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EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY – Down The Rabbit Hole

EITS

Post rock royalty Explosions In The Sky play cathartic mini-symphonies. This is evident in their live shows where they swing between menacing fury and tear evoking softness within the space of one song, and all without the use of a vocalist or lyrics. With music that is both textured and emotional, Explosions In The Sky are a rare delight. They also never fail to pack a punch with songs that pull at the heartstrings whilst kicking you in the guts. Explosions In The Sky play the Chevron Festival Gardens on Thursday, February 16. CHRIS HAVERCROFT spoke to the band.

Between Explosions In The Sky’s album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care of 2011 and their latest album The Wilderness, the Texan quartet have been engaged to write four soundtracks, including one for the forthcoming The Lego Batman Movie. This experimentation with cinema keeps the band members fresh, but it is an evening of their kaleidoscopic tunes and sheer volume that will bring people through the doors for their Perth show.

There were five years between albums for Explosions In The Sky, where you kept yourselves busy with soundtrack work. How does making soundtracks influence the way that you approach your own records?

The soundtracks pretty much got us to move from an exclusively guitar-and-bass-and-drums band to being able to think in terms of making music in any number of ways. Each soundtrack needs such different things, and so it helps excite your brain searching for ways to fulfil the vision of each movie, and I think that spirit carried over to the new album. Like on the Manglehorn soundtrack–there are essentially no guitars on that whole soundtrack. We needed that fresh look at music.

Generally, how different is it for you working on a new Explosions In The Sky original album than on the musical surroundings of a given film-narrative? 

Pretty different. For a soundtrack you have all these cues–the screenplay and director’s notes and then later you have actual scenes of acting, and you have to emphasise the tone of each scene. It’s a pretty focused process–you come up with a main theme for each movie, which is cool, but once you do that you have to then come up with all these various variations of the theme. That’s just how it works on most movies, to give them cohesion, and it gets a little tedious sometimes, to be perfectly honest. With writing our albums it is so open-ended. It’s like, I don’t know if you play much video games, but doing soundtracks is like playing a side-scroller (where you always end up funnelled to the end place where the level is designed to go) versus playing in a open sandbox environment, where you can choose where to go in this huge environment and follow little side missions and stuff. And the freedom and lack of restrictions can be great or daunting, depending on mood. Personally I enjoy the challenge of soundtracks, but I love the album-making far more, it’s not even close.

The Wilderness has much shorter songs than previous records. What prompted this change? 

There’s no formula, it’s truly just based on feel. When it feels finished, when the piece has reached enough emotional satisfaction and interest that it can stand on its own, then it’s over, no matter if it’s two minutes or twelve. At the starting point, concepts are pretty far off. We don’t set off to write shorter songs or anything, we just start writing. That being said, the theme for us was: how can we do something that feels surprising to us? You have to recognise what each song does best, and what is the best way to present it. Yes, we’ve had a lot of success doing these twists and turns and tangents, but to do that on every song just can get old. For example, Disintegration Anxiety–we wanted it to just be this barely contained blast of energy, where it never gets out of a groove, the drums go through the whole time. That just worked better for us.

Whilst peoples attention spans tend to be getting shorter, it was the length of your songs that allowed fans to immerse themselves in the dynamic shifts of your music. How can you create the same tension/emotion in a shorter piece of music?

Maybe it sounds a little outdated to some, but we all still view the “Album” as the pinnacle of making music (as opposed to just making songs). We all grew up on looking forward to new albums from the people we loved–fully thought out adventurous cohesive statements. I’d be really excited to hear a new Pavement song on the radio, but I’d be camping out in front of the record store for a full new album. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to switch up our thinking–rather than each song being individually designed to take you on a long journey, we wanted the 9 songs of the album as a whole to take you on a collective journey.

The Wilderness is said to be a ‘studio’ album rather than a ‘live’ album. What was the difference in approach for each? 

