Q&A: Explosions In The Sky On Writing Shorter Songs For Shorter Attention Spans, And How Friday Night Lights Changed Everything
Though Explosions In The Sky had already released three excellent albums between 2000 – 2003, it was their scoring of 2004’s Friday Night Lights that exposed the Austin band to millions of listeners unfamiliar with their signature quiet build into orchestral bombast. Twelve years later, the group make their most distinct shift yet with The Wilderness, their seventh studio full-length. Despite the similar overall running time to its predecessors, The Wilderness is quick to display the band’s digression from their norm with a collection of songs that, save for one, don’t go past the seven-minute mark. In addition to their original LPs, the four-piece instrumental group has stayed busy in the soundtrack world, contributing their work to films such as Prince Avalanche, Lone Survivor, and most recently, 2014’s Manglehorn. Given the nature of what’s become an almost immediately recognizable aesthetic, the relationship between EITS and film scoring seems as natural a fit as any. We talked to EITS guitarist Munaf Rayani and drummer Chris Hrasky about the band’s work in the soundtrack world, and their pronounced change on The Wilderness.
STEREOGUM: Obviously one of the first things you notice with The Wilderness is that these are much shorter songs with a more subdued sound. Was that a deliberate change or something that sort of naturally occurred?
RAYANI: A little bit of both. We definitely wanted to try to change the direction of the wind as much as we could and head down newer roads with newer approaches. As far as the time lengths of the songs: Yeah, we wanted to get to the point quicker than in previous attempts. Other than maybe our first record, I don’t think we ever lingered too long in order to get to the ideas that we were trying to get to in the songs. With this album, unlike any of the other ones, it’s happening much quicker. Also, in certain respects, they’re kind of purposefully incomplete thoughts. I mean, they’re complete thoughts, but then they just kind of evaporate into the air or walk off of a cliff without a fall occurring. This was done very much on purpose, because we wanted this record to be a far more abstract thinking piece. We wanted to obviously still have the melodies and the movement and the feeling and the charge — the stuff that grabs you immediately, but that once it had you, it took you to places that hopefully you didn’t expect to go. So a little bit of a deliberate movement but still overtaken by naturally going with the flow. Once we decided this direction, then what we saw was all new to us.
HRASKY: We were pretty self-conscious this time about doing something that also felt like it was still us, but hopefully a lot different than what we’d done before. With each record, we’d always felt like: Man, we took a giant leap or a giant left turn. Then a few years later, you listen to the same record and think, eh, it wasn’t really all that. We kind of followed our default settings a lot. This was definitely a record where we wanted to do away with that as much as possible and try to approach songs and how they move in a way that we hadn’t in the past. So yeah, we were pretty self-conscious about that, but at the same time there’s gotta be a kind of give and take. You still want the songs to be good. They can’t just be different for the sake of being different or weird. I think we were much more OK with saying: This song is three minutes long. It’s fine. It got the job done. It doesn’t need to be nine minutes. And that was always our default; making these really long songs. Sometimes I go back and listen and think, why did we keep going on? Why is this part so damn long? [Laughs] Move on! I think the longer you play together and the more interested you are in things than you were 15 years ago; it helps change these things. We definitely wanted this record to feel like a step away or a new version of something.
STEREOGUM: How much of a challenge was it just in condensing the kind of enormous sound you guys are known for without reducing its effect?
RAYANI: With this it was an attempt at keeping the weight of things, but presented much lighter. I know that sounds kind of contradictory in itself, but hopefully it makes sense. It’s more tangible, like something you can hold in your hand, but it’s still heavy, as opposed to having to use all your arm strength to hold it. For myself personally, the challenge is to allow expansion to occur, to not be so hung up on things like: This is how we play, or this is how I play the guitar, or this is how I play the piano, or these are the melodies that I know how to write. That was a thing I had to overcome myself in just realizing what my capabilities were and then expand on them instead of letting them stagnate; translating them in new ways. That was a bit difficult for me, personally, because sometimes it is hard to grow, and to grow out of your most comfortable position. You should always be you and not change that, but allow yourself to refine, evolve, and mature. As a musician, I think that was one of the greatest challenges on this record was to allow myself to grow in the company of who I write music with. Those guys are serious talents, and I’m speaking as if I’m not a member of this band, but as I know those guys — they’re top-tier thinkers, and that’s inspiring to me, and what we do together is really exciting. Whether somebody outside of us likes it or doesn’t, it’s almost inconsequential because the four of us feel so strongly about what we do. The greatest feat of this record for us was just allowing ourselves as a band to evolve and to expand our thinking and what we were capable of doing and not doing.
