Cheer-Accident: Enduring the American Dream

Navel-Gazers #20 is an interview with Thymme Jones and Jeff Libersher of Cheer-Accident, who are going to talk to me about Enduring the American Dream. Normally here on Navel-Gazers I encourage our audience to listen along to the music while reading, but I'm afraid that won't be easy with this one. It's an album which will monopolise your attention like a midwestern vacuum cleaner salesman, and I have to confess that after many repeated listens over the years this music continues to catch me off guard. Drop in at the ten minute mark, it's a prog rock epic of unfathomable complexity... ten minutes later, a moody interlude with oboes and trombones... ten minutes more and it's almost as though someone's left the tape recorder running by accident. ...then again it's all an accident, so to speak, and for the uninitiated, 'Enduring the American Dream' remains an ideal introduction to this unusual band who are a personal favourite of mine and whom I've had a pleasure to know personally. So without further ado here are Thymme (pronounced: "Tim") and Jeff (pronounced "Jeff") a.k.a. Cheer-Accident.

AC: Thanks for joining me here. I have so many questions about 'Enduring the American Dream'. But first I'd like to wish Cheer-Accident a happy 40th birthday! They say Wikipedia never lies but it's almost hard to believe this band was formed in 1981 - the same year as Talk Talk and XTC... So tell me more about that. How did this all start, and how have you managed to keep it going all these years?

Thymme Jones: Well, first off, lemme begin here by engaging in a little bandsplaining: XTC were a band all the way back in 1972, though they didn't adopt the monker until 1975, and they didn't release their first album until 1977. 1981 is when I began to listen to them in earnest, so maybe that's what you meant! Talk Talk, however, did indeed form in 1981.

Ok, time to put Mr. Correcto to bed. Oh, how he bores.

Yes, even though it says so in Wikipedia, it is actually true that CHEER-ACCIDENT started in 1981... but it's complicated. It would be impossible to have considered us to have been any sort of proper band before our first show, on July 17, 1987 (at The Igloo in Chicago). Before that, we were merely a group of friends making cassette tapes in the bedroom, basement and garage. Would you like me to name them? I can, you know! Institutionalized Sound; Shoe Tangents; CHEER-ACCIDENT; Money, Puppies, Whatever; She's Just Trying To Avoid Liver; Dedicate My Bones To Art... As you can see, our tapes began with two-word titles and evolved into much lengthier ones. A sign of true artistic progress! Those first three were made as seniors at Fremd High School (in Palatine, IL), while the second three were made during the first (and for me, only) year of college and the summer which followed. College (Northern Illinois University) turned out to be gigantic, for reasons I was far from accessing at the time. (Hint: Come for the college, stay for the Jeff Libersher). Yep, that's where I met Jeff, who would turn out to be my partner in crime for the next forty years (and counting).

(Lots of counting. We have been referred to as "math rock" on more than one occasion.) According to the "mythology," CHEER-ACCIDENT began "literally in the opening seconds of 1981, during a New Year's Eve brainstorming party." Why do I believe in this mythology with every molecule of my being? Because something truly began in that moment. With Mike Greenlees on drums, myself on piano, and Jim Drummond on stream-of consciousness vocals, I experienced (in my body and in my brain) a new way of doing things. Although there's no way I would have been able to know or articulate it at the time, "a way forward" had presented itself to me. Other than the key people I was to meet there (Jeff, Ross Feller, Dan Burke, Jim Banks), college, I'm afraid, was merely-hopelessly in the way: the things I was meant to learn about and explore existed decidedly outside the institution.

