ARTICLE BY CHERYL CHENG
Southern California duo El Ten Eleven is currently touring to promote new album Transitions, and Tim Fogarty and Kristian Dunn will visit Los Angeles this Thursday, Nov. 15, performing at the Echo. Kristian took some time from his busy touring schedule to talk to The Scenestar about the new album, the band's 10-year anniversary, and the success of the El Ten Eleven Kickstarter campaign.
SS: Congratulations on the new album! What was the inspiration for Transitions?
Kristian Dunn: The album is about the transitions that Tim, the drummer, and I have gone through in our lives between the last record and this one. Namely that we both got divorced, I got remarried, I had a baby, I moved, he moved. There's all kinds of crazy stuff going on.
SS: How is the new album different from previous El Ten Eleven albums?
KD: Even though we're an instrumental band, and some people might describe us as kind of arty, I really think of our songs as pop songs. A lot of the time, there's really a definable verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure. On Transitions, we decided to stretch out and not worry too much about that. Some of the songs are actually quite long, and there are some bizarre structures.
SS: Like the title track.
KD: Yes, "Transitions" is over 10 minutes long. The original idea for the record actually was for the entire thing to be one song—just one really long song, like classical music. But we started breaking it up.
SS: What was the greatest challenge in making the album?
KD: The greatest challenge was trying to make it one long song. We failed. That didn't work. We can try again. We're actually working on new material. Probably not for the next record, but maybe the one after that will be a 40-minute song. We'll see. That was a huge challenge, and we didn't achieve that goal, but that's OK. Some of the songs we never played live. And it's usually better for us when we've played them live for awhile before we record things. And evidently they get better when we play them live; we try to refine them more. We didn't do that with most of the songs [on Transitions]. So that made it hard. We decided not to worry about how we're going to do some of the songs live. There are three or four songs on this record that I don't even know how we would do live, so we've got some stuff to figure out. [Laughs] On this one, we decided, "Let's not worry too much about it. Let's just make it sound good."
SS: For the live shows, is the difficulty in terms of looping the sounds?
KD: Some of the songs on this record, when a part comes in, there'll be two guitar parts and two bass parts all coming in at once. You know live, I only have two hands, so I need more arms to play all those parts all at once. We refuse to use prerecorded tracks live, so that means the live versions of the songs will be a little different from on the record.
SS: Have you considered having other musicians perform with you for the live shows?
KD: No, because we really, really like being a duo. Part of what we think is cool about it is just the two of us making all this sound. That's not to say it won't ever happen in the future, but we really like just keeping it as a duo.
SS: I recently watched the music video for the single "Yellow Bridges." Could you talk about the concept behind it?
KD: I reached out to the director Cyriak, because I'm a huge fan of his work. I sent him the song, and I gave him the approach to do whatever he wants. I was a little weird about it being…gross. Have you seen his other videos?
SS: No, I haven't.
KD: There are cows getting spliced in half and stuff, but it's all animated and funny. Cyriak responded and said, "Don't worry. It won't be human heads going through a meat grinder." I told him what the record was about, and he had this concept of all this organic material working with all this inorganic material—loopers, electronic drums, and all this stuff. He made a sort of symbolism of organic to man-made and back again. And I liked that. I thought that was really good.
SS: Definitely. I felt like the video really fit the feel of the song, especially with the natural elements mimicking machinery and then returning to nature.
KD: The circle is complete!
SS: The band recently had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of Transitions. Have you done something like that before?
KD: We have. Before Kickstarter existed, we kind of did it on our own. We did the same kind of thing. Spend this much money to get this reward, because we're trying to pay for our record. And it worked. And it was cool. But now that Kickstarter exists, it was a little easier, because so many people already know about it. And there are even people who don't know about us who found us on Kickstarter. It's a really cool platform for us to expand on what we've already done.
SS: Did you have a fun time thinking of the rewards?
