For El Ten Eleven, playing shows in Tucson is like being up on a highwire, trying to maintain balance.
The hard-touring Los Angeles instrumental duo typically starts their tours drive east from California, making Tucson a natural first stop.
"The first show of the tour is always kind of sketchy for us. By the end of the tour we're really tight. We keep saying we need to end a tour in Tucson so people can see us when we've got our road chops really strong," says Kristian Dunn, who plays a double-neck guitar-bass.
But the band's local fans seem to enjoy seeing the band playing looser, wilder shows. This time around, the extra ingredient in that mix is a batch of new, unrecorded songs the band is working on for a new album.
"Our goal is to be playing some of these new songs live on this tour to road test them. That's really the reason we're doing it. We just want to bang out these new ones in front of people and see how they work," he says. "Typically we record an album and go on tour and the songs change as we play them and they end up getting better and we wish we'd played them out live a lot first."
The band formed about a dozen years ago. Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty were playing in another band that split up, but the pair got along personally and musically and wanted to continue.
"I got Tim to play because he was playing electric drums and I thought that was so cool, nobody else was doing it," Dunn says. "I knew I wanted to do El Ten Eleven and I had a sound that was in my mind, but I didn't know it was just going to be two of us. I thought it'd be three or four."
One day, Dunn borrowed a looper pedal from a friend and brought it to practice, just to "monkey around."
"Our eyes just lit up and we thought we could pull it off as a duo. It was incredible," he says.
When he started, Dunn would play a bassline and set it to loop, then unplug his bass, set it down, pick up the guitar, loop a guitar part, then unplug the guitar and reach for the bass. Going back and forth was a time-consuming process. Dunn thought about having the guitar on a stand he could walk up and put his arms around to play, but didn't like that. The one night, he saw a Genesis video on VH1 Classic, and picked up the double-neck idea from Mike Rutherford.
"I saw that and knew that's what I had to do. I went on eBay and maybe it was dumb luck, but the Carvin double-neck bass I use to this day was on there and I bought it and it changed everything," Dunn says.
"I figured I would do the same thing but it would be a lot faster, but what I discovered was if I put that switch in the middle and both the guitar and bass were activated at the same time, I could use some tricks to play both at the same time and that became our thing."
That thing turned into five well-received full-length albums, starting with the 2005 self-titled album and continuing through 2012's Transitions (all released on El Ten Eleven's own Fake Record Label.
"When we first got started the looping was really challenging. We'd make a lot of mistakes. When we released the first record we were still figuring out what we were doing. Tim hates that record. We decided to release it anyway and people gravitate to that record. Maybe there's some naïveté in there that comes across as being really honest," Dunn says.
"As we toured and played and got better, the technical elements became easier. We kind of mastered that part and now we don't really have to think about it so much, we just think about the songs and trying to make them great. And now we add in new toys and new effects and that just changes things."
Transitions chronicled difficult personal times: both Dunn and Fogarty went through divorced and moves, while Dunn remarried and had a daughter. To transition away from that record, El Ten Eleven released For emily, the band's first EP, earlier this year.
"Our idea before we put the EP out was maybe we'd do EPs instead of full lengths so we could get them out faster. We live in a digital world and people use Spotify and YouTube and there are some arguments out there that the full-length album is dead. I don't know that I agree with that, but we thought we'd do some EPs," Dunn says.
But the band has hit on a burst of songwriting since the EP, and Dunn has picked up an old-school six string bass (inspired by Peter Hook of New Order, who told Dunn it would be perfect for his style), so they're working on a new project incorporating some new sounds.
"We started working on new stuff, but we have so much material and we're thinking about how it all goes together and there are melodies that reappear in different songs. So we're going back to doing a full length for now," Dunn says. "There are some crazy sounds now we've never done before. We have new pedals and we're trying some different recording techniques and there will be more of that on the next record."