Van Halen. The Doors. The Cure. Queen. These are the bands you wanna be in if you wanna be famous. Leather chaps and lizard kings, geisha makeup and prancing around the stage in a leotard and a neat Persian mustache belting out 'We Will Rock You!'All great things for getting the kids' attention.
Not really wanting to be famous, drummer Christopher Hrasky thought he was safe in Austin-based quartet Explosions in the Sky. With no clear frontman-and no singer at all-Explosions seemed the perfect place for Hrasky to rock anonymously.
After graduate school at the University of Texas 'didn't work out,'Hrasky took up with likeminded instrumental guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani and bassist Michael James. Everything was going fine. The band was playing tiny, dirty rock clubs when Explosions sorta, well, exploded.
Their long-awaited fourth studio LP, 2007's All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, has become a more-than-cult, less-than-mainstream hit. Thanks partly to their profile-raising Friday Night Lights score and few songs on the soundtracks for Walk the Line, Shop Girl and All the Real Girls, the album climbed to a miraculous No. 76 on the Billboard album chart and sold an even more miraculous 11,000 copies in its first week.
With no singles and no commercial music videos, and even after swearing off major-label help and venues operated by Clear Channel spin-off Live Nation, the band has managed to get far closer to famous than un-famous.
'Particularly since this new record came out and we've been touring, it's been very, uh, strange,'Hrasky says. 'We're happy we're doing this well, but, man, it is weird-these are 10-minute songs with no singing and people seem to be liking them.”
The success is so shocking to Hrasky that he's already bracing for the backlash.
'We don't dwell on the success because at some point we'll start becoming less popular,'he says, as if the band's waning popularity is inevitable. 'In a couple of years, I'm sure that people will no longer be excited about us anymore.”
Maybe. But it's hard to know. Very few instrumental rock bands have had this sort of success in the past, so there's no career template to follow.
The band got its break in 2001 when fellow Austin avant-garde band American Analog Set sent an Explosions live demo to the label Temporary Residence Limited with a note saying, 'This totally fucking destroys”-a seemingly apocryphal description. Hransky says it's one of the few true stories circulating about the band on the web.
From there the band spun out a series of instrumental albums that are more rock than jazz or new age, but are still a long way from 'We Will Rock You.'It's often called post-rock, but the label doesn't quite fit.
'I can never really explain it to people like my parents' friends,'says Hransky. 'I tell them it's instrumental and they already don't really understand. So I end up stumbling through an explanation of what it sounds like, saying, ‘The songs are long, and there are a lot of quiet parts and loud parts.' But it never goes very well with people that have no framework to put us in. So often I make it easy on people and say, ‘Oh, it's a rock band.'”
While bands-including Scotland's Mogwai and New York's Tortoise-pioneered instrumental post-rock a decade ago, the closest thing Explosions have to peers are Iceland's Sigur Rós. Yes, Sigur Rós has lyrics, but because they're in either Icelandic or a nonsense language made up by the band, words really aren't a factor. Both bands are more about conveying a mood or tone than a concrete idea.
Without literally telling you, 'We're lost on a stormy sea with a drunk and depressed captain'or 'We're in a dense forest, but through the lifting mist we can see a sun-lit clearing,'Explosions is able to communicate the emotions those scenes are about.
'We're not going for anything intellectual,'Hransky says. 'We're going for something that's visceral, something that's even cathartic. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.”
Hransky is just being modest. Like the right Enya tune takes you to a Hobbit hole next to a babbling brook, Explosions takes you to equally mystical-and much less dorky-places. All that's holding them back from international stardom is tasteful mustaches and revealing leotards.
Explosions in the Sky's April 27 show at Epicentre is sold out. www.explosions inthesky.com.