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Through the eyes of Silkworm, filmmaker Seth Pomeroy examines 1990s indie-rock

15 October 2013

Silkworm, from left: Michael Dahlquist, Tim Midgett, Andy Cohen. Photo by Heather Whinna.

As the grunge era gave way to the iPod age, no ’90s outfit seemed as poised to last as Silkworm.

The trio — guitarist Andy Cohen, bassist Tim Midgett and drummer Michael Dahlquist — existed on indie-rock’s fringes for 18 years, recording for numerous labels (C/Z, Matador, Touch and Go) and living in three different cities (Missoula, Seattle, Chicago).

While the band never achieved widespread commercial success, it maintained an appreciative cult fanbase, and records like 2002’s Italian Platinum and 2004’s It’ll Be Cool featured strong examples of its acerbic lyricism and willfully cockeyed mutations of punk, pop and classic rock.

Then, on July 14, 2005, everything changed when Dahlquist — the jovial, big-bearded 39-year-old whose bashabout rhythms anchored the group’s off-kilter songwriting — was killed in a Skokie, Illinois car accident alongside friends and coworkers John Glick and Doug Meis.

Seth Pomeroy saw the horrible news when he logged on to Silkworm’s online message board that day, as he did most days. They were the then-22-year-old Nashville native’s favorite band, and the informal nature of the forums made them something greater than just musicians he liked. Midgett, Cohen and Dahlquist were people he felt he knew, in a sense.

The drummer’s passing was, of course, a tragedy bigger than any band, but Pomeroy, as a filmmaker and as a fan, began to realize that the inevitability of Silkworm’s legacy dying with Dahlquist was a fate he could prevent.

With Couldn’t You Wait? The Story of Silkworm — his recently-released feature-length documentary on the band — he does.

Cohen, Midgett and Dahlquist in 1995. Photo courtesy of Seth Pomeroy.

Shaping a dizzying amount of interviews and archival footage into a three-act narrative, Pomeroy’s film explains the nebulous genius of Silkworm’s music and lyrics in ways the group’s fans have been trying to articulate to nonbelievers for years.

Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: four young, precocious musicians from Montana form a band, write some songs, move to Seattle, lose a member (second guitarist and singer Joel R.L. Phelps), relocate to Chicago, then truly come into their own, becoming, like all of rock’s great trios, the kind where each member’s contribution was indispensible.

But to call Couldn’t You Wait? a movie simply about a band is inaccurate. It’s also an illustration of a whole era of music too often distilled to surface elements — thrift-store apparel, lo-fi recordings, slacker attitudes — that uses Silkworm as its center.

To connect the dots about the ‘90s for those who weren’t there — and to make sense of it to those who were — Pomeroy speaks with Shellac‘s Steve Albini, Pavement‘s Stephen Malkmus, Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy and many other friends and followers of the band, who share stories of the scene back then, and how Silkworm fit in — or didn’t.

Most impressive is the film’s handling of Dahlquist’s death. Pomeroy describes the circumstances with a quiet grace, making the drummer’s absence felt simply by letting his family and friends tell us about the person he was, rather than telling us, as viewers, how to feel.

The band’s music won’t ever be for everybody, yet the director artfully tells the story of what these three men had (music, community, each other), what they didn’t have (record sales, critical adoration, “cool” status), and what they could have had if tragedy hadn’t struck.

For all these reasons, I got ahold of Pomeroy this past summer in Nashville to discuss filmmaking, music, and, of course, the brilliant, misunderstood beast that was — and is — Silkworm.

CHARLIE ZAILLIAN: I liked how when I first complimented you on Couldn’t You Wait?, you didn’t say “hey, thanks,” but “I’m glad, I worked really fucking hard on that!”

SETH POMEROY: Well, it’s true. I did work really hard, and I try to be as sincere as possible. I spent six-and-a-half years making this film, and it was an exhaustive process.

CZ: And you are how old?

SP: I’m 30 years old.

CZ: So you spent the core of your 20s on this.

SP: Yeah, 24 to 30. I’ve been a screenwriter since I was 15, and did that freelance for a while… but wanted to make something I was in charge of.

CZ: Can you pinpoint the moment you decided you had to tell Silkworm’s story?

SP: Michael dying, clearly. They’ve been my favorite band since I was 16. I kept up with the message board on their site, which Michael would update with these tour journals. I was actively engaged in the web presence of Silkworm. Their website was a very open, genuine place. I didn’t know the members personally, but there was a little pocket of us here in Nashville who followed them… so when Michael died, it was literally us looking at the message board and saying “oh, shit.” On top of the tragedy being terrible, from my perspective as a fan I started to realize their records could very easily get lost in the shuffle. I was talking to my friend Shawn Girvan, who worked at Second City in Chicago with Heather Whinna, Albini’s wife. Shawn and I had been trying to collaborate forever, and I said to him, “if we talked to Heather and she said she thought it was a good idea, would you be willing to make this movie?” He was like, “yeah.” So it was really Michael’s death that made me go “if somebody doesn’t say something, no one will ever know a fan’s real perspective on what the band meant to them.” And that’s nonsense… people should know.

