Joel RL Phelps is the busiest indie-rock legend no one’s listening to. In the past nine months, the veteran singer-songwriter has seen the release of Gala, the comeback album by his long-dormant The Downer Trio; an expanded, 20th-anniversary reissue of Libertine, his final record with his best-known band, Silkworm; and Claw, the stunning debut by his new avant-drone project Dama/Libra. On top of that, Phelps is discussed at length—without actually being interviewed—in the 2013 documentary about Silkworm, Couldn’t You Wait?, which includes testimonials by famous Phelps fans such as Jeff Tweedy, Stephen Malkmus, and Steve Albini. None of which seems to have significantly raised Phelps’ profile, which was never high to begin with.
That’s a lot of activity for an artist whose 30-plus-year career has been a study in obscurity. Phelps joined his first group, the Missoula, Montana-based post-punk outfit Ein Heit, in the early ’80s while in high school. When Ein Heit folded in 1987, Phelps and two other former members—bassist Tim Midyett (changed from Midgett in 2012) and guitarist Andy Cohen—formed Silkworm. After moving to Seattle in the early ’90s and adding drummer Michael Dahlquist, Silkworm signed to C/Z Records, the label that helped launch grunge in 1986 with the seminal Deep Six compilation—which spotlighted, among others, Soundgarden, The Melvins, and Green River, the band that would spawn Mudhoney and Pearl Jam.
Silkworm could not have sounded less grungy. Just as Western civilization swarmed Seattle in the wake of the breakthrough success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Phelps and company played tangled, wiry, weirdly catchy indie-rock—a sound that bridged the gap between what Pavement was establishing then and what Modest Mouse would later develop. But Silkworm was the wrong band at the wrong time to reap any sizable success, even while living in the hottest music zone in the world. Libertine was recorded by Steve Albini—who went to the same high school as Midyett and Cohen in Missoula, although they weren’t friends back then—at Pachyderm Studios, not long after he’d recorded In Utero in that same room. The contrast is striking. In Utero is Nirvana’s uncompromising, multiplatinum swansong; Libertine is Phelps’ equally harrowing, inversely profitable farewell to Silkworm.
Phelps quit Silkworm in 1994, soon after the release of Libertine. The band was hitting a ceiling in terms of popularity, stuck in a rut of playing small venues and making little money. Alternative rock ruled the nation, but indie rock was still a pricklier thing—and Silkworm was about as prickly as you could get while managing to sling vast pop hooks. Much of that prickliness emanated from Phelps. Midyett and Cohen also contributed lead vocals—there was no single frontman in Silkworm—but Phelps’ songs are far more nervy and vulnerable. Tracks like “Yen + Janet Forever” dive-bomb into pockets of silence before erupting in spasms of self-lacerating sorrow. Phelps’ voice quakes, creaks, and contorts. Midyett and Cohen are stellar singer-songwriters in their own right, but Phelps seems to draw fuel from a hazier, more maze-like place.
“Sorry about the way that I ran / I’m sorry that I ended up the way that I am,” Phelps whimpers like a drugged, caged animal in “Yen + Janet Forever.” Those lines became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he candidly recounted earlier this year on the podcast Kreative Kontrol, he walked away from Silkworm in the middle of a tour, hopped on a bus in Sacramento, and went home. The reasons: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and bipolar disorder, all amplified by his growing alcoholism. As he explained to Kreative Kontrol:
“I had already been struggling with what we could call clinical depression, or major depression, at that time. So I was well on my way, in many ways, to checking out from my social relationships with people. I had started to become more and more isolated, more and more lost in my own head. And as you might expect, more and more moody, more and more difficult, more and more unreachable, and largely unpleasant to be around. So of course you take all those kinds of ingredients, and you put them in the context of trying to be in a touring, functioning rock band, and you put me in a van full of people, and it’s recipe for a big bummer.”
“Bummer” is putting it lightly, but it shows Phelps’ sense of bittersweet self-deprecation—as if his music wasn’t enough of a demonstration. After leaving Silkworm, he released a solo album, 1995’s hesitant but promising Warm Springs Night, and subsequently formed The Downer Trio. He could just as easily have named it The Bummer Trio. Enlisting drummer Bill Herzog (later of the drone ensembles Sunn O))) and Earth) and bassist Robert Mercer, Phelps deepened the already wide sonic dynamic of his songcraft, all while maintaining a steady drip of darkness. Containing hushed, acoustic folk alongside screeching, distorted rock, Downer Trio discs such as 1998’s 3 and 2001’s Blackbird aren’t too far from what Silkworm’s former C/Z labelmate, Built To Spill, was doing at the time. But Phelps was taking a similar influence—Neil Young And Crazy Horse as filtered through the catalog of SST Records—and galloping it off a cliff.
