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Interviews can be tricky. Some artists dread the whole press "thing" and cough up information about as willingly as a potential third-strike suspect under the bright lights. Others babble on incessantly, leaving interviewers with hours of tape and mere seconds of usable content. Then there are the interviewees that make a writer's job the easiest thing in the world. Explosions in the Sky drummer Chris Hrasky was so thoughtful and well spoken when interviewed about the release of the band’s upcoming album All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone—their first official release since 2004—that it seemed a shame to edit him down into sound bites. Therefore, we present to you the conversation in full:
Ground Control: You’ve said in past interviews that there’s definitely some influence in your songwriting as far as creating a narrative goes. Is there stuff in literature that inspires where you guys go with the music?
Chris Hrasky: It probably inspires us in some way, but it’s never been conscious. One of the songs on our second record, 'The Moon is Down,' is a John Steinbeck book, but it’s not as if we wrote it as a soundtrack to that book. We’re influenced by books, music and movies, anything artistic, but not anything directly. I think 'Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean' [written about the Russian Navy soldiers who perished on the Kursk submarine when it sank in 2000] is the only one that we wrote directly, as a result of hearing about that incident. I think that even in terms of the way we title songs and the artwork that we use is definitely comes from art or books or movies, anything that we hold dear to us.
GC: I think Mike [Bassist Michael James] said in an interview that normally your writing process takes a couple of months. But as you guys were recording The Rescue, you did a song a day for eight days. How does having The Rescue being the last thing that you recorded coupled with your previous recording experiences influence the recording of All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone?
CH: This album was probably the hardest one for us to write. I think it took us the most time and caused the most amount of frustration. It was strange, because The Rescue came so quickly. It’s not really a proper album [ed.- it was recorded for the Travels in Constants series, with one song written and recorded each day for eight days.], but we are definitely proud of it. We have problems with it, but for the most part we really like it. But it was weird, we thought that would somehow open up this way for us to work at a better, more rapid pace writing songs. We tried that in summer of 2005, when we started trying to write the new record. We decided 'we’re gonna take this next week and we’re gonna put up stuff and record demos of it and forge ahead.' We did that for months and months and couldn’t come up with anything that we liked, so we started from scratch. We were hoping that The Rescue would show us a different way to do it, but it didn’t end up being that way. It took longer.
CH: I think there are a number of reasons behind it. We’re four albums in now, and it’s instrumental rock, so you don’t want to continue to rely on the same sort of tricks that you’ve done before. It was a tough one to write. At the same time, we do want to do something along the lines of The Rescue again. Something that we don’t labor so much and worry so much about, we just do it, and however it turns out is how it turns out. It was really fun to do it that way. There was much less pressure, because when we were working on it, it wasn’t like it was going to be our next album. It was like 'even if the song ends up being bad, we’re not necessarily gonna release it, but we will record it and have it.'
GC: So beyond trying not to repeat all the tropes that you guys normally use, what was it that made recording the new one more difficult?
CH: Coming up with stuff that we all felt really strongly about. There would be things that we were working on that one person would like or even three people would like, but unless all four of us are really taken by it, it just gets thrown away. We just kept having trouble with that. We were writing stuff that was kind of nice, but it didn’t really do anything for us. And undeniably, this is the first record we’ve had to write where people are going to be paying attention to this record when it comes out. It’s hard to not let that get you a little stressed out. Ultimately, we got over that, but coming up with stuff that we all felt one hundred percent strongly about….I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with all bands, especially in bands where there is a key guy or a couple of key people who are calling the shots. I think that may be a little bit easier opposed to this “all love it or it gets thrown in the garbage stuff.
GC: So you don’t have your Liam or Noel Gallagher?
CH: [laughs] Nope. I’m sure that situation has its benefits as well. It takes us a while to write stuff that we like, and there’s all these conditions where we all have to love it. We’re all extremely critical of everything we do, so it can be an arduous process, but I think ultimately it’s the best way for us to do stuff, because in the end we are all proud of what we’ve done as opposed to being kinda half-assed about it.
GC: You were saying that there was more pressure because you guys have some more recognition now. Would I be correct in assuming that’s in large part due to your involvement with the soundtrack of Friday Night Lights?
CH: I think that has something to do with it, but I think it’s a combination of that and that things have been building up over the last couple of years. The last time we did a real, full scale tour was fall 2004, which was over two years ago. In that two years that we’ve been off the map is when we’ve sold a lot more records and gotten a lot more popular, and certainly Friday Night Lights has played a role in that. But it also seems like this constant word-of-mouth thing that had been building for a while just started to snowball. But certainly Friday Night Lights had an impact.
GC: It came at the right time, when indie music was getting recognition in the mainstream, and there was this “holy shit” moment, that a major Hollywood picture was tapping this band that only a small segment of the population knew about, not just to contribute a song, but to score the entire soundtrack.
CH: Yeah, to do the music for the entire movie was weird. The timing of things was interesting. Now there are more indie rock bands that are floating around in the popular culture. I think a lot of that is the fact that a lot of music supervisors for movie studios and TV and advertising agencies are dudes in their 20’s that grew up listening to a certain kind of music.
