If you've never tried it before, using the "post-" modifier is a great way to make yourself sound more intelligent, or make whatever you're talking about seem roughly twice as cool/interesting. Maybe this is the real reason why rock critics have been so intent on applying the "post-rock" label to Austin-based instrumental quartet Explosions In the Sky. But even if their sprawling, intricate compositions don't follow the standard rock 'n' roll song structure of verse/chorus/verse, their frontman-less model is in some respects closer to what scholars of the form like Joe Carducci said was the true essence of rock music.
After 17 years together, EITS have proven themselves prolific composers. Earlier this year, the band released The Wilderness, their first studio album since 2011's Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. After famously being recruited to compose the soundtrack for Friday Night Lights, EITS spent the last five years producing even more film scores, for Lights director Peter Berg as well as the likes of David Gordon Green. But the process of creating an EITS album can be long and often difficult. To get a sense of how The Wilderness came together, Metro Times spoke to the band's drummer Chris Hrasky via telephone.
MT: Were you guys part of any identifiable music scene in Austin?
Chris Hrasky: Sort of. In Austin, there were bands that we were really close to, that didn't necessarily sound like us but influenced us — two in particular.
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead really hit it big when we were first starting. We were super into them, kind of became friends with them, and played shows with them. And then another band, a Texas band called American Analog Set, is a very mellow kind of spacey, super melodic band who didn't really sound like us either. We were somehow the band in between those two. Somehow, the band in a lot of ways bridged those two sounds.
MT: How did you guys actually meet?
Hrasky: I moved to Austin to go to school at University of Texas, and I wanted to play music again. And I put up a flyer at a couple record stores in town just saying I wanted to play in a band and here are some of the bands I like, and blah blah blah. And a bunch of different people called, and it was always kind of weird. And then these guys called who grew up together. We met up and instantly got along — just on a friends level, within 5 minutes. Like, "Oh. I like these guys." They had a similar sense of humor and perspective on things. Then like a week later we started playing together and just kind of built from there. We didn't have any ambition other than to have fun playing music. I mean it definitely was not our plan to turn this into our career, and do it for whatever, 17 years on, and still be doing it.
MT: What's your methodology in terms of how your compositions come together?
Hrasky: It's kind of just, all over the place. But ultimately, it usually starts with someone coming in with some small idea. Whether it's just a little melody of a sound or a very small little thing. And then we'll kind of get attached to it and slowly start building it from there. It's usually a pretty long process for us to write songs. We do not write songs quickly. It's a lot of just trying out things and throwing them away, and then trying more things and throwing those away until it starts somehow coming together. Yeah. It's a drawn-out process that's hard to even remember. Trying to think about writing particular songs is always like "well, I guess I remember first hearing that thing." But I don't know how we ended up getting to the completed song. It took months of going back and forth and putting it away for a while and coming back to it. So yeah, it's honestly just a lot of trial-and-error. And mostly error. And then when it finally works, then it works. It's never been a situation where someone comes in and says, "OK, here's the song basically. Now let's each add our own little thing to it." The four of us are very much building it from the ground up. Which is another reason why it takes a long time. It's a lot of back-and-forth. We kind of all have to feel invested in it to make it past a certain point.
MT: Do you have a favorite way to listen to the new album — headphones, live, etc?
Hrasky: I guess I like listening to it on headphones the best, only because it's such a dense record. There's just a lot of stuff happening. It's funny, because I'll be listening to it — and all four of us feel this way — I'll somehow notice a little sound, or a little part, and be like, "I don't even know what that is!" And none of us will. Like, "OK, I remember — was that this chord that we used? What is that sound?" I just feel like this record is, to use a cliché, a headphones record. It keeps revealing different little parts, little details the more you listen to it. Which was definitely our intention. And I enjoy listening to it that way. Although once you start touring with a record — that's kind of when I stop listening to it.
MT: What is the major difference between your approach where you evoke emotion through pure sound, and a style where the audience have lyrics through which they can interpret the music?
