We Talked to Explosions in the Sky Ahead of their Perth International Arts Festival Show
Texan rock band Explosions in the Sky possess one of the most distinctive sounds in modern music; elaborate, expressive instrumentals primarily built from soaring guitar riffs and propulsive drumming. Their songs have soundtracked emotional moments in countless movies, television shows and advertisements, and they have scored numerous movies, from 2004's Friday Night Lights to 2014's Manglehorn. It is this evocative sound that has allowed them to stay relevant and maintain a legion of passionate fans (including yours truly).
Their seventh album, 2016's The Wilderness, takes this formula and flips it on its head; it takes, by my count, about 3 minutes and 45 seconds into the album for one of those EITS guitar riffs to show up. The result is some of their most subtle, introspective work to date and a beautiful evolution from previous releases. Not to say that there aren't some truly (pardon the pun) explosive moments- first single and album centrepiece "Disintegration Anxiety" grooves along to a prickly guitar riff and thudding drums, ending with one of the album's most epic moments.
The band takes their sound to a whole new level for their acclaimed live shows. Complimented by the recent addition of a stunning lights show, they sound positively epic, and match this with an energetic stage presence. The band are about to head on a national Australian tour, including a stop at the Perth International Arts Festival on Thursday the 16th of February at the Chevron Festival Gardens, with The Kill Devil Hills in support. We were super lucky to talk to Mark Smith from the band before catching them live.
IN: To start with, I really love your latest album The Wilderness, it really expands upon the boundaries of your distinctive sound in a beautiful way. Was the creative process much different when creating this album in comparison to previous albums?
EITS: Thank you, love to hear that... And yes, the process was much different- half by choice and half because we had to just adapt to our situations. A conscious evolving was something we talked about at great length, wanting to not repeat ourselves.
And then fate came along and put us in a situation where two of us (Munaf [Rayani] and Michael [James]) got married to women who lived in different cities and they were suddenly spending much of the year in those cities, and we didn't want to stop making music, so we had to just start sending demos and riffs back and forth over email.
So we learned that we formed things differently this way--when you have the time to just brainstorm and throw a bunch of different ideas at demos, we could actually build the songs in unique ways and started using more electronics and samples and different instruments.
The other thing that was maybe even bigger in terms of impact was that we went into the studio without the album being fully written. We usually go to the studio with all songs written and ideas on how to just make the songs sound the best they can, and very little writing/development actually happens there. But this time, we (along with John Congleton, who produced) changed every song, in fairly huge ways. I think it ended up feeling more fresh and immediate to our ears.
IN: What does the album mean to you?
EITS: It's strange when you finish something like an album and then it just becomes a fairly abstract concept to you. Like I don't listen to the album now- I've always had this thing where I intensely focus on the songs and listen obsessively right up to the point when we finish it, and then I almost never listen to it again. Obviously when we play live I hear four or five of the new songs every night, but other than that, yeah it's just a strange energy to me. A colourful and positive concept. For me the thing I took away from it was it was maybe the most musically free I've felt since we did the Rescue EP in 2005 or so (in which we wrote and recorded a song every day for 8 days). Some of it was semi-conscious, but we had felt restricted in ways- whether by the fact that we need to write in certain ways in order to be able to play everything live, or by what people expected from us, etc. We are all interested in other things musically, and we all wanted to bring something different this time, and I think we did. The working title for the record was "Infinite Wilderness," speaking to us wanting to get into places we've never been before, discovering and being afraid and being lost and kind of freaked out by the scale of things.
IN: Would you say you’re more improvisers and experimenters or careful planners of your music?
EITS: Like I said earlier about the studio, we are definitely more in line with the careful planners of the world. We found from an early point that whenever we would improvise and jam, things would head certain ways with a pretty alarming certitude. In the style of music we play, there's just that tendency to get repetitive and build on riffs that would then cycle through loud and quiet. Not that we haven't developed songs by jamming, and not that we don't experiment, but we have found much more satisfaction (and I think success) in conscious songwriting. Trying to make each note integral and as impactful as it can be, melodically and emotionally. And when we play live, it's the same way--we do some transitions between songs that we change up, but for the most part we play the songs as they were written.
IN: How do you create a story in lieu of lyrics?
EITS: That used to be a pretty helpful songwriting tool, but lately I feel we've been getting away from that, and are concentrating on tone and feel a lot more. We've always loved how our music was kind of a Rorschach test for human emotion, and it works story-wise too. What a listener brings to the melodies and dynamics is equally important as what we bring to their creation.
IN: How has it gone translating the intricate sounds of the new album into the live setting?
EITS: It was a strange odyssey and it took us a while to get right in touring last year. In that first month we would finish shows and we'd look at each other and say "Was that any good whatsoever?" We had to kind of reverse engineer so many songs because most of them were not written live with all of us playing at the same time. There are just many more elements in the songs and we had to dole out some parts among us, so sometimes we have to play parts and trigger parts that we didn't individually play on the record- it had to just be whoever was available to play. Also some of the new songs are based on time-based samples that we need to follow so are using a click track live for the first time (on just a few of the new songs). So it took us a while but it ended up feeling really great and energetic, and I think added some great diversity to the shows.
