In small type on the back cover of Cheer-Accident's 2003 album Introducing Lemon are the words, "It freshens up the salad, but wilts the lettuce." That statement works as an apt metaphorical summation of a certain strain of the Chicago band's music. While choogling along on a perfectly executed rock instrumental, or during an intricately crafted pop confection, Cheer-Accident often find it hard to resist adding unexpected and dissonant elements. Opening an album with an eight-minute duet for harmonium and vacuum cleaner, interrupting a track with a drone, and running an annoying click track throughout a live performance are a few examples of this. For several years, they made it an annual event to set up in a Chicago park all day, repeating a riff from their song "Filet of Nod" for up to eight hours straight.
Cheer-Accident is certainly not the only rock band to indulge in such conceptual stunts, but what makes them stand out is their long-term commitment to these actions, as well as the high caliber of their musicianship. Past and present members have played with a variety of Chicago's more respected contemporary jazz and rock acts. Drummer/keyboardist/trumpeter Thymme Jones, who started the band in 1981 and has remained the only consistent member, receives ecstatic praise from peers and critics, but Cheer-Accident doesn't have a lot of name recognition in wider circles. This almost certainly has something to do with the band's self-sabotaging nature, but Jones says that such actions are much more than provocation for its own sake.
"There are almost always things working on multiple levels," he explains. "For instance, you could say that playing the five-second loop of ‘Filet of Nod' in the park for eight hours is merely obnoxious or contrarian or provocative or abusive or whatever other word one might use to dismiss it, but it also has a groove that I, personally, don't mind listening to for eight hours at a time. Another example, there's a middle section of a song on [2006 album] What Sequel? where the entire mix gets more and more distorted, and eventually sounds like there's something really wrong with your speakers. But that does not take away from the fact that it's still a melancholy pop song with lots of heart and a memorable melody."
Jones sums up with another food-related metaphor. "In other words, finding some surprise ingredients in our cultural pie does not preclude greatly enjoying the eating of that pie."
The number of bands Cheer-Accident has been compared to is almost absurd—a good indication of the stylistic range they dabble within—but they are heavily indebted to prog and art-rock bands from the 1970s. For a good stretch of the late '80s and early '90s, their basic m.o. was a kind of noisy, proggy math rock. But their last two albums were released by Cuneiform, a label known for more serious-minded progressive, experimental rock and jazz acts, and the band made some adjustments to suit the label. The overall sound on these records is cleaner, the songs more concise, and the more potentially off-putting elements are absent. If you had to classify it, their most recent album, No Ifs, Ands or Dogs, leans more toward more prog pop than prog rock.
It's been three years since that recording was released, and Jones says there isn't a new one in the works, as they're trying out a subscription service that allows fans to download a new track each month. But even the band not following the typical "touring an album" approach causes some confusion with audiences.
"I'm usually the merch guy, and after the shows there's a funny recurring challenge that occurs," Jones says. "People will invariably come up and ask, ‘Which album were most of the songs you played tonight from?' ‘Well, I don't know, we did a few from this one that come out in 1997, but it's out of print. Here's our latest, which we didn't play anything off of.' It's a blessing and a curse to have 30 years to draw from. Well, when I'm not being disingenuous, it's merely a blessing."
Cheer-Accident has seen a lot of members come and go throughout three decades, and though Jones started the group and remains its driving force, he's quick to give credit to his co-conspirators. Most notable is guitarist Jeff Libersher, who's been on board since 2002.
"Even though I am the big-picture guy, I take issue with people who refer to Cheer-Accident as my band," he insists. "Jeff's probably written about 70 percent of our output in the last decade, so I'd have to have a much greater ego than I undoubtedly already have if I were to look at it as ‘my band.' Newer members can have a very complex dynamic, because they have 30 years of history and a certain way of doing things to contend with. But we've long given up on the idea of being a proper band, if indeed that was ever something we were in danger of being. To quote Robert Wyatt, ‘Every band becomes Spinal Tap in the end.'"