CZ: How did you announce to the band that you wanted to make a movie about them?

SP: Just before Michael died, a friend and I drove from Nashville to Chicago to see Silkworm play. Because it was Chicago on a Friday, I expected there to be a lot of people, but there weren’t. They were awesome, though, and as soon as it ended, I went to get my jacket, which was on the side of the stage next to Tim’s bass. He looked at me, like, “who are these weird dudes who know all our songs and have been jamming in the front row?” I’m like “we drove all the way from Nashville,” and Tim’s reaction was, “why’d you do that? That’s weird.” I bought all the merch I could, and told him something to the effect of “one day I’m going to put your music in movies.” At the time I meant narrative films, but a year later, we talked to Heather, who told Tim about the documentary idea. She said she could vouch for us; he understood, and was really nice. He knew it wasn’t like “here comes this great filmmaker who’s going to tell our story.” It was more “here’s some dude, and he doesn’t seem like a total asshole, so…”

Midgett, left, and Cohen — in costume, for charity — flank Seth Pomeroy at a Silkworm tribute concert at Chicago’s Empty Bottle in 2007. Photo by David Stein.

CZ: How did you go about deciding who to talk to?

SP: The first interview we did was with Albini, because he recorded all their records and is a big force in the independent rock scene.

CZ: And that set things in motion.

SP: Yeah, my friend and I talked to him after a Shellac show in Birmingham, Alabama. We drove home psyched, but also like “do we have something here?” We got back, watched it and were like “this is great. Steve is great. This is a documentary.” The goal of the film, once we got past how fun it was talking to people about Silkworm, was to put in perspective what indie-rock was and what it meant on the ground level to the people who were participating. Steve was important because he was a conduit for so many bands. He recorded Tortoise, The Jesus Lizard, Nirvana… he was in the middle of the indie-rock boom before it became completely monetized.

CZ: So that’s how Couldn’t You Wait? became a time capsule of sorts.

SP: A hundred percent, yeah. That wasn’t my intended spin, but it became clear that was the common thread of the movie.

CZ: After Albini, did you make a list of people to speak with, or follow one to the next?

SP: We knew we’d be in Chicago to get Tim and Andy, so anyone there who was available we’d talk to. Same with Seattle and Missoula, those being their home bases.

CZ: Interesting for a band to have three hometowns.

SP: Yeah, it’s nuts. We had a three-act structure built into the movie that was just reality. It was all rooted in them trying to find a place where they could be happy. They moved to Chicago because they knew Steve. “Our friends are here, we’re comfortable in this city, and maybe we’ll be able to finally do this in a way that doesn’t compromise us so much that we can’t make a real income.” Surviving was what it was about… they were so working-class. The Minutemen were like that, too. I was just listening to “History Lesson Part II”… that song’s so awesome. “Our band could be your life.” Those guys were psyched about being in a band. “I was Richard Hell, I was Joe Strummer… I can’t be those dudes, but I can be this dude… D. Boon.” That’s Silkworm, right there. They loved bands. Those dudes were fans first. Malkmus is a music fan. Tweedy is a music fan. People who play music for a living are music fans. Same with filmmakers. Martin Scorsese? That dude will talk about Alfred Hitchcock for hours before he’ll ever talk about his own stuff. Anyways… Tim and Andy made the list of everybody in each city that would have something to say about them. Like Tom Kipp… I have three-and-a-half hours of that guy talking about Silkworm.

CZ: For the uninitiated, who’s Tom Kipp?

SP: He’s a Missoula dude who was in a band called Ein Heit, the band that linked Joel to Tim and Andy when they were in high school. He’s also a rock writer. Tom was the guy who gave people Public Image Ltd. records in middle-of-nowhere Montana. Or Funkadelic, like, telling teenagers “listen to this Funkadelic shit.”

CZ: “If you show interest, I’m happy to talk about this music all day with you.”

SP: Yeah, and share smart perspectives about what it is, and what makes it cool. Tom helped equip them with the knowledge to be fans. They made great rock’n’roll music because they knew great rock’n’roll music in depth.

Cohen and Midgett perform live in 1994. Photo courtesy of Seth Pomeroy.

CZ: Was there a need to get higher-profile interview subjects, like Tweedy and Malkmus, to help with funding?

SP: Not necessarily funding so much as convincing people that Silkworm was worth discussing. It’s easy to watch these music movies and be like “oh, it’s a bunch of people who were in bands, or who were fans.” Our film is more about historicizing indie-rock than “they were the greatest band.” When we’re talking about why they’re good, we’d also counteract that with why people might react a little differently. If you’re not into things that are this unique, it might be a little much for you. If you can’t dig it, you can’t dig it, but you can at least respect what they did instead of trying to put it like “oh, they sound like Pavement, with a little bit of this and that,” because that’s pretty uninformed.

CZ: Do you think people don’t understand how long it takes to make a documentary?

SP: Not at all. And I’m a screenwriter first, a narrative filmmaker, so when I talked to an older documentarian and told him how long it had been he was like “oh, yeah. Six-and-a-half years? That’s about right.” When you’re making a documentary where you’re not following someone around, you have to allow so much time to get footage sent to you.

