As far as post rock essentials go, you’d likely find Explosions in the Sky (EITS) near the top of every list. The Austin, Texas instrumentalists have made a career out of weaving wordless symphony and wide-screen landscapes that are as vivid and they are tremulous. Plenty of bands ply their trade in the subjectivity of post-rock specifically because beauty rarely needs to be spelt out or said out loud, but few are able to capture our imaginations and emotions as gloriously as EITS. Sublime albums such as The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, and Take Care, Take Care, Take Care have understandably been referred to as “cinematic”, so it comes without surprise that their film scores happen to be equally rewarding. Here’s a chat with guitarist Mark Smith about the inspiration behind their albums and soundtracks.
You guys have been active as a band for over 14 years – tell us, what is it that keeps the band together?
It helps that we are all great friends. Michael, Munaf, and I have been really close friends for almost 20 years, and now we’ve known Chris for 14 years. That’s a lot of history and memories and fun and inside jokes and knowing what each other is thinking, and that’s the foundation for it all. And we really love and believe in what we’re doing. It’s fulfilling and it’s hard to think of anything we would rather be doing.
It is amazing how you guys are capable of capturing entire emotional landscapes with your music. What is it that you look to for inspiration when coming up with a new album or song?
Sometimes we just think about songs musically. A strong melody can stay with you for days. Dynamics can give you a jolt. Textures can send the imagination reeling. Sometimes we just start playing and accidentally stumble into things – this happens a lot, actually. (Laughs) Sometimes we think of emotional responses. That’s the best part of music, the way it can immediately and naturally cause emotions and thoughts and memories simultaneously. Sometimes we think of our own lives – we just think, for example, let’s write a song that sounds like you were sitting on a West Texas porch at night, looking up at the sky. Sometimes we think of our favourite scenes in movies. So really, inspiration is all over the place, and it keeps it interesting to go from one thought to another.
Is it the same creative process when it comes to your music videos and album art?
We use the same process for album art – a ton of brainstorming and conceptualising and discussion between all four of us and Esteban Rey, our friend who has done the album artwork for nearly every one of our albums. But for the videos, we have not been as involved. We got pretty involved on the concepts for the first one, the animated video for ‘Last Known Surroundings’, because it was our good friends making it, and it was our first video, so we really wanted to be involved. But on the second and third ones – the videos for ‘Be Comfortable, Creature’ and ‘Postcard from 1952’ – even though those were also our friends making those videos, we pretty much stayed out of the process. They came up with the ideas and pretty much executed them on their own. We are thrilled with how all of them turned out and it was a wholly positive experience, so we definitely plan on making more videos for the next record.
Do you look towards using your album art as a visual means of communicating the ideas or emotions behind the music?
We have always thought of album artwork as hugely important, because it’s our chance to kind of create a visual world for the songs. We love that our type of instrumental music can be interpreted and felt differently by different people, so we don’t want to completely spell out what the music means to us for the listener, but we try to create a backdrop in which a listener can let their mind envision certain images and stories. Like the abandoned house artwork for ‘Take Care Take Care Take Care’ – we were just trying to provide an evocative but ambiguous image so that people can come up with their own story. Unfortunately, a lot of people interpreted that and the album title to mean that we were breaking up as a band, which was and is not true. (Laughs)
Do you ever listen to your own music? How do you feel about it?
When we’re writing music, I listen to our demos all the time, fairly obsessively, just trying to daydream and think of where each song can go. I love the feeling of creating music. Yesterday this melody didn’t exist, but now it does, and I can get lost in it. But once we record in the studio and release an album, I almost never go back and listen to the albums. I hear the songs all the time when we play live, of course, but I just don’t feel the urge to listen to the albums after we finish them. The exceptions, strangely, are the soundtrack albums – I occasionally listen to the Prince Avalanche soundtrack, and every once in a while I listen to the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. I’m not sure why that is, maybe because they live in the separate world of the movie.
Speaking of which, what was it like making the Prince Avalanche OST with David Wingo?
It’s pretty low-key and spare. We’re really happy with it. We used a lot of instruments that we don’t usually use – clarinet, melodica, trombone, and synths. We were trying to match the moods of sadness and loneliness in the movie, but with a strong theme of optimism. We were also trying to match the burnt landscapes of Bastrop, Texas, where the movie was filmed, and huge forest fires had overtaken the place the year before. So it feels a little haunted to us at times. David brought a lot of really heartfelt and beautiful details that made it feel even more unique to the movie.
We hear that’s not the end of your collaboration with David Wingo though – could you tell us anything about Manglehorn?
Well, it’s not a 100% done deal, but it does appear that we will be working with Wingo again on Manglehorn, David Gordon Green’s next movie. The screenplay was written by our very good friend Paul Logan, who we’ve known for many years – he is from Midland, Texas, where three of us grew up. The movie stars Al Pacino as an aging man with a strange past and a lot of regrets. The screenplay is fantastic and we can’t wait to see some footage and start working on it once they start filming. Holly Hunter and Harmony Korine will be in it too. I think the music will be pretty low-key again, with a melancholy but magical feel to it.
Explosions In the Sky performed at Urbanscapes Satellite Show on Thursday 31 October ’13.