Published Apr 26, 2011For the past 12 years, Explosions in the Sky have been leaving listeners awestruck with their ability to communicate waves of emotion without a single word. Long-time fans who have grown with the Austin, Texas foursome over the past decade have found solace in their music. The rest of the world was introduced to them in 2004 when their soundtrack turned Friday Night Lights into a transcendent experience. On Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, their fifth full-length, they begin an evolution towards something new, but, thankfully, don't teeter towards inexplicably extreme changes. Scarce soundscapes still find unlikely paths towards crushing crescendos ("Let Me Back In") and hypnotic beats place your mind in the middle of the album ("Human Qualities"). But there's a sense of optimism present throughout all six tracks, something that can't fully be said of past records. "Trembling Hands" begins with an energy-laced chant; "Be Comfortable, Creature" transmits a feeling of new life being birthed; and the album's apex, "Postcard From 1952," uses a simple beat to build and build, leaving the listener unsure of when it will come crashing down. When it does, it's a euphoric moment that encapsulates the album's beauty. Take Care reaches new heights for Explosions in the Sky.
It's been four years since the last record. What's been going on since your last touring cycle?
Guitarist Munaf Rayani: All that time has been spent writing, but more focused writing happened over the last two years. Mark [Smith, guitarist] had some children. We changed houses. All those things happened as well.
Just a lot of beautiful life things have been happening?
Exactly and we got older by four years.
Do you feel older?
I've always felt old. When I was 15, I felt 30 and now that I'm 30, I feel 55. It's good to grow older though, you gain experience and you gain wisdom. Sometimes your words carry more weight when you grow older.
Did the band have any thoughts of taking even more time off with all the different life stuff going on?
I think in the last six to 12 months we've been itching pretty bad to get out. The album was ready to go six months ago and we just sat on it. This is the best time for us to release the album. We were going to do it earlier, but Mark just had his second child and we didn't want to leave a month after that, making him leave his wife in the lurch. We wanted to stay back and make sure he can be a part of his family's life, make sure his wife is okay before we took off. Even with this touring cycle, we're not gone non-stop. We've really learned how to tour over the past ten years: we'll go away for a few weeks then be home for a few weeks. The timing is really good, but I don't think anyone would have minded having it come out earlier.
What was toughest about having to wait longer for the record to come out?
Just that: the waiting. That can be enough to keep you up at night, but we always look at the glass like it's half full. It was more time for us to collect our breath, find peace in our minds and be mentally prepared for what lies ahead. We just left for the road and I think everyone is buzzing with joy and excitement. There wasn't anything terrible about waiting a bit longer ― sometimes you have to wait a bit longer for something good to happen.
Did you all have a specific idea of what this album would sound like?
I think when we originally started writing the blueprints of it we didn't really know what we were writing yet; we were just writing sounds that were enjoyable to us. But we didn't have a direction until a couple years ago and not really until last January. That's when the floodgates opened up.
What happened in January that enabled the writing to take off?
A couple years back we hit a real wall ― not much was happening and no feeling was found. And, mind you, we're all best of friends, we're a family, our friendships are far greater than the music we make. But because our friendships are so strong, we can speak candidly to each other about things in our lives. When we hit this wall, we collectively decided to take a sabbatical. We thought we'd give it maybe a month. We didn't talk about music, we didn't play music or anything, we did everything else. We went to the movies, we had table tennis tournaments and we did normal life stuff, and we'd have to bite our tongues not to talk about music. About a month into that everyone was going crazy. We jumped back into the practice room, revived and rejuvenated. We missed playing together a lot ― that helped. It's funny how it worked out that way, but that's art: you try and try and try, you go on different paths, you keep plugging these cards in the slots and then all of a sudden without knowing all the lights are on.
Explain the significance of the title Take Care repeating.
We put a lot of thought into these titles; it's the only moment we get to express ourselves in words. We thought about the album we're coming from, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, and we followed the line of what story's being told. It's not trying to make the albums match ― they all match because they're from us; we match each other. Just the phrase "take care" has so many sweet qualities to it. When you part with someone it's something you might say. It might be the way you end a letter. I'm sure you've said it a number of times. When you repeat it three times it rolls off the tongue so well and it reinforces this supportive, caring thought that you're about to go on this journey and I wish you well on it. It's not a goodbye, it's not a "that's it for us." It's more like, "take care of yourself for what lies ahead for you."
There's optimism and brightness running through the record, so that explanation really helps the title fit.
