Once a small band hailing from Austin, Texas, Explosions In The Sky have taken their brand of rock music with no singing or lyrics on a mammoth journey for over 10 years, leading to their now fifth studio album, „Take Care, Take Care, Take Care“. They have played as support to bands such as …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, The Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire, trying to convert fans of other bands as ‘EITS’ fans. Their music has been described as „from silence to violence“, and the band is known for their incendiary live shows across the world.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Explosions’ guitarist Munaf Rayani prior to their Cologne show in the Essigfabrik venue, and find out how their current tour of the new record is going as well as exploring other points about their music and future.
So Munaf – nice to meet you. How is the tour going?
Yeh it’s going well! We’re over in Europe doing the tour, then completing a handful of other things, then back to the States for some festivals; and then we jump into full US and UK tours – the cycle is supposed to be a year and a half. That should let us see the whole of the world – as a start it’s going really, really well.
I understand you recently played Berlin?
Yes, just last night actually. We’ve been coming to Europe for 8-10 years, and last night’s Berlin show was the best yet. It’s a really good feeling for us that still, even 10 years on, the shows are getting better and it hasn’t gone backwards yet.
Why do you think you haven’t gone backwards yet?
Our fans still seem to be responding to us. I feel we’re getting much stronger as a band, every day and in the songs that we write, and there’s fluidity when we play live – when we catch a stride. We are about 15-20 shows in now and we’re in motion. The transitions between songs are strong, and we’re doing much better than the 3rd or 4th shows! Not making as many mistakes. We’ve maintained respect amongst our fans, even though we’ve read some things saying, we’re just….redoing what we’ve done – I disagree with that. I find that to be a lazy listen. Would you say The Shins are doing the same thing because they’re singing again?
…or Arcade Fire are doing the same thing because they picked up guitars…
Exactly. So aside that, I feel we’ve got stronger and kept the fans with us. Our fans have been better than anything I could have ever imagined. We go through these stretches, sometimes even without touring for a year or two, and when we come back…they’re all there. In their masses. And they’re just waiting.
The email list seems to keep the fans in the loop well. That’s been going for some time…
We try to make all of this, even down to every melody we write, very personal. We try not to make a grand distinction between band and listener. I like to imagine we are all the listener, and we are all the band… and so when we write these little notes, it’s us trying to write to you. Even though it’s going out to everyone, we’re trying to make it personal. It’s the same in the emails – even if it’s just a handful of lines saying how we’re doing, or hoping you can make it to some shows…almost like a personal note to the listener. That’s been beautiful since the start. I think we’re all very approachable guys.
Now we’re playing these rooms which demand barriers, which is always a bit discouraging, but – for example – the other night we played in Paris, and it was a packed room of around 1,500 people and the listeners were RIGHT on the stage – from my guitar to the first person was less than a foot, they could even reach out and touch the guitar. I hope that shows people and that they understand the way we’re presenting and playing to them. So I think that line of distinction is so blurred, and offers not a ‘you and me’, but an ‘us’.
OK great. Recently you were involved in a music/art event in a graveyard in California – can you tell us a bit about that? Sounds pretty dark…
Yeh, a friend of ours kinda dreamed this up – we were asked to play the Hollywood Bowl; it’s a very famous place, a few famous people are buried there, and it’s extremely beautiful – very ornate – and I think you need to be a little well to-do to be laid there…some of these headstones were bigger than my apartment. It has really well-kept grounds, and they only do three or four shows a year – and they gave us one. So we were already excited about playing in this unique setting, and then a friend of ours suggested allowing people, local artists in LA, to give them the opportunity to take a song from the new record, the six we have, and everyone could make a visual interpretation of it.
We thought that was a great idea, and so did the Hollywood Bowl people. For the weekend before our show they allowed these artists to come in and design their sets – their sections – and it was a really cool event that worked as strong promotion. You could arrive at this place before we even arrived to play and just walk the grounds and ‘watch’ where the song was happening – seeing someone’s visual interpretation of the song. Of course, the images we have in our minds for these songs as a band are there too, but they are by no means the definitive list. So to see how someone else interprets it is exciting, and still allows you to interpret it however you want. It made for a unique set up…I’m sure it’s been done before, but I hadn’t really heard of this before we did it.
