“When I’m up there, I’m really focused on checking all my gauges, getting on the radio with other pilots… it’s interesting, I never thought about it, but that’s probably the only time in my life where I’m not having musical ideas come into my head.”
El Ten Eleven‘s Kristian Dunn was describing what it’s like to fly helicopters over Southern California when it occurred to him.
“I wonder, in a way, if that’s why I like it. That’s a good point.”
Most of us know Kristian as the loop-obsessed, double-neck guitar virtuoso from the instrumental band El Ten Eleven. But he also happens to be a licensed helicopter pilot.Though we were tempted to pick his brain about all things concerning these metallic harpies of the sky, it turned out we had actual music to discuss.
El Ten Eleven are currently one third of the way through releasing a slew of not one, or two, but three total albums, and over the following phone call, Kristian spared a few minutes to talk with us about the concept behind this massive undertaking, and the ways in which it evolved.
FB:Hello, is this Kristian?
Kristian: Yep! Hello, how’s it going?
FB: Good! How are you, you guys doing okay down there?
Kristian: Yeah! To be honest, it’s not that bad.
FB: Sure, for some people I’m sure. Luckily, I think you guys got your releases squared away before things really went down with the virus?
Kristian: Yeah, we were pretty much ready to go. The only thing that really is affecting us, other than the obvious more personal stuff, is we’re supposed to go on tour in the Fall. That obviously is in question.
My manager gave us a less than twenty percent chance of going. It sucks because it was shaping up to be the best one we ever had. But it’s okay, the reality is it’s most likely going to get pushed into the Spring, which is when we were supposed to go to Europe, so that will get pushed to who knows when, and… it’s okay.
In the grand scheme of things, they’re just shows, but we’re full-timers, and we count on touring for a pretty major part of our income, so that part is a little spooky. But we’ll be alright. We’re spoiled brats that we get to do this so, we’ll live (laughs.)
FB:I definitely understand. Especially considering I’m a little more familiar with the Tautology series now and I’m super into it, I can see how you guys would have had a lot of interesting stuff to set up, and having to reschedule and reorganize that must be frustrating.
Kristian: Yeah. But the way I look at it is we’re not canceling anything, we’re just postponing it, it’ll happen. I’m not sure, but I think when we get to go back to shows and stuff, people are going to be pretty euphoric.
FB: True, I can’t wait, I really can’t. Um, to go back a bit, I’ll try to make this short, I know you’ve probably got a lot going on, but I do have just a couple things here, let’s see… I’ve been listening to El Ten since probably about 2010 when I first started college. That’s probably why I really associate you guys with studying, playing video games… is that the frame of mind you’re thinking of when you come up with material?
Kristian: As far as being music that people use to work or study, no, definitely not. That’s actually been a surprise to me. It’s not so much anymore because I guess it’s more common, I have had so many people tell me we got them through grad school or a pHD, which is really nice, but that’s never in my head. I just want to make music that moves me. I mean we hopefully move other people to, but that’s the furthest thing from my mind.
FB:Do you have a state of mind or a pattern for getting to any particular mindset when you’re creating music, or is it just based on feeling?
Kristian:Yeah, just based on feeling, there is really nothing magical or different in what I do from what other musicians do, I sit down with my laptop, my bass, my pedals and start coming up with ideas… I wish I had a better answer for that. When Tim and I get together to work on songs it’s two dudes improvising or we’re working out stuff I’ve already written, it’s the same as every band that exists to an extent (laughs.)
There is only two us. I’m doing the work of three, or four, or five musicians, then I want to do this thing, but I can’t because that pedals on, then I loop this thing, move back … it just kind of becomes this kind of math problem trying to coordinate it all.
FB: You don’t say…
Kristian: But we’ve gotten used to it. If someone who had never done that came into my shoes and tried to do that, it would be really really hard. But my feet have become better instruments, I’m used to it now.
FB: Did you do anything differently for Tautology after you came up with a theme? Out of the three, one is were more heavy leaning, one is more mid-tempo, the other is more atmospheric, was that the result of trying anything differently?
