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.”
I assumed that Eleven would go with a major if the right deal came up.
“I don’t think so,” said Shneider. “I put my foot down very early on. Corporate mentality does not allow us to concentrate on what is different; they want to concentrate on what is exactly the same, or what is going to be a very particular group, 12 to 22, or whatever numbers they come up with that month. And we are not like that.
“Our music is for fans, and people we can potentially play for later on — not just people that watch TRL; people that are not satisfied with music that is incredibly safe. The young people are listening to all this safe music, which should be actually for grandparents instead of for young people.”
But a band has to form a plan to market itself. Does Eleven think about who its audience is?
Shneider: “The disgruntled.”
Johannes: “We’ve found through the years that we were shocked by the diversity of our audience. We’ve had, like, 65-year-old gospel singer mamas come up to us . . .”
“. . . and kids that have mohawks and piercings and are only 12 years old,” said Shneider. “What is our audience? It’s not an age group.”
“And people find us — we get e-mails from Siberia, from Peru, from Iceland,” added Johannes. “They’re really spread out. It’s very interesting.”
Even so, a potential tour built on that far-flung fan base would be an expensive proposition. Johannes has an alternative idea about that:
“I’d like to set up a visual and sonic space somewhere on the Web, and we could perform anytime we want. It could be a full show, it could be us working through a song, or individually performing different things. It would be an amazing thing.”
Johannes encountered Shneider a couple of days after dreaming about a girl on the other end of a teeter-totter, who said, “My name’s Natasha and we’re going to meet.” Their fated coming together bears fruit through a highly complementary pairing of emotional/intellectual and technical gifts (Shneider’s perfect pitch and compositional thinking, Johannes’ wizardry on seemingly every musical instrument under the sun). Much of Eleven’s enormous emotional wallop owes to Irons’ spare, compacted power, which provides the band with a very special pulse — it seems to breathe in a literally human way (“Dynamics is my whole gig now,” he says) and, of course, sometimes explodes in fury. (And in recording sessions, he plays without a click, thanks. Jack says, “Good things can happen naturally.”)
Like the environment in which they’re created, Eleven’s records have an otherworldliness to them, due in part to Johannes’ odd ideas about sound design. “It’s almost like a dream place,” he said, “in a way like a black-and-white French New Wave film: Because it’s not looking like reality, then the symbolism and all the magic is preserved, and the ideas come across somehow — because you’re not fooled into perceiving it as the real thing.”
I suggested that the trio’s sympathy for each other creates its own kind of aural magic.
Shneider: “Every musician, producer, writer, we have to be listeners first. We’re nobody if we’re not listeners.”