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An Interview with Tim Midgett of Silkworm

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Consistent and unpretentious, Silkworm have been well-regarded for so long that it was possible to forget why. Italian Platinum, released last year, reminded people why Silkworm mattered in the first place: wry, razor sharp songwriting; incredibly tight playing; a certain grace that is absent from most rock. The last year has seen Silkworm touring and the recent release of a covers EP, You Are Dignified. Bassist Tim Midgett tells Dusted how it all came together...

An Interview with Tim Midgett of Silkworm

Over the last fifteen years, Silkworm has survived moving to several cities, “next big thing” status, and a primary songwriter, Joel Phelps, leaving the band. Despite all these changes, Silkworm has remained remarkably consistent, diligently refining their taut, minimal aesthetic to produce some of the finest rock albums of recent memory. After a few years of lower-profile status, the band is now living in Chicago and recording for hometown label Touch and Go. Last year’s Italian Platinum brought the band a new wave of acclaim and was regarded by many as their best record to date. They’ve recently released an EP of covers, You Are Dignified, featuring songs by Pavement, Shellac, Nina Nastasia, Robbie Fulks, and Bedhead. Bassist and singer Tim Midgett recently took some time to discuss the creative process and the various merits of Van Halen.

Jason Dungan: Can you talk a little about Silkworm's long-running interest in covers? You Are Dignified is quite contemporary in its scope, but you've also covered a lot of "classic rock" stuff, most notably the infamous benefit show with Steve Malkmus, where you covered the Band, the Stones, and the Byrds among others. Are all these covers simply for the band's own enjoyment, or do they feed back into your own songs?

Tim Midgett: The impetus is to have fun, but we try to present them with whatever energy or power they deserve. I don\'t think we've ever done anything as a total joke, even in the Crust Brothers with Stephen. If we bother to learn someone else's song, we have to love it for one reason or another.

They definitely feed back into our music--you know, if you learn "Ramblin' Man," you start to dig into the guitar break at the end, and a lot of shit is going on that probably does not come to you naturally. And it's pretty good. So it rubs off on you to some extent. I can't speak for Stephen, but one song on his first solo album -- the best song, I believe -- uses chords under the guitar solo that are straight out of "Tuesday's Gone." It sounds great. It's like anything else -- once you absorb it, it feels normal to you, and it seeps into the way you play and make music.

JD: I recently read a Silkworm review where the writer said something like "If Silkworm were a bunch of well-dressed New Yorkers, they'd be the next big thing; as it is, they're modestly-dressed Midwesterners and this is their eighth album…" Is that a compliment? How does it feel to be a part of things in Chicago, especially with the huge focus on rock in New York right now? I imagine that you might be relieved that a similar frenzy hasn't made it to Chicago. What kind of changes have there been for the band after relocating from Seattle?

TM: I guess it's some kind of compliment anytime someone says you "could be the next big thing if." We've been "the next big thing if" a few times over the last fifteen years. Music scenes...pictures of some exhibitionists. Having lived through Seattle '90-00, I doubt anything could necessarily top that for sheer scenestery hype and musical critical mass. We all got pretty good at blocking out anything that didn't involve our songs and our performances and our records, which is partly good though not exclusively so. It's probably crippling to some extent! But we're too old to do it any other way, I'm afraid.

I don't have much to say about Seattle, other than that I'm glad we're all in the same place. I still love their baseball team, but we all feel comfortable being here. We're a little more in the thick of things now: more places to play close to home, more bands to see, easier to record, down the street from our record label, etc.

JD: There were some considerable departures on the last Silkworm album, including a lot of keyboards from Matt Kadane and some singing (even a lead vocal) from Kelly Hogan. Do you consciously try to inject new ideas, approaches, to each record, or do the songs you're writing imply the direction themselves?

TM: Andy {Cohen, Silkworm guitarist} is fond of saying we have five-year master plans, where we script every note and track length and production technique for the next three to five albums well in advance. The truth is rather boring, which is that we just work on stuff until it seems done.

