For Explosions in the Sky drummer Chris Hrasky, the most exciting moment of 2006 belonged in a zoo – or at least in some B-grade Samuel L. Jackson flick.
“Attacked by a snake! That would be the big crazy event of 2006,” reports Hrasky from his Austin home. In October, while the band was recording their new album at the storied, secluded Pachyderm Studios (birthplace of Nirvana‘s In Utero and PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, among others), they came across an unwanted reptilian visitor in the studio’s guesthouse one night.
“We tried to get it out of the house,” recalls Hrasky, who finally resorted to killing the intruder. Pachyderm is “just kind of out in the woods,” he says, and the house’s owner couldn’t get over to the property to personally deal with the situation. Maybe it’s another entry for Pachyderm’s guestbook, which already boasts a healthy collection of ghost stories in addition to its prestigious artists’ roster – a spooky pedigree that befits EitS’s darkly epic compositions.
Formed in 1999 and originally known as Breaker Morant, Hrasky and his bandmates – guitarists Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith, along with bassist/guitarist Michael James – got their start in Austin’s fertile music scene.
The quartet quickly gained a local reputation for their scathingly loud live sets, sparking the ire of several local club sound technicians and the admiration of fans and several area bands, including American Analog Set and …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. In a story custom-built for indie rock storybooks, American Analog Set hooked EitS up with a record deal when they passed along EitS’s CD-ROM demo to their label, Temporary Residence Limited, with a note reading, “This totally fucking destroys.”
The band received a brief bout of national media attention shortly after the release of their second album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, when some news outlets erroneously reported that the record was released on September 10, 2001 (it was actually released in August). The band’s provocative name, the album cover art depicting an airplane, and the inside liner notes that read “This plane will crash tomorrow” temporarily gave EitS a moment of infamy.
The band’s more recent (and more positive) national exposure came through their role in scoring Friday Night Lights, the 2004 major-studio drama about high school football culture in small-town Texas. It is a match that sounds dubious at best – the Austin music scene (as well as a majority of indie rock bands) has largely evolved against the grain of conventional Texas (and, by extension, typical mainstream America), and the thought of EitS’s moody instrumental swells pitted against grainy shots of sweaty jocks running drills is difficult to digest.
Adding to this unusual pairing, NBC’s spinoff television series of the same name also features songs from the band’s 2003 release, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.
The film’s music supervisor, Brian Reitzell, was responsible for bringing Air and Phoenix‘s dreamy soundscapes to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation. After he approached EitS, the band realized they had a personal connection to the gridiron story.
“It was a book all four of us had read – the other three guys all grew up in the town where the story was based,” says Hrasky, referring to H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, the book basis for the film.
“It’s about people in Odessa, Texas, and [football] is sort of the only thing they cling to. Guys who play football, they’re also human beings. The tragedy of ex-football heroes – it’s a story that we all find kind of interesting.”
Despite the initial incongruity between the band and the film’s subject matter, EitS’s slow, climactic builds and escalating walls of sound create an ideal aural backdrop for the game-day emotional roller coasters that are depicted on the football field.
“We were really happy with the way the movie turned out,” Hrasky says.
Back in the post-Pachyderm world, Hrasky is busy trying to calm down his dog, Willis, who seems to be barking at half of Austin. The snake incident capped nearly two weeks of recording sessions for EitS’s fourth full-length album, All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone. Arguably the band’s strongest and most dynamic work to date, the album is comprised of the usual six tracks, each its own miniature epic.
“This is our favorite record of any that we’ve done,” Hrasky declares. “It’s the first one that, when we were done mixing it, I could listen to and be really happy with it,” he says, noting that Pachyderm’s isolated location in private parkland about forty miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul may have been a positive influence.
“I think we’re going to try to keep recording at studios [in] out-of-the-way [locations].”
The chilly midwestern landscape and backwoods setting apparently provided just the right amount of creative inspiration for the band to record, a process, Hrasky acknowledges, that the bands dislikes greatly.
“I hate it,” he says. “I can’t stand recording. It’s just very nerve-racking.”
It’s also a process further complicated by the band’s predilection for long songs and for recording entire live takes.
“You get four minutes into a song and you still have six minutes left…you have to play the song well. Live, it doesn’t matter so much,” Hrasky says, since the band’s blistering sound levels and thrashing can cover small mistakes in the music. The recording process is a science that the band has worked to perfect over the years.
“Don’t listen to the first album, ’cause it’s not that good,” he says, and it sounds like he’s only half joking. The tracks on All of A Sudden, however, “sound a little bit more like when we’re live,” and perhaps this is the real reason behind the band’s satisfaction with the record, as well as the unprecedented depth of the album.
“We wanted this record to be more terrifying to listen to,” Hraski says. “We got letters and e-mails from people saying they’d walked down the aisle [with our songs] to get married. We wanted to make a record that people would definitely not do that to.”
And though the songs on All of a Sudden are perhaps more awe-inspiring than terrifying, they’re certainly not the obvious soundtrack for matrimonial bliss: melancholy guitar howls framed by delicate tinkling keyboard arpeggios, feedback-laced breakdowns, and sinister melodic choruses.
In the tradition of post-rock instrumentalists like Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, every EitS song tells a story, opening with a dramatic or gradual flourish, and slowly building to wailing denouement, diving in and out of the loud-quiet-loud formula perfected by Mogwai and Hum.
“Birth and Death of the Day” opens with a huge guitar crunch and glorious, haunting swells that retreat into a meditative chant of ringing guitars and deep, hollow drums. EitS’ genius lies in their ability to craft intricate, lengthy songs that stretch through climactic bursts of unrestrained noise and interludes of delicate melodies, building to a cohesive, intense whole.
“It’s Natural To Be Afraid,” the album’s crown jewel at thirteen minutes plus, begins with vaguely robotic sound elements that descend into a quietly sinister plucked melody and a dense wall of distortion. Deftly weaving through modulations in volume, the song continues on to meld airy, triumphant guitar melodies with potent percussive elements that eventually reach a wailing fever pitch before once again dissolving into the quietly chirping electronic elements of their origins.
“So Long, Lonesome,” the album’s shortest and perhaps brightest song, develops from a chatty, tinkling melody into a sweeping, bittersweet piano lullaby that serves as a triumphant final chapter to the album’s inner narrative. Whereas earlier songs created an energy from crashing, conflicting sounds and instrumental elements, this final track imparts a serenity not heard elsewhere on the album.
Hrasky and his bandmates are preparing to share their new work with the world, launching an extensive 2007 tour that will criss-cross the US, Canada, and Europe, with potential dates in Australia and Asia still in the works.
“We’re all really excited,” he says. “[Touring] is nerve-racking, exciting, terrifying.”
One upshot of their growing fame, however, is the size of the venues the band gets to play, and the cooperation from the sound board technicians that they can now expect.
“We definitely want to be loud. It’s easier now because we’re playing big venues.”
Still, though the band won’t tone down its set, Hrasky has no intention of competing with Mogwai’s eardrum-piercing live shows.
“They want to cause seizures and stuff,” laughs Hrasky.
Regardless, he shouldn’t worry about alienating listeners with delicate ears; several months in advance, EitS show dates in New York City, London, and Boston are already sold out. As long as the band avoids a “snakes on the tourbus” incident, 2007 should be reptile-free and far more eventful than last year.