Over the course of the last 17 years, Explosions in the Sky have perfected its self-described “cathartic mini-symphonies.” The Austin-based group— guitarists Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, bassist Michael James and drummer Chris Hrasky— create intricate, guitar driven ballads full of wonder. All four members are equally as vital and each experimental instrumental they create is as elaborate as the one before. The group’s latest album, The Wilderness, is out now, prompting the band to head out on a (mostly) sold-out international tour, which hits Denver May 10 and 11. Hrasky took a break from sound check to talk about the decision to be all instrumental, living in Austin and doing the music for Friday Night Lights.
BandWagon Magazine: Not many bands are doing what you’re doing. What made you decide to be an all instrumental band?
Chris Hrasky: When we first started playing together, which was in spring of 1999, we were listening to a lot of Mogwai and Dirty Three. They were pretty big influences on us at the time. Here are two bands that are really able to make evocative music and rock music essentially without vocals. We were pretty intrigued by that. Also, we kind of liked the idea that there wasn’t sort of the main guy that was dictating the direction of the songs, band or music. This seemed to be a way to make it more of a full collaboration between the four of us. It’s worked out really well. It’s been frustrating, but also ultimately made us want to do it.
What did you see was frustrating?
Working on music where there isn’t sort of the main guy controlling the situation is tough. We are all different people with different opinions and different tastes, trying to all make something we feel strongly about. That’s always going to be a frustration for us, but it’s working in the end. We come up with stuff that we all really love. That can make the whole writing process stressful though, I suppose.
Is it hard to translate the studio material to a live setting?
It’s pretty natural for us. With the stuff on the new record, it’s been a little more of a weird transition just because there’s a lot more going on-more layers, samples and all sorts of crazy stuff so we had to figure out how to pull that off live. All the other records are sort of just us setting up in a room and playing and it being record. They are more traditional studio records.
As the drummer, do you feel your role is even more integral because you’re an instrumental band?
It’s a lot more of an interesting role rather than just keeping the rhythm. It’s much more a musical instrument, if that makes any sense, where it is the drums are as important as the other pieces. It’s something that we all kind of talk to each other about. I will talk about ideas for the guitar and vice versa. They will tell me how the drums should come in. We all recognize the importance of each part.
You live in Austin, which is a pretty big music mecca. Is it hard to compete with all the bands coming out of there?
We generally avoid SXSW just because it’s crazy. We were lucky though in Austin. We started doing well there within a year of being a band. So by the early 2000s we were playing big shows. During SXSW, we avoid downtown that entire week. We treat Austin almost like every other city on a tour. We play there about once a year. It’s a town that’s very supportive of music and musicians. There’s a lot going on but there so much different kinds of music down there that it works.
You’ve done music for television shows and movies. Is it weird having executives with so much control over the process?
We had a great experience. We did all the music for Friday Night Lights so we were in the studio for six weeks exploring. We thought it was going to be that kind of thing where there were producers breathing down our neck and telling us this is right, this is wrong, but it really wasn’t like that at all. The director would come in every once in awhile and sort of talk about what felt right and what didn’t. That was fine. He’s director. It’s his project. We’re essentially working for him. We didn’t have people coming in and telling us what to do. We were left alone which was kind of amazing. I think that had a lot to do with the music supervisor of the movie. He really liked our stuff. He had a lot of clout at the time because he had just done the music for Lost in Translation and that blew up so he could kind of use that to talk to the executives. Like he could be that hip, cool guy and it worked.
What can fans expect from a live show?
We just try to put as much as we can into it. Nothing is worse than paying for a band that looks like they’re just cashing a check or bored. I hate that so much. It’s like, ‘You get to go play music for a job. Work a little harder, buddy [laughs].’ We play as hard as we can. The four of us try to get lost in the music and hopefully the audience gets engaged. This is what we do for a living and we realize how lucky we are. This is not a normal situation for most people. It’s a pretty great job to have.