Chapter 3: Chicago (Tim Midgett)
I was once in a car driving to Princeton Record Exchange with a friend. He reached for a CD and inserted it into his car stereo. As the first song began to play, I studied the artwork and song titles. Italian Platinum. What the fuck does that mean? I thought about it for a few minutes but gave up without reading any semblance of an answer. The mixture of loud rock songs and demure, pensive tunes gradually forced my attention away from conversation and onto the music. Oh, and those lyrics—all of them were brilliant!
This was my introduction to Silkworm, a band whose catalog I discovered in reverse order—starting first with the purchase of Italian Platinum and the fantastic You Are Dignified EP, and working my way back to their first record, L’Ajre. In the twelve years Silkworm released studio albums, there was never a dull moment for listeners. Changes in songwriting and structure were subtle at times, but the band consistently created stunning compositions.
So, I seized the opportunity to ask Tim Midgett if he wanted to meet up in Chicago by sending a series of “private messages” over the Electrical Audio website forum. After some short, back-and-forth dialogue about the project and availability we settled on an interview for my first night in Chicago: July 14, at 7:00p.m. I had no idea my time in Chicago would be an emotional voyage that ran the gamut from sublime to harrowing.
On July 14, 2005–-the same day that my discussion took place with Tim Midgett—Silkworm’s drummer, Michael Dahlquist, was killed in an automobile accident at an intersection in Skokie, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), along with his friends and fellow musicians John Glick and Doug Meis, while they were on their lunch break from their jobs at Shure Microphones. When Tim arrived for our arranged meeting, he was unaware of what had happened that afternoon. Michael came up in conversation only once—but at that moment, as Tim pinned Michael as “the social one” in the group—a huge, goofy, boyish grin spread across his face. When news reached me later about the horrific accident, the image of Tim smiling—and perhaps privately enjoying a particular memory of Michael—bore a hole in my head. It was haunting. I can still see the sheer adulation, the brotherly love that existed—and will continue to exist—between the members of Silkworm.
One of the great saving graces of music is its timeless nature. Once sounds are committed to tape, they become testaments that will invariably outlive their creators. They are, in essence, eternal. Silkworm recorded nine studio LPs and a plethora of singles, compilations and EPs over the course of their eighteen-year existence. Their sounds, being invaluable contributions to the music world, will continue to affect and inspire listeners for as long as music fans care to lend an ear.
I’m sleeping on a bench at North Avenue Beach on a scalding July afternoon. Today is the fourteenth. The sun is beating down, but there is a hint of a soft breeze blowing off Lake Michigan. A man stands at the end of a pier tossing tennis balls into the lake. His yellow Labrador retriever leaps into the water to fetch the ball, swims ashore, and runs the entire length of the pier back to its owner’s side. Gulls, like scavengers, hover overhead with their wings splayed.
My phone rings, and I check the incoming number to see that it is a Chicago area code. I rise from the bench too fast, and the feeling of blood rushing to my head is dizzying.
“Hey, is this Evan?”
“Yes, it is,” I reply.
“Hey, Evan, this is Tim. Midgett.”
“Oh, hey, Tim. How are you today?”
“Good, thanks. Are you in Chicago yet?”
“Yeah, I was just at the beach for a few minutes. What’s your schedule like this evening?”
“I was thinking we could meet at Café Boost on North Clark Street?” he suggests. “It’s the fifty-four-hundred block. Do you know where that is?”
“Yeah.” Actually, I have no idea.
“I’ll be there at around seven-fifteen,” he says. I glance at my phone. It’s just after six. “If you’re on North Avenue you should probably get started. I think the game just ended.” I thank him and tell him I’ll be there on time. I walk to my car and pull out of the parking lot make a turn and wind up —luckily—right on Clark Street. It’s a straight shoot past Wrigley Field uptown until I find the café with no problem. I park across the street, in front of a bar.
