WRBB’s Paige Ardill caught up with Kristian Dunn of the Los Angeles-based band El Ten Eleven to talk about storytelling, experimentation, and their new album Banker’s Hill.
Get tickets to their show at the Sinclair on February 9, 2019!
What does music mean to you?
Music is something that stirs the soul, if there is such a thing as a soul, in a way that really nothing else can in life, I don’t think. For me, anyways, and for a lot of people.
What sounds or instruments do you tend to gravitate towards when you listen to music, either in your own work or the work of others?
There isn’t one, in particular, I don’t think, there are so many types of music I like; that’s a hard question. I guess I’m a sucker for 808s, so hip-hop 808 sounds. It can be a terrible hip-hop song, but if there are 808s in it, I’ll start nodding my head. Obviously, that’s made its way into our music, we may use them too much, but I just love them. It doubles as a bass and a bass drum. It’s an exciting sound to me, even after all these years, being used and overused. But there’s a reason they’re being overused, it’s because they sound good. One thing that usually, reversing your question, pulls me out is guitars. I don’t really like guitars anymore, which I know is crazy to say, because I use them, but unless I hear someone doing something really original with it, or the song itself is so good that the instrumentation doesn’t really matter, that’s fine. It’s a tired instrument in our country, at this moment in time. I still listen to plenty of music with guitar in it, but I gravitate towards people who are trying to do something new with it. But it’s the same with most any instrument; there are very few drummers doing anything new, very few bassists doing anything new, very few painters, sculptures, filmmakers, and once in a while a person does something new, but it’s crap because it’s too weird. It’s a stagnant time. That’s why I think certain artists are great, but I don’t use that word often because, in my opinion, I don’t think there are many artists who are worthy of the tag ‘great.’
Who would you consider to be great, at this point in time?
I just got turned onto these guys called Buke and Gase by a friend who thought I would like them, so I nodded my head and said, “I probably won’t, but okay,” but I listened to the first song ‘Houdini Crush’ and it was so good. I was so moved by it and I was thinking, “Alright, this is cool.” They’re doing some weird arrangements and instrumentation, but weird in a good way. It was still understandable, the lyrics were great, her vocals are fantastic. So I went down the rabbit hole to find out more about them and I found out they’re a two-piece, man and a woman, they build their own instruments and play drums with their feet while they play. There’s a bunch of technical stuff going on which is really interesting, which I don’t care about because I want to be moved, not impressed, but it turns out they also impressed me so it’s a combination. They’re kind of my new favorite band.
How do you go about telling stories through your music? Are they more structured narratives, or rather an encapsulated cathartic release of emotion?
I’d say more the latter, some are more narrative like ‘You Are Enough’ from our new record that has more of a narrative flow. If we were listening to it, I could explain what each part represents, but I realize that not many people are going to know exactly what I mean unless they hear an interview where I explain it. Some artists don’t want to explain their lyrics, which is bullshit, I’m happy to. To anyone.
What is your creative process like, from the initial idea to final production, or does it vary per song and per project?
It varies a little bit. Generally, it’s me at home in front of my computer with my bass coming up with ideas. If something sort of tickles me, so to speak, I’ll really go down that rabbit hole, and if I think it’s good I’ll send it off to Tim, my drummer, and we’ll work on it at band practice. It develops from there. The other way, Tim and I improvise in the practice studio and little things pop out and we record them roughly, so I’ll take that home and think “that was pretty cool,” and kind of develop from there. It’s the same thing as most musicians I think, even though we’re a weird band there’s no weird magic process.
How did Tim and you initially start working together?
I was walking into a coffee shop and an old high school friend was walking out, we hadn’t seen each other in years, so we caught up and he told me he was putting together a band with two drummers, one was electronic, one was acoustic and they needed a bass player. I went and practiced with them and it turned out Tim was the drummer, playing the electric drums, which I thought was super cool, and no one else was doing it at the time. That band never really worked out, but I knew I wanted to start El Ten Eleven, and I wanted Tim for my drummer because he’s so good and was doing different stuff. So I called him up and said, “Hey man, I’m thinking of starting…” and he interrupted me and said, “I’ll do it!” I found out later he really liked my plan and said whatever you’re doing I’ll do it, too. That was in 2002, I think, and we’re still going!
Where did the name El Ten Eleven come from?
It’s an old airplane. I’m a pilot, and I’m nerdy about airplanes. The real plane was actually called L-1011, and it was really ahead of its time technologically. Everybody loved it, the passengers, the crew, the pilot, but for political reasons they couldn’t make any money, so they had to shelve it and I thought, well that’s a great metaphor for us. We had a short list of names, and after we got our first gig we needed to pick one and this one stuck. I’m thankful it did because I still like the name all these years later.
Other than your talents in instrumentation, what do you think each you and Tim bring to the duo?
I think both of us bring a lot of dedication and work ethic. I’m realizing that our work ethic is very different from a lot of other people. We started doing side projects with singers and other musicians, and I was really taken aback by how long it took some musicians to get stuff done. At first, I was kind of surprised and offended by it, but now I’m realizing that most other people aren’t like me. I go, go, go, I don’t stop, I don’t take vacations. “I’m going to take 6 months off for sabbatical,” no that would make me insane. I think it’s the work ethic that we really share.
You’ve been quoted saying that you don’t use pre-recorded or click tracks during live performances, how do you think that has impacted your shows, both for you and the audience?
I think it makes it better. If it didn’t make it better we wouldn’t bother because for us it makes it really hard, but we’ve been doing it a long time so it’s gotten easier. What we do though, it’s hard. Not many people do it. In this day and age, where people are just hitting space bars and jumping around, I think that one of the reasons we are kind of successful, however you would define our success, is because people like coming and seeing musicians actually playing and doing something kind of challenging, something that’s emotionally satisfying and moving at the same time. And we are honest about it, we make mistakes. Sometimes if I mess up, I’ll stop the song and try it again. I think people appreciate that because there is so much phoniness in the music industry right now.
What did you have in mind when writing Banker’s Hill? What do you see when you listen to it through?
It’s kind of a combination of things; when I first started coming up with these ideas I was just sitting in my room with my bass trying to come up with cool songs. I didn’t really have a theme sorted out, but I was thinking about where I lived, Banker’s Hill. I was thinking about my family, about the changes I’ve gone through and the anxiety I’ve come to terms with, and as that started to develop, stuff that didn’t seem to fit that theme began to get cut away, and the things that did fit started making the cut. When we started working with our producer, he sort of knew what I was going after. I had mentioned my daughter, and he said, when he was thinking about what was working and what wasn’t, he said he was thinking about Kristian thinking about his daughter. I had help, and I can’t emphasize enough how great it was to have someone I trusted working with us. When you write stuff, when you work on something for a long time you’re too close to it. You can’t see it anymore. To have someone who is objective who I trusted to stand back and say “oh this is great,” or, “oh this needs to be changed,” it was so helpful. I don’t want to make another record without him.
What makes you tick, so to speak?
Music. I mean, my wife and my daughter, but music. It’s a bummer to be older now and be jaded and have a hard time finding music that really moves me because I feel like I’ve heard it all before, so when I discover something like Buke and Gase, I get really excited and think, “this is so cool.” I get emotionally moved by it, and curious about them and then start thinking about my own ideas and how they moved me emotionally and “does my music move me emotionally like that,” the analytical side can come in, but that spark, it’s still music to me. But that’s obviously separate from my wife and daughter and friends and family, which is a huge motivator.