The fact that it was in a graveyard setting – that struck me as dark, macabre. Was that in your mind when you decided to play there?
No, not really. Of course, a graveyard is a morbid place when you think of it initially, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful. Perhaps this is a little funny to say, but it was …full of life. The juxtaposition between life and death, the music being played and people coming together through sound was kind of overwhelming… it did feel very unique. When we played that night, I remember saying something to the effect of ‘this is for the living, and the dead – we’re called Explosions In The Sky’. It just felt very good. There wasn’t any darkness, it wasn’t gothic. It was just a really special show.
„Friday Night Lights“ – the film you scored – worked out very well for you promotionally. Do you have any thoughts on following in those footsteps – releasing something similar in the coming future?
We are hoping for that. Of course, our thoughts right now is to give this album our full attention worldwide and really present it from record to a live setting. But yes, after a year or so of that, we’re hoping we can get some film work. We want to evolve into a film-scoring band. I’m sure that as we get older we’ll slow down. I mean, a couple of the boys have family now and we are aware they need time for that. I mean, nothing’s on the table yet but we are hoping it will happen.
About a year back, we went to Hollywood, and re-introduced ourselves to all the suits, music supervisors and studios and said, “Hey, look, we’ve scored a picture, and we’d like the opportunity again”. It’s funny – almost all of them said “Hey! When we’re using temp music for a film, we ALWAYS use you guys!” and we had to let them know “we can make that music, you don’t need to hire someone else!” So yes, Hollywood is a strange place, and we’ll see if they let us back in the doors…
How do you feel about someone experiencing your music on just a digital format, compared to the whole CD/Vinyl approach? Do you care? You clearly put a lot into your artwork…
I care to a degree, because of the amount of time and effort we put into our artwork; it is to enhance the listen; but by no means do I think it loses its power if you are listening to it on an iPod nano. I mean, in the way the world is moving, at such a rapid pace – in a technological sense, to yknow… who knows where will we be in 10 to 15 years with all this technology just multiplying around us? So, the music is the music, and it should be able to stand up by itself, but if you give it a little time and open up the CD… or go a step further and open up the vinyl, put it on, flip the side, etc, and open up all that artwork in there…I can almost guarantee it is going to enhance the listen. But each to their own. Maybe people don’t want to offer up that time, and hey, we are a convenience society. The reason why fast food joints are so successful is because we’re all creatures of convenience. So to listen to a CD, yeah… it can be an effort. And vinyl? Wow. You have to be committed to that. I would guess that 8 out of 10 people don’t even have a record player, and whole generations may have not even held a piece of vinyl. Still, in my opinion – growing up from vinyl and cassette to CD’s. etc, I would recommend the vinyl, but it does require effort on your part. You should try to enjoy the experience … that’s why we’ve made it this way.
To lots of people, including myself, physically owning something is important. CD’s and Vinyl are not dead – not for me anyway… I like to own it, and not show off about my 150GB music collection on my External Hard Drive…
Yes, owning it is real. Taking it out, looking at it. Holding it upside down, etc. It makes it more than just soundwaves.
Yes, maybe some young person would argue and say „hey, it’s about the music, man“.
Yeh, and I would turn it on them…I’d take their iPod and put it on shuffle and say, in the first 10 songs that play, could you name even half of them? You know? People that are in that situation just get the product digitally and dump it on the hard drive. Fill it up, fill it up, and they don’t even know it’s there sometimes. I too have an iPod. Mine is 32GB, and it’s meeting its mark admittedly. But everyone in that 32GB? I know. If I press shuffle, I know who it is. Not a sour band is going to come up – that’s exciting too. I’ve noticed with others – they put it on shuffle and I say ‘hey, who is this?’ and they say ‘yeh – ummm – I don’t know’…
So, „Take Care, Take Care, Take Care“. How do you feel this record is different compared to last releases? It only took 2 weeks to complete, is that right?
It was definitely a conscious thought of ours to yknow…add layers. Involve sounds… something we all talk about in the band though – it will always be us. You will always be you. From 20, to 30, to 40. If your clothes change, you grow a beard, and you get a haircut… you are still you. The essence of it may have changed, but you are still you. We think that applies in our music. We’re going to introduce new layers, new melodies, and we have a different way now but it’s still us.
