In “Moving,” from Silkworm’s new album, Italian Platinum, bassist Tim Midgett sounds none too choked up about leaving town. “I never thought I’d leave this place / It has all kinds of storage space,” he sings right off the bat. The lyrics would seem to be autobiographical: in October, Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist moved to Chicago from the band’s longtime home base of Seattle, joining Midgett and guitarist Andy Cohen, who started the slow migration when he enrolled at the University of Chicago’s law school in 1998. While nobody in the group goes out of his way to criticize Seattle, it’s plain that they’re all happy to be here instead.
“Hardly anyone I know here is just spinning their wheels,” says Midgett, who moved to town a year ago in March. “Pretty much everyone here has something going on that they’re excited about, and I can’t say that about Seattle.” In addition to the band, which has never sounded better, all three Silkworm members have “real” jobs that they like–Cohen is now a practicing lawyer, and Midgett and Dahlquist work for Shure, the Evanston-based microphone company, as an engineer and technical writer respectively.
Midgett and Cohen have grown up together; in high school in Missoula, Montana, they played together in a band called Ein Heit that also included guitarist Joel Phelps. Midgett left in the fall of 1987 to attend Northwestern University, while Cohen and Phelps started Silkworm. Midgett joined in after dropping out of NU; then for a while the band soldiered on without Cohen, who put in a year in New York at Columbia University. In early 1990 Cohen, Midgett, and Phelps moved together to Seattle, where they met Dahlquist, and the band began to make records for Seattle indies like C/Z and El Recordo.
After touring in support of 1994’s Libertine, Phelps left the band to pursue a solo career. The remaining members chose to continue as a three-piece, and in 1995 they signed with Matador, which released two albums, a two-CD compilation of early material, an EP, and a single but couldn’t make them the next Pavement. In 1998 Silkworm moved over to Touch and Go. Italian Platinum, their third LP for the Chicago label, is named in part as a self-effacing joke about the band’s faithful but relatively small audience. “Commercially we just have this place where we are,” Midgett says. “We sell enough records to justify making more, and that’s about it.”
Although Midgett lived in the area briefly while at Northwestern, the trio’s history with Chicago, and in particular with recording engineer Steve Albini (who’d graduated years before them from the same Missoula high school as Cohen and Midgett), began in 1992 when the group recorded the EP…His Absence Is a Blessing with him at his old home studio. “We had been wanting to get the way the band sounded live on tape, and we hadn’t been able to do that up to that point,” says Midgett. Back then Silkworm’s music was more aggressive and dense, influenced by Mission of Burma and Television and propelled by Dahlquist’s John Bonham-esque wallop. Since Phelps’s departure the music has grown increasingly spacious and dynamic.
Throughout this evolution Silkworm has remained loyal to Albini: they’ve recorded most of their subsequent albums with him, the sole exception being 1998’s Blueblood, which they recorded on their own in Seattle (though Albini mixed it). They’ve developed a strong personal relationship with him as well. “He’s a support network in and of himself,” says Dahlquist. Albini was the one who suggested the band send material to Matador and Touch and Go, and he loaned them some of his valuable microphones to make Blueblood. When Cohen moved here he spent a month living at Albini’s Electrical Audio studios while he looked for an apartment, and Albini even stood in for Midgett at the inspection of the house Midgett and his wife, Silkworm tour manager Vickie Hunter, bought in Edgewater.
Cohen’s decision to attend law school set the band on its current tack. Silkworm had spent much of the previous three years on the road supporting the two Matador LPs, and he’d had enough. “It’s no life for a dog,” says Cohen. “I thought it was really fun,” Midgett adds, “but it was obvious to all of us that it wasn’t the way to go. We would run ourselves into the ground.” They decided they all needed to embark on their adult lives, and that although the band remained important to them, it would no longer be their central concern. Now, for instance, instead of plotting lengthy tours, the trio takes long weekend jaunts. “I think it’s improved my experience,” says Cohen. “Every second I spend playing music is much more fun. There’s always a tension in the balance. Sometimes you wish you could play more, while other times if you play too much it cuts into the other part of your life.”
The decision to make music on their own terms seems to have been a wise one creatively, judging from the quality of last year’s Lifestyle, which included some of the band’s most personal songs, and the new album, which continues Lifestyle’s expansion of the trio’s sonic palette. Matt Kadane–of Bedhead and more recently the New Year, of which Cohen has been a touring member–adds tasteful keyboard parts to many songs, but the unexpected cameo by singer Kelly Hogan is the most rewarding. Her gorgeous backing vocals dramatically highlight the band’s melodic tendencies, and she sings powerful lead on Midgett’s pretty rock ballad “Young,” giving it a soulful punch. “I could have sung it, but she sings it the way it should be sung,” says Midgett. “Probably for some people who are used to listening to our records it might be too over-the-top, but I think it’s exactly the way I wanted it to sound.”
Silkworm celebrates the release of Italian Platinum with a show next Saturday, June 15, at the Abbey Pub. Consonant, the new band fronted by Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley, and the duo of Matt and Bubba Kadane open.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.