There’s this odd bit of lore surrounding Fidalgo Island in the San Juan’s and it goes something like – if you go to bed on this island you’ll always come back. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that means and the only person I’ve ever heard talk about this is Anacortes musician Karl Blau, so It’s entirely possible that Karl made it up, either way it speaks volumes to the feeling of being in a town like Anacortes. I’ve never lived anywhere that had any kind of mythology or folklore associated with it, but it is easy to see why Anacortes might have some mystical forces attached to it. People have often compared Anacortes to the fictional Northwest town of Twin Peaks, the American version of The Ring takes place around Deception Pass, less than 15 minutes from Anacortes; a beautiful, eerie, and mystical force seems to be at work there. You can see it and feel it just by standing at the tip of Cap Sante park and looking to the oil refinery billowing smoke to the South of you or to the East, a mist cloaked Mount Eerie watching over the town, and everything else at the very tip of Puget Sound in the middle of the San Juan Islands. Given the mysticism of a place like Anacortes it seems entirely plausible that Silm might have pulled itself up from the muddy shoreline and for the first time stood with shaky legs right in the middle of Commercial Avenue at the very heart of Anacortes.
For Silm, whatever it is that strokes the strings, stabs at the drum kit, or breaths the breathy vocals has the air of the supernatural. An unseen hand pulling people across the country, pushing people together, guiding their hands as they play their instruments, and write the words to their songs. The music of Silm rains down all around you, it flashes like a lightening bolt stretching across the black sky. It expands and wraps around your body like a wet morning fog, the moon pulls it up and before you even realize it you are neck deep in the rising tide of music, constantly teetering on the edge of total transformation. Instinctually you know that physical beings are playing the music for Silm, that it isn’t just materializing out of thin air, but you can’t help but think that it was pulled from a Tarot deck. That it didn’t bloom as a colorful apparition above arctic glaciers or even something as simple as a magician snapping his white gloved hand and having the music explode in your ears.
Lüük Honey and Hannah Stephens are the literal physical beings behind Silm. A pair of individuals who without a guiding force might never have come together let alone made art together. Neither are natives to Anacortes, Hannah moved to the quaint island village when she was ten years old, while for Lüük it wasn’t until much later, at the urging of some of his friends, that he left the Ozarks in Arkansas and found himself at the very tip of the Puget Sound looking Northward. “My friend Nich Wilbur [founder of the Unknown Studio in Anacortes] contacted me and told me ‘I think you need to be here.’ I just kind of dropped everything and decided to come out this way and see what he meant.” Lüük had no idea the rich history of nurturing artists and cultural centers he’d be entering into; Karl Blau, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum, and the granddaddy of them all Beat Happening’s Bret Lunsford, along with places like The Department of Safety, the Unknown Studio, and now the Anacortes Music Channel, Anacortes was teaming with creative people and places. Prior to moving to Anacortes Lüük didn’t know Hannah, and chalk it up to perfect timing or divine intervention that on Hannah’s last day at Village Pizza, Lüük was starting his first. Like two stones flung randomly into the sky, they connected and when Hannah returned to the restaurant on her Christmas break Lüük was ready, “I gave her a mixtape in the first couple of days that we got to know one another and it all just went from there.” It wasn’t just that chance meeting that makes this musical coupling so unlikely, Hannah had no music experience whatsoever. It was through art that they first bonded, on an early date Lüük brought a panel of masonite with the intention of painting it together, but they ended up taking separate parts and meeting in the middle. This has been a way for the pair to work together over the years, working separately but merging somewhere in the middle, including their book Dreamwanderers . It wasn’t until Lüük began an internship at the Unknown Studio that he and Hannah began working together on a musical level.
“I don’t really feel comfortable playing with anyone else” Hannah told me concerning the connection the two share, and how their romantic involvement intertwines with their artistic involvement. There’s a special kind of bond that can happen between bandmates, one that is heightened when those bandmates are in a relationship, and one that is heightened further when one of those bandmates catches their footing and learns their instrument with that partner. “We started out and we didn’t really know anything. I bought my first guitar and we wrote songs right away ‘let’s get in the studio, let’s do this.’ We were in the studio creating parts and the songs were just naturally evolving,” Lüük told me, while discussing how not only was Hannah learning how everything worked, Silm was learning how to write and record songs together on the fly. The pair dove right in and began working everything through, learning lessons while the tape was running, exploring the cavernous depths of their songwriting together.