That's a great assessment of it. It's not an obvious optimism ― even the last song on the record isn't that uplifting ― but the overall tone of the album is happier than sad. But sadness finds its way into really anything we do. The glass is half full though.
Did you have a different outlook with this record compared to past ones?
Probably compared to the last album, but throughout our whole catalogue we try to tap into these emotions that are evoked within us. That's also one of the things I feel separates us from other music of this style: it's not all dark and heavy. There are tons of light moments throughout everything we do.
You mentioned that song titles are your way of writing lyrics. "Postcard From 1952" really jumped out to me on this album. What's the story behind that title?
Well, Chris is, in my opinion, the best drummer in rock music today, and the best drummer in rock music in a long while. Perhaps I'm biased, but to me, he's already legendary. Chris shows his proficiency all the time, which is funny because he's not your typical drummer ― he knows nothing about drums or head sizes or tuning ― he just pieces it together and goes. In the rocking stuff, he really shows his style. People have pinpointed his snare roll work, which is part of his sound. Chris didn't want to play what's expected and that's what we all wanted on this record. We were thinking of different beats, variations of what came naturally. When it came to "Postcard From 1952," he could have done rolls or fills, but we thought about doing a straight drumbeat. We've stayed away from straight beats before, because in some settings that can be boring, especially with instrumental music. But we told him to run it straight like it was a school dance in the '50s. We could just imagine a school dance with chaperones and the punch bowls ― the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance!
That's exactly what just came to mind for me. Are you guys big Back to the Future fans?
Oh, man! "Enchantment Under the Sea" was the working title for that song for a while. I think, collectively, that's one of our favourite pictures. That film did wonders for us growing up. One of the best gifts my mother gave me, and she's a sweet old lady from India, was a remote control Lamborghini. That was the best gift, and I drove it around like the DeLorean.
Is "Last Known Surroundings" a picture of the band over the past four years?
Definitely, it references where we've all been this time, yet it's not where we've been. We've been off the map for the last four years, and then the blip that came back on the radar is the last known surrounding. And I think it's a good place that we found ourselves, because we tried to do our best to push our sound. I think after ten years we established a sound and we tried to change that sound and evolve it, and that's what brought us to this record.
"Trembling Hands" is a song you'll get asked about a lot. There's a strong vocal element and it's short. What's the story behind it?
Well, the initial rendition was five to seven minutes long; it felt like we were meandering a bit though and forcing its position. We did variations and over the course of six months whittled it down to three-and-a-half minutes. In that time we told the story we wanted to tell. It's in three parts: the first part is out of the gates on fire; part two is more on fire; and part three is a blaze. At the end of the blaze we hit a hanging note and let it go. We've never written a song less than five minutes, and that's not on purpose: the songs finish themselves, so that's why we have long songs that reach ten minutes. From our perspective, there's no filler in those ten minutes. Each note is a sentence in the paragraph of the chapter of the book. This song is a short story and it felt complete. We were excited by the prospect of thinking, "Can we get away with a three-and-a-half-minute song?" After we listened to it and played it, we were very, very happy, and we like that it's part of our catalogue and that we're capable of doing something like that. The title "Trembling Hands" has an image of nervousness, almost being worried, but it's the complete opposite of the image we see. You also get trembling hands when you get excited about something. That's why the song is titled "Trembling Hands" and, hopefully, that matches the music.
I got a sense of awe when listening to it.
Exactly. I'm glad you picked up on that. I was the most nervous about that with the boys. I thought [the title] would sound opposite to our intentions, but they all thought it'd be understood. So I was like, "okay, cool." I'm glad you heard it. When you listen to it, it's in those three parts. There's a small break after the first [vocal] part, and after the second part falls down Michael [James] does this little bass pull and I always imagine a bow being drawn back, "one… two… three…" And then you let go of the bow and the third part takes off. See if that imagery works. The excitement really starts up between parts two and three.
Do you feel the band are reinventing themselves, trying all these things that you wouldn't have been comfortable with in past records?
Absolutely. I think anyone in music, or just in life, would hope there's a constant evolution. You hold onto your principles and beliefs, but as you grow older, your thinking is adjusting. The same thing is being applied to our music. A reinvention is a bit too much to say, perhaps, but a natural human evolution is occurring. In any aspect of art, if you stand still too long you sink. This is all quicksand and we're trying to move forward; we're not interested in being just one thing. You're never just one thing. Imagine when we're 40 how we'll look at life and at 65 how we'll look at life; it's always changing.