The way we have always created music is to play it live… like music. That sounds funny, and obvious, but what do we do when all four of us aren’t living in the same city for many months at a time? We had to find another way, so we started emailing demos back and forth and back and forth to each other. We each have a little recording setup in our houses, so we’d write something, send it, someone would add on or change, et cetera. It was easier to find more unique sounds and methods that way, but harder to get the rocking and the energy, so we had to work on that whenever we all were able to meet up. Also, we did a ton of switching stuff up in the studio this time. We did a lot of songwriting before we went to the studio, but a lot of songs ended up vastly different–rearranged, different instruments, whole parts getting cut, et cetera. It takes a lot of immediate adjusting and quick soul-searching, but the album wouldn’t have turned out the same at all without committing to that openness.

This approach would tend to lend itself to longer songs that shorter ones? What did you do to stop yourselves from disappearing down the rabbit hole in the studio?

The easy answer is time and money, we only have so much of both. But also: I consider us to be very particular–if a note or sound doesn’t contribute in some way emotionally or tonally, then it’s gone. We just don’t go for superfluous things–we like things direct. But that only goes so far–we don’t have any of that Kevin Shields obsession about re-recording sound upon sound and layering. If something is working, no matter how it was recorded, then it can stay. There are sounds on the final version of the record that are lifted straight from the demos, that we just didn’t feel the need to re-record because they already worked. We work until we’re happy and proud of it, then we stop.

There appears to be more electronic sounds on The Wilderness. What made you follow this path, and what did it add to the records? 

For us, our traditional sounds–martial drums, guitars reverbed and delayed–those are what people think of when they think of us. Those worked well for us for a real long time. But they are loaded with tons of associations–the very second we play a guitar that sounds like that, it seems as though for a lot of listeners it immediately clicks over in their minds that this new song they’re hearing sounds exactly the same as our previous work, no matter how strong or moving the melody is.

So if you want people to hear you in a new way, you have to take different approaches. It’s as simple as that. We started playing our style of music organically and naturally, and I think a lot of it still shines through in these songs, but we felt the strong need to “meld the two”–construct songs in different ways from different elements (which turned out to be more electronics and keyboards and samples) but still be us.

There were reports that the album was not going to be finished as you were all pretty ‘down on it’. What turned things around to make this a recording that you were proud to release?

Yeah but isn’t that the case with pretty much every piece of art that someone works on for a long time? I’m pretty sure during the writing of every one of our albums there have come periods in which we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re just stumbling around like fools trying to figure out what to do. Naturally you get a little down but that’s just the process, and you have to trust it. Especially after you’ve been doing something for so long (18 years now) and you’re still trying to find freshness and inspiration and new methods. And we have to be fully proud of something to release it, so either you power through the down times and keep working towards the full materialisation, or you don’t. So far we have always been able to do the former.

The title of the album The Wilderness – does this have significance to the sound of the album and the vision you were trying to create? 

The wilderness was just our term for where we wanted to symbolically go, and it slowly just solidified as the actual title. We liked the thought of going beyond the usual definition of forested wilderness in our world–with the wilderness spilling out into infinite space and going on and on and on into a forever unknowable true wilderness, that no human will ever know. And we linked it with the same infinite unknowable that takes place inside the wilderness of our brains. We just wanted to honour and try and evoke that feeling of awe and fear and beauty we get from the scale of things.

Back to the topic of soundtracks, you are often credited with the opening theme of the TV show Friday Night Lights. How did that come to be? 

We did the movie soundtrack, of course, and then the producers of the TV show came to us about using music in the first season of the show. We thought that sounded good, but then they asked to use Your Hand in Mine as the opening theme. At this point we had not seen any of the show, of course, so we had no idea that it would turn out to be a pretty fantastic show. But even knowing that, we still might not have said yes, because a theme is so synonymous with a show that after a while they become inextricable. Anyway, they asked H.G. Snuffy Walden to do something along the lines of our music to keep with the tone, and he did, and I think because our music is used so much in the movie and series that people just assume it’s us.

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