Eleventh Dream Day
Don’t Call it A Comeback:
Eleventh Dream Day’s Return to Burn
Telling a band that its album is the year’s most overlooked is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you’re saying that it’s really good. On the other, you’re indicating that people haven’t paid attentio to it. Fortunately, Rick Rizzo takes it all in stride. “At this point, I feel like ‘overlooked’ should be in our name somewhere,” he laughs.
But don’t call Eleventh Dream Day’s tenth album, the excellent Works for Tomorrow, a comeback – or worse, that back-handed compliment “a return to form.” Although the cadence of the Chicago band’s releases has slowed since 1994’s Ursa Major they’ve never gone away, nor does their catalog include a notable soft patch. And the core trio of Rizzo, drummer Janet Beveridge Bean and bassist Doug McCombs has continually injected enough new blood to keep things fresh while retaining EDD’s trademark sound.
Perhaps you could call Works for Tomorrow a “return to burn.” On 2011’s Riot Now Eleventh Dream Day reclaimed its harder edge, with a sound that leaned toward garage punk stomp. While holding on to that fury, Tomorrow adds a second guitarist to the equation for the first time in two decades, revisiting the incendiary dual guitar work that was the band’s original calling card. According to Rizzo the addition of James Elkington – who previously teamed with Bean in the British folk-inflected the Horse’s Ha and also plays with father/son phenomenon Tweedy – was a totally organic process.
“When Riot Now came out we did a show at Millennium park (Chicago’s equivalent of a large Piedmont Park-style affair) with Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the day before, Janet rolled her ankle so bad I think it was broken,” Rizzo recalls. Bean later confirmed via email that it was indeed broken – “I was wearing a ridiculous pair of shoes at a birthday party and before I’d even finished my first glass of wine I folded my ankle on the stairs. In the ER I already started calling drummers.”
“Jim’s a drummer too, so she asked if he’d fill in,” Rizzo continues. “I was at work teaching the day of the show– while I was in class Janet was coaching him thru the songs with Doug and Mark. Then we had a quick run through in a rehearsal room at the park, and Jim nailed it. We wound up doing a short EU tour and we asked him to play guitar. He’s an amazing player, and I had a blast – we hadn’t had another guitar player since Wink left, aside from guests, and we realized how much fun that was.”
Rick wrapped loads of band history into that quote, so let’s take a step back. Suburban Chicago kid Rizzo headed to the University of Kentucky for college in the late ’70s. He left Lexington after graduation, but on return visits to see friends connected with Janet Bean at the “punk house” frequented by kids from the Louisville School of Art that served as ground zero for the local scene. The couple moved to Chicago, where they joined forces with McCombs and guitarist Baird Figi and after a promising EP hit paydirt with 1988’s Prairie School Freakout. Released within weeks of Surfer Rosa, Freakout helped usher in an era of guitar mayhem with a classicist counter to the Pixies that drew rampant Crazy Horse comparisons. Rizzo claims the shorthand doesn’t really bother him. “No, I know it’s only one of dozens and dozens of influences. Early on I was into English post-punk more than anything – PiL, Gang of Four. I do get tired when it’s the only thing that’s mentioned, though – everyone wears their influences on their sleeve to some extent.”
Rizzo spent most of the 1980s – a period overlapping with the band’s formative years – working in data collection and analysis for market research behemoth A.C. Nielsen. “I remember in ’88, we were getting married and Janet said ‘Why don’t you quit your job and we’ll try to really do this?’ So I went in to tell my bosses, and at the same meeting they told me I was being promoted, to work with this new technology involving scanners,” he recalls in a tone of mock sci-fi wonder. Rizzo followed through on his resignation and as I just confirmed, by 1989 the jacket of Eleventh Dream Day’s major label debut Beet indeed sports a UPC bar code – which sadly didn’t get scanned nearly often enough.
Alas, theirs is another of those early ’90s major label nightmare tales – three solid albums with apparently diminishing returns as their champions at Atlantic Records gradually departed, forcibly or otherwise. “After Lived To Tell we had the best tour of our career – we were selling places out and it was really happening. So how can you not end up with more sales?” The final indignity came with El Moodio, a record the band initially intended to release independently before Atlantic reaffirmed its commitment with “Baby, it’ll be different from now on” promises. In a Peanuts “Lucy and the football” moment, the album instead got an express pass to the cutout bin.
In 2013 the band released as New Moodio the original demos for that album, before Atlantic bankrolled a New York re-recording. “It’s exactly what was on the shelf – I had totally forgotten it existed,” Rizzo explains. “One day on Facebook (go-to ’90s alt-rock producer) Brad Wood said, ‘Oh, I’ve got it.’ We thought it was a good record; we spent more time than any other recording it.” New Moodio isn’t far removed from the proper version, aside from some blistering guitar excursions likely to cause major label execs to lose bowel control.
By then they’d churned through one guitarist – Figi quit mid-tour circa Lived To Tell – and was about to lose another. Wink O’Bannon (this band has the coolest second guitarist names ever) departed immediately after recording 1993’s more subdued Ursa Major. By this point Bean’s death country duo Freakwater and McComb’s Tortoise crew had both upstaged Eleventh Dream Day in the alt-rock conversation, and with Tortoise’s John McEntire manning the board for EDD’s next three releases, their records took on the ethereal quality of a band that no longer had to worry about lighting up clubs on a nightly basis.
