which I think it feels like a song that is very resonant with our current age … I feel like I'm just so happy to have that song on the record because it really speaks to my mood of how I want to be in the world. I want to be sympathetic, empathetic to different points of view.  

I also really love the song “So Amazed,” which feels very much like a pure kind of pop song from back in the day. I could easily imagine Dan having written that for our very first record Great Divide. And I really love Jake's song “Keep Me in Motion.” To me, that is like a sleeper track but it's far from asleep. It's just a great rock tune. 

So don't think, "Oh, I heard a couple of the songs on the radio and yeah, I like the hits, I guess."  The record is actually – get in there and listen to it, because I think there's a lot of stuff that people who are fans of the band definitely might enjoy. Even people who are not fans of the band might be surprised to see that there's some juicy tidbits down the line in the record.


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.