Michael James – Explosions in the Sky (2011)

Back when reviews played an important part in the way I discovered music, I found a review of The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place by Explosions In The Sky.

Immediately, I wanted to buy it. I don’t remember liking anything else like it at the time but the way it was described, and also the title and artwork, made it feel vital that I bought that album. To the point that I tried to get friends of mine to buy it from the late night Borders store on the way to a party we were going to.

It didn’t work out but I bought it the next time I could. It was probably the first instrumental rock album I’d ever heard and though it took me a long time to fully appreciate it, their music made a big first impression on me. One that evolved into an opinion and appreciation, and later, a love.

I’ve never gone full steam into the whole Post-Rock thing. I know some people who are obsessed but most music sporting that name intentionally has sadly bored me, for the most part.

However, I’ve always had a soft spot for Explosions In The Sky as they have soundtracked many a pensive stare through a moving window among other key moments/time-consuming activities where you do most of your thinking for many years.

I got to interview guitarist Michael James from the band just before Take Care, Take Care, Take Care came out in 2011 and the cleaned-up transcript from that interview is featured down below.

You can check out the excellent Rock-a-Rolla magazine, here.

(Interview date – Roughly Spring 2011)

Can you tell me a bit about how this record came about; I understand you made a point of taking a break?

Michael James: We’ve been a band for so long, 11 years now, and when we first started, our musical tastes were very different than what they are now. Trying to find a way to write music together with these varied tastes these days, it took us some time. For a year, or even more, we just couldn’t finish anything because we couldn’t all agree on what we all liked. We’re all still friends, best friends, we see each other every day. We decided that we needed to stop banging our heads against the wall with this and just get away from writing music together and get some perspective on it. So we took off for a couple of months and when we came back together it really worked, we really did have kind of a fresh perspective and really clicked and started getting songs finished.

Was it hard to stay away from music?
MJ: It was hard because that’s what we’ve been doing together for so long but it’s not all we do together. We all live really close to each other and we see each other almost every day so it wasn’t hard to find activities to do to fill up our time but it was definitely a challenge to..i mean, we didn’t even want to talk about it. We just wanted to get away from the frustration we’d been experiencing and try to clear some of that out of the air and really get back to writing music and I think the break really helped. Instead of trying to force it we got away from it a little bit and were able to get back into what we loved about making music together.
Did you have a time limit in mind?
MJ: It was open-ended. Whenever we decided we were gonna take this hiatus, we didn’t put a time limit on it, just said whenever it feels right we’ll come back together and get back to work. So yeah it was about 6 or 8 weeks, somewhere in between there… I don’t even know if there was a huge change in the feel, I just think that we couldn’t wait to get back together and start writing music. It’s the most fun thing I do, and the most fun thing any of us do, its the biggest part of our lives. It was tough but when the time came, it really worked.
How did you get back into the swing of things?
MJ: I dunno, we just got back into the practise room together, sat down and started playing. I wish that we had some sort of routine or formula that we could follow to try to write songs but we don’t, we’re just kind of making it up as we go along!
Was there ever a point during that time that you never thought you’d come back?
MJ: Absolutely, there were those thoughts, because we went so long without actually being able to finish anything. We were writing music. We wrote tonnes and tonnes of music actually, just not all of us liked it at the same time and I think its the best thing and one of the most frustrating things about this band is that, unless everybody loves a piece of music that we’re working on, we throw it away. Even if three people absolutely adore it and one person doesn’t like it then we’ll throw it away. We’re written far more music than we’ve ever released because it has to go through four very distinct filters in order to make it onto an album, in order to even be completed as a song. So yeah it can be very frustrating but i think it’s a really neat quality control, we all have to love it.
It is quite odd to find a band with such a democratic approach to doing things…
MJ: It’s kind of a byproduct of not having a singer or a front man, so every piece of the band, every instrument in the band is just as important as the others and if we’re not all in harmony or agreement, it’s just not gonna work.
Do you feel that at this point down the line you’ve got a responsibility or even pressure to produce something that fits in with the quality of the rest of your catalogue?
MJ: Well its kind of a double edged sword there because you do want things to fit in with your catalogue and your work and people who like your band for a certain reason, we don’t want to get away from that completely but at the same time, as musicians and artists of any kind I’m sure, you wanna keep pushing and trying new things and we really wanted to do that. Again, our tastes changed so much over the years that writing an album that we wrote ten years ago just wouldn’t work for us now. So it’s kind of a fine line. You wanna do things that are exciting to you, but at the same time you don’t want to completely alienate people who like your band and have supported you for a long time, so finding a happy medium there was one of the things we were finding frustrating. Before; with all the other albums we’ve written, it seems like we know exactly what we wanted them to sound like when we were writing them, and with this one, we had no idea. So finding a whole new sound, it really took us some time – and some fights!