I cross the street and approach Café Boost. I tug at the door nonchalantly, only to realize that it’s padlocked. It is only then I notice that all of the windows are covered—there is no view inside. The place is, as far as I can tell, sealed off completely. I reach for my phone and dial Tim’s number.
“Hey, um, Tim?” I walk in small circles around the corner of the block.
“Yeah, Evan, what’s up?”
“Does Café Boost open at a certain hour or something? Or is it, like, closed? Because the door is padlocked and the windows are covered in ‘Happy Birthday’ wrapping paper.”
“Oh, shit,” he says, “maybe it’s closed.”
“So it’s not just for ambiance?”
He laughs. “Shit. What else is around there?” The line is silent for a few moments before he says, “Well, there’s an Einstein Brothers bagel place a block away on the same side of the street. Let’s meet there instead.”
We agree and disconnect. When I get to the bagel place the lights are off and the door is locked. This place, too, is closed. Instead of calling again, I sit outside waiting for him to arrive. He gets there slightly after 7:15pm, a tall, smiling guy with closely cropped blonde hair and wearing a white t-shirt and white pants. We shake hands, and after brief introductions we reluctantly decide to take our chat to the Starbucks on the corner.
We enter; Tim gets an orange drink, I get a bottle of water. We find table for two in a corner by the window overlooking Clark Street. We take our seats and I crack my drink. Tim studies his bottle.
“I’ve never really had one of these before.”
“I hope it doesn’t suck.”
He turns the bottle over in his hands and reads the label before twisting the cap off and sampling the liquid. His resultant expression is reminiscent of a wine connoisseur evaluating a vintage merlot. His face hints at indifference. His eyebrows raise and he sort of half-smiles.
“Silkworm wasn’t originally a Chicago band,” I begin.
“What do you think it was that led you to move from Seattle?”
“Andy and I grew up in Montana, in western Montana, and we started playing there. Then, you know, moving to Seattle was motivated by the size of the town basically. I think what kind of separated Chicago from Seattle for us, is just that there is so much going on and it’s just such a huge city. I think we felt like everybody we knew who lived here [in Chicago] at the time we were in Seattle seemed to be doing something constructive with their lives.” He laughs at this notion. “You know, like, we knew people in Seattle who were being constructive too, but it seemed there were a lot of people who were scuffling around and adrift.”
“Right, I can see that aimless attitude in a place like Seattle.”
“That is driven by the way the city is. It’s kind of an outpost; it’s in the thick of things. Also there’s just that kind of attitude in Chicago that doing things, and working on something that means something to you, is important.”
“Would you say that Chicago has been labeled with something of a working-class aesthetic style by the media?” I ask.
He takes a sip of his drink and stops to ponder this question before answering. “Mmm… not really. I think there are a lot of different kinds of bands from Chicago, you know? So I don’t really feel that way. I think that at different times there have been different groups of bands that have things in common. In the early 1980s there was Naked Raygun, The Effigies and Big Black who were all sort of tangentially related. There were other bands that I don’t know much about. There have always been people who have the same kind of spirit about what they’re doing, more than actually sounding the same. But that’s true with most decent music scenes, you know? Certainly in New York that was true in the early 1980s when Sonic Youth and The Swans were grouped together a little bit.”
“It seems like the artistic community here—at least the people whose careers I follow somewhat closely—they’re a close-knit group,” I suggest.
“I think the main thing is that it’s such a big place and so many people are doing things, anything, that if you’re not totally antisocial you’re going to end up making friends who play music. Our drummer Michael spends a lot of time out and about. He’d be a great person to talk to, if you want…”
“I’d really like to, actually.”
“Yeah, I can set you up…” he smiles, “But, I mean, I have a kid and stuff and my wife and I spent a lot of time at home,” he reflects. “I still have a lot of good friends who play music and who are in bands, who make posters, or paint. So, I think it’s kind of unavoidable. It’s just because the people you meet are bound to be doing something.”
