Jack Irons was born with 11 toes. The odd digit was soon lopped off, but it must have left a lasting impression on the future drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, now, Eleven.
For a while last year, when the band was in its formative stages, that prime number seemed to haunt band members Irons, singer-guitarist Alain Johannes and keyboardist Natasha Shneider. They were seeing and hearing it everywhere: on clocks, in conversation. The choice of a band name was obvious.
Besides, Shneider said, "We didn't want a name that was very descriptive. It was time to simplify things."
But simplicity is far from Eleven's main agenda. The band's debut "Awake in a Dream" album is a lush, soulful collection heavily influenced by the dynamic early-'70s work of Stevie Wonder. The music strives for the heaviness of Led Zeppelin while Johannes sings in an aggressive John Lennon-like style.
Eleven is the latest band to emerge from a tight group of musical friends who met while attending Fairfax High School in the late '70s. In those days Irons, Johannes, guitarist Hillel Slovak and bassist-trumpeter Flea played in a band called Anthem, later renamed What Is This.
"It was hard rock, but very quirky," Johannes remembered. "It was all adrenaline and testosterone."
Eventually, Flea formed the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Anthony Kiedis; Irons and Slovak played in both acts. But when the Chili Peppers and What Is This were about to be signed to a recording contract, Irons and Slovak chose to stay with What Is This.
That band scored an unexpected Top 40 hit in the mid-'80s with "I'll Be Around," produced by Todd Rundgren. "I was a very shy version of what I am now," Johannes said. "My guitar playing was very toned down. It's much more aggressive now."
When that group began to dissolve, Slovak and Irons reunited with the Chili Peppers. It's where Irons stayed until Slovak's fatal drug overdose at the end of the 1980s.
The past still follows Irons on the road with Eleven. During a brief drum solo at the Hollywood Palace last weekend, some fans began slam dancing, as if in homage to his work with the Chili Peppers.
"In Portland, we walked onstage and 50 kids in front were doing the whole 'Jack Irons--god of drums' ritual," Johannes said, laughing about a recent Oregon show.
Irons added: "This June, I haven't played with those guys in four years. That's a long time. That's longer than I played with them. I guess a lot of people are listening to those old Peppers records."
Meanwhile, Johannes had met Russian emigre Shneider, who several years earlier, as a teen-ager, had come to the United States with her musician parents. Although a classically trained pianist, she loved American pop music. Shneider "hated the whole classical music thing," Johannes said. And it was listening to and playing the music of Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix "that saved her," he said, providing her with an alternate musical direction.
She joined Johannes in the short-lived Walk the Moon in the aftermath of What Is This, and later invited Irons to join them in Eleven, which was soon signed by Morgan Creek Records. "I always knew things would come back around again," Johannes said.
The long saga may explain the band's lyric style. The new album's eight tracks are often long meditations on quantum physics and existential searchings that have left some critics scratching their heads. Shneider shrugs. "We're not storytellers," she says.
Last weekend, Eleven had just returned from a nationwide winter tour in support of the band Mary's Danish. "Now that we've been playing more live again," Johannes said, "our playing has gotten more of an edge, harder than the record, definitely."
Eleven performs with the bands The Shivers and the Modern Day Saints on Dec. 20 at Club Lingerie, 6507 W. Sunset Blvd., in Hollywood. Tickets are $10. Call (213) 466-8557.