Outer Limits: How Prog are Explosions In The Sky?

Explosions In The Sky leaning against a blue wall

Imagine if you witnessed actual explosions in the sky? The response from any sentient being would be amazement and wonder, right? And so it is with the music. You hear Explosions In The Sky - the Austin, Texas band - and their expansive guitar-scapes, their rising tumults of bass and drums, their ebbing and flowing tidal waves of sound, and you experience shock as well as awe.

Talking of phrases deployed to connote spectacular displays of force (by the US military circa the Iraq War), Explosions In The Sky once got into hot bother when their second album, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever, was linked to the September 11 2001 attacks. The album art showed an airplane with the caption: “This plane will crash tomorrow.”

Rumour has it the album was released on 911; it was actually the Tuesday before: September 4, 2001. Still, EITS’ guitarist (and bassist in the studio) Michael James was detained at an airport “as a threat to security”, due to the fact that his - actually one of the band’s other guitarists, Munaf Rayani’s - instrument bore that self-same idiom of imminent suicidal destruction.

“My God, yeah,” recalls Rayani, one of EITS’ three guitarists on the phone from Salt Lake City midway through
a world tour that saw them recently sell out London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“That was sheer coincidence,” he explains. “It wasn’t even that dark. It was more about being realistic with one another. Stuff was starting to go well for us and we were playing shows overseas. It was just a way to keep the guys in check. I’d say: ‘Let’s really enjoy this ride cos this plane’s gonna crash tomorrow.’ Just so we didn’t get our heads too inflated. Like, ‘Let’s enjoy this now cos there’s a good chance it could all end.’”

But did they really send an airport into meltdown?

“Well, it’s true that my guitar had this little mantra written on it and Michael had checked it in under his name so they pulled him to one side and questioned him,” he laughs. “The authorities weren’t particularly pleased, but they were relieved when they found out [that it was a harmless phrase]. Then they encouraged us not to have ‘this plane will crash tomorrow’ written on a guitar that we’re checking into an airport.”

Explosions In The Sky have been causing a furore - a positive one - for a decade and a half, since emerging as one of the bright lights of the global post-rock scene that included Canada’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Scotland’s Mogwai, Iceland’s Sigur Rós and Japan’s Mono. They made instrumental music that was intense and forbidding, on albums bearing titles that telegraphed the seriousness of their intent. Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die…, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003), All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007) and Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (2011) all offer a sense of grave young men with the weight of the world on their shoulders. And yet they’ve found a sizeable audience for their enigmatic elegies, filling out prestigious venues, even entering the album charts - their most recent album, The Wilderness, released in April, reached No 24 on the US Billboard 200 and No 39 in the UK.

“The fact that we just played The Royal Albert Hall is mind-boggling,” says Rayani. “How do you get to that type of room with this type of music? Let me tell you, there’s luck involved.”

For all the crashing vigour and immensity of their music, there are also moments of serenity where EITS capture the intense stillness of meditation - not for nothing have they been used literally dozens of times on TV and in films, soundtracking everything from sports documentaries to Terrence Malick movies. They think aurally, but what they do evidently has a strong visual quality.

“Yeah, it’s kind of incredible,” concurs Rayani. “We have our own visions when we write this music, but to see how many other people’s visions it matches to is exciting.”

His favourite of EITS’ pop-cultural incursions are an NBA montage - they’re big fans of basketball - and Malick’s 2015 movie Knight Of Cups.

“That Terence Malick would put our music into one of his pictures - I couldn’t have wished that with a thousand wishes and it would have come true,” he gasps.

But have any of their tracks been inappropriately employed? Has he ever heard, say, Glittering Blackness being used to advertise fruit?

“Oh my gosh, I don’t know about a fruit commercial,” he replies, “but we’re very conscious of that kind of stuff. We won’t sign our music away to just anything. I can’t think of any instances where they have taken, like, Catastrophe And The Cure and sold pudding with it.”

He agrees that EITS offer a palatable take on post-rock: “Not exclusively,” he hesitates, “but sometimes the sensibility is sweeter.” He even considers some of their material to be close to pop: “You could bounce to it a little bit, or bob your head to it.”

He also notes their eclectic fanbase.

“It runs the gamut,” he tells Prog. “We’re seeing a lot of people in their teens and early twenties, a lot of couples, but also people who are our age and older who have been following us for the past 15-16 years. And then you have your goths, skaters, or fellas that love us from [2004 sports movie] Friday Night Lights. It’s just a really beautiful array of listeners that maybe wouldn’t have much in common outside of that room watching us play, but inside that room they share a band that they enjoy.”

How about prog-heads raving on that EITS remind them of Pink Floyd in 1969?

“We hear that exact conversation!” he exclaims. “Especially with this new album. They’re not saying, ‘You guys are like Pink Floyd’ so much as, ‘What you’re doing is outside of the box in the way that they were.’ If we’re even considered slightly like them, then we’re doing pretty well.”

On The Wilderness there has been an increased use of electronics: MIDI samples, triggered effects and patterns, and such. But in what section does Rayani find EITS records being positioned in stores? Post-rock, ambient, shoegaze, electronica, prog…?

“All of those!” he says. “If we end up in a record store I’ll float over and see where we’re placed. And all of those titles have been put on us in different stores. That’s great cos it proves it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what we’re doing.”