And maybe this "outsider" sensibility is how we've managed to (in answer to your question) "keep it going all these years." Bands are riddled with booby traps and lopsided expectations, almost by definition at this point. It's always traumatic (and more than a little embarassing) when CHEER-AX nearly succumbs to the myriad clichés (ego clashes, lifestyle disparities, artistic differences), but Jeff and I have largely cracked the code to perseverance: it's about the Work. It's not about popularity, it's not about having a career, it's not about getting laid (okay, okay, well, full disclosure: if it hadn't been for music, I'd probably still be a virgin), it's not about anything, other than "seeing what's next", discovering what else is available to us, creatively. And this "cracked code" didn't present itself on a silver platter... and in fact it really only seems like we solved anythng in retrospect. ("Oh, didn't get caught in that snare; didn't crash into that wall; didn't get eaten by that tiger.") The opportunities we've been given seem to have arrived mostly though chance and intuition. So, since we're still here, I suppose we'll continue to not overthink it as we continue to overstay our welcome.

AC: Funnily enough the source of my dubious intel on XTC was this page... on Wikipedia. But I misread it. The artist listed is "XYZ", a band whose whole existence actually seems to have been a bit dubious. Hmm. Jeff?

Jeff Libersher: I believe Thymme has thoroughly provided the goods in regards to your first question (the genesis/longevity) of this strange machine, so perhaps I'll simply attempt to add some of my own sprinkles to the donuts (gosh, I remember the days of donuts, sigh). And speaking of "genesis" (oops, I mean, "Genesis"), part of the process of our getting to know each other at NIU included bonding and dorking out over our mutual fondness at the time of that (at that time) amazing band (Thymme also felt I loosely resembled Mike Rutherford (I had a beard at the time), though I personally always thought I was more, "Eddie Money's less-fortunate cousin"). I should have perhaps apologized in advance for my tendency to over-use parentheses, but here I am, late to the game once again...apologizing after the fact (Fact).

More sprinkles. I jumped into the C-A maelstrom cerca 1985/86-ish when Thymme and I shared a tiny house in the Subherbs (sic) of Chicago. He was already kicking ass as a musician and writer by that point and I was still figuring a lot out (musically and otherwise (Nested parentheses!)). As a musician/writer, I was a late-bloomer, and I owe a ton to Thymme for encouraging and fostering my musical development at that time (and certainly over the subsequent years)...but I also think this thing would have sidetracked for me long ago had we not shared a similar work ethic. I never did come across that magic "instant genius/instant hit" button in all these years, nor would I ever want to. I think there are certainly other factors that have contributed to the longevity of working together (similar sense of humor, similar musical taste, fondness of cringeworthy puns), but I too, believe that the magic IS in the Work.

Stop me before I sprinkle again (or do you say, "That's enough, Sprinkle").

AC: So in terms of the overall Genesis of the group, how does this album 'Enduring the American Dream' fit into the Cheer-Accident history? Album-wise it seems you'd had a foray into a poppier sound on The Why Album, then back to the heavier sound on Not A Food... but this album is just all over the place. It's so incredibly fragmented, and unpredictable. How did it turn out that way? What was going on in the band at the time?

Jeff Libersher: I really enjoyed contributing my barrage of disjointed guitar confusion to some of these tunes, but since Thymme and Scott were really locked in during that time period (writing most of the material and steering the concept), I'm going to defer to Thymme to give you most of the goods on this question.

I will say that this record remains one of my favorite C-A recordings - the tunes that we perform live continue to be some of my favorites to put forth in front of an audience.

Thymme Jones: It is not insignificant that you would mention the other "forays" that happened in close proximity to 'Enduring...': indeed all those albums were written and recorded contemporaneously. It was easy enough to know which songs would be on 'Why...' (recorded from '91 to '94), because that was our first pop album (sticking out, sore-thumb-like, after Babies Shouldn't Smoke, a rather dissonant and abrasive affair), and deciding what was to comprise 'Not A Food' (recorded in '94) was a relatively straightforward process as well, because it was a return to a group/rock band sound. I always knew, however, that 'Enduring...' (recorded from '91 to '96) would be a much more convoluted endeavor: its very essence is that of nightmare-like suburban sprawl, and it necessitated a bit of a waiting game (spanning four different residences and three different lineups) as the right quality/quantity of material slowly and steadily accumulated. It was clear to me from the start that this album would entail many different recording qualities and much musical diversity (or disparity). Our first five albums, for the most part, "stayed in their lane," so it was time to break free and really upset the notion of genre. I suppose the pieces could be divided into three categories: abstract/textural, lonely lo-fi pop and longer-form rock compositions. I don't know. Maybe there are more than three, but the idea was to create a continuous listening experience, wherein all the different modes morph together and function as a whole that would be desirable to take in during one 70-minute sitting.

The album is definitely in no hurry. To this day, it sounds to me like it was made by people who came from the suburbs. Time moves differently there. When you grow up in such a place, the onus is on you to create something out of nothing. In the city, where I've spent the bulk of my last thirty years, experiences get handed to you on a platter. There's a certain desensitization that occurs, and one is less likely to make small things matter. I like the little things. I like having time. I like not hurrying. A conversation with a friend after your shift ends at the pizza joint. You get paid (in cash) for your deliveries, you step outside, still talking. The manager locks the door. It's fifteen minutes past midnight and the electric sign shuts off. Twenty 'til 2:00, and the bar up front closes. You're still talking as the parking lot clears. 3:00AM, and you and your friend are the only ones left in the completely dark parking lot. You're standing ten yards from the parking lot entrance, off the busiest street in town, but now there's maybe one car that passes by every half hour. 4:15AM, the summer birds have awoken. An hour later, the sun is showing signs of coming up, and the tuft of grass between the parking lot and the restaurant glistens with morning dew. "Man. I gotta go home and sleep," says the friend.

The friend, my friend, in this scenario was Scott Rutledge. He wrote the vast majority of the words on the album. Chances are, before the five and half hours we talked after the place had closed, we were already talking for three hours before it closed, and, chances are, Scott had been riding around with me on deliveries (after he, also a pizza driver, had-- himself-- gotten checked out). This was a big part of how 'Enduring the American Dream' got made. We would discuss, endlessly, the lyrics and all manner of tangential ideas, and I would update him with the latest mixes, blasting them in the car. (I've not owned a car since 2011, and meditating on current works in progress is literally the only thing I miss about it.)

My buddy Jeff is being characteristically modest when he reduces his contributions on 'Enduring..' to "disjointed guitar confusion." He did, after all, write the majority of the 7-minute song Frozen (and there's a demo, possibly his first, lying around here somewhere, to prove it). It is off the immediate topic at hand, but I would like to point out that this song represented a breakthough in Jeff's writing, and was a precursor to huge pieces like Salad Days and the entire Fades album.

AC: Actually if we can just freeze on 'Frozen' for a moment... that's one of my very favourite tracks here and I hadn't realised it was such a pivotal piece of songwriting for Jeff or even that it was written by Jeff. So Jeff I wonder if you could just tell us what the process was behind that one? I particularly like the section at around 3:00, sorta reminds me of Foreign Accents by Godley & Creme.

Jeff Libersher: 'Frozen' was a bit of a breakthrough for me in terms of my development as a writer. I had purchased an old 4-track a few years before the release of 'Enduring...'; and had begun experimenting with it, recording bits of guitar riffs/ideas, then gradually adding layers/other instruments/components to those guitar bits. Those seeds eventually morphed into full-blown demos, 'Frozen' being one of the first of those to reach a state of (near) full completion prior to sharing with the band. The work I put in on those early demos (and in particular 'Frozen'), combined with the encouragement I received from the band, helped foster my belief that I could write entire pieces going forward. I spend a great deal more time writing nowadays than I did back then, but I look back at that period with fondness and appreciation for what it taught me and where it helped take me.

Incidentally, you have Thymme to thank for the unhinged melody that occurs within the "Godley & Creme" section you referenced (and we now have you to thank for providing another option for referencing that section other than, "the Rush part", or "the Rush part with that crazy melody").

