Not long ago, it seemed like there was a cap on how far an instrumental rock band could take their music. When Austin, TX’s Explosions in the Sky first emerged at the end of the 20th Century, they were immediately branded post-rock, a nebulous term for any band that didn’t fit the conventional structures of indie rock. But through touring with artists as diverse and established as Smashing Pumpkins, Four Tet, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, and Fugazi, the four-piece made a name for themselves as a thrillingly cathartic live band. Five years into their existence, they caught a break when they were asked to provide music for the film and television adaptations of Friday Night Lights. All of a sudden millions of people knew their epic rock passages, and they became the band to score any work that contained a scene of overcoming the odds.
But despite the unlikely commercial success, Explosions in the Sky have also proven to be one of the most dependable and uncompromising bands going. They take their time releasing music, and if they want to write music for a film that may not reach a multiplex, they’ll do it. The band has just released their first album in five years, The Wilderness, and once again, it shows the band’s ability to move forward. Guitarist Munaf Rayani considers the new album another stepping stone for the band. “I think it’s going to spit us out into a new galaxy the same way The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place did,” he says. “I feel like it presents things in new ways that we didn’t even consider we had the ability to play. It’s a real, honest progression to our musical catalog. I hope it surprises those who think they have us figured out at this point.”
Noisey asked Rayani to discuss Explosions in the Sky’s first six albums leading up to The Wilderness and put them in order of partiality.
6. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (2011)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Munaf Rayani: I remember in the four years in between this and All Of A Sudden we did a lot of touring. And so there was very little time for us to come up with new melodies or write songs on the road. But after we had finished up that cycle and got home we really tried to buckle down and concentrate. As it’s been throughout our career we are slow writers, so we took our time writing this record. And it seemed very familiar. Probably the most familiar, and that’s why I’m placing it at the bottom. It became easy once we started going, and we were conscious and mindful of that. We don’t want to write the easiest songs. For example, “Postcard from 1982,” that is a classic tone that I don’t think you could mistake for any other band. This album didn’t come over night, but it fell into place a little easier than we wanted it to.
The title made some people think this was the band’s final album.
I remember that. I think it was more that we just liked the phrasing and the words. It came from a book Mark [Smith] was reading, but a character wrote a letter and signed off with those words. We weren’t really concerned about how people would take it because we knew there was more music to come.
You guys also had your Take Care before Drake had his by a few months.
I know! Did we beat Drake or did maybe Drake hear something and think, “You know what? I’m just gonna go ahead and use that title”? It’s kind of interesting what happens with the collective conscience. Something similar happened with the artwork for The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. A great Canadian band called Stars put out their album with almost identical artwork, and also Erykah Badu put out hers, also with very similar artwork. So there is something to creative thought that floats in the air.
This album landed in the Billboard chart at number 16. How surprised were you?
It was an absolute and very pleasant surprise that we could make it to the Billboard charts. I think it was a culmination of all the records that got us there. It was also the time in music. From record to record the music business changes so much for us because we take so long in between, but if we look at how different it was from How Strange to The Wilderness the entire landscape is different.
5. How Strange, Innocence (2000)
Musically, I am picking this record here, but its spirit is at the top. It was our first time out, and it’s without anything. No one knew us, we didn’t even know ourselves, we just came out. Every moment after that, even the subconscious was affected. The first notes are pure, untouched, and unheard.
How formed was the band at this point?
We were less than a year old when we got into recording this record. We found this amazing chemistry out of the gates. Mark, Mike [James], and myself had already written half of the record sans drums. Once we presented them to Chris [Hrasky], it was as if he had known these songs his whole life. That’s what really sparked this great potential. The spirit of it was so pure and so strong, perhaps the actual musicianship wasn’t fully realized yet.
You recorded this in four days. How much did that affect the album’s sound?
I’m sure that absolutely affected it. But because we were so wet behind the ears, another two weeks for us at that point may have only made us stumble that much more. We were so unaware of how music is recorded and how sounds are captured.
This was only released on a few hundred CD-Rs but reissued five years later by Temporary Residence.
Jeremy [deVine] said we should put it out because there were only 300 copies floating around the world. And this was before all music was digitized. So giving it some kind of physical form was a collective thought.
4. Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever (2001)
Now we’re moving into these middle ranks and they all kind of overlap, barely. There are really strong songs on this one that still get played often by us to this day. This felt more like our real introduction to the world. How Strange was more of a demo to a small group of people. There was kind of some build up with this as our debut album, and when it caught some fire it was really surprising and exciting to us. Here we were with a real vinyl record in our hands that was getting reviewed in magazines. So we were pretty over the moon about that.
Some people tried to link the artwork to 9/11. It seems so ridiculous, but how convinced do you think people were that there was a connection?
Doesn’t it sound like such a crazy thing? People will reach for anything they want because sensational stories are exciting to be a part of. And I think ultimately it just came down to that because it was just strange coincidences. A lot of people say the record came out on September 10, which is incorrect. It was out in late August, a few weeks earlier. And then in the album sleeve it says, “This plane will crash tomorrow,” which was more just a way of keeping ourselves grounded to all that was surrounding us in the moment. From the record label picking us up, a record being put out, us going to interesting places overseas, going on tour with Trail of Dead, all of these things we were jokingly in a bit of a dark tone were saying, “Enjoy this now because this plane will crash tomorrow.” We didn’t think it would last that long. So that was in the record and it was written on my guitar. We were young and silly at the time. I don’t think we’d write that now because we’re grown men now in our mid-30s.
