SPEECHLESS Explosions in the Sky

With a hotly-anticipated U.S. tour starting this week, the Texas instrumentalists are
still making their impact without words.

 

BY
JENNIFER KELLY

 

“The risk
with instrumental music,” says Explosions in the Sky drummer Chris Hrasky, “is
that it can be background music. We want that sort of feeling that people get
when they listen to a pop song.”

 

Explosions
in the Sky’s fifth album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (Temporary
Residence Ltd.), is, like all the others, primarily instrumental (there are a
few vocals this time). Yet at the same time, the record communicates directly
with the emotions, taking listeners through a variety of moods-from anticipation
to nostalgia, from joy to melancholy-all without saying a word. Hrasky and
guitarist Munaf Rayani both suggest there’s no easy way to capture emotion in
music. Their process involves constant trial and error and a willingness to
throw songs out when they don’t achieve their goals.

 

“We kind
of bang our heads against the wall for days that turn into weeks and months and
years, and try and try and try to evoke these emotions that we’re after,” says
Rayani. “There’s a great amount of discussion that occurs between the four of
us, but the actual achieving of the sound is remarkable to us, too. It’s almost
like a magician did a magic trick in front of us and we’re sitting six inches
away from us and can’t figure out how it was done.”

 

Or, as
Hrasky puts it, “I wish there was a trick to it, because then it would
be a lot easier for us. It’s been four years since our last record and that’s
two years trying to write songs for this one, and we came up with six over two
years. So there’s a lot of hurling stuff away.”

 

The Texas instrumental
foursome has been working its nonverbal magic for roughly a decade now. Their
first three albums earned underground respect, but the band got its biggest
break in the mid-‘00s, scoring first the film Friday Night Lights and
later composing music for the television show currently winding up its fifth
and final season.

 

Three of
the band’s four members-Rayani, bassist/guitarist Michael James, guitarist Mark
T. Smith-grew up in Midland, Texas, ground zero for the Friday Night Lights franchise. Still Rayani says he and his friends were punk-rock, skateboarding,
cigarette-smoking rebels, not jocks. The guitarist’s nostalgia runs more
towards a five-hour road trip to Austin
to see the band Propaghandi than to any state championship run.  

 

Yet today
the high, lyrical, intensely emotional guitar and percussive interplay that
defines Explosions in the Sky has become closely aligned with one of television’s
best-loved football shows. “That’s the dichotomy. That’s how poetry finds itself,”
says Rayani. “But you know, we were going to school when that happened. We were
in town. And while we didn’t adhere to that side or that way of life,
obviously, we were aware of it.”

 

“Ten
years later when we got asked to score the movie, it wasn’t football we were
scoring. We were scoring West Texas,” he adds.
“That’s why it worked as well it did. We knew what the place looked like. We
knew what the place felt like.”

 

Still,
developing a signature sound-which just happens to be your signature sound-for
a popular television show has its downside. Hrasky says the show began bringing
in musicians who sounded like Explosions in the Sky, rather than the
band itself, by the third season. The band also fields frequent requests to
record or play the show’s theme song, which is, actually, not one of theirs. “It’s
pretty flattering when we’re seeing other movies or shows or commercials or
whatever where it kind of sounds like us,” says Hrasky. “It’s weird to think
that the style of music that we play has seeped into the consciousness.”

 

“Certainly,
being involved with Friday Night Lights has been helpful for us,” he
continues. “It’s introduced us to people who might otherwise not be into indie
rock. That’s kind of the awesome thing about our shows. We get everybody. I
don’t want to sound ridiculous, but there will be total skinny jeans, Brooklyn hipster kind of dudes and then like a jock dude
and then a 60-year-old woman with her granddaughter. It’s a really weird
diverse mix of people, which is pretty amazing.”

 

Even so,
no one in the band seems to want to sound exactly like they did on the Friday
Night Lights
soundtrack forever. Working with producer John Congleton, as
they have for the last three albums, they tried to make Take Care, Take
Care, Take Care
, sound different. They experimented with more textures and
layers. There used more samples, some heavily effected, non-verbal vocals and,
er, Japanese singing bowls?

 

“They’re
metal bowls, with a little wooden thing that you run along the edge,” Hrasky
explains. “Have you ever seen anybody play a wine glass? It’s the same concept.
You fill the bowls with different levels of water, and drag a little wooden
stick along the edge.” You can hear these bowls about two-thirds of the way
through Take Care‘s final track,
during a quiet period marked by piano chords and an indefinably ethereal sound.

 

Yet the
core of Explosions’ sound still comes from guitars and drums. Hrasky explains
that each of the band’s three guitar players have distinct styles and personalities-and
that he could tell which one was playing blindfolded after only a couple of
seconds.

 

“Michael is
sort of the core to everything. In terms of his ability as a musician and his
understanding how music should work. He’s the foundation. Mark is very much
about the texture and the mood of things, and then Munaf often has the
anthemic, just in the air kind of melody. They can all switch off on all those
roles, but I would say that’s generally how I would classify them. To a huge
degree, the way those three guys play together is the secret of our success. They’re
three interesting styles but when it comes together it’s just… it really
works.”

 

Explosions
in the Sky also tried to make their latest album more open-ended, so that
different listeners could bring their own moods and narratives to the songs,
rather than being directed.

 

“I
definitely think that Take Care, Take Care, Take Care has a little more
open space for your mind to run,” says Rayani. “The beauty of instrumental
music is that there are no lyrics directing you to one storyline. Instrumental
music allows the mind to run and true reactions to occur, based just on true
sound.”

 

 “Our goal is always to have some kind of
emotional impact, to hammer home or accentuate a particular emotion or mood,”
concludes Hrasky. “But if I were to be critical of the stuff we’ve done in the
past, maybe it tended to be a little bit melodramatic. This record is a little
more mysterious or strange to me. I’m wondering if any of these songs
would end up in some movie.”

 

 

This story originally appeared in issue #10 of BLURT. Explosions’ tour starts tonight
(Sept. 1) in Tucson and runs through Oct. 16 in San Francisco. (Opening
acts at various points will be Twin Sister, Wye Oak and The Antlers.) After
that they head overseas for another European leg, followed by Australia.
Dates are at their official website.

 

 

 

[Photo
Credit: Munaf Rayani]

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