This morning I talked to Munaf Rayani, guitarist with post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky. The band are touring Australia early next year as part of almost a year and a half of tour's on the back of All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone, a smouldering, beautiful/terrible composition of songs. Manuf was a great guy to talk to, his answers compelling and insightful. At times he would almost begin to whisper when talking about his relationship with music and the respect he feels for audiences, at other times he would draw out important words with great emphasis. The transcript to this interview is below.
Where are you at the moment?
I just made it back home. A few days ago we played our last show of the year which was in Barcelona, and we came home a few days ago and now we have nothing to do for the rest of the year, and what a feeling! To be home!
It's a change as well, because you've been touring constantly pretty much since the release of All Of A Sudden..., is that right?
Pretty much, there was a little bit of a forced break that came along in the middle of the year in which we had to cancel a good number of events because one of the boys, their mother had gotten quite sick and so he had to go home to tend to her and we had to cancel a few months of tour. But since then, she's feeling much better, and we picked back up around August and were doing something every month until last week!
And what's it been like touring?
Man, it's been pretty great so far, especially with this new album there's been a greater interest in every city that we come too, just because it's the fourth album out and we've been around for a little while now. But it's been rather spectacular, I mean like showing up to rooms and them being full and we are the headliners, there's no other bands after us and so it's kind of nice to see that people would come out and listen. So it's been really great.
So do you think this album is where you've reached critical mass, where you sort of 'broke' as it were?
Sure. I think that possibly, we made a really loud bang with the previous album The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, which came out you know, four years ago almost, and I think we did right by that album. I feel, in my heart of hearts, that it kind of placed us on the map, properly, in which you could see this little iddy biddy dot, "that's Explosions in the Sky" when prior to that I don't even think we showed up on the map. And then, still, with this new album, in my opinion and it's only one man's opinion, I think the songs are very good and very strong that it only made that dot a little bit bigger. So I feel like it really started the previous album, but it's definitly become more solidified with this latest record, which you couldn't hope for anything better - you know, I think that the goal or the daydream for any musician or artist is to do better with every outing.
Certainly. You guys also played with the Smashing Pumpkins on their Zeitgeist tour recently. How was that?
We didn't know what to expect going into a massive tour like that, because, you know, some of the stories that we've heard along the way with a band opening up for a major act like that - usually the crew doesn't give a fuck about you, the crowd isn't interested - it has the great potential of just being a shite state of affairs, but very luckily for us it went amazingly. The crew treated us with the utmost amount of respect, and the crowd every night - who pretty much 90, 95 percent of them hadn't heard of us - were responding in a ridiculous manner to where we were like "oh my goodness, this really worked". So the tour really did right by us, and met Billy a couple of times along the way and he had some nice things to say, but especially like Jimmy Chamberlain. Jimmy Chamberlain was watching the show pretty much every night from sidestage and then would have something to say to us, like "god boys, you really did good", and that was kind of strange, like, "thank you, Jimmy Chamberlain!"
Coz All Of A Sudden... has been out for almost a year now, do you still play most of it at shows?
Definitly, well we mainly play two tracks for sure which is Welcome, Ghosts and Catastrophe and the Cure, show up pretty much every night. But with all these new touring plans for this next year, for the next six months, we intend on bringing at least, all of them, so the five - how many songs on that album?
Right, so we're going to try and get them all playable at a live show. Because a couple of them involve piano and we're always a little bit strange about bringing a little, it's like a nice piano keyboard that we have, so incorporating that into the show as another piece of equipment onstage and regardless, we intend on trying to play most of that, entire album on this next tour with a couple of other things we're going to bring out of the past just to make the show a little bit more diverse, we do our best to change up the set every night.
I was sort of wondering when you're composing albums, if you sort of arrange it 'at once', as it were - All Of A Sudden... doesn't so much seem like individual songs as it does one really strong composition. So I was wondering how that translates into live, like do you ever play an album from first song to last?
No we don't, but we tend not to break our set - so each song will transition into the next, which makes it a little bit exciting for us on tour - if the set is changing up every night, you've gotta figure out how song A connnects to song B, which connects to song C, you know what I mean? So we've figured out some transitions between songs - "okay, this one's going to go well to this one" - but that's where it gets kind of exciting for us to kind of find out that transition on a nightly basis. So an album that sits by itself from song one to song six, and it's blending all together, which sometimes happens out of just pure luck - like we don't sit down and write track one, and then two and then three - we've written this batch of songs and then placed them in an order in which the connect nicely. So the same kind of idea applies when comprising a set.
So that means each night has it's own little bit of improvisation?
Yeah definitly. Improvisation is not something we're very good at, but it makes us at least try, you know. And some nights it's just really terrible - like that song does not connect to that song - but other nights notes will just hit together and it will be like, "wow, that worked", and then all of a sudden we've transitioned into the next track and it's properly started. So it definitly offers a room for improvisation but it's not something that we seek out actively.
I was wondering as well, now you've been playing these songs for a long time as well, has your relationship with them changed?
