MINNEAPOLIS -- Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson bought himself a new piano as a reward for the success of "Feeling Strangely Fine," the 1998 album that opened with the Grammy-nominated "Closing Time."
The ubiquitous single vaulted the indie-pop-rock trio out of the Midwest, parked itself on pop and rock radio for a year and found a permanent home at baseball stadiums, where the ding-dong-ding-dong keyboard intro announces a game's final innings as the closer jogs to the mound.
Three years later, Semisonic is looking to peel off the one-hit-wonder label.
Wilson's paean to the lustful trolling at last-call-for-alcohol stands alone as the band's only major U.S. hit. But its final lyric: "Every new beginning/Comes from some other beginning's end," could prove prescient.
After all, the hit single begat Wilson's new piano, and the spindly, bespectacled songsmith's new ivories are the musical bricks and mortar for "All About Chemistry," Semisonic's latest batch of Minnea-pop-olis tunes released earlier this month.
Like "Closing Time," the new album's first and title track is musky with airplay love. But unlike the 1998 album, Wilson's signature buzzsaw guitar on "Chemistry" is an accessory on most songs, rather than the glue -- in the same way that three- and four-note keyboard leads adorned Wilson's guitar-driven rock of old.
"Dan wrote a lot of the new songs on that piano," said bassist John Munson. "So a lot of the emotion and a lot of the harmony is keyboard style as opposed to guitar style. On 'Feeling Strangely Fine,' I think a lot of the songs were written from a more folk-music point of view, and Dan wrote it all to hold up on acoustic guitar. Then the keyboard parts came in later."
Munson sat back in the lumpy couch at a trendy Minneapolis coffee shop and turned to Wilson.
"Now, it's almost the opposite," Wilson said, finishing Munson's thought. "'Chemistry' is like, sort of this banging piano thing, and the melody that comes in and out, instead of being an electric keyboard, is the guitar. So it's this kind of reversal that's happening."
Wilson and Munson, two-thirds of Minneapolis-based Semisonic (drummer Jake Slichter was ensconced in his own gift to himself following the band's success: a New York apartment) were home for a few days with family before a show in Atlanta.
For Semisonic's upcoming tour, starting with 16 U.S. and Canadian cities beginning in Toronto on April 2, the band has added keyboardist Chris Joyner.
Munson and Wilson used to deftly plunk out Wilson's more Spartan keyboard leads while simultaneously playing their respective guitar parts; Joyner, a former hired hand for Semisonic's Minneapolis rock compatriots Soul Asylum, will handle Wilson's more intricate piano accompaniments.
After the stateside tour wraps up April 28, the band moves on to the United Kingdom, where strong sales boosted "Feeling Strangely Fine" to platinum in 1999, and "All About Chemistry" has been in stores since earlier this month.
"There's a saying in the U.K. that a CD is a 'grower,"' Wilson said. "You know, you may not instantly like it the first time around, but every time you listen to it, there's something else that you hear. And I think we're pretty aware that that's what we're doing."
"All About Chemistry" is the band's first foray into self-production. Without an outside influence, Wilson and Munson said, they were able to stay truer to their own aims.
"I guess we all like things that are kind of grand statements," Wilson said. "I was hoping that this CD would be more unified, more one big idea, and focus less on every song being totally complete in itself. I wanted it to be more than just 12 singles in a row."
So far, Wilson said, the band's new sound is taking its time growing on some fans who got advance copies.
"We just got an e-mail from a guy who said, uh, 'What happened? Why are you different? Why did you change from the perfect formula you had going?' And I thought, wow, people are so eager to, like, quickly decide whether something is right for them or not ... I just know that that person won't feel the same way about the album even a week later."
Added Munson: "If it doesn't surprise you, then what's the point? That's my whole listening life: I'm like, 'I hate it!' ... wait, 'I LOVE it!' You know? If there's not a little bit of that, it's not as fun."
What hasn't changed about Wilson's song writing is the pre-eminence of painful odes to interpersonal struggle. There's no better example than "Act Naturally," the album's third track, a lilting, lover-to-lover supplication to hide from everyone else that something in the affair is horribly awry.
"I think everybody's had that experience of like, 'Please, lie for me -- at least for the next couple of hours.' And it can be a lot of different relationships -- it's part of coping with social versus personal. I think (messed-up) families go to church and everybody just acts naturally. And everybody in their family knows they're lying."
Wilson admits that the deeply personal nature of some of his lyrics are difficult to put on display.
"I mean, I'm from Minnesota," he said. "It's sort of embarrassing to talk about feelings or private things or whatever. I come from a land of frozen people, you know? Like, when stuff happens, we're always saying, 'Oh, I'm fine. It's OK. We can sew it back on ... just don't look at me anymore."'
But what has endeared Semisonic to the masses is their penchant for pure pop-rock bombast. And one thing Semisonic refuses to do: Shrug off the success of the single that put them on the map.
"'Closing Time' is still a damn good song," Wilson said. "It's easy for us to keep playing it because it's really good."
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