In hindsight surely you’re pleased with the way its turned out?

MJ: With any record that you record, you listen to it so much. When you’re writing it you listen to it a million times, when you’re recording it you listen to them in intense detail, every little nuance of each performance and it’s very easy to hate a record as soon as you’ve finished recording it. Because you’ve lost all perspective on it and you can do is judge it. But with this one, this was the first time ever that all four of us, after we were done with it said that’s it. That’s exactly what we wanted. So we’re all really happy with it.

What do you feel is different about it?

MJ: It still pertains to the same ingredients, y’know, it’s instrumental, it’s got guitars bass and drums, out own individual voices there but there are definitely a lot more textural sounds on this album. Things that are kind of in the background but can really change the feel of a song. Also, rhythmically I think this album is pretty different, Chris really expanded his sonic palette (laughs). We’re working with more varied, and interesting rhythms. There’s some crazy sounds and samples too that we would just find on the internet and experiment with. A lot of the writing process with this album was just experimenting. It got to the point where we didn’t really like what was coming out so we said, let’s just try, anything that comes to mind and if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, fine. I mean, we’ve thrown enough stuff away that we’re not worried about doing something and not have it turn into a song. We’re not wasting any time it’s just experimenting and we did a LOT of that with this record.It seems like when we first started writing music, the sound that we wanted was the sound of four people in a room playing this music, y’know, sort of overtly emotional, heart-on-the-sleeve live band sound. And that just wasn’t as intriguing to us anymore. Maybe because we had done it already, maybe because we heard other people do it really well, so this time we wanted something that was a little more mysterious, I think that’s probably a good word for it. The emotion in the music is still definitely there because that’s what we respond to and I know that’s what a lot of people find to be good about our band is our ability to sort of evoke an emotional feeling with our music. We wanted it to be a little more subtle, not quite as in your face. And that was tough, it was kind of a tightrope to walk. You want it to be engaging but you don’t want it to be.

Trembling Hands comes screaming out

MJ: Yeah! I don’t know where that one started. I think it started with some of the basic parts being part of a much longer song but it didn’t really work. It was kind of meandering, it went all over the place and we ended up realising that the part of the song that we liked was the high energy stuff. We sort of cut the fat off of that and realised this burst of energy was the heart of the song so we just worked around that and put it all together and it ended up only being about three minutes, which is something pretty different for us! But yeah, I think we’re all pretty happy with that song. It is just a big burst of energy, I think the ‘trembling hands’ image is very appropriate because it is sort of excitable!/exciting!

John Congleton, did he help shape the sound, same with the surrounding?

MJ: The album was 99% written before we went to the studio. We’re not really the kind of band to write in the studio, it adds this sort of pressure. This time frame in which you have to be finished writing something in two weeks is something we’ve never really responded to well with our records. So the album was pretty much written by the time we went there. In terms of the sound, again, we weren’t really sure what we wanted, but John is just great to work with in the studio, because he has very strong opinions about things and is also, always listening. He’ll pick up on little things that you say like ‘i think this part needs to sound a little more… yellow’ and he’ll know exactly what that means! So, the sound of the record, it’s not quite as bombastic, I think, as some of the other ones. And that was something that we talked about with John, we wanted to find a nice balance there. And he really did a great job with this record, I love the way he records albums. The studio out there is amazing. I’m not sure how much the environment has affected the sound of the record but it’s a really beautiful place to record.

Any track stood out?

MJ: I think the second-last song, Postcards From 1952, that one was the last song we finished before we went into the studio. None of us were really sure how it was going to turn out but I think we ended up being really really happy. To my ears, that’s the one that harkens back to our earlier sound so I think we were a little nervous about that, we didn’t want to just be repeating something we’ve already done. But when we finally finished it and all the dust settled, and we were just listening to it as a song, it does maintain that old explosions sound while also being very fresh and new to us. So that was one that I think surprised us for the better.

Is this a new lease of life?

MJ: Yeah, kind of. It’s always such an exciting time when a record comes out, the future is just wide open. You never know how people are going to react to it, maybe everybody’ll love it, maybe everybody’ll hate it. It’s a pretty exciting time so yeah, that energy I think will definitely carry us for a while. It’s not the sort of thing that’ll carry you forever. You have to find new inspiration and new ways to keep yourselves excited with the band, so yeah we’ll ride this for as long as we can and keep coming back to that thing that we love that keeps us going which is just writing music together.

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