By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
This is part XXIV in the ongoing story about the other music business, the potentially commercial high art (seriously) created in Los Angeles that just seems to slip by without a murmur or a nod. The subject is a band called Eleven, whose recent Howling Book(released on their own Pollen Records) is another in their extended line of superhigh achievements in contemporary rock and related music. Eleven’s pedigree is impressive, littered with big-item music-biz names, but their output as a band hasn’t quite put them on the cover of Spin or NME. So, call that situation some kind of Clear Channel–ized business as usual. But they’ll suggest that perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Eleven is three people: guitarist/singer/composer/producer/engineer Alain Johannes, Russian singer/keyboardist/Moog bassist Natasha Shneider and drummer Jack Irons. Irons as you know played drums for Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joe Strummer and Neil Young; Johannes and Shneider are also the in-demand production team that performed and/or wrote on Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning (and toured with it), No Doubt’s Return of Saturn, The Desert Sessions 7&8 and 9&10 with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, as well as QOTSA’s Songs for the Deaf and Homme’s just-out Eagles of Death Metal project.
The band was born in Los Angeles when Irons and Johannes formed their first group, Anthym, with Fairfax High mates Hillel Slovak and Flea. Anthym became What Is This, then Flea left to form the Chili Peppers with Anthony Kiedis, Slovak and Irons. The two bands shared Slovak and Irons through the Peppers’ first two albums. Meanwhile, Shneider and Johannes had met and created an alliance in the piano-and-guitar duo Walk the Moon, which became Eleven when Irons rejoined after once again leaving the Chili Peppers. Eleven has since toured with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Queens of the Stone Age, and has released five simply great not-rock-as-usual albums.
On Howling Book, you hear the difference right from the gate. The opening “Show Me Something” is a heavy rocker, okay, but as viewed in a shattered fun-house mirror: a compressed-heat strut-stomp of serpentine guitars interlaced with strummed acoustic instruments, counterpointing choral commentary and numerous time and texture metamorphoses. The moist clavinet funk of “Flow Like a River” is some peculiar mash of Free, Rufus and the Move, with Shneider’s sexy wails going head-to-head with the ghost of Chaka Khan as Johannes brings his best Jack Bruce croon to the mix; a fantastic spread of a thousand sounds wraps your head as the band lurches boldly from major to minor. “Hidden”’s strange combinations of melodic and textural information strum along, then dart into alleyways and turnabouts, crouch and quiver, leap out again with a chorus like every great ’60s-’70s pop anthem ground down into one. As with “I Will Drink It All,” where the snarling menace of their beastier guitar-rock side interpolates a bluesy noir e-piano and Shneider’s smoldering voice, these songs are rock-orchestral walls of sound that present one with an exhilarating but elusive picture, fabricated from hints and shadows of feeling that pull you somewhere.
Most of Eleven’s recording sessions take place at the magical 11AD studio at Johannes and Shneider’s L.A. home, an ornately draped alternative universe brimming with exotic art and curios, and ancient and modern musical instruments and sound equipment. On a recent rainy morning, Johannes and Shneider made me a cup of strong black tea, and we talked about their band, and why they have to do things their own way — or not at all.
“We make the music that we wish we could hear from the world, and we don’t,” Johannes said. “There was a certain hole, and it wasn’t that it was a specific kind of music. It had a lot to do with the synergy of different approaches — elements together in unusual ways. Rock music always attracted me so much because it has the most freedom.”
Shneider: “It started out having the most freedom, and then it became one of the most politically correct, compartmentalized things. [We started with] the concept of freedom in music, instead of having a very specific style, and every song sounding the same, with the orchestrations, the arrangement, the same chord structures. That’s not attractive to me, because it means a tremendous amount of limitation.”
In order to keep a band as idiosyncratic as Eleven alive, however, some degree of commerciality must be a consideration.
“We want to reach our potential audience,” said Johannes, “and every artist has that. There are people who are born to resonate with what you’re doing. We knew that there were enough people out there who could sustain us financially, let’s say, so that we could continue doing what we wanted to do. And we found it really difficult to make that happen within the regular music business. Now, we’ve just gone at it on our own, because at least we’re not going to stop ourselves from being close to our audience. It’s just a matter of being more patient and taking the time, since we don’t have resources that a record company has.”