Texas post-rockers Explosions in the Sky are currently riding a fresh wave of hype and with the release of their astounding new album ‘All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone’, it’s no surprise they’re suddenly getting the much needed attention they deserve. Just before they play at storming set at Camden’s KOKO on a bitterly cold March night, Gigwise sits down with bassist and band lynchpin Michael James where we find out his adoration for Radiohead, the mind-blowingly long amount of time it takes for Explosions to write an album and the exaggerated ‘almost break-up’ of the band…
Explosions in the Sky’s apocalyptic music is very venue-specific, meaning wherever they play can either make the show fantastic or ruin it, depending on a number of factors. Sitting in the hallowed surroundings of KOKO, Michael quickly reflects upon his favourite venue: “We played at this place in Amsterdam called the Paradiso, and it’s really amazing. It’s an old church converted into a venue, so it’s really beautiful, but a little on the large side. When it comes to gigs, it’s always best to play for really small crowds. KOKO has a capacity of 1400, which is getting a bit high, but playing for 400 to 500 people is really great. The crowd is just right there,” he points in front of him, “and it’s just really intimate and makes the experience so much more powerful.”
But they’ve played in front of crowds in the thousands for some festivals, so why do that if they don’t like it? “No, no, festivals can be really great. We’ve played a couple really awesome festivals—the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival here in England is amazing. We played that in 2004, and it was great. But yeah, really huge festivals can be kind of weird, especially if we have to play during the day,” he laughs. “The sunshine and our music… it’s just not very appropriate.” How very true.
Restricted on the amount of radio play they receive, playing live has always been at the forefront of Explosions in the Sky’s ambitions to get noticed. So the conversation naturally moves on to the pros and cons of being on the road. “There are all kinds of things that can go wrong while touring. Y’know, we’ve dealt with flaky promoters who don’t pay us. And most of the time our crowds are really demure, but sometimes they can be a bit unruly, and that’s annoying. But as far as the good things go, there are amazing things about every region we get to go to while touring. Enjoying the experience of the place where we are is always the best thing. Whenever we get a little time off before we play and actually get to explore the city, that’s great…” he trails off and puffs on his cigarette. “On the whole, touring is a good thing. We get tired, and we’re doing the same thing every day, but for that hour that we’re on stage, it’s so worth it. I forget everything and just play and have this amazing connection with the crowd. It’s always worth it in the end, it really is.”
For the uninitiated, getting his teeth stuck into the history of the band, Michael tells us how the three original members first met. “Munaf and I met while we were playing basketball, just met randomly on the court. We started hanging out after that, and then he introduced me to Mark, and we all started a band in Midland [Texas]. At first it was just kinda noise-pop stuff—y’know, ripping on Sonic Youth and Pavement. Then we all moved around the States quite a bit before actually settling down in Austin, which is where we met Chris. He had put a flyer up at a record store, looking for a band. We were looking for a drummer, so it just kinda worked out perfectly. This was in 1999 by the way, and we just hit it off. Ever since then we’ve been a band.”
And they never wanted a vocalist? “No. We didn’t even really talk about what kind of music we wanted to play at first, we just kinda got together and played. None of us wanted to sing—none of us can sing,” he chuckles, “and we didn’t want to play with anyone else, so by default we were an instrumental band.” We push him further asking if they ever consider adding a vocalist? “Well, never say never,” Michael smiles and reaches for another cigarette. “But probably not.”
To ask a band as phenomenal as Explosions in the Sky who they would most like to collaborate with is a massive question, with an equally massive answer. Michael is able to reply without hesitation. “Radiohead,” he proclaims. “We all love Radiohead. We’re huge fans,” he gushes. “Also, working with The Flaming Lips would be amazing.” Influences, then – everyone wants to know what kind of music shaped their favourite musicians lives while growing up and what continues to shape their lives today. “I listened to all kinds of stuff when I was growing up,” Michael says, sipping on his Corona. “My mother listened to classical music, so I was always around that. Then I got really into metal, like Metallica and Slayer and all that stuff. I also really liked punk rock, like Operation Ivy and NOFX. It progressed from there to stuff like The Cure and The Smiths. Today…” he pauses and thinks, “I love the new Shins album. Love it. And there’s this ambient band called Stars of the Lid, I’ve been listening to their new stuff. Panda Bear [lead singer of Animal Collective], his solo stuff is so good.”
With the growing popularity of what most people call ‘post-rock’ thanks to the likes of 65daysofstatic and stalwarts Mogwai, Slint and Godspeed You Black Emperor, what are the band’s thoughts on being at the forefront of the genre? “Honestly, I don’t really know how I feel about it. We’ve never considered ourselves a post-rock band. We didn’t get into it saying ‘Let’s play post rock.’ We just wanted to be a rock band, but we don’t have a singer, so we’re considered post rock. I just don’t really know how I feel about being a forerunner of the genre, since we never really set out to make that specific kind of music.” Fair enough.
Anyone who is familiar with the work of EITS and has heard the latest album ‘All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone’ knows they’ve made some changes. For instance, the album is imbued with that classic instrument, the piano. We ask Michael, why they decide to add it? “It was just an experiment that worked out. None of us even know how to play the piano at all,” he laughs, “but it’s one of those instruments that can just sound so beautiful even if you don’t really know how to play it. Chris plays it on the third song, I play it on the fourth song, Munaf plays it on the sixth song. It was just an experiment; it could have gone wrong, in which case it wouldn’t have ended up on the album, but it went right so we kept it.”
We ask him sum up the album in three words. He pauses for a good 20 seconds before answering, “Lonely. That would be a big one. Warm. I get a very warm feeling from this record. And hopeful,” he ponders. “I know these are all sort of contradictory words, but that’s how I feel about it.”
Speaking of the album-making process, Michael tells us of the complexity of writing their music. It’s not just a sit-down-and-play-a-few-chords-and-they’re-done kind of thing. Their song writing takes months, sometimes even years to perfect. “We recorded this last album over a span of ten days,” he says, “but we wrote it for about two years. We have everything planned out and ready to go by the time we’re in the studio. And when we’re actually writing our music, we all sit down and fiddle around until something sounds right. We all have to completely agree on the sound of something for it to work. If all four of us don’t love something we’ve written, it’s gone. It’s out. There’s not one songwriter in the band, it’s all of us. It’s a great thing, but it gets really frustrating, and that’s when we argue the most. And that’s why it takes two years to finish something,” he chuckles.
Running out of time, we asking a question that could possibly be a touchy or awkward subject for any of the band mates, so we warn Michael first. What was with the band’s almost break-up before this album came out? He laughs, “Yeah, it’s funny, Chris had said that in an interview, but that’s greatly exaggerated. We didn’t actually almost break up; there was a period of about six months when we were writing this album, and we were just at a dead end. In the first year, we wrote a ton of stuff. And we ended up scrapping all of it. Two whole albums worth of stuff just got thrown away. We just couldn’t finish anything and we were really frustrated. It was a tough time for us, but we weren’t really going to break up.”
Always evolving and releasing devastatingly brilliant records, it’s a damn fine thing that Explosions in the Sky are still with us.