Enter Mark Greenberg, whose resume includes fondly remembered Chicago band the Coctails. “Mark’s the person we asked to augment the sound live after we made Stalled Parade, but at that point it was different because it was organ instead of guitar. Zeros and Ones was first album he recorded with us, so texturally it was different.” It also marked a return to the sound of a rock band hankering for live performance. The band had taken to playing residencies at small Chicago club the Hideout as a means of workshopping new material “so we can spend our time more efficiently” in the studio, as Rizzo puts it. “If you don’t have the option to work things out on the road and hone the edges, a residency is the next best thing,” Bean adds. According to Rizzo, “It was never like ‘Mark would you like to join?’ but more ‘Hey, we’ve got another gig.’” Like Elkington Greenberg is tied in with the Wilco posse, managing their recording studio The Loft.
Although Eleventh Dream Day existed as a trio on paper for more than a decade, they rarely if ever took the stage without a fourth player. Prior to Greenberg slotting into that role, the friends who signed on for touring guitarist stints comprises quite a list of “boy do I wish I caught that one” moments: Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. Chicago scene pals Tim Rutili (of Califone) and John McEntire. Old Louisville buddy Tara Key (of Antietam, and with whom Rizzo has released a pair of albums as a guitar duo), Boston mainstay Chris Brokaw. Figi even returned for a few shows along the way. But with Works for Tomorrow for the first time they’re harnessing the energy of a five-piece, with the layers of organ and two guitars.
“For Rick there is something about playing against another guitarist that pushes him into the upper registers of mania and when he heads towards space we all are right with him,” Bean conjectures. “Having both Mark and Jim is such an incredibly satisfying situation. We can never go back!”
Rizzo says he didn’t have the return of the two-guitar salvo in mind when writing Tomorrow. “I think if we wrote another one I’d think about that. But in working through it we were playing off each other more, so by the time we recorded I think some of that was captured. Going back to our days as a two-guitar band, Baird and I would always be playing off each other, although really it was more like everyone playing a solo at the same time. Wink was more complementary – he would take solos, but he never wanted to step on my toes. Baird and I weren’t afraid to do that. Jim does both really well.” Elkington strikes me as a Nels Cline-type virtuoso for the modern age, one who can excel in any style (check his latest album of pastoral instrumental guitar duets with Nathan Salsburg). With no apparent sign of false modesty Rizzo declares, “I’m probably the fourth or fifth best guitar player in the band – Janet’s a great picker, and Doug surpassed me a long time ago.”
Works for Tomorrow’s intensity extends to its lyrics – best exemplified by the six-minute closer “End With Me” on which Rizzo sings about combing Germantown, Pennsylvania and the banks of the Allegheny River is search of his past, repeatedly pledging “it all has to end with me.” The story relates to his efforts to understand the ancestry of his late mother. “I never knew my mom’s side of the family’s story at all – it was a big hole in my life. My dad’s the Italian side, they were all here in Chicago – we’d go over on Sundays and have the big Italian dinners. My mom’s side was Swedish, more secretive – I didn’t even know my grandparents’ names. I did know my grandfather had met a tragic end. A few years ago I felt like I was slipping into a depressed state, and you can see through your family history what’s going on. So the song is about wanting to end that pattern with me, not pass it down to my kids. My friend Tara Key was a great resource – she’s a research librarian and had me back to the 1600s in no time. One relative was the sheriff of Germantown when William Penn was there.” By pure coincidence the band’s brief 2015 northeast tour included these stomping grounds, affording Rizzo the opportunity to follow up post-recording. “There was a lot of closure there for me, retracing the steps after I had sung about it. We hadn’t planned to make a record so soon but we had the songs. Then Jim went on tour with Tweedy, so (it’s release) got pushed back about a year.”
“The People’s History,” Tomorrow’s most gnarled, blunt force track, refers to Howard Zinn’s alternative history framing and finds a frustrated Rizzo declaring “The People’s History also lies.” “In the telling of history, even on the micro level, every party is going to tell a different version of the story,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean that they lie. But you’re not getting the truth, necessarily – people aren’t even honest with themselves.”
“The songs touch on some bleak things,” he allows. “But I’m an optimist – I think there’s more optimism than negativity in the songs.” Rizzo is now a stay-at-home dad, recently ending a 14-year run as a social studies teacher in the Chicago public schools. “I miss it a lot, to tell you the truth. My wife is a teacher too. My youngest son is a special needs kid and we needed the stability of someone to be here when he heads off and gets home.” Rizzo and his wife have 9-year old twins; his son Matt from his earlier marriage with Bean recently turned twenty-four. Rizzo continues as an adjunct professor (“I’ve joined the working poor,” he laughs), teaching songwriting at Columbia College – Chicago’s answer to SCAD – and education at the small liberal arts North Park College.
While the rest of Eleventh Dream Day still lives in Chicago proper, Rizzo’s family has shifted to the suburbs. “When you hit your mid to late 50s it’s not like you’re going into the city regularly,” he reasons. Based on recent photos though he’s aged remarkably well, looking more vital than his ’80s concert photos. “The twins are keeping me young and aging me at the same time,” he laughs. “My high school picture looked like an eighth grader.”
It’s not like Eleventh Dream Day are on a weekly rehearsal schedule at this point anyway, but neither are they broken up. “Janet made some comment about six months ago – ‘this is it, I’m not doing this shit anymore, I’m too old.’ I knew better than to even react,” Rizzo grins. Sure enough, Bean’s Freakwater is gearing up to hit the road in support of its first album in a decade, and Tortoise’s first album in five years is also imminent for McCombs. “Inevitably something happens and we get back together. I feel the need to write and play, and I can’t imagine recording these songs with someone else, so if I write I say ‘Guys, do you want to do this?’ It’s too much fun to stop. But Doug’s committed to Tortoise, Jim’s playing with a dozen people. We’ve never had a career path, but someone will pick up the phone.…” With material and chemistry as good as on Works for Tomorrow, they damn well better.