El Ten Eleven: What Two Humans Can Do with Loops
The L-1011 TriStar is a medium- to long-range wide-body trijet airliner. The design features a twin-aisle interior with a maximum of 400 passengers, and a three-engine layout. El Ten Eleven, the band from Southern California, is Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty. Their design features Dunn on a double-neck guitar/bass and effect pedals galore, with Fogarty providing propulsion from acoustic/electric drums. Together, they are loop masters making instrumental, postexperimental rock music. In the dictionary, under "What Two Humans Can Do with Loops," you will find a picture of El Ten Eleven. Dunn is part composer, part ambidextrous freak—playing guitar and bass at the same time while stepping on foot pedals like his feet have eyes. Their music is highly sectionalized, building on itself in sharp sentient lines and tight hooking layers. In an instant, they wipe the slate clean, cut to a new loop, and enter a separate corridor of sound. The transitions are seamless. Watching them construct, shift, and deconstruct live is a thing of surgical beauty. Their aptly titled fifth full-length, Transitions, has just been released. Dunn spoke from a gigantic mall parking lot in Atlanta, Georgia. He was trying to find their van because his phone was about to die.
Did you know Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind in Atlanta? You can go visit the house if you can find your van. What does your van look like?
It's big and white. Don't know if we're going to be able to hit Margaret Mitchell's house. We're about to drive to Biloxi, Mississippi, to gamble on a riverboat, and our next show is in Baton Rouge. It's a coveted day off today; a couple of the guys got haircuts at the mall.
What do you think about while you play?
It depends what part of the song we're in. If it's a part that's complicated, I'm thinking about what I have to play technically—where particular fingers need to go and where this foot goes, and that foot goes. I use all two of my feet and all two of my hands to make this thing happen live. Once I've got a loop going, I'm a little freer; maybe a thought will venture. In the song "Transitions," I get freed up toward the end and always think about my daughter. That's probably my favorite part of the set. An audience can determine my thoughts in a way, too. Like when we play "My Only Swerving"—we've played that so many times it's sort of lost its emotional vitality for me. But if the crowd is really enthusiastic, I'll get caught up in that. Sometimes crowds sing along with the parts even though they're instrumental. And that makes it fun. We're talking fun here.
Pure fun. So you're not battling imaginary dragons? But you play lead bass. Anyone who plays lead bass battles imaginary dragons.
Oh, no. No dragons. But maybe I should be [laughs]. That might make things even more exciting.
Forget your daughter. You're having battles, in the air, with dragons.
I do kind of kick my foot in the air sometimes; someone who was really clever could film that and edit in a monster that I'm kicking in the face.
You guys have mastered looping. Walk us through how you make loops and what you're doing. Do you use a Line 6 looper?
I used to use a Line 6 but gave up on them because they kept breaking on the road. Now I use a DigiTech JamMan; I have three of them. Usually at the start of a song, Tim will be on electronic drums, and I'll be on bass, both of which are going into my looper. And I'll loop them first. On "Thanks Bill," I'm playing the bass with my left hand and guitar with my right hand. Once a loop is established, we're both freed for a second. There, I add two guitar parts, a lead bass part, and Tim plays acoustic drums over the electronic drums. When we get to the second part of the song, where the 808 drums come in, I'm playing guitar, and he's playing 808 drums, which are both looped simultaneously in the same looper. Once we're going there, our hands and feet are freed up again—I add another guitar part, Tim goes to acoustic drums, and we start layering it up again. That's sort of the formula, I guess.
Playing guitar and bass at the same time—that's some crazy shit. Is it a muscle memory thing? How do you do it?
Lots of practice. When I first started using the double-neck, I had no idea I was going to be coming up with parts where I needed to do both at the same time. I figured I would just loop a bass line, flip a switch, loop a guitar line, and so on. But as we messed around in the practice studio, I started to realize I could put the switch in the middle and do them both at the same time. I came up with some of my own techniques—there was no one who had really done it before like that. The muscle memory thing is really important. It's not there for us at the beginning of a tour. It takes about a week for it to start filling in. And we're always thankful when it does, because it makes shows so much easier.
