Interview with Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky
Explosions in the Sky are known for several things. They make sweeping and grandiose instrumental rock music. They provided the soundtrack to the TV show and movie Friday Night Lights. They were the first band to play on the moon – okay, that’s not true (yet). More recently, they cracked the Billboard top 20 – number 16 to be exact – with their 2011 album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (which is 3x what Drake’s Take Care is). The band has slowly gained a large following, which has lead to the vocal-less band playing some late night festival slots, headlining tours, and opening for Nine Inch Nails on their fall tour. As a 10+ year fan of instrumental rock and ambient music, I’m glad (and amazed!) that instrumental bands are finding some mainstream success.
The band, consisting of Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, Michael James, and Chris Hrasky, are playing Osheaga in Montreal this August long weekend, and the following Tuesday release their soundtrack collaboration with Dave Wingo for the film Prince Avalanche. PeteHatesMusic caught up with guitarist Mark Smith to chat about their upcoming movie soundtrack album, how their creative process has changed over the years, and outrageous descriptions of their sound.
PeteHatesMusic (PHM): The songs I’ve heard so far with your Prince Avalanche collaboration with Dave Wingo have been excellent. How did the collaboration come about?
Mark Smith (MS): Thank you, yeah we are extremely happy with how it all turned out. We’ve known the director of the movie, David Gordon Green, for a pretty long while–he used one of our songs in his movie Snow Angels in 2007. And we’ve gotten to know him and his good friend David Wingo since they both moved to Austin a handful of years ago. So Green asked us both to score this movie and I guess I’m honestly a little surprised with how natural it felt and how well it went as we’ve never worked with anyone else before.
PHM: I’ve read that Explosions in the Sky will not carry on with a decision or a song idea if only one person is in disagreement. How was this model challenged when working with an “outsider” in Dave Wingo?
MS: I suppose in theory that was still the model for our decision-making on this record, but I don’t recall it being very challenging. It turned out to be a really great match–we liked what he was doing and vice versa. Plus, it changes matters that we had a very clear goal in mind for each track, which was to match and enhance each scene in a way that Green felt worked. So I guess another way of putting it is that we still had to have a unanimous vote, but the only vote was Green’s. That simplifies things.
PHM: Do you plan on playing songs from Prince Avalanche during your upcoming tour dates?
MS: As of now, no we don’t have any plans. We’ll see if that changes, particularly because Wingo is going on tour with us (starting this coming week and continuing in the fall) as actually part of our touring band, playing bass and sampler on most of the songs. We’ve had our friend Carlos Torres doing that role for the last few years but now it will be Wingo. So we haven’t tried any Prince Avalanche songs, because I’m not sure how exciting they would be in the live setting, but we certainly have the setup for it if we want to try.
PHM: How do you find that your creative process as a band has changed over the years?
MS: So much of the change is just based off technology. For the first couple albums, we really had no choice but to all be in the same room doing the songwriting. We used a boombox recorder, and later a 4-track, but that was the process. One person would write a riff and then play it over and over and over and over (it’s a vivid memory) while the other guys would try to write something that goes along with it. Then move on to the next part; repeat. Now, for better or worse, we all have our home computers and we can make up a riff at home, record it, send it to the other guys, and at their leisure they can play along with that part, record that new part, and then send it back out; repeat. I’m not saying one or the other is better or worse, but I definitely appreciate the freedom of the new way. And not only the freedom of time, but you also have so many more tools to manipulate sound and move things around and add effects. For the soundtrack, we did some of both–there were a lot of times when we would be in the same room, watching scenes and playing along, but we also exchanged a lot of stuff over email.
PHM: When I interviewed instrumental band Glorie, they wouldn’t let us in on the secret to instrumental bands naming songs without words and lyrical repetition. How do Explosions in the Sky come up with song titles?
MS: It feels kind of wrong to be giving away what seems to be an industry secret, but for us it’s not all that complicated, I admit. It takes us a while to zero in on the right one for each song, but basically it’s just brainstorming. One of my favorite things about our music is reading or hearing about how people just listen to our songs and daydream and how images and stories and memories come to them. And basically we do the same thing–we write a song and then inevitably it makes one of us think of something that also happens to be a cool word or turn of phrase. Plus of course we steal. The list of authors we’ve taken song names from includes (but is not limited to): Steinbeck (several times), Philip Roth, JK Rowling, and David Berman. And one song name was taken from a line in an old radio drama, one was taken from a real-life tragedy, et cetera. But basically the vast majority of them are from just listening to the song and making up a phrase that matches what it sounds like to us.
Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo – Wading (from Prince Avalanche soundtrack)
PHM: Do you write a song until you have the skeleton of it or the bulk of it and move on to another track, or do you have several ideas and images behind a handful of songs at once?
MS: We generally have a lot of things going on at once. Especially when we begin writing an album, we just throw around tons of ideas and see what sticks. I’d say we had a good 50 different demos early on that we eventually whittled down to 6 for the last album. Then after we’ve written 3 or 4 songs for an album, it’s a lot more common for us to really focus on developing one song with the hopes of finishing it and getting closer to finishing the album.
PHM: Congratulations on landing on the top 20 of the Billboard charts with your last record. Do you think instrumental bands are underappreciated or that it’s amazing that a band of your ilk (which is not an insult) charted reasonably high on Billboard?
MS: No insult at all–it in fact kind of boggles my mind. Hopefully it’s obvious that we don’t make albums with thoughts of selling a lot or getting on the charts, so when that happened I remember being really startled. I guess I just still find it weird that instrumental bands are still seemingly thought of as unusual or an anomaly. Maybe it’s just because I live in that world, but to me music is music. But I obviously recognize that it is far from the popular form of music that it used to be before vocal music took over.
Explosions in the Sky – Last Known Surroundings
PHM: The media loves to describe your music as cinematic, expansive, and orchestral. What is the most artistic or outrageous description of your music that you’ve read?
MS: I think the most artistic was “expeditionary rock.” Maybe that term is used for other bands but I’ve never heard it and I think it’s pretty apt. The most outrageous is when we were voted the 9th-best jam band in Austin by the readers of the Austin Chronicle weekly newspaper.
PHM: Do you see the band tinkering with a radically different sound or instrumentation and layers?
MS: I’m not sure I can tell yet. We’ve been exchanging a few song snippets over email lately, and there’s some steps in both directions–some different instruments, some stuff that’s just downright stranger (some spacier, some noisier, some dancier), but also mixed with some more traditional EITS stuff. The soundtrack stuff always makes us think about structures–how to make a song fulfill a tone or feeling or satisfaction in often a much shorter timeframe than our usual long songs, and I find that really appealing. So yeah, we talk all the time about which ways we want to go but haven’t had enough time lately to get very far. One thing we’ve talked about is just take a bunch of these snippets into the studio and just build an album in there all together. Not sure if that would work because we generally go into the studio totally prepared with the album written. But I’d be insanely curious how that would turn out.
Explosions In The Sky & David Wingo – Send Off (from Prince Avalanche soundtrack)
PHM: What newer bands or acts should readers of PeteHatesMusic be checking out if we want to hang out with members of Explosions in the Sky?
MS: I’ve been loving stuff by Pure X, Merchandise, Fuck Buttons, Haxan Cloak, Zomby, and Peaking Lights.
Be sure to pick up the soundtrack for the Paul Rudd / Emile Hirsch movie Prince Avalanche, as scored by Explosions in the Sky and Dave Wingo. Also make sure you catch Explosions in the Sky at Osheaga on August 3, and if it’s after August 3 and you don’t have access to a time machine, check out when they’re playing near your town – you should definitely experience them live.
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