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 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
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
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 Eagles of Death
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 行 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 行 elements together in unusual
ways. Rock music always attracted me so much because it has the most
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
"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 行 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 行 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 行 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
and the ideas come across somehow 行 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.
musician, producer, writer, we have to be listeners first. We're nobody if
we're not listeners."