In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, Editor in Chief Michael Roffman, Senior Staff Writer Nick Freed, and Staff Writer Randall Colburn revisit Explosions in the Sky’s cinematic third album, 2003’s The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Monday. Since its release, the album’s songs have appeared in everything from Friday Night Lights to Under Armour advertisements. The three discuss this commercial relationship and whether it’s a positive or negative thing for the music, in addition to how post-rock might be seen as a form of modern classical music.
Michael Roffman: I’ll be the first to admit it, I love this album because of Friday Night Lights. Although I associate the music with far more personal anecdotes, I won’t ignore the fact that I was initially impressed by the music because of a movie about a sport I, at the time, could care less about. Peter Berg’s movie changed that, and as a result, I flocked to the album like anyone else did. Is that the same for any of you?
Nick Freed: I actually was introduced to Explosion in the Sky through a friend while doing an internship in Florida one summer during college. He and I were roommates for the summer, and we spent a good amount of time introducing each other to new music, and drinking can after can of Budweiser in the Florida heat. He first played me Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. The sudden crescendos and exceptional drumming instantly took me in. After that, Friday Night Lights came into play because I, like you Mike, had no interest in another sports movie, but my friend insisted.
We watched it. I loved it. Then I went out and bought The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place shortly after. It was that album, more so than Those… that really got me revved up about the band. Blasting down Lido Beach and around Sarasota at night with the windows down was the perfect movie-like dream when Earth… was playing. I still consistently think of downtown Sarasota and taste cheap beer and wine when I hear it.
Randall Colburn: Earth… was always my least favorite Explosions in the Sky album, save maybe their debut, which suffers from its lo-fi production. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, it’s that Those Who Tell the Truth… was heavier, more ominous, and considering I was primarily listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and A Silver Mt. Zion at the time, I wanted a little apocalypse in my music. Earth… has its crescendos, sure, but overall it’s a quieter, more optimistic record, with sentimental song titles and a glowing aura coating its cascading guitar lines. Where Those Who Tell the Truth… encouraged us to “Greet Death” on its opener, Earth… invites us to take that “First Breath After Coma”. Death, life, etc.
That said, once I heard the album against Friday Night Lights‘ gorgeously rendered small town milieu, I saw it in a new light. Songs like “The Only Moment We Were Alone” and “Your Hand in Mine” succeed because they present themselves as the soundtrack you never had to your teenage years. Just listening to the album today made me think of my high school’s empty hallways, of hands held under streetlights, of summer nights speeding over dirt roads in the back of Jon Hunt’s truck. That not only makes it a perfect fit for Friday Night Lights, a show whose greatest strength (most of the time) is capturing the quiet drama of small town teenagers, but also creates a sort of universal appeal, if, of course, one is willing to traverse its audial hills and valleys.
What say you, boys? Am I getting too emotional with it? Should I stop writing and cry myself to sleep?
Nick Freed: I wouldn’t say too emotional necessarily, but it does raise an interesting point about the album. Explosions in the Sky have become the go to group for cool soundtracks these days, and that kind of popped off with Earth… “First Breath After Coma”–which, by the way, is the perfect opening song title, especially after Those… ends with “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept”–has been used in so many commercials, movies, and documentaries. You can’t fault them for it, and, if anything, it was inevitable with their music. If you’re filming a realistic, slice of life movie, and the protagonist is finally growing, then hell yes you want “First Breath After Coma” or “The Only Moment We Were Alone” playing. This band and this album does what so many others can’t. They are pure evocation.
Michael Roffman: Optimistic is a keyword here. The album works off such an arousing foundation of noise; beautiful melodies build and bank and climb even higher with each track. The way Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith bounce off another with their guitar lines — it’s a lilting style that, sorry to use another movie reference, but reminds me of that stupid feather in Forrest Gump. The tones just float there, in this vacuous, airy space that’s glazed over by sunlight. I don’t really see a lot of darkness here, which is odd given the choice of titles: “First Breath After Coma”, “The Only Moment We Were Alone”, “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean”, “Memorial”, and “Your Hand In Mine”. It would seem that this is an album about coming to terms with death, and that perhaps that first breath is actually cutting ties with life? It’s sad, emotional, and very funereal but never do I feel it’s coming from this dark, ominous place. By contrast, it feels light — maybe it’s a commentary on the afterlife.