When I say "stuff," I mean songs, as we don't really work on an album basis. I always thought that was really weird -- "I'm writing my next album." Like it's a novel or something. It's hard to storyboard rock and still have it rock. Most of making good rock and roll is either cranking out spontaneous and impactful music or arranging the music with impact in mind and simulating the 'spontaneous' part. Pretty much everybody has to simulate spontaneity at some point, or maybe just learn to recapture its initial rush somehow. Hmmm...perhaps the addition of these two admittedly talented people to our little clique is a desperate attempt on our part to seem fresh. Further self-examination is in order.

JD: You once described your record Developer as "album that nobody likes at first, but then six months later, it's all they can listen to". This might be a good way to describe Silkworm generally, as your music tends to slowly creep up on the listener, rather than catching them immediately. Do you ever have any sense of trying to write "challenging" music, stuff that might take the listener a while to catch up with? What kind of things do you keep in mind when getting songs together?

TM: I can't speak for Andy, but I'm basically a zombie when I start writing a song. I turn off my critical faculties and whatever self-consciousness I usually have. At least I try to do this. I don't want to think about what I want it to sound like, or what I'm trying to say, or what people might think of it. If I like what\'s coming out, I keep playing it. If it gets boring, I make a new part happen, or I stop playing. The lyrics are whatever comes out and sounds good. It gets tweaked and refined and infused with meaning and probably ruined after the fact, but at the moment it comes out, it has to be an unconscious thing or it doesn't end up bearing fruit most of the time.

That reptile-brain approach to the material carries over into arranging and working up the song as a band. We are extremely binary about things--cool/not cool. But it's an immediate process, and whenever we try to think it out and impose some kind of 'idea' or whatever onto the music at hand, usually the result sounds contrived and stupid. It's kind of an insult to our collective superego that we can't marshal our brainpower to outsmart our own songs, but we have failed to do it so many times, we should have learned by now.

I guess the answer to your question is: we don't have anything in mind. Ever. We're just trying to make ourselves grunt with pleasure, as a grizzly bear might when he is gorged on salmon.

JD: Are there any more Malkmus collaborations on the horizon? Has there ever been talk of writing songs?

TM: No songwriting plans. I think we've had influence on each other over the years, but that's about it. As far as future Crust rocking, it has been an immense amount of fun, and it would be great to do, but logistically it's pretty rough. Stephen would be the guy who would have to do all the traveling and shit. And he does plenty of that as it is. I hope we can get it together to do it again sometime. Maybe when we're retired.

JD: "Indie rock" is often a negative term, implying a kind of ambivalence and laziness both on the part of the listener and the musician. Silkworm has always seemed to me to be the embodiment of all that is good about “indie rock”: actual independence, both musically and commercially; a more communal feel to shows; some sort of commitment to making music that has a real power and integrity. What do you think about whatever might be called indie rock right now? Does underground music necessarily go hand in hand with some set of ideals, or is this an outdated notion?

TM: "Indie rock," specifically, I don't even know what it is. Is there a common sound to it? Our parents probably think it all sounds the same. I don't hear that at all, but maybe I'm too close to hear it clearly. Is there a common philosophical approach among people who are supposed to be making it? Maybe. In small clutches, there definitely is, but I'm only thinking now about people I know in other bands, who essentially are doing things for the same reasons we are doing them. I don't think that holds true across the "indie rock" spectrum by any means. And I don't think that approach -- being true to yourself creatively and upright in your dealings with others -- is any different than the approach that any decent human being would take to any other kind of music, or other form of art, or any other aspect of life, for that matter.

The main other thing that could bind together "indie rock" musicians is their commercial potential, which means you end up with a musical genre that is defined by sales figures. There's just never been enough commonality to the genre in a broad sense to excite me or make me think that it really means anything.

JD: Can you talk about working with Steve Albini? He's produced a few of your albums, and he seems to be an integral part of Silkworm's approach to making music. How does he influence the recording process, and perhaps your music generally? He's become a remarkably important figure, with a hand in so many great records.

TM: Steve's recorded almost everything we have done for ten years. He doesn\'t really influence the recording process so much as he is the recording process. When I make recordings on my own--the You Are Dignified EP, for example--I do it pretty much the way he would do it, though I'm sure I don't get the levels to tape exactly right or whatever.

