For more than 30 years, Chicago-based alternative rockers Eleventh Dream Day have thrilled audiences with their headstrong brand of guitar rock and exciting live shows.
According to singer/guitarist Rick Rizzo, when the band formed in the early Eighties, their style of guitar rock "wasn't what was happening in Chicago at the time." That said, the band found its biggest commercial success when it was signed to Atlantic Records in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
"We got signed to Atlantic and we were the first Chicago indie rock band to get signed like that," Rizzo says. "I don't know if that means we paved the way for anybody. The guitar-driven sound isn't new; I don't think we invented anything. We were one of the first bands in Chicago to do what we were doing."
Although that big-label success was short lived, the band has stayed fairly active when it comes to recording. After 1994, the traditionally two-guitar band—which also features drummer/singer Janet Beveridge Bean, bassist Doug McCombs and keyboardist Mark Greenberg—began to record with only Rizzo on guitar.
And though their next few albums were recorded with one guitarist, things changed when the band toured Europe for their 2011 album, Riot Now!.
Greenberg wasn't able to join the band for the tour, so they sought out a replacement. It turned out to be guitarist Jim Elkington, who had been playing with Bean in the Horse's Ha and McCombs in Brokeback (he also had working with Tweedy and Richard Thompson).
"We were all down at South by Southwest. I was playing with Jon Langford at the time, and Rick hadn't seen that I had played electric guitar," Elkington says. "So he immediately asked me if I'd be up for going on tour with them. The idea was for me to go along with them and play Mark's keyboard parts on guitar basically for this 10-day, two-week tour."
Elkington says he wasn't too familiar with the band at first because he had moved to Chicago during the band's latter years when they weren't as active.
"I had heard their most recent album, but I didn't really know their old stuff so much. When I moved to Chicago I don't think they were playing many shows at that time and were having a bit of a break," Elkington says. "So it was something that was more in the background. I didn't really hear that much until a couple years before I actually played with them. Now I know all their material."
His impact was immediately felt. Elkington reopened the door to parts of the band's back catalog that they could play faithfully again.
"He's a great guitar player and really versatile," Rizzo says. "It was evident from that [tour] that it would be great if he could play on our next recording."
That recording, the band's 11th studio full-length album, Works for Tomorrow, came out July 24. The band recorded the album in one 12-hour session at Wilco's Chicago studio, The Loft, with Greenberg, who is also the studio's manager, producing. The album also features performances by Martin Wenk [Calexico] and Rich Parenti.
"It was Mark who got us in there. It's a great space to record. Lots of interesting gear to use," Rizzo says. "We worked really fast. I think we tracked all the songs the first day and did some finishing touches after that. It's a really comfortable place to record."
Elkington's presence positively affected the band's chemistry and recording process.
"He really listens well. I think the old Eleventh Dream Day, our early stuff, it was the two guitar players but we didn't listen to each other really well. And it was a lot of mayhem," Rizzo says. "Jim is really good at coloring the songs and really inventive with melody and knowing how to make it all sound better, and playing off the vocals and vocal melodies and playing off my guitar lines. He's just so good at it and improves the song and sound of it, just because he's got great ideas of how to add to the sound."
Elkington and Rizzo found enjoyment in the improvisation they shared on a couple of the album's tracks.
"[Rick's] such a great guitar player. There's so much emotion in his playing," Elkington says. "Playing in Eleventh Dream Day checks a lot of boxes for me as far as things I actually like to hear. Sometimes I liken it to being in a new wave version of Crazy Horse or something. Rick's a great guy to play off.
"When I started playing with him, he's such a great lead guitarist that I figured I'd be playing rhythm. And he was immediately encouraging me to take solos and write parts and help arrange and stuff like that. So it was immediately very welcoming. I think it's part of the reason I was so keen to stay on. I felt like a band member straight away.
"Between the two guitar players, you have to make space for each other in a two-guitar band, and I think Rick and I are good at doing that. It's not something we formally talked about. We literally started playing together, and that's what it sounded like. And Janet's a fantastic drummer, Doug is one of my favorite bass players and Mark brings so much to it as well. These are all great friends of mine."
It also helped that the band had previously perfected the songs during an April 2014 residency at The Hideout, a Chicago club.
"Since we don't have the budget to dig into the studio for a long time, we wanted to take this batch of songs and really get them ready so we could just go in and knock them out in a hurry and be well rehearsed and have everything worked out," Rizzo says. "It's not scripted, and when the possibilities are endless it makes it really exciting. It's a joy to play live."
Once in the studio, the band recorded the songs mostly live.
"We hadn't toured the material but it felt like we had. We knocked out the whole thing in one 12-hour session," Elkington says. "We did three or four takes of every song and moved on. It wasn't originally planned that way. We actually had two days planned that we thought we'd get all the tracks done."
The recording was delayed due to Elkington's touring stint with Tweedy (and the other member's busy schedules), but the band took advantage of the extra time, writing a few more tunes.
"Jim had this opportunity with Jeff Tweedy so we kept on pushing the recording dates and it ended up being a long time, close to a year," Rizzo says. "There's a benefit to that; we got a couple more songs that we added to the mix, and especially with Janet, our drummer, she got motivated and wrote a couple songs that wouldn't have been there a year ago."
Works for Tomorrow shows the band not resting on their laurels, and exploring new avenues of creativity.
"Being a band that's been around for 30 years, it's easy to look backwards and to dwell on the history of the band in the past," Rizzo says. "But this material, even though I think we have a signature sound that to people is recognizable, I also feel there's a newness to it and new sound to it. So on that level Works for Tomorrow is thinking about what's ahead and not what's behind. A band that's got its eyes on the horizon rather than the rearview mirror."
Ironically, Rizzo isn't sure what's next for the band.
"Driving up on the highway you don't know what's going to come up on you," he says. "So we take opportunities as they come and sort of let the road guide our path to whatever is interesting."
Still, they feel thankful to have lasted this long.
"I feel fortunate to have been able to put out records this long," Rizzo says. "I think there's something to be said about longevity. We're lucky to have all this history."
Elkington says he feels he's in good hands.
"I think the reason it's going to survive is that the people in the band are doing it for the fun of it," he says. "Once we're out playing again, we'll see how much we want to do. I'm looking forward to going out and playing these songs."
Follow Eleventh Dream Day on Facebook.