When people ask you what you play, what do you say?
I tell them I play bass. That's what I really am: a bass player. I'm not a guitar player. If I ever got a call from a band asking me to play guitar, I'd have to say no. But if people have never heard the band and they want me to describe the band, then I have to say, "There's this thing called the double-neck. It's a guitar and a bass, and blah blah blah."
You could have fuckin' fooled me that you're not a guitar player. You fingerpick on your song "Indian Winter" like you're Eddie Van Halen.
That's all smoke and mirrors.
Do you have a name for your double-neck? Bessie? Or Glenda? Or Double-Glenda?
No. I hate that, when people use women's names for their instruments—so cheesy. Although we do have a name for our van, but it's not a girl's name.
What if you had to name your double-neck?
Then I would name it Steve.
What is the sexiest piece of gear you've ever seen?
That's a hard question for me to answer, because I don't think of gear as being sexy. When I see a nice amp, I don't get a boner. Some people do [laughs]. Let's see, I don't know if it classifies as sexy, but I like the DigiTech Whammy pedals. Those are a super-important part of our sound. Another one is the Boss Blues Driver distortion pedal that I think I use on every song.
What problems do you run into with all the pedals?
On this tour, it's been one of the looper pedals. The off button isn't working, so I have to stomp on it to get it to shut off. Which really pisses me off—it makes it look like I made a mistake, but I didn't make a mistake. I hit the button and it didn't work.
How is your latest album, Transitions, different from your previous albums?
I don't know, you tell me.
I think you guys are actually just getting started. Up till now, you've been forming the mold on how to make and interact with loops. Now you have the mold down solidly, and you're starting to see what you can do with it. You maximize what a duo can do live with instrumental music.
I think that's a good description. A lot of people like our first record, and we're thankful, don't get me wrong, but it kinda makes Tim and I cringe because we were still figuring out what we were doing then. That first album sounds naive to us. We've been working out our process all these years. Now we're comfortable with it and feel like we can concentrate more on the art instead of the technique.
During the making of Transitions, you and Tim both moved and you both went though divorces. How did the divorces affect the album? Do you want to talk about it?
Sure. Getting divorced sucks [laughs]. But things are looking up. I got remarried and had a kid. You can probably hear those emotional peaks and valleys throughout the album. That's why the song "Transitions" is so long with so many crazy changes—tempo changes and time signature changes. Just when something really abrupt and hard to listen to pops up, it seems to resolve itself and feels okay. Which is an obvious metaphor for what was going on in our lives.
Let's do Marriage Advice Session with El Ten Eleven. What's your marriage advice?
[Laughs] I'm probably not the guy to ask. I think it comes down to whether people have core compatibility. My ex-wife and I got along great because we had so much in common culturally, but at our core, we weren't actually a match. My new wife and I are a match that way. Now that I've experienced both sides, I see the difference and see how important it is.
And your new wife is into you because you battle dragons.
She loves that about me.
How did you all get involved with scoring music for Gary Hustwit's Design Trilogy documentaries?
I knew Gary from when we both lived in San Diego. When he was making Helvetica, he called me up out of the blue. I hadn't spoken to him in years, and he said he wanted to use El Ten Eleven music in the film. When he was making the second film, Objectified, he asked me to score original material for it, which I did. And that went well. For the third film, Urbanized, he wanted more original stuff, and also used some El Ten Eleven music. I think our music tends to lend itself well to movies and TV shows.
How do you make a whole documentary about a font? Where's the drama?
I know, it sounds like it would be the most boring film you've ever seen. But it's totally interesting, actually. All his films make you see the world in a different way. You don't realize how common the font Helvetica is in your life. I bet if you look out your window right now, you'll see Helvetica. Before I saw the movie, I never thought about it—the fact that a font has to be chosen for every written word you ever see. Whether it's on the back of a car, or on a subway sign, or on an airplane, or whatever—seven out of ten times it's Helvetica, and it's fascinating to find out why.
Did you know you and Tim are in the dictionary under "What Human Beings Can Do with Loops"? It's written in Helvetica.
I did not know that.