How Explosions in the Sky Mastered the Art of the Rock Instrumental

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Sometimes bands really do get it right with a name that truly reflects the nature of its music.

It was a dazzling display of fireworks following the band’s first-ever gig that spawned the name Explosions in the Sky, and for 16 years this all-instrumental Austin, Texas, four-piece has consistently delivered music of an atmospheric, kaleidoscopic nature.

While the band prides itself on maintaining a solid emotional content — a key factor given the lack of lyrics most artists rely on to guide listeners — the band’s sound has shifted over the years. Forming during the latter stage of noise rock’s heyday and the indie slacker movement, EITS eventually graduated beyond post rock’s heavily repetitive melodies and prog rock’s complex and shifty movements into something more fluid, even trippy in (at times) a druggy sort of way. Explosions is not a psychedelic jam band, but they’re not exactly Pink Floyd, either.

“Psychedelic has a very particular connotation,” says EITS guitarist Michael James. “To me, psychedelic is something that’s trying to get you to take a journey in your mind. On that note, I love the psychedelic banner. It’s what we want to do with our music more than anything. Just get you to go along with it and take a journey with the music. I’d love to think we’re a psychedelic band, but when I listen to other bands labeled psychedelic, like Pink Floyd, I don’t really hear it. Maybe we can redefine psychedelic for the modern era.”

Without lyrics, EITS’s songs are perfectly suited to help listeners take those trips, find hidden emotions, and journey to the center of their minds. With many of the band’s songs well over six minutes in length — and some hitting double digits — these tracks unfold like mini rabbit holes that unfold differently for each listener.

Those familiar with the band, however, will notice something different on The Wilderness, Explosions’ seventh album. The epic song nature inherent on past releases has been toned down and streamlined. The intensity remains, but songs don’t belabor the point.

“It’s a matter of taste changing over time,” James explains. “We had [always] written long, epic songs — long, three-act narratives. It was an interesting way to write, but we wanted to do something different. We focused on making each song an individual statement that didn’t need to encompass every kind of emotion we wanted the whole album to be. It was a way to get to the point of each song faster. We felt like we didn’t have to linger on one song too long, which was freeing in the songwriting process.”

Writing instrumentals is not easy, though one might think the opposite. In “traditional” rock bands, the lyrics typically carry a song and provide a focal point. Instrumental numbers must “tell the story” through sound and feelings instead. Even when considering such challenges, James said EITS never really considered having a singer.

“The first month, we bandied about the idea of singing, but once we had written three songs, we were all so happy with the music, we decided we didn’t want to do anything else,” James says with a laugh. “None of us wanted to sing, and we didn’t want to try and force a singer into the context of the songs we were writing. It never made any sense to us. We just said forget it. [Plus], instrumental bands like Mogwai and Tortoise gave us the confidence to write instrumental songs because people might actually listen to it. It kind of worked out.”

Explosions in the Sky is scheduled to perform Friday, August 26, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.

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