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Explosions In The Sky on The Wilderness and not being the band it used to be

In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.

For its sixth album, and its first non-soundtrack release since 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, Explosions In The Sky shifted its approach. As the Austin band nears two decades together, it searched for ways to use The Wilderness as a means of shaking up the band’s creative process, but also what fans have come to expect of it. The A.V. Club spoke to Explosions guitarist Michael James and drummer Chris Hrasky about a pair of songs from The Wilderness, as well as a track from the band’s classic 2003 record The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, and how they are now writing songs that wouldn’t so easily soundtrack a sports montage.

Song: “Colors In Space” from The Wilderness (2016)
Influence: The end of 2001: A Space Odyssey

The A.V. Club: Was the 2001 influence there from the get-go with “Colors In Space” or was that something that came later as the song started to take shape?

Chris Hrasky: I mean, in a broad sense, it was sort of there for the whole record. When we were first talking about [The Wilderness] we just had these images of space and this idea of the vastness of it all, which is kind of silly, but we always come up with these kind of silly ideas to spark something in us. So 2001 was kind of hanging over the whole thing in a lot of ways. I find 2001 to be absolutely terrifying in so many ways. The fact that movie exists, and that it was even released—it still baffles me. It was at least a guidepost, but not in any specific way, except with that song.

Michael James: At the end of the song, it pretty much devolves into a nightmare of madness and screeching and that was very much influenced by the tunnel of colors that the astronaut goes through at the end of the film, in his sort of inter-dimensional travels. It’s very terrifying, and this whole song is very spacey and moves around in a lot of different places and, to me, the rest of the song doesn’t particularly evoke the 2001 imagery. It seems like the song, before it falls into chaos, is a very upbeat song. We wanted to just tear that down and destroy it at the end and send it through this inter-dimensional space warp. And it does; it completely destroys any kind of good will that the song has built up.

CH: I remember very specifically, we were in a practice space and we were trying to figure it out. And I said that I was thinking about that scene from 2001, and we typed that in on YouTube and there’s the scene. So we just watched it and said, “We have to make the rest of the song sort of feel like that and just sit with that.” So, a lot of times, when we have very specific influences, it’s a way to get us past a wall that we’ve hit.

AVC: In a way it kind of mirrors the film. Things seem to be going fairly well and then it just becomes a total disaster.

CH: That was not the idea from the beginning. We never really have anything that well mapped out and, usually, songs take us so long that it’s hard to pinpoint when we’re like, “Here’s how this should end.” Like [in “Colors In Space”] we have this kraut-rock thing that is happening and then we have this thing that is very clearly inspired by the [composer Gyögry] Ligeti piece that terrifies people and it makes them want it to stop. I know that we definitely wanted there to be points on this record that felt like pure terror. Terror in a way that’s not just a heavy song, but sounds that are just like, “Man, please, you’ve got to turn this off.” That was one of those moments where we really just wanted to push it. Like in 2001, it goes on for a long time. And as beautiful as it is, it’s also very uncomfortable. We wanted “Colors In Space” to have that. For people to be like, “Man, they should have stopped this by now. This has gone on a little too long.” I’m pretty sure we specifically said, “Let’s make it sound like the Ligeti thing.” They used him a lot in 2001, and I feel like there’s maybe some Ligeti stuff in the The Shining as well, but we just wanted to get that Kubrick terror going. Where it’s almost beyond existential dread; it’s like you’re almost going to lose your mind if you keep listening to it.

MJ: To be honest, for a lot of the new record, I think we were trying to confound expectationsour own expectations first—and certainly listener expectations second.

AVC: How did you approach that? Trying to go against what your own expectations of an Explosions In The Sky record should be, as well as what your fans would want?

MJ: You know, we’ve been a band for 16 years now and we’ve made a bunch of music. We’ve made five records and probably as many soundtracks. We’ve written a lot of music. At this point, as we’re writing songs, it’s become pretty easy to say, “Okay, this is where this song should go, it should take this direction, and it should have this descending minor chord here.” It becomes a little stale—it really does. So, to make ourselves interested, we had to scrape away that top layer of things that were easy. That’s the problem—when you’ve been doing this for so long, we’re pretty good at that and we can do it pretty easily, and that’s satisfying and it hits all the right buttons and I totally don’t want to do that at all.