IN: Just what can audiences expect from an EITS performance in 2017?
EITS: Our shows have traditionally been fairly spare proceedings. We always wanted focus on the music, the energy of a rock band. We experimented at the very beginning with some projections but those never felt right. And there never really has been an elaborate light show. Until NOW, haha. In the spirit of consciously trying new things, we worked up a new light show, designed by a lighting director named Tobias Rylander. It's extremely simple, just a row of light bars on the floor along the front and back of the stage, casting up thin beams of light, putting us in this box of pure light. And a lot of fog. To us it feels really striking and complementary and hopefully you will feel the same.
IN: You’ve provided the soundtracks for a whole lot of movies, do you approach these sorts of projects with a markedly different mindset than you do to your “own” music?
EITS: The processes start off pretty simply and similarly- in both cases we start by just sitting down and playing some stuff on the guitar or piano, and seeing what stands out. But from there, they're very different. For a soundtrack you have a very narrow direction- you want to accentuate and emphasise the tone of each scene, all the while thinking about linking the whole movie together in a cohesive way. So you end up focusing on one main instrument or melody to be the focal point. With writing our albums it is so much more about the way we work together. It's more organic and ambiguous. Sometimes we know we are responding to something emotionally but we don't even know why or how to describe it.
IN: How do you decide which external projects you want to get involved with?
EITS:To be honest we don't get offered all that many. There are a couple directors who always ask us if we're available, and we get occasional proposals from other people, but mostly our focus is on making albums and touring, and if a film comes up that we're all four really into, and it works with our schedules, then we'll do it.
IN: Obviously you were quite involved with the score for the movie of Friday Night Lights and your music has featured in the TV show heavily, but are any of you actually fans of the show, and if so who’s storyline do you find most interesting?
EITS: It has been many years since I watched the movie, to be honest, I should do that again soon. I was pretty blown away by the show and how much I enjoyed it. Again it's been a while since I saw that too, but the first characters that come to mind are Saracen and Landry, they are my favourites. I think if I remember correctly a lot of people got annoyed by the Jason Street arc in the first season but I thought it was really moving. Also Michael B. Jordan's character in the later seasons, he is a fantastic actor and I liked the storyline.
IN: Your work means a whole lot to a lot of people. Looking back on your catalogue after about 18 years of being together and making music, are there any songs or albums that strike you in new ways or mean something different to you now than they did initially?
EITS: I think I have to say The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. It seems fairly clear at this point in our career that that is the album that will largely define us. And it's pretty fascinating to look back at where we were at the time. Instrumental rock music was enjoying a little heyday, and we had written a couple of albums and done some touring and it was all going really well. And it just felt like a flashpoint. It was a leap of faith because we hadn't really made any money, but we all quit our jobs (2 video stores, a bookstore, and a copyediting job) and moved to Midland, which is the town in West Texas where Munaf, Michael, and I grew up. It was cheap rent and there was nothing to do but watch movies and then write music together late at night in the basement of an office building downtown. So we wrote some music and it felt really beautiful and fresh to us, but it's not like we thought of it as much different from what we had done previously. But then it was different. It helped us get the Friday Night Lights soundtrack, and things just took off. So now I look around and see that "Your Hand in Mine" is used for people to walk down the aisle at their weddings, soundtracking probably the highlight of many people's lives. And people crying at our shows, and writing us very emotional letters. I don't know, it's amazing, and just shows me how much art can mean, and you really have no way of knowing it at the time. At the time in 2003, it was all about trying to overcome writer's block and worrying that we made a huge mistake quitting our jobs and there's just a bunch of fast food french fries and 32-ounce Cokes laying around in the room where we wrote these songs... and then they bloom to mean very significant things to people.
IN: Are there specific moments of your career that stand out as highlights to you?
EITS: I don't know why, but I always come back to a show we did in (I think) 2000 in Austin opening for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. We were just beginning, obviously, but one of them saw one of our shows and asked us to play with them, and it was huge for us. Like thrilling. It was the small stage at this club called Emo's and I think it was like 300 or 400 people, and it just felt like the first time we had truly connected with a crowd. I still remember being bowled away, buoyant. Other than that, I'm really proud of being able to keep our band together, the same four guys for 18 years. It takes a lot- compromise, tears, endless talks, understanding, forgiveness. I know that's not a specific moment but it is a highlight of my life for sure.
IN: It may be a bit premature to talk about future releases when you only put out an album last year, but are you all still writing music, or do you have other projects in mind?
EITS: Last year was a long year of touring, and since we ended in early November we have been taking it easy, doing a little traveling and the holidays. So no we haven't formally been doing any songwriting other than just messing around on our own. And this coming year is filling up with touring too, so might still be a little while before we're writing again. We'll get there.
IN: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, we can’t wait to see you play in Perth this February!
EITS: Thanks very much and see you soon.
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