There are few artists to parallel the technical proficiency and unconventional compositions of El Ten Eleven. The self-described ‘power duo’ from California employs complex live-recorded loops with instrumentation from guitarist Kristian Dunn on a Carvin double-neck guitar/bass or Wal fretless bass and an impressive, percussive continuo from drummer Tim Fogarty. The two have performed as El Ten Eleven since 2002 and released five studio albums, their most recent of which, Transitions, was received to unanimous acclaim. Their avante-garde presentation complements a composite style of music that borrows from electronic post-rock arrangements with ambient melodies that touch upon influence from dance rhythms, jazz triads, and a spectrum of genres that are almost entirely unidentifiable. I have had the privilege to attend their live show upon nearly a dozen occasions and in addition to one of the best live performances you may ever witness, they are two of the most affable, entertaining persons to know and a personal favorite band of mine.
Following an outstanding set to deafening applause from the massive audience at the main stage of Boise’s Treefort Music Festival, we egress to a pleasant courtyard outside a hospitable hotel. We are accompanied by friend, record-mate and multi-instrumentalist Jerry Joiner, an Oregonian musician better known as his moniker Girlfriends and Slow Magic, a downtempo artist of elusive providence with whom I had an illuminating interview with earlier that morning. Slow Magic along with Nude Pop will support El Ten Eleven as they headline their own tour following a few sold-out performances opening for electronic deity Bonobo. The cloistered space offers some seclusion in addition to generous fireplaces and a well-stocked bar to combat the vindictive chill brought on by the failing sunlight. Marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars are pulled from a shoulder bag and drinks are distributed as the titular duo are toasted for their excellent performance. The atmosphere is jovial as hotel patrons, festival goers, press and performing musicians filter in.
SSG Music: I found a charming little algorithm the other day that takes into account genres, track names, album art for a band and generates an ideal drink to complement your music. It suggested “The El Ten Eleven” which is 10 oz. of 7-up, 4 oz. of ginger beer, paired with 10 oz. of marijuana and combined in a highball glass, stirred vigorously and served with a cocktail monkey. How accurate would you say that is to your music?
Kristian Dunn: [laughs] What the hell is a cocktail monkey?
SSG: I think it’s a little plastic monkey that hangs on the side of your glass.
KD: I do not ever eat, drink, or smoke any of those. I drink Whiskey. Tim smokes, so he may feel different. Tim would actually probably have that drink. But Tim would have many drinks. He is the kind of guy that blackouts walking across the street. One time on tour, we had a day off and he went to find a guy to purchase weed. We were like, ‘where did he go? That is kind of sketchy.’ He lost the guy somehow and was literally walking across the street and he just fell down. Phone fell out and everything and he passed out. In the crosswalk. Some girls pulled up all, ‘is he okay?’ They put him up against a bush and at that moment we called him because we had to find him and some girl answers his phone, ‘hello? We found your friend in the street.’ Jesus, man [laughs].
SSG: I had something prepared that I wanted to ask you that explicitly mentions Girlfriends but I was not expecting Jerry to be standing….right here.
KD: Lets do it! Don’t mind him.
SSG: Well you mentioned you are a fan of Portland’s Girlfriends and have said that he is both talented and very young. I was curious if you feel there is a trend for young artists to have greater success and influence in the musical community. What does a difference in age in musicians change? Feel especially free to get in on this, Jerry.
KD: I think age is a contribution from older people. I don’t know if you know this, but we like [Jerry] so much we signed him to our record label. He was the first signee to Fake Record label, although you technically have yet to sign the contract. Even though we gave him money!
Jerry Joiner: It is like blood brothers without actually doing it, you know? We do not have to actually go and cut ourselves.
KD: No, I think what is going on age-wise is you can be older to be a rock-star [verbal fanfare]. Who is the biggest act in this festival? Built to Spill. How old are those guys? Even older than us.
Slow Magic: That is true! Sharon Jones as well.