Definitly, you know this new batch of songs were cause for a little bit of nervousness because them being fresh songs, playing them live as to all the other songs we've been playing for a number of years to where we've become so comfortable with them that we can all pretty much play them eyes closed, and not even have to really think on it. But with these new tracks, okay, you have to refocus, you have to almost reprogram like, "okay, my fingers have to move this way" or "the beat is changing now, the melody's changing now", but since we've been playing them since February in proper live settings, I've noticed at least, in my playing, it's become more comfortable, more natural. Like I can move easier with the songs, I don't feel as rigid as I once was, but I think that comes with anything that you do repeatedly, that if it's not getting stronger then something's wrong with you. So, I think that the opportunity of playing them repeatedly has offered them to become more comfortable and thus more enjoyable.
What inspires your band to write music? Is it an attempt to express something emotional, is it more sort of, studied? Or is it more of a narrative?
I think that it might have a piece of all those things. But you know, we're inspired by all things - I mean the actions of people, the state of the world, a book that we may have read, a film that we may have seen, other bands that we have met or heard - all these things play as an inspiration as I would imagine they do for anybody, whether you play music or not, you know? If you worked in an office, and this music - whatever the band was that you were listening to - offered a feeling to you, okay, there's an inspiration in whatever it is that you're doing in your life. So with us, the same thing applies. We're taken by all things. Some in a good way - most in a good way, some in a bad way - but they all have their place in our songwriting. Because I believe that we try to give a proper representation of the world through our eyes through these notes.
That makes sense, because a lot of people have said, well you get that whole 'cinematic' tag, that every band does that tends towards post-rock, but for me, I find the album works best when I'm sort of travelling somewhere, or thinking about things, and that more fits with what you're saying.
Oh yeah, I think so, exactly. I mean, we've gotten a number of people who've said, "you know, I was just on a long trip and I was just listening to the album and staring out of a window" - well that's great because we stare out of a lot of windows, and this is what we see. And so even if a little bit matches up for whoever is listening, then we're definitly winning right?
For sure, well for me - two of my best friends just left for America for a few months, and I'm moving out of my old home and I'm not sort of sure where I'm at, and I've been listening to All Of A Sudden constantly, and it's kind of helped me out in a strange way. Can you tell me why?
I don't know - I'm glad to hear that it is helping you out, because it helps me out - already something you and I have in common. But I don't know, that would be a question of 'what is it that art does for one?' and that goes far beyond music as well.
I love, too, with your music there's something open about it, so you can sort write your own meanings into it, if you know what I mean?
Yeah exactly, and that's something else we're very conscious about, while we have our stories, we have our scenes in our head with each of these songs, by no means are they the story, and I would hope that anybody that listens to it - this music is your's to have, here, it's your's. Okay, we wrote and it our name is on it, but it's far from ours. You follow?
Definitly. And does that come through at shows, do you think?
I hope so. Another thing that we try when we get ready to play a show, or when we're talking about shows with whoever - the goal is to have, for that hour, the four of us are doing our best to get lost, to forget about what is happening outside of that room, so I hope that anybody that is in that room with us is also getting lost. Because, here, there is no right and there is no wrong and there is no trouble and worry, there's just us, and there's this sound, and I hope that it's doing something for you. Because when we're playing on stage, you know we're doing our best to get into it I think we tend to, I don't know, we go into - and this kind of an extreme thing to say because it's not as far as that - but a trance-like state where we're all truly lost in the melody and the movement of the song, and when we play I hope that that one feels these notes, listening as much as I'm offering and playing them. I guess it's hard to describe but I often say it's a battle with the spirits. There's all these spirits in the room and their trying to sweep away my feet and get in my way so I have to duck and I have to dodge, I have to play these notes to try and cut through and get to the ears of that person in the front row, that person in the last row, up at the balcony or by the bar. So I hope that when they're in the room watching this show, that they're taking much more from it, than just the melody.
So it's almost a gift then?
Ah, well, sure. But it's as much of a gift to me that someone is sitting there offering their attention, and that's one of the greatest things that anyone can offer in this life, is their attention, their time. Because more than anything else in this life, those things are priceless, those things you cannot buy. So I would think, anyone who is listening to the album or coming to the shows is because you're offering your offering your time to us, and that's, shit, that's expensive.
Speaking of time, it's been like a really long time that you guys have been together now, and I was going to ask how does it feel - is it comforting, or just normal? Is it still awesome to play as Explosions in the Sky?
Yeah, when we sit down and really think on it. I mean, it's easy to get lost in it's routine, that we have been doing this for a number of years now - we're but a step a way from ten years of Explosions, we're coming up on our ninth year. So when doing anything that long, it can become routine. But when we stop, and really talk with each other, or take a look at where we are, goddam man, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, and it is pretty spectacular that we are still getting to do this, at this level, and it only seems to be getting better with every day. It just seems to be clicking on all the right levels, the sequence of notes is working, and so I hope that we can keep coming up with those, because we truly enjoy it, because this is our life. And while we've had a number of troubles individually, you know as anybody does, those troubles have been eclipsed by the beauty that music has offered us, not only listening but now playing, you know?