KD: We did. No one really went for the oddball ones. Most people went for what'd you expect. You know, getting an autographed copy of the record and whatnot. The last time we did it, we offered, I think for $200, you get a copy of the new record and you get to punch, Tim, our drummer, in the face. And one guy did buy that! We were on tour in San Francisco, and he showed up and he had to wear boxing gloves, but he did punch Tim in the face.
SS: That's hilarious!
KD: I know! [Laughs]
SS: I recently saw the new Gary Hustwit documentary Urbanized, which, of course, features El Ten Eleven music. How did that collaboration between the band and Hustwit's documentaries come about?
KD: Gary and I actually knew each other years ago in San Diego, so we were friends. And then he moved to New York and started making all these films. And he reached out to me when he was making Helvetica. He was wondering if he could use music from our first record, but also if we had anything new. And we were just finishing up our second record, so we gave him a bunch of music. And then when the next film came around, Objectified, he wanted me to do some original music for it, which I did, and he used some of that and also used some El Ten Eleven stuff. And same thing with Urbanized. He had me score a bunch of original stuff for him and then there's a handful of El Ten Eleven tunes, too. And he's really great to work with. We're pretty much on the same page aesthetically.
SS: Do you watch the movies first to help you write the score?
KD: No, for Urbanized, I don't think I saw any footage until I actually went to a screening. Gary would email me and say, "OK, we're looking for something that's kind of atmospheric and flowy without too much rhythm in it, because there [will] be people talking over it." And I would take that and try to write what I thought he wanted. Most of the time, it actually worked. He would give me notes and say, "Oh, this is great, but can you make something more progressive?" And we would go back and forth. He's really great, because he speaks the language of a musician well.
SS: This year marks the 10th anniversary since the band formed back in 2002. What would you say has changed and what has stayed the same for El Ten Eleven?
KD: We're still doing what we set out to do in the beginning, which was to make great music. And we really wanted to do it as a duo. What has changed a lot is technically how good we are at what we do. The whole looping thing. I mean, we're masters now, and I don't mean that in a conceited way. I'm just being honest. In the beginning, it was pretty rough. When we played live shows, we would screw up a lot, and we could only take it so far, because we were still figuring out what we were doing. But we never set out to be a great looping band. We never cared about that. We don't listen to other bands that are looping. Looping is just a tool for us to get our music out there. Our abilities have changed, and our songwriting abilities have changed and gotten a lot better. But the vision of the band is really the same. We really just want to make music that moves people, that moves us.
SS: The band is on a pretty extensive tour for the new album. What do you two have planned next?
KD: When we get back from the tour, we will have a little break. But we're actually already working on the next record, which is probably going to be an EP. We recorded three songs. We went to New York a couple of months ago to play a festival, and while we were there, we recorded three songs. We've been listening to those and changing them a little bit, and hopefully when we get back from the tour, we'll mix them properly and get the release put together. And then put it out in maybe the spring. We want to start releasing our material faster. It seems like we always have a couple of years between records, and that kind of annoys us, because we actually finished this record, Transitions, last December. It should have come out six months ago. But that's the way things go. Anyway, with this new material, we really want to get it out faster. So when we come back from this tour, we'll work on that, and then we'll go right back out on the road again, probably in late January.
SS: My last question is one that I've seen on fan message boards and online. People want to know why your debut album has a picture of a Boeing 747, not an L-1011.
KD: That's so funny. I think that's hilarious. [Laughs] It just proves how nerdy some of our fans are. But it's true. It is a 747 on the cover. When I came up with the idea for the cover, I did look for an L-1011 photo. I had this concept in my head that I wanted it to be a silhouette of a plane taking off into the sunset or sunrise. But I couldn't find one, so when someone else had one of a 747, I figured, "Well, it doesn't matter. I mean, it's not supposed to be taken literally. It's a metaphor." But these people… Some people are mad about it. "I can't believe they didn't use an L-1011!" [Laughs] But as long as they keep buying our albums...
BUY TICKETS: November 15th: El Ten Eleven at the Echo