The hardest thing about being cultishly devoted to a band is the evangelizing. "No, listen," I've found myself pleading on multiple occasions. "This band is the absolute greatest; please believe me."
Where does that desperate tinge in my voice come from when I talk about Bottomless Pit, and its predecessor, Silkworm? It's not unique to me at all - this is the way fans of these bands talk about them. Pleadingly, dramatically. Bottomless Pit is just that good.
Silkworm was just that good too - and the band's records still are. But Silkworm ceased to exist on July 14, 2005. That's when drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed in a car wreck, the circumstances of which are too sad to get into in this space. The other two members of the trio, Tim Midyett and Andy Cohen, came together as Bottomless Pit later that year. Along with Chris Manfrin (drums) and Brian Orchard (bass), Midyett (baritone guitar) and Cohen (guitar), released two albums and an EP that were quietly spectacular. And so Bottomless Pit has spent the better part of a decade becoming as cultishly beloved as Silkworm - and without any words to the press.
In fact, this is Midyett's first set of interviews in eight years. The interviews accompany the release of the band's third LP, Shade Perennial
. Along with a reissue of Silkworm album Libertine
(by Comedy Minus One, which also released all of Bottomless Pit's records) and the recent release of Couldn't You Wait,
a documentary lovingly created by a Silkworm ultra-fan, Seth Pomeroy, there's lots to talk about with Midyett. And of course there's non-music stuff to chat about too, like his eponymous meat rub.
Bottomless Pit will play in their hometown of Chicago at Township on November 16.
NUVO: Am I right that's it's been about eight years since you've done interviews?
Tim Midyett: Yeah.
NUVO: And why come back to us horrible press monsters now? We're the worst.
Midyett: You know, the main reason we stopped doing them is that I knew the focus of the interviews right after the band started would have to be about the demise of Silkworm and Michael Dahlquist's death and everything. And it's not that I minded talking about any of that - totally comfortable talking about it - I just didn't want to do it glibly. And a lot of times interviews are off-the-cuff, and I wanted whatever I had to say about it to be precise. And Andy and I talked about it and I said, "You know, I don't think I can talk in interviews about this. I think it needs to come out and be for the records. And obviously the music is shot through with all of that stuff. I was like, "I just want to not talk about it to people for publication. I just want to put out records and let them speak for themselves.
And now there's a body of work that addresses all that stuff. And I feel like talking about it glibly in interviews is okay now. It feels all right to me now. I guess that's about it.
NUVO: Building on that, I get frustrated with a lot of music reviews and interviews because I feel like they don't go as deep [into the artist's work] as they should. I wonder if you get tired of the setup that comes with a lot of Bottomless Pit articles, such as, "This is the band Tim and Andy started after Silkworm for this and this reasons." Or do you feel like that setup is an inevitable part of the band's story that is key for the listener to really understand the music?
Midyett: I think from a journalistic standpoint, y'all wouldn't be doing your job properly if you didn't get into that. The band wouldn't exist is Michael was still alive, and that's totally part of the story. I don't have any problem with that at all and I think it's inevitable.
NUVO: You were last in Indiana to play the Jason Molina tribute show, correct? I lived down there for about five years, and that show was an awful reason for having a bunch of people who's music I liked in the same room. I wonder if you would like to talk a little bit about the experience of playing that night.
Midyett: It was a great day. I mean, I knew that Jason was on this downward spiral for a while. A lot of us did. You can't say that people didn't do anything they could do to make it not happen. A lot of people did a lot of things except correspond with him and try and encourage him when I could. But, when someone's on that path, they have to figure out their own shit, and it didn't get to that point. He didn't get to do that.
So, it wasn't a huge surprise to me when it happened, but it was a shock. It was horrible. He was an awesome dude and a great musician. It was good to be able to go there and share the experience of mourning his death and celebrate everything that he's done. There was a daytime event that Andy played at that was quieter, more acoustic-type thing. People shared remembrances and what not. And that was great. It was funny because it was really long - like three hours long. The guy put out like a hundred records or something like that. You can't say he wasn't prolific - that he didn't get the most out of the time he had. But it wasn't boring - it was really interesting and all the music was great.
