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A FIXTURE ON the Chicago music scene for more than a decade, Rick Rizzo often tends bar at the Rainbow, the hipster hangout at the center of Wicker Park, a.k.a. "Guyville." These days, he's probably more well known in that capacity than any other, though every once in a while, someone reminds him of another hat he wears.
"A good number of young guys--and it's always guys; I guess that's what happens when you have a girl drummer--come up and say, 'My brother was always into your band, and I heard his records,'" Rizzo says with a self-deprecating chuckle. "It's gotten to that point. But, hey, I'm proud to be turning 40 and in the prime of my life."
Guitarist-vocalist Rizzo; his wife, singer and drummer Janet Beveridge Bean; and their longtime friend, bassist Doug McCombs, are the members of Eleventh Dream Day, the perpetual also-rans in Chicago's alternative-rock horse race. But a funny thing happened on the way to the glue factory: Chewed up and spit out by the corporate-rock behemoth, Eleventh Dream Day have re-emerged on the tiny but well-respected Thrill Jockey label with its eighth and best recording, appropriately titled Eighth.
Signed to Atlantic in 1989 after the indie album Prairie School Freakout, a noisy and spirited re-creation of the band's live guitar duels, Eleventh Dream Day was the first group from the Chicago underground to garner national attention. "The great Chicago hope, as we were referred to for about 10 years," Rizzo says, laughing again. But though the quartet delivered three strong albums exploring the admittedly narrow terrain between the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" and Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," it never achieved the commercial success of artists such as the Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Liz Phair, who followed in its wake.
"I have mixed feelings about everything that happened to the Chicago scene," Rizzo says. "All the bands that did become commercial giants were worthy of that, but I always questioned our place in it. I was uncertain as to whether we were commercially viable in the first place: We were somewhere in between college-rock hipness and commercial explosion. And you know, the middle isn't necessarily the best place to be."
Rizzo's hero Young once wrote that after traveling in the middle of the road, he hopped back in the ditch, 'cause life was a lot more interesting there. Dropped by Atlantic after its most radio-friendly effort, 1993's El Moodio, Eleventh Dream Day returned the following year with Ursa Major (Atavistic), a more challenging and experimental album that stretched the parameters of the band's familiar sound with slower tempos and more textured mixes. Eighth is even more innovative, giving Rizzo full reign to follow his feedback blowouts into electronic soundscapes that evoke both vintage Krautrock and cutting-edge ambient and electronica.
Between the recording and mixing of Ursa Major, second guitarist Wink O'Bannon left the band, and it effectively stopped working as a touring and performing unit. Bean got busy with her other project, the soul-searching country-rock duo Freakwater, and McCombs founded Tortoise, the percussion- and drone-happy quintet that's been branded with the questionable moniker of "post-rock." The lazy way to explain Eighth is to say that Eleventh Dream Day mixed some Tortoise with the Young and Velvets influences, but the album is actually the product of a fundamentally different approach to the studio.
"I don't ever get a chance to play through an amp any more," says Rizzo, who, in addition to tending bar, has been working on a teaching degree and taking care of his five-year-old son. "I sit in my room and I play the songs, and we never practice as a band." As a result, the tunes were fresh to Bean and McCombs, and Rizzo and producer John McEntire (Stereolab, Tortoise) tried to capture the spontaneous energy of first-take recordings. They followed mistakes and false starts in unexpected directions, and they spent most of their time honing distinctive sounds, including the eerie guitar drones, ethereal keyboard washes, and layered percussion of songs such as "Writes A Letter Home" and "View from the Rim."
So after eight releases and 10 years, Eleventh Dream Day is making the most exciting music of its career. The group has changed the way it works and redefined its relationship to the industry, and Rizzo--who starts teaching elementary school next year--says it has no intentions of stopping now.
"Janet was making the argument the other day that the luckiest thing that ever happened to us was not becoming famous," he says. "This is a vicious business--you always have to prove yourself-- if you're one of those bands with a high profile, the fall can be so much greater. Eleventh Dream Day got to the first rung of the ladder, so the fall wasn't that bad."
Rizzo laughs once more, but this time, it seems more relaxed and more content. "Music still has the same place in my life in that I still need to write songs and I need to feel the noise," he says. "I love to hear loud guitars, and I love playing with Janet and Doug. Basically, it's still fun, and that's why we're still doing it."