Explosions in the Sky’s Chris Hrasky [Republic, March 7, 2007]

I think it’s safe to say that we are a region equally accustomed to both tragedy and comedy. We have shown the rest of the country that it’s okay to laugh when you cry, that we are more than King George’s Court Jester. We are inherently self-obsessed, forever wary of outsiders (except those named Drew or Reggie) but always ready to accommodate. We are a city of paradoxes, a tragedy of sometimes-Shakespearean proportions ready to make any heart quake, but a ribbon of victory runs through our collective garment. We celebrate ourselves despite ourselves. Because no matter how thick the lake mud gets, there’s always a Crescent City Water Meter underneath it.
Maybe that’s why I like Explosions in the Sky so much. The Austin post-rock group’s newest record, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, is forty-five minutes of absolutely terrifying noise bowling in some of the most beautiful, emotional, and affirming music being made. All without saying a word.
The four-piece (guitarists Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark T. Smith along with drummer Chris Hrasky) have been specializing in a sort of new Romanticism within the admittedly depressing post-rock scene since 1999. 2003’s gorgeous and heartbreaking The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place made fans out of the film industry (EITS scored the high school football film Friday Night Lights) and Madison Avenue (who used “Your Hand in Mine” and “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” to sell Cadillacs). The band previously found themselves in the national spotlight following the release of 2001’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. The album, which came out in late August of that year, bore several strange similarities to the following month’s terrorist attacks, including album art that showed a plane captioned with “This plane will crash tomorrow.”
Make no mistake about it. All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is by all means a sad record.  But among the sadness, there’s a sense of majesty. There’s beauty. There’s a spirit of triumph working its way through each song, sometimes so quietly that you have to listen closer than you otherwise would to hear it. Under the noise of three guitars feeding back, a piano twinkles a prayer. The patter of a floor tom, the raising of the eyes. And sometimes the majesty screams at you, direct and in the front of the mix, the three guitars now holding hands around a maypole, twisting and turning not out of agony but out of a love for the sheer weightiness of being. It’s always there. Beauty rests among the sadness. It’s everywhere. This is exactly the record that we all need. It’s always great to be alive.

ANTIGRAVITY: What does the songwriting process look like for Explosions in the Sky?
Chris Hrasky (drums): It’s basically just sort of a trial and error.  Usually, someone will come in with something they thought up at home, some little part or phrase. Basically it’s just us screwing around until something comes of it; or, more often than not, nothing comes of it. It’s really just kinda sitting around and talking and playing over and over again. It usually takes us a while to actually complete anything. But it’s mostly just trial and error; that’s probably why we’re not as prolific as we’d like to be.
AG: “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” [from The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place] is about the Russian submarine that sank a few years back. Are any of your other songs about specific events?
CH: Not very many of them, actually. I think sometimes if we’re having trouble finishing a song we’ll think up a story line or even just a phrase, or a one-sentence story to guide us to figure out how we want to finish the song or whatever. It’s not too often, but with you calling from New Orleans, [I should mention that] there’s a song on the new record like that. While we were working on it was right in the middle of Katrina and the aftermath of all that and I think that it sort of influenced one of those songs for sure.
AG: Is it “What Do You Go Home To?”
CH: Actually, it’s “It’s Natural to be Afraid,” although “What Do You Go Home To?” makes sense title-wise. Of course, the art work, obviously. A lot of people have made mention or have asked us, “Is this a Katrina reference?” It’s strange because the artwork wasn’t really intentionally like that. We sort of had some of these ideas before it happened, but I think afterwards it was like, “Well, you know, we’re gonna get questions about it. You know, there’s a flooded city on the front; people are going to make assumptions about that.” I think we felt pretty okay with that considering one of the songs was influenced by that, or it was something that was going through our minds when we were working on it.
AG: That’s strange, considering the controversy that you guys had with album art after September 11th.
CH: Yeah, we get all of the US disasters. Our artwork parallels all of that. (laughs)
AG: That’s one of the things that I like about your music, though, is the ambiguity of it. When I hear the rainy piano and the thundering drums on “What Do You Go Home To?” and I look at that album cover, all I can think about is hurricanes and rooftop helicopter rescues, but some dude in Iowa or Wisconsin may think of something completely different.
