Clip: Eleventh Dream Day
Eleventh Dream Day
Rick Rizzo & Janet Bean reflect on 20 years of loud-ass rock, major-label
fun, and the big Freakout
by Kathleen St. John
In 1987, four Chicago youths journeyed from the Windy City to Louisville,
Kentucky, to rip through their band's new material and get it down on tape.
The studio was cheap, a pal manned the boards, and there was plenty of beer
Between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., Janet Bean and her then-boyfriend Rick Rizzo,
along with Douglas McCombs and Baird Figi -- collectively known as Eleventh
Dream Day -- blasted out songs in spite of an incurable amp buzz and a
looming specter of drunkenness. The raucous album that unexpectedly
resulted from the session, Prairie School Freakout, immediately put
Eleventh Dream Day on the indie-rock radar.
The band landed a deal with Atlantic, got dropped after three albums, but
kept on going. Eleventh Dream Day is still at it 20 years after their
ignition -- in addition to the members' individual projects:
drummer-vocalist Bean still records as part of alt-country duo Freakwater
and released a solo album in early 2003; bassist McCombs is a member of
Tortoise and Brokeback; and vocalist-guitarist Rizzo continues to rock on
occasion, while balancing fatherhood and a teaching career.
In November 2003, Thrill Jockey re-released Freakout 15 years after its
original release. It's extremely noisy and sounds like a band that's young,
hungry, and pissed off, in a slide-guitar kind of way.
How'd you get started in music?
JANET BEAN: It was a way to get into the bars when you were not of age
(laughs). I was probably a junior in high school [when] I decided to go
knock on the door of a house where it seemed like a lot of dangerous
activity went on -- the punk rock house. I started hanging out there and
they needed a drummer.
RICK RIZZO: I was a fan of music and went from playing guitar on a tennis
racket to buying one and learning how to play it. When I started playing
guitar, at about 19, I thought it was way too late (laughs).
What did you envision for the future of the band when you started? Did you
think about commercial success?
JB: There was a very brief moment where Rick and I thought of commercial
possibility, when we were putting out El Moodio. It was because we had a
kid and were like, "Man, we gotta get some money!" That was our attempt to
actually make what we liked but that maybe had some commercial viability --
which it had none of. But we wouldn't be together if that was ever really
our intention and goal. And I liked playing the drums. At the time there
weren't many women doing it, and I liked the idea that I was [the drummer]
and not the bass player -- what all the girls were.
Do you ever get nostalgic for the early days?
JB: I was just thinking how lucky we were not to have died in a fiery crash
(laughs). I've been around a lot of young musicians lately who wait on me
at a little local diner. They drive those little cracked-out vans; I don't
miss that. I guess I miss feeling like you were a troublemaker (laughs). I
make trouble now, but I feel much more regret.
What are your favorite songs or moments from Prairie School Freakout?
JB: I listened to it for the first time in ages, and my boyfriend was
listening to it with me, and "Tenth Leaving Train" was on. I said, "This is
our big psychedelic moment." He laughed and said, "What do you mean this
is? The whole thing is! It sounds like Moby Grape or something." Then I
started to listen to it in that respect. I like all of it. All of them are
fun little noisy songs.
RR: I love "Tenth Leaving Train," that got added on [to the reissue]. That
was done really late at night. It [has] a natural fade-out. It's not like
the engineer faded it down. At the end ... I remember I was out of my mind,
back in the corner with my amp. I had hardly any strings on the guitar,
just making noises through the amp turned all the way down.
What was the initial reaction when the album first came out?
JB: I don't remember any sort of feeling like, "Oh, we're really going to
the top" or anything. Especially with the style of music writing at the
time; it was hard to even derive whether someone liked you or not. If [a
review] said it was as good as licking the bottom of a toilet seat, I
wasn't really sure if that was good or bad (laughs). Steve Albini, I think
he hated us. We garnered emotional responses either way. We were either
maligned or liked a lot.
RR: In Chicago the response was amazing. People knew about us in Chicago
because we'd been around for a couple years by that point. That record just
kind of captured what we were all about. If you were listening to college
radio, it wasn't really what was happening at the time. I think Big Black
and that kind of stuff -- Sonic Youth was big -- that was more popular. We
were more of a throwback -- a mix between punk rock and sort of
classic-guitar stuff. Which wasn't exactly hip, but I think a lot of people
just heard the energy behind it and liked it.
Why do you think you slipped between the cracks at Atlantic?
