As composer, bassist and guitarist for the instrumental duo El Ten Eleven, Kristian Dunn makes a conscious effort to avoid the approach of so many "post-rock" bands who either wallow in avant-garde noise or indulge in dexterous displays of math-rock excess. So he's not particularly thrilled when critics use the word "experimental" to describe the effects-laden music he and drummer Tim Fogarty create.
"I'm definitely not conducting experiments, I'm trying to write good music," says Dunn with a laugh. "And let's face it, 'experimental' usually means 'not listenable.'"
Whereas El Ten Eleven's music is entirely listenable. Via live looping and an arsenal of electronic effects, Dunn employs his vintage Carvin guitar/bass doubleneck to build consistently engaging — and surprisingly varied — layers of drones, riffs and melodies. Pitches get shifted, basslines get distorted, and it all fits together perfectly as Fogart's drumming shifts from motorik precision to metallic pummeling.
And while they can make an awfully big sound for two normal-sized humans, the musicians also know the value of restraint.
"I went through my phase when I was a bit younger where I was doing lots of crazy time signatures and stuff," recalls Dunn. "You know, I'd studied music in school and I wanted to employ all the ammunition I had at my disposal. And it was stupid. It was really music just for other musicians.
"I mean, I shouldn't say it's stupid — it's fine if people are into that — but for me personally, I wanted to make music that everyone will like, not just other musicians or other bass players. So that's why I do consciously avoid those two extremes."
Named after a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar — Dunn's a licensed pilot and aviation buff — the duo is a definite departure from the Southern Californian's previous bands, which have taken a more conventional pop approach, with varying degrees of commercial success. Dunn has done stints with the rootsy Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and the alt-rock band Inch, which got signed to Atlantic before fading into obscurity. The Incredible Moses Leroy fared better — vocalist Ron Fountenberry even appeared on Gap billboards and magazine ads — and the two San Diegans have continued to work together in the Softlightes (currently on hiatus), who played Lollapalooza and recorded for Universal.
Dunn also spent some time working for Ultimatum, the William Morris Agency-backed indie label that signed the Incredible Moses Leroy as well as the no-less-photogenic Keanu Reeves and his band Dogstar: "They could fill a room, lots of girls would show up to see him. But the records didn't do very well."
In hindsight, Dunn says there's not much he misses about the mainstream record industry. "It just seems like that paradigm, at least for me, never really worked out. El Ten Eleven is really doing better than any of those bands that had label support. So it just kinda goes to show that bands don't necessarily need that. I mean, some do. For some bands, it does work out. But for me, it never did. I mean, seven record deals is kind of a lot."
Ironically enough, Dunn says it was when the industry began to collapse that things started getting better for him. This past November, El Ten Eleven released its fourth album, It's Still Like a Secret, which was financed entirely by fan contributions. For Dunn, that more than offsets any loss he might suffer from his songs being digitally pirated.
"If people are gonna steal them, that's fine," he figures. "Case in point, we just asked for our fans to pay for our record, and they did. And that never would have happened 10 years ago."
In fact, fan donations ended up paying for both the album and a van, in exchange for which the band offered a wide range of donor incentives. A $100 package got you a signed copy of the album plus the opportunity to punch drummer Tim Fogarty in the face, but only with a properly fitted boxing glove. A $750 package included an executive-producer credit on the album as well as an hour-long helicopter flight piloted by Dunn. ("Yeah, my dad was the only one who went for that.")
The outcome of all that effort does not disappoint. And while El Ten Eleven's instrumentals continue to bear random titles (e.g. "The Sycophants Are Coming! The Sycophants Are Coming!"), at least one song, "Ian MacKaye Was Right," sounds pretty specific. I ask Dunn what exactly the Fugazi bandleader was right about.
"Well, a couple of things. There was a song on one of their albums where he says, 'I hate the sound of guitars,' and I understood that sentiment, because I was getting bored with the sound of guitars. And then when we were turning down some offers from record labels and stuff, I thought, you know, Ian was right about the whole DIY thing, too. Because Fugazi was staunchly independent and just did everything themselves, and they obviously did well. And I thought, now that we're doing things on our own, we're doing way better, so he was right."
And was he also right about never charging more than $5 a show?
Dunn laughs. "Unfortunately, he was wrong about that."