CZ: And I’d imagine you need time to let it sit, for the sake of context.

SP: Sure. And every single trip, we learned more about what our story was. We went to Missoula and met Tim and Andy’s parents, we met the dude who ran the record store they’d hang out at, and kept connecting the dots. We shot for three years and edited for three more, but beyond that, we had to get footage sent to us. The home movies we have of them as kids came at the last second. Some dude shot that for his A/V class in 1986. I didn’t even know it existed, but we ran into this guy Howard Todd Brown, who was friends with them back then, and Howard was like “find this guy Jeff, I don’t know how to spell his last name, but he’s lived in Missoula forever and I know he has this beta videotape somewhere.” I literally found this Alcoholics Anonymous band… “The Slow Drips” or something… and one of them was Jeff. I emailed the singer and was like “do you know a Jeff who went to Hellgate High in the ‘80s? Does he have this tape?” Jeff called my producer up, and was like “Yeah, I have it… I didn’t even know they were ever a band past that!” Things like that are magical, and why we needed to wait.

CZ: How did you approach the part of the story where Michael dies?

SP: Those who knew him well, we’d ask if they were comfortable talking about it. Everyone said yes, and after asking the questions, we made a point of seeing if they had any stories that could give us an idea of his personality, because obviously he’s the one guy we couldn’t interview. It was all very natural, and everyone was open and accepting of what happened… shitty as it was. We wanted the audience to feel his presence. When he dies, it isn’t about sensationalizing the moment. Your opinion of him isn’t “he was the drummer, he was great.” You get a good handle on who he was, inside and outside the band. When you’re dealing with death, you need to hit the nail on the head, or else what’s the point of discussing it? You have to give people a clear understanding of why it’s so tragic, not milk it for tears. This is reality, this is what the guy was like… now he’s not here, and it’s terrible.

CZ: Did you ever have a crisis of faith, like, “am I ever going to finish this?”

SP: No, because I’m the most hardheaded, crazy person in the world. Beyond that, I’m a man of my word. Tim and Andy’s lyrics shaped a big part of my life. If I told them I was going to do something and didn’t do it, I don’t know how I could live with myself. At a certain point it was like, “OK… Albini knows your name, and what you look like. You have to deliver, or you’re forever branded by people you respect as some dude who said he was going to do something, and didn’t.” I’ve enjoyed the rewards of having the film finished, but certain moments of the process, like anything else, sucked. Spending a whole day, like 12, 13 hours on something, and not getting any further along, is a huge bummer… but you can’t force it. No one likes beating their head against the wall… but it’s just how it is.

CZ: How did Tim and Andy react when you showed them the final cut?

SP: They were like, “this feels exactly like how it was…. it hits the nail on the head about why we did what we did, and what made us different, without being preachy.” Tim posted an awesome reaction to it on his blog, where he was basically like “I just watched my own life story. That was crazy.” He went on to say something like he was “in debt” to me, which is crazy. In debt? No, he’s not. His music has done enough for me. It’s fine.

CZ: Once the movie was done, what happened next?

SP: We spent thousands of dollars sending it to festivals, and didn’t get into any. I think if you have a built-in audience, there isn’t really a need to go that route. Nothing is more important than making things available to people who want to see them. If we wanted to put it in theaters, we’d have to get help booking venues and traveling. Selling it online is ideal, because it’s on the Internet forever. People anywhere in the world can buy it. If we’d put it on a DVD, there wouldn’t have been any guarantees.

CZ: Why the title Couldn’t You Wait?

SP: Because that’s the greatest Silkworm song ever… and because lyrics have dual meanings. “Couldn’t you wait” says a lot of things, even outside the context of the song. “Couldn’t you wait for some time to elapse?” That speaks for the film, and the band. Like, “did you have to go now? Couldn’t you wait a little longer to see why it was special or unique? I wasn’t done yet, and you’ve already made your mind up.”

CZ: Of course there can only be one, but are there any other bands you might liken to Silkworm — in spirit, if not in sound?

SP: XTC. They have numerous singers who do different things, and they’re also into taking pretty songs and making them super weird. Not on purpose… it’s just their personality. Messing things up, for fun. The Minutemen, too, very much so… a band propelled by friendship, where the bass player isn’t necessarily playing what the guitar player’s playing, and the drummer’s doing his own weirdo thing.

CZ: Bands with irreplaceable members.

SP: For sure. Not like “this is the songwriter, he writes the songs.” Silkworm never thought for a second about continuing after Michael’s death. They couldn’t have taught anyone those songs. It wouldn’t have worked.

CZ: Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to say?

SP: I will use Silkworm music in everything I do as often as I can for the rest of my life. They have so many great songs, and people need to hear them. Beyond that, I’m hoping to work with them on soundtracks, and am glad I know them well enough now where I can ask. I strongly believe in their art, and will support it forever. I’m not done with Silkworm, I promise you.

Click here to purchase and stream Couldn’t You Wait? in its entirety, and here to follow Pomeroy on Twitter.


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