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Explosions in the Sky

Explosions in the Sky by Dave Stockwell

Explosions in the Sky are a band from Texas, playing sad loud instrumental epic music designed to soundtrack our dreams and nightmares. At the end of August 2001 they released their first album to be pressed in quantities of more than 250, ‘Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever’. Since then the USA has seen them tour mercilessly alongside the likes of Fugazi and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Between the months of September and December 2002, they left their shores to tour overseas for the first time, visiting most of Europe as well as a brief trip to Taiwan.

The band managed to come over for 5 shows in the UK and Ireland, and this interview was scheduled to take place the night they played the Toynbee Hall Arts Cafe in London – September 17th. Unfortunately, that never happened: the band’s van broke down and they arrived at the gig with barely enough time to set up onstage and play, let alone chat freely about wings and dings. However, thanks to the abundantantly fantastic nature of internet communication, EITS guitarist Mark Smith and I have known each other for the best part of three years now, and over aftershow bagels on Brick Lane that night he assented to conducting the most thorough and definitive interview the band have ever undertaken via the highly wonderful form of email:

First of all, how have the last four months (!) of touring been? You’ve been all around a lot of Europe, and recorded a radio session for the John Peel show on BBC Radio One. What were your impressions, and any abiding memories?

mark smith: It was exhausting but truly amazing (and by the way, it was actually a mere three months of touring). It still baffles us that just because we picked up some guitars and some drums, we get to travel to places like Croatia and Taiwan. We know we’re pretty lucky and we don’t take it for granted. Even though this was the longest tour we’ve ever done, I think we maybe argued the least amount on this one and were able to mostly have a good time, no doubt united by the sheer spectacle of new places and beautiful cathedrals and old towns on rivers. Also for the first time we had someone else with us on tour–we had a fantastic driver/soundman named Jochem on the European dates.

The John Peel session went pretty smoothly (Peel himself wasn’t there, but David Bowie was recording in one of the studios there and we saw him), although we are fairly hopeless when it comes to going into the studio. We often panic and tense up and mess up a lot. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t even think our session sounds that great… which is no doubt our fault, or maybe because it went though the compression of radio.

People were pretty much absurdly nice and generous to us all over Europe, but the people of Belgium truly floored us with their hospitality and how much at home they made us feel, so that was a definite favorite. But pretty much everywhere everybody was great. Also one thing we noticed about most European and Taiwanese audiences is that they seem to pay more attention to the bands than some U.S. audiences. Many times the people would sit on the floor or sit at tables and simply watch the show, rather than talking to their friends. This was really nice. One of our favorite shows was at this Italian cinema–we played where the screen was and the audience sat in theater seats and watched us as though we were the movie. Of course there was one guy who fell asleep in the front row during our show. We also had some bad times, but the good memories are what have stuck with us. We’re really looking forward to hopefully touring Europe (and hopefully some more Asian dates and of course lots of U.S. dates) again next fall.

You also paid a brief visit to Taiwan in October, a place where few bands appear to have ventured. How was the experience for you?

ms: This too was without a doubt one of our best experiences ever. We had absolutely no idea what to expect whatsoever, because, as you said, we don’t know of any other bands who have gone over there (although we learned that Cat Power and Dirty Three have gone over there too). The people who brought us were this collective of about 15 kids called the White Wabbit Collective, and they have a club and a record shop and record label and they do distribution also. W e wanted to practically weep with joy at how nice the kids all were. They’re all between the ages of about 16 to about 23 and they all ride around on motorcycles and they’re all the best of friends and they hang out with each other every day. They took us to a hot springs and they cut our hair and we basically just had a great time. We played two shows in their club and they both sold out (about 300 people each, I think). They promoted the shows insanely well–we even had a full-page article/interview in the country’s main English-speaking newspaper. And they had posters everywhere and there was a big display of our records in the Tower Records over there. We were pretty blown away, to say the least.