Silkworm continued after Phelps left, and that persistence paid off. The group released the remainder of its consistently excellent albums on Matador and Touch And Go, two of the biggest indie labels operating in the ’90s and early ’00s. Midyett, Cohen, and Dahlquist never replaced Phelps, deciding to continue instead as a trio. Phelps’ own trio didn’t fare as well. Silkworm, while never huge, grew into a cult band—but Phelps’ following was a cult within that cult. You had to work to find Phelps’ releases, since they were issued on much smaller labels than Silkworm were signed to. (Much of The Downer Trio’s catalog is currently out of print in any format, even digital.) And when you did find them, you had to work to listen to them.
It was all worth the effort. His music—melodic, powerful, and at times twistedly beautiful—didn’t go out of its way to be inviting. Perhaps indicative of his increasing psychological withdrawal and alcoholic isolation, he hid behind cryptic incantations of regret, tragic character sketches, and jagged riffs as thick as barricades. Speaking to Noisey recently, he explained:
“You can really get a sense of some of where I was at when you look back at the making of our 2004 album Customs. […] I started drinking on the way down for those sessions, and I just… I didn’t stop, the whole time. I was drinking all day long, morning, noon, and night. I had been for a while, I guess, and it’s just like… even knowing that, even having that evidence in my face—it might surprise you how easily you can forget the disasters and total fuckups that you can land yourself in as a result of an addiction. I had started to remold my life around use. It was easy for me to tune out those cues.”
The Downer Trio disintegrated after the release of the incredible Customs, an album that veers from blistering to disquieting. Phelps’ drinking got worse. Then, in 2005, his former Silkworm bandmate Dahlquist was killed in a highway accident along with two other musicians, Douglas Meis and John Glick, when a woman attempting to commit vehicular suicide collided with their car. (The woman lived.) Silkworm disbanded; Cohen and Midyett started a new band called Bottomless Pit.
Phelps found himself in a pit of his own. “I could hardly walk by the time I went into recovery. I could hardly think straight. I could hardly do anything,” he told Kreative Kontrol. He refused director Seth Pomeroy’s numerous attempts to interview him for Couldn’t You Wait? because “I was just too sick. […] I was experiencing such psychological turmoil that I couldn’t have conducted an interview even if I would have had been able to propel myself out the door and meet him for one.” Pomeroy does a superb job of filling the void left by Phelps’ inability to appear in the documentary, but it’s still a palpable absence. A founder of Silkworm wasn’t well enough to be in the documentary about Silkworm. It’s not the kind of legend anyone should rightly want to cultivate.
It wasn’t until Phelps entered an addiction recovery program a couple years ago that he seriously considered making music again. When he did, out it poured. Gala is sometimes lush, sometimes sinewy, and always delicately yet dramatically shaded. It doesn’t change an iota of the formula he’s been using since Warm Springs Night; it is, however, an enrichment and a refinement of it, full of redemptive noise and tender pleas. Phelps’ voice has never sounded warmer or more engaged. Or more in control of its own yelping, piercing chaos.
But there’s a yin to Gala’s yang. Claw by Dama/Libra is by far the most challenging piece of music Phelps has ever made. It pulses and seethes, built around eerie organ tones and oscillating waves of ghostly atmosphere. His collaborator in Dama/Libra is G. Stuart Dahlquist—who, like The Downer Trio’s Herzog, has served time in Sunn O))). He’s also the brother of Michael, Silkworm’s late drummer. Nothing about Claw seems to directly reference Michael’s death, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that the whole haunted, hymnal album is an echoing eulogy for him.
Pain has always been a presence in Phelps’ music. From his scratchy work in Silkworm to his staggering resurgence with both The Downer Trio and Dama/Libra over the past year, his songs spark and ache with energy, but never happiness. That hasn’t changed. A triumphant, trumpet-announced comeback isn’t Phelps’ style. But on his two new albums, there are signs of reconciliation with where he’s landed in life, as a musician and otherwise. It isn’t exactly joyous, but for the first time in his songs, joy seems to fall somewhere on the scale of possibility.
Twenty years after leaving Silkworm on the side of the road, and 10 years after letting The Downer Trio lapse into a coma at the height of its power, Phelps remains indie rock’s best-kept secret. All this time, he’s the one who’s been keeping it. But with Gala and Claw—and a renewed, even ravenous sense of purpose—his musical rebirth might be more of a revelation. “Close the shades / There’s no proud accolades,” he whispers with a rasp on 3’s skeletal opener, “The Way Down.” The song was recorded 16 years ago; then as now, he sounds resigned. But today, that resignation rings more peaceful than defeatist. The number of listeners almost doesn’t seem to matter.