Life After Phil
On February 2, 1999, two days after Cheer-Accident finished recording the basic tracks for the epic title tune from their new album, Salad Days (Skin Graft), guitarist Phil Bonnet was found dead in his car near his Ukrainian Village apartment. Bonnet, who was only 38, was a beloved local recording engineer; he was on his way home from the studio when he suffered a brain aneurysm. He'd been playing in the band for nearly a decade, and the other members of the group--drummer Thymme Jones, guitarist Jeff Libersher, and bassist Dylan Posa--were devastated, having lost not only a close friend but also a crucial collaborator. Bands have certainly broken up for lesser reasons--but remarkably Cheer-Accident survived the loss.
Jones, a 37-year-old who makes a living delivering pizza, began using the name Cheer-Accident as a teenager in Palatine. (It was inspired, he says, by a category of greeting cards he noticed at a Hallmark store.) In 1982 he started the experimental rock band Dot Dot Dot, and Cheer-Accident quickly became a studio side project with a revolving cast, recording a couple cassettes for limited release. But in 1987, a year after Libersher joined Jones and bassist Chris Block, the group began playing live, and in 1988 it released its first commercially available album, Sever Roots, Tree Dies, on Complacency Records, an imprint run by Illusion of Safety's Dan Burke. The band went on to make six more albums in the 90s, ranging wildly from prog rock to sweet piano-driven pop to brutally aggressive noise, sometimes on the same record. Around the time the fourth of these, Not a Food, was recorded--in 1994, though Pravda Records released it in 1996--Posa replaced Dan Forden, who'd replaced Block in '92, and the lineup stabilized.
Through all the personnel changes, the group has maintained an unapologetically geeky sense of humor and a healthy aversion to taking itself seriously. The typical Cheer-Accident show is resolutely atypical: At the Fireside Bowl in 1996 they entertained the kids with a set of Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert material, and in 1994 at the Czar Bar they played an entire set over a loud, utterly incongruous click track. On several occasions they've spent a whole day performing the final one-chord groove from "Filet of Nod," a piece from their second official album, Dumb Ask.
After Bonnet died, the band hibernated for several months, but in May 1999 Jones, Posa, and Libersher began to consider a Cheer-Accident without him. They booked studio time with Steve Albini, who'd recorded Dumb Ask and was encouraging them to get back in the saddle. "I pushed doing that just to see what was going to happen," says Libersher. "I thought it might be a positive thing."
"We were pretty paralyzed," adds Jones. "When we went in to do the overdubs for 'Salad Days' I remember dreading it. We weren't ready to do anything." Much to the trio's relief, the intricate session for the 19-minute piece--which includes crisscrossing guitar parts and a tricky matrix of horns--was a rousing success. But once they finished assembling the album, which includes tracks recorded between 1997 and '99, they were stuck again. "It seemed like we had some momentum, but when it was over the three of us were just like, now what?" says Jones. They got together and jammed some, but things weren't clicking. "It wasn't going anywhere. There was something missing tensionwise. We needed a foil. Phil was an element that created this other thing, and without him everything was just kind of sitting there."
By midsummer Jones was harboring severe doubts, and asked Libersher how long he saw himself playing in the band. When his bandmate responded with "an until-I-die kind of thing," he steeled himself and continued searching for a way for the group to progress. The solution arrived at the end of the summer, in the form of a guitarist and longtime Cheer-Accident fan named Jamie Fillmore. "Jamie had been coming to our shows for four years and he told me he was in the process of learning our entire catalog anyway, so he offered us his services if we wanted help doing anything from our past," says Jones. "That was the initial impetus, and once we started playing with him the chemistry was so amazing that we started doing all of this new stuff as well, engaging in what we call 'id vomit' in the practice space, just letting the stuff come out of your unconscious."
This January the new incarnation of Cheer-Accident made its debut as part of Lounge Ax's farewell blowout. The group performed a low-key, percussion-free set of what Jones sarcastically dubs "Christian rock," starting with a cover of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." "We were nervous, but in a good way," explains Jones. "There was a really nice tension and the audience was amazing. We were wondering if people would be like, 'Why don't you guys just stop?' Phil was such an amazing person and we thought some people might be pissed off that we continued without him, but we didn't get a hint of that."
In fact, as experimental music has expanded its audience in Chicago, they've attained something like elder statesman status, and though Jones says they've done nothing in particular to encourage it, he admits that he doesn't mind. "It seems like more people know who we are nowadays, and I just hope we can keep doing what we're doing with recognition as we have without it," he says. "It would be nice to earn a little bit of a living from it--to deliver pizzas three times a week instead of five."
Cheer-Accident will celebrate the release of Salad Days by performing a set of material from previous albums on Saturday, October 14, at the Hideout.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.