When I think of double-neck guitars, I conjure images of ‘80s cock rock and overactive solos from guys that are trying too hard. Maybe you do, too.
Kristian Dunn and his two-man band, El Ten Eleven, have single-handedly (and double-neckedly) begun to change that image. Dunn plays a double-neck guitar/bass, and uses countless foot pedals to craft complex musical landscapes. Backed by drummer Tim Fogarty, he creates an enthralling layer of sound that rivals the instrumental verve of anything coming out of the dupstep or electronic dance music ranks.
Seeing Dunn and Fogarty do what they do live is a revelation. He works the guitar and bass and foot pedals simultaneously, recording and looping himself to churn up transcendental, orchestral arrangements right before your eyes.
“We get a lot of people who come up to us after shows and say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea it was a duo!’” Dunn told me before setting out on their winter tour. “We want people to just like the music and listen to it because it’s good music, not for the novelty of us doing it as a duo with looping pedals.”
The band’s stop at Belly Up Aspen last January was one of town’s live music highlights of 2012. The band returns to Belly Up on Thursday, Feb. 7.
As Dunn tells it, El Ten Eleven started eight years ago with a sound in mind. It didn’t begin as a two-man concept.
“I thought we were going to have to get another musician, or a few,” he recalls, “and then Tim asked if I had heard of a looping pedal.”
They borrowed one from a friend, practiced using it, and El Ten Eleven was born. Five albums later, the Los Angeles-based band’s cult following has grown on the momentum of an incessant touring schedule and well-earned word-of-mouth buzz. Their latest album, last year’s “Transitions,” showcases the band’s ability to maneuver from danceable tracks to atmospherics and a growing mastery of their singular sound.
Because they work in uncharted musical territory, they defy easy categorization. “Experimental” is one label that comes up. It repulses Dunn.
“That’s one I hate,” he explains. “I think what they mean is that we’re pushing boundaries, and that’s great. That’s true. I like that. But the problem with the label ‘experimental’ is that usually it means ‘un-listenable.’ If I was thinking about checking out a band and I read that they were ‘experimental’ that would pretty much seal the deal that I was not going to go check them out.”
In the eight years they’ve been a band, electronic music — and electronic dance music in particular — has crossed over into the mainstream and begun dominating much of the live music and festival scenes. El Ten Eleven harnesses all the catchy hooks and percussive power of that stuff, without the aid of sequencers or laptops.
Dunn and Fogarty love EDM (“That’s about all we listen to,” he says) along with hip-hop. Because for Dunn, the guitar is dead.
“To us rock is just so boring now, generally, and the guitar is a tired instrument,” he says.
So Dunn challenges himself to play it in a different way. Yet for all their technical might, El Ten Eleven’s songs also have heart. Dunn and Fogarty’s compositions are evocative in the way that Philip Glass or Steve Reich or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ instrumental songs are.
While there are no lyrics in El Ten Eleven’s songs, a lot of them are about specific topics. The title track on their 2012 album “Transitions,” for instance, is about some big life changes both men had (divorces, marriages, a kid) in the last few years. The song captures and evokes the transformations, disruptions and flow of their lives over 10 minutes of layered guitar, bass and drum.
The songs on their albums, for the most part, are recorded live — the same way you see them performed live. They don’t write tabs or sheet music for any of it — just practice and play and repeat from memory when they do it live. At some point during their live shows, Dunn will usually pause and explain to everybody what he’s doing up there.
After struggling with record labels’ inability to market them, the band started self-releasing music on their own Fake Record Label. Ironically, Fake Record Label has become a real one, with Dunn and Fogarty signing artists and releasing albums for others.
“It’s great,” he says. “It started out as a joke and it’s turned into a legit label. We’re excited to help other artists and we think we can get them going a lot faster than it took us. Our success has been just by attrition, touring and touring and touring and touring. And we think we can help out some other bands and make it so that journey is a little faster.”