Chalk it up to good luck or the benevolent hand of Providence, the SoCal duo El Ten Eleven landed safely in Philadelphia (see what we did there?) just in time to miss the polar vortex a couple of weeks ago. Tim Fogarty, a native of Pittsburgh not easily intimidated by stupid-cold weather, found some time with us just before their evening soundcheck at The Foundry there. (The vortex had moved on to cryo-punish the Maritimes.)
We traded notes about Pittsburgh and Cleveland, both proud citadels of Rust-Belt defiance and world-class potholes, and for which we both feel some long-distance nostalgia, and to which neither of us have any desire to move back. Maybe for a steak sandwich at Primanti’s, but that’s a long way to go for a sandwich, even in good weather.
But… music. Approaching 17 years as a working duo, El Ten Eleven is currently trekking the colonies in support of their seventh (or 10th, depending on who you ask) album, Banker’s Hill. Fogarty and guitarist/bassist/soundscapist Kristian Dunn continue their improbable and relentlessly engaging cross-pollination of house, ambient, neo-prog and electronica; shimmering and cascading curtains of sound draped across mid-tempo, sometimes double-jointed rhythms, pulsing drones rising from subterranean nether-worlds, lithe and whimsical odes to forgotten pleasures, musical subtitles to imagined visuals of dystopian alien worlds. At once heavily digitalized and deeply organic, the heart that beats at the center of El Ten Eleven’s music is both warmly human and provocatively androidenal.
Best cuts here include the title track, a piece Dunn composed for a neighborhood in his current city of San Diego, the marching neo-prog certitude of “Reverie,” which marks its sub-composition break with a broad, “Baba-O’Reilly”-esque cadence, not at the end, but craftily in mid-song, and the skittering chase-scene charge of “Three and a Half Feet High and Rising.” There’s an endearing quality to this music, that the middle of a song doesn’t necessarily validate its beginning, or its end, as if a ghostly train-of-thought drifts throughout, subverting its own precision. The hidden hand of anarchy extends to their live shows.
Fogarty more or less agrees, when asked how, after 10 (or seven) albums, the music ages.
“I don’t think there’s anything we have that sounds dated. Maybe sounds, samples or whatever that we’ll update. There are pieces that have gotten more complex over the years.
“I remember there was a time when we were going to play the first record in its entirety, and we were like, there’s so many parts where there just isn’t a lot going on. So, I thought, this part here, I’ll play an electronic bassline while I’m playing the drums. Just to challenge ourselves. Stuff like that.
“One example is ‘My Only Swerving’ [from their debut album], which we’ve been playing forever and ever. And we’ve probably had 10 different endings to it live.”
But while the band is a steady-working live act, their unique approach has made them a somewhat problematic festival act, though they’ve played a lot of the big ones.
“It’s cool, because it’s not like people don’t get it, we’re just not like the midnight party act, it kind of doesn’t come across that great at 4 in the afternoon, it’s not as dramatic as it would be with lights and the whole thing. We’re not really a festival band.”
But at heart, these two are deep into their own musical fabric, and after the getting-the-press-stuff-right has worn off (Fogarty insists he doesn’t really care if someone calls them ‘math rock’ anymore, even if that dog-end of music-journo speak is stupid and wrong), it’s still a bit of fun for them when they get handed some new “you sound like” mashup.
“Nah, if people say that, I just shrug and say, ‘I dunno.’ I get that you gotta call it something. We’ve been out with Joan of Arc, and Tim from Joan of Arc came up to us one night and said, ‘You guys are like ZZ Top meets New Order, and if I said that to either band, they’d be OK with it.’”
“I’ve heard a number of those over the years. One was either Radiohead playing Daft Punk, or Daft Punk playing Radiohead.”
Well, alright then.
In closing, we asked Fogarty if he had any musical guilty pleasures — you know, stuff he likes to listen to that would appall his fans.
“I don’t know if it’s a guilty pleasure or not, but I’ve had the song ‘Friends in Low Places’ stuck in my head.”
That’s, uh, Garth Brooks.
“Yeah, I’m singing it in my head every day, all day long. For at least a week and a half. I’m like, get this out of my head.”
ON THE BILL: El Ten Eleven — with Corsicana. 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, foxtheatre.com. Tickets are $10-$17