It's awesome really. Finally, I was going to ask, what's up next for you guys? I know you've got shitloads more touring, it extends into March as far as I can see, but apart from that are you going to get a chance to sit down and write?
Yeah, we won't catch the right time to write until, well touring will go all the way through June, I believe mid-June will be the last show of the whole run, and it's going to be in Russia, which is incredible, we're going to Moscow for the first time in our lives. And that'll be the last show of this whole rollercoaster ride that begins in January. But after that, after June, we're going to take a decent amount of time, upwards to a year, if not more, and not tour. Sure we'll do a one-off here and there but we will not have any proper big tours planned, so that we can offer the appropriate amount of focus and time to writing music, do it justice. We don't want to just sit down and write a song, write an album, in a few weeks or in a month - because one, we can't even do that, but two, we don't want to do that. But it's after that point that we will really, really put our heads down and start writing new music, and I'm just as curious as the next man of what that's going to sound like.
How's that though, it will have been almost a year and a half that you've been touring off of this album, that's just amazing isn't it?
Yeah, definitly. But that's the process, or a process, in achieving whatever it is that one wants to achieve. So you know when we write an album, we could usually just sit at home and let it cook on it's own, but it may not bloom as quickly as say touring, if you go tour on it. Then it offers people to see it live and hear it in different settings, and push it further. So I think that going to do these tours is going to be only a good thing for the long term. So while we've been on this ride for a little under a year now, okay, we offer six more months to it and we've really given this album it's fair shake in us promoting it. So after that, hopefully we've made a good enough mark that will sustain for a year or two years until we come back around, you know.
Music produces space. Statement of the obvious, I know, but music plays a unique, often hidden, and sensuous role in place making, both physical and thematic. Get Lonely, of course, is about getting lost, and the very meaning of loneliness is spatial. As such, above all it is a music of place, of empty, lonely places. On this album space is a much a metaphor as a an actual lived landscape - spatialised, physical motifs and allusions abound throughout the album, so that John Darnielle might build up walls in which to lose himself, or trace a dreamlike (un)making of places that sound experienced and yet not quite there anymore.
Because space is as much about time as it is about place, and most of the scenes here seem like those from the past, always just behind us - that's slightly depressing, if somewhat relieving too. They are oddly detached tableaux, like we were looking at poorly projected super 8 stills scratched and dark. Yet still meticulously detailed. Building the most affective of occupied moments from the smallest suggestions, metonyms of a distinct geography of alienation, erasure and darkness. Dark highways "where unlucky stray dogs bleed"; hidden flowers on hillsides no one ever sees; half-light, empty streets; empty houses, morning chilled. So many empty houses, often in early morning, all closed in, looking out at winter weather.
Musically, the album eschews Darnielle's trademark frantic strumming that whacked around on The Sunset Tree, in favour of quieter band arrangements and even quieter string sections, at moments approaching the sepia-tones of Sodastream's softer work. The music is at times languid, lethargic even. The aural sense of a dark, stunted loss at the centre of the record.
The beginning drum pattern and steel shakes of New Monster Avenue remind me hugely of Grand Salvo, an artist who with the same sort of instrumentation seems to evoke a dusty, Australian desert. Here, however, these steely frames seem to produce nothing but an empty house: "shadows on the broad, canopy of trees / sometime after midnight, the ground is gonna freeze". Starkly insulated, there is no one here, even when people are there - the title track:
"I will rise up early and dress myself up nice
and I will leave the house and check the deadlock twice.
and I will find a crowd and blend in for a minute
and I will try to find a little comfort in it.
and I will get lonely and gasp for air.
and send your name up from my lips like a signal flare.
and I will go downtown, stand in the shadows of the buildings
and button up my coat, trying to stay strong, spirit willing.
and I will come back home, maybe call some friends,
maybe paint some pictures,
it all depends.
and I will get lonely and gasp for air.
and look up at the high windows, and see your face up there."
The sense of territory here is constantly uplifted, as Darnielle takes sad, slow migratory movements across and within each track, drifting through settings that never seem to settle (him). Not that it's so much a journey - one of the most affecting realisations of Get Lonely is that there is truly no narrative here, only incremental stumbles into different places, none more resolved than the last. A wandering, vagrant suspension in somewhere (nowhere?), lost and cold, frozen emotions.
Moon Over Goldsboro: "I lay down in the weeds, it was a real cold night / I was happy until the overnight attendant switched on the floodlight" - light as pain - all shades and shadows hurt here. "Frost on the sidewalk, white as a bone / Tried to get close to you again, always wake up alone". Ghosts.
"I turned my face away and I shut my eyes tightFrom In the Hidden Places, an image that almost captures (and capture is the right word here) the kind of place Get Lonely takes you to, a harsh and hard place to be, one you only escape when the cd clicks off twelves songs later after In Corolla, where Darnielle and we finally disappear into the water's vertical horizon.
and dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light on dark hillsides
in the hidden places."
The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely