El Ten Eleven is an instrumental duo, a “post rock” combo that creates its sounds and songs via bass, drums and effects — with no vocals.
But it said “Fast Forward,” its latest album from El Ten Eleven, is a record about fathers and sons, growing up and growing older.
So, bassist Kristian Dunn, is it possible for listeners to suss out the meaning and inspiration of the songs just from the instrumentals?
“That’s the goal,” bassist Kristian Dunn said. “Sometimes people get intrigued by the song titles and have to dig deeper and find an interview with me to find out what the songs are about. That’s why I have no problem talking about what they’re about. Some lyricists can be chippy about that. I think that’s because a lot of times they were just finishing a song and don’t know what the songs mean. We know what ours are about.”
So, Dunn said “Fast Forward” comes from a band name his father used to suggest when he was just starting out and the song title “Battle Aves” reflects (the relationship) between Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty and their dads. “Scott Township” is the name of Fogarty’s childhood neighborhood and “We Lost a Giant” and “JD” are tributes to Dunn’s late father.
Was the theme developed intentionally, or did the titles get attached once the compositions and recordings were complete?
“It’s conscious,” Dunn said. “There are a few songs from us trying to come up with a good song. But the general theme of the record started before we were writing. The songs, like three-fourth(s) of them, were written with the theme in mind. ... Every one of our records is thematic, some more so than others. Our very first record generally is about the death of my mother. ... It’s depressing, pretty much every record we’ve made we had to dedicate a song or songs to people who died.”
“Fast Forward” is El Ten Eleven’s sixth album, but the first made with Dunn playing a bass six, an instrument he picked up from Peter Hook (of Joy Division and New Order) and his son, Jack, to whom the song “Peter and Jack” is dedicated.
“It’s an old school six string, with the regular bass and two higher strings, not the new ones with one higher and one lower,” he said. So, it’s a guitar tuned an octave lower. And there’s a four string I have, with a lot of effects and, of course, the drums.”
The live show
How is that sound replicated live?
“It’s hard, but we do it,” Dunn said. “It’s hard for us to sort out how to do it, sort of like solving a math problem. Then it’s just a matter of executing it, which is hard, too.”
The key pieces of equipment in solving the problem are two looper pedals that sit at Dunn’s feet during shows. His bass is plugged into the loopers as are Fogarty’s drums.
Dunn explained the way the songs are created live via the loopers, using as an example, “Point Breeze,” the lead track from “Fast Forward.”
To begin the song, he plays high harmonics that sound like a keyboard played on his bass while Fogarty plays bass on electronic drums. Dunn loops those together, creating the foundation for that portion of the song. Fogarty then switches to acoustic drums and Dunn adds higher harmonics, again looping them together. Dunn adds a fourth part to the layered mix. Then the song moves to the “whammy part” — what would be the chorus on a song with lyrics — and the building starts again.
That layering process repeats on every song. In other words, there are no prerecorded tracks or loops used in the El Ten Eleven live show.
“There are no laptops,” Dunn said. “It’s 100 percent live, no tricks, zero. We get a lot of compliments about that. The compliment I probably enjoy most from people is when they say they came to the show and thought we had to be a four- or five-piece band not two guys making all that sound.”
Dunn and Fogarty have been developing that sound since they formed El Ten Eleven in 2002, taking the name from the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar.
The duo released its debut album in 2005. But they got their first wide exposure through director Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary, “Helvetica,” for which Dunn wrote and El Ten Eleven played much of the score.
“Around the time that movie came out and his other movies — they got shown on PBS — that’s when I found myself being emailed a lot and people would tell us that’s how they found us, that or Pandora,” Dunn said. “Pandora’s been very kind to us. It got to the point where it was kind of funny to us. In the past few years, it’s settled down. People are finding us some other way. Who knows how these days.”
El Ten Eleven has had songs in Hustwit’s other two films in the “Design Trilogy” and has toured consistently. But Dunn isn’t sure that is where the San Diego duo’s music is discovered. Nor is he sure how much exposure comes via Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and other streaming services.
“That’s the big quandary about streaming music,” Dunn said. “Streaming basically has won. Now everyone’s thinking about some sort of curator. We don’t have that yet. Maybe Pitchfork is like that, but what if you don’t like Pitchfork? I think that playlists are what’s taking over where radio left off. If enough people put you on their playlists, that’s where people might find you. But it’s kind of the wild west out there.”
Songs from “Fast Forward” will make up a good share of El Ten Eleven set with Dunn playing the six string bass. But he’ll also get out his trademark double-necked.
“It’s probably hanging on my shoulder for half the show or more,” Dunn said. “We have eight records and only two were recorded without the double neck. We’re going to play old songs in ours. So the double neck is there a lot.”
Between tours, Dunn and Fogarty will return to the studio — and this time will bring some friends along.
“We’re always coming up with new stuff. In fact, our next one is going to have vocals on it,” Dunn said. “We’re doing a series of EPs with singers. We’re not ending our career as an instrumental band. We’ll just see what happens. I think it will be cool for the singers to expand to our fans and we’ll probably pull in some music fans who can’t get past the instrumentals and need some lyrics. Maybe we’ll suck them in.”