My introduction to Silkworm came when I lived in the Knowles Hall dorm on the University of Montana campus in the fall of 1992. My neighbor lent me a cassette that I think was some demo stuff from before the band's first official album, L'Ajre. It was totally unlike anything I'd heard coming from Seattle at the time, and it sounded like an uptight take on Neil Young's Zuma played by fans of The Smiths and the Cure.
Silkworm was a rock band founded in Missoula in 1987 by Hellgate grads Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen, as well as Michael Dahlquist and Joel RL Phelps (who left the band in 1994). They moved away to play rock and roll, first to Seattle, then Chicago. After 17 years, the band had become a staple with fans in small clubs across the country when Dahlquist, the drummer, was killed in a car accident in 2005 by a woman trying to commit suicide by ramming her vehicle into his.
The years-in-the-making and newly released documentary Couldn't You Wait: The Story of Silkworm, available for a web download, features recent interviews and live footage dating back to the band's awesomely awkward adolescent phases. Director Seth Pomeroy offers a well-crafted look at this legendary band, but leaves the viewer with some questions.
Silkworm struck me as a rare rock commodity with as much vulnerability in its music as there was rock. For as macho an art form as rock music can be, it spent most of its capital on plaintive, strident odes in the midst of hair—farming dudes with bands named Gruntruck. A Silkworm record might have a muscular riff once or twice, but it wouldn't be repeated much. As a songwriting device, withholding the delivery of a satisfying familiar part can be weirdly effective.
Couldn't You Wait draws upon the largely male platoon of loyal Silkworm fans for whom its uniquely monastic formula worked. The indie rock A-list includes interviews with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Jason Molina from Songs: Ohia (Molina died just last weekend) and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. Former Independent staffer Zach Dundas makes an appearance, describing Silkworm as a band "cut from a different cloth," with songs about World War II and "crazy psychosexual dramas."
The film establishes what distinguished Silkworm from lots of bands of the era: The members were friends, first and foremost, and they played music simply because they loved to. They also made decisions based only on what was right for the band, and not because of any commercial pressure. Steve Albini, recording engineer from Chicago's Electrical Audio, sums up the band's commercial viability, describing it as an acquired taste. "People that like Silkworm, really like Silkworm. They're not like normal people and there aren't that many of them."
The documentary is also a fascinating piece of work that examines the zeitgeist of the Nirvana period of the 1990s, from the perspective of an independent band that toured and recorded for important labels like C/Z, Matador and Touch and Go.
Silkworm didn't experience much mainstream success: It hit its commercial high-water mark with 1996's Firewater and quickly slumped with 1997's Developer. Matador Records CEO Gerard Cosloy explains the post-Developer slump in the film, saying, "It kind of felt like they were slightly treading water."
Even bassist Midgett says, "By the time we got to Developer, we were all thinking about where we're going. Typical early-30s ennui crap."
As a dork interested in what Man or Astroman's Brian Teasley and Chunklet's Henry Owings think, this is great. As somebody interested in Missoula's punk rock history, it's also pretty great, with some awesome fuzzy VHS footage of Silkworm's previous iteration as post-punk Missoula band Ein Heit and Deranged Diction's Tom Kipp.
But as somebody wanting a little more voyeurism from his documentary, I'm a little let down. We hear that Albini and the Silkworm members went to Hellgate High, that Silkworm members were in the marching band, and they all shared a cool German teacher. But we don't get into much of the formative story, or what these guys do now. A quick search tells me guitarist Andy Cohen is assistant general counsel for a pharmaceutical firm. Midgett and Cohen formed Bottomless Pit after Dahlquist's death.
Couldn't You Wait is a well-made film, whether you count yourself a Silkworm fan or not. There's a point, where Albini describes Michael Dahlquist's enthusiasm for life, and Albini's regret for not enjoying life in the moment as Dahlquist had, that is as sincerely moving a moment as any I just saw at the Big Sky Documentary Film Fest this year.
Couldn't You Wait: The Story of Silkworm is available for download at buy.couldntyouwait.com for $5.This story was updated on March 21 to correct which members attended Hellgate High School.