That’s the hardest thing, doing something you’re not sure about. But, to me, that was the most rewarding thing about it—was to just take that plunge and kind of say, “Fuck it. We’re going to do it because we like it and we think it’s interesting.” And whether or not it’s good to anybody else has to become secondary if we’re going to stay interested.

CH: It was pretty self-conscious of us to not do things that, some would argue, we’d done too many times in the past. We wanted to make something where a song could be awful and unpleasant. One thing we kept joking about when working on this record was, “I don’t know if anyone is going to use any of these songs for a sports montage.” That’s something that’s happened to us a lot. Or, people are not going to walk down the aisle at their wedding to any of these songs. We get messages about that all the time like, “We walked down the aisle to this song.” Which is amazing and awesome, but we definitely did not want that with this record. It was a very conscious decision to challenge ourselves, only because I don’t want to hear what we used to do anymore. I love all those songs, but man, it just feels like a long time ago. I feel like we either had to try and move on and change something up, or just stop. Whether or not we succeeded, I don’t know, but I feel like we did. It does feel different to me.

Song: “Logic Of A Dream” from The Wilderness (2016)
Influence: Trying to capture the feeling of a dream-like state

AVC: This song almost feels like the inverse of “Colors In Space” in that it’s constantly darting from part to part. Was that a conscious thing, to have the song mirror the erratic nature of a dream?

MJ: The concept of “Logic Of A Dream” was something we had talked about as an album-length writing project, to try to make an entire album where things kind of move in and out and they don’t necessarily connect. That kind of movement we found very interesting but, to be honest, we found it impossible to try and do it as an album. I think we’re a little too rooted in the structure of the songs. I feel like on this song we were able to do it, but it was one of the most challenging things, because all the parts are pretty different. There’s a very sparse beginning, and then it goes into these gigantic synth blasts, that then it goes into a very heavy, chugging riff, which then sort of goes into a very lilting, indie guitar swing.

And to make all of those disparate parts go together it was really hard, and we couldn’t do it for the longest time. We just banged our heads against the wall with it. We had all the parts and there was something linking them together. Just like in the way that, in a dream, there’s something linking things together. They’re wildly different, and wildly different scenarios, but our goal was to make them seem to flow in a way that made some kind of sense. I feel like we finally did it. We got to a place where, to us, the song does have that internal logic. Even though it’s very strange, and it doesn’t have any kind of typical structure, I’m really happy with how that turned out.

CH: What I like about that song: There’s the cacophonous, really aggressive middle part with this chugging bass and the crazy squeals and wails and the insane drums, and then it kind of evaporates into the most pleasant thing we’ve ever written. It’s almost like Fleetwood Mac for the last minute and a half of that song. I feel like the challenge for us was to make that not just be like, “What is this? Why is it here now?” We had to make it be okay. Like, “Yeah, that works. It somehow works and it somehow fits.” Whether or not it does for people, it does for us. It doesn’t make sense in terms of how people might expect a song to go but it created its own logic, in the way that people try to put logic into a dream. Which is something I’ve never been able to understand, as my dreams are just a bunch of nonsense and utter insanity. We wanted all the songs to have a feeling of, “How did this get to here?” You just suddenly realize that now we’re here in this part.

I know the guy who runs our label, his wife was listening to that song when he first played her the record. And when the discordant, heavy, middle part is going, and it’s just getting more and more abrasive, he told me she was saying, “I hate this. I want this to stop.” And then it dissolves into the gentle, Fleetwood Mac part, and she was suddenly like, “I love this song. This song is great.” And I like that. That she hated and loved the song within the course of 30 seconds.

AVC: The song’s thesis is right there in the title as well. Was this a way of looking at how humans try to explain things that are largely unexplainable?

MJ: I think that’s what kind of interesting about our dreams; in a dream your conscious mind isn’t doing all of its rationalizing, but we sort of inherently accept these very huge swings in your environment or­ the world that you’re experiencing. That’s something we can’t do when we’re awake, and I think that’s something we apply to every facet of our lives. We apply it to art and music and our relationships with other people—we have to tidy everything up. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a part of the human experience. We try to see patterns in everything and we try to put things in an orderly fashion. But to be able to take that idea of letting that go in the dream world and trying to apply it to the real world, even with something as abstract as art, I think it was a very interesting exercise.

AVC: It seems like the two songs we discussed, as well as much of The Wilderness, seems to be focused on the vastness of space, both outer and inner. One song looks at the great unknowns of the universe, and the other is the great unknowns of ourselves.

