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For the layman who has never picked up an instrument, technically complex, guitar-based music can be a daunting subject. It involves jargon such as "time signatures" and "math rock" (not to be confused with "progressive rock") and considers involved, digit-killing playing as being part and parcel of good songwriting. It's a kind of music that requires listeners to know how it's being played in order to understand what makes it so good.
Kristian Dunn seems to have a good grasp of the preconceptions about such instrumental music, and as the guitarist/bassist of LA-based duo El Ten Eleven, he's doing his damnedest to allay them. He and drummer Tim Fogarty craft luminous, effects-laden rock that happily tinkers with circuitous patterns and shape-shifting tempos to quirky, multihued results. Shades of several styles appear in their sonic spectrum—electronica, experimental music, post-rock, even the ever-nebulous math rock—but Dunn prefers to hear his music in earthy fashion.
"People don't think of us this way, but we're kind of a pop band, really," he says. "Our songs are typically four or five minutes long and have a pretty definable verse, and then a chorus and a verse and a chorus—that sort of thing—even though it's arty indie rock or whatever it is."
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As someone waging a tiny war against pretension in guitar-based instrumental music, Dunn is in an unusual position. His music is undeniably intelligent, with its ever-shifting moods and melodies, but he's concerned it may come off as intimidating to someone new to this school of sound. During shows, he devotes a considerable amount of time to tinkering with a double-necked bass/guitar; he uses the Frankensteinian creation because having access to both instruments simultaneously is the only way the act can feasibly perform their music as a two-piece, he maintains.
At El Ten Eleven shows, Dunn plays the instrument while he faces a 12-piece station that features sundry effects pedals and other sound-manipulating devices. He's in constant movement, capturing temporary loops to create a vast sound. The guitarist often aims a camera at said station during shows, projecting the feed on a screen behind him so the audience can see the work that goes into creating his music. While Dunn aims to make music anyone can get into, other guitarists constitute a significant chunk of El Ten's fan base, with those enthusiasts frequently snapping pics of his gear set-up at concerts.
El Ten Eleven recently laid down a new record, tentatively titled Transitions, that will take them down a different alley from the dance-oriented grooves of 2009's It's Still Like a Secret. "This time, I decided I wanted to branch out and do something kind of longer and almost more like a classical piece of music—and I don't mean that in a pretentious way at all. Just something a little bit longer with more themes and variations," Dunn says.
After originally envisioning the record as one long song, he and Fogarty have since parsed it into segments. While discussing the record's 11-minute-long title track, Dunn's specific but broad ambitions rear their head again. "It has a lot of changes in it, a lot of time-signature changes, a lot of tempo changes," he says, "but hopefully in a way that's very digestible to those who aren't musicians because I don't want to be one of those math rock bands that only musicians listen to."
This article appeared in print as "Post Rock as Pop: El Ten Eleven aim to make intricate instrumentals accessible."