El Ten Eleven (Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty) are an amazing instrumental duo that I had the pleasure of seeing for the first time this past summer at the Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle. I had the pleasure of meeting the guys and chatting before their recent show at the Crocodile in Belltown in Seattle. After geeking out about the greatest city in the world that Tim and I happen to hail from (Pittsburgh), we chatted about how the band developed, the intelligence of their fan base, and the lack of post-rock in their headphones.
What’s El Ten Eleven up to right now?
K: Right now we’re up to being very exhausting because this tour’s been very grueling. It’s been great because people have been coming out to the shows. We just played a sold out show in Portland two nights ago; our first straight sold out show there. But, we have a pretty extensive lighting rig on this tour. We have to get to the clubs or venues early to get it all set up and have our sound check, so we have to get to the venue by 4pm or 5pm every day. But it takes a really long time to pack it back up and load it out at the end of the night, so we don’t get to the hotel until 3 or 4 in the morning. The drives have been really long, so we get on the road by 8. It’s been a lot of nights of 4-hour sleep.
To answer the question, it’s been a great tour, but really, really grueling.
Have you guys played any particularly cool events or venues on this tour?
T: Yea, we played Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin which was great. We had a really great set time when the sun was setting and it was magic; it was awesome. So that was as fun to play as it was to be there. The Doug Fir in Portland was a great venue.
K: Yea, and that one was sold out on top of it being a great venue so we loved that place.
T: New York was cool. We played Bowery Ballroom for the first time. Lincoln Hall in Chicago is always awesome. Some of the smaller shows too, like in Denver we played at a place called the High Dive which is always fun.
K: Yea, that was another sold out one. Our egos explode every time we play sold out shows. [laughs]
What makes for a good live show as a performer and as a concert-goer?
K: For me, because we tour so much and have been doing this for so long, I rarely see artists that impress me, which sucks. I kinda don’t go to shows anymore, which is sad. But as a performer, that pushes me to make sure that our show is great because I want to impress someone like me in the audience [who has seen a lot of music]. That’s why we try so hard to be good and why people may be moved by it.
As far as being on stage, so much of it has to do with the crowd. Even if it’s a huge crowd, huge crowds are great and great for our ego, but it’s an enthusiasm show. If we play a small show and the audience is really into it, it ends up being great fun. If we play a big show and the crowd seems sleepy we wonder “are we not doing our job?”
T: There was a place on this tour [North Star Bar] in Philly that had a weird alcohol policy for the all-ages show where they had the bar separate from the stage and we couldn’t even bring drinks on stage. You’d get done with a song and everyone would clap and enjoy it, but then [Kristian] would be tuning and everyone’s just quiet. You just need a few drunks to get the party started.
K: We had people come up to us after the show who were from Philly and said that venue usually doesn’t do it like that. We usually love when we have all-ages shows because we love seeing our music appealing to all people. The all-ages ones are often the ones that are crazier or more fun because kids have more fun than older people. [laughs]
What kind of demographics do your shows tend to attract?
T: It’s all over the map.
K: We’ll have little kids that like us and older people who like us. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Our biggest fan is 3 years old. He’s the son of a friend and his dad built him a fake double-neck [guitar] and he’ll walk around pretending to be me. When I met him he was all excited and looked around and was like “Where’s Tim?” not knowing that Tim, you know, doesn’t live with me. He watches our videos and when his babysitter tries to put other things on Youtube he’s always like “no, where’s El Ten Eleven?” All that to say, our demographic may be skewed in weird age directions.
T: We definitely attract an intelligent audience. You’re not going to find a bunch of knuckleheads out there throwing bottles. It seems like we have cool, smart fans. There not there to play grab ass; they’re there to watch the band. Maybe they meet a chick, whatever, but that’s not the point. [laughs]
K: A lot of couples at our shows, actually. I think our music is the soundtrack to a lot of love-making. [laughs] I’m serious. I saw an interview recently with Bryan Ferry who’s received a lot of comments from fans about his album, Avalon, saying that their children have been conceived to that album. I think that’s a pretty cool compliment. Years ago, I was talking to Maynard [James Keenan] from Tool, and he said a lot of people would come up to him and say, “I love your music, man. I listen to it right before I go beat some fool’s head in.” Like that’s the kind of guy he was getting.
What are some of the band’s musical influences right now? Who have you been listening to a lot?