I do think it’s important to discuss its use in film, though. There’s a bigger argument to be had about memory and music and what sort of mediums persuade or dissuade you from visualizing music. In fact, it’s the same argument many musicians used to protest against music videos, claiming that pairing music to video was delineating the listener’s unique experience. That everything from that point forward would be forever entwined with whatever the music video’s director designed. Obviously, this is true since I’m sure most can’t shake off the hellish BDSM imagery of NIN’s “Closer” upon seeing Mark Romanek’s controversial video, and the same might be said of Friday Night Lights or any other example that has such an emotional, resonating impact. Is this a good or bad thing?
Personally, I see it as a positive, a way for the artist to really project their images and drive home whatever themes or points they might want to have made. Then again, it’s not always up to them. With Explosions, given their relationship to Peter Berg’s film and later TV series, I have to imagine they saw something in the dramatic scenery of the small Texas towns that they personally related to and were sold on. (Remember, they’re from Austin.) And although at times I do visualize Tim Riggins swigging a beer, or Matt Saracen mumbling to Landry about Julie Taylor, I can still drum up my own memories with this music, so I guess it just depends on the listener. What are your thoughts?
Nick Freed: Optimism is absolutely a descriptor for Explosions. There’s always a hopeful energy to their music, and even if there are twists and turns in minor keys, they still always end on a sun rising. I see the song titles as very optimistic; at least with “First Breath After Coma”, “The Only Moment We’re Alone”, and “Your Hand in Mine”. Those all seem more coming away from death to me; emerging from a kind of darkness. More so a living thing than an afterlife, but yeah, either way, it’s completely optimistic.
As far as the songs in film, it’s tough for me. On one hand, certain songs being used kind of takes me out of the movie (like when everyone started including Underworld’s “Adagio in D Minor” from Sunshine, like the new X-Men trailer does). With Explosions, however, I am always okay with it. It always makes sense, whether in Friday Night Lights, that Michael Moore documentary, or that Derrick Rose shoe commercial (they used “First Breath…” and “The Only Moment…”). I think it’s because of that space you talked about Mike. They’re so expansive in their sound. They have so much movement contrasted with stillness. My favorite parts are when the guitars are ponging around and all you have is an underscoring of rattling cymbals. They have an infinite plane to work on it seems. “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” has that right in the middle before it punches back up.
What are your thoughts on this being a kind of new classical music? It’s a bit far fetched, I think, but I get the same feelings listening to this album as I do to Vivaldi, especially if I’m on public transit. It’s calming, but also cinematic and exciting.
Michael Roffman: Classical isn’t too much of a stretch, really. I used to live with a classical guitarist back in college, and he’d spend hours going over his various lessons next to our living room window, just thumbing away at the nylon strings as he stared off deep in thought. I remember just sitting there listening while working on my own papers and experiencing all these different moods and emotions as he carried on. When I approached him about each song, he would explain that they all had a number of specific concepts wired to each chord or scale or progression.
Each album in Explosions in the Sky’s catalogue works off a theme. Rayani has gone on record saying that Earth… was their “attempt at love songs.” True to his words, these songs do resemble that gripping bond between two people, whether it’s through loss or tragedy or love, it’s there. The fact that he channels those thoughts strictly through melodies and notes and without a single word or phrase — well, save for the respective titles — makes it seem like it could be considered classical. Though, we could make the same argument for Godspeed!, Mogwai, Emeralds, or any other post-rock band in that camp. Same goes for more ambient electronic music, too.
