It's not experimental prog rock, it's not self-indulgent noodling instrumentals and it sure as hell isn't post-rock. What El Ten Eleven does do, however, is maintain their own lane. We meet with the band outside of Tucson's Club Congress over drinks and dinner, expanding a pre-show meeting into an hour of conversation regarding records past and present, instrument choices and frank music industry topics. The rapport between guitarist/bassist Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty is palpable, almost fraternal, and rightfully so -- they've been working together for well over a decade.
The "power duo," as they've been affectionately coined, started in 2002 in Los Angeles, carving out hooky songs devoid of lyrics while maintaining an earworm quality. You may be familiar with the William Stafford-inspired track "My Only Swerving" and its accompanying video, a homegrown black-and-white affair that's amassed close to a million views on Youtube. In it, Dunn and Fogarty weave layer upon layer of upbeat instrumentals together in-studio, completely with requisite pedal tapdancing and Boss looping stations in full effect. It's a dizzying video that has been a proven entry point for fans of the band, an act that's able to both lift and dismay listeners with a few well-placed riffs. Translating emotion sans vocals is something that Dunn strives for in his writing.
"We came through some dark times, and you can hear that," Dunn says of the band's 2012 full-length Transitions. "You're cruising along and everything feels good, then it jerks into a weird time signature and it kind of resolves, and that's what was happening in our lives. I would get divorced, but then I ended up getting married and having a baby. Things straightened out and ended up OK."
Transitions, as literal an album title as any, was El Ten Eleven's biggest departure from their previous work, favoring a bit more sprawl than structure. It's their latest EP, For emily, an intentional lowercase "e" as a nod and dedication to a late friend of the band's, that shows even more textural experimentation. Lead single "Nova Scotia" employs talk box effects, phasers, glissando lines and tremelo-picked guitar within its five and a half minutes. It's much easier to hear how the band has evolved when there's no words to go with the songs.
"I don't want us to be like Ratatat or AC/DC or bands that kind of keep releasing the same record, but brilliantly -- that's cool and they shouldn't change," Dunn explains. "I just don't want us to ever repeat ourselves. If we repeat ourselves we'd be kind of done."
Fogarty agrees with that same forward-thinking approach. "We tried to play the first record in its entirety for one tour a couple years, but we were kind of bored with it," he says. "We weren't doing half the fun stuff we're doing now. There's more layers, there's more interplay, there's more electric drums, acoustic drums."
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Yet for an act fully in their own niche, there's a decisive lack of critical reception to El Ten Eleven. It's baffling to the band themselves, but it does lend to some ravenous fans and respect among their peers -- remixes from the likes of Com Truise and Zion I's Amp Live are one way of showing just that. Dunn does laugh about it, however.
"It makes us scratch out heads," he says. "How have we never had anything in Pitchfork? I'm surprised we haven't even had a bad review."
Fogarty leans in over the table as if divulging national secrets, and his quote is followed with a rollicking laugh from Dunn. El Ten Eleven does their own thing, they know they're singular, but after 12 years they're still as grounded as ever. "I like bad reviews," Fogarty jokes. "Every once in a while I'll see something where someone dings us and it's hilarious or it's true, like 'Oh, shit -- maybe [they're] right about that.'"
El Ten Eleven is scheduled to perform at Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, Feb. 6.
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