In the nine years that followed the 2007 release of Music from Regions Beyond, Californian …
Shoegaze music has gone through a lot of different phases over the last two decades; it generally remains pretty uncool and unpopular, though always ambivalent to any kind of rise or fall it may have endured in pop culture. That is, except for Texan post rock instrumental shoegaze dinosaurs, Explosions in the Sky – shit, even my mum’s heard of them.
And there ain’t nothing disrespectful in being a dinosaur, either – when you’ve managed to stay relevant as a band and at the top of the progressive rock food chain for eighteen years in a genre too often disregarded as boring elevator music, Explosions in the Sky might well need a meteorite to wipe them off the face of the earth. It’s kind of ironic, too, ‘cause they’re probably the only band in the world that could score a soundtrack to their own apocalyptic demise.
So, with that in mind, I give guitarist Munaf Rayani a call ahead of the band’s upcoming tour of Australia, to talk about writing soundtracks, the art of curating a live performance and all the roadblocks one has to overcome when making such ambient, cinematic and intensive “elevator” music. Let me tell you, if you’re hearing this in an elevator, then your bellhop sure knows ‘what up’.
Your music has been used in so many different styles of TV shows, movies and ads over the years – from Capitalism: A Love Story to CSI to One Tree Hill to Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. You guys even scored an Adidas commercial with Derrick Rose. How weird is it to see-slash-hear your music, which you made with a particular context in mind, be used in different plots, almost completely removed from the band?
Yeah, it’ very strange; I guess it’s because we’ve been a band for so long we get to be used for some good and sometimes odd spots. It’s always a bit strange that music, which we wrote with other intentions, finds its way into spots like that and it allows us to see, and everyone to see, that music can have a different image for everybody.
Obviously when your music was used on Friday Night Lights it was intended for that use. The band wrote and recorded the soundtrack to entire the show; the first time you took on a project like that – what did you learn from that experience so early in your career?
That was some time ago now. We were some young-bloods new to that musical world and it was eye opening and exciting, as it would be for anybody moving into a new field of work. Being big fans of movies in general, when we arrived in California and had the opportunity to score one it was out of a daydream. We just never thought that it would actually happen and the fact we found ourselves there, doing it, was quite lucky.
Being from Texas, and the show being set in Texas, was there a distinguishable Texas vibe; what kind of influence does home have on your music?
It definitely played a major part [being from Texas] into who we are and what we have become, absolutely. I think that applies to anybody from anywhere, you know. Had we been from anywhere else – say Florida, or New York, or California – I think we be not only different people but also different types of musicians. The fact that we came from Texas – absolutely, even if not so obviously where I could tell you there was a riff that sounds like Texas – means it all sounds like Texas, because that’s how we speak.
Since Friday Night Lights the band has scored three movie soundtracks: Lone Survivor, Manglehorn and Prince Avalanche. I definitely noticed that all three of those movies have very heavy connections to Texas. Is there something about Texas that is pivotal or influential to your sound, the creative projects you take on or your identity as a band in any purposeful way?
Well three quarts of us grew up in West Texas and spent many of our formative years there. I should say three of us have spent most of our lives in Texas, because we grew up in West Texas and now we reside in Austin. So it is most definitely ingrained in the way we are and of our fabric so much, that I think the better question would be, perhaps we should ask Texas, why is it they attach itself to us, ‘cause that’s a very lucky thing to have happen.
I think just kind of growing up there and living there makes us a part of that world, and so when these Texas stories come up – very fortunately they’ve been made by filmmakers that we know well and we’re very friendly with, and when they hear music for their scenes, they hear us – we have strong connections to them and have the chance to make the melody for them.
The Wilderness was the first studio album in five years since Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, before you started making soundtracks – what was it like to go from working on movie scores for so long and then returning to the studio to make an album? What are the differences, if any, in the writing or creative process and how you approach the project?
