Austin-based post-rock band Explosions in the Sky have spent most of the past 20 years making meticulously constructed instrumental rock on a large scale. Starting with 2000’s How Strange, Innocence through 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, the band — made up of Chris Hrasky, Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith — focused largely on long-form tracks, with many tracks hovering around the 10-minute mark. But with their new album, last year’s The Wilderness, the band took a different approach, opting for shorter, more straightforward compositions.
Recently, James spoke with Weld about the band’s new creative direction and the band’s unique dynamic.
Weld: The most striking thing about The Wilderness is the lengths of the songs, which are much shorter than most of your earlier material. What led to that decision?
Michael James: That was one of the big challenges of this record. Usually, we’ve made all of our songs these very long sort of complete thoughts. We sort of consider them stories. On this new record, we wanted to see if we we could keep that same feeling but in a shorter timeframe. Instead of having every single part of the song really stretch its legs and reach this big conclusion at the end, we wanted the storytelling aspect of the song to be a little more ambiguous, a little less sure of itself, a little less obvious. Instead of having each song be a complete story, we wanted the album as a whole to be that complete story.
It was hard, because our tendency is, “Oh, I want to make this song eight minutes long and do all these little things to check all these boxes that I feel the song needs.” We kept ourselves from doing that.
That was the most exciting and interesting part of this whole album, not doing the thing that you know works. We’ve been writing music together for a long time, and we have our way that we do it. I know how the other guys play. They know how I play. So when Mark [Smith] plays a guitar line, I’m like, “I know the perfect bass line or the perfect piano line that’s going to go over this and make it sound just right.” The challenge is to not do that, to dig a little deeper, to scrape that top layer off and go for the one underneath that.
Weld: In a recent interview with SPIN, [guitarist and keyboardist] Munaf Rayani called this album an “abstract thinking piece.” How do you hope that listeners engage with this record?
James: We wanted it to be a little more challenging [for listeners] in the same way that we challenged ourselves. So when people are listening to the album for the first time, or hopefully for the 10th time, you still don’t quite know what’s going to happen. To do the expected thing was just the wrong approach for this album.
The title The Wilderness really came early on in the songwriting process, because we really wanted to have the theme of the album be the thing that we were struggling with as sort of being lost in this creative wilderness, where we weren’t sure where we were. The fun part was going to be finding out. That’s what we really wanted the listening experience to be as well. We’re not sure where it’s going, but that’s sort of the fun of listening to it. That was our main goal, to confound and confuse expectations a little bit, for ourselves and for people listening to the album as well.
Weld: You’ve brought up the storytelling aspect of your music, and there’s also a very imagistic quality to it as well — your older material is often described as building sonic landscapes. Are those images and stories a conscious part of the songwriting process?
James: We don’t say to ourselves, “Okay, this song is going to be about a particular image or a particular story.” That just kind of happens naturally. Sometimes it is a very specific, almost narrative arc that happens for a song, particularly with the older stuff, where it almost felt like we were writing these small, three-act plays, where you would have very different scenes within each act, and each one led to the other in a particular way, and you got to the end of the song knowing that it was the end.
With this [album], it really was much more abstract. It was a lot more about loose connections of images. Like in the song “Tangle Formations” — We wanted to keep the theme of the wilderness, but not just the natural world. Tangle formations are things that happen in the brain whenever someone’s getting signs of Alzheimer’s disease. You get these neuro-fibers tangling in your brain. For us, the idea of the wilderness of the mind was also really interesting. So that’s song’s kind of about that.
And “Infinite Orbit” is about the wilderness, but it’s the wilderness of outer space and the sort of infinite wilderness that is the universe we live in. These were the sort of main themes, this exploration and being lost — that you’re not really sure where you are or what it means. We try to all these themes together with the images we create, and we use the titles of the songs to communicate that. It’s our only change to use words, so we try to make them meaningful.
Weld: A lot of the band’s recent work has been in scoring films — like 2004’s Friday Night Lights or 2013’s Lone Survivor. How does the experience of scoring a film compare with the type of storytelling/image-building that you do on your studio albums?
James: The differences are pretty big, pretty stark. When writing an album, we’re not trying to write background music. We’re trying to write music that captures your attention, that makes you want to get lost in the music. And when you’re writing for a film, you can’t do that. If people are sitting in a movie theater listening to the music, then you’ve probably gone too far with the music. People need to be watching the film, and the music is really just there in service of what’s happening visually on the screen. Of course, we want to do the best music we can for soundtracks, but it shouldn’t be taking attention away from anything else.
So it’s a really different process, trying to make music that blends in versus trying to make music that sticks out. And they’re both interesting and fun, but I’ll always prefer making albums, because to me that’s where I find the most powerful musical expression for me.
Weld: Explosions in the Sky is the rare rock band that doesn’t have a clear frontman — you all seem to have equal creative heft. How does that dynamic work when you’re writing music?
James: It’s completely collaborative, in that everybody has to like — or love, even — everything that we’re doing. If we’re working on a song and three [band members] are really loving it, but one is just not that into it, then that song goes away. That’s kept us all very involved in the band. It’s not one person taking control and doing the writing and one person feeling left out. We’re all giving as much as we’re getting out of the band, and getting as much as we’re giving. It’s really hard to have a band that way. [Laughs] Getting four people to agree on anything can be really difficult. Even though we’re best of friends and have been doing this together for a long time, it’s still really hard to get four people to agree that something is good.
But that’s one of our strong suits, actually. There are four filters, and if four people say, “Okay, this is good,” then you probably have something that’s pretty good. So it’s been one of our greatest strengths, but it’s also an incredibly difficult way to write music, but it’s really satisfying at the end of the day, once we’ve all had our say and we’ve all done this collaboration where it really is all four of our voices speaking. It’s a wonderful way to make music with your friends.
Weld: You’ve been a band for close to two decades. Has it gotten easier or harder to be on the same wavelength with your bandmates?
James: I think it’s gotten harder. When we first started the band, I think we were a little more [like-minded] when it came to what we were listening to. We were all listening to the same stuff, and yeah, over 18 years we’ve been a band, people’s tastes change pretty dramatically. We all have things that we still like, but they’re pretty wildly divergent tastes in the band now. So making all those really different tastes and aesthetic preferences all come together, I think it’s gotten harder. We can still do it, but it’s more work.
Weld: How has your musical philosophy as a band shifted over the past 18 years?
James: I think we’re a little more thoughtful now, which I think maybe is just something that happens as you age. When we were first starting the band and we were 20 years old, it was all very rushed, it seemed like, like we just couldn’t wait to get the music out, and it just came out and we didn’t do much thinking about it. I think that made for some really great, powerful, emotional music. Now we sort of think about things a little more. We think about the composition a little more. To me, it makes for a little more interesting music that is maybe a little more nuanced.
I think that we’ve been really lucky to have this band go on for so long, where we have, in my mind, pretty noticeable stages in our career where the music has changed and our approach has changed. We’ve been able to do and say different things. I think it’s pretty rare these days to see a band go so long, and I feel really lucky that we’ve been able to do it like that.
Explosions in the Sky will perform at Iron City on Sunday, April 9. Thor and Friends will open. Doors for the all-ages show will open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.