And then, later that night, we played as part of the [tribute event] with Magnolia [Electric Co.]
. We love those guys. And it was fantastic to get on stage with those guys. It sounded amazing up there. They're such great players. They really live that music. It was like taking a warm bath or something. It was really a great experience. I don't get to do that very much, because when you're playing, some part of your brain is whirring, working on it. And I didn't have to do that when I was up there with them. I know those songs real well, so I could just let go. It was a great way to soak up the last little bit of that - to experience his music in a way that I hadn't before. And it was great to see those guys. They're such a great band.
Same thing happened with us. Losing Michael was the main thing, and I gladly would have given up the experience of ever having been in the band to keep him around and still having him as a friend. But losing the band was a second loss. Same thing with Jason and Magnolia. Him dying was the main thing, and the worst thing, because you lose that person. But losing his output and losing that band playing together is a big deal too. I was glad that for one night they got back and played together.
NUVO: It feels like between the new album, the Libertine reissue, the Silkworm documentary, your chats with the press - it feels like there's a certain momentum. Is this intentional? Is it a glorious coincidence? Are things just lining up perfectly?
Midyett: It's just one of those things. It's all just happened. It wasn't planned at all. I didn't have anything to do with the movie other than talking to Seth, who made it, a whole bunch. And encouraging him to keep going. But I love the movie; I think it's awesome. I can never repay him for the time and money and effort he expended on it.
reissue ... it was time. We didn't have any more. There was some demand, it seems like. The new record, we just ... that's what we do. Make records. [laughs] The band's not going anywhere. I'm not going to be able to stop doing this. It's all just sort of coincidence that it all mounted at the same time. Joel Phelps just put out a really good new record too [Gala] - it came out almost the same day as the Bottomless Pit record. It's pretty funny.
NUVO: Let's get into the music. Question from a listener: if you could talk a bit about the specific logistics of composing for guitar, baritone guitar and bass - there must be special considerations that come into play to make sure that you guys aren't stomping all over each other's sonic space all the time. (Editor's note: I crowd-sourced some questions from some similarly devoted Bottomless Pit fans.)
Midyett: I think back when Joel was in Silkworm, there was quite a bit of a range that went into making that work. Making the bass signify along with these two guitars. Joel's guitar was a bit more saxophone-y sounding and Andy's is more breaking glass-sounding. But still, they're the same frequency, technically, and you know, you have to work it out.
It's a little bit easier with Bottomless Pit. The instrumentation is that way for a reason. I wanted it to be sort of like chamber music. There's a double bass, cello, violin. And they each have their own space they can live in. There's some overlap. The baritone can do a little bass and some guitar. But I don't think I really play it like either one. It kind of lives in the middle for me, naturally. Most of that stuff takes care of itself and if you want to bottle it up and make it one, big monolithic thing you can do that. And we do that sometimes, but just as much of the time we're kind of each working at or around our own little part of it. But yeah, it does require some messing around with stuff.
And sometimes you want to stomp on each other. And we can do that when we need to.
NUVO: This album, to me, feels more loose, kind of an unwinding, compared to the previous two, especially the first one. I remember reading somewhere someone commenting, "You can set your watch to a Bottomless Pit record," they're just so precise. Do you feel that unwinding? Is it intentional? More akin to the live performances, to Silkworm records?
Midyett: I think you're right. I think it's a lot more chaotic than the other records. The other records are very kind of really just so. I think that gets back to wanting to be precise, of wanting to say some very specific things about what had happened to us and how we felt about things, and just life, now, after Michael died. What things were like for us.
When you want to be real precise about that, it's kind of more important that you clear out space for the vocals, make everything kind of exacting. If you think about a band, like one of my favorite bands ever, Bed Head, those guys are awesome at that. And those guys are still really great at that in The New Year, the Kadane brothers [Matt and Bubba]. It's a little bit more of that kind of feel. "This is the place where that happened." "This is the place where this happened." It's not improvisational hardly at all. There's moments of it, but even those are planned. Like, "Now's the time that you can do that thing that you wanted to that's weird," or whatever.