“So I guess, outside of solely music, all the other facets of art congregate or are drawn together, maybe, by parallel interests?”
“Kind of.” He stops and drinks. “I don’t even know how to put this, but I think that other places have things that handicap them slightly maybe, like groups of people who are involved in creating stuff. It stifles the creation of little groups or communities.”
“Well, I think that in a city like Los Angeles that’s just so huge—plus it’s driven by the entertainment industry, it’s so forcefully present there—I think that’s kind of a handicap in terms of people who are interested in just doing stuff. Also, just the fact that it’s so huge and spread out. On the other hand, I think any city as small as Seattle is bound to get clique-ish. And then New York, there’s always this attitude that it’s the place to be, and the music scene always seemed kind of dog-eat-dog from the outside. I don’t know,” he surmises, “Maybe because it’s so big and the people live on top of each other, there’s a lot of competition or something. I don’t know.”
“Well, I know some New York bands and it seems like, in an area like Chicago or Austin or Louisville, the competition is definitely much healthier,” I postulate. “In New York or LA, the bands are clamoring to rise to the top just so they can shit on everyone else beneath them.” We both laugh.
“Yeah. Austin and Louisville and places like that, I think of as being different just because they’re college towns. I think that the opportunity to be some kind of sensation is pretty limited. Plus, colleges foster that curiosity about things. As far as Chicago is concerned, I think there’s a real workman-like attitude that just pervades or permeates through the whole culture of the city. That’s just stereotypically Chicago, you know?”
I nod knowingly through a mouthful of water.
“They built this city up out of marshland”—he pauses—“Twice!” he blurts out, through laughter. “They built it up and then it burned down and they did it again. And that’s totally reflected in the way that things get done here, for better or for worse. I always tell people, in Seattle they’ve been trying to build a light rail system for public transportation. It was supposed to be done a couple years ago, and they haven’t even built it or laid one track yet. People are always arguing about where it should go, blah blah blah.”
“That sounds like the Big Dig in Boston,” I muse.
“Exactly! In a city like Chicago, if they decided to put another line in development, they just do it. That would mean a lot of people getting paid off and stuff, too,” he laughs, “but you know…or like, a little while ago, there used to be this airport right near downtown called Meigs Field. Mayor Daley always hated it for various reasons. He wanted to put a park there and he thought it was a security hazard especially after Nine-Eleven. He thought it was a good reason to get rid of it. No one wanted to get rid of it that badly, so he just had city construction crews march in there at two a.m. one night and just…they had these bulldozers, the guys didn’t even know what they were going there for, and he had guys just cut huge X’s in the runways”—he draws the X’s in front of him with his index finger, laughing—“It stranded all these planes. Some people were really pissed off, but you know, he gets like eighty percent of the vote. So he just did it. And now they’re having concerts there this summer.”
“Is that the new park? Millennium Park?” I ask.
“I don’t know for sure actually,” Tim answers. “For good or for bad, Chicago is the kind of place where if people want to get something done, they just do it. It’s always been like that, since the beginning of the city.”
“You just mentioned the political aspect of the city. Do you think, outside of the artistic community itself, Chicago’s culture instills pride or garners respect from the local government as well as local communities?”
“I think the city is kind of benign and indifferent. The one thing about Chicago—as opposed to a lot of places—I mean, they have these pretty strict liquor license laws that impede the ability of people to open clubs. On the other hand, I know that it could be a lot worse. People complain about the lack of all-ages venues and stuff, but the fact is, there are places doing it and a lot of times it really is prohibitively expensive because there are all these regulations. In Seattle it was almost impossible to do all-ages shows and make any money at all—the band, the club, anybody. So, I think that on a large, community-oriented level, taking your family to the park on a Sunday afternoon is something that is going to appeal to a wide variety of people; there are plenty of things like that going on. In terms of like, rock bands, I think it is just kind of…” he searches for a word, “whatever. You put it together yourself and there’s enough indifference on the part of the city that you can manage, you know. In terms of mainstream acceptance, most people really don’t think about it at all. It’s kind of a really good combination in terms of fostering the kind of creative output that I am interested in, because people have the wherewithal and the general ability in terms of being able to have a space to perform in and practice. But there’s also not this ‘feeding frenzy’ aspect to it, where we’re trying to just get signed. There’s no mainstream music industry presence in Chicago. So there aren’t people crawling around…” he thinks about it. “Well, it’s very limited anyway. There aren’t people crawling all over the place at shows or talking through people’s sets. It seems to me like it’s more oriented towards just doing it than a lot of other cities.”