CH: Yeah, and that’s why we hesitate when people do ask us what our songs are supposed to be about. Rarely do we have a moment where we say, “Oh, this song is about this,” or “This guitar line means this,” or whatever, but we do like the idea of people personalizing it. That’s always been real interesting to us. There’s some message board where some kids have posted that All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is a soundtrack to Catcher in the Rye. They went through it point by point as to why. It’s not, of course. But I like to see stuff like that. It’s pretty cool that somehow they’re engaging in it in some way.
AG: Catcher in the Rye, though?
CH: (laughs) Yeah, it was pretty strange. They were like, “Well, the first song is called ‘The Birth and Death of the Day,’ and, in a way, Holden Caulfield is reborn…” I really do appreciate that, though.
AG: Well you must have a series of weird moments now, what with the Friday Night Lights soundtrack and the Cadillac commercial and all.
CH: Yeah, they’re pretty surreal. The Cadillac commercial isn’t really surreal; I guess I would say it’s a bit uncomfortable.
AG: Really?
CH: (reluctantly) Well, yeah. Not really uncomfortable but it’s just kinda…to be perfectly honest, we’re not real proud of having our music in that. I will readily admit that. Completely honestly, the only reason that we did that was for money. As horrible as that sounds, it’s the truth. So it’s the kind of thing where, like, my parents will call and say, “Hey, we just saw the Cadillac commercial!” and I just say, (sarcastically) “Great!” Because to a parent, that’s like the ultimate goal, that sort of deal. But to us it’s more of an embarrassment, I guess. We don’t feel that way about Friday Night Lights but, Cadillac, yeah.
AG: Yeah, there was this really weird moment this fall when LSU was playing Auburn in football and it was a really intense game and we’re all sitting around screaming at the TV, and they cut to commercial so we fall silent for about fifteen seconds, then the Cadillac ad comes on and everyone starts screaming again and phones are ringing off the hook because all of our friends are calling.
CH: Yeah, it’s pretty strange. I honestly thought we’d get more of a backlash or resentment for it. I don’t think that that’s unwarranted either. When I see a band that I like’s music in a commercial, I can’t help it, I’m kinda bummed out a little bit. But it’s weird that that really didn’t happen. Mostly it was people congratulating us. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad sign (laughs).
AG: Yeah, and of Montreal played here last weekend and when they started playing their song that’s in the…
CH: Yeah, the Outback Steakhouse song? I think a lot of it is just these music supervisors who work for these ad agencies and all that sorta thing are all guys in their 20s and 30s who listen to that kind of music so they’re putting it into their commercials. There’s definitely this weird sort of shift in the last four or five years. I mean, I’ve seen Modest Mouse songs in like four or five different commercials.

AG: What inspires you guys to write?
CH: It’s something that we love to do so we just keep doing it, you know what I mean? It’s not really like something will happen in our lives that will move us to write a song about it. All four of us have played music for so long that it’s become something we actually do for a living. It’s kinda a weird shift. We just all love playing music and I think that the four of us just really seem to like playing music together.
AG: When you guys write, do you think with an album theme in mind, or are you writing track by track?
CH: We try to always keep it by album. As we’re writing a song, we just look at it as a specific song but we also look at it in terms of “Where can this go in an album?” So if we write one song and then another similar song, we want them to sort of fit in the vision of an album. We basically work on songs until they’re done and once it’s done we’re pretty certain that it will go on the album. We never have like, eight songs and have to choose the best six to go on the album. We’ll be writing and once we have six songs it’s like, “Well, there’s the album. We’re done. That’s enough, that’s enough songs. We don’t need any more than that.” But we always look at it as an album. We spend a lot of time figuring out where songs should be placed.
AG: How closely did you work with Esteban Rey on the album art?
CH: Oh, real closely. He’s one of our best friends. He lives with Michael and stuff. It was a daily struggle. You know, we would just beat him on a regular basis. He’s an amazing artist but he’s got some procrastination problems, so we’d have to abuse him and whip him into shape. It’s always been that way with us. We’ll have these ideas – and he’ll come up with ideas, too – and he’ll work on stuff and he’ll show it to us and usually it’s like, “No, just start over again,” and so on and so on. So it’s a pretty torturous process for him. Ultimately, he loves doing it. Once it’s done, anyway. We spend a lot of time on that stuff. We feel like it’s as important as the music. We know that it’s not really the way things are these days, with people downloading stuff, but the artwork is part of the package of the album. There’s the music, artwork, and titles. We spend a lot of time and get frustrated working on the artwork.