One of the last stops of your mammoth tour was an appearance at the CMJ festival. How did the show go?

ms: The show went well, I suppose. It was at a place called the Lyceum in Brooklyn. It was pretty fantastic to see Jeremy Devine [who helped record and released Explosions’ last album] and a lot of the other bands from Temporary Residence. But at a show like that, there are always time constraints and it always feels rushed. Each band had forty minutes, and we played last, and we ended up with even less time, I think. In fact the sound guy even left right before our set, because he had to be at another show, but luckily Caleb from Cerberus Shoal and Chris from Sonna were able to do our sound. And of course we didn’t play so well–both Munaf and I broke strings and had to scramble to find different guitars and Chris broke his bass drum pedal and ran off the stage in the middle of the set to find a new one. It was fairly chaotic. We love playing New York so we just wished we had done better.

You must have met a lot of bands on your travels – any in particular we should know about and/or check out?

ms: In a word: souvaris. They’re great! Oh yes, but you already know about them [they’re hosted by diskant, after all]. In Italy (in the garage of some guy’s house in a town I can’t remember the name of) we had the great pleasure of playing with the Microphones. they’re on k Records and it’s just one guy (Phil Elvrum). We had never heard anything by him/them and he played this beautiful set with just him and an acoustic guitar in the darkened garage with four candles laid out before him. We bought some records from him and he has now pretty much become Chris’s and my favorite band in the world. On some of the U.S. dates, we played with a band called We Ragazzi, who are really good friends and a great band. And we played with some of our labelmates at the CMJ show, but you probably already know about them.

At the start of the year, the band relocated to Midland, TX. Was the move purely for financial reasons, and how have you found your new surroundings? Are they any more conducive to writing new material, as was the plan?

ms: I think this was one of the best moves we could have made. It came up pretty much for financial reasons… we were all (and we all remain) pretty broke, and Austin TX is a relatively expensive place to live. I remember one of us said one day; “Do you remember the prices for apartments in Midland?” and that pretty much made our decision (housing there is ridiculously cheap because no one wants to live there). And we needed to be able to spend more time on writing–nothing really happens when everyone is working full-time jobs with conflicting schedules (as we were in Austin).

As of January 2003, we’ve all moved away from Midland, but the time there was good. We practiced and worked on new material pretty much every single night, in a place we rented (the basement of this office building in downtown Midland). It was very strange to move back to this town where three of us grew up, especially because all our families and friends have since moved away. With nothing to do but play music, we played music. There’s a place about 45 minutes outside Midland called the Monahans Sandhills state park, which is this great place where there is nothing but sand dunes for several miles, and you can go there and get away and not hear any city noise at all and you can’t see any city lights, and we went there a couple of times. That’s where we would have our band meetings.

Explosions in the Sky artwork

How do Explosions go about writing their songs? A few of your longer tracks often appear to be 2 or 3 songs in one – why have them presented under one banner as such?

ms: A song is a story to us. Often with a set storyline, and even characters. So a song is composed of the whole story…. we hope it doesn’t seem like we haphazardly put 2 or 3 songs under one banner and call that a song. We work very hard on transitions between certain parts, and if the mood of the song shifts or changes suddenly, that’s how the story goes. This is just the way we write. It’s pretty functional too–if we can’t figure out which direction a song should go, we just try to think of it in terms of a story. For example, (and this is kind of strange because we don’t usually tell people the inspirations or stories) we’ve told people that one of our new songs (called “Six days at the bottom of the ocean”) is about the Russian sailors trapped in the Kursk submarine. We had written the first half of the song and we couldn’t figure out where it should go after that. But then we started thinking about what it would actually feel (and sound) like to be trapped in the submarine and the air running out and the desperation rising. So we started playing and came up with a part that sounds like that to us.

A lot of people have asked me to inquire about the inspiration behind specific songs of yours, especially the new ones. The only explicit reference I’ve heard you give in the past is to the director Terrence Malick [responsible for “Badlands” and “The Thin Red Line”] – as attributed to in your song from the last album ‘Have You Passed Through This Night?’ Do you find the cinematic medium to be the strongest influence on your music, or are there other contributing factors that you’re prepared to share with us?

ms: Film has always had a pretty profound influence on us…. and, yes, especially Terrence Malick. His movies are so unbelievably poetic, the way they look, the way they move, the way they sound. And there are certainly other specific movies that affect us, and that make us want to shoot for a mood or an image or a feeling. But I wouldn’t say film is the strongest influence on us. I’d say the biggest influence is our own sad little lives: the heartbreaks and the mini-tragedies and the daily feelings and the mini-triumphs. There’s never any lack of inspiration there.