“Would you say that Touch and Go is the biggest label presence here?”
“Um, probably.” He draws another sip of orange drink. “Yeah. Yeah…I’m trying to think.” He wipes his forehead. “Yeah, probably.”
“What year did you join up with them?”
“We started making records that came out on Touch and Go in, like, 1997 or 1998. We are actually not making records for them anymore. I think they’re probably the biggest. Certainly in recent years they’ve had some bands that have sold a lot more copies than your average independent band is going to sell. That’s definitely true. There are some labels like Alligator, which is a blues label that’s based here. Or Chess Records, and I may be forgetting about something. It’s just not something that I think about a lot.”
“The everyday Chicagoan,” I ask, “what is their level of interest or involvement in the local music scene?”
“Well, I mean, you have the truly average Chicagoan who may have heard of Smashing Pumpkins—that’s their idea of a Chicago rock band. In terms of people who are actually in bands, I think people actually go out just to see new bands—and certainly I’m bad because I’m older and I don’t actually do stuff like that anymore—but I hear about bands who are local and I become interested in them, or hear them on the radio. We have a couple of good college stations, probably three. There’s WHBK which is University of Chicago, but that’s on the south side. The ones I listen to are WNUR and WLUW which is Loyola.”
“WNUR is Northwestern, right?”
“Yeah. Both of those are really good and oftentimes I’ve heard bands on there that I didn’t know anything about, that I thought were really good and they turned out to be local bands. I think there are a lot of people who go to shows to check stuff out, which is great. And I think that because it’s never really been the rage, it’s kind of just been at this ongoing, pretty manageable, level.”
“Have you seen any shifts in the music scene in your time here?”
“No,” Tim says, “but we haven’t lived here that long. It’s been five years. I actually went to school at Northwestern for a little while in the late 1980s and it seemed like there was a bit more of a ‘feeding frenzy,’ or whatever, about bands then. But then again, we lived in Seattle in the early 1990s, so it didn’t get any crazier than that. I mean, it was like Liverpool or something, you know? In terms of just the sheer number of bands, and the overwhelming interest for not-usually-musical reasons, and people trying to make money and stuff—it was insane. It really wasn’t good in the end for the music scene itself, because there were a lot of people who got in there and tried to make careers on it and pushed out people who probably had been running a bar or whatever. People sort of cashed in for a while but then the bottom fell out.”
“Like the dot-com boom.”
“Exactly,” Tim agrees. “You get a lot of people who shouldn’t really be involved, who are just there to capitalize. Having seen that—having lived through that—I’m really grateful that things are the way they are in Chicago. There are places to play. We have a few places we can play—but I don’t think it’s prohibitively difficult to get a show. I like it just the way it is.”
“So when you take that attitude on the road, are you disappointed?” I ask. “Do you notice the little nuances that differentiate Chicago from other music cities in the country?”
“Well, we toured the most when we lived in Seattle, and we always loved going to Chicago,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons all of us, gradually, moved here. We didn’t decide to as a band, we just kind of individually gravitated here because it had such a strong pull on us. We just really like people here, and I realized at a certain point that I probably had ten people I would consider close friends living in Chicago—and only four or five in Seattle, even after being there for, like, ten years. It was just strange, you know? In terms of the attitude of the people there, which is very close to the way that we have always approached things—just always focused on making music and enjoying that part of it, and expressing ourselves—that’s all that’s ever mattered to us. Pretty much everybody I know who is in a band that I have any use for [is] here; that’s all I care about.”