And of course, then, in Amsterdam after playing a show at the VPRO Radio Sessions, at the airport there were all of these security lines. We finally got to the gate and asked our names and what we were doing, then pulled us aside. They were particularly interested in Mike because my guitar had been checked in under his name. So they opened up the case and asked him for an explanation. It was truly just a misrepresentation. Once he explained that we were musicians and we’d written this album, so he pulled a CD out and showed the officials. After some back and forth they believed us and let us go. So that story started following us around, along with the one that our record came out on September 10, which is incorrect. Then shortly after 9/11, college radio put out a list of bands who they would not play simply based on their names, and we were one of them. It was a very sensitive time, and once a bunch of voices got going, they would shut the lights on you. So all of these little instances were sort of compounding and then leading to this folklore that came with this record. And as silly as it was, it put us in conversations that maybe we didn’t want to be a part of, but it kept putting our name in rotation and people learning about us.
And then it came back to haunt you ten years later on September 11 when you played in Boise.
Oh my goodness gracious. Boy, the local television news actually took the time to send out a reporter to do a piece. Nobody talked to us, but someone sent us the footage. That was a slow news day to pass time with.
You guys had nothing on the Coup though. Their album cover had them literally blowing up the World Trade Center towers with a remote control. And that was supposed to come out after 9/11.
Right! Yes, that was crazy! I remember that vividly, and us talking about it like, “Man, you think we have it bad. What about those guys?”
3. The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003)
This is the record where we felt we were progressing exponentially. Now we were starting to find a real stride in our musicianship and play melodies and beats and take the listener down the road we wanted to go. Already that record felt really strong to us, but then came Brian Reitzell, the music supervisor for Friday Night Lights. He called us out of the blue and said, “Hey guys, I’m working on this movie, and I think you’d be perfect for it.” And then after that, history was written. All of the music we wrote for the movie was familiar to The Earth, and they just ended up using a lot of music from The Earth. This might be at the top of the list for a lot of people because it’s the record that catapulted us into this new stratosphere of listeners. And that is partially because it has “Your Hand In Mine” and that song is connected to Friday Night Lights. If people don’t know us, they might know that song.
I have to ask: Who would you want as your starting QB? Jason Street, Matt Saracen, Vince Howard, or Mike Winchell?
I have no idea who any of those people are. I think Mark and Mike have watched most of them. I don’t know if Chris has seen any, but my wife has seen them and my friends have. I haven’t seen any of it, though, so it wouldn’t be honest if I gave you one of those names. Friday Night Lights is a bittersweet thing for me. It was such a wonderful thing to happen to us with the movie and the television series, which was incredible that they kept us along for the first and second season. But then they brought in a new music supervisor and the first cut they made was us, and brought in another musician, W.G. Snuffy Walden, to adapt the music. And it is so familiar to our sound that it feels funny to me. One of these days I will bring myself to watch all of it though. But everyone whose opinion I hold in high regard loves that show.
2. The Rescue (2005)
More than any other record, there was this pop sensibility to it. There is a bouncy quality to it. They were just short, sweet vignettes that begin and end all in a breath. This was our first instance where we could relate a meaningful thought just as good in two minutes as we could in 12 minutes. That was really eye-opening, and led us to songs on later albums. We did this experiment where we weren’t going to sound like ourselves. There were no rules or regulations. Not that there are ever any, but we tend to fall into habits and natural movements, and we were being conscious of trying to play music that wasn’t expected of us. We rotated instruments, we came up with melodies in the morning and finished by night-time, we tried not to dwell on anything, it was just a day, and a thought, and a song. It was so fun too. It was like going to music camp with your friends and coming out with a record.
Originally, this was intended to be a limited release for the “Travels In Constants” series. Most artists didn’t give their release a proper reissue, why did you?
It was a bit overwhelming that there were now expectations. Could we match what we’d done when we were such a young band? Enter: The Rescue, which gave us the opportunity to let go of the restrictions and expectations we’ve placed on ourselves. We were just back to playing music. The Rescue was really for nobody but the four of us. We may have thought about handing out some CDs to our friends, but on its completion after feeling so good about it, we presented it to Jeremy to be a part of the “Travels in Constants” series. We didn’t give it a proper release. We just sold it on tour and the Temporary Residence website. Music journalism presented it as a real album release. People just started reviewing it on their own, thus giving it the face of a semi-official release.
1. All of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)
This one is for me, and I may stand alone in the band about that. To me, it came after The Earth, which is, to this day, probably still considered our best record by the masses. The Rescue had helped pull us out of any musical rut we had found ourselves in for that moment, and spring-boarded us into this record. I think it has some songs on it that stand out above most of the catalog, in particular “The Birth and Death of the Day.” Playing that song makes me feel so alive.
This is the first record where you used the piano. What kept you from incorporating other instrumentation on previous albums?
I guess we were just so guitar, bass, and drums-driven that we didn’t introduce other instruments so easily. And then we got to this moment and we thought, “Should we try and bring this in?” The way we did felt really nice. Some of these songs didn’t translate live, so we didn’t play them. But now the piano is back on the new record, so it’s now back on the stage with us.
The album initially came with a bonus remix album. But it wasn’t two or three songs remixed a few times, it was an alternate version of the album.
Absolutely! That’s how we were thinking about it and how it came out. At the time, we were all listening to a lot of Jesu. Four Tet’s remix is the best one on the disc to me. It’s classic Four Tet. That one has so many layers to it because Kieran [Hebden] is a very old friend of ours, along with Adem, who also did one of the remixes. They were in the band Fridge, and we had this really amazing connection with them. Their friendships matched our friendships. The remix record was so personal to us.
Cam Lindsay is Team Saracen - @yasdnilmac