Thymme Jones: You know, I go out of my way to give Jeff kudos for writing most of 'Frozen', and then you bring up the one part of the song that I wrote. I swear.

AC: D'oh. Well, what a collaboration!

Thymme Jones: I can see the Godley & Creme connection, definitely. "Foreign Accents" was my favorite track off L when I first heard it, but when the novelty wore off, it was the songs (non-instrumentals) that had the most staying power for me. I spent a lot of time in late high school/early college listening to both 'L' and Freeze Frame. What a satisfying nether-region they occupied, somewhere between Zappa, Gentle Giant, Steely Dan and their former band (10CC). And, gosh, did they dupe their record company or what? I'm sure the execs figured they'd have at least ONE gigantic hit in them. Anyway, unlike those would-be pop star amateurs, that part in 'Frozen' has transcended all time and has never once been accused of being "gimmicky", which is probably why we took a bow after the one time we played it live.

AC: I'd like to have been at that show!

You mentioned that 'Enduring the American Dream' is in "no hurry" which I think is one of its definitive characteristics. I personally love the opening track Vacuum but I have to imagine a lot of listeners turn the album off right there if they're not into experimental music or minimalism. Even by the end of track 3 A Shallow Stream there's no indication that the whole thing's about to totally shift gears. It carries on relentlessly, defying the listener's expectations till the end... so I wanted to ask why you sequenced it that way but also, what sort of person keeps listening? Generally speaking, what sort of person "gets" Cheer-Accident and how do people react to your music?

Thymme Jones: Getting into the mindset of what was behind the sequencing of 'Enduring the American Dream' is a challenging task, considering it was made 25 years ago, but I think I can almost get there. You mentioned 'Vacuum', which is significant, because I was pretty sure that it would make a good album-starter right after recording it. Even though I was well aware that it would be labelled as "drone" or "experimental" or "noise" it felt oddly (and comically and forebodingly) grandiose to me, as if The Greatest Prog Band In The World had composed this dazzling fanfare, then forgot to include any music. Plus, along with a dying pump organ, the primary instrument is a vacuum cleaner! What better way to suggest that the suburbs (and their cohort, The American Dream) just might be a vacuum? And you'll be happy to know that this piece comes with an original story. It goes something like this:

A friend of mine had played one of his friends a recording of one of our free improvisations. Disgusted, his friend remarked, "that's just a bunch of noise. You might as well just play a vacuum cleaner." Within minutes of being made aware of this sentiment, I was miking up my vacuum cleaner.

*** Would this be a good spot to insert my spiel on noise and pop? Well, as Picasso once said, "I don't seek— I find." This relates directly to my approach to experimentation as it applies to CHEER-ACCIDENT: Just because you're doing something that has been tagged as "avant-garde," it does not give you license to succumb to lazy nebulouness (as you hide behind your obscurity). I believe that our forays into noise should still include some sort of "hook." A way in. An identifying feature. By the same token, the pop music we make should not be devoid of asking questions (or "seeking"). We reject the notion (even though mainstream rock music has become more and more over-refined over the decades, as though it had been created in a lab) that it's a "done deal." I like to think that SOMETHING unforeseen and surprising can still take place in a 3-minute song that happens to be strong on melody and concise on intent. ***

We COULD probably spend the rest of the interview talking about "Vacuum". As I said earlier, I knew going in that the album would be a long haul, and that we shouldn't be in any sort of hurry to get anywhere, so the vacuum piece seemed like a really good starting point, a good way to indicate that the pace was gonna be slow.

.... and then the ominous opening track transitions into the downright dismal The Law Of Attraction. How's your Endurance? Beginning the album with those three tracks, foregoing (or at least postponing) our chance to win the Prog Sweepstakes, was making a commitment to a certain type of balance. No, these textural/arhythmic sections do not serve as mere interludes or introductions. They are not "in the way," but are indeed critical components in the makeup of what this album is.

