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The Cult Of Silkworm

Silkworm, now in their 17th year, are a music lover's band, the kind of outfit that causes fanatical admirers to shake their heads and wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world. The band's blend of heavy, mid-tempo rock, jacked up on stop-start rhythms and laced with sardonic humor, doesn't seem inaccessible or difficult, yet it has never caught on with a wider audience. "To me, our music sounds like it should be really popular," Andy Cohen, the band's co-founder and lead guitarist, said recently during a phone interview. "Clearly our opinions aren't shared by most people. Clearly there's something that's weird about our music, and we don't know what it is. We just play what we think sounds great, and so far it has not been popular." But, he added, "We have a lot of very devoted fans whom I'm very grateful for, so we're not entirely insane."

Indeed, one of the most amusing parts of the Silkworm Web site is its "Musical Correctness" database, a fan-driven evaluation of hundreds of different artists and bands. It is its own little universe, a place where cult-garage bluesmen like The Oblivians rank above The Beatles, and post-punk icons like bluesman Muddy Waters are near the top, but in a dead heat with The Rock*A*Teens. There are no prizes for moving units — in fact million-selling musical atrocities like Journey, Sting and the reunited Eagles have negative ratings. It is, in short, a place where a few dedicated fans have more impact than masses of lukewarm record-buyers, and so it is no surprise that rabidly followed but perpetually underrated Silkworm do well here. The band carries a very healthy 260.28 rating, just behind Roxy Music and slightly ahead of Apples in Stereo, as of November 1.

Cohen and Joel RL Phelps started Silkworm in Missoula, Montana in 1987. Bassist Tim Midgett, who had gone to high school with Cohen and like the others had been in an early band called Ein Heit, joined in 1988. The band moved from Missoula to Seattle in 1990, and released its first album independently in 1992. Two more albums came out in 1994 — In the West and Libertine. After Libertine, Phelps left the band. Matador signed Silkworm and released their next two albums, Firewater and Developer. The band's most recent four full-lengths — Blueblood, Lifestyle, Italian Platinum and this year's It'll Be Cool — are all on Touch & Go. In 2003 the band also released a covers album called You Are Dignified on 12XU; it included acoustic versions of songs by Robbie Fulks, Bedhead, Pavement, Shellac and Nina Nastasia.

After nearly two decades and eight albums together, Cohen says the songwriting process has remained relatively constant. "Typically Tim and I will write the bare bones of a song, and then we'll bring it into the group and arrange it," he explained. "The arrangement is where it really gets hammered out and starts to sound the way it's going to sound. Because the initial idea is often skeletal; it doesn't have a sound. It's sort of a structure without a sound."

That arranging has gotten simpler over the years, he added. "In our early career, especially when Joel was still in the band, we used to spend a lot of time arranging, because with Joel and I wanting to overplay all the time, we had to really work it out, to where it didn't sound like an undifferentiated mass."

The band streamlined this process during the mid-period of its career, the Matador years, when their constant touring and recording schedule made fast work a priority. "Now we're sort of coming back into a phase where we rehearse more, and I think it's because we're in less of a hurry to put albums out," Cohen said. "I think the proof of the pudding is that Lifestyle and Italian Platinum were our two best records so far. But everybody's got their opinion."

The band's fourth member, Matt Kadane (the New Year, Consonant, Bedhead), joined during the recording of Italian Platinum, adding keyboards to the band's thickly layered sound. On It'll Be Cool, Kadane's plaintive piano lines give "Xian Undertaker" an extra layer of melancholy, while his off-kilter playing on "Something Hyper," adds an extra nervous charge to the album. "We started playing with Matt to see what it would be like, and he ended up playing on almost every song on Italian Platinum," said Cohen. "Everything just sounded better with him playing on it. So, I don't have a lot of conceptual ways to describe why it sounds better. It fills up the cracks in good ways."

As on every album since In the West, Silkworm worked with fellow Montana native Steve Albini to record It'll Be Cool. "In the very early days, before we started working with Steve, we never knew what we would get out of a session," Cohen explained. "Every session would sound radically different. Sometimes we would get really disappointing stuff, but now, recording in the same studio with Steve all the time, I think we have an expectation of it being right."

Cohen added that the band has become extremely comfortable working with Albini. "I almost wonder if we've gotten too comfortable with him — and that's why it takes so long for these records to come out. Like we recorded this thing for months and months, just because we'd go into the studio and record some stuff and then we'd end up playing pool and goofing around. It was only because Steve's a good guy and letting us come in on his off days that we were able to get this thing done under budget."

The result — It'll Be Cool — is 37 minutes of stripped-down, intelligent rock 'n' roll with a darkly comic sensibility. This is a band self-deprecating enough to name a track "Shitty Little Yacht" (although, according to Cohen, engineer Steve Albini actually thought of the title) and grandiose enough to weave Caesar and his legions into a song about their inability to sleep. (Lyrics from "Insomnia" include: "The legend of Julius Caesar/ Got his friends to work together and breach the wall/ Didn't waste his time on sleeping/ 'Cos he couldn't/ 'Cos he wouldn't/ It doesn't matter at all/ Must have been too tired to enjoy his conquest or to enjoy his fame").

It is also an extremely guitar-heavy sound, with muscular guitar solos emerging out of nearly every available crevice. "To me, sometimes there's just a space where I can freak out and take it to the next level of intensity," said Cohen. "To me, that's what it takes. I love to hear really great guitar solos, but you don't hear them that often."

Yet he added that unlike guitarists in some bands, he tries to avoid solos for their own sake. "If you listen to a band like Metallica — and I wouldn't say that I like Metallica — they've got the classic hard-rock band problem. It's a knee-jerk reaction, up until very recently, that they've had an extended guitar solo in every song. And it didn't seem like there was any thought put into how long it should be or whether or not it's appropriate. Some of them are good, but a lot of them, even if they're not bad, they don't add anything."

Silkworm recently returned from a short tour in Japan. The band will be playing a series of dates on the East Coast and in the Midwest in November. Tour dates can be found at the Silkworm Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, November 1, 2004]

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