El Ten Eleven: Words on making music with words

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El Ten Eleven (Tim Fogarty and Kristian Dunn), and Emile Mosseri
El Ten Eleven (Tim Fogarty and Kristian Dunn), and Emile Mosseri

For more than a decade, El Ten Eleven have been one of Southern California’s most dynamic duos. Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty make music that, while metaphorically lyrical, has no lyrics.

Their mesmerizing instrumental compositions defy easy categorization — not really post-rock, nor prog, certainly not improvised — and their live shows have riveted audiences wherever they have toured. Which is seemingly everywhere, all the time. Dunn often wields a doubleneck guitar/bass (or a fretless bass), with Fogarty playing acoustic and electronic drums, and thanks to looping technology and a host of otherworldly effects, their songs seem to spring from the ether.

But this just in: On Aug. 18, El Ten Eleven will release the EP “Unusable Love,” a collaboration with Emile Mosseri of the highly regarded New York band The Dig. As you’d expect, “Unusable Love” doesn’t sound quite like anything El Ten Eleven has done, but, says Dunn, it won’t be the last time the duo collaborates with a vocalist. And even though you’d assume Dunn and Fogarty were set in their ways after 15 years of creating instrumental music, making the transition was not hard.

“I would love to give you a more interesting story — ‘Oh, it was a struggle, we fought all the time, etcetera’” Dunn says with a laugh, “but actually the struggle was the singers we went through before [Mosseri].”

||| Stream: “I’m Right Here” (feat. Emile Mosseri)

On Aug. 29, El Ten Eleven and Mosseri will perform at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (tickets here), one of only two shows they are scheduled to give behind “Unusable Love.”

We caught up with Kristian Dunn on a recent afternoon to talk about this new chapter for El Ten Eleven:

Buzz Bands LA: After six albums and an EP of instrumental music, was it inevitable that at some point you would try to cross over?

Kristian Dunn: We have been trying for a while to find a singer. We went through about eight and could never make it happen. Finally, Emile came to our attention because we have the same manager.

And it was truly a collaboration?

It was definitely a collaboration — the songs started as mine, then they were demo’d and sent to him. Once he got his hands on them, he went about writing melody and lyrics and suggesting arrangements. Then we flew him out to L.A. to record. I really enjoyed the process because I could leave so much room in the songs. It was actually a challenge for me not to fill all the sonic space.

And hopefully it won’t be the end. There are four different people we are working with right now on future collaborations, and we’re still doing instrumental stuff. In fact, we plan to have a new album out next year.

Already?

You could say we’re nuts, but it’s what we do.

Was there a lot of arm-wrestling involved, with you and Tim bringing somebody new into the process?

It was frankly surprisingly easy, and a big part of that was Emile. He’s one of those guys who’s good at everything. Ninety percent of the things he suggested just worked. He was constantly bringing in ideas that fit so perfectly. I would love to give you a more interesting story — “Oh, it was a struggle, we fought all the time, etcetera” — but actually the struggle was the singers we went through before him.

I have to think that your fans — can I call them cult fans? — will happily follow along.

Our fans are really passionate. We play small theaters and large clubs and our shows are often sold out. And our crowds are pretty diverse now — when we started, it was a lot of guys, a lot of musicians, people who were curious about what we were doing and how we were doing it.

We want to make music that moves people, not music that just impresses people

But we want to make music that moves people, not music that just impresses people. If it moves them and impresses them too, of course, that’s great. I don’t want this to sound wrong, but I think we draw smart people, and I’m really proud of that.

You’ve done some film work [including 2007’s “Helvetica”], too. Does your work in film inform what you do on the albums? Does it aspire to be cinematic?

Did I get involved in film work because what we are doing is cinematic, or has the fact that what we’re doing is cinematic led to film work? That’s a good question. I will say that when I go to a movie with my wife, who’s a hairdresser, it drives her crazy because I’m focused on the music. Because of the music, you can see a completely different movie than the person sitting next to you.

How has working with Tim changed over time?

It’s mainly changed because of equipment and technology. Every now and then, we add a new piece of technology, and those are things that have happened very slowly over time. But the way Tim and I interact with each other hasn’t changed much.

I remember the first time I saw Jon Brion — who’s savant-level — at Largo. Not long after, I borrowed a looping pedal from Joey Waronker, and now here we are, 15 years later.

And you guys are still vociferously anti-laptop, right?

For us, yeah. There are certain artists that do it well, but there are lots and lots who don’t. We really don’t want there to be a laptop on stage. Which is difficult, because every so often Tim will find a bunch of interesting sounds on his laptop, and we use it — but only in the practice room. And we think, “It sure would be easier if we had this on stage …” And then we shout, “No!” People who don’t know us too well already think we have pre-recorded tracks on stage.

The people who know us know better. Besides, we’ve been pretty open about how we do things by posting a lot of things to YouTube. I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should keep everyone guessing. Full disclosure, I’m old enough to remember the mystery of just staring at an album’s front and back covers and wondering about the magic that made it. That was a special feeling.

||| Stream: The title track to “Unusable Love”