GC: And also the fact that as much as the RIAA and the big five record companies love to scream about file sharing, if it wasn’t for filesharing, there wouldn’t have been this explosion of indie music within the past few years.
CH: Oh god, yeah, I totally agree. If you live in a place where there isn’t a big music scene or it’s not a part of the culture ingrained in you, it is hard to find out about new music. But now, it’s so much easier. People do bemoan the file sharing, but I think it certainly helped us. It’s a way for people to hear music that is way more powerful than any other marketing or advertising campaign that any label can come up with. It’s this instant thing, the music is just out there, and people find out about it.
GC: What kind of difficulties do you guys find—or things that make it easier—about writing music without vocals? Obviously the instrumental stuff is going to be more intricate throughout the song, but do you have to find different ways to be emotionally expressive because there aren’t lyrics to spell it out for people?
CH: Well, we want the same reactions that you can get from good pop music, an immediate reaction to the music. Without vocals, you obviously have to do it completely through other means, which can be challenging. The danger for people playing instrumental music is that it can get boring. We want to have what you would consider pop hooks – something that’s not just dudes jamming, but is something you can sing along to, with melodies that will get stuck in your heads. That’s a big thing for us, and it can get really tough. We’re writing these ten minute instrumental ridiculous songs, but we want them to be pop music as well. It’s hard to explain – we don’t want to put out anything that’s boring. We know when we are working on something, and it’s like 'ehh, that’s just background music.' That’s when it time to get rid of it. That’s the big challenge for us, is to keep it from becoming background music.
GC: I think you guys have a definite sense of…I guess bombast would be the best word…when it comes to a lot of your stuff, but you’ve got songs like “So Long, Lonesome” on the new one that are fairly low-key, but even then the little piano riff gets ingrained in your head. What kind of approach did you guys take to the actual writing of this one, once you scrapped the old stuff and got down to finishing this.
CH: Just trial and error, basically. We go into a room and work, and one of the guitarists will have something, just some guitar line, and it all starts building from there. We don’t really have a map that we follow. Sometimes we can write a song in a week, sometimes it takes us four months to finish a song. It’s a slow, building process where we just keep playing together until it starts becoming what we want. We also talk about it a lot, like where it is so far, and what we want to happen next – whether it should turn insane or become somber or triumphant or whatever. In terms of recording, we have everything written beforehand, and just go in an play them, as opposed to coming up with them in the studio. The Rescue is the only thing we experimented with.
GC: It sounds like you guys write with an intention in mind, with the discussion about 'should it go insane or calm down?' It sounds like it might be a different process than a lot of other pop and rock bands who seem to get led around by the song, whereas you guys seem to have the song to the leash and are dragging it along to where you want to go.
CH: Yeah, I would agree with that. The way our songs are, it could go anywhere. We don’t have to put a bridge here, or repeat the chorus twice. It’s this process of figuring out where it should go as opposed to letting it happen. I think if we completely let it happen, it would just be a big mess. I’m not saying we are prog-rock guys, where we’re real analytical about it with charts and diagrams, but it is real open-ended as to where a song is gonna go or when it is going to end? It’s like 'will this song be eight minutes, or twenty-five?'
GC: How do you know when a song is done, especially since you aren’t trying to fit it into three-and-a-half minutes?
CH: For the most part, we get to a point where when we finish a song, we all know it. We try to have the songs to be like a story, with the beginning, the middle and the end. When it gets to a point, it feels like the end of the story. It falls into place without us having to figure it out. We just kind of know it.
GC: So would I be correct in assuming there’s not much improvisation in your live shows?
CH: Not a whole lot. In our live shows, we come out and say hello, and then just play. There’s no breaks for the entire set. Even between songs, there’s little segues. We’ve developed these minature songs to allow us to transition, and those came out of improvising, and they are still real loose. We need to do that for the new record, because we haven’t played it live. But we don’t do any extended jams.
GC: So you guys are gearing up to go on the road in support of All of a Sudden…?
CH: Yeah. February is when the tour starts, and then we’ll basically be touring for a year-and-a-half or so. It’s gonna be fairly hectic.
GC: I’m looking at the song titles from All of a Sudden…, and it seems like they are chapter headings, and there’s a progression from 'The Birth and Death of the Day' all the way down to 'So Long, Lonesome.' It feels like there could be a novel behind it. Is there a conscious effort to create a narrative feeling in your song titles?
CH: Yeah, kind of. It is kind of like chapter headings, like you said. We aren’t that specific about it, but I guess that plays a part of it, because it seems like that’s how it always turns out. We knew the first song on the record was going to be the first song, so the title [“The Birth and Death of the Day”] just made sense. We knew that 'So Long, Lonesome' was going to be the last song on the record even before we had titles, so that title was appropriate. So that is something we try to focus on, but it almost happens by accident. There have been weird things on other albums that seem like these intentional connections. The sort of happen without us knowing it, if that makes any sense.
GC: Are you guys going to have anything new coming up, any more soundtracks or anything you are working on.
CH: Nahh, we’re just going to be touring. That’s all we’ve got planned. I’m sure we won’t even write a note of new music for at least a year. We can’t write on tour, it’s impossible for us. We definitely want to do more soundtrack stuff, but nothing is scheduled at this point. Maybe after this year is over, we’ll see where we are at.