When a record release is only the third most significant event of the month for a band, things have definitely turned a corner. On September 14 Silkworm put out its ninth album, It'll Be Cool (Touch and Go), but just three days before, guitarist Andy Cohen had gotten married--and ten days later, bassist Tim Midgett's first child was born.
Formed in Missoula, Montana, almost two decades ago, Silkworm is one of several long-running local acts that have changed the way they operate to survive the conflicts posed by families, careers, or other musical projects. The Mekons, Eleventh Dream Day, the Poster Children, Velvet Crush--no one in any of these veteran bands still treats it like a full-time job or expects to make a living from it, but they've all continued to make vital music.
For Silkworm the transformation has been gradual. In 1997 the band was signed to Matador and had just released Developer, which was selling respectably and earning positive press. Touring an average of seven months a year, they were earning enough money to support themselves, but they felt like they'd hit a ceiling. "It was kind of a moment of reckoning," says Midgett. "Are we gonna keep hammering away at this as a group and probably have the exact same results? Or are we gonna try to shape our lives individually, to try to get the things we want for ourselves while also being able to play music?"
Silkworm continued to tour and record at the same rate for the next few years, but Midgett made time to complete his electrical engineering degree in Seattle, where the band was based for most of the 90s, and graduated in early 2001. A few months later he took a job with the Shure microphone company in Niles, and later that same year drummer Michael Dahlquist started with the company as a technical writer. Around the same time, Cohen graduated from the University of Chicago law school and began practicing. Now all three own their own homes, and Cohen and Midgett are both married. These days they don't tour for more than two weeks at a time--on the current trip, which brings them to Schubas on Saturday (see the Treatment for more), they'll play just five dates. The wait between Silkworm albums has also grown longer, but sales haven't dropped dramatically. "I don't think it makes the music any different, but it makes our relationship with it different," says Midgett. "We're not out flogging it all the time."
For the Poster Children, a 17-year-old pop-punk outfit from Champaign led by Rick Valentin and his wife, Rose Marshack, a single moment of reckoning never came. "The only time I really felt a titanic shift in my life in relation to the band," says Valentin, "was the day Rose and I quit our day jobs to go on a full U.S. tour in 1991--and even then, we thought we'd get home afterwards and go find other jobs. It was just a fluke that we wound up making enough money to survive as a touring band for a number of years."
In 1997 the Poster Children had been with Sire for six years and five releases, but a personnel shake-up at the label made it an inhospitable place and they asked to be released from their deal. Valentin and Marshack devoted themselves full-time to their company, XcoDesign, which makes enhanced CDs for the likes of Thrill Jockey and Merge--but the band continued to put out records, this time on indie labels, without missing a beat. Though the couple now have a one-year-old son, in 2004 the Poster Children have put out No More Songs About Sleep and Fire and the covers EP On the Offensive, both on Hidden Agenda.
The band isn't making the kind of money it used to, but Valentin and Marshack say they don't much care. "We never really viewed music as a career--we viewed every opportunity to play shows or go on tour as a gift," says Valentin. "We love to play music and we base all of our band decisions on preserving that love, rather than preserving the band as a commercial entity. Nothing depresses me more than musicians who no longer play music because they had their passion crushed by the business."
The business came pretty close to finishing off Velvet Crush. The power-pop combo's core members, bassist-singer Paul Chastain and drummer Ric Menck, began playing together in Champaign in the late 80s. After relocating to Rhode Island with guitarist Jeffrey Underhill a few years later, the band signed to the British label Creation and recorded Teenage Symphonies to God. The album came out in 1994, the same year Velvet Crush toured England with Oasis, and was hailed as one of the decade's pop masterpieces. But label head Alan McGee, whose problems with drugs have since been well documented, disappeared for months just before its release. Teenage Symphonies was poorly promoted and sold disappointingly.
In 1996 Creation rejected Velvet Crush's follow-up, Heavy Changes, and dropped the band. Menck moved to Los Angeles and Underhill quit to raise a family. Though they were on opposite coasts, Chastain and Menck decided to soldier on, releasing Heavy Changes on their own Action Musik label. "Back in the day we had managers and lawyers and people giving us money to do stuff," says Chastain. "Now we have to generate everything ourselves and deal with every detail." The two are supporting themselves as musicians: Menck has played with the likes of Liz Phair and Marianne Faithfull, and Chastain, who recently returned to Champaign, has worked with Stephen Duffy of Lilac Time. Both regularly tour behind Matthew Sweet, who headlines when Velvet Crush plays Park West on Sunday (see the Treatment for more).
Although the band hasn't gigged regularly in ages--this is its first tour since 1998--it's released three more albums, including this year's Stereo Blues. For Menck and Chastain, making a record means big long-
distance bills. "We usually get together when we're at a stage when we need to record. In the meantime there's always songs in progress that we'll send back and forth, and we talk a lot conceptually about what we want to do. Working that way certainly strings out the lifetime of making a record."
Silkworm has also adjusted its pace lately. "We've done plenty of records in three and a half days straight, and that includes the mix," says Midgett. But It'll Be Cool took an entire year. "We had to work on it during weekends or whenever we could fit it in and let the songs sit for months at a time."
Midgett expects that the next Silkworm LP won't be out "for another two years or so." But he says the band still gets together every week to play. "Ultimately the reason we keep doing this is because it's gratifying to us," he says. "On a real basic level it's just a release, a creative release. So why stop?"
When: Sat 11/6, 10 PM
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
What: Velvet Crush
When: Sun 11/7, 8 PM
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Info: 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.