KD: I do not know. I do not think age matters. I hope it doesn’t or I am out of a job.
JJ: For me, when I was 17 or 18 I felt like if I did not have something good out by the time I was 21, I felt like I would be a failure in a weird way. It was a lot of conformation bias. I would see bands that were young and doing a lot of cool stuff and I would make it in my head that everyone was doing that. In my head I was assuming everyone was that age when probably they were way older.
KD: I did the same thing at 30. I said if I did not have something cool by 30 I would be so pissed, and I did not start [El Ten Eleven] until I was 32. I am 28 now.
We pause for a few moments to reclaim Tim and enjoy a healthy round of drinks for everyone. I wander away to strip twigs from the manicured landscape with which to spear marshmallows and return to Kristian recounting his recent harrowing incidents on skis. It would seem his fall would have hurt far less had he been a bit higher (and note that in his words, that is not a commentary on his elevation). Bits of different conversations bleed through the ambiance; whether it is marshmallow or marshmellow and just what the hell is in a marshmallow anyway; Slow Magic humorously suggests a collaborative track with El Ten Eleven to be titled “Dinosaur Senior” and Kristian threatens to take me on tour with them until my attendance to their shows displaces my current most-seen artist, Explosions in the Sky. Instagram is a common choice for comedic disdain by all and Jerry distributes fancy double ply business cards while Tim declares they would decline to ever play a show for the Queen of England given the chance. Drinks are replenished once more and when the discussion reconvenes, our troupe has moved inside to an entertainment room generously provided by the hotel for purpose of our interview.
SSG: Do you feel that instrumental music changes the way you connect with fans? It’s not as if they can sing along with you.
KD: Oh, but some of them do. We have good shows where people actually sing the parts. They go, ‘beeyouu-wharuuuu, badun, badun, badun, wahruuuu!’ Those are my favorite shows, I’m serious. The thing about the vocals though, it kind of makes us work hard. You kind of have to pull it out of people. The girl before us [from Radiation City] just kind of held a note and when she stopped, everybody [imitates applause] because she nailed it. Well shit, we don’t have that stuff to do. So we just do triplets like, ‘dee-du-dooo, dee-du-dooo, dee-du-dooo.’
SSG: What else could your fans do to make you happiest as a musician? Keep in mind, we have a reputation now for fans reading and responding to what you say here.
Tim Fogarty: Throw giant duffle bags of coke on stage. Does not happen enough.
KD: We are not joking. Or throw money, whiskey…
SSG: Well, Joe Strummer of The Clash once said that there are some forces of inspiration such as whiskey and cigarettes that are so influential to art that had they never existed we would not have such the spectrum of creativity that we have today. Do you think there’s a connection between whiskey, cigarettes and art?
TF: Definitely. You could substitute for whiskey or cigarettes any other substance that really changes peoples brain patterns. Especially in the sixties. If there wasn’t LSD, it wouldn’t have been the same. Probably would have been better since most of that music is horseshit. But who’s to say?
KD: Cigarettes definitely. I mean, I don’t smoke but people would freak the fuck out. But if they never had it, maybe not…
JJ: What if alcohol never existed? How different would the world be?
TF: It would be like Salt Lake City. Kind of clean, but eerie.
SSG: Do you feel that everyone should play music or make art of some kind?
TF: No. Now, anyone can grab an instrument and make something really awful.
KD: No. When we were growing up there was no internet. Because we are old. We had to listen to a cassette and rewind. Listen, rewind. Try and figure out what that lick was. Now you can go online you can just type in ‘how to play this song’ and there is a guy to show you how to play it. In a way, access to music is too easy now. But that can push some people to be really excellent because of that.
JJ: I think that it is fine that people do that. But they shouldn’t think they are good just because they can. It’s like, I should not be a carpenter, right? I have no idea what kind of pressure you need to make something. But if I thought I was a good carpenter and kept doing it and forcing it on people, that would be bad. In a way, it is good because people understand what it takes to make good music, more than before, but at the same time it kind of saturates the radio.
