By Ace Ubas
In 1999, Austin-based friends Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, Michael James, and Chris Hrasky (originally from Illinois) formed instrumental rock band, Explosions In The Sky. Since then, they’ve become one of the most influential bands in the post-rock genre along the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros.
This year has been another big year for them. They released their sixth album entitled Take Care, Take Care, Take Care and have been touring the United States and Europe since the beginning of the year, with numerous festivals along the way.
Last Saturday, they returned to Los Angeles and played FYF Fest (read our review including Explosion In The Sky’s set here.) But before their set, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Chris Hrasky for an interview.
Have you guys checked out any other bands on the festival so far?
We watched Twin Sister at noon because they’re opening for us on this tour so we thought we’d go out and support them. But other than that we’ve just been sitting on the bus. We’ll definitely watch some bands tonight.
Explosions In The Sky recorded the new album (Take Care, Take Care, Take Care) at the legendary Sonic Ranch. How did that come about?
We were talking to our engineer, John Congleton, and asked him “where would you want to record the new record? Where do you think is a good place to record?” He was like “without question this (Sonic Ranch) is my favorite studio in the country. I think it would be perfect for you guys.” We just kinda trusted him on that. We looked at pictures on the website and it looked great. It was fairly close to home; eight hours I guess. It was incredible, so it was all because of John Congleton.
The band was only in the recording studio for two weeks from what I understand.
Yeah we recorded for two weeks and then we mixed it in Austin for a week.
For most bands, that’s a really short amount of time. For you guys, it was actually the longest.
That was, by far, the longest. We scheduled two weeks and actually finished a day early, and went home. It was really nice! We would start at noon everyday and record until about nine at night. Normally when we record, we could cram it all in five days where it’s like we’re up at seven in the morning and go until two in the morning, killing ourselves. This was really relaxed, it was nice.
If it only takes two weeks to record an album, how long does it take to write a song?
Months. One thing we’ve always done is when we go into a studio, we’ve always gone in with finished songs. It’s never like “well, we’ll come up with something in the studio.” That’s just not a good way for us to do things. I don’t think it would work out very well, so we were always well-prepared when we go in. We took two weeks this time because we could afford the time and also there’s just a lot more stuff on this record, as opposed to just us playing live. We never write in the studio, it would be horrible. It would be the worst album of all time.
Your latest album is entitled Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. The repetition gives it a sense of loss. How do you guys come up with a theme for each album?
I don’t know, they just sort of fall into our laps. We’ll always be throwing title ideas back-and-forth to each other, and most of the time they’re like “that doesn’t feel right.” And then Mark (Smith), one of the guitar players, said “how about Take Care, Take Care, Take Care.” For all four of us, it just sort of clicked. There’s no real analysis of it either. It’s mostly junk and then every once in awhile, someone will come up with something that we like.
In choosing song titles, is there a certain order? Do you write songs and then come up with the title or do you come up with a title and base the music off that?
We’ve had both. Some where we’ve had a title and written a song around it. I think most of the time we have a song done, we kind of struggle and search around for a title, which somehow seems increasingly more difficult as we’ve gone along.
Trembling Hands, the first released song off the new album, is pretty different in terms of what most fans expect. It’s around three minutes in length. Was it originally that short?
No, the first part of it was part of another song that was really long, but we ultimately were like ‘it’s kind of dumb.’ We threw it out but we liked that first guitar line. I think we specifically said ‘let’s see if we can write something that’s really short.’ From the beginning, it’s sort of frenetic from the start to the finish; there’s none of the typical lows and highs. We went into it with that mindset after that point, but we tried to make it at least feel that there’s a lot going on in a short amount of time.
There are also vocal loops in the beginning of the song. Where did that idea come from?
I had actually come up with it where we were doing a demo of it, and then I was like ‘I could imagine little voices going off here. We demoed it and it seemed pretty cool. We sort of looked at it as just another instrument that we could use. It’s weird because I’m not even totally sure how I feel about that particular area of the song (laughs).
With that being said, do you plan on incorporating more of that into your songs?