To listen to their debut full-length Listen Within or even their EP Lo & Behold, it’s hard to believe just how raw and inexperienced the duo was. With the lightening guitar strikes in the opening song Between Two Worlds, the violin that proceeds is like the smoke rising from the smoldering earth, the ground scorched and blacked with surprising power, especially when compared to the gentility of a song like Oblique Truth, with Stephens’ drippy vocals that nearly melt the tape in an honest heat. There is genuine vision in the construction of that album. Silm put a lot of faith early on in producer/engineer extraordinaire Nicholas Wilbur who provided just the right kind of expertise and encouragement just when they needed it. And they’re quick to credit Nich as being a major influence for Silm. Words and sounds were coming to the duo so fast and repeatedly that they felt best served to head right into the studio and attempt to capture the music as it was flowing out of them, relying on Nich to be the net to help capture everything at the other end.
Prior to the release of Listen Within Lüük and Hannah were working on a Lithographic book that won them a scholarship, which they used for an artist residency in Iceland where they could isolate themselves in the cold unending twilight of November. The residency happened to coincide with Iceland Airwaves, a five day festival in Reykjavík where new Icelandic and international artists perform yearly. It offered Silm the perfect opportunity to work on material and play it in a truly inspiring environment. “It was a really dreamy landscape,” is the way Lüük describes Iceland, which plays right into the dreamlike tones of Listen Within. This drifting surreal portrait of a landscape, and in fact two of the songs on the album were inspired by the Icelandic volcano’s Hekkla and Katla. “I just sometimes found that words would come to the surface on their own, it was everything I could do to get back to the studio and put them down into recording. Unfortunately when we came back home I felt that it was hard to find that same inspiration as readily. Whenever we were back in Anacortes and continuing to work on the album, trying to find the fumes that were resonating over from this journey we had to just kind of put ourselves in this place of the Unknown itself and allow that to be an inspiration, and also find inspiration in our own landscapes.”
Listen Within is a beautifully cohesive album. Deceptively simple with surprising moments of musical depth and complexity, it feels like reflected light, like a prism projecting rainbows, like the setting sun bathing a room in an orange glow, but the final track on the album derails that beautiful light-dream. Still Slow Life is born of the same organic material, but faster, more aggressive, less like reflected light and more like the light itself. The song was reworked multiple times and shifted heavily after their residency in Iceland. Getting the sonic ideas out of their head and onto the tape like they imagined turned out to be a challenge, one that clearly shows the evolving sound of Silm. “I was ready to forget about it [Still Slow Life] just to completely leave it off the album all together,” Lüük says, the sound of frustration still pulsating from his voice, “I felt like the whole thing was a mistake. I was like ‘where is this going to fit in, the whole vibe is different…’ I didn’t realize that it’s also kind of setting up what’s to come. Now a lot of our songs hold that same kind of vibe. Whenever I listen back to it now it couldn’t be better, it sounds just the way it needed to. It’s pretty much my favorite song on the album.”
I really wanted to bring things back around, to try and tie up at least this portion of Silm’s lifespan with a nice little bow, but the fact remains that if that moment of rest for the band actually ever existed they are long past it now, on to something else, much of their catalogue thrown out the window in favor of the new material the duo has been working on. It’s as if they are climbing a mountain, say… Mount Eerie, and they stop only for the briefest moment at each lookout not to survey the the surroundings below them, but to examine the continuing trail up ahead. Just how it is that Lüük Honey and Hannah Stephens make the music they do, the way they do is still largely a mystery to me. Logically I understand how the sounds are made but it all still seems other worldly to me, any attempt to replicate that sound just wouldn’t be accurate without that unseen mystical force that just might have formed Silm from the mud and kelp in the middle of Fidalgo bay and pushed them up onto shore.
You can find Silm, and buy their really beautiful merch at secretsilm.com and silm.bandcamp.com. The above quotes were taken from my podcast interview with Lüük Honey and Hannah Stephens, which you can download in itunes or at Depthsounder.org. I highly suggest you check out the full interview as it is packed full of topics I just didn’t have room for here.