You’ve never seen so many horn-rimmed glasses at The New Parish. Or middle-age men with scraggly brown hair and beards. Or long-sleeved plaid shirts, for that matter. Indie rock was in the house at Uptown Oakland’s newest live-music hotspot last week, a place often given to comedy and music of the urban persuasion, and yet it felt oh so right. Even late on a Tuesday night, the venue filled nicely with fans of touring Los Angeles instrumental indie-rock duo El Ten Eleven. Mind you, this is a band that features a geeky frontman-by-default who doesn’t sing and wields not one but two double-neck guitars, and a drummer who plays like a drum machine: technically perfect, but wanting for charisma. Not exactly hip stuff. That it went over so well at The New Parish bodes well for the diversity of future downtown Oakland entertainment.
The evening opened with none other than an Oakland act, electro-pop trio Return to Mono. The band’s set featured the usual highs and lows, but more in the songs themselves than in any technical or performance sense. The musicians gave it their all, which was appreciated, and considerable fun to watch: Keyboardist and beat-purveyor Andy Sybilrud worked the keys and knobs while wiggling appropriately; guitarist J.G. Paulos coaxed heavily processed, effects-drenched sounds from his rig while looking très cool in dark shades and a shaved head; and vocalist Tanya Kelleher sang from the very depths of her being, selling her darkly charismatic vocals with conviction. But not all of the songs connected, and audience members seemed unsure what to make of the set. Maybe they were expecting something less stylish; they were there for El Ten Eleven, after all. When Kelleher implored people to “shake what your mom gave you,” none obliged. But at least they were paying attention.
Superhumanoids, who have been touring with El Ten Eleven and also hail from LA, shifted things a bit more in the headliner’s direction. Their scrappy-slick, synth-laced retro-rock songs seemed to owe a debt to the likes of New Order, Joy Division, Depeche Mode — even Morrissey — but never felt derivative. One gets the sense that the young band is still figuring things out, especially given its predilection for brief numbers centered on single ideas that end all too abruptly. The band members’ chemistry and stage banter, however, were spot-on, and gracious New Parish patrons gave them the benefit of the doubt — yet another sign that urban Oakland is thirsty for independent rock not preceded by the descriptors garage or punk.
Much hyped by Superhumanoids throughout the thirty-minute set, El Ten Eleven finally appeared just before eleven. Granted, even the word “appeared” makes the transition sound more dramatic than it was. The drums were up, then the guitar pedals, then drummer Tim Fogarty took a seat (not on a riser, incidentally, so you could barely see him from the dance floor), then Kristian Dunn slyly plucked his bass/guitar contraption, and the show was on.
The duo’s music could be called post-rock for short attention spans. Its first record, 2004’s El Ten Eleven, was a mellow, introspective collection of beautifully looped and layered guitar and bass parts over precise, no-fuss drum beats. (Geek factoid: The band’s name is derived from that of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, a three-engine passenger jet produced between 1968 and 1984.) Post-rock fans may have discovered a calmer Trans Am, or a more straightforward Tortoise. Yet as the group’s sound progressed — first through 2007’s Every Direction Here Is North, then 2008’s These Promises Are Being Videotaped, and finally last November’s It’s Still Like a Secret — the tempos got quicker and the beats more prominent. Today, El Ten Eleven is at least as well suited for rocking as its previous incarnation was for chilling.
Which brings us to the New Parish twentysomethings who finally started dancing once El Ten Eleven launched into its set. An hour of relatively upbeat pop-rock wasn’t enough, but two minutes of instrumental rock with a driving beat were? In due time, the band earned its keep. Opening with a number of songs from the new album, the duo slowly eased into an instrumental groove. Dunn stacked tracks on top of tracks, modifying tones and effects with an arsenal of pedals — eleven processors and fifteen foot pedals — including a couple dedicated to his endless looping. His riffs tend to be short and relatively simple — easy to play on their own, that is — but when harmonized with one another and interlocked with Fogarty’s tight drums, they assume an extra dimension of weight. Video captured by a wide-angle lens focused on Dunn’s feet and the rainbow of pedals before them, so that fans could watch the action. It was projected onto a large screen behind the stage. Fogarty played with a full live kit as well as a couple of electronic pads and was thus able to loop and layer his contributions, too. But his loudest statement came in the set’s second half when he left his chair, got down on his knees before Dunn’s double-neck, and used his drumsticks to rap a tightly wound rhythm on the strings of the bass while Dunn mapped out a melody with his right hand and simultaneously one-hand-tapped a countermelody on the guitar neck with his left. “Let’s see Lady Gaga do that shit!” Dunn announced when the song ended, duly impressed with how it went. Yeah, let’s!, the crowd seemed to consent. This is the sort of thing that happens at the New Parish now. Better get used to it.