Flying High with El Ten Eleven
L.A. Duo Talks Post-Rock, Ratatat, and Instrumental Music
It’s no coincidence that Kristian Dunn is both a pilot and a cocreator of El Ten Eleven, one of the most high-flying instrumental rock bands around. In fact, the very name of the L.A.-based duo is derived from a plane: the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. But while comparisons between flying and the epic aspirations of post-rock are easy to make, the label is something that they have resisted since their 2004 debut, precisely for these reasons. “It’s a cliché-ridden genre,” Dunn explained to me via phone.
But in spite of, or perhaps because of, this overflow of interchangeable instrumental bands, Dunn and his percussive counterpart, Tim Fogarty, have managed to keep their sound afloat the old-fashioned way: with constant experimentation and a genuinely impressive live show. Switching between a double-neck bass/guitar, a fretless bass, and a veritable arsenal of effects, Dunn holistically crafts songs from the ground up by looping himself on the fly, while Fogarty balances things on the percussive end by swapping freely between acoustic and electronic drums. The result is a full, unpredictable sound that could easily be mistaken for four or even five people.
Recently, El Ten Eleven took to the road in support of the duo’s fourth studio release, It’s Still Like a Secret, an endearing book of songs that soars lightly through the air with you one minute and pushes you out of the plane the next. The tour will land the group at Velvet Jones on Thursday, August 25.
I was first introduced to El Ten Eleven when I was working as a deejay for KDVS 90.3 FM in Davis. I found your self-titled debut album in the archives, and it had a sticker on it that said, “For lovers of Ratatat.” Do you think this is a fair label? [Laughs] That’s cool. Actually, I’m glad it said that and not “lovers of Explosions in the Sky.” We get that a fair amount, and we hate it because we really don’t like that band and we don’t like post-rock. Not to be mean or to diss anyone else or anything—it’s just not really our cup of tea. But for some reason we get thrown in with them a lot, and we much prefer getting lumped in with Ratatat.
Why all the hate for post-rock? To me it’s just a totally cliché-ridden genre now, just like blues or ska or anything like that. When there were bands originally doing it 10 or 15 years ago, it was something new and exciting, but at this point it’s just so predictable. It’s just loud-soft-loud-soft, trying to sound epic with that particular delay sound on the guitar. I’m just over it. I was over it a long time ago, and then we put out our first record and people started calling us post-rock and comparing us to Explosions in the Sky, and I thought, “Really? That’s what you’re getting out of this? That’s funny ’cause I’m not into that.” But everybody hears something different, and that’s cool.
Was the omission of keyboards, computers, and vocals an accident or a conscious decision? Well, we had no choice, because neither Tim nor I can sing, and we didn’t really look very hard for a singer because we decided early on that it would be cool to be an instrumental band. And definitely from the beginning we decided we wanted it to be just the two of us making all the sounds.
I saw a video of you covering a Joy Division song. How does an instrumental band cover a song with vocals? In our case, it’s a pretty big challenge when we cover a song that has vocals because obviously there’s no vocals in this band. I have to cover the melody on the bass or guitar. For example, with the Joy Division cover, I did the melody really high up on the bass. I think that lends itself to having an originality that excites people. I know when we play that one live, people really dig it. So hopefully we’re bringing something new to a song that people are already familiar with, because if you’re not going to bring something new to it, I don’t see the point of covering it.
Guitarists and bassists are constantly in pursuit of the perfect tone for their respective instruments. How do you do both? I think that one has to make sure that one is using the effects to his or her advantage, not as a crutch to hide bad songwriting. Sometimes I see people who have a lot of effects, and it’s all about the effects, and there’s no song there. So I try really hard to have good songs and have the effects be a part of the vehicle that delivers those songs. Every once in a while someone will cover one of our songs, and I love it because then I can actually hear the song in a totally different arrangement and see if it holds up when someone plays it on piano or whatever.
Why is it such a bummer to watch people perform computer music? People don’t like it. They feel like they’re just watching people lip-synch, and they are. A lot of people use tracks as a crutch and are kind of being phony up there. I mean, it can be done well. We toured with a guy called Baths, and he does a laptop-MPC thing, and he does it really well, like he manipulates the stuff live and on the fly and he sings. So it can be done well, but 90 percent of the time, at least in my experience, it’s not done well. To me it’s just cheating and it’s boring, and live shows are suffering because of it. There are less people going out to shows now, and I think that’s a big reason why.
Tell me about your foray into production with Fake Record Label. We started it years ago just to put out our own material, and that was just a joke. I noticed that when local bands would put out a CD on the back they would put ‘Garbage Can Records’ or something. And I always thought, ‘There’s no such thing as ‘Garbage Can Records’; you just made that up to make it seem like you are signed to a label!’ So that’s why I put Fake Record Label together, just as a joke. But then it ended up turning into a real label, and now we have distribution, we have marketing, we have a publicist—we do all the things that a label does, and now that includes signing other artists. We just signed our first artist other than ourselves, an artist named Girlfriends. We just did a split 7″ with him that’s just coming out right now, and then we’re going to record his album in the winter—I’m going to produce it—and it’s going to come out in the spring.
I really like Girlfriends’ song Brobocop. Are the similarities between his guitar tones and yours just a coincidence, or had he been listening to a lot of El Ten Eleven? [Laughs] You’ll have to ask him that. I think his tones sound way better.
El Ten Eleven plays an all-ages show at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Thusday, August 25, at 8 p.m. Call 965-8676 or visit newnoisesb.com for tickets and info.