AG: Where did the title for the new record come from?
CH: I can’t remember which one of us even came up with it but we were talking about what we wanted the album to be about, this real loose theme or whatever, and it was this idea of someone just kinda going about their life and then all of a sudden, well, missing everyone, coming to this realization that they’ve isolated themselves and lost touch with the people they’ve loved. I don’t know why that was the theme. So the artwork is this guy out adrift in this flood, floating around in these small little memories of things he misses, people he misses. That’s basically it. I’m not sure why we always have such melodramatic and depressing themes, but that’s always how it kinda turns out (laughs).
AG: Well, all of the interviews and reviews of the new record that I’ve read mention how depressing this album is, how it’s your darkest record and all, but I hear a spirit of triumph beneath it all that I feel sorta wins in the end, especially compared to something like [the considerably darker] Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever.
CH: Yeah, and Those Who Tell the Truth just feels so long ago now. The last record is one that got us known and it’s the one that people always talk about. This record definitely feels a lot darker than that record. But, I don’t know! I say that, but there are some bright moments on the new record! I don’t know. It seemed like it was darker, but I don’t know that it necessarily is. There are parts that are.
AG: How do you avoid being repetitive, particularly in a genre that seems prone to repetition?
CH: Hopefully we have gotten out of that trap. I know that some people who have heard the record think we have, but we’ve also heard people say that it’s more of the same, that we’re doing the same thing over and over again. I guess that’s valid but I don’t personally agree with that. Again, though, it’s just trial and error. We spent a lot of time working on [the songs on] this record and we threw a bunch of songs away because they kinda seemed like it wasn’t anything particularly exciting or interesting. Everything sounded like stuff that could be on the Friday Night Lights soundtrack. All kind of pleasant to listen to, but there wasn’t really anything else going on. I think we really wanted to not do that. It’s really just working on things until we thought that they were unique enough. And like I said, some people think that they are and some people think that we’re just treading water. But there are people who think that all four of our records basically sound the same. I don’t agree, but, you know, I’m also biased. I also feel like this record has a bit more of a … well, there are rock parts on all of the records but I feel like this is the most, like, traditional rock record that we’ve made. This is going to sound ridiculous, but we joked that this record sounds like AC/DC, even though it doesn’t. But there are moments with big chords and more traditional rock chords as opposed to what we’ve previously done. And that was intentional; we wanted this one to be more of a rock record. I think it’s different, but I’ve also been analyzing it every day for the last year.
AG: It took you guys two years to write it, right?
CH: Well, basically, we toured through all of 2004 and did the Friday Night Lights stuff, so we took early 2005 off and started writing around May of 2005. We worked on stuff for several months and didn’t get anywhere. I don’t think we started getting anything for this record until about a year ago. For several months we were just throwing stuff away and sitting there in despair, thinking that we were doomed. We seem to have gone through that phase with every record, like, “Well, it was fun while it lasted, guys.”
AG: I saw you guys in Houston about a year ago and when you got to the climax of “The Only Moment We Were Alone,” people started screaming and maybe losing control of themselves in really bizarre ways, throwing themselves around.
CH: (chuckles) Yeah.
AG: Why do you think your music strikes such a deep, emotional chord with people?
CH: I don’t know! We love that that is the reaction that some people have. We used to talk about it, but we’ve stopped because we don’t know how or why this is happening or why people are responding to it that way. I really don’t know. Sometimes I think that people realize that this music means everything to us and that it’s something we truly are passionate about, but I don’t know if that’s something that would cause that. I don’t know, I guess they just like it. I mean, it’s weird because that is the intended effect. We want to make music that people can lose themselves in and hold close to their heart. Luckily, so far we’ve been able to accomplish that. Our goal is to always be able to do that. We should try to figure it out so we can crank one out every year (laughs).
AG: Is it hard for you guys to put that much emotion into playing every night?
CH: Sometimes. Shows like that Houston show, it was easy because we hadn’t been playing live much. Once you’re touring a lot there are times when you start to get real robotic about it. You’ll be playing and you realize that you’re starting to think about what’s for dinner or praying that at the hotel something awesome is on HBO. I would say most of the time we’re able to get lost in it, especially if it seems like the people watching are getting lost in it. It’s an amazing feeling when the people watching seem like they’re rooting for you.