JB: Maybe it was just because we never had the song that would catch on in
a big kind of way. There are a lot of idiosyncrasies to our band, but none
of it has been "off" in a way that's ever been very trendy. You just sort
of understood that there was a machine at work that we could never be a
part of. But it was fun. I got to have my picture in Mademoiselle magazine
(laughs). I don't regret it or anything.
RR: The timing was weird. In fact, for our second record, they didn't even
want to do a video because the label head didn't think that independent
music -- or whatever they were calling it back then -- would do anything.
That was before Nirvana. We were never good at being rock stars. We just
didn't have the personalities to do that.
Where does Eleventh Dream Day fit in with what you're doing now? Is it
something you'll always come back to?
RR: It fits perfectly. I'm perfectly happy being a teacher and the father
of an 11-year-old. I have this really nice balance between the creative
side and the other side -- having a job. Every once in a while someone will
say, "We've got an opportunity for you to play this show in New York and
London! Want to do it?" And it's like, "yeah!" and that'll be it for the
year. We'll play three shows and that's enough to keep it going and have
fun. I'm 46 and I'm not really interested in touring six months of the year.
Eleventh Dream Day turns `Zeroes and Ones' up to 11
Published May 12, 2006
The idea of "ones and zeroes" is something that author Thomas Pynchon
explored on more than one occasion, writing in "Vineland": "If
everything about an individual could be represented in a computer
record by a long string of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature
could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths?"
That concept began to fascinate Rick Rizzo after the Eleventh Dream
Day frontman enrolled in a class to tackle Pynchon's dense masterwork,
"Gravity's Rainbow." Ironically, the classroom setting didn't agree
with the Chicago public school teacher, who dropped out of the
discussion group after only two meetings and finished reading the book
on his own.
"It actually inspired a lot of [the album], especially the title,"
"Zeroes and Ones" (Thrill Jockey), says Rizzo. "The characters are
unsure of what's real and are kind of caught between hanging on to
something concrete and losing it completely."
Or as Rizzo sings on "Dissolution," "I've come undone between zeroes
and ones/ The focus has lost its appeal."
Even with its high-concept, academic roots (another song, "Pinwheels,"
was inspired by a William Eggleston photograph) the band's 10th album
is, at its core, a freewheeling rock recording. Invigorated by the
2003 reissue of "Prairie School Freakout" and the subsequent one-off
reunion show with original guitarist Baird Figi (who now makes his
home in New Mexico), Rizzo set out to write a song a day, and while he
didn't quite stick to his plan, the process yielded seven new
tunes--five of which made the record.
Convening at Chicago's North Branch Studio, the group--Rizzo, Janet
Bean (drums), Doug McCombs and Mark Greenberg (keyboards)--blasted
through basic tracks in three days. Many of Rizzo's vocals and all of
his guitar solos (reminiscent of Neil Young in Crazy Horse) were
caught in a single take.
The band's chemistry, developed over its 20-plus years together, is
apparent throughout. Bean, whose sweet vocals provide a counterpoint
to Rizzo's bratty delivery, pounds her kit with the ferocity of a rail
worker driving steel spikes into solid earth. McCombs' bass lines,
which often play counterpoint to Rizzo's guitar, snake through the mix
instead of simply setting the groove. Most startling after all this
time is how raw and passionate the music sounds, as if the group were
readying its make-or-break debut.
"This album was the loudest thing I've ever recorded," says engineer
Barry Phipps. "Even behind walls in the control room I was reading 97
decibels." (By comparison, sitting front row at a rock concert
registers 120 decibels, a borderline dangerous sound pressure.) It
sounds like everything is right on the edge of breaking apart."
Phipps says the band pushed itself so hard during the sessions that
there were times he wasn't sure if they had the energy for a second
take. That live intensity carried over to Rizzo's acrobatic guitar
solos, where the studio was emptied and everyone watched from the
control room as the guitarist performed what Phipps calls "a ballet
act with the amp, [Rizzo] moving in and out to pick up on these
invisible force fields of feedback."
This same "ballet act" is what fans can expect to witness at the Empty
Bottle. Like guitar-driven albums by Young or Television, "Zeroes and
Ones" almost sounds designed for the stage, where the band can stretch
its legs and let the songs bend in new and unexpected directions.
"That's the best part," says Rizzo, of performing live. "When you know
where things are going that's when it gets boring. I want to provide
thrills for myself. I still just love playing."
Eleventh Dream Day, 9 p.m. Thursday, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Ave. $12; 773-276-3600