The band have been together for over a decade now. What have you learned about relationships?
The give and take of it and the putting aside of one's ego. We're into our 12th year now and that's just musically ― our friendships are 16 and 17 years deep. The greatest thing I've realized about our music is that we were friends long before we put these notes together. Music was born out of our friendship, not our friendship out of music. With the foundation being our friendship, it's allowed us to work with one another and handle the frustrations and disagreements in a marriage-like way. When you hear about people who have been together for 40 years, it wasn't all peaches and cream. When you really love somebody, you're willing to work through the valleys to experience the peaks. And that's always the underlying thought with this band: any valley we hit we think about what peaks we've been on and what peaks are yet to come, and that keeps us going. We're so embedded in each other's lives ― our music would stop if it ever jeopardized our friendship; it would stop dead cold. I would rather keep our friendships than write these songs. It just so happens that our friendships are so strong that they produce these melodies. Over the years, we look at it like marriage. We all have a tattoo on our left wrist, which is an angel off of Those Who Tell The Truth, our first record label debut. It was Mark's birthday and we were sitting outside a tattoo parlour in Austin, TX, and I said, "Boys, let's get this angel. Let's make this mark right now that this is what we're doing to do." And I can't believe I convinced them, but they did it [laughs]. We always said if we wanted to leave this band it would cost us our left hand; it's like a wedding band.
What have been the peaks and valleys for Explosions?
Valleys: well, one of them was when we toured for four straight months in 2004. That really burned us out. We always spend a lot of time with each other, but on tour you're with each other for 24 hours a day for as long as you're on the road. Little nuances and idiosyncrasies become amplified, we became bothered by the littlest things and we didn't want to play music anymore. We weren't done with each other, but we were so exhausted by what was going on: playing every night for ten days straight and then only getting one day off before playing another ten. That was one of the valleys. The peaks, well, it's opening up for the Flaming Lips, curating ATP or seeing our albums talked about in a favourable way ― these things are the peaks. Being able to feed our families, pay our bills and enjoy life because we put a series of notes together ― this is the daydream life. We count our lucky stars every day. We could be working desk jobs, but instead we get to travel around the world and are embraced in every city we walk in ― that's a peak.
Speaking of your fans, many often talk about having a spiritual experience when they see your band live. What goes through your mind when you hear statements like that?
It's overwhelming that someone would speak like that about what we're doing. We sometimes separate ourselves from the band. Before this album was finished up, we had all forgotten we were in this band that's kind of known. We're just playing music and hanging out with each other, and then it's like, "wait a minute, people know about us." And then when they speak almost hyperbolically about these spiritual experiences ― that's beautiful. There's music I listen to that really moves me to the core ― Sam Cooke, Beethoven ― and I don't know how we made it happen, but the music we make does that for someone else.
Are you as affected by the music as your listeners?
I have to be, right? Yes, of course. Reviews are starting to come out about the album, but six months ago before any other person had an opportunity to critique it ― and critique will come, because that's one of the perils of releasing art ― it made me feel strong. "My goodness, we really put together a solid set of songs, an album!" If we weren't moved, how could we expect anyone else to be moved?
I asked that because when your band plays live it looks like you are all in your own world as much as the audience is.
We almost have to forget there's a crowd in front of us, because our nerves will get the best of us. But when we get going and our eyes close and one note transitions to the next… Sometimes we have these things called magic notes, when each guitar hits their individual notes but together make this one magical note. Those moments energize me; they're like checkpoints. Like, if you're racing in a videogame and you hit your checkpoint you get extra time, that's how it feels for me; it's a rejuvenation. Most nights, I'm really lost in what we're doing. There's no posturing involved in any of our movements; it's just all happening.
The band don't do encores. Is it tough at the end of a set to tell the crowd that you've offered up everything you have and there's no more?
Some nights are tougher than others; it's just a way to reconfirm to the crowd that we are done. Almost every band that would warrant an encore kind of do it arbitrarily, whether someone wants it or not, but that, to me, is too contrived. We said to each other, "let's not do it." That's why we play an uninterrupted set: this is the piece. We're going to give it to you with all the energy we have so when we hit the last note the gas tank is on empty. If we were to come out again and play, and it's only happened about four times, now we only have ten to 15 minutes to try and remake this whole experience that just lasted an hour. That's not right, and part of it is to leave the crowd wanting more. "If you're cheering that hard for us now, I hope you come back to see us when we return." (Temporary Residence)