I don’t know it’s hard to say. I could see the next record where we try to incorporate a lot of things we haven’t done, in the sense that it doesn’t get boring – that’s the fear with instrumental stuff. We’ve really tried with this record to make it feel different from anything else we’ve done. Some people have been ‘man, it feels totally different,’ and some people have said that it sounds like every other song we’ve ever written.
It’s really hard for me to imagine us in a position where we would actually add lyrics or a traditional song structure. I would say that’s probably not going to happen, but I don’t know. We’re trying to keep this going for the long haul (laughs).
You had your first ever music video this year for Last Known Surroundings. What made it the ideal song to make a music video for?
It was because our friends who did the video approached us, saying ‘for this song, we could do this awesome video. We have this cool idea…’ We had never done one before and we were kind of hesitant. It wasn’t like our manager came up to us with a video team. It was good friends of ours who happen to be talented and proposed it to us. We actually have another one that’s going to come out in a few days that another friend of ours made for Be Comfortable, Creature.
Earlier in the year, I saw you play at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. How was the experience playing in that kind of setting?
It was pretty awesome. We were nervous before we got there because we were like, ‘people aren’t going to be standing on any graves are they? Surely families wouldn’t allow that,’ but they said, ‘no, there’s an empty field.’ We got there late the night before and they said we could leave the bus there overnight. So we slept on the bus and walked around the cemetery at one in the morning. It was really amazing, peaceful, beautiful, and sort of creepy for a second, but we calmed down. We would like to try and play more shows like that – just weird or unique places.
When you play your songs, what normally goes through your mind?
All sorts of things – sometimes it’s nervousness about ‘oh, am I going to screw this part up’ if it’s a song that I find hard to play. Or if the crowd is really awesome, you’re just thinking about ‘OK, play harder now’ because you kind of feed off that energy. And sometimes it’s just like ‘I have some movies I rented from iTunes. Which one will I watch on the bus tonight?’ (laughs). Undeniably, that sometimes comes up. Most of the time it’s kind of just being exhausted though and trying to get through it, and finding the energy to keep going.
Do you ever visualize your own narrative to your songs?
Definitely, but not so much when we’re playing live. There’s just too much other stuff going on. I never really visualize narratives, but I can have images and stuff. I know that’s something that a lot people can do with our music and adapt it to their own little story. I feel lucky that people feel that way or respond that way.
On your upcoming tour, you have Wye Oak, The Antlers, The Octopus Project, Twin Sister, and a couple of shows with Arcade Fire, all of whom are my favorite bands.
Who’s responsible for choosing those bands?
We are ultimately. We’ll get suggestions for openers, but it’ll be bands that we like. Octopus Project, they’re really good friends of ours who are from Austin as well. Wye Oak and The Antlers are just bands that we liked and thought would make for an interesting show. I know that Octopus Project is an instrumental band, but they’re pretty different than we are. It’s not depressing or anything, it’s like fun and exciting.
We wouldn’t want to have another epic, instrumental rock band because I just think it’s boring. We try to have bands that somehow make sense playing with us, but different enough from us.
So I’m guessing a band like Metallica might come up in the future? (laughs)
We always talk about what huge bands would ask us to open them and if we would do it. If Metallica asked us, would we do it? If it was 1988 maybe, I don’t know if I could anymore.
Who’s a band today that you’d like to open for that you haven’t had a chance to?
Radiohead is a pretty obvious choice. The other bands that we’ve talked about though, are Arcade Fire and Flaming Lips. We’ve been able to tour with them, which was insane.
If you could have someone sing on your songs, who would you choose?
That’s a tough one. There’s so many sings, it depends on what we’re going for. Thom Yorke would be an obvious. I think Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) voice would go well with something we did. Bjork…I don’t know. All of the big ones, all the famous ones (laughs).
I’d be curious to see Damian from Fucked Up, just a total hardcore type of thing. That could be kind of interesting, just totally screaming. We’ve played festivals with them and man, I love that band and their new record.
Explosions In The Sky will be embarking on another national tour until October with bands such as Twin Sister, Wye Oak, The Antlers, and a stop at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival before they tour Europe that runs through the end of January.
Many thanks go out to Nasty Little Man and publicist Dana West for setting up the interview and providing me the opportunity for speaking to one of my favorite bands.