Two guys and a process

Discipline and execution are key to El Ten Eleven’s nuanced sound

Photo courtesy of Fonald Photography

Update: The El Ten Eleven show at the Fox Theatre Feb. 8 has been canceled due to an injury to guitarist Kristian Dunn. The band is offering refunds for purchased tickets. For more information, see The Fox Theatre.

Extending past 10 minutes in length, a dicey indulgence for any artist not conceding the mantle of prog or jam band, the title track to El Ten Eleven’s latest CD Transitions begins its journey as a humble, diffident down-tempo 4/4 meditation, with guitarist Kristian Dunn looping a tapped guitar figure and percussionist Tim Fogarty laying out a modest, accented house beat underneath. Traversing the murky perimeter around avant-garde, ambient and pure instrumental pop, this is familiar territory for the SoCal duo, now kicking off their second decade as an ongoing franchise.

And then, at about 4:55, the damn thing slips a beat, returns promptly to its poised determination, slips again, then again, and the duo suddenly halves the beat and torques the tempo into a semi-gallop, Dunn throwing shimmering pastel washes across an unleashed Fogarty percussion workout, before yielding yet again two minutes later into a skittering bass-heavy rock figure, and eventually finding its way out with an unabashedly epic, rapturously resolved coda.

There’s a gruesome and paradoxical brilliance at work here, instrumental and heavily automated music blasting with humanity and spontaneity, cerebral but soulful.

It was our intention to ask Tim Fogarty which of the CD’s seven tracks was the most challenging to get just right (the band’s obvious obsession with meter and the now-precise, now-anarchic character of their music leaves little doubt that getting it anything less than right wouldn’t cut it).

But “Transitions” was quite obviously the masterwork. A suite stitched together with bits of uncompleted compositions maybe?

“We ended up having parts that we actually chopped out,” Fogarty told us by phone last week. “So it wasn’t like two medium-sized songs that we sandwiched together, it was actually a little bit longer than that.

“But there was a whole theme musically — and personally — through the whole song, Kristian and myself had gone through a whole bunch of things in our lives. Divorces, and he had a kid and got remarried and moved, so there were all these kind of transitions. That was kind of the concept, the song took a little while to work on, over the course of I don’t know how many months, just trying to work it out so that it felt good.”

We couldn’t help but wonder if process, for lack of a better term, is really the third guy in this outfit. Where to use technology, when let the loops carry a passage, or when to kick out the plug and just wail. Fogarty plays with electronic and conventional drums, and a loop machine, and Dunn plays a double neck guitar/ bass standing over a NASA-esque bank of pedals, and a loop machine.

Shrugs the skeptic, playing over a loop sounds easy. Sure it does, but put up a guy playing guitar and bass over two looping tracks simultaneously, while the drummer is playing over his own loop, and the composition throws carefully placed tempo and meter changes into the mix, and without a strident dosage of discipline, the whole thing can collapse into a mechanized noise fail.

So … discipline (note the partially coincidental Robert Fripp reference) is the third guy in this band?

“Yeah, for sure,” Fogarty says. “I mean, in a weird way, not having a third person is sort of a limitation, but it’s also sort of a freedom to just having two people working on this. And, yeah, the looper and the process is part of the overall sound. Definitely.”

It’s no small feat that these guys have plied these waters, an instrumental duo basically working a club and small theater scene, for more than a decade, regularly selling out their shows in Southern California and even gaining audiences from festival appearances. Some of their popularity has been drawn as well from their work as soundtrack artists, with pieces featured in Gary Hustwit‘s Design Trilogy films, and as bed music for TV shows like CSI: Miami and The Real World.

But the club circuit is the duo’s bread and butter. The groove scene has gone a long way toward making the world a little safer for non-vocal music, but El Ten Eleven won’t be mistaken as foot soldiers in that regiment.

Fogarty says that he and Dunn retain some awareness that instrumental music — especially as it drifts toward the ambient fringes — isn’t always the easiest sell for a mainstream crowd.

“If people don’t get it, they don’t get it. But I also feel like, there is a lot of great music out there — classical, some oldies — that’s purely instrumental. So it can work.

“Plus we don’t have to deal with a singer. So beautiful.”