The errant Nabil Azadi recently caught up with Mark Smith from Texan quartet Explosions In The Sky. The pair caught up briefly to talk about the boys’ new release “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care,” their experiences at Sonic Ranch and their processual ethic. Definitely worth a read!
Nabil Azadi: So much of my respect for what you achieve stems from the fact that your music is instrumental. I find there to be some kind of sincerity in that – not only because I find it kind of endearing to hear about that sense of processual democracy that you boys are so keen on – but because whether or not you’ve realised it, you’ve managed to be sad and triumphant. What’s more is that there’s respect for the magic of the spectre here; that is, the music you write is aurally meaningful yet it also possesses a kind of ambiguity that allows any listener to put part of their own narrative on it.
Mark Smith: When I hear something like this, my first reaction is to think that yes, I agree 100%, and that the person really understands or gets what we’re going for. Absolutely, that is one of my favorite things to hear about our music–that it can mean different things to different people, or indeed the tone can even be felt differently (some people will say a song makes them wistful, others say the same song makes them feel exuberant, etc). But then I actually think about our songwriting process and I can’t say with any truth that that is something that we’re purposefully striving for. We just write music and it seems that that quality is just there. I don’t really have an explanation for it. I just think we’ve always enjoyed going for the contradictions in music–I love when I can describe a song as “darkly bright,” or when a heavy part also has a placid quality to it. Things have more depth that way. It seems like in music the things that are the most impossibly beautiful also have the most sadness to them. So if the elements in a song are of different tones (e.g., one guitar part is melancholic, one is anthemic), then people respond to them differently, based on their mood or personalities. It’s fascinating. I’ll read someone say if you want to feel like slitting your wrists, listen to “Let Me Back In”; then I’ll read someone else say that if you want your soul to be inspired, listen to “Let Me Back In.”
Nabil Azadi: And what do you think happens with music or art don’t offer this – does that necessarily make it self-indulgent?
Mark Smith: No, not necessarily. I listen to a lot of music (hip hop, black metal, bright pop) that pretty much can only be interpreted or felt one way, tone-wise, but I don’t think it’s self-indulgent at all. There’s room for all kinds of music.
Nabil Azadi: What were you boys doing before you put that advertisement up in the record store?
Mark Smith: It is only when I feel like torturing myself that I think about what would have happened had we not all met up. Our lives would be so insanely different that it’s just impossible to think about. We wouldn’t have met our girlfriends and wives, I wouldn’t have my kids… It’s just far too mind boggling to think about. I’m not at all someone who thinks about fate or destiny or anything. But I am so thankful Munaf and Michael and I went into Waterloo Records in Austin that day and saw the flyer Chris put up. Munaf and Michael and I had already been friends for a long time at that point–we had known each other since high school in Midland, and we had played in bands together before, and were playing a little bit together at that point with no drummer. And Chris had moved to Austin from Chicago and had dropped out of film school in Austin. So at that point I was working as a textbook copyeditor, Michael was working at a video store, Munaf was working at a sandwich restaurant, and Chris was working at a bookstore. So yeah… Fortuitous.
Nabil Azadi: Throughout your music there always seems to be this theme of rising above. In fact, I almost think it would be fair to state that your music always holds at a kind of climatic realisation. You seem to specialise in the denouement track – the music played at the moment where one figures out what’s wrong and decides to do something about it. It’s a strangely complex thing to have mastered kind of accidentally.
Mark Smith: I’ve read in a few reviews that one complaint about our music is that it is too dramatic. Maybe it would be interesting to write an album about the more quotidian times of life–the times in between the parts of life where things actually happen. For better or for worse we have always been drawn to including the high drama – where everything seems heightened, where your focus is clear. Although we tend to think of each song as having a dramatic arc – before the climax, there is the prologue and the introduction and the rising action.
Nabil Azadi: What happened to you boys at Sonic Ranch? It sounds as though this is album is a real return to vigour and a lot has gone on for you in the past two years – I’m tempted to say something about moving from boyhood to manhood but it’s a slow process and no one likes talking about it anyway.
Mark Smith: Sonic Ranch was the beautiful place in West Texas where we recorded the album, and we had a fantastic experience there. As far as the return to vigor goes, though, that took place in the songwriting process in Austin. And I think it started with one decision. All along we have written the songs with two guitars, bass, and drums, or three guitars and drums. And that’s that. What we wrote would be how we played the song live, and would be what we recorded for the album. But this time, we decided to open it up–really flesh out the songs so they could be anything we could think of. Samples, overdubs, vocals, other instruments all made their way in. So that was huge for us in making an album that felt different to us. As far as what you say about moving from boyhood to manhood, well, I can’t think of anything to say about that that doesn’t sound ridiculous, so I’ll just take my cue from “no one likes talking about it anyway.”
Nabil Azadi: Without putting my own words to the tone of the album, how much of its substance do you think is autobiographical? I understand sometimes the stories you have in mind when writing belong to others’, but something tells me this was much more about your own stories.
Mark Smith: I don’t know–I think the inclination is to want to say this album is different from the others in respect to this, but I think as far as motivation and substance and content, it is the same as we’ve always written music. Some of it is autobiographical, some of it is invented characters and stories, some of it is inspired by other art, some of it just makes us feel a certain way, some of it is there for no other reason than it punches us in the gut. That being said, this album does feel the most personal to me, in that I have the greatest personal connection to it of any of our other albums. Maybe it is only because it is the most recent, but I don’t think so. It feels like more of us is in this album.
Nabil Azadi: So what am I to take care of?
Mark Smith: The world, yourself, your relationships, the good things in the world. The theme of the artwork and thus the album is one of loss. But as far as mindset goes when writing the songs, it is one of nurturing, of taking care of what you have and what is around you, before you lose it. When we were younger, we were drawn to the darkness, to themes of war and death (witness our second album). But we’re older, and more and more I feel drawn to the solace and consolation and love of music, and I hope that comes across.
Images: Explosions in the sky
Interview: Nabil Azadi