Explosions In The Sky guitarists Munaf Rayani and Michael James sit down with us in Mumbai ahead of their performance at Johnnie Walker – The Journey and talk music, emotion, the challenges of being an instrumental band, scoring for films and west Texas sunsets.
What can we expect from the show in Mumbai?
Michael: What we always want to do is just play the absolute best possible show we can and bring as much energy and emotion to the show as we can possible muster so people can always expect that from us. In the case of playing in a place as beautiful and interesting as India, even more so.
Munaf: We’re quite excited to be in a place that we’ve not ever been before but that it is India is a dream destination of ours. To be playing the type of music that we play and to be invited so far is a bit of a dream come true for us. Hopefully we can play well enough that we get the invitation again. [Laughs]
With your music – as a listener – one can go from 0 to 100 in a few minutes in terms of emotion. Having played these songs so many times now, what is the experience like for you as a band?
Michael: When you’re on a tour and you’re playing 30 shows in a row or something like that sometimes it becomes a challenge to find the emotion that was in the song the first time you played it, when you wrote it. The hundredth time or the five hundredth time, you have to work at it a little bit but that’s what being an artist I think is all about. Finding that special feeling even on the five hundredth time because it can be found. You have to look for it and find it but you know, playing the song can just be a way for me to work through my emotional life that I’m living that particular day. So there’s always something to be found in the music I think.
Munaf: Absolutely, it is very emotional stuff that we write and Michael just said it quite nicely – even if we’ve played it ten thousand times there is still great meaning in the song to us, it’s just how do we kind of relay that, on that millionth go around. But yeah, it’s there every time, it’s just working towards how we feel it.
In an old interview, you said ‘It’s not easy to write a good song’ which is absolutely true. It also often takes time. How do you stay true to that ideal in the present environment where music has become about quantity and putting as much as you can out quickly?
Munaf: I think that people appreciate quality over quantity, absolutely. Many others might think ‘You need to do it now, you need to go go go!’ but as quickly as it took you to write a song like that, is how quickly, more often than not, it is forgotten. So somebody who sits and crafts anything, there’s not a guarantee that that is going to be great either but in my opinion there is a better chance it will have a lasting impression. So yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever worried about getting a song written by next week or having an album out by next year. This is why we take as much time as we do because we are comfortable in who we are, we are comfortable in what we’re trying to achieve and some of these marks that we’ve placed on ourselves take a little while to get to.
Michael: I think we’d rather not put out an album than put out an album that we weren’t completely happy with and that for us takes time. I think we’d be willing to not be a band anymore as opposed to crank out an album every year.
Do the demands of the music business allow for that?
Munaf: Not for everybody! Somehow – it’s not exclusively for us that it is allowed that, others try this too – but we weren’t even concerned with what it would be that the music industry allowed or now. We are very lucky we are on indie labels throughout the world. We’ve made well by our previous records that we have bought a little bit of… what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s not ‘time’…
Munaf: Yeah, goodwill, from those who are kind of supporting us in those regards. It’s like ‘Okay, they’ve done it before let’s see if they can get there again’. And we’ve met the mark for the five records that we’ve written so I feel very lucky for that because it’s not that way for everybody and that’s the mentality when they take on ‘Go go go, your record has to be out by fall, you need to be on the road by spring…’ Some others have to really abide by these rules to play the game. It’s just since day one we didn’t adhere to any rule and very luckily we made it far. We could have quite easily been forgotten about but then that ties back to the previous question. If you write something good there’s no expiration date on it. There is no time frame on that because quality will outdo quantity nine times out of ten.
I hope that stays the case for a long time.
Munaf: [Laughs] I hope so too!
Over the years I’ve found myself drawn to music by bands that come from various parts of Texas and also from Nashville. I have now decided that there is something special about those places and you can hear it in the music. That’s probably not a fair assessment, right?
Munaf: No, that’s very fair and it does [impact the music] in ways that we’re probably not even aware of because I think every one of us is a product of our environments so if we were coming from say Washington State or California, I think we would sound a little different than we do. Even if we were playing the same music it would have a variation on it you know? If we were coming from New York it would have this other feel to it but because we come from Texas, when we were starting to write music and coming from a place at that time molded this sound. For us, growing up in west Texas – Michael and I have known each other almost all of our lives. We grew up in a place that was quite desolate you know… well, ‘desolate’ is maybe not the right word but it was a bit off on its own in west Texas, ‘deserty’ is too strong of a word, but flatlands and not much happening… those I think subconsciously have placed an impression in our minds that when we write melodies this is what we were calling on, these are the pictures that we saw. So the pictures that we saw made this sound and absolutely, coming from Texas has an effect.
Michael: I think that’s absolutely true. As Munaf said, west Texas life can be kind of maybe slow and contemplative and there are definitely elements of that in our music as well but there’s also like say the sunsets in west Texas are still the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen because the sky is very wide open, there’s nothing, it’s very flat. And there’s a lot of clouds and so there can be these beautiful sunsets where the sky looks like it’s on fire and that sort of coupled with this kind of slow lifestyle… I think it really relates to the music itself a little bit. That kind of change from very slow to very grand, I think it can be attributed to growing up in Texas.
Your music has been used in a lot of films and TV shows – what’s it like hearing your songs in that context?
Munaf: It’s quite remarkable every time because it’s different every time. So the song that we wrote and the pictures that we had are very different from whoever heard the music and said ‘You know what, this goes with this’. That always kind of blew my mind and made me appreciate the song that much more because it allowed it to have more layers than the ones that we saw. It’s a bit strange but then I think it’s all strange because we never dreamed that people would listen to our music the way they do and then apply it to the things in their life the way they do.
You also create score for films. How do you walk the fine line between big, sweeping & cinematic, and noisy when it comes to background score?
Michael: I think a lot of it has to do with instrumentation, like how much is going on at any one time. Particularly when you’re writing for a movie, that’s sort of something that you take into consideration the entire time. Like how many instruments are playing versus how many things are going on onscreen, how much dialogue is being spoken. You can’t overwhelm the dialogue. For a film the dialogue is the melody and that’s what you have to hear first, that’s the most important thing. A lot of times it’s like ‘We can’t have three guitars going right here, we have to pull it back to one guitar and maybe a bass or something else’. It is a very fine line you have to walk because you want to add something to what’s happening but you cannot overwhelm. It’s a fine line, it’s a challenge and it’s such a big collaboration with a director that you are constantly working with them and trying to figure it out. It’s fun, it’s really fun.
Last question, is there a set of chords or a pedal that you have that you know will guarantee an emotional response when you use it?
Michael and Munaf: No! No way! [Laugh]
Michael: I think there is something very sort of simple about that and that is something we probably actively try not to do because it becomes a very by-the-numbers thing to do and it can be effective and it can be like ‘Oh this is how we can finish the song, finish it up big with a bang’ but we try not to do that, we really don’t because we don’t like hearing that music. It’s just too easy. As an artist you always want to push yourself.
BONUS VIDEO: Is it harder to keep listeners interested when the music is purely instrumental?
Explosions In The Sky performs at Johnnie Walker – The Journey in Mumbai on December 12, 2015. Find out more and buy tickets here.
Photo: Elvis D’Silva