AG: You guys are a bit more positive than some of the bands that you get compared to often. You don’t really have the dark side that a band like Godspeed or Mogwai has.
CH: We don’t want to make music that would be just sort of one emotion. We’d rather have a song that is more emotionally complex. We try to have a song that sounds like someone falling in love and ten seconds later it sounds like a guy with a gun in his mouth. We try to have a broad spectrum. I feel like music that’s always dark and depressing has its place. Godspeed gets that a lot, but there are also Godspeed songs that are really beautiful and lush.
AG: Who do you consider to be your musical peers?
CH: I don’t know, I guess it’s hard to say. I guess people will say that it’s bands like Mogwai and Godspeed. We listen to so many bands and when you tour a lot you kinda  run into so many bands. I guess our peers would be anybody making music. That’s too hard of a question for me (laughs).
AG: Was there any one moment when you guys realized the, I dunno, to put it in some sort of cheesy superhero way, the power that you guys hold in your hands when you play?
CH: (laughs) There have definitely been moments like that, but it’s hard to me to remember any specific ones. I know that there was one time when we played at this festival in Belgium and we were doing “The Only Moment We Were Alone.” We were in a tent and there were something like 3,000 people there and up to that point that was the most people we’d ever played in front of. We were doing the part where it’s only the bass drum and a little bit of guitar and the whole place started clapping along. It was the first time that anything like that had ever happened. That was the first time on a large scale. That freaked us out. In a good way. But even playing shows in the early days for five people and someone coming up afterwards to tell us that they started crying during the show, that was so meaningful to us. I like the notion of being a superhero, though. We are now superheroes.
AG: What is your proudest musical moment?
CH: Up to this point, it’s probably this newest record. In terms of actual music we’ve done, this is what I’m most proud of. This is the first one that when it was done and mixed we’ve been unanimously excited about. The others took a bit more time. We’re all really happy with this one. I don’t know, maybe we’re deluding ourselves.
AG: I read an interview with you where you said that if you guys were going to cover anything, it would be “Stay Together for the Kids” by Blink 182.
CH: Well, that particular Blink 182 song we all really love! It was the first thing that I could think of. The stuff that we like is generally not real similar to the stuff we play. A band that the four of us love and adore is the Shins. We first got into that band in 2004 and I swear we listened to those two records like 500 times in four months. But yeah, that particular Blink 182 song was something that we all liked. If it came on the radio we’d all go, ‘Oh! Kickass! Good song!” We have pretty lowbrow tastes, I guess.
AG: I’ve noticed that you guys always mention your pets in the same breath as wives and girlfriends. Are you big animal people?
CH: Yeah, I’ve got a dog. I get along much better with dogs than I do with people. Every day, waking up and seeing my dog is like a gift. I look and him and go, “Man, you’re awesome.”
AG: When’s the last time you guys came to New Orleans?
CH: It’s been a while. Probably November of 2003, right after the last record came out. We played at some crazy squatter / gutter-punk place that they did weird punk shows at. It was pretty cool but it was like 80% gutter-punks. We were sorta terrified. I can’t remember what the name of the place was, but it’s been a while. We’re pretty interested in coming back. Friends who have been there recently say that it’s insane, like a bomb has been dropped.
AG: Yeah, it’s like that in parts, but some of the city you can drive around and never really know what happened. Where you guys are playing, for instance, you’d never guess anything ever happened.
CH: Yeah. How is it over there? I mean, I know that there are crime problems and the population’s at like, what, half of what it was before?
AG: It varies. Right now I’m in my dad’s house and there’s a house down the street that’s standing on wooden pallets about six feet in the air for reasons that no one seems to know, but downtown looks like it always did. Depending on where you live, you can pretty much go about your day and the only indication that anything’s wrong is the missing traffic lights. But of course, there are parts of the city that still look like they did the day after the water receded.
CH: Did you grow up there?
AG: No, I grew up about two hours west, in Lafayette, but I moved here in 2003 to go to school and moved out after the hurricane. I want to be back, though. I come in almost every weekend.
CH: Well, you’ve got Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie now. It is good. I mean, I make fun of them for doing it because of who they are, but it makes the news at least. Like, at the State of the Union Address, George didn’t mention New Orleans once. I was like, “Dude, you’re a lunatic. There’s a major American city still barely devastated and it doesn’t even come up.”
AG: Yeah, that was duly noted around here.
CH: Oh I’m sure it was, I’m sure it was.

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