In an unassuming London hotel, one of many featureless temporary residences in the King’s Cross area, lurk two of the most inspirational instrumental musicians on the planet. Yet chances are you wouldn’t recognise them if they passed you in the street.
Michael James and Munaf Rayani have a double room to call their own for a couple of nights; a 14-inch television sits atop a tiny fridge, and the beds are so close together that it’s near impossible to squeeze an average-framed individual between them for sheet-swapping services. The pair comprise fifty per cent of Texan-spawned quartet Explosions In The Sky, one of few lyric-less acts pigeonholed as post-rock that refuse to allow said genre’s constraints to limit their creativity. That they continue to reach star-wards eight years into their existence is evident after just a cursory listen to their latest long-player, and fourth in all, All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone.
Absent today are the completing half of Mark Smith and Chris Hrasky; they, for reasons unknown, chose not to fly overseas for a succession of promotional interviews. Rayani, too, must leave as DiS finally fathoms how to make its new digital recorder flash red; another journalist is downstairs, so he must take his leave for the time being. A handshake later, it’s DiS and James in a strange hotel room. The window’s cracked open and a cigarette is lit. Smalltalk begins.
“This is the pre-tour tour,” says James, sucking back on nicotine. “After the Koko show (March 1), we’ve a couple more shows in the UK and then we tour the States, for four weeks I think. We’re booked pretty solidly – although we’ve a few weeks off in April, we’re back to Europe straight after that.”
The Austin-ites have a busy 2007 ahead of them, then, but that’s to be expected given their existing reputation and the likelihood of its expansion following the release of All Of A Sudden…, via Bella Union in the UK, on February 19. Hard touring is in the band’s blood, anyway: they spent much of 2004 on the road after their The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place LP of a year previous elevated them from instrumental also-rans favoured by a few folk of excellent taste to the scene leaders they’re considered to be today.
“In 2004 we spent almost eight months touring, and at the time we didn’t really know what we were doing – we were just saying yes to everything ‘cause we were so excited. Then about four months in we realised we’d bitten off more than we could chew. Nowadays we don’t want twelve-hour drives between shows in one day, y’know – we’ll do four weeks on and two weeks off, so even though it’s not that much of a break it’s enough to go home, sleep in your own bed, see friends and girlfriends and whatever. I think we’ve learned what we can and can’t do, so as to stay sane on tour.”
Although there’s been an on-paper four-year gap between albums, EITS haven’t restricted their band-related activities to touring alone; in addition to an EP, The Rescue, released in 2005 and the re-issue of their self-released debut How Strange, Innocence in the same year, the four-piece also scored a major Hollywood movie.
“We did a soundtrack for a movie in 2004, Friday Night Lights. It was an anomaly, actually – we got an e-mail from this guy Brian Reitzell, the music supervisor behind The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, and he’d heard Earth… somehow. So that was lucky for us, and it was the first offer of that nature we’d had. We had done scores for local films, but that was the first for a Hollywood movie. We haven’t done any soundtrack stuff since then – we’ve had offers, but nothing we’re really interested in. We were just so intent on writing this new album that we didn’t want anything taking our attentions away from it.”
Despite appearances, EITS’s music rarely takes a long time to commit to tape, and their latest is no different: “We recorded and mixed in ten days, but our last album was done in five days, and our first one was done in two,” says James, before adding that it’s the length of the writing process that ensures that, come the depression of the record button, everything’s as it should be compositionally. EITS aren’t ones for too much touching up in the studio.
“The writing process of this album took a full two years. We finished touring at the end of 2004, so all of 2005 and most of 2006 was spent writing this album. For the first year we wrote a tonne of stuff, and there was that thing: we realised it wasn’t good enough so we threw it all away and started over. We’re so critical in the writing process that once we get to the studio, it’s done. The record’s very much written – we’ve experimented as much as we’re going to in the writing process. We did demos for this album, for the first time, to fine-tune things.”
The band chose to work with John Congleton, known to some as the vocalist in Texan terrorisers The Paper Chase, again on All Of A Sudden…. He was on board for Earth…, and James explains that the diminutive screamer is a far gentler companion in the studio than he appears when performing with his own band.
