Interview: Chris Hrasky of Explosions In the Sky Talks About Why ‘End’ Is Not the End

The newest record by Explosions In The Sky might be called End, but the band are nowhere near finished. Twenty-four years into their career, the influential instrumental group are still figuring out ways to push themselves creatively and to not repeat what they’ve already done. From the serene post-rock guitars of their early records to the vast, electronic-tinged soundscapes of their most recent work, it’s a delicate balance of staying true to their roots and experimenting with new ideas and sounds.

End, which was released via Temporary Residence on September 15, is the band’s eight full-length album, not including their extensive film soundtrack work. It pulls a bit from every avenue they have explored over the years, the band sounding as in command of their craft as ever. Drummer Chris Hrasky took some time to speak to us about the record, its title, and why they find writing an album to be more difficult than scoring a film.

What does the album’s title, End, represent?

We’re always throwing ideas around for titles, and for whatever reason that word, just someone in the band brought that up, and it sort of clicked for some reason. Not for any specific reason; it just sort of felt fitting for the times. It’s not meant to be necessarily this apocalyptic idea or anything like that, the end of everything. It was a lot of things. Part of it was a feeling of pleading almost, like can this all please end; everything is so crazy and loud, can we just hit reset or something? Some of it was that, and some of it was that in the last several years, we’ve all lost family members, and as we’re getting older, we’re thinking about our own mortality, I guess. I don’t know; it just somehow clicked with us.

We never really have a hard and fast idea of what the title means; we just sort of feel it. It just clicks, and that seemed like a good, evocative word that was pretty bold, and it just stuck. We were definitely worried when we announced the tour that people were going to think that we were breaking up, but once the record title was announced, that maybe calmed people down a bit, for whoever cared. Like with everything we do, it just felt right. We kind of go by what hits us between the guts, I guess.

Does the title influence or inform the music, or vice-versa?

This time the title came after we had written all the songs. I can’t remember if the title or the artwork came first. It’s been well over a year since that was all solidified. With this one we definitely had all the music written and somehow for whatever reason that title, in our minds, fit with the songs we had written. It’s interesting because the first half of the record is fairly optimistic feeling, and the second half of the record is a little darker, a little heavier, a little noisier. It just somehow made sense to us.

It had been seven years between full-length albums; when did the writing for End begin?

The last record came out in 2016, and we toured for a couple years behind that, and then in 2019, we did a 20th anniversary tour, and then as soon as that finished, COVID hit, and it was just a weird time when we weren’t making anything. In the early days, no one knew what was going on, and then we did a soundtrack in 2020, which was a nice way to take our minds off of all the nightmare of the world. Then we just started writing songs, I guess, in mid-2020, we started the first inklings of new songs.

We’re very slow. We’re very quick when it comes to soundtracks, but with our own records, it always just takes us a very long time. It was a seven-year absence, but we were pretty active that whole time, it was just aside from maybe the first six months of COVID where we weren’t doing anything. It was lots of touring mixed with COVID mixed with the fact that it always just takes us a very long time to come up with songs for a record. We’re definitely not speedy songwriters. Every song takes a very long time and goes through different iterations, and lots of pondering what the hell we’re even doing and how do we even write music—that sort of thing.

Why does the soundtrack work go faster?

The soundtracks are generally a lot easier for us for a number of reasons. First of all, you sort of have a map in front of you when you are doing a soundtrack—Here’s the story; here’s the scene; here’s a director telling you what they’re looking for. So you kind of have a guide, and you have a hard deadline—this has to be done by a certain point. So you have a lot of direction, whereas you don’t when you are writing your own songs, and it’s a lot more open-ended. And also with a soundtrack, by definition, it is ultimately more background music. Every piece that you write doesn’t need to be 12 minutes long and span all these different emotions and feelings; it can be a little two-minute piece. You’re scoring it to a certain scene or a specific mood that is set out for you. It’s basically someone else’s concept that you are trying to enhance to some degree.

When we start writing our own songs, it’s basically like, “what are we trying to do with this song?” It’s just the four of us scratching around trying to find something that we can connect with, so that always takes us a lot longer. They are very different approaches for us. It’s definitely more painstaking when we come up with our own stuff that is in its own universe outside of a movie or TV show.

Has the writing process for you changed over the years?

In the early days, we would write stuff much faster for a number of reason—A) we weren’t touring as much, B) we were just younger, and I think we were a lot less self-critical of what we were doing. We just kind of let it come out of us, and it would move a lot faster. Now, not that we second-guess things, but we are very self-critical. Also, it used to be a situation where the four of us would get together four days a week—We all lived in the same city, and that was our life completely—but now we’re older; we have families and kids; we’re scattered across the country, so that adds to the length of time.

Instead of us sitting in a room together, it’s file sharing and coming up with ideas, and every few months, we would get together and try to focus on certain ideas and hone in on them. So that process makes things longer, just geographically and logistically. Two of us are still in Austin; one guy is in Michigan, one is in Los Angeles, so it’s different. We’re not with each other 24 hours a day, which we used to be.