SSG: What if they just made music or art for themselves and not the public?
TF: Why not?
KD: Sure. But don’t get cocky. Just because your girlfriend says its good doesn’t mean it is.
SSG: If El Ten had formed in, say, right here in Boise rather than your hometown of Silverlake, CA, how would your music be different?
KD: I think it would be the same, really. We were never part of any scene there. We didn’t know that many musicians. We would play a show with other musicians and never see them again…
TF: It is not like in Brooklyn where every time I see a band and think ‘aw, they must be from Brooklyn’ and 100 times out of 100 times they are from Brooklyn. We were never really like that.
KD: Or from Portland [the room turns towards Jerry]. Yeah, you guys are easy to peg.
JJ: I made my album in Pullman Washington with, like, 17,000 people so you cannot say that!
KD: We are just teasing. You are not typical Portland. But there is a typical Portland.
TF: Portland is kind of different though. There they just have the music but Brooklyn people have this vibe, this fucking vibe.
KD: Woah, that just went to pejorative very fast.
SSG: I always think of your albums as having very different intensities. How do you avoid making say, These Secrets are Being Videotaped Part II?
TF: That is something we ask ourselves every time we try and make a new record. It is intentional for sure. We were more like, ‘oh, shit. The first record sucks compared to what we can do now with looping and all that stuff.’ Then the third record was totally different. Close to a dance record.
KD: No use of the double-neck. I didn’t feel like I would never use it again, but I wanted to challenge myself and only use the bass. It didn’t totally work. I feel like that should have been the EP. Hindsight 20/20, right?
SSG: Well your instruments are very much a hallmark of El Ten Eleven. You have a Carvin double-neck, the Wal fretless bass and you make use of complex live loops during your performances. Do you ever feel limited by your instruments or by technology?
KD: I never have. People always ask, ‘what is next? What do you envision?’ I’m like, I don’t know, just doing what we do. Like we change the pedals sometimes. We figured out that I can loop Tim because there are two inputs on my looper that we did not realize were there. ‘Oh, my god, shit! How did we miss this?’ We come up with new stuff all the time. This last record we were super into 808 drums, super into Evo. Just sounds different.
TF: It is kind of cool only being us. I mean, you are limited by what only two people can do. People suggest we put in [pre-recorded] tracks, but fuck that, who couldn’t? So we don’t do that. I have this Mountain Cat thing that I just got that is this giant keyboard that you can play with sticks so that will be the next thing for me, to play melodies along with drums.
KD: I think a lot about guitar, because I don’t really like guitar, actually. I think it is a tired instrument. I don’t really listen to music for it. I listen to people like [Jerry] who is one of my favorite artists because he is doing shit with a guitar that is totally not normal. When I sit down I think, ‘ugh, I have a guitar.’ I don’t want to play chords. What can I do that makes it cool, makes it different? There kind of is a limitation there, but it makes me want to push what I can do with it. Of course we have guitars in music and we are not trying to hide that. I do not want to sound like Explosions in the Sky, like we were talking about. No offense to them or anything, but I do not want to play a chord and get louder and louder and louder then softer and softer and softer. What else can I do?
SSG: Well, in the decade that you have been performing as El Ten Eleven, do you ever reflect on your early work and regret anything?
TF: I am not embarrassed. There is kind of a charm to it. I remember being super self-conscious and playing shows back then so when I listen to it now I think it’s funny. It is what it is. Well, actually, the third record kind of sucked. We rehearsed and recorded that record as opposed to playing a bunch of shows on the road and getting feedback before coming back and recording it. Once we started playing it more it got much better.
SSG: Is there anything you wanted to add or would you like to dedicate to your fans?
KD: Yeah, honestly, fuck the Queen… No, seriously, thank you everyone for your support.
TF: Yeah, it really means everything to us…and I want to sniff your hair.
KD: There is a quote for you. Bring us whiskey and let us sniff your hair.