Explosions In The Sky: The Lone Survivors
Texan post-rock four-piece Explosions in the Sky have been churning out ear-shattering instrumentals for the past twelve years, packing all the brunt of three guitarists and none of the ego of a vocalist. Their “cathartic mini-symphonies” have proved for impassioned live shows – intensity in ten cities – and they’re bringing it all to Australia’s East Coast kicking off this Thursday December 8, 2011 in Melbourne. BLUNT’s Emily Swanson chatted to guitarist and part-time bassist Michael James to get the scoop on what keeps the band going after twelve years, why they’d never consider a lineup change and what it’s like to score a film.
What have you been up to today?
We just got home from a three week trip. We’ve been in Europe on tour, so I just got home yesterday and I have been doing absolutely nothing. Just laundry, unpacking and kind of settling into my home. It’s been really nice.
Just as a bit of background info, you play guitar and bass for Explosions in the Sky. How did the four of you come to form the band?
Well, three of us are from a town in west Texas called Midland, where we all went to high school and kind of had friends that sort of new each other and around when I was probably 18 or so, I met Munaf [Rayani] and Mark [Smith] and we started playing in a band. Each of us then moved away from Midland for various reasons and then all kind of accidentally reconvened in Austin. Once we were all here, we started playing together again and we were looking for a drummer and Chris [Hrasky], who’s our drummer, he came from Chicago to go to graduate school down here in Texas and ended up not really liking it, so he dropped up and put up a flyer at a record store that said, “Wanted: sad, triumphant rock band” and we saw it and we thought it was a great flyer, so we gave him a call and started playing and that was twelve years ago.
It’s actually quite impressive; you’re twelve years in and you’ve still got all of your original members. Most other bands would have gone through three or four lineup changes by now.
[Laughs] Yeah, we all decided a long time ago that this was the band and that we couldn’t ever replace members or anything like that and as it’s gone on and been so long, at this point there’s no way we could replace a member. We’re so musically comfortable with each other that if any one person were to leave the band, the band would definitely be over.
Being together that long as a band and after six albums, how do you stop the fire from burning out? Do you still have that same passion you had when you first started?
Oh absolutely. Music is something that, for the four of us, we’ve always done. All of us have been playing in bands since we were in high school and it’s our whole lives it’s just one of those things that comforts all of us, and when you do something that long and you love it as much as we love it, I don’t think it ever really goes away. Sometimes it’s more exciting than others for sure, but we take those exciting periods and we channel them as best we can to try and write an album.
A lot of your earlier songs – even now – are up around the eight or nine minute mark, with one being thirteen minutes in length. Is it particularly taxing playing these songs live?
I don’t think so. I mean, the songs are pretty dynamic and they breathe a lot, so there’ll be parts that are very quiet and tranquil, and parts that are very upbeat or very loud, so it’s almost as though we’re playing a couple of different songs within one eight or ten minute period. I don’t think it would be a lot easier if the songs were shorter, we’d just have to play a lot more of them.
Your songs seem a lot deeper and as though there’s been more thought put into them than just your generic rock song. Where do you guys draw inspiration from for the music that you write?
It’s funny, in terms of musical inspiration, it’s kind of all over the place. All of us grew up listening to somewhat different things; Munaf is really into hip hop and R’n’B and old soul music, and Mark was much more into avant-garde, weird guitar stuff. Chris was into metal and I was into punk rock, so musically we sort of bring a lot of different perspectives, but in terms of inspiration, we can find it really anywhere. The beauty of life is that there’s so many things to be inspired by, just your friends and family, travelling and seeing the world, we take that kind of inspiration from every part of our lives and then, in terms of where the sound came from or the music came from, I don’t really know. I can’t point to one inspiration point. We take all those things from our lives and try to make songs out of it and this is what they sound like.
I actually read that your second album somehow ended up being linked to the 9/11 attacks. How did you, and how do you, respond to that sort of thing?
There’s certainly no way it was linked to the attacks. It came out like two weeks beforehand and the artwork of the album was just kind of creepy because it had an airplane on it and it said, “This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow”, and that was the sort of feel of the album, it was very warlike artwork, so people were just freaked out by the message that was in the album and the timing of that and the 9/11 attacks.
Even a couple months after the album’s release, you were detained in an Amsterdam airport… Were the two linked?
