Playing a niche sub-genre of music comes with a certain cachet – but it can also become a trap. Over nine years as a band, Jakarta-based quartet Eleventwelfth have earned fans with their catchy math rock and emo sound – and found it hard to escape those genre tags, which quickly turned from praise to pigeonholing.
“We wanted to branch out and make music that is more challenging for us,” vocalist and guitarist Rona Hartriant tells NME. “I’m tired of being called Midwest emo or math rock, even though I barely listen to that kind of music these days.”
So, the band decided their debut album would show they were in on the joke – but also render the joke irrelevant. Its title ‘Similar’ is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to how the band often get compared to big names associated with math rock and emo, most notably American Football and Toe. At the same time, ‘Similar’ finds the band expanding their musical palette, incorporating elements of pop, jazz and indie rock.
Eleventwelfth jokingly double down on the ‘similar’ talk with NME, pointing out their group name closely translates to ‘sebelas dua belas’, a colloquial Indonesian term used to describe when something is ‘similar’. And in all fairness, they clearly share many musical traits with artists dabbling in the math rock/emo sound: twinkly guitars, odd time signatures, lots of emphasis on melody and melodramatic vocals (in particular, their breakthrough self-titled EP, released in 2017, carried a youthful vigorous let’s-sing-at-the-top-of-our-lungs-together energy).
While some of the core elements are still there, ‘Similar’ sounds both richer and more restrained – a colourful record with greater crossover appeal than their previous releases.
During the writing of ‘Similar’, Eleventwelfth listened to all kinds of music, from John Mayer to Floating Points, Kali Uchis and Little Simz. “Our EP was like the start of us as young adolescents playing music together, trying to play the kind of music that we all liked,” guitarist Yogawerda Kessawa, simply known as Kesa, says, “while the album pulls all kinds of influences from modern music, especially in the sound design department, be it guitar music or pop or whatever.”
“We wanted to branch out and make music that is more challenging for us”
The emphasis on production is apparent: ‘Similar’ offers a punchier sound and rich textures. Bassist Tirta Petir Saputra’s recent experiences as an audio engineer prepared the band for recording sessions, and vocalist Rona even took lessons in production. Eleventwelfth also employed F.A. Poetra Tiardha – the electronic/ambient artist Gulf of Meru who used to work with the post-rock giant The Trees and the Wild – as a producer, helping add all kinds of embellishments, from the violin and vibraphone on the pop-jazzy number ‘(stay here) for a while’ to the strategically placed children’s choir on ‘the more i try to trace you forthwith, the less i want to know where to find you’.
Clearly, ‘Similar’ was an ambitious project for Eleventwelfth, which explains why it took six years to make. Trying to emulate recordings that they grew up with in the pre-streaming era, the band set out to make an “album-album”, meant to be listened to all the way through without skipping or shuffling, by connecting all the songs in a particular order and embracing recurring lyrical and musical themes.
“I still listen to albums all the way through, I don’t like listening to just individual songs,” Rona says, “and I want our listeners to have the same experience listening to ‘Similar’.” And as fans stream the record, statistics from platforms like Spotify show that the band’s efforts have paid off: “The number of plays [for each song] is roughly even, and judging by the popular tracks, you can see that people have been listening to the songs in the correct order of the album.”
Although musically rather easy on the ears, ‘Similar’ focuses on sorrowful lyrical themes such as grieving, letting go and leaving the ones we love behind. Two of Eleventwelfth’s four members lost a parent during the making of the album – echoing how their 2017 EP was centered on Rona grieving a parent passing on.
“It seems like something bad always happens when we’re preparing for a release,” he says, “so it just came out that way.”
When Petir’s father passed away in 2021, the bassist was shaken and lost the motivation to do anything, including playing music. A few weeks later, Almas made an important phone call that would change that.
“My father was really sick at the time, so I asked Petir if he would start recording,” Almas recounts. “My father couldn’t make it to our EP’s showcase, so I really want[ed] him to come to the album’s.” Unfortunately, Almas’ father passed away a few months after.
“There were times when I didn’t want to listen to the album,” Petir says, “but I had to since I had to revise my part. I would just break down and cry during a motorcycle ride because it reminded me so much of what happened, and I couldn’t deal with it.”
The story of ‘Similar’ isn’t all despair and heartache, though. On the rather cheerful instrumental number ‘KALA’, Eleventwelfth landed an amazing feature in some slick guitar-playing by CHON’s Mario Camarena, one of Kesa’s guitar heroes.
“A few years back I went to Singapore to see CHON, and saw Mario at the meet and greet. Then a few weeks later a friend of mine went to see them in Australia whilst wearing an Eleventwelfth t-shirt. Mario asked about the shirt and eventually listened to us and he said he liked it,” Kesa recalls.
“I just spontaneously asked my friend to ask Mario if he would feature on our song, and fortunately he said yes. He could’ve been like ‘nah, this song sucks’, so we’re grateful.”
A few months on from the record’s release, Eleventwelfth are extremely pleased with how ‘Similar’ turned out and what they have accomplished musically with the record. It comes at a good time for math rock acts from Asia, with bands such as Elephant Gym (Taiwan), Forests (Singapore) and seasoned veterans like Tricot (Japan) getting more and more attention on the world stage.
Like them, Eleventwelfth are looking to expand their horizons with ‘Similar’.
“Hopefully it could land us stages that we didn’t have access to before, like Java Jazz or something, or tours to countries or cities that we have never been to before,” Kesa says earnestly, before concluding with a joke:
“Or, you know, have CHON opening for us!”
Eleventwelfth’s ‘Similar’ is out now via Angular//Momentum Records. The band launch the record with a sold-out showcase in Jakarta on May 27. Find more info on the album’s limited CD release for Record Store Day Indonesia