El Ten Eleven plays a sound that’s dubbed “post rock,” an alt-rock sub-genre characterized by vocal-less, typically experimental, cathartic buildups (i.e. Explosions in the Sky) and richly textured math-rock riffs (i.e. Don Caballero). But labels like “post-rock” and “math rock” cannot capture the intellectual and athletic spectacle delivered by guitarist/bassist Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty during their Friday night performance at The New Parish, part of this year’s Noise Pop festival.
While Fogarty drummed with Ableton Live-eque precision, Dunn (who could be Lyle Lovett’s doppelganger) brandished a half-bass, half-six-string Carvin double-neck, layering ethereal harmonics over looped tapped bass lines, all while his foot had virtual sex with his spread of pedals. At one point, Dunn went for broke, threw his pick into the audience, and started claw-hammering his strings. “There are no laptops hidden backstage,” Dunn told the audience. It was a pretty smug statement, but certainly understandable, considering the duo’s sound at its mathiest evokes images of whizzing binary code. In 2014, who really believes a sound like two operating systems making sweet, passionate love, has nothing to do with a microprocessor?
Toward the end of the show, Dunn announced: “This is our hardest song. I hope we make it through.” He and Fogarty began, but soon after exchanging glances, Dunn stopped. “Can I ask you guys a question?” he said. “Can we start this one over? It’s about my sixth grade friend, Matt.” The encouraging fans cheered, and El Ten Eleven nailed its hardest song, “Nova Scotia.” But thirty seconds into the band’s last — and arguably most famous — number (“Only My Swerving”), Dunn stopped and said, “No, we need to try that one again.” He started again, but this time everyone sensed the miss timed loop and saw Dunn nervously wipe his brow. “Fuck!” he yelled, stopping again. Finally, the duo made it through, received applause, and said thanks and goodnight.
Before recitals, young musicians are told never to stop and correct in the middle of a number because the audience likely won’t notice a mistake. It’s a fundamental rule of performance. But El Ten Eleven breaking this rule was forgivable because it presented a bit of reassuring irony: For a band that ordinarily simulates the unwavering precision of a computer program, El Ten Eleven provided that touch of human error we all secretly desire in a live show, reminding us that music does, after all, come from somewhere organic and vulnerable.