In a city where producers and engineers like Steve Albini, Brad Wood, and John McEntire are as celebrated as the bands they record, the late Phil Bonnet kept a profile so low as to be invisible. Bonnet, an engineer and musician who died last week at age 38 (a brain aneurysm is suspected), "didn't know how to blow his own horn," explains Thymme Jones, who played with him in the prog-rock band Cheer-Accident for eight years.
Yet if you follow local music at all, chances are you own something Bonnet worked on. The Slugs, Screeching Weasel, the Smoking Popes, Eleventh Dream Day, Green, the New Duncan Imperials, Apocalypse Hoboken, U.S. Maple, Bobby Conn, Sam Prekop, Jim O'Rourke, No Empathy, Sidekick Kato, Illusion of Safety, the Krinkles, Will Oldham, and Edith Frost were among the artists he recorded over the last 15 years. He routinely cut selfless deals with young, inexperienced bands to make recording affordable, turning the meter off after midnight or flat-out working for free. But he also made the musicians feel comfortable in the studio, and for many he became an indispensable confidant and creative adviser. No other engineer was connected to as many disparate subsets of the local rock scene, and by all accounts he was right at home in every situation.
His career path was set at age four, when he expressed his dissatisfaction with the quality of an orchestral concert by marching up to the podium and plugging his ears with his fingers. Later, says his sister, Nicki Sangdahl, he used to walk into her bedroom and wordlessly turn off the Top 40 radio station she listened to. When he was 14 he took up the guitar, and by the time he graduated from Naperville North High School in 1978 he'd played in numerous garage bands. But he'd also become fascinated with the technical side of music, procuring a mixing board and microphones and recording every note he and his friends bashed out. In the early 80s, he got a job as an engineer at a tiny Naperville eight-track studio called Old Plank. Through its owner, Steve Jacula, who freelanced at other studios, Bonnet eventually landed a position at Solid Sound in Hoffman Estates, where he spent most of his career.
His clients remember Bonnet as a guy who knew when to butt out--and when to butt in. Kyle Bruckmann of Lozenge, an unsigned experimental rock outfit that was in the midst of recording with Bonnet, says, "We have this strange combination of perfectionism and incompetence which makes us very hard to work with. Our sound is counterintuitive and our instrumentation is bizarre, but he just set up the mikes and proceeded to make us feel warm and fuzzy about what we were doing." Dag Juhlin of the Slugs, who made their first recording with Bonnet at Old Plank in 1985, says, "Looking back now it seems like no big deal, but at the time we were trying to do something with a guitar and he just leaned over and detuned a string and it solved all these problems. It seemed like this genius revelation, and it really endeared him to us."
The Smoking Popes recorded their first single with Bonnet in 1991, and he engineered most of their subsequent sessions, including their 1994 indie breakthrough, Born to Quit. When they signed with Capitol in 1995, they went to the mat to keep working with him. "We had to fight to get Phil on [Destination Failure, from 1997] because the label didn't want to use anyone who wasn't an established name," says front man Josh Caterer. "We refused to do it without him. He had given so much of his time, energy, and talent to us for pretty much nothing over the years, and we felt we owed it to him. We were also nervous about being in a major label situation and we knew that having him there would help us and make us more comfortable. He would protect the integrity of the music because Phil would never do anything he didn't absolutely believe was right for the music."
Bonnet worked with countless other bands who would never get their day in the sun, from generic suburban hair-metal outfits to inchoate punk combos. "He had a soft spot for the little guy," says his Cheer-Accident bandmate Jeff Libersher. "He would always say, 'If they're cool guys and they're trying to do something, who am I to say no, I'm not going to record you?'"
Bonnet's work ethic earned him the respect and friendship of fellow engineers and producers: "Phil was one of the kindest, strongest, most centered people I knew. He had ideals and he stuck to them," says Jim O'Rourke, who used Bonnet on nearly every project in the last few years. But it also took a toll.
"Working 12- to 14-hour days and barely making rent can really get to a person," says Jones. "He didn't complain about it, but he would tell me sometimes that he was really frazzled. I could never believe how much he worked." He also fought waves of brutal self-doubt. "Phil wasn't happy unless you were happy," says Juhlin. He last saw Bonnet two weeks ago at Lounge Ax, during a release party for a new album by Slugs guitarist Johnny L that Bonnet had recorded. "I asked him what he thought of the record, and he said, 'Every time I hear it I can only hear my mistakes.' He could really brood about stuff like that."
When Bonnet died, he was in the process of making some long-deserved adjustments in his own favor. He'd been building a studio in the east Humboldt Park apartment he shared with his girlfriend of six years, Brenda Breitenstein. She says he had planned to become more selective about whom he recorded so that he could dedicate more time to Cheer-Accident and a solo album he was working on. But even if he'd chosen to work only with friends, he'd still have been a busy man. At a memorial service Thursday in Naperville almost 250 people showed up. "The family thought there would be about ten people there," says Sangdahl. "We never realized the impact Phil had."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phil Bonnet photo by Sue Ann Shultz.