So – the idea of two weeks in the studio, for us? That was an eternity. First album was four days; second was 7 days; third album was 10 days; fourth album was roughly the same – and this one – two weeks! Two weeks recording, and a week mixing. The way the fellas and I are: before we get in the studio, everything is there. It’s all written. Just because we’re not so proficient – we can’t just get in the studio and jam it out; these things we labour over. It takes us years, in the way parts are played, parts are added, thought out, removed, added, and so on. It is a very laborious process, but also one that we wouldn’t have any other way. So we spent the first week just recording everything, and in the second week, we were able to think – right. How do we want this laid out? How do we create a shimmy of a sound? How are we going to move the music? From left to right speaker and back again?
Did you consciously create a „headphone album“ this time out?
Yes, absolutely. If you listen on speakers then yes, I hope it connects with you. But yes, when we were writing and recording , we were not concerned with how we would take it live when gigging. It’s only after recording we had to work that out. If we use a sampler here or if we get one of our best friends Carlos to play along with us – new melodies we can fill the sound out with. Yes. The layered work was heavily thought about. It was a way for us to push the envelope. To take melodies, slow them down, speed them up, turn them upside down and then lay them down, and play over it again… so that it’s the melody within the melody. That was a really exciting thing for us.
That’s another beautiful part of being in this band – the four of us: Mark, Michael, Chris and myself – we are a sum of equal parts. Not one person is leading, but all four of us are following. That’s another thing that I suppose separates us from a lot of leading bands – in everything we do, we all give our quarter, and nobody’s opinion is stronger than another’s. This can of course be frustrating in the short time, but in the long run, the end game, it’s the most fulfilling. It had to pass through not just one good filter, but four good filters, to even be allowed to be made, or put on an album or played live. Everything we present to the listener is the best of what we have.
„Why ‘take care, take care, take care“ – why three times?
We like that it’s not harsh, and not a long goodbye or something in passing. It’s meaningful. To lookout for oneself, to look out for those around you. The sentiment was allowed to dance… it just kind of rolled off the tongue. At first it just said ‘Take Care…’. It wasn’t enough. So when we extended that, let it stretch out – we also then realised it sat well with the other album names:
– „How Strange, Innocence“
– „Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever“
– „The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place“
– „All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone“
– „Take Care, Take Care, Take Care“
…so yes, stories are being told from many angles, and that’s how this title made it’s way to the table and stuck.
Ok. So, people today say that listeners of music have a short attention span. Does this worry you when it comes to you writing your music?
Not really. I mean, if someone listens and doesn’t really give it the time, then it’s not really for them. Yknow? But those who are willing to offer a little bit more of their attention will let it flow not only into their ears, through to their heads, but also hopefully into their chests. You can become immersed in it. We never sit down and go ‘right. The song has to be 8 or 10 minutes long’. We just write it and when it is complete, that’s it. We did try a curveball on this album though. We did try to write a 3:30-long song, and see if we could get our point across in that time.
They say that 3:30 is the perfect pop song…
Yes, and we didn’t even know that before we did that! But you know – I like to think we’re all chess players. I love chess. In chess you have to be able to at least see a couple of moves ahead of you, so if you make this sequence of moves, then it will open up this side of the board, to allow for a better flow. So while not outwardly planning to make a single, we said ‘alright, here’s a 3:30 song’. The shame of it was, though – we gave it to them and no-one played it as a single. Our label, the people helping us – everyone involved in this thing we’ve got going on. We shook our heads, we said ‘we gave you a perfect 3:30 song. How come you didn’t apply it as such?’ I try to look at the glass is half full on that… even, still without extensive radio play, or a massive press push – without this massive machine or radio – we’ve still managed to see success. That does a lot for us. It exposes that theory we mentioned – of people with short attention spans -because there is a great contingent that is willing to listen. I take great solace in that; we are writing not for the ears of a few, but it’s for the ears of many.
That’s so re-assuring. If you write good music, it will be heard. I like to think that there is no expiration date on good music.