Kristian: Well, you know, it’s actualy kind of funny, I decided a while ago I just wantd to reease EP’s from now on. Just shorter statements, but more often because I never listen to full albums any more. I kind of feel like the LP is a dead art form because nobody cares to listen to something that long. But anyway, I thought, why don’t we make like, six EP’s and we’ll just release them more often?
But when I was writing stuff for Tautology, it was different kind of stuff, it all over the place. And to make a long story short, the best way to put it out was to put out three albums that were connected (laughs). It’s so ridiculous and anti-me. I’m making fun of myself with the title, you can look up what tautology means. I wanted to release an EP, and ended up with a triple record.
The heavy thing, for the first one, that came up when we were recording Bankers Hill. Tim and I took a break, and were just goofing around, and started imitating Queens of the Stone Age, and we were like… this is really fun, and the impromptu jam kind of became Tautology I, or the idea of something heavy come out of that.
FB: What is your go-to-pair of shoes for pedals?
Kristian: (laughs) Well when I’m working at home I”m normally barefoot, I’m barefoot right now. But there is one pedal that’s all over the record that’s got a… what’s that standard silver button called, when you step on it, it clicks, it’s really hard… whatever that thing is called, to click it without a shoe on is actually really painful. (laughs) So I throw on a one slip-on Van… so I’m at home with one foot barefoot, the other one with that shoe on the pedal.
FB: Beautiful. I think it’s a hard-bypass? I’ve seen the over version of it advertised so many times… so one of your more popular songs, “My Only Swerving,” a reference of course to poet William Stafford. Do you have any other poets you like to make reference to? Are you still into poetry as you once were?
Kristian: Well, first no, I don’t think I referenced any other poets in our stuff, I’d have to go back and double check. I kinda fell out of an interest in poetry till recently, actually really recently, when I discovered this poet named David White. He’s been around forever but I missed him somehow, but I’m really into him at the moment. I don’t know if it’ll make it’s way into our material or I’ll steal lines from it for song titles or anything though.
But he’s great. In fact, he inspired me so much, he kind of inspired me to start writing poetry but I have a feeling if I did I would just be ripping him off because I like what he does so much.
FB: (laughs) That’s always hard when someone really influences you and you have to self-consciously separate that it can be a challenge. Maybe in writing it’s different than in music. Do you have any more modern influences in music, or do you fall back on stuff you always used to listen to?
Kristian: The older I get, the more I fall back on older stuff. It bums me out because I want to get excited about something new and it’s very rare something new does anything for me. I’m complaining when I say that, I’m not bragging, I’m just jaded.
Every time this super cool new band comes out I check it out and I just shrug my shoulders, like “really? That’s what you’re excited about? That’s just Siouxsie and the Banshees again. Oh right, you’re young. You never heard of them.” That seems to be my reaction to most of these bands. I wish I was more excited about stuff.
FB: Does helicopter flying excite you more?
Kristian: (laugh) More than poetry?
FB: (laughs) Well, does helicopter flying get you more excited than music? I mean, I think it’s probably more exciting than poetry?
Well… no. I love flying helicopters, but if I had to have one of those things not be in my life, it would absolutely be helicopters. Music is my thing. I’m a musician. That’s what I love, it’s what I want to do, I like to playing shows, I like doing interviews, the whole thing. I would do anything just to do that.
FB: Do you ever come up with a song and think to yourself “well, I can’t really record this because I’m like one thousand feet in the air?”
Kristian: (laughs) No, actually, I’ve never had that problem. That’s a really good question. I’m a low time pilot, I have a total of about eighty hours of flight experience, which is kind of low. So when I’m up there, I’m checking all my gauges I’m getting on the radio with other pilots, I’m focused enough that it’s not really in my head. It’s interesting, I never thought about it, but that’s probably the only time in my life where I’m not really having musical ideas coming into my head.
The first chapter of El Ten Eleven’s Tautology series is out now, which you can check out here. The next Tautology installment is currently due for a September release.