HRASKY: It wasn’t like we were thinking with this record that, hey, this is our big chance to get on the radio or something like that. We realize that’s impossible, but what we did was we wanted to make the point really well and not blather on needlessly. If we can make a four-minute song feel like it’s got all the movements and textures of a longer song, then that’s exciting for me, and that was definitely a challenge writing the record. To pull that off in four minutes as opposed to 12 minutes is very difficult. We wanted to just get to the point, because I listen to old songs and wonder why this part or that part have to go on for so long. I got it at the time, but now maybe it’s because we’re like everybody else in the world, and our attention span is just being destroyed on a daily basis. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Thinking about the soundtrack work you guys have done from Friday Night Lights to Lone Survivor, that’s been a point of entry for a lot of EITS fans. Was that a creative direction something the band intended from the outset?
RAYANI: It didn’t occur to us fully at the forefront of our minds until we were in Los Angeles recording the music for Friday Night Lights. We just started a band together because we wanted to play rock music and write a few songs and maybe play some shows, and if were lucky we could release a record and go on tour. Those were our intents in the beginning, but when we arrived in Los Angeles three records into what now is a 17-year-long career, it felt awkward at first because we were kind of out of our element in the sense of being in Hollywood and working with directors, music supervisors, and things like that. But once we started to catch our rhythm, it just felt really natural. And it occurred to me that, man, this is something we can do relatively easily. [That’s not to say] soundtracks are easy to make; it’s actually quite difficult, but because of the music that we were already making and how we were making it, it felt quite natural to be scoring that picture. Later, when we tried our hand at making music for more pictures, yeah, they came quite naturally. So I think that the progression for us was not intended or even thought about until we arrived in the moment, and once we were in that moment, it didn’t feel strange. I feel like Friday Night Lights was a great gateway and musical experience for the casual listener of this type of music into our smaller catalog at the time, and which is now more extensive since then, with the amount of albums that we’ve put out. If that led [people] into listening to us, and it expanded our musical landscape after that, then we are forever grateful for that opportunity. That was just a pretty lucky and life-changing thing to happen.
STEREOGUM: Did the band’s soundtrack work have a fairly significant influence for what you guys did on The Wilderness?
HRASKY: To some degree, yes, because a lot of times soundtrack work has let us do things that maybe we would rigidly not have done on one of our previous records. I feel like all the soundtracks sound very different from each other. Friday Night Lights has that kind of traditional Explosions In The Sky thing, and that thing that we’ve been connected to for so long. I think the other soundtracks, though, like the Lone Survivor soundtrack, there’s definitely some Explosions 101 moments on that, but then there’s a lot of weird, darker stuff on there. We were trying to score that movie as a horror movie, honestly. That was kind of our mindset. Not all of the stuff we did ended up in there — like some of the more crazy, intense stuff — but I think that process definitely bled over into this record of making stuff that we were okay with making things that were abrasive and at times upsetting in a way that we hadn’t really done before. I mean, we’ve done music before that’s had big rock parts, but for this record we wanted to be heavy and abrasive in a different sort of way, and have moments that were a little more unsettling. I think part of our willingness to do that was because of us branching out on soundtracks. We felt comfortable enough to do something that we hadn’t really done on our previous records. At the same time, though, we wanted these songs to still have the skeleton of our songs. We still wanted them to have hooks, which is something we always strive for, because as an instrumental band, we don’t wanna just become a background. We wanted very strong melodies and stuff, and we stuck with that, but we also incorporated a lot of the more tense soundtrack work into this.
STEREOGUM: Looking at the last almost 20 years that Explosions have been a band, how much of a creative evolution have you seen occur just in retrospect now as you release The Wilderness?
RAYANI: It’s extensive. I hope that when someone who’s been listening to us for a while comes to this album, that they hear an evolution or a maturation. It’s still our handwriting, and to have someone still recognize our characteristics in something so completely different for us is a pretty powerful thing, I think. I’m personally proud of the fact that we have a very distinct and hopefully very original way about us. By no means are we looking to rewrite the song we wrote from any other previous record, but I’m pleased that our voice remains, and even further than that, we’ve evolved it. We’ve showed it under a different light and from a different perspective. Think about yourself 20 years ago and what your thinking was, and then the maturation that’s occurred since then. Hopefully you feel a little bit more intelligent or more aware of the world than you once were. You believe what you believe with greater conviction now, and that’s what makes me feel good about where we are today. What you see is us, but I hope it’s a refined version of us.
HRASKY: For me, personally, I guess it’s just that feeling of never quite getting it right. Here’s an amazing record that we could make, and I think the potential is there, and I think the four of us can do it, and I think this record is the closest thing we’ve ever come to accomplishing that. Then again, if I listened to this record maybe 10 years ago I might think differently and would probably like one of our earlier records, but it’s just always that goal to make something that you’re proud of and know that you hit the mark, but that it’s not the arrival, so to speak. You’ve got to constantly be challenging yourself to move forward, and that’s always our goal.
The Wilderness is out 4/1 via Temporary Residence.