photo: Jim Newberry
Despite the pressures of busy personal and professional lives, it was only a matter of time before the members of Eleventh Dream Day
ended up in the studio again.
Drummer Janet Bean says recording their latest album, Zeroes and Ones, was inevitable even though it's been six years since the band released its last record. "I think we always have the idea that we're going to make another record," she says. "We don't have to sit down and discuss 'Are we going to do this?' For me, it just seems to happen naturally."
The relaxed nature of the band in this stage of its career is likely the result of three longtime collaborators finding comfort in their shared experiences. Bean and guitarist Rick Rizzo founded the band in 1983 before adding future Tortoise member Doug McCombs on bass two years later. The group rode its explosive debut album, Prairie School Freakout, to a major label deal with Atlantic Records, only to be dropped after four critically-hailed but commercially-disappointing albums, before landing at Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey.
Since recording Stalled Parade in 2000, no member of the band has suffered from an overabundance of leisure time. Rizzo, a social studies teacher by day, has worked most recently with Red Red Meat and Antietam singer/guitarist Tara Key. Bean recorded both solo and with her band Freakwater, while finishing up a degree in African studies. McCombs continues to tour and record extensively with both Tortoise and the band Brokeback.
Whereas Parade was an atmospheric work that drew on the influences of the group's other musical ventures, the re-release of Freakout in 2003 and subsequent live dates encouraged a different sensibility. "It was kind of fun to do those songs again," Rizzo says. "It's not like I started writing the songs for Zeroes and Ones the next day and that feeling was right there. But I think it was on my mind. The songs that I was working on were more in-you-face pop rock songs."
Zeroes and Ones harkens back to the band's debut in that it is a more immediate-sounding record than Parade. The melodies in Rizzo and Bean's vocals joust with each over spiraling guitars, while McComb's bass provides a centering, insistent rhythm and former Coctail Mark Greenberg lightens the mood with layers of marimba and keyboards.
"I think that the songs have a stronger melody so they jump at you right away," says Bean. "There's not a slow build to them so I think that helps in its ability to catch your ear more readily."
Now supported by an artist-friendly label, Eleventh Dream Day tours and releases records at its own pace and on its own terms. Their busy schedules limit them to playing only a handful of dates each year, including Chicago where they're still revered.
"The touring that we did in the late '80s, early '90s, got us a very loyal group of people across the United States and Europe," Rizzo says. "It's small, but it's devoted. Whether we can ever be attractive to the next generation outside of Chicago, it's probably just not possible at the stage that we're at. And that's OK. I'm not too worried about it."
In the beginning:
Rick: The first show we ever played in Chicago was at the Artful Dodger in '84. The next night, [Chicago power pop band] Green asked us to play with them.
Janet: And Jeff Lescher from Green gave us Doug's name.
What's cool in your neck of the woods:
Janet: My backyard.
Rick: I'm on my front porch right now. We don't stray too far.
Janet: I don't go to clubs to hang out. I got there to see music, specifically. But I wouldn't go to enjoy myself.
Rick: I'm more likely to go to the Rick: We've enjoyed seeing Califone. I'm really enjoying John Langford's new record and I like a lot of those Ponys songs.
After a gig:
Rick: For me, The Rainbo is always a home away from home. But I haven't been there too much either.
Janet: I enjoy going to Empty Bottle to watch bands. If I had to go hang out at a bar, it'd be the Hideout.
Rick: My life has changed to where I get up really, really early...
Janet: And asleep by 10:30!
On a Sunday afternoon, you'll find us:
Janet: I'm usually eating brunch until 3, doing the crossword and reading the paper.
Rick: I try to chip away at that [crossword] puzzle in the [New York] Times.
Janet: I always get it done, Rick just chips away.
Rick: A good Times puzzle, it's better if you're chipping away for three hours. It's more rewarding that way.
Janet: You keep telling yourself that.
Fresh from the woodshop: Zeroes and Ones, out now on Thrill Jockey.
Coming soon to a bar near you: May 18 at Empty Bottle.