When Kristian Dunn, one half of the instrumental indie-rock duo El Ten Eleven, finished 2018’s Banker’s Hill, he found himself wanting to make shorter statements more often, releasing a few EPs a year, rather than one LP every few years. But his plan backfired shortly after as he began composing the catalogue of tracks that would become Tautaulogy I, II, and III. Released throughout 2020, the triple record is the group’s best-selling to date, making it to the Billboard top 200 for the first time and selling out the vinyl in one day. All of which was a bit surprising for Dunn, given that he thinks it’s pretty pretentious to put out three albums at once, especially in the day and age of streaming services.
“Nobody listens to full-length records anymore, including me,” Dunn says. “There’s just too much distraction. It’s too easy to, tap away, click away and go to something else.”
But as he began collecting compositions, Dunn, along with drummer Tom Fogarty, searched for a cohesive thread. Some of the tracks were heavy, reflecting the anger and depression of Dunn’s musical taste during his teenage years. Some were atmospheric and ethereal, reminiscent of Dunn’s recent life, processing the death of his grandmother-in-law. (The song “Frances” is named after her — “a phenomenal person.”) And other tracks fell somewhere in between, leaving Dunn with a triple release following a musical journey from adolescence to mid-life through end-of-life.
Coming to Denver on December 11, Dunn and Fogarty just started a national tour, marking their first live performances since the coronavirus pandemic cancelled their planned 2020 tour in celebration of Tautology.
“I’m really excited,” Dunn says. “I mean, we love playing live and so here we go, we get to do what we love.”
With hundreds of songs to choose from, coming up with a setlist of about 12 for any live show is a challenge he admits. There’s more than enough new material with Tautology alone, not to mention the dozen or so releases since the duo’s first album, 2004’s El Ten Eleven. Released with little fanfare, the record became a cult favorite as the band grew a loyal fanbase by touring endlessly around the country. Plus, there’s the forthcoming New Years Eve with the titular single released Dec. 1 and the entire album expected in the first few months of 2022.
“You know how artists are, artists always think their latest work is their best, but,” Dunn says, the new album is “my favorite record that we’ve done so far.”
Like Tautology and Banker’s Hill before that, New Years Eve is a collaboration with Los Angeles-based producer, engineer, and mixer Sonny DiPerri, who has also worked with bands like Portugal. The Man, Lord Huron, Trent Reznor, and The New Puritans. For El Ten Eleven, DiPerri has made all the difference, Dunn says, calling the producer-turned-good-friend his “dude muse.”
“I wish him or somebody like him upon every band that exists because the band will be better,” he says.
In 2002, Dunn and Fogarty launched El Ten Eleven, with a clear vision for the eponymous record about Dunn’s mom dying and didn’t necessarily need a producer. Then for a long time, Dunn says, he didn’t think they could afford one as sometimes they played shows in front of 12 people. But without a producer’s input, there have been albums throughout the years that perhaps didn’t need to be released.
“I do look back at some of it I think, mmm, I don’t know if I should have released that one or that one maybe should have been an EP because there was three or four on there, but the rest were kind of meh,” Dunn says.
Regardless, the duo has built a devoted following over time, buoyed in large part by the novelty of their live performance. Their sound is often described as post-rock, expansive and deep, despite the fact that there are only two musicians on stage — Dunn’s proficient playing of the double-neck guitar and bass and Fogarty on drums, supported by substantial looping.
“To be honest, the novelty factor really worried me at the beginning because I didn’t want people to come to this show to our shows to see that, I wanted them to be moved by music,” Dunn says. “It was always about the music for us and the way we did it, was because it was necessity: We just really didn’t want another person in the band.”
Still, Dunn says he doesn’t really consider El Ten Eleven post-rock and doesn’t listen to or follow the genre. He’s sees post-rockers as a bit more formulaic, musicians filling the stage with epic instrumentation that ranges in volume until it culminates in “like, explosions in the sky or something,” he says.
While El Ten Eleven may have some of those elements, it’s built from an entirely different foundation. To this day, Dunn says people still approach him after the show, surprised that only two people create their instrumental sound. Throughout their career, most fans have found El Ten Eleven on streaming playlists, unaware of their atypical arrangements or masterful use of looping to compose.
“That’s what I want. I don’t care about impressing people; I want to move them,” he says. “So if we do impress them along the way, that’s great, but I just don’t want our show to be all musicians, just staring at my fingers, trying to figure out how I do it.”
On the bill: 7 p.m. Saturday, December 11. Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver.