The long-running instrumental duo El Ten Eleven makes expressive, highly visual music that doesn't need lyrics to plant pictures in one's imagination.
Consider the song "Are You Enough" off the new album Banker's Hill. A repetitive, pitch-bending hook is the centerpiece of the groovy and dreamlike intro, which bassist/guitarist Kristian Dunn injects with exhilarating stabs of bass distortion. The six-minute song dips toward the middle and settles into a tensely cinematic sort of vibe, like waiting for something unknown to emerge from a dense bank of fog. It's a horse, of course — actually, two horses — as Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty come out chugging along at a full gallop, dragging the listener back to the place it all started.
"Are You Enough" is special to Dunn: Nobody else liked earlier versions of the song, but he advocated for it to be included on the final cut of Banker's Hill.
"I said, 'Let's keep working on it,'" he says. "Nobody was on board with me at first, and it took a lot of changing things around to get it where it is now. I'm pleased I fought for it, because it's probably my favorite song on the record and it seems to be going over really well."
Dunn is the band's primary composer. He's known for playing a double-neck guitar that's half bass and half guitar, making innovative use of effects pedals and constantly layering songs with, like, 18 loop tracks. Fogarty kicks a mix of acoustic and electronic percussion, complementing Dunn's arrangements with everything from sparse 808 beats to intricate prog-rock patterns.
Dunn tells the Inlander he relies on looping to compensate for the duo's fixed number of hands and feet (they've stubbornly resisted adding members to the live lineup). It could be tempting to use computers to program at least some of the sounds, but he and Fogarty decided early in their careers that each and every noise would be produced in real time onstage. And they discovered that the element of risk is thrilling for everyone involved.
"Part of the reason people want to come see us is because it's exciting to see us doing everything live," Dunn says. "One of our friends said, 'Watching you guys live is like watching somebody walk across a tightrope. If they make it straight across, it's kind of boring, but if they lose their balance and start to fall, it's really exciting.'"
On Banker's Hill, the duo chose to work with an outside producer for the first time in its 16-year career. Dunn needed some help.
"I've been shouldering the creative weight without any help for nine records, if you count EPs and remix records and stuff," he says. "I had written something like 23 songs for this record, and I'd been working for so long that I had lost perspective on what was good. I couldn't hear it anymore."
The band brought in producer and engineer Sonny DiPerri to help Dunn sort through his not-so-good ideas. His guiding hand also made Banker's Hill sound as deep as the ocean and a million miles wide.
"He was a phenomenal engineer," Dunn says. "He got really good performances out of us and really good sounds. For the first time in our career, you can hear the feel of Tim's drums. We'd never captured that before."
The geographic location of the recording studio also seeped into the music. DiPerri, Dunn and Fogarty spent 12 days at Panoramic House on California's spectacular North Coast, where they found themselves in a somewhat meditative headspace.
"It's funny, I've been doing this forever, even before El Ten Eleven," Dunn says. "I've had a total of eight record deals and I've been on a million tours and I've recorded a million records, and I've always had this cynical attitude that where you record doesn't matter. A studio's a studio; it's just a sterile factory where you make the music. You get it and get out. Who cares? But wow, I was wrong. I felt different there.
"All of that positive energy really poured into the recording," he says. "I just can't imagine it didn't affect the way it sounds." ♦
El Ten Eleven with Tennis System • Sat, Sept. 15 at 8 pm • $17 advance, $20 day of • All ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174