Movie scoring, while absolutely difficult, has an easier way about it for us, in that we are hired; we are filling an order. A director or musical supervisor is telling us to walk in a certain direction. They want us to discover what we discover, but they are also policing the idea in mind. For our records we are the directors; we are the musical supervisors. So sometimes it’s much harder to really choose a path on your own than it is to be told which path to take.
Scoring films is very fulfilling, very exciting, very fascinating, and I love it, but writing albums is another level of expression and there comes our greatest moments of offering melody. I would say those are the main distinctions between the two. One, someone is telling you to walk ‘that way’ and then the other you have to choose which way you want to walk.
When you say you get to choose which way you walk, when you approach your records, do you know which direction you are heading? Basically, do you know what you are trying to achieve before you start walking, then just follow the path, or is each new record a new canvas and a completely different journey?
I think more of the latter than the former. There was, earlier on, a loose method to what we were doing, but as the years went on and our desires grew for what it was we were trying to write, it became a blank canvas every time. Perhaps the brushes in our box were more than we had in the beginning but the picture has never been the same. When we decide what it is we want to do or how it is we want to make something sound it all comes to us as we begin the journey. We start with conversation about what it is we want something to sound like, and more often than not we end up in different place than we intended on going to in the first place. That’s the way art is made; when you have an idea in mind, you find that almost every time a different idea is presented.
When you’re going through that process what roadblocks do you face – does not using bass or vocals present certain difficulties? How do conquer roadblocks so stigmatized with instrumental music and still produce such absorbing records?
The only roadblocks we hit that are worth are thought are the ones in which we implement ourselves. Which is: not wanting to write the same song over again; not wanting to telegraph our passes. The lack of a singer has never been much of an issue neither the arrangement of songs, especially for us. We hold our standards very high for each other and for the music that we write – it is that marker that is always most difficult to hit. Because art is critiqued at every turn, and for us, there is no harsher critic than the four of us. So that’s all we have to overcome: constantly hitting that mark which we all find worthy.
When you play live it’s almost like you’re inducing a trance and your actions and music can seem very free-wheeling and spontaneous; is that the case on stage? Is every crescendo and dip planned meticulously, or do things vary up there based on the atmosphere of each show?
Once we write what we’ve written then we won’t veer too far from it when it comes to the live show. We tend to play an entire set uninterrupted; meaning that we connect songs to each other through transitions, and it might be those transitions that vary ever so slightly, only because we are switching up the set and different songs will transition differently into each other. But otherwise once we have written what we have written we play it to the tee, and as we are writing what we are writing, the crescendos, or dips, or tempo changes, they all come as they come. There’s no oment when we say, ‘Now it has to rise!’
With such an extensive amount of music, you might only have 60-90 minute slot at a headline show, maybe 45 minutes at a festival, how hard is it to tailor set lists to transmit a desired atmosphere or feeling? Whether sustaining a longer set or hoping to reach new fans at a festival, what are the criteria for songs to be played live?
The criterion has always been to hold the attention for as long as we are going to play. Be it from 45 minutes to an hour and a half and now that we have enough of a catalogue to pull from, we try to present a set in acts – Act I, Act II, Act III – and have every act hold the interest and have a rise and fall in action. If we can, not just consciously keep everyone engaged, but also subconsciously lead them along the journey for the duration of the evening. We try to place these songs in an order in which, perhaps you don’t even know it, but a certain performance in the music is being played out in sequence.
Having played these songs so many times, for so many years, what is the experience like for you and the band playing these songs? What do you play for and what is it about what you do that keeps you doing it?
It’s ingrained in us; it runs through our veins. This music is something that we have to present and perform. We’re so long into the game now, motivation and inspiration varies from night to night. Some nights we might try to play flawlessly, and that be an internal goal, which rarely happens. Other times we just want to burn the place down; other times we might aim to play with a gentle quality that just crashes like water on the shore. Every night is a new intent, but always we are trying to captivate. And that includes us; we too want to be captivated.
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Sunday, 19th February – The Gov, Adelaide
Monday, 20th February – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Tuesday, 21st February – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Thursday, 23rd February – Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Friday, 24th February – QPAC, Brisbane