Photography: Nick Simonite
Austin instrumental rock band, Explosions in the Sky, is perhaps best known for providing the emotional soundtrack for critically-acclaimed football drama, Friday Night Lights. But for seven years prior, and in the five years since, the band has crafted cinematic post-rock perfect for long drives. With their recently released sixth album, The Wilderness, Explosions in the Sky continues to deliver bittersweet sonic landscapes, with a renewed focus on shorter songs and experimental production.
Along with the LP, the band has teamed up with multimedia designers, CHIPS, to produce an accompanying visual album, Scenes from the Wilderness, featuring animated stills shot by guitarist Munaf Rayani over years of touring across the world. But even without animations, The Wilderness brings to mind vivid imagery hastened by the band’s cascading guitars and hypnotizing builds.
Lead single, “Disintegration Anxiety,” is a slow-burner, moving from an atmospheric soundscape to all-out chaos, with math rock-inspired guitars and pounding drums; “Colors in Space” transitions from drawn-out guitars to straight pop, as drummer Chris Hrasky channels the sharp simplicity of ’80s beats, while “The Ecstatics” shows the band combining minimalism with nuance in their best track since 2003’s “Your Hand in Mine.” With The Wilderness, Explosions in the Sky showcases their ability to create instrumental rock as powerful and poignant as any lyrics.
BULLETT called drummer Chris Hrasky to talk about the album, which, in our opinion, rivals their 2003 indie cult classic, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.
Tell us about The Wilderness.
We felt like we had reached a point where maybe we were operating on default settings. We realized we needed to start thinking about everything we do in a completely different way, and approach these songs in a way we never had before—both in terms of how we wrote the songs, how we imagined them in structure, even the song lengths, and how they should feel. It was sort of from the bottom up—a starting over again in how we approach our own music. After 15 years in a band, it seemed necessary to shake it up a bit.
You’ve also released an accompanying multimedia project, Scenes from the Wilderness. Why?
There was just something sort of interesting to us, instead of doing it the traditional way, taking the whole record and making some weird little art piece about it, where they’re all kind of connected.
The Wilderness is your sixth record. What were you able to do differently this time?
We felt more comfortable in allowing there to be a wider variety of sounds and sonics and textures and layers. I think we were also more comfortable with the idea that we can have some songs that are three minutes long, as opposed to some of our songs on the previous records that are 12 or 13 minutes. Maybe it’s just everyone’s attention spans are shortening and getting less and less as every day goes by, but it was sort of a challenge to make a point in a much quicker way, while still feeling like it was some sort of journey we were taking ourselves and the listeners on.
With shorter songs, was it hard to include all the gradual buildups and intensity you guys have become known for?
I think our instincts were like, ‘God we’ve already done that so much’—where we gradually build and then explode and then it kinda comes down. I feel like if we just keep doing that, a. we’ll get bored and b., I feel like we already have records that do that, and I think do that pretty well. So we just needed to try something else for ourselves, just to keep ourselves interested. I don’t think I have it in me to do another record of ‘Yeah and then the guitars get real big and the music comes in’—I just couldn’t do. It needed to be something different, and it was a challenge because we still want the songs to be overwhelming. But we wanted to try to make them overwhelming in different ways.
Did your writing process change?
Writing it was very different because in the past, someone would come up with a guitar line or a melody, and we would all start building it from there. With this record, a lot of the songs started with us emailing each other weird sounds that we found on samplers. It was built more on atmosphere and visuals. We wanted it to feel otherworldly, but also more straight ahead than our other records, which I know seem like sort of contradictory goals but that’s what was going on in our heads.
How has your sound evolved?
If you were to pick apart the songs and see how many tracks are going into each song, and how many crazy sounds are there—it’s just way beyond anything we’ve done in the past, which was fairly straightforward guitars, a few pedals and drums. At the same time, the challenge was to make sure it didn’t come out super cluttered—we don’t want to just throw stuff in for the sake of it, it still has to work as a song.
What inspirations did you draw from?
With this record, we just kept thinking about weird gaseous clouds in outer space, and weird, new planets—kind of silly, really broad ideas of outer space. Not because we were making a concept record about space travel or anything, we wanted it all to feel more alien-sounding, and less like dudes in a room with guitars turned up all the way—we just really tried to make it not sound like us.
Do you approach writing music for a soundtrack differently than writing for the band?
Scoring is so much easier because you have a map in front of you. It’s like, ‘Here is the scene you have to put music to, this is what the scene should feel like, here’s the emotion that’s trying to be conveyed,’ whereas writing a record means coming up with something from scratch. And as a scorer, you’re making background music—it’s not there to overwhelm or take away or to be the focal point. With a record, you can’t have background music. That’s the danger of instrumental rock—becoming background music.
How do you make sure your music doesn’t become background music?
We try to think of our songs in the same way as a pop song. We want them have the same pull a pop song would, where there are hooks and things grab you—not just sounds floating around in the background. We are very much focused on writing songs that are catchy, because that’s what we like—we don’t strictly listen to instrumental rock bands. In fact, we barely listen to stuff like that. We always want each song to distinguish itself from the others, and our goal is to always make music that sticks in someone’s head.