So that was distinct from Silkworm, because we didn't do that really; we just kind of went for it. There was also those ... the first three things including the EP Congress
were pieced together a bit more. We'd belabor things a little more. And with this record, I really ... you know what did it, actually? It was listening to Libertine
when we remastered it. There was a real, peculiar symbiotic quality to it of guys playing stuff that parts of it wouldn't make sense on their own, but together they make something special and weird. I hadn't listened to that record in a while before we went in to remaster it. And then it was like, "Wow, I don't remember doing that. Why did I do that? Why did I play that weird two-note bass part under those six chords? That's strange." But it sounded cool.
And I thought, you know, the reason that I did that is because we played those songs a shitload, and that's the only way that you ever get to that point as a band. If you hammer the hell out of them and make sure you know where the boring parts are so you can not play them. Change them to make them not boring. And that's what we did with this record. We played these songs for like three years. And it only has eight songs on it, so, you know. We really beat them up the best we could, so when we went in the studio, it wasn't the thing of piecing them together over the course of three months. It was a day and a half. We just played it, and it was done.
I remember telling Steve [Albini, who produced Shade Perennial
, as well as various other Silkworm and BP releases], as far as the recording, when we talked about it, that I don't even care if it sounds good, exactly. I don't want it to be tidy, at all. I want it to be really live, really messy and gnarly sounding. And at every turn if we could make a decision to make it neater or crazier, we tried to go with the more lively, messier thing.
NUVO: Totally different topic, but interesting to me: you changed your name, recently, correct? The spelling of your last name? Pronunciation as well as spelling?
Midyett: Yeah. It was straight-up "midget" before. And now, it's "midd-yett," which is the modern pronunciation of that spelling, Midgett. In French, it's "mid-e-ett." They came over to the Carolinas, mid-1700s there was a split, and people were like, "I'm tired of not knowing how to pronounce my name," so they just wrote "Midgett."
Then, like a 100 years after that, P.T. Barnum started calling dwarves "midgets" in the circus. And, for a while - this is more than you wanted to know probably.
NUVO: I could not be more interested. (Editor's note: This was said very sincerely. She really could not have been more interested in this etymological side note.)
Midyett: - for a while, after Barnum started using it in the circus, midget was the preferred term [for little people]. Midget sort of implied that you were proportionally "normal," whereas dwarves had dwarfism - long torsos, shorter legs, etc. Couple things: one, the outward signs of dwarfism are almost gone, because they've figured out how to avoid those, with prenatal care. There are much fewer people who exhibit the typical proportions of dwarfism. Second, little people realized that "midget" was a circus term, and they were like, "Well, what the hell? I don't want to be called a midget anymore. That's terrible." And so it became a pejorative, in my lifetime, in the last 20 years. And it only happened about five or six years ago that I noticed that people didn't want to say it - they didn't want to say my name. And then I did some research and realized, "Aw, crap. This is not cool." It's like having any other kind of slur as a last name.
So I changed it. And my whole family still has the same name. But, I partly changed it because of that, for myself. But mostly because I have a kid. And it's not like it's going to change back [from being a pejorative.] It's not like it's going to be cool to call people that again. So I thought, "I'm just going to make her life easier, and swap that." Plus, it's not the original name, anyway.
NUVO: It's fascinating how language changes. For someone who does not care about sports at all, it's been fascinating keeping up with the Redskins debate happening in sports writing right now. If someone is telling you, "I'm offended when you use that word," then, change it!
Midyett: Yeah! Who cares! I finally realized, I have nothing invested ... anyone who wants to find me, can find me. There's no reason for me to keep my name. And if it makes anyone uncomfortable, or me [uncomfortable] or it's going to make my kid's life 1 percent weirder, just forget it.
NUVO: I kept going back and forth before I realized that you officially changed it wondering if I was spelling it wrong. And now, mystery answered!
Midyett: Yeah. They bleep it on TV sometimes now! I was watching some terrible Real Housewives show or something, and she said, the woman said, "Fuck that midget." And they bleeped both words, and subtitled it, because it was hard to tell what she was saying. It was "F - - that m - - ." [laughs]. Yeah. It's totally not cool.
NUVO: I feel slightly ashamed that I had not realized that it had reached that level - of bleep-ability.
Midyett: Most people don't care. Because they're not dwarves, so it doesn't matter to them.
