Chris Hrasky of Explosions in the Sky: "We still basically feel like we're amateurs who are still kind of figuring out what we're doing"
Explosions in the Sky (due tonight at the Boulder Theater) is an instrumental rock band based out of Austin, Texas. For the last thirteen years, the quartet has been creating a kind of anthemic, instrumental guitar rock that sparkles with impressionistic melodies building to a cathartic apex, not unlike a classical composition with movements and the establishment of emotional intensity and release.
The band's music has appeared on numerous television programs and films, notably Friday Night Lights, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Capitalism: A Love Story. The outfit's dynamic live shows are a sensory feast of light and sound wherein all the musicians weave together resonating leads with scintillating drones, textures and hypnotic rhythms.
In April 2011, Explosions released its latest record, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, and has since embarked on at least two separate tours in support of the album. We recently spoke with Chris Hrasky, the outfit's drummer, and discussed their first big show opening for Fugazi over ten years ago, the appeal of what some might call "sad bastard" music and the importance of being mindful of bandmates on the road.
Westword: What got you into playing drums, and what kind of music did you start out playing before moving to Texas?
Chris Hrasky: I started out just maybe eight grade or ninth grade or something. It was just friends I grew up with playing. We started off kind of like trying to be a metal band then Nirvana got big, so we started getting into weirder stuff. It was kind of the typical way most kids get into that sort of thing. Until I moved to Texas, I guess I went through a lot of phases. We started off as a weird metal band, and then we kind of played punk music and then got into psychedelic stuff. Then I ended up in Texas and met these guys.
What were the biggest cultural shocks for you moving from Chicago to Austin?
They were not necessarily shocks in the sense in that it was actually very nice. I grew up in Illinois, and I lived in Chicago for a few years. I do have a love for Chicago, but I was also not terribly happy there. It's not, maybe, the friendliest place on earth. You know, Austin is a very different-feeling city. It's just a very welcoming and friendly place. There's a lot of enthusiastic people. It was a definite change. I wouldn't call it a shock, because it was pleasant, and I kind of liked it immediately. The summers are fairly horrible, but they can be horrible in Chicago as well.
At which record store did you post the sign "Wanted: Sad, Triumphant Rock Band," and why were you looking to get into a band like that?
I posted [those signs] at pretty much every record store in town. I think the guys saw it at Waterloo, which is kind of the big, independent store here downtown. They grabbed the whole flyer, so no one else could take the number and call. They called up, I met up with them, and that was it. [I was looking to get into a band like that because] I think it was just the stuff I was kind of into at the time. I was mostly into Mogwai and Dirty Three, and so were those guys at the time, so it was a natural fit.
In terms of the sad stuff, I've always kind of had liking of sort of melancholy music. Not necessarily slow stuff but just, you know, Dinosaur Jr was always a band that I loved, but his music is always kind of sad. Or even Neil Young. I've always been drawn to music that's not depressing necessarily...I guess all the stuff that people truly love is always sad, melancholy music if you think about it.
As far as the triumphant stuff, at the time, I was really taken with Mogwai and what they were doing -- having these sort of sad melodies but played with this kind of bombast and epic feel. Those guys were excited by Mogwai at the same time, and so it's interesting that we ended up where we are, because they were definitely a huge part of that. I don't know if this band would exist if Mogwai didn't exist.
In a 2003 interview with The Austin Chronicle, you talked about going out to Monahans Sandhills State Park to hang out. What music did you bring with you to listen to, and what did being in that environment do for you?
I can't remember specifically, but I remember we brought our own music out there, demos and stuff we were working on. It was while we were working on our third record that we went out there. This was, god, ten years ago now. It was in Midland, and I moved there for the first time for a few months; that's where those guys are all from. We lived there for a summer just to pay cheap rent and a cheap practice space and work on writing music.
I remember going out there, and it's this crazy state park in Texas. I mean it looks like Tatooine -- just these rolling sand dunes. We would go out there at night and bring a battery-powered boom box and just listen to stuff. I specifically remember bringing out previous record out there and listening to it.
I think we were at a point where we were kind of having trouble. Whenever we have trouble coming up with stuff, we start to get discouraged and go, "Aw, we're a terrible band." Then it was, "Oh, let's listen to this record." And it was like, "We do like this, we did this pretty well, so maybe we can still be good."
It's just otherworldly out there, and the sky is huge, and it just sort of makes you feel very small and insignificant, which is a feeling that helps us when we write, for some reason. It's just a very inspiring setting. It's weird to think that was ten years ago and that we've been doing this that long. We still basically feel like we're amateurs who are still kind of figuring out what we're doing. To think that we've been doing this for thirteen years now is kind of weird.
How did it come to be that you opened for Fugazi on their tour for The Argument, and how did their fans receive you?
We only did one show. It was a show in Houston. The guy who was the promoter for the show liked us. He was in touch with Fugazi and said, "There's this band in Austin; is it cool if they open for you." I guess they listened to something and said, "Yeah, that sounds good." We were so excited because they are, to this day, one of our favorite bands. This was a couple of years into the band, so this was our first like, "Holy shit, man, we're gonna play with Fugazi! This is insane! This is a childhood dream come true."