That said, he only warps things if you ask him to do so specifically. The recording method he uses normally is hands-off to an extreme--the sound you get in the room is the sound you will hear on tape. For example, he's supposed to produce this massive drum sound as some kind of Albini trademark. Well, if you're Michael Dahlquist or Dave Grohl or someone like that, you'll sound pretty massive, I guess. But if you're afraid of your drums, you'll sound like you're afraid of your drums.

Anyway, it's hard to imagine making an album without his involvement. At this point he's an invaluable sounding board. He doesn't fill that role with everyone he records, because he's not nearly as familiar with most of those people or their music as he is with us and ours.

JD: Could you list for us ten records that you\'ve been listening to a lot lately?


The Clean - Vehicle
Cober - The Breaker
Les Autres - CD-R
.22 - The Worker
Wire - 154 (mostly just "The 13th" and "Map Ref...")
Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth
Boney M - Take the Heat Off Me
Fleetwood Mac - The Blues Years
Al Green - Call Me
Johnny Shines - Blues Masters Vol. 7

I've also heard an ungodly amount of Van Halen on the radio over the last week or so.

JD: Do you prefer the David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar era?

TM: Hagar blows, of course. He's like a high school jock who wanted to be cool, so he taught himself the barre chord and how to scream in that caught-in-the-throat, 'I want to sound boss but I'm afraid of damaging my vocal cords' kind of way. He's worse than Paul Rodgers.

I really admire David Lee Roth. He is always entertaining, which is a mean feat. I mean, it's easy to get behind "Panama" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," but their version of "Dancing in the Streets" is terrible, and somehow I still listen to it whenever I bump into it on the radio.

He manifested a kind of sleazy grandeur that was actually unique among frontmen--leering at the chicks and winking at the dudes, but totally unthreatening and entirely good-natured. Somehow, he projected the same aura with his voice and stage presence

that EVH did with his guitar, except that EVH is a virtuoso and DLR can barely carry a tune. I don't know what he'd sound like w/o a dozen tracks of backing vocals bailing him out on the choruses, though.

JD: What did you listen to as a teenager?

TM: I worked in a record store, so I got my hands on anything I wanted. The store rented records for a long time. We had this amazing stockpile of stuff: great jazz collection, great old rock collection. People would pay five bucks to join, I think, then two bucks a record or three records for five bucks. They kept the records for a couple days and then brought 'em back. We sold shitloads of blank tape. At some point, a local competitor narced on us, and we had to switch over to selling off all this great shit we had. Leading up to the switch, I probably squirreled away three hundred records, and I bought the core of my record collection on our first day as a proper record store.

The only local radio stations to speak of were KZOQ and XT93. KZOQ was (is) pure album rock--you can hear a steady diet of .38 Special and Bryan Adams to this day. I remember vividly hearing the Replacements' "Alex Chilton" on there once--someone paid somebody to play it, I suppose. XT93 was strictly pop music—Hall and Oates and Michael Jackson, etc. I think it's a country station now. The local college station, KUFM, was (is) an incredibly somnambulant NPR affiliate. About twice a week they would have the 'out there' shows. One of them played Joy Division or Gang of Four occasionally, but largely it showcased that kind of excruciating, yelping Eurowave trafficked by Nina Hagen, Klaus Nomi, and the like. The other show played some oddball scratchy rock ala Meat Puppets or whatever, but more often it stuck to crushingly generic hardcore. We listened to KZOQ for the most part.

I listened to some jazz a lot. Ornette Coleman, mid- to late-period Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Thelonious Monk -- the usual weird suspects. Some blues and country, though more of that later, as is the pattern. Mostly I just listened to rock music. You know, I

probably played each of the Velvets records two hundred times, Marquee Moon and the last two Big Star records that much, played to death every Husker Du album up through New Day Rising. Early on, Psych Furs' Talk Talk Talk and Blondie's Parallel Lines were a couple of records I was totally obsessed with, and I love them both to this day. Those were some touchstone musical experiences for me.

You Are Dignified is out now on Touch and Go Records.

By Jason Dungan

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