And of what we do. You'd asked about what kind of person hangs in there to listen to all of it....well, that would be my favorite kind of Cheer-Ax listener, one who is interested in more of the story, someone who wants to make new connections, maybe try on a new perspective. As Jim Drummond would say, "try thinking the second (or third) thought that pops into your head."

AC: I'm interested in the writing process Jeff described with the 4-track demos. Thymme, for the passages which are really mathematical and dense like Dismantling the Berlin Waltz, God's Clinic, the beginning of Desert Song (before the 10CC-wall-of-voices kicks in)... what were you using to keep everything organised: demos, scores, midi..? I once noticed some crib notes next to the drumkit but it was asemic math-scribble I couldn't make heads or tails of.

Thymme Jones: Yes, Jeff and I write and demo stuff up similarly: it's a matter of building up parts on a 4-track (or 8-track or 24-track digital recorder)... and now he and I use Logic and Protools, respectively, so it's incredibly easy to REMOVE parts. The sound of something going away is my favorite sound. ("Absence makes the tinnitus grow louder," as they say.)

Neither of us write much out, although it's now very easy for Jeff to print out standard notation via his Logic program, so he has been handing out more parts to people that way in the past few years. As far as how to come up with those mathematical parts, it involves a lot of layering, and a lot of trial and error. I'm not one of those people who can hear all the parts in my head, and just write 'em down. I'm a very hands/ears on kind of guy.

'Dismantling the Berlin Waltz', which you mention, was fairly time-consuming to compose, as it has guitar (and piano) one playing in 3/4, guitar (and piano) two in 5/4 and the bass/drums in a differently-felt 5/4 as its foundation. And, of course, there are lots of variations, and double-time parts... and the dreaded "middle section."

You think of the beginning of 'Desert Song' as dense? I thought it was an incredibly solitary and melancholic affair.

AC: My ears are playing tricks!

Ok so you also described the band going through three different lineups during this period. I recall back when we were traveling in the same circles, Cheer-Accident was: you two, Alex Perkolup, this lady named Andrea who played multiple instruments, and the tall dude from U.S. Maple who looked like Judge Reinhold. Two years later I checked and it had changed. Two years after that, changed again. Do you guys deliberately operate this kind of "revolving door" or does Jeff just scare them all off with his pilgrim dreams?

Jeff Libersher: Well, at a certain point we actually got tired of people making the Judge Reinhold comparison with our tall guy, so we decided to ask the real Judge Reinhold to play jazz hands with us for a bit. He never really talked though...was always just kind of sitting there like a character in some 80's cop/buddy film. I'll never quite understand it. But that's life in the fast lane, Andrew.

So I guess what I'm telling you is I don't just scare them all away with my pilgrim nightmares (or my pilgrim faces (or my monster faces)). I sometimes scare them away with my Jeff Libersher impressions. Side Note: I can actually do a pretty good Todd Rittman too (although Todd actually does a much better Jeff Libersher).

So maybe what I'm really telling you is that the revolving door has at times been deliberate and at times it's rotated on its own volition. On the deliberate side of the downtown office building (where my dentist drills holes in my teeth), I think we both really enjoy pooling together the numerous and amazing talents of so many musician-friends, tossing them into the maelstrom, and riding that wave to whatever heights or non-heights that particular combination may lead us to - be that a tour, a specific show, a recording, or an improv in Thymme's basement.

Thymme Jones: I guess what Jeff's really really saying is: throw a rock and you'll hit somebody who rocks. And chances are, more often than not, they are already our friend. This community really is like that. The immediate area is riddled with musicians who speak the Cheer-Ax language, and we've been extremely fortunate throughout the years to have had people kind (or courageous) enough to join the band, who were already familiar with our output. In fact, at this present time, I am living with someone who is two decades younger than me, and who has contributed significantly to some of our improvisations and live shows. His name is Cory Bengtsen, and-- even though he is from a part of the state that is hundreds of miles from Chicago-- we seemingly had the same musical upbringing. No explanation required, he just plugs right into our mode. We recently had the pleasure of recording with Steve Albini for the first time since 2002, and after Sophia Uddin had stepped up to the microphone to completely kill her rather absurd violin part, Steve remarked, "where do you guys find all these ringers?" To which I replied, "it's a Chicago thing!" (Nevermind that she happens to be from Maryland, and has since moved back...)