I’ve long called this stuff “memory music.” And while nostalgia factors into this — after all, it’s meditative by nature — I’m not really waxing nostalgic, necessarily. It’s almost like I’m, for lack of a better word, retconning my past experiences, amplifying them with these instrumentals, or injecting the Epic where it’s previously been Mundane. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s like a rabid form of romanticizing, or sensationalizing, if you will. Does that make sense, or have I been licking the dry wall too much?
Randall Colburn: Somebody once said that Explosions makes guitar symphonies. I always found that apt. Every major Explosions song–by that I exclude their more ambient soundtrack work and 2005’s still awesome The Rescue–has movements, patterns, and an emphasis on atmosphere and musical craftsmanship. One of my favorite moments on Earth… deftly (and consciously) evokes one of my favorite pieces of classical music: the bombastic “Carol of the Bells”. Starting around the six-minute mark of “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean”, the boys begin crafting the pattern, the iconic melody taking center stage about a minute later before collapsing beneath a rising strain of shimmering guitars and pummeling drums. I love the way these guys seem to discover rhythms and melodies as if by accident; so much of the joy of an Explosions in the Sky record is hearing their guitars come into accord over a span of minutes, each slowly inching toward one cathartic, crystallized riff.
That said, I can’t believe we haven’t spoken more about the drums. Chris Hrasky’s admirably technical, always passionate drumming might be my favorite part of any given Explosions record. There’s such precision, such discipline to his work that I’ve always assumed the guy was ROTC or something. Just listen to those crisp snare rolls during “Your Hand in Mine”; in some instances, they seem to conjure the rigidity of a small-town routine, while at others they evoke fists furiously pounding on a warped wooden door, a desperation to break free. Where the guitars evoke memory, the drums seem to demand immediacy.
It all really comes down to evocation. Explosions in the Sky aren’t telling stories with their songs, they’re creating a location they can pile on with storms, sunlight, and shadowy wisps of character. And I prefer those characters stay shadowy; as much as I love Riggins and Landry, I don’t necessarily want to think of them when I’m listening to Explosions, if for no other reason than selfishness. Instrumentals, more so than lyrically driven music, are meant to be transportive, and I’d like to be the one in charge of where I end up.
And you put it better than I could, Mike, with this idea of retconning. Nostalgia isn’t really the right word, I guess. The older we get, the more we romanticize the small moments of our past, those one-off connections we thought wouldn’t matter but persevere beyond much more “important” events. Explosions in the Sky allows us to set their music against whatever moment of our lives we want to exalt, their music adding just the right amount of gravitas to something that, if you relived it, would be just another awkward moment in a sea of awkward moments.
Nick Freed: This album being centered on love songs makes complete sense to me. There are a lot more melodies and clean guitars in it than in, say, Those… Like Randall said, Explosions are masters at the build and the creation of modes. You can hear little pieces start and stop, grow and pulse, until they all come together in a runaway train of riffs. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when they start jamming around on new tracks to watch how they put it all together.
I also agree that the drums are such a backbone to this idea, and that there is a military precision to it. You hear a snare here, a cymbal crash there, as the guitars find their footing; like the drums are lighting the fuse. Maybe it’s the steady cadences that Hrasky puts out on his snare, but I’ve always felt the music could be perfect for a battle scene. Of course in Friday Night Lights they use it over key moments of games and such, but it also fits with the entire feel of the album. Battling for love, and holding on with all your might to that which you know is right.
That combination of evocation and retconning are what makes this album so central for me. Randall, you put it perfectly that, more often than not, when we’re in the moment, we want to believe that all the important shit will be what lasts longest in our heads. In the end, however, it’s the small things that shape the memories. I don’t remember every second of the times I drank with friends to this album in Florida, but I do remember how the floor squeaked. How, when I listened to this album on headphones, the wind seemed to match up with vastness of the quiet parts.
The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is such a hopeful phrase, and I always remember that this album has such an endearing feeling. I’ve listened to it at my lowest points, and it brings back that optimistic mentality. It brings in that carefree vibe, and lets all the bad shit get pulled into the tide.