“I really hope people don’t say that we are a math rock band!” doubleneck guitar/bass virtuoso Kristian Dunn exclaims while discussing his duo, El Ten Eleven’s, new album Transitions. Acoustic and electronic drummer Tim Fogarty adds, “We get labeled all kinds of things from post-rock to ambient to experimental... all of those make us cringe. So far my personal favorite label for the band has been 'Power Duo'... it's kind of ridiculous but I like it.”
Despite the absence of lyrics, their latest release, their fifth studio full-length album, may be the most personal to date. “Tim and I have been through a lot in the past couple of years,” Dunn reflects. “We’ve both been divorced, moved to different cities, Tim went through some really dark times, I got remarried and had a kid … for a while things were uncertain and we threw ourselves into the new record and it called for more than just short pop structures.”
Thus, the title track, “Transitions,” which clocks in at over ten minutes long, is a twisting journey of sublime unpredictability. But the band’s ability to write catchy, emotional hooks hasn’t been lost.
“The problem I have with most math rock bands or prog rock bands is that they are usually just showing off for other musicians. ‘Ooh! Look what I can do!’ We’re just not interested in that. We want girls to come to our shows, too!”
And they do. The band has been touring almost non-stop for the last eight years. 2012 has already seen them headline their own tours as well as play big festivals such as Capitol Hill Block Party, Camp Bisco, Osheaga and more.
Armed with merely a doubleneck bass/guitar, drums and a dizzying array of foot pedals, the band creates complex, deeply felt music, from scratch, onstage, with no help from laptops, click tracks or additional musicians. They utilize multiple looping pedals to create songs that sound as though they are being played by at least six people. Most first-timers to an El Ten Eleven show are stunned that the band is a duo.
Since the band’s inception in 2002, the band has always just been two people who produce their own records. That attitude of self-reliance has also manifested itself in the band not signing with a label, despite numerous offers. “We licensed our first record to Bar None,” Fogarty explains. “And while they were super cool people, we thought we could do as good a job as they did by ourselves.” Thus Fake Record Label was born. Though the name was originally a joke, FRL has turned into a bona fide label with marketing, distribution and publicity. And this year signed its first artist other than El Ten Eleven: Girlfriends.
“We’re really excited about using our success to help out other artists we love,” Dunn adds.
Part of that success has come to El Ten Eleven from the world of television, radio and film. Shows including “The Real World,” “All Things Considered,” “Market Place,” "Chopped," "CSI Miami," “The Glenn Beck Show,” “the MTV Video Music Awards” and a Lexus commercial (to name but a few) have utilized the band’s recorded repertoire. But the most notoriety has come from Gary Hustwit’s award winning design documentary trilogy. “Helvetica,” “Objectified” and “Urbanized” featured music from El Ten Eleven and original score from Dunn.
“The reach of those films has been incredible. Our fan base has definitely grown because of them,” says Dunn.
And the fans should heartily embrace the aforementioned Transitions. Songs like “Yellow Bridges” (the first single, which is a nod to the yellow bridges in Fogarty’s hometown of Pittsburgh, with a video made by award winning English surreal animator Cyriak) will satisfy the rabid fans of El Ten Eleven’s first album with its emotional waves and flowing structure. But songs like “Thanks Bill” (a nod to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson) show the band evolving to include hip hop elements like 808 drums and even more technically difficult looping.
Even ETE’s now expected humorous song titles make an appearance with “No One Died This Time!” Dunn explains, “Every time we’ve made a record it seems like someone we are friends with or someone in our family dies. That’s why we’ve had dedications to them with song titles like “Connie,” “Bye Mom,” “the 49th Day,” “Bye Annie,” “Bye Joe,” etc. But this time, no one died!”
True to form there’s also a cover song: Duran Duran’s “Tiger Tiger.” “John Taylor was one my biggest influences as a bass player,” says Dunn.
ETE has been debuting some of these new songs at festivals all summer and in the fall will embark on a national, headlining, six-week tour. The growing popularity of the band will see them playing bigger venues than they have in the past. In some markets they are graduating from clubs to theaters. “More transitions!” laughs Dunn.