K: You know, we don’t like any of the music who people who come up to us and talk about our band listen to. Like, we don’t really like or listen to post-rock. In the van today, we were rocking this band called Penguin Prison who we played with at Fun Fun Fun Fest. How would you describe it; 80’s Justin Timberlake or something?
T: Yea, there’s something kind of catchy about it. I mean, I don’t know if it will ever seep into our music. I mean I listen to a lot of different music all the time and will think “wow, that’s [cool]”, for whatever that’s worth. But obviously we’re not trying to emulate anyone. Kristian listens to a lot of classical music and I don’t know how that effects things, but we’re kind of all over the map with that kind of stuff.
There aren’t a lot of instrumental bands around, so how did El Ten Eleven’s style develop?
K: Well, because neither of us can sing, that’s really it. If one of us could sing, there would be vocals. Plus, I wouldn’t say we’re perfectionists, but we’re definitely picky. Even if one of us could sing decently, if it wasn’t really good we probably wouldn’t want to use it.
T: There’s a lot of bands out there with singers that don’t really sing that well that are still good. Neither of us has done it. There’s something about it.
K: Yea, even if someone isn’t a good singer, but they have a lot of character in their voice, something about it that’s unique… but we don’t have it. We didn’t set out to be a great instrumental band, but we couldn’t sing so we said “alright, let’s just start writing music.”
T: Right, we never thought we were just going to be a looping instrumental band with a double-neck [guitar]. It just evolved naturally. On the first record, we basically were just drums and bass and [Kristian] started looping and eventually would start to pick up a guitar and put down the bass and vice versa so he just got a double-neck on eBay and one step at a time it just happened. Around the first gig or first record we thought, “I don’t even know if we’re ready for this,” but we just went with it.
K: When I called [Tim] up to start the band I didn’t even know what a looping pedal was and he did so we just started messing around with it and it worked. We didn’t set out for this, but we’re sort of the looping kings now. I’m not saying that in a conceited way, but we’re sort of there. We don’t really listen to bands that loop and that’s what most people who come to our shows ask us about. It’s not really that interesting to us at all. It’s interesting because we just kinda did this because we had to make band work. It is what it is, I guess.
T: Yea, it’s like another piece of gear, really. I couldn’t do this without my electronic drums, he couldn’t do this without a double-neck.
K: It’s like Jimi Hendrix and his wawa pedal; it’s something you just have to have.
What’s the best show you guys have seen that’s been really impressive?
K: Our one friend is in a band called Races. They toured with us and they’re an amazing live band. Earlier you asked a question about seeing other bands and I said something about how no one ever impresses me; well, they do, which is why we had them come out with us. Same with Globes.
T: Other than bands that tour with us, we haven’t toured with or seen Battles but I’ve seen a lot of videos and they seem like a band that would be great. Penguin Prison was really great, too. Girlfriends, too. That’s the one one-man band where from every aspect like songwriting, performing, as a person, everything was impressive. He just gets up there and does it; if he [messes] up it doesn’t matter. He’s as much on-stage and off-stage. One man band who plays guitar and drums and everything. He’ll play a show and be like “I just wrote this song today”. Amazing. It’s cool because in the beginning when we were playing to not many people and the bartender or whoever would say “oh, that was amazing, can I buy some merch” or something, which doesn’t happen very often. I feel like he’s on to something because he’s one of the people that happens to. That’s how I could tell when we were on to something when we would at least break even and feel like, “okay, people give a [crap] about us”. So, watch out for Girlfriends. And Boyfriends, too, actually. They are crazy musicians, great dudes. [laughs]
What’s your favorite thing about being a part of this band?
K: Well, the chicks. [laughs] Just kidding, I’m married so I don’t care.
T: Well, we’ve both been in a million bands but we’d never been in a duo, so it’s easy because there’s only one other person so if you can’t make rehearsal or something there’s only one person to contact. There’s no singer all pissed off in his own rock-and-roll fantasy. Not to be businessy, but it’s equal parts really fun band and also a small business. Even if you get older and think, “oh, I’m still playing music, what the [heck] am I doing,” at least you’ll have a small business aspect there. It’s just a thing that’s kinda cool. Like, you get older, but you’re not just [slacking] off.
Thanks so much to Kristian and Tim for taking some time to chat. Make sure to check out El Ten Eleven next time they are in your town!