Personally speaking, your music has always inspired me the most when I have associated it with a particularly strong image, like listening to ‘The Moon Is Down’ at full blast on my walkman whilst wandering aimlessly around Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, on a day where the sun was struggling to shine beyond the cover of clouds. Do you harbour any ambitions to incorporate visual aspects to your shows, such as projections, films or even artwork?

ms: That’s a nice image. I will now always associate you with the image of you wandering aimlessly through a garden while the sun was barely peering through clouds…. there was actually a period of about six months to a year where we would have projections on stage behind us at every show we played in Austin (our friend did these for us, we didn’t really have a hand in filming the images or putting them together). I think we all really liked it, mostly because it gave people something else to lose themselves in, rather than looking at us. But we haven’t done that for a while, and I kind of doubt we will again. Artwork is definitely a major thing to us–we spend a lot of time thinking about album artwork or even t-shirt artwork.

[Drummer Chris Hrasky did collaborate on a film called “The Last Hope” with Kurt Volk. The band’s music has also been used in a film called “Cicadas.”]

Explosions’ music has often been tarred with the ‘post rock’ brush – I’ve even seen your last album advertised in Camden, London as “The American Mogwai!” (which I think was intended as a good thing). How do you feel about such genre-tags – do they frustrate you at all?

ms: I think at first this frustrated us, but not so much any more. The example you gave is a good one–we would see our name advertised on posters all over Europe as “sounds like GY!BE/Mogwai” or “Texas post-rock, like Mogwai”…. I think it’s probably obvious that we don’t want to be just like those bands or seen as just like them, but in a strange way this can also be helpful. For example, in Europe we are complete nobodies. We had never done a tour over there and you can’t even find our album in most places. The only way anybody could hear about us in many places is through word of mouth or over the internet. So in these places kids would see the posters and since they liked Mogwai or Godspeed or post-rock, they would come to our shows. And then they’d talk to us afterwards and say; “I had never heard of you, but I enjoyed the show.” So that kid would never have come to our show if it weren’t for the comparison or genre tag.

The whole ‘post rock sound’ of instrumental bands like yours appears to have been pushed closer and closer to the mainstream in the last couple of years, with artists such as Sigur Ros and to some extent Godspeed You! Black Emperor breaking through to a wider audience through touring with mainstream-accepted “art” bands like Radiohead & Sonic Youth, and inclusion on soundtracks for films such as Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”. Do you have any concerns about its growing influence, and the effect that mainstream exposure & exploitation could have on it, a decade on from the collapse of so-called ‘grunge’?

ms: I’m not sure I have much to say about this…. I guess I was maybe a bit surprised at how popular Godspeed and Sigur Ros and Mogwai have become, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing or anything, not by any means. Maybe it’s harder to keep control of the situation than I think (we haven’t experienced much of it), but it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard for a so-called post-rock band to deal with some measure of success. A band like us is not going to be in many magazines or on MTV, which is where most bands seem to go downhill (changing their sound, dumbing down their music, etc.). But anyway, to answer your question, I personally have no concerns about this type of music having more acceptance. For one thing, I don’t think about it much. For another thing, it doesn’t really seem like it could get much bigger. Since most bands that fall into this category have no vocals, they’re only going to “go” so far. At least that’s my guess. So be it.

I presume that a band of Explosions’ stature, despite your ever-burgeoning profile, means that you guys have to hold down jobs when you’re not touring (incessantly). What kind of work are you involved in? And how the hell do you get that time off to do your (much appreciated) tours?

ms: Munaf and Michael both work in video stores (different ones), Chris is looking for a job (he’s worked for the last couple of years at a bookstore), and I do copyediting of college textbooks. The way we get time off from our jobs is that we simply quit them (and then find new jobs when we get back from tour). It’s not the easiest life, but I don’t really see any way around it at this point in our lives.