It’s a different way for us to work. We’d be sending files to each other over the course of a few months and slowly building on those, then get together and try to put these ideas together. It was definitely a bit of a learning curve as to how to do that and still make it feel like a unified band playing together. That took some time, for sure.

It’s a different process because we have a bigger catalogue now and we don’t necessarily want to repeat ourselves, and we’re not 24/7 living and breathing this like we used to. You have kids and other things that become more of a priority than the band so it slows the process down, but we’ve definitely figured out a way to make that work and adjusted to that arrangement pretty well. Hopefully it will not take us another seven years to write a record, but we’ll see what happens.

Does it become more deliberate than spontaneous at that point?

Yeah, I think so. Even back in the early days it was still very deliberate. We had very clear [ideas] but I think the longer you go on, you just don’t want to repeat yourself so you consciously have that in your head. We don’t want it to be a watered down version of something we’ve already done. That’s the goal anyway. I’m sure plenty of people will say it just sounds like everything we’ve done, which is fair. But it’s a little more deliberate now, and I think just the idea that we’re not with each other as much as we used to be. You just have to work through that and figure out a way to connect through long distances and navigate all the other things that are happening in people’s lives. We can’t be like, “Okay, let’s just hang out for eight hours every single day.” That’s just not feasible for any of us anymore.

There’s been more and more additional elements like keys, pianos and electronics added to your music over the years. Does this push to include these different sounds help keep you from repeating yourselves?

I don’t know how conscious we are of it. There’s a lot of piano on this record, and a lot of that is because Michael (James, guitarist/bassist) was playing piano a lot and would send us these piano lines, and it was like, “That could be the basis for a song.” Even working on soundtracks there’s more room to experiment, I guess, and we can incorporate ideas. Like, “We have a lot of piano on that soundtrack, maybe we should start putting more piano in our actual songs.” It kind of comes across that way. And just discovering new instruments and new ways of recording, it has just sort of evolved over time.

Is there ever a concern that additional elements might not translate into the live environment?

Yeah, we definitely ran into that with our last record. It was a challenge because that record was super layered and had tons of stuff going on. It took a while to figure out how to pull that stuff off live. For instance, live now we have an extra guy with us who can be a go-to man. He can play bass because the guy who plays bass is playing guitar, or he can trigger a sample or whatever. And that’s a new thing for us on the last two records. On some of the songs we were triggering samples because there’s just not enough hands and feet to play these parts. That was an adjustment.

And it’s an adjustment for this record too. We’ve recorded this record, we’re into it, now we need to figure out how to pull these songs off live. But at the same time not feel like we’re just playing along to a bunch of tracks. It still feels very live, but we do want to have these supplemental things. We just have to figure out a way to pull that off live. I think we’ve done pretty well. The last record there were definitely songs we just could not pull off in any good way live, they just didn’t work. This one, we’ve been able to play every song live in some form. The record in itself feels a lot more live than the last one. Even though there’s a lot of all this extraneous stuff, it feels like a rock band just playing their songs.

What stands out to you about End?

It’s weird because we recorded that record almost a year ago. We recorded it last October. Normally when we finish a record, I’ll listen to it a lot for a couple months and then I sort of lose interest. But for whatever reason this one has stuck with me where I still really enjoy listening to it. I feel like we’re constantly trying to make an immaculate, perfect record. Not immaculate in the sense that it needs to sound real produced and super clean. To me, this feels, more so than anything else—and maybe this will change in six months—but right now this feels like we’ve maybe figured this out more than we have in the past. Which isn’t to say people are going to like it more than the old stuff, but for us, it feels like we reached a destination that maybe we’ve been subconsciously trying to get to for the past twenty-five years.

I think it’s good to be continuously looking back on the old stuff and thinking, “I’m not sure why we made that decision, or why it sounds this way.” A lot of that stuff was because in the old days we just had no budget and had to record as fast as we could, and mix it as fast as we could. Now we have a bit more breathing room for that and to actually spend time and get it the way we want it. But still, it was important for us that this record still feels very visceral and live. I feel like we succeeded at that, at least in our ears.

So if End is not the end, what comes next?

We’re going to be touring a lot, probably through the end of 2024 on and off. We’re also in the midst of working on music for a Netflix mini-series. In our downtime from the record and touring, we’re kind of working on that. That got delayed a bit because of the strike and whatnot. Now that seems like that’s going to be picking back up. So we’ll tour until the end of November for this year, and we usually try to take winters off because touring in the winter is just asking for trouble.

We’ll spend a lot of time doing soundtrack work. I don’t know when that show’s going to see the light of day, sometime next year, I think. So it’ll be a combination of that and touring and then once touring is over we’ll probably just not play music for a while. And then hopefully we’ll start working on new songs again. We never really have a real set plan. Stuff just sort of comes up and either we agree to do it or we don’t. So, yeah, we got a lot of stuff ahead, which is nice.

End is available now from Temporary Residence. Follow Explosions in the Sky on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for future updates.

Photo courtesy of social media

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