It actually went pretty well. There were a few heckles and stuff, but by the end, we kind of won them over. Fugazi crowds are pretty interesting. What's weird about a Fugazi crowd is that you'll see a lot of punks and stuff there, and I don't even know if they like Fugazi, because Fugazi's actually a pretty weird band. A lot of times, I get the sense that the people in the audience...I'm not sure if they're really even connecting with Fugazi's music.
Obviously a lot of people -- they're not a dumb punk band, and that's something about Fugazi no one used to really talk about. [They're] actually really innovative, musically. Everyone talks about their ethical stance and the way they run their business. But those guys are ridiculous, the stuff they would come up with.
It went well and Brendan Canty, their drummer, paid us a compliment. He said, "Man that was really beautiful," and we were totally excited about that. We didn't end up hanging out with them or anything like that, but that was our biggest show up to that point, in terms of people watching us. We sold a lot of CDs and shirts that night, so that was definitely a marker for us that we still think about.
The title Take Care, Take Care, Take Care reads like part of an Ezra Pound poem. Why did you go with a short, repeated phrase like that?
I don't know. We're always kind of going back and forth coming up with ideas for song titles and album titles. Nothing was really sticking. The way all the titles work is that someone will come up with a phrase or something, and it either clicks or it doesn't. Mark [Smith] emailed us all one day and said, "How about Take Care, Take Care, Take Care?" I don't even know where he pulled it from, but for some reason it just fit.
All of us responded within an hour, "Yeah, let's have that be the title." [That was] after three months of us going back and forth and everyone going like, "Eh...that's not that good, and I don't really like that." It's a bit of an intuitive response to a title. Even when we write a song, if it feels right, we'll keep going with that. That one was one we all liked, and it was evocative, so we chose it and stuck with it.
There's a song on Take Care called "Postcard From 1952" -- what is the origin of that title?
It's interesting because it seems like it must have some specific story for it with such a specific title. When we were writing the song, for some reason, in our heads, we kept imagining it being played at a high school dance in the '50s or the early '60s. I have no idea why because I don't know if it really sounds like that or not. But, for some reason, that's what kept going through out head.
Mark, again, was like, "How about 'Postcard From 1952'?" We were like, "That's awesome. How did you think of that?" He said, "I don't know. It just sort of came into my head." So, again, there's no specific story behind it and no specific anything behind it. It just somehow fit, and it was the kind of thing people could think about and be like, "What does this mean? How does this apply to anything?" We don't really have a reason for it. It just somehow sounded cool to us and it felt right.
As a drummer who has been on multiple tours, what is a habit or a trick that has made life easier for you, that you maybe wished you had learned earlier on?
I would say being able to get a good amount of sleep is really helpful. We used to not have that chance, because the first ten years of the band, we were touring in vans and driving all the time and getting up in the morning to get to the next city. We tour on a bus now, and it's totally different. It's like, "Oh my god, I can be asleep by midnight!" We've never been a partying band, so it was never learning lessons of pacing yourself and that sort of stuff.
As a band, we've gotten better at knowing when not to push each other. Touring and being around the same group of dudes for months on end, even if they're best friends, which they are, you get sick of each other. That's the nice thing about being on the bus -- you each go into your own little bunk and have your own little world away from everybody.
The main thing is just of being able to recognize, "He's not doing well; He's in this bad mood, or he's upset about something," and just let it be and not push things and let everyone have their bad days, when they have bad days, and not turn it into anything worse. I think the best thing we've learned is how to read each other and not turn things into unnecessary conflicts -- which happens when you're around the same people all the time.
Why are you starting your tour in Boulder, and why will you be making a stop in Grand Junction to play the Mesa Theater?
The routing sort of made sense to go to Boulder. We never play Boulder. We've played Denver several times, and on this tour, we're kind of trying to play places we haven't played before. We're playing Seattle and San Francisco, and we've played there often. People are always, "Boulder is a great place to play; it should be a good show." Well, we weren't going to play a Denver show because we played there [recently], and Boulder is kind of on the way up to where our routing is.
Grand Junction? I have no idea. Our booking agent was like, "We could do Grand Junction the next night. The promoter thinks it could be interesting." Okay. We've never heard of bands playing there for anything, so we don't know what to expect from that, so it was more us signing off on that and saying, "I guess so." It was either that or a day off before Missoula. There wasn't really anything between Boulder and Missoula that would make sense. We'll see what happens. What is Grand Junction even like?
People are pretty appreciative of anyone coming through.
We like to play places where bands don't come through all the time because people are appreciative. I think we prefer playing smaller places or out of the way places. It's fun playing the big cities but the crowds are so much more enthusiastic in Boise as opposed to Chicago or wherever and that's fun. We like playing places that are off the touring path because people are excited about it and people aren't as cynical and jaded about, "Well, every single band comes through here so who cares?"
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