On February 13, 2004, bassist Chris Saathoff and his bandmates in Chin Up Chin Up went to the Empty Bottle to see the Ponys and We Ragazzi. They were in the mood to celebrate: they'd just finished mixing a batch of demos with engineer Jeremy Lemos at Semaphore Recording, and it looked like they were finally ready to record a full-length follow-up to the EP they'd put out a year before.
A little after one in the morning, Saathoff left the rest of the band--singer Jeremy Bolen, guitarist Nathan Snydacker, keyboardist Greg Sharp, and drummer Chris Dye--and ducked out with his new girlfriend, Tiffany Weeder. It was a few hours into Valentine's Day, and as they walked he told her he loved her for the first time.
Weeder says the couple was crossing Division at Western hand in hand when an SUV careened through the intersection, striking Saathoff as he tried to push her to safety. (She was also injured.) According to the police report, the driver never stopped, and Saathoff was dragged for nearly two blocks. The 26-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene. Within the hour police had arrested William Giraldo, 20, and charged him with aggravated DUI and reckless homicide.
"None of us knew," says Bolen. "When I drove home that night I saw all the cops there, but it didn't even cross my mind. I think I was the first one to get the call the next morning."
The reality of the situation had sunk in by that evening, and the band fell into a state of shock. "After that," says Bolen, "we all just drank a whole lot for about a month."
Meanwhile Saathoff's parents, who live in Colorado, decided to establish a charity in their son's memory, the Christopher Saathoff Foundation (chrissaathofffoundation.org). They enlisted Chin Up to headline and help organize a pair of benefit concerts. According to its mission statement, the foundation hopes to become "an instrument to support the art of music in the Chicago area" and eventually "develop programs, activities and even a center where we can make sure 'the music never stops.'"
The first show was at the Bottle on March 19. With Saathoff's friend and roommate Quinn Goodwillie of the local band Mt. St. Helens filling in on bass, Chin Up played its set to a packed house of friends, family, and well-
wishers. "As weird as it sounds," says Sharp, "it really felt like Chris was onstage with us that night."
"Greg asked everyone to clap along with the last song," recalls Bolen. "And this is at the Bottle, a place where that never happens. It was just amazing to watch all these people getting into it. His parents were there. His mom actually scattered some of his ashes on the stage afterwards. It was . . . intense and really beautiful."
Buoyed by the outpouring of support and directly encouraged by Saathoff's parents, Chin Up decided to continue as a band even after the second benefit in April. "In the end we all kind of felt that's what Chris would've wanted," says Dye.
In May, Bolen sent the four-song demo the band had finished in February to more than 50 labels. Three days later the local label Flameshovel responded, and within a few weeks a deal had been finalized and a fall release date set.
The band bought producer John Congleton (of north Texas art-rockers the Paper Chase) a plane ticket and holed up with him for eight days in July at Electrical Audio and Soma, working 14 hours a day. "We had no cushion whatsoever making the record," says Bolen. "We finished recording and mixing, mastered the next day, and sent it out to the manufacturing plant that same evening." We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers will be officially released on October 26.
The process was a challenge in part because Chin Up had decided to make Saathoff a part of the new album. They isolated his bass tracks on the four demo songs and recorded new tracks around them--an especially tricky task for Dye, since drummers can usually count on the rest of the band to follow their lead. Snydacker, who played bass on the remaining songs, based his parts on ideas Saathoff had developed in rehearsals. "Even though we were recording without him, going back through all the tapes, listening and pulling out bass lines he'd written, it really felt like he was part of the process," he says. "It kept the momentum going for us." The disc's only post-Saathoff song--the closing elegy "All My Hammocks Are Dying"--doesn't have any bass at all.
The album's dreamy, lachrymose pop more than delivers on the promise of Chin Up Chin Up's self-titled EP. "The best description anyone's ever given about our band was that our songs are like walking home on a really beautiful spring day after your girlfriend just dumped you," says Bolen. "That's a pretty accurate assessment of our sound."
In the studio Chin Up had made do with Snydacker doubling on bass and guitar, but to continue playing live the band still needed to find a full-time bassist. Goodwillie was busy with work and his own band, so Chin Up recruited Marc Young of Appleseed Cast. Young had subbed for Saathoff before, when he'd left a west-coast tour in 2003 to attend his brother's wedding. "Marc was the only person that made sense," says Bolen. "Him and Chris got along really well. He'd played with us before, and we're all good friends."
Young debuted earlier this month, playing shows with the band in Bloomington and Champaign. On Monday at the Bottle, Chin Up will make its first Chicago appearance since the April benefit, fresh off a gig at CMJ in New York. The show's a release party for Skyscrapers, and it's free. "Which is nice," says Sharp. "People have supported us so much through all the stuff with Chris and with the benefits, it's nice to be able to do a free show as a thank-you."
Giraldo's trial is still pending. According to the police report, at the time he was charged his blood alcohol content tested at .134, well over the legal limit of .08. He's been free on a $150,000 bond since February. There have been several preliminary hearings so far, but his lawyer has repeatedly requested continuances. Representatives of the state's attorney's office expect the process to move forward in January.
Whatever happens in court, it won't be much consolation to the members of Chin Up Chin Up. "When Chris died it was all unresolved. Getting this album finished and out is really an important step, just in adding a little closure," says Bolen. "Not that there'll ever really be any closure."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.