MJ: I guess for us the theme of the album, and what was driving the songs, was the idea of exploration. The title, The Wilderness—what comes to mind is the natural world we live in. But yes, we were talking about the exploration of all kinds of unknown areas. And that’s the natural world is where we, as humans, first started exploring. But now, we’ve mapped our planet, so the other uncharted territories that are available for us to explore are those beyond our planet, in outer space, and inside our own minds and our psyches. We’re just starting the exploration on both of those fronts. It is far more expansive and just extremely unknown. The little bit that we know about how our brain works is endlessly fascinating, and it’s enormous, and it seems almost as infinite inward as outer space is outward, and it’s very much a wilderness. So the exploration of those fronts is exactly the feeling we were trying to capture with these songs.

CH: The big thing for us was to make a record that sounded very vast and alien and space-like, in very generic terms, but also still felt kind of human and personal, which is what we always strive for. Even the title, The Wilderness, even though we talked about how this record is about space we didn’t want to give it some sort of space title. Even the artwork, we didn’t want it to be pictures of planets or something. It’s about vastness but also a single, little human mind and how insane and complicated and terrifying that is. And with The Wilderness, we don’t mean a bunch of trees in the forest; we wanted to do something sort of grander and broader than that.

Song: “Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean” from The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
Influence: The sinking of the Kursk submarine

AVC: This is a pretty harrowing story. After the submarine sunk, it’s claimed that people were alive for some time with no real way out. What about this situation made it stick with you?

MJ: I don’t really know exactly why the four of us were so affected by this particular story. Horrible tragedies happen in the world every day but, for some reason, when this was happening we couldn’t stop talking about it. It was just awful. It affected all of us very deeply. I think the image of these men, and probably these boys and young soldiers, being trapped in this submarine and not sure if anyone was coming to get them. They were facing a very uncertain future, but a pretty certain look at death. It just seemed so pointless and tragic, and was just a very powerful, moving image for us.

I think the initial kernel of the song had already been there. It was a very sad guitar piece at the beginning and we didn’t really have anywhere to go with it; we just kind of had it laying around. As we were sort of talking about this and saying it sounds like that one guitar piece that we have and that sort of image it has, and the song just came together pretty quickly after that. [This story] was very sad, and this song was just a way for us to deal with it and this weird obsession with a very pointless tragedy that was happening. It was just a way for us to talk about it without talking it to death. We talked about it by writing this song.

As I recall, we finished writing it pretty quickly. Again, it was started from the beginning piece. And that was a very haunting beginning—and it’s pretty morbid—but as the song keeps going along, it begins to get faster and faster until it’s pretty frantic. And, to us, that was the idea of these men on the submarine losing their air, and then losing their hope, until the song just stops. And that was their lives, unfortunately. The name of the song—once we found out that they were pretty certain there was nobody alive on the submarine—we were like, okay, the song has to build this sort of frantic desperation and then just stop. It’s a very tragic ending.

CH: I think this was a situation where we had a lot of a song, but we just didn’t know where to go with it. We had gotten to a point where we were like, “Man, nothing is working. What should we do?” And while we were writing this song, [this story] was on the news for, like, a good week or so. It was on CNN and every day they’d have updates about it. Allegedly how it played out is that most of the guys died in the initial explosions, but there were maybe 15 or 20 guys who had all put themselves in this one compartment in the sub and survived for, allegedly, six days before they ended up dying. It’s just that thought of the sheer terror of that paired with something we read—or maybe we were inventing this—where eventually they said they found, tucked in plastic bags in this compartment, these letters to their family members. It was like, “Jesus Christ, what a fucking horrible story.” It was just a heartbreaking, awful story.

I feel like in the middle of that song, there’s these big booms that happen, and if I recall correctly, Munaf [Rayani, Explosions In the Sky guitarist] was saying, “There should be these big booms where it’s like dudes hitting against the door.” It also makes us sound much more glum than we actually are in real life. It’s kind of icky to say it, but it’s just what we needed to help us finish the song. So many people think that The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place is all about 9/11. No, it was certainly in our minds at the time, in the way that it was in everybody’s mind because we wrote it less than a year after that happened. But yeah, that’s the specific tragedy we mined. I don’t know if it’s something that’s bad of us to have done. [Laughs.]