Looking Out for Explosions in the Sky
IMAGE COURTESY OF NICK SIMONITE
You've almost certainly heard Explosions in the Sky, even if you weren't aware of it: the Austin-based four-piece post-rock band's music has been used to score countless movies and TV shows, including The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, All the Real Girls, Capitalism: A Love Story, and—continuously throughout its five-season run—Friday Night Lights.
There's a good reason why music supervisors have been so drawn to Explosions' work again and again over the decade-plus the band has been putting out music: their songs, typically seven or eight minutes long and devoid of vocals, are expertly built, ebbing and flowing in what might be the closest modern musical approximation of pure emotion. They're best when they're live, particularly in a festival setting, with the sun setting behind the stage and thousands of fans sharing your trance—which is exactly how we saw them last summer in Norway at Øya Festival, and which is also how you can see them this Sunday at the Governors Ball Musical Festival on Randall's Island. (They've been scheduled for the perfect 7:30–8:30 p.m. set.)
We spoke with guitarist Munaf Rayani about Friday Night Lights, the boxing match that blew the band's minds, and west Texas.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: You guys are basically old hands at summer touring.
MUNAF RAYANI: Yeah, [after] 12 years.
SYMONDS: How do you handle it?
RAYANI: The way we've broken it up is, we'll be on three weeks and off two weeks, and on four weeks and off two weeks. We just take these kind of good chunk breaks, so we can go back, see our families, be home, be in our rooms, be in our beds—
SYMONDS: Access a mailbox....
RAYANI: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But yeah, over the years we've learned not to burn ourselves out, even though we have a lot to do, we've signed up for it, we're excited to go do it. Now, if we were doing it nonstop, that could be the end of us.
SYMONDS: I'm curious, in terms of current events, how you guys took the ending of Friday Night Lights? Both as contributors and as Texans.
RAYANI: To tell you the truth, I didn't see the ending. And I'm still catching up on the whole series, which has been pretty strong—
SYMONDS: Well, the idea of it being over.
RAYANI: Oh well, all things good and so on come to an end. I think the course it ran, it never let up, I never heard a sour note about this show. And so for the movie to have been as good as it was, into the show that's arguably better, I think they left a pretty great mark. So yeah, congratulations to them for providing a good show. For us, how amazing it's been that Friday Night Lights has kind of served as this megaphone for our music and our name. And people who have never seen us and don't know what we look like, they know what we sound like because of the show and because our name is connected to it. So for that we're forever grateful.
SYMONDS: Can you ever tell when a fan started out as a Friday Night Lights fan and then became an Explosions in the Sky fan?
RAYANI: Yeah, definitely, because they're more into the newer stuff and usually they even tell us, "I just learned about you through Friday Night Lights," which is incredible. That served as, again, such a platform for us to reach, not even a great amount of people, but just a different type of person, who doesn't necessarily listen to indie rock or underground music and who maybe only listens to Top 40 stuff, and us.
SYMONDS: Your work is featured in movies and on TV a lot—is that something that is still weird for you guys? To hear your songs underscoring some scene that you had no idea of when you were writing them?
RAYANI: No, no, it definitely jumps out a little bit because, anytime music is licensed to anything it wasn't written for that, it was written to be on an album. But it is interesting to see other people's visual take or see where the music enhances whatever it is they're editing together, so that never grows old.
SYMONDS: Has there ever been an instance where you thought, "Wow! This is completely not what the song was about."
RAYANI: Yeah, exactly!
SYMONDS: You don't have to name names.
RAYANI: No, no, for example—but I thought it was brilliantly done—there's a series called 24/7 on HBO, whenever there's a big boxing match. One was between Floyd Mayweather and Oscar de la Hoya, and they used one of our songs as the whole montage to close the episode. That was one of the best things, editing-wise, that we had seen—of how they used the music, different accents and how they told this story, this recap of the episode of these fighters. That one I was really impressed with. Again, the song wasn't written for a boxing match, you know? But it really fit.
SYMONDS: One of the reviews for Take Care, Take Care, Take Care something kind of interesting, which is that when listeners listen to your music, there's always this impulse to fill in the space that's left by there being no lyrics—like an invented narrative. Do you guys do that when you're writing the songs? Or do you think of them as more like pure musical entities?
RAYANI: No. We have stories that we tell each other and visuals that go along to the songs for ourselves, only as guidelines to get to the next part, or a chord change, or the introduction of a new sound. We try to tell stories to each other, but by no means do we have a definitive narrative to any of them, and that is the beauty of instrumental music—and not just contemporary instrumental music, classical music. I mean, think about all the great pieces that Bach or Chopin or Mozart wrote that are played everywhere. And it adapts itself to that scene, because people like to tell stories to music, and that's pretty easy to do with instrumental music, of all types. So yeah, there's no definitive story, just broad strokes to a story.
SYMONDS: Do you think people focus on the fact that you're an instrumental band too much?
RAYANI: No, not any more than any different type of music might be focused on. You know, if you're a pop band, people speak about your pop songs; if you're hip-hop, people talk about your beats; and for us, being instrumental is exactly what it is. And it's a starting point to a conversation, so it's not anything that we shy away from. It's definitely the type of music that we play, so no I don't think people harp on it too much. It is a major factor in our music style, if not the factor.
SYMONDS: Do you think you're less susceptible to the singles curse that other bands have to deal with, where listeners don't listen to albums in full?
RAYANI: I think a little bit—in the 12 years that we've been playing this music and having the 7-to-12-minute-long songs, it requires a little bit more of your attention and a little bit more of your commitment, and we've received it in volumes from people.
SYMONDS: I think people are a little bit more likely to listen to one of your albums start to finish than, like, Cee-Lo Green's.
RAYANI: Exactly! And I would hope so, because we write these albums as a full piece to be listened to from beginning to end. We always try our best not to write a song that would be considered just background music. Without lyrics demanding your attention. A story is being told, and that story is for you to tell.
SYMONDS: Do you think that if the three of you, who are from Texas, had grown up somewhere else, that you would be a different project?
RAYANI: 100 percent, I believe. I think you—not just musically, but as a human—are a product of your environment. If we grew up in Boise, Idaho, we're not Explosions in the Sky. We might be Built to Spill.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Well, we've already got Built to Spill, so—
RAYANI: Exactly! And we wouldn't have gotten anywhere, because somebody else did that sound. Or if we were from Massachusetts or from Portugal. I think it would cause for a variation on the sound, but because three of us and most of our team grew up in west Texas, in these flatlands with amazing sunsets and dust storms and thunderstorms and really nothing around us, it produced—unconsciously—that idea, and that idea manifested itself into sound, and that sound led us here.
TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE, TAKE CARE IS OUT NOW. EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY WILL PLAY THE GOVERNOR'S BALL MUSIC FESTIVAL ON RANDALL'S ISLAND THIS SUNDAY, JUNE 24. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.