With music as surging and symphonic as theirs, not surprisingly comparisons have been made with their prog forebears. Although Rayani denies having anything like those levels of instrumental proficiency.

“No, we are mediocre players at best,” he tells it like it is. “But it’s what we achieve collectively that makes me think we share something with those [prog] bands.”

Is it, for want of a less suspect phrase, a triumph of the collective will?

“Absolutely,” he says. “That’s exactly what it is. Not one of us can win this thing and do it on their own. It has to be the four of us together coming up with these songs.”

The language of progressive rock seems to describe their music, to the extent that if you heard the phrase “tales from topographic oceans” out of context, you might imagine a rolling, undulating noisescape like Logic Of
A Dream
from The Wilderness. It’s overwhelming, like being dwarfed by nature, or finding yourself in communion with same. Transcendental’s the word for EITS’ post-rock prog, of the sort also purveyed by the likes of Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! et al.

“Wow,” says Rayani, stunned by the compliment. “That’s a beautiful word to bestow on any artist and I thank you for saying it on our and on those other bands’ behalf because I imagine they were all reaching for that emotion,
that thought.”

There is, too, a quasi-devotional air to EITS’ music. Are they religious?

“I think for some listeners it’s worked out that way, but we’re not very religious - we’re not men of God but we try to be men of Good - and this music that we come up with I hope it can help people in positive ways.”

There is, in the best possible way, a gravity, a sepulchral solemnity, to EITS. But are they really all that serious?

“Well, we take it very seriously,” grants Rayani. “We want people who listen to this music to really believe it and be moved by it. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. Because we did start off as those young men who felt the weight of the world - the weight of our own world - and we tried to convey that through the music.”

Where did that feeling come from? Rayani isn’t sure.

“We were just young kids trying to figure out what to do with our lives,” he muses. “None of us were cut out to work in an office or live in the real world. So we went to live in this imaginary world.”

There is an image doing the rounds of Rayani photographed at the Royal Albert Hall, with a blue guitar held up to his face - it looks as though he is playing it with his teeth.

“Oh no no no,” he recoils in mock-horror. “That was an optical illusion. Maybe I was just holding it close enough to my face and it looked like that.”

So he’s not the Jimi Hendrix of neo-ecclesiastical ambient shoegaze rock?

“No. I appreciate the consideration but I am far from that.”

True enough: Rayani’s idea of fun on the road is playing chess.

“I love chess,” he reveals. “I study it and try to understand its history.”

When this writer remembers out loud going on the road years ago with Radiohead and seeing them on the tour bus after a show playing that very game, he is ecstatic.

“I cannot wait to play chess with any one of those guys,” he bursts. “If you ever come across any of those guys from Radiohead again, please let them know that would be a fun thing to do.”

Rayani would like to assure readers that despite the fact that their songs concern such heavyweight issues as “triumph and loss and love and hurt and fear and excitement and the unknown”, EITS do know how to let their hair down.

“We’re joke-sters outside of the music we make,” he confirms. “We tell jokes all day, and somebody’s always doing something funny.”

Realistically, however, he acknowledges that they are more ascetic than pleasure-seekers.

“We’re closer to the monkish stereotype than the hedonistic one,”
he decides. “We are quite sensible and a bit square. None of us are drunks, none of us are drug addicts, none of us are egomaniacs. We’re all good friends who are pretty funny in each others’ company.

“And these,” he concludes, “are some of the reasons for the success that has come to us.”


They consider themselves to be doing “pretty well” talked about in the same breath as Pink Floyd. But how prog do our readers think Explosions In The Sky are?

“Theyre not prog in my opinion but I enjoy listening to them as I enjoy listening to Porcupine Tree or Rush. They are 1010.” - Luis Relative

“Explosions In The Sky is a post-rock band like Mogwai, God Is An Astronaut, Kwoon, This Will Destroy You, Tides from Nebula… etc. Amazing music, ambient feelings but one thing is for sure. You can meet a lot of prog paths in their music… - Eleni Eriksson

“Undoubtedly prog. In a post-rock kinda way. If we must apply labels. Atmospheric and complex, echoing the best of thoughtful compositions.” - Phil Morris

“0%.” - Mark Spangler

“Proggy when they’re not doing predictable gradual crescendos.” - Joel S Richardson

“I love Explosions In The Sky dearly, but genre-wise they are post-rock not prog.” - Mike Sargent

“Easily. Post-rock is a subgenre of it but prog is an expansive genre made to push boundaries.”- Samuel Brice

“30% prog. But still awesome AF.” - Andrea Orlando

“They need to explode louder. Never heard of them. Spotify, your time is now…”- Howard Canning

“They’re great whatever genre who want to tag them!” - Patrick Towning

“Progressive not prog. Marvellous band.” - Fraser Marshall

“Must check ’em out, since I’ve never heard of them. Never know what band plays live in your area in the future.” - PerPer Lundberg

“Quite proggy. Would put them on the same plane as Mogwai.” - Lori Stratton

“Prog’s a very ambiguous term. Yes are a million miles away from Porcupine Tree and Genesis is whole different animal to Rush. So it’s all down to personal taste at the end of the day.” - Kyle Marks

“They are prog. and i think most experimental rock/post-rock musicians all have their roots in prog.” - Astral Xilef

“Not prog but I love! Same applies to Tides of Man – post-rock goodness!” - Ian Norsworthy

“They write lovely songs. That’s all that matters.” - Matt Stevens

Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.