FOREWORD: One of the greatest and most underrated guitar-based bands of the ‘90s, Silkworm boasted skillful axe handlers Andy Cohen and Joel Phelps (who left by ’95). Too competent and proficient to be labeled grunge while less accessible and headier than masturbatory hard rockers, Silkworm suffered for its aggro-rock art. I caught them at Manhattan basement club, Arlene’s Grocery, in ’02, interviewing dexterous drummer, Michael Dahlquist, to promote Italian Platinum. A month forward, I journeyed a few blocks south and saw them again at Knitting Factory. They released their final album, It’ll Be Cool, in ’04. Tragically, Dahlquist was killed in ’05 when a suicidal woman rammed the car he was in. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Could two white collar employees of Shore Microphones (drummer Michael Dahlquist and bassist Tim Midgett) and a full-time lawyer (guitarist Andy Cohen) manage to thrive musically without losing the edge, focus, and determination that brought them a decade of continued underground acclaim?
Right about the time Seattle was festering with grunge, Missoula, Montana transplants Silkworm already had two homemade cassettes, one Punchdrunk 7″ record, and the developmental full-length, L’ajre, under their belts. Surviving an amicable split with guitarist-songwriter Joel Phelps (following the screechy psych-induced feedback of ‘94s twin sets, Libertine and In The West), ‘96s trebly Firewater offered newfound minimalist restraint to counter Cohen’s Neil Young-ish guitar wanker.
Still spicing things up with crazed witticisms and feeling more comfortable as a three-piece, ‘97s Developer contrasted soft-to-loud mood shifts in a dignified manner that affected ‘98s lyrically acute Blueblood as well as its much better follow-up, ‘00s Lifestyle.
Since then, Dahlquist completed Silkworm’s five-year trek to their adopted hometown, Chicago, and the resilient trio scored possibly their best effort yet, Italian Platinum. Hook-filled charmers like “The Brain,” the buzzy, guitar-revved “A Cockfight Of Feelings,” and the keyboard-laden “White Lightning” (with Chicago-via-Atlanta singer Kelly Hogan decorating the chorus) would fit comfortably alongside post-Nirvana Northwest faves Built To Spill and Quasi.
Guest Hogan’s descant vocals offset Cohen on the humorously snide, love-sickened “(I Hope U) Don’t Survive,” which cheekily recalls Mike Watt’s duet with Geraldine Fibbers’ Karla Bozulich on the Me Generation diatribe, “Against The ‘70s,” in sound, if not vision. Thereafter, the pendulum swings from the hard-hitting “The Third” to the relatively spare “Is She A Sign” without compromise.
No. Silkworm hasn’t put music on the backburner or lost their lust for making stimulating recordings. They’ve just managed to incorporate it differently into their busy lives as a still-worthy entity.
How does Silkworm have time to construct and record a valid album while each original member has a day job?
MICHAEL DAHLQUIST: The first big session we did together took a week while we were working full-time. It was a wretched week. We’d stay in the studio until 1 or 2 A.M. It was my third week on the job. Now we’re playing weekend shows for this tour.
Some of your best songs came out of these sessions. I especially enjoy the liquor-stained wry humor of “Bourbon Beard.”
MICHAEL: I’m convinced that song is about me. It sounds to me like it’s about a relatively young guy with a beard who likes to drink and thinks of himself as a young whippersnapper when that might not be the case. (laughter)
Andy gets to stretch out on “LR72.”
MICHAEL: “LR72″ stands for Lou Reed 1972 and it sounds like that. The lyrics come from an old funeral dirge sung, played, or chanted centuries ago by a primitive African tribe. It’s Andy’s take on that gorgeous lyric. I treated it as a military march and we played it along those lines.
Speaking of Lou Reed, I thought “The Old You” copped a bit of his narrative style.
MICHAEL: Yup. I find that song touching, but it’s so quaint. For Andy, it’s so lyrical and charming.
Were you disappointed when your last studio set, Lifestyle, didn’t receive as much exposure and praise as Firewater? It seemed to be just as worthy.
MICHAEL: Firewater was the first record we did for Matador. So they put their machine behind it and had a big financial stake in it. They thought they could sell a million records. Lifestyle was my favorite. The obvious progression was we expanded our musicianship and got more people involved for Italian Platinum. It’s a little softer, sweeter, and feminine.
Well Kelly Hogan adds that femininity. She takes the reins singing lead on the balladic departure, “Young.”
I think Tim felt like a schmuck singing a song that overwrought. So he pictured it with a woman’s voice. So Kelly could sing overwrought shit very well. It sounds appropriate with her singing.
How has long-time producer, Steve Albini, affected Silkworm’s sound through the years?
We had been working in Seattle after putting out two singles and the ’92 long- play debut, L’ajre. We got in touch with him and did the …his absence is a blessing EP. We recorded six songs and mixed four in a day, which was the polar opposite of what we’d done before. It sounded so fast and efficient and was so good. We were sold on his recording process. He has a strong emphasis on the live sound, but we’ve been straying from that over the years. The way the instruments sound is affected by Steve. In an effort to make things sound as good as we can in the studio, we’ve built the best live sound we could. But I don’t know if he helps with the structure of the songs. Andy’s always had a propensity for noodling. He was this meandering guitarist.
The entire grunge scene came into fruition after Silkworm moved to Seattle and began playing. But there’s still quite an underground scene going on there.
Every time you think nothing is going on, there’s a large amount of post-Built To Spill bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab For Cutie, and Pedro The Lion. There’s also a lot of garage bands. Grunge is well past but there’s stuff going on.
Instead of moving to the middle to attract grunge fans from the Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam camps, Silkworm always remained proudly left-of-center. I like how your band and Mudhoney never made concessions.
We felt what we were doing was fine. There was no reason to get popularity and fame.
How has Silkworm evolved?
In the past five years, since Andy moved to Chicago in the post-Matador era, we stopped traveling all the time and making a living as a band. We realized it’s the only way to stop sleeping on people’s couches. Individually, we gradually decided we wanted to do something besides playing rock music and suffering with poverty. We went back to school, got careers, bought houses, and went to that next step in our personal lives while maintaining the band as an important entity. It influenced our attitude towards the music and added an injunction of humor. We do it because it gives us pleasure and has some value in the world. But we don’t treat it so precious anymore.