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The particular charm of Silkworm is explained many times over the course of Couldn’t You Wait?, a documentary that was self-released by the filmmakers last month as a $5 DRM-free download. It may be producer Steve Albini who puts it most succinctly: “People that like Silkworm really like Silkworm, but they’re not like normal people, and there aren’t that many of them.” What made the band strange, and what made them a taste worth acquiring, is a subject the filmmakers have been plumbing since beginning the project in late 2006. To tell the story of how different the band’s path was, and how Chicago played a part in that story, several subjects are interviewed, and their responses are interspersed with clips of the band’s performances throughout the years.
Those interviewed include indie luminaries like Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy, and Albini, but also family, friends, and those who are simply credited as “fan.” Malkmus does a fine job of putting the band in context, charting a path from American hardcore of the ‘80s to early indie on labels like Homestead and SST, to the generation that they and Pavement belonged to. Though Silkworm would record nine full-length albums, it’s still surprising to be reminded how far back their career went, with the band releasing their first single in 1991—though the members had played together in high school before even that.
No matter where they went, the band were outcasts: from their beginnings in high school as Missoula, Montana’s only post-punk band, then called Ein Heit, to getting a new name and moving to a new town, Seattle, in the early 1990s. Their songs were sometimes meandering and shambolic, their lyrics often obtuse, and they had three different, distinct songwriters—Joel Phelps on guitar, Andy Cohen on guitar, and Tim Midgett on bass—all singing their own songs. All that together didn’t make much of an impact in the oversaturated grunge boom that gripped Seattle at the time. They did, however, catch the attention of an employee of C/Z records, Tim Cook, who would help in—or, to hear him tell it in the film, insist on—putting out their second record, In the West (1994).
Long, trying tours ensued, though new relationships would also be forged—like with producer (and alumnus of the band’s Missoula high school) Steve Albini, with whom the band recorded In the West and then most everything the band would record after. Other relationships would deteriorate: Shortly after recording their follow-up, Libertine (1994), Phelps would leave the group, and the remaining members would not replace him. An interviewed fan compares the remaining trio’s attempts at playing their songs live without Phelps as a family setting a place at the table for a child who’s died. They eventually figured out their sound without him, just as they found a new home on Matador Records. Their next album, Firewater (1996), was a peak for the band that lead to a video for their song “Wet Firecracker” and the opening slot on a tour with Pavement. But after the band handed in the bleaker and moodier follow-up, Developer (1997), it ended up the last record they’d release on the label.
The band leaving Matador lead to another unique thing about their career: their unlikely second act, in which they moved to Chicago—one member at a time—and found a way to pursue the band part-time while maintaining more stable lives. They were helped by the patronage of Albini, who allowed them to record their albums for little-to-no money at his studio, Electrical Audio. (In Midgett’s words, the band “recorded $25,000 records for five grand.”) Those later albums—Blueblood (1998), Lifestyle (2000), Italian Platinum (2002), and It’ll Be Cool (2004)—would be released on the venerable Chicago label Touch & Go, and showed the band getting comfortable with themselves while growing as musicians and taking more chances.
Being a late-in-the-day fan of the band myself, there were many new things I learned from the doc. Tidbits like Andy Cohen being asked to tour with Bush as a temporary replacement for their lead guitarist came a surprise, as did Midgett’s admission that the band had essentially been dropped from Touch & Go records after their final full-length, It’ll Be Cool. Even after that, the band was still committed to making music together, and continued to play live. To finally break up the band that had continued against all odds, trends, and sometimes reason, it would take a tragedy.
While former members like Phelps are not interviewed, it’s Michael Dahlquist’s absence that looms largest over the doc. In 2005, a young woman attempted suicide by driving her car into a vehicle parked at a stoplight that held Dahlquist and two other local musicians, Douglas Meis and John Glick. All three were killed. Dahlquist appears in performance clips, and his entries to Silkworm’s online tour journal are narrated over still photos. His bandmates, friends and fans speak frankly and openly on the loss, and the documentary ends with Silkworm’s final performance at the Touch & Go 25th anniversary festival in Chicago, playing one last song without him.
Midgett and Cohen continue recording and playing music together, now with a new rhythm section as Bottomless Pit. If Couldn’t You Wait tells something beyond the strange, intractable bond between people in a band, it’s that even the most “acquired tastes” can find their audiences given enough time, and that there’s still artistic and personal rewards to be found even if the whole world’s not watching. Their following may have been small, but it was fervent, with some fans giving testimonials on how many state borders they crossed just to catch one of the band’s later shows.
Couldn’t You Wait? is still available for stream or download, but there’s nearly 90 more minutes of live performances from the band as well as deleted scenes and other clips from the film for additional cost. Much like the band in their time, Couldn’t You Wait? is a labor of love that took time to come together. But even for those unfamiliar with Silkworm, you may be surprised at your own appreciation—it may even convert you into one of the few, but fanatical followers that sustained the band for so long.
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