A Hammock and a Brook: An Interview With Explosions in the Sky
After getting on the big screen and the small one, Explosions in the Sky learn how to relax even as they grow.
For all but the most clued-in hipsters, the first experience with the music of Explosions in the Sky came during the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights. As the camera panned across the desolate landscape of west Texas, the accompanying echo-laden guitars on the soundtrack seemed to directly channel the bleak images on screen.
Many who saw the film and stuck around to watch the song credits were likely pleasantly surprised to learn that the band behind those songs had a couple of albums to its name in addition to the soundtrack. The band's second and third discs -- Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever and The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place -- were snapped up by those new converts, and the band's 2000 debut, How Strange, Innocence, was reissued.
The band -- guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani, bassist Michael James, and drummer Christopher Hrasky -- have been content to let their music do the talking, conducting only a few interviews and providing scraps of information about each of their albums on the band's web site. Despite this, things like the soundtrack work and the continued use of the band's music in the subsequent Friday Night Lights TV series, have raised the band's profile to heights that would not usually be afforded an all-instrumental band of regular Joes from Austin, Texas.
"No matter how people have heard about us, we are grateful and happy to have them as a fan," said Smith. "I will say it is very gratifying to have people say that they never listen to music 'like this,' but they heard it on Friday Night Lights and had to track it down."
Until the new All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, the band hadn't had a full-length disc since that soundtrack. It did emerge briefly in 2005 with the limited edition EP The Rescue. That disc was recorded on the fly -- its eight tracks were recorded over the course of eight days, with no advance preparation. It was a stark contrast to the band's typical, laborious process: "Often we spend many an afternoon trying out new melodies and riffs and drum beats, playing things over and over, obsessing and arguing and sighing and sitting silently for what seems to be hours on end," according to its web site.
It reverted to that songwriting and recording process for All of a Sudden, carefully crafting the parts before hitting the studio. Some of the adventurous spirit of The Rescue remains, however, in the form of more diverse instrumentation and, if you listen carefully, actual voices.
The resulting six tracks are sprawling yet focused, and offer the band's strongest and most compelling melodies to date. It begins with a thesis statement of sorts in "The Birth and Death of the Day," a song that begins with noise and bombast before settling in for some quiet guitar interplay that waxes and wanes and the song builds. The band proves it can hold interest for long stretches with the 13-minute cinemascape of "It's Natural to Be Afraid," and messes with its own formula by making piano the dominant instrument on two tracks, including the sweet album closer "So Long, Lonesome".
Smith answered a few questions for PopMatters about the recording process, the resulting album and the band's future.
You recorded this away from home, only the second time that has happened if I read your liner notes correctly. What effect did this have on the session and the resulting music? Was the relative seclusion of Pachyderm a benefit, a hindrance, or something in between?
I can think of no way in which the seclusion was a hindrance. That recording session will, I think, be held as the model for how we want all recording sessions to go from now on (although we did end up remixing the whole album in Dallas a few weeks later!). But the setting was perfect for us -- no distractions (except an original Nintendo), just beautiful wilderness all around, and just us and John Congleton, the recording engineer. We've always had red-light panic -- when you press "record" and then play really tightly and nervously, worrying that you'll mess up. But when you're staying in a house 200 feet away from the recording studio, and no one else is around, and there's a hammock and a babbling brook, it really has a calming effect, because you can start recording at any time in the day, do as many takes as you want...
The cover artwork by Esteban Ray seems integral to the band's presentation. What is it about his work that you like, and are these pieces done specifically for you, or are they completed works that you chose to use? Does a visual presentation mean more for a band that can't communicate through lyrics?
Your last question is basically the way we think -- since there are no lyrics, we try to strike up images and themes with song titles and artwork, while still leaving things open to interpretation. And Esteban (a.k.a. Steven) is perfect for that, if I may say so. He draws up these beautiful and deceptively simple settings, and you listen to the music and stare at the album artwork, and your mind goes off on these tangents, filling in details and backstory and motivations ... I also think his artwork is just personally special to us as our best friend -- I've known him since we were in the fourth grade. He understands what we're trying to do in ways that other artists might not. Anyway, it means a lot that so many people respond to his artwork the way we do.
Speaking of lyrics, was the singing on The Rescue a one-time thing, or can you envision a time where the music calls for it again?
I can definitely envision it, and frankly I'd be surprised if it didn't surface again. There is actually some quasi-singing (more like humming) on "Welcome, Ghosts" on the new album, but most people have not noticed it yet.
Did the process of making The Rescue inform the process for this new disc? If not, and you went back to painstakingly crafting the songs before entering the studio, how does that work? Is there an improvisational aspect at all, or is that perhaps reserved for the live setting?
The Rescue will probably serve as inspiration for us for quite a while still -- it is certainly the main reason there is piano and quasi-singing on the new record. It also just helped keep things fresh for us. That being said, we did indeed painstakingly craft all of these songs. That's just how we work and think, and we have pretty high standards for ourselves. I guess you could say most of our individual parts are written through the use of improvisation (for example, one of us will play a part over and over while the others come up with their own parts), but that may be stretching the use of the term.
The use of piano on this disc is striking; how did that come about? Are there other instrumental additions in the band's future?
See above answer about piano. I could be wrong, but I imagine us getting crazier in the future. Maybe crazier is not the right word. But more varied -- more electronics maybe, or more instruments. So far we've been pretty strictly tied to writing music that we four people can play live (it is that way on all of our albums). And we've always enjoyed the purity of that, and it makes our live shows better, I think, but we have to wonder what else we could do. Maybe a studio album (which may have a bad connotation?), where we don't worry about each song being something we can play at live shows, would be interesting.
Your music seems ideal for soundtracks; is there more work of this kind in your future?
We hope so, but I guess that depends on if people ask us. It is something we enjoy.
As an instrumental band, you don't have the typical trappings of a rock group: There are no lyrics to analyze, no mouthy frontman to rein in, etc. Is that frustrating, however, because you must communicate everything through your music, or is it perhaps freeing because that can be your primary focus?
It's not really frustrating, but that's because we don't really have some message that we want to express. Our music is just meant to be ... sensual, I guess. I sat and thought for a while for the correct word, and that's as close as I could get -- I don't (necessarily) mean it in the sexy sense, but more in the expressive sense, to be about emotions and memories and dreams. We of course want the world to be a better place, politically and humanitarianly (certainly not a word, but you know what I mean), but it is hard to know how to do that through instrumental music, so we just turn to what we can do. And hopefully it works.