“So when you go out-of-state, you notice those aspects of other cities that don’t match up, ideologically or otherwise.”
“Yeah,” Tim confirms, “we haven’t toured super-heavily for a long time, but we still regularly play.”
“And you go overseas,” I add.
“Yeah, we go overseas. But we still play in New York and Boston and all that. And I think that, really, all those cities have had ups in terms of people going crazy for them, and they have this huge swarming scene—then they’ve also had bigger downs, where it’s impossible for anyone to get anything going. I don’t guess—having lived through that—I don’t think people should envy any of it. It’s not worth it. If you really just want to play music, the last thing you’d want to do is move into the middle of something like that.”
“Would you say,” I ask Tim, “that the environment for those up-and-coming bands you mentioned, is conducive to getting bigger? Like, Local Band X you heard on the radio can come up through the ranks in Chicago, where maybe they can’t in another city?”
“Sure, yeah. I mean, I think so,” Tim says. “There are a lot of places they can play, and they’re places that have been around for a while. If some place goes out of business, it’s depressing. I thought it was really a bad thing when Lounge Ax closed, but there were various places that sort of…they couldn’t replace it, but they took up some of the slack. I think that it’s a big enough city and there’s enough room and space for people to do things, that there will always be that outlet for people. In some place like New York, I think it’s a lot more limited. There are a lot of places, sure, but having just enough square footage to have a decent bar is kind of a big deal, you know? If you talk to bands that are just getting started; I’m sure they have the same complaints that any band would—but it seems like a good environment to me.”
“As far as the future is concerned, do you foresee any shifts or changes in the dynamic of the music scene in Chicago?”
“Not that I can see,” he says, “but I’m not super-involved on a day-to-day basis. People are pretty down-to-earth in terms of what they want to do. The people I know, or the people that I’m once removed from, they just seem to be not super-ambitious in terms of going places. They just want to make records, and they get excited about that.”
“So we’re back to the workman-like attitude,” I observe.
“Yeah,” Tim consents. “Yeah.”
“Do you think there’s a quintessential Chicago story involving Silkworm?” I wonder. “You seem like the type of people who would find yourselves in a fucked-up ‘only in Chicago’ moment, somewhere along the line.”
“I think we always just really liked coming here, for the same reason I like living here. This is still my favorite place to play in the United States. People just like listening to good music, and it seems like they know a lot generally, like audiences seem to know things and be—” Tim laughs, noticing his own joke, “you know…”
“Instead of standing around talking loudly, or being standing around brooding?”
“Yeah, there are places you can play here where people will talk through your whole set and half the crowd is there just to be seen,” he says. “But there are also a lot of places where you can play and have a great show,” he adds, “and if you can bring it, you can be from wherever and people can have never heard of you before—but you’re still going to have a really good show because people acknowledge that, and realize that. That doesn’t necessarily happen every place in my experience. You could play the best show you’ve ever played in some cities, and it might not matter because of the people. I mean, like I said, it’s the whole workman-like attitude thing. It’s lasted from the beginning of the city forward. I think, also, the cultural aspects of Chicago in terms of the music that has come out of here—that it has always been a great city for music, from the start.”
By now, Tim’s bottle of orange drink—like the rest of this Starbucks on Clark Street—has emptied. Before we each go our separate ways, I thank him for taking a few minutes to talk with me. He asks about the remainder of my travels, paying particular interest to my stops in Missoula and Billings, Montana. He offers to get me in touch with his bandmates, Michael Dahlquist and Andy Cohen. I thank him again, and promise to be in touch in the near future. Neither of us had a clue, however, about what was happening to Silkworm outside of this coffeehouse—or what the circumstances of our next exchange would be.
Photos (minus the dog) courtesy of Silkworm.net
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