If bands needed only artistic credibility and critical respect for breakout success, Eleventh Dream Day would have a wall of platinum records. As it is, the long-running Chicago outfit have to settle for less lucrative status as respected elder statesmen. Since Eleventh Dream Day formed in 1983, they have released a series of strong indie-rock albums, beginning in 1988 with Prairie School Freakout. Bettina Richards signed the group to Atlantic Records after Freakout, but low sales ended the band’s stay after two records. Richards never gave up on them, though; when she started Chicago indie Thrill Jockey Records in the early ’90s, Eleventh Dream Day found a perfect home: a label that demands neither high sales nor relentless touring. This month, Thrill Jockey releases Eleventh Dream Day’s 10th album, Zeroes And Ones, their first since 2000’s Stalled Parade. Before their record-release show, The A.V. Club talked to guitarist-vocalist Rick Rizzo, drummer-vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean (also of Freakwater), bassist-vocalist Doug McCombs (also of Tortoise), and keyboardist Mark Greenberg.
The A.V. Club: Rick, you said Zeroes And Ones is about “the difference between gravity and floating away, reality or dream, looking for something to grasp or simply letting go.” Then, in an interview, you just described it as “another Eleventh Dream Day record” Which is it?
Rick Rizzo: Does it have to be one or the other? Well, it is another Eleventh Dream Day record. There’s no doubt about that—that’s been verified by Price Waterhouse. I don’t know, the gravity thing? A lot of songs are kind of referring to having it together and not having it together, being real, being unreal. I don’t know—zeroes and ones.
Janet Beveridge Bean: Absolute opposites?
RR: Not opposites, just pulling at you in different directions. Sometimes you roll with it, sometimes you don’t.
JBB: So it doesn’t relate to the computer code zeroes and ones?
RR: Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with that.
AVC: Did you do anything differently for this recording?
Doug McCombs: The last two before this were recorded in a different way: We sort of started recording before they were finished. This one we rehearsed more, and we had things a little more together.
AVC: Do you prefer it that way?
DM: I don’t prefer it either way. They’re both valuable ways to work. The other two records, we arrived at some things that we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t done them the way we did them, sort of piecemeal.
AVC: Can you think of a label that would be more accommodating for you?
JBB: More accommodating? No, I can’t imagine.
DM: That’s pretty much the main hurdle for that any label’s working with this band. There’s like almost no tour support of the record at all.
AVC: Do you find that you enjoy playing live more when you’re not touring constantly?
DM: When you’re on the road playing, even after just two shows in a row, by the third show we were like 1,000 times better than the first show.
JBB: Certainly if you only play once every six, seven months or once every year, there’s a difference, for me especially because I play the drums. I never play them in my other band or anything. So doing it in a rehearsal space and doing it on the stage are just two different things entirely. Getting over that takes a show or two.
AVC: In 2003, you reunited with original guitarist Baird Figi for a one-off reunion show when Freakout was re-released. But it seems like some people didn’t realize the band was still together.
DM: We get it all the time. It’s mostly people who don’t know we play two or three shows a year here in town. Then we play a show once every five years in New York, and that’s about it.
AVC: When you did that show, did it feel like a really long time had passed since those days, or did they still feel close to you?
JBB: Yeah, there was an immediacy to a certain extent—knowing them so thoroughly that you didn’t have to play them for 10 years. You would just know them instinctively.
RR: We only had two rehearsals with Baird before the show, so that made that same excitement of not knowing if things were going to fall apart, which is basically how we always used to operate.
JBB: That’s the sign of greatness, isn’t it? [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s what people say about your first record: “You can hear the mistakes, it’s kind of sloppy, it’s about to fall apart, but it’s awesome.”
JBB: I love things that are always on the verge of sounding like they’re about to fall apart, but somehow they manage to make it thorough. That’s one of my favorite types of sound.
RR: You’re in a band with the right person. [Laughs.]
AVC: Can you see yourselves doing this for another 10 years at this pace?
JBB: It’s not a specific goal to keep going; the specific goal is to do the next thing that you’re happy about.
RR: The future stresses me out. I live in the 24-hour period, which the way this band functions now, that seems pretty good for all of us—just to only kind of do stuff when we feel like it. When shows do come around, or we make a record or something, it’s more exciting, more so than just like trudging along.
JBB: We’re just incredibly lucky to be able to do it like that.
RR: Thrill Jockey is a big facilitator of that, not really having any huge expectations.
DM: [Richards] didn’t read the fine print when she signed us to Atlantic.
JBB: In perpetuity, we are in her company! [Laughs.]
RR: If she stops doing Thrill Jockey, she’s still obligated to put out our records and pay for them. [Laughs.]
JBB: As are her children when she’s gone. [Laughs.]