Hrasky: I think what we like about being an instrumental band is that it ... feels like it's much more of a collaboration. There's no leader in the band. None of us really want that role or are born for that role. But I think with listeners, I like the idea of people kind of adopting the songs and finding whatever they want out of them without there being any kind of guide, other than a title as to what it could be about. Because we don't have any clear idea of what these songs are about. They move in some way, and that is our hope for people to listen to them and kind of interpret them the way they want. But we also try to approach the song in the same way, or with a same intent as someone writing a pop song would. Melody is extremely important to us, and having a song [with] a hook is extremely important to us. We don't want to just be instrumental background music. We always are trying to come up with stuff that's going to, for lack of a better word, be catchy. And have a hook to it. I don't know if we always succeed, but that is definitely our intention. That's pretty important to us. Because we like pop music. We like all sorts of stuff. I think we just like hooks, and stuff that gets stuck in your head. We at least attempt that in every song. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don't, but that's definitely the intention.
MT: You guys played with Fugazi early on. Is that guitar and drum sound something you were trying to emulate in some of your earlier music?
Hrasky: I mean, possibly. They're definitely a band that we all love. I don't know. When we got together, the two bands that were in the forefront of our minds were Mogwai and Dirty Three, who are two other instrumental bands that are a couple years older than us. So this is the early days of those bands. We were just taken by those bands. So if it weren't for a band like Mogwai — their style and the way they approached things — I don't think we would have been the band we are. The four of us coming together at that time and being an instrumental band is mainly because of them. That happened to be the moment when all four of us were super excited by them. And super into the idea of ... like, you can make this really emotional music without having someone singing. But we all listen to so much stuff and we always have that, pinpointing where certain things come from has always been kind of hard. It's all over the map, I guess.
MT: What kind of bands were you guys in before EITS?
Hrasky: In high school, we were in similar trajectories in terms of bands: sort of pop-punk bands and stuff like that. And then in late high school, I started getting into Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, more noisy stuff. You know, more sort of indie rock stuff. In middle school, I played in a shitty heavy metal band. It was garbage. [It's a] similar trajectory to a lot of people — playing in a crappy punk band and then weirder stuff, and it just sort of went from there. Like when we started Explosions, it's not like we were well-versed in modern composers or other instrumental bands at all. It truly was that like we all got into Mogwai like six months before we started the band. It really was due to them that we went the route that we did.
MT: Your music is very different from some of the bands you headline these major festivals with. What do you think it is about music or the way we consume it that has allowed for that to happen, and for you guys to become successful?
Hrasky: I don't know! I feel like there are a number of things. At least in the US, the whole connection to Friday Night Lights really opened up for us, where people who would maybe not listen to any kind of weird music at all are suddenly exposed to us. I really don't know. I think just for some reason or another people get attached to these songs. Some of it is because we try to approach songs with sort of a pop music sensibility. Like, we want to hear songs that are catchy and have hooks and grab you, and are interesting and exciting. Oh god. I don't know.
I don't know how this happened. It still feels just crazy to us. To play big shows and this is what we do. You know when people ask, "you don't think you've been limited because you don't have a singer?" Well, no! [Laughs.] Not at all. If we had a singer, we probably wouldn't have made it out of Austin. This particular mix that somehow, god knows why, has worked. I mean I think we're good. I like us. I think we're a good band, you know? I don't know if the reason I like us is why people like us, but it's definitely a surprise. I mean we work really hard, we tour a lot — but I think we're smart about knowing if there's an opportunity, we'll take it and work on it. But god, I don't know. Who knows. I'm happy about it, though. It's cool.
MT: Do you see a common thread among people who respond to your music?
Hrasky: It's weird because I notice this a lot more these days. Shows are just a really diverse audience. It's pretty awesome. There will be tons of 15-year-old kids, which is super awesome because when you're a teenager that's when you're getting into music and getting excited. So it's cool to, like, see a bunch of old dudes who have these young kids that are excited about it. But we also get the dudes with beards that are in their 30s. We get lots of weird older couples, like in their 60s. Husbands and wives have come to our shows. It's different. And then we get football dudes, because of Friday Night Lights. It's just a wide range. It mystifies me to some extent. But it's pretty cool. So the audience is all over the place. But I think I'm most excited that there are kids who were just born when the band started and are getting into us.
Explosions in the Sky plays the Masonic Temple on Thursday, Sept. 15; Doors at 8 p.m.; 500 Temple St., Detroit; 313-832-7100; $25.