That was just because, on the album artwork, there’s the message that says “This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow”, which at the time, was just sort of in reference to our lives. We felt like we were sort of careening and that we had to take every day, and enjoy every day, because this whole plane could crash tomorrow, but that was written on Munaf’s guitar just as people write things on their guitars, so the airport saw that and pulled me aside because the guitar was checked in under my name. Luckily I just explained it to them and they were totally understanding about it.
You guys are actually one of the few successful bands that don’t have a lead singer. Do you feel as though you have more freedom being in an instrumental band? Or can it be limiting at times.
I don’t really find it limiting, but at the same time I think we have as much freedom as any musician or creative artist. You’re free to do exactly what you want and for us, we feel like we can do that without a vocalist, so I don’t think it’s limiting. We’re able to communicate with just music, and the things that can be communicated with music are infinite; limitless. You can talk about things with the abstract language of music that are very difficult to talk about with the written word or speaking or anything like that. So in a way, I guess it is kind of freeing that you’re not constrained by language as we understand it. Music can be much more abstract and in a way, it can be much more direct.
How would you then describe the dynamic of the band when you’re writing your material and being in the studio? Does one of you take the reins? Or do you all pitch ideas.
Oh yes, it’s very collaborative. There’s not one person that calls the shots or writes all the music or anything, it has to be a collaboration. That’s the way we like it. It can be very frustrating because sometimes it’s hard to get four people with very different opinions to agree on anything, but whenever it does work, those are the times when we feel like we’re at our best, so those are the songs that make it on the album. I think it’s a really good sort of filtering process. If all four of us like it, then it’s probably pretty good. It’s the best way that we know how to do it. I don’t think any of us would be nearly as satisfied if we were playing just something that somebody else wrote, or telling people what to play. The collaborative effort is really what we love about the band.
Your last release Take Care, Take Care, Take Care came out in April. Have you had the chance to begin working on new material over the year?
No, we haven’t. We’ve just been on tour so much since the record came out and we’re just not the kind of band that can write music on tour. We really have to be home and be able to focus one hundred percent on writing, so we haven’t at all.
In 2004, you actually wrote most of the soundtrack for Friday Night Lights. How did you approach that compared to when you’re writing your own studio albums?
Well, it’s entirely different. With the studio album, we’re writing songs that, even though they’re instrumental, you want them to be engaging and sort of challenging and you can’t just put it on and not think about it, it demands attention, but with a movie soundtrack or movie score, it has to be the complete opposite. It can’t demand your attention, it’s just there to sort of heighten the emotional impact of a scene and if you notice it, then it’s bad soundtrack music. It’s really not supposed to jump out at all. So that was a huge difference and it actually took a little bit of an adjustment period because we’d say, “Oh this should be more interesting”, or “This part should be more complex” or something, but at the end of the day, you have to do what serves the images that you’re playing over the best. So it’s a very different process.
Do you think writing for a film soundtrack is something that you’d want to do again?
We’re definitely interested in it, though it would have to be something we could really get excited about. It’d be hard to just do a movie that we didn’t really like or where we didn’t respect the artistic intention, so if the right thing were to come along, we’d love to.
You’re making your way down here in December, and while you have been here before, what can your Aussie fans expect from your live shows this time around?
Our shows are kind of the way that most people know about our band. We’ve been touring for about eleven years and every single time we play, we try to give absolutely everything that we have to the performance. That’s the kind of show that we like to see. We like to see people really leave it all on the stage and play with their hearts, so that’s what we try to do whenever we perform live as well.
Touring so extensively over the past decade, has it ever been hard to find a balance between being on the road and being with your family and friends at home?
I feel like we’re kind of trying to strike that balance now. In the past, we’ve toured what is fairly standard for a band, but is actually just way too much for any kind of a normal life. If you’re gone for six months out of the year, even when you’re home, a lot of it is recovering from all that travel. One of the guys has a couple of kids now, and a few of us are married, and we decided it was very important to strike that balance, so this time we’re not doing six or eight week tours at a time, we’ll do two and a half weeks and then come home for a little while and three weeks and come home for a month. I feel like we’re kind of striking that balance now and it can be difficult because opportunities will come up that you really want to take advantage of, but we don’t want to drive ourselves crazy touring too much.
Luckily, they’ve taken the opportunity to come to Australia for shows in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne this week.
Explosions In The Sky Tour Dates
Thu Dec 8th – Forum Theatre, Melbourne
Sun Dec 11th – The Metro, Sydney
Tue Dec 13th – The Hi Fi, Brisbane