NUVO: Another completely non-music related question. You have a meat rub!
Midyett: I do. I do.
NUVO: If I could make only one thing with that meat rub, what would be the most delicious thing I could make? What's the foolproof Midyett meat plan?
Midyett: Well it's great on steak. It's really great on any kind of beef. I would say if you get an 1 ½ inch thick strip steak and coat it - I tried to formulate it so that anything over an inch thick cut, you can't really overdo it - if you just coat an 1 ½ inch thick, bone-in strip steak, that should be great. I prefer strip steak to ribeye, but you could put it on a ribeye and it'd be just the same. You just cook it like normal, and it'll be great. It's awesome on beef, it's awesome on any game meat, venison, any of that stuff. I like it. I'm totally sold on that beef rub. It's good on pork and chicken and stuff too, but it's really made for beef.
NUVO: Besides cooking delicious meats, what do you do when you're not making music? I know you don't tour a ton; what else are you doing, job-wise, and how do you navigate that balance?
Midyett: That's a good question, because it's not super easy to do. Silkworm moved to Seattle in 1990, and we kind of went full-bore with things then through about '97. And we had full-timeish jobs until about '93 or '94, and then we toured an awful lot for about three years. We realized at a certain point, we could keep doing this, but at a certain point, it's not going to be fun. And when it's not fun, then you're not liking making music anymore and that sucks. So we thought, let's hold up. Let's develop ourselves as human beings, [laughs], go back to school. Andy went to law school. I got an engineering degree. Michael got a real job. We thought, let's become adults to some extent, and then keep doing this. We figured out a balance there.
As we've gotten older, it's become even more difficult to do it. Everybody has kids; our jobs, we have more responsibility. I own a company with a friend of mine. We do some consulting, everything from advertising to some website design work. Before that I was a trader; I worked in electronic trading for a company here in Chicago for a number of years. And Andy's a lawyer. So, you just squeeze it in. It's the kind of occupation where there's space in our lives; we can't afford to do it full time, and we wouldn't want to do it full time, I don't think, because of the compromises you have to make to even make a run at that. They're significant. It gets weird when you have another job, anyway. So it's good, maybe, that we're in no position to make it our lives work.
But it's not a hobby. It's not like playing golf. It has a lot more meaning than that, and it occupies a lot more mental space than that would. Unless you're really serious about golf, so. I don't know what to call it. I guess it's an avocation.
NUVO: You guys seem to thoroughly have your shit together.
Midyett: I don't know about that.
NUVO: It seems impressive. From afar and over a phone.
Midyett: Well good. I'm glad that illusion is intact.
NUVO: I wonder about the experience of being in a band with a cult following. The people that like Bottomless Pit and Silkworm - well, they don't like Bottomless Pit and Silkworm. They love them. There's not really an in between - if you know about those bands, you love them. But I guess you really haven't experienced it being another way, for multiple decades.
Midyett: The only two things I know are complete obscurity and ... Like you said, most people don't know, don't care. But people who know and care tend to really be into it. And that's awesome. I can honestly say that we never, ever had designs on it being anything more than it is, which is just an outlet for us, and a way for us to express ourselves and really just chase this rush that playing rock music gives you. And we've been able to get that out of it, the whole time. So we've always felt successful on our journey. And the fact that other people are as in to it as they are is great. It would be too bad if we had wanted to be hugely popular and make a bunch of money off of [this], because then we'd be sort of failures. [laughs] Fortunately ... And I don't think we had our sights set low. It hasn't been easy to keep doing it all these years, and I think that we've done it to a certain standard of quality that I'm really happy [about.] I'm really happy that we're still able to have the focus and energy to do this the way we do it.
For a long time ... Andy and I grew up in Montana in the '80s, and we had to make all of this for ourselves. There was nothing there that helped us do it, other than fellow travelers. So we got pretty calloused. And we've always been really insular, creatively. But at a certain point for me, especially after Michael made the Silkworm website, I started to realize, there's this community of people who is really into it. And I took some comfort in that, and I enjoyed getting to know those people and finding out that they're all reasonable, good human beings. That made me feel good.
So, I like it! I'm totally fine with it. And I'm glad there's someone out there listening.