Now that you’ve returned to Midland intact, what are your plans once you’ve managed to stand the sight of one another again? When are you planning on venturing into a recording studio again, and what results can we expect?

ms: We actually have moved back to Austin (well, I’m in Dallas right now for the holidays and I won’t be moving back to Austin until next week). So at this very moment in time, we’re not even playing together. It’s a nice rest after the touring, but we all want to play again. I have no idea what you can expect, because we don’t know. Our goal is a new record. We have a number of completed songs, and we want another one or two. We’ll start playing again in Austin right after the New Year, and when we record depends on how well it goes when we start playing again. We’ve said in a couple interviews that we think this album will have a more romantic feel and sound, but I think that’s because a couple of the stories for the songs somehow revolve around love and relationships. Of course, several of the other stories center around death and desperation and sadness and tragedy, so there’s that too.

Can you shed any light on what happened to the proposed 7″ on Zeal? The project appears to have vanished into thin air…

ms: I’m afraid we still don’t have a definite answer for this yet. Seems pretty sad, I think, since we’ve talked about doing it for about two years (we’d like to give our sincere apologies to Geert who runs Zeal, for bearing with us). We probably shouldn’t have talked about it until it was done–the two songs that we wanted to do for it (a reworked “Remember Me As A Time Of Day” and a song we’ve had for a long time that has a name but we’ll probably change the name of) have kind of been put by the wayside. We didn’t think the reworked “Remember Me…” was good enough to warrant release, and we go back and forth on the other song. Right now we’re just wanting to work on making the next record, and then we’ll figure out if we can do something else.

Every band member has a tattoo of the angel from the sleeve of ‘Those Who Tell The Truth…’ on his wrist. Does this represent a permanent bond or anything special for all of you to Explosions in the Sky, or was it just that the image was good?

ms: We like to say (half-joking) that the tattoos are our wedding bands. The image means a lot to us. Even though none of us are religious, there’s something about that angel and the story behind it (the angel of Mons) that really hit us. I can’t really describe how great it felt when we were working on “Those who tell the truth…” It was all we cared about – we finally were able to make the songs we wanted to make. It felt like there was more to our world and the world than these terrible jobs and family problems and being broke all the time. When we would finish a song and it would be like we wanted it to be, it was the most triumphant feeling there is. We could see the angel in the sky: the hopefulness, the beauty. We just all really consider ourselves lucky to have found each other. I think perhaps our friends and families thought it was strange that we all got the same tattoo, like we had joined a street gang or something. But I’ve never questioned or regretted it once. It’s a bit of a daily comfort to look down at it, as silly as that sounds.

But what happens if you have a 20-album career? Can we at all reasonably expect you to be become closer to the status of Tattooed Men of Rock with every new release?

ms: I’m not sure about the tattoos, but I’m pretty interested in the other part of your question. We have no idea how long this can last–whether we have two or twenty albums in us, or if we’ll even be able to finish this next album to our satisfaction. The way we have worked is to always make every decision unanimously. There is no majority vote–if we’re not all completely in favor of something, then we don’t do it. That makes it really difficult sometimes and of course we fight. We’ve thrown away countless riffs or even whole songs because one of us is not blown away by it. So no matter how long we go on, I think we’ll always be fairly slow songwriters. But we do know that we will only put out what means the most to us.

Finally, how’s your van doing? Is she still roadworthy?

ms: Well, we’re not sure. We drive it around town and it seems to be okay… but the power windows don’t roll down, the odometer and speedometer don’t work, the gas gauge doesn’t work, and the engine makes a whirring sound when you accelerate. As much trouble as it has been, and as much money as we’ve had to pay to repair it, we actually really like the van. It’s really comfortable. It will be hard to part with. We haven’t yet decided if we’ll try to take it out on the road again.

As a farewell, Mark wished to give a message to the readers:

…If there is anybody reading this who likes us, then thank you and we’re sorry we are often in shambles and chaos. What I mean is that we haven’t been able to release as much music as we’d like and we never update our web page and we aren’t able to get everywhere we want to on tour…. but I promise we’re trying to do the best we can. Also, if you haven’t gotten the new Iron & Wine record, you may wish to do so because it’s clearly the most beautiful thing created in several years. Thank you and best wishes for the New Year.

Explosions in the Sky
Temporary Residence