By Richard John Cummins
Since Grazed, the first new studio album in six years from Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day, came about largely as a result of a musician being sidelined with a serious health problem. But it wasn’t COVID. “I had a severe back injury from playing basketball,” guitarist and vocalist Rick Rizzo explains on a conference call with me and EDD vocalist-drummer Janet Beveridge Bean. “Somebody over 60 [like me] probably shouldn’t be playing with people in their 20s or 30s, but I played a weekly game on Tuesday nights. A young guy completely ran me over and I got slammed hard into the pavement.”
Rizzo says he was on the ground without getting up for so long that his fellow ballers became concerned. “I played the rest of the game, but then I started feeling this pain.” That pain, as it turned out, meant business: he had two herniated discs. All of this happened back in 2016. “For two and a half years or so I was in really bad pain. I underwent tons of physical therapy, I had several spinal shots [and] steroid shots. I had chirotherapy. I tried everything.”
Rizzo eventually got back in the game, but not on the court. While dealing with his medical issues, he began working on many of the songs which would wind up on Since Grazed, although that wasn’t their original destination. “I had a bunch ready to go but… I didn’t know what to do with them.” While considering turning them into a solo album, he asked his EDD co-founders — Bean and bassist Doug McCombs — for feedback. At the time, it was anyone’s guess whether Eleventh Dream Day would ever see the light of day again: the band’s last full-length release was in 2015, the ironically titled Works for Tomorrow. “Our band typically puts out a record every five years or so,” Rizzo explains, “just because our members have such a variety of [other] things that they’re involved in.” Those things include Freakwater, the alt-country band which Bean has played in since the late ‘80s, as well as Tortoise co-founder McCombs’ solo career.
Since Grazed (on which EDD includes guitarist James Elkington and keyboardist-producer Mark Greenberg) was issued by the New Jersey indie Comedy Minus One with scant advance publicity, leading it to be tagged a “surprise release.” “Well, you know, the ‘surprise’ thing I can’t speak to so much,” Bean admits, “[but] when all was said and done, we wanted to put it out as soon as possible.” She notes that the Internet now makes things possible that could not have been imagined in the days of only physical releases. “Everyone loves a surprise!” Rizzo interjects.
The other surprise is that the album is something of a musical departure for Eleventh Dream Day. While their raw-but-layered punk-plus sound has historically drawn comparisons to Neil Young and bands like Television, Gun Club and X, Since Grazed is calmer, more atmospheric and mellow — even adult-sounding. And clocking in at just under an hour, it’s also the longest release in EDD’s catalogue.
“It’s just where we’re at right now,” Bean explains of the band’s current sound. “The record has a vibe to be. I’ve always been drawn to things that, I don’t know, have an undertone of sadness to them a little bit. Astral Weeks [by Van Morrison] is one of my favorite records to listen to.”
Really only one track on the album, “Case to Carry on,” recalls their harder-rocking days, but the band insists the song wasn’t any sort of calculated effort to placate older fans. “I don’t think [the song] was consciously put there to balance anything out,” Rizzo says. “It’s [only] intentional in that it just seems like part of the story.” In fact, Rizzo says, they’ve found the overall reaction to the album to be “really positive. I think the fact that It’s a little bit different… people [have] responded to it really well.”
Eleventh Dream Day began in Louisville, Kentucky, where Rizzo and Bean first met back in the early ‘80s, although the operation quickly ended up in Chicago, where the band would always be primarily based. “We were jamming in my parents’ basement,” he recalls. “Janet was working in a restaurant, and another person who work there played bass, so we had a three-piece by the fall.” They released a self-titled indie debut album in 1987 and Prairie School Freakout the next year.
In 1989, the band signed with Atlantic Records. “It was pretty thrilling, to tell the truth,” Rizzo says. “I remember telling my dad, who’s a big baseball fan, [that] it was like being signed to the Cubs.” But as with the Chicago Cubs — who went more than a century between World Series wins — the big time didn’t automatically translate to success: other than two singles (“Testify” and “Rose of Jericho”) turning up on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart, Eleventh Dream Day saw only minimal commercial success as major-label artists.
“It was frustrating, without a doubt, but I’m really glad we had that time period,” Bean says of the band’s Atlantic experience. “It didn’t really effect us, whether we were on [Atlantic] or off it. We were just a band that liked to get together and play songs. Whether you did it on a large scale or a small scale doesn’t really matter. The goal wasn’t fame … or anything, really.”
The band had what they describe as an amicable split from Atlantic, and since the late ‘90s have had records on various indie labels, including Germany’s City Slang and Chicago’s own Thrill Jockey, with their first release for their current label, New Moodio, having come out in 2013. Future plans — including live shows besides one Chicago date scheduled for September — are up in the air, which is typical of the way they’ve always worked. Bean: “I don’t think that we’re real plan-driven.”
Rizzo, who agrees, believes that this has contributed to their longevity. “If that’s the kind of people we were, I don’t think we’d be a band today. We might’ve had more success in certain periods, but even [when we were] on Atlantic, we were not plan- or career-orientated at any time.”
True to the phoenixlike nature of Eleventh Dream Day itself, Rizzo has gone back to playing basketball, although he admits it’s been a cautious return: “I don’t play full-court basketball anymore,” he says. “I play a little half-court.”
Available to download since the spring, Since Grazed will be issued as a two-LP gatefold set on August 7th.