More than a thousand bands were milling around Austin last month for the increasingly gargantuan South by Southwest music festival. But one of the city's most successful exports was conspicuously absent from the proceedings.
"We try to be out of town when it happens," laughs Chris Hrasky, drummer for the instrumental rock quartet Explosions in the Sky. "People come and have a good time, and it's obviously good for Austin. But there are just some things about South by Southwest that rub me the wrong way. Maybe I'm being overly negative, considering it's sort of an institution in this town. It just bothers me how much revenue is made off this thing and how poorly they pay the bands who play it. It's become something we kind of avoid at this point."
Fortunately, Explosions in the Sky no longer needs a SXSW showcase to get noticed. Nearly a decade into their career, Hrasky and guitarists Mark Smith, Munaf Rayani, and Michael James have ascended to the pantheon of "post-rock" — the faux genre assigned to indie bands that use guitars for texture and atmosphere, rather than for traditional riffs. It's hardly a classification EITS was shooting for, but the subsequent association with similarly unconventional cinematic acts like Mogwai and Sigur Rós hasn't exactly hurt either.
"The term [post-rock] used to frustrate us," admits Hrasky. "But it's been used so much now, it just bounces off of us. People have to label things. So I suppose post-rock makes sense in some weird way, just in terms of, yes, it's music with rock instruments and a rock aesthetic, but put together with a different formula. It just kind of comes with the territory."
Since its infancy, EITS has never bothered with lyrics. But the band does slap long-winded titles like "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean" and "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept" onto its songs. Try as the guys might, though, these names only hint at the type of wide-screen Technicolor majesty that the music itself tends to convey. It's obscenely serious "meaning of life" kind of stuff — chock-full of crescendos that bridge the gap between beauty and fury.
Fellow Austin band American Analog Set really said it best, however, in a note it included with its submission of Explosions' first demo to Temporary Residence Records in 2000. It read,"This totally fucking destroys."
"When we were first starting out in Austin, American Analog Set and Trail of Dead were two bands that extended their hands to us and helped us out in a lot of ways," recalls Hrasky. "They inspired us and got us moving."
Temporary Residence has been Explosions in the Sky's permanent home since that fabled demo was delivered eight years ago. And both the company and band have come a long way since.
"When we first got on the label, it was run out of [founder] Jeremy deVine's house," says Hrasky. "We got there in the middle of December, and they hadn't paid their heating bill. The place was just a bunch of cinder blocks and junk all over the ground, and we're thinking, Jesus, what have we gotten ourselves into? But over the years, we've just kind of grown up together and become something somewhat more legitimate."
Thanks to the help of music-biz allies — and some snowballing hype around the group's energetic live sets — Explosions in the Sky started making its presence felt in the mainstream in 2004 with the terrific The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, which served as a jumping-off point for the music heard in the movie Friday Night Lights. Fans really couldn't blame EITS for doing a soundtrack, since all its music sounds like an epic movie score anyway. However, some backlash did emerge in 2006, when the band licensed several of its songs for commercials.
"There's no denying, we do feel a little dirty for doing that," laughs Hrasky. "I mean, we did a Cadillac commercial, and we're totally embarrassed by it! But ultimately it was our decision. And there's no other reason we did it except that, at the time, the money was a real lifesaver."
The rock-music-in-commercials debate is an old one, but it's given a twist with an instrumental band like EITS, whose music can elicit highly personal and often radically different responses from listener to listener. Even within the band itself, a wordless song could theoretically take on conflicting meanings among the four guys who wrote it. For the most part, though, Hrasky says he and his bandmates tend to be on the same page.
"A song usually works best when it's the four of us sharing the same brain," he says. "So any time we're writing a song, it's just the four of us looking to connect. And it's very clear when it happens."
Some Words on Some of EITS' Wordless Songs
Explosions in the Sky's Chris Hrasky plays word association with a few of his band's popular tracks.
"Greet Death": "I remember we wanted part of it to sound like a man standing on a hill, watching a city on fire."
"First Breath After Coma": "When we were writing that record, [guitarist] Mark [Smith] got this weird idea to visually chart the songs out like an EKG machine. So he had a little graph, and when a part got intense, he would spike it up accordingly. I think the name 'First Breath After Coma' evolved out of that somehow."
"Welcome, Ghosts": "Well, I can't help it, but the first thing that pops into my mind when someone mentions that song is Conan O'Brien. That was the song that we played when we did his show. What we think of when we think of a song, it's never like I think of climbing a mountain. It's more like — I don't know, I think we had Burger King that day."