“Honestly, John’s stage persona is totally different to him as an engineer – he’s calm and easy to get along with, and he has such a good ear. I’ve loved working with him on these last two albums, ‘cause we really don’t know what we’re doing in the studio at all. We’re very ignorant of recording techniques, and what this or that microphone does. We can give him descriptions like, ‘we need this part to sound more sunshine-y’, and he can take that and know what we’re trying to say. We’ve learned to communicate so well, and if he doesn’t quite get it we can sit around and talk ‘til he does.
“We ended up finishing the ten days [in the studio] but weren’t happy with the mix, so we spent three more days in Dallas finishing up. It was great having that much time – it allowed John to bring out certain sounds of the studio which I think were beneficial to the record. I’m glad we had the time. We’re very particular about how we sound – we wanted a live, raw sound, and the studio was geared for that. Nirvana recorded In Utero there, and it has that live, crazy sound. And I think we sort of got that.”
A live, raw sound might not be what comes immediately to mind the first time All Of A Sudden… is given the once-over. Opener ‘The Birth And Death Of The Day’ is every bit as grand as its title implies: it builds slowly and surely, a guitar shimmering beneath an earth-cracking rumble, before afterburners are fully engaged around the four-minute mark. Here, the song shifts direction entirely – what was a beautiful exercise in instrumental songwriting suddenly expands and evolves into a bombastic, ear-piercing, skin-prickling piece of work that immediately tosses aside the arrangement shackles so often found binding perceived post-rockers. It’s beautiful, and sets the tone perfectly for an album of introspection and inspiration. What it’s not, though, is raw in a traditional sense. That, partially, is due to the fact that the band chose, again, never to use vocals at any point; so often, acts considered ‘raw’ are described as such due to a particular at-the-mic approach.
Explains James: “I don’t think we’d ever use a vocalist, although we’ve used talking samples. We didn’t get together with the intention of starting an instrumental band – we just wanted to play music and it just kinda worked out like that. None of us sing that well, so it would have taken something away from us. It’s something that we’ve talked about, never too seriously, but we’ve been a band so long now, playing music together in a specific way, that it would dramatically change things to do that. But never say never.”
One criticism of the album that’s come DiS’s way is that it lacks the immediacy of its immediate predecessor. It has, in certain critical quarters, been classified as a ‘grower’, something of a curse to many a musician. But James is in agreement with the suggestions that All Of A Sudden… does take longer to absorb than his band’s work prior to it.
“I think that can be a good thing, that an album’s a grower, but there are people that aren’t going to give it six or seven listens. Some people will listen to it once, and if they don’t feel it immediately then they’ll be turned off. But I agree with your sentiments: it is more of a grower than the albums before it, but I think that’s okay. The people that do get it, and like it, will love it.
“There’s going to be more media coverage behind this release, and we don’t know how that’s going to work because we’ve not experienced it before. So, it’s kind of an experiment almost. Bella Union wants to push this album harder than the last one, and so does Temporary Residence (the band’s US label), so I’m a little nervous because I don’t like it when a record’s over-marketed, when it’s in your face all the time. I find that really annoying. A backlash? It’s a definite possibility. Like I said, this is an experiment, and if a backlash comes then we’ll just have to deal with it.”
And, finally, what are James’ thoughts on the band’s fans that have such an emotional connection with their music? It is, after all, the sort of affecting, soul-enriching music that can’t be met with pure indifference a la a chart-bothering indie-pop act’s latest. It’s love it or hate it stuff; there’s no middle ground with EITS appreciation.
“It’s shocking to me that sometimes we have any fans at all, because I’ve grown up listening to music and being profoundly affected by it, whether it’s instrumental or with lyrics. I have a huge emotional connection to music of all kinds, so to think that someone has an emotional connection like that to music we’ve made, it’s a very humbling feeling. And a great feeling, too.”
Explosions In The Sky play London’s Koko venue on March 1, and then Glasgow’s ABC, the Manchester Academy and London’s Astoria in April – click here to view dates, or visit their unofficial MySpace site for more information, further dates and to hear material.
DiS’s review of All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone will run next week.