When good friends become bandmates, it can be a joyful experience, and it can also be very difficult. One of the reasons it's so challenging is, though I'm not much of a control freak in real life, I most definitely play one in CHEER-ACCIDENT. And more and more unabashedly as the years go on. Friends who know me in one way can find it very draining to deal with me when I'm wearing my micromanagement hat. We were going through one of those "challenging" stages earlier in the millenium and the "control freak" moniker was being bandied about quite a bit. I remember calling Jeff to discuss the situation, asking him if I needed to take it down a notch. He said, "personally, I thnk CHEER-ACCIDENT needs a control freak." That moment crystallized something very important for me. Though many aspects of the band were democratic, things like set lists and album sequencing had largely been my domain for a long time. And things had worked well that way. There will always be ample opportunity for people in the band (and even in the band's extended orbit) to write music to their heart's content, and to contribute to this long-running entity in myriad ways (and, hey, it doesn't get much more egalitarian than five people freely improvising for an entire show, which does happen), but I remain committed (in a sometimes rather psychotically overproductive way) to this endless task of oversight. I bring this up (rather than gracefully sidestepping it), because, philosophically speaking, I believe that a lot of the best work gets done when there are a variety of people/ideas/perspectives involved, but then there is one person who takes on the role of seizing the disparate elements and "squeezing them through the tube."

To conclude in reiterative fashion, yeah it can be difficult. And downright painful and heartbreaking. I was discussing one of the particularly tumultuous times with my friend Marie a few years ago, saying, "I mean, it doesn't have to be this hard. I haven't volunteered to be some sort of martyr for music." "Yes, you have," she responded with a smile I could hear over the phone. "I've watched you go through complete Hell over the years keeping this thing going." Well, yeah. There's that. But it's been 100% worth it.

AC: It's a feat of endurance!

Speaking of which it is time to start wrapping up here. I really appreciate the discussion, I always knew this would be entertaining and it's also been one of my favourites.

What's next for Cheer-Accident? It's great to hear you're back working with Steve Albini who, by the way, I'm sure will now want to do his own interview on Navel-Gazers and drive loads of traffic to the page! Is that a new album on the way then?

Have you ever played in the UK? You should sometime, corona-permitting...? we like words that start with "Cheer".

Thymme Jones: What's next, and what's always next, is about five different things at once. (I guess that answers How Many is next more than What. Hmmmm..., did we just inadvertently name our next pop album? How Many More Than What. I like that. No "sequel" required. Ulp, I just named the next Phil Collins album.)

(Slightly) more specifically, what's next is this:

In the late summer, Skin Graft will be releasing our 22nd album. It's a fairly eclectic bugger, and it includes (spolier alert) our cover/extrapolation of Cheap Trick's Dream Police. Before our 22nd album comes out, our 23rd album, which is a recording of us improvising to the street sounds of Hong Kong, will come out. After that SHOULD be the one we just pandemically recorded with Albini. I would think that would happen mid next year or so.

The reason there are always five things going on at once is that Jeff and I are incessantly writing and recording, trying to keep up the monthly pace for our subscription page. So, when a show (or tour) pops up, that's another Thing. And, of course, I'm always perusing the archive for Fringements material. (The second and third are already queued up, and Two will hopefully be available by the end of 2022.)

We've never played the UK, no! The closest we came was in 2007, but the guy helping us with the dates couldn't scrounge up more than a hundred pounds per gig. "Treat it as a holiday," he told me. Oh, okay. Elsewhere and Nowhere it is, then!

AC: Hope to see you There and Then!

Thank you guys!

Cheer-Accident can be found at their website

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