As an album title, The Wilderness is an apt metaphor for the seventh album from Explosions in the Sky.
The heralded Austin, Texas instrumental post-rock quartet—Chris Hrasky (drums), Michael James (guitar, bass), Munaf Rayani (guitar) and Mark T. Smith (guitar)—had recorded three soundtrack projects since the last studio record and deliberately set out to explore uncharted territory.
“We went into this knowing we wanted to push as much as we can to not do the default settings that maybe we’d developed for a few years,” Hrasky says. “We definitely wanted to feel like it was exploring different things and trying different things and make all that work in terms of songs.”
The album started piecemeal, with each band member recording little snippets of musical ideas individually and sharing along the way as they searched for inspiration.
“We were e-mailing little pieces of melodies and strange sounds back and forth and collected a pile of those,” Hrasky says. “When we were finally able to get together we started culling things we liked and things that were intriguing to us and went from there.”
Once the band assembled to begin writing songs, Explosions in the Sky began to build the music around a central idea, focusing on a different sort of wilderness: space.
“A lot of times we’ll think of really broad, basic ideas that help us focus a little bit more. For this one, for some reason after we started collecting all these little sounds that sounded unworldly and strange, and we started thinking really generally about outer space,” Hrasky says. “Something broad like that helps us focus and guide what we’re doing to hone in on a sound or a feeling or an overall tone and mood.”
That motif carried over to several of the song titles: “Infinite Orbit,” “Disintegration Anxiety” and “Colors in Space.” Other songs had working titles that were space-centric—“Nebula” and “Pulsar”—as the band explored the music that sprung from those ideas.
Abandoning the “default setting” led the band to record differently, with longtime collaborator (Grammy-winning producer) John Congleton expanding his role from recording engineer to co-producer. That decision in turn pushed Explosions in the Sky in a new direction as a live band as well.
“It’s a very different process to pull these songs off live,” Hrasky says. “For all our other records, we’d basically go in, set up and play the songs live together as band and then do some overdubs. This was the first one where we said ‘Let’s make this a full on studio record and not think about how we’ll do any of it live.’”
Once The Wilderness was finished, the band began figuring out how to pull off the new songs live, which basically took the first three months of this year.
“The newer songs are a different feel for us live. We all have samplers now, we’re all switching instruments a lot, we’re all using foot pedals to trigger things. We’re used to getting up there with guitars and drums and just playing the songs. Now we have to get used to the feeling of having a lot more to focus on. Each one of us in every song has like six diff things to remember to do. It took a few months to get used to that and get the flow right.”
Ultimately, The Wilderness became the right challenge at the right time for the veteran band, which formed in 1999.
“Something had to happen,” Hrasky says. “We didn’t want to be a band that does the same thing over and over again. Why even bother then if you’re not going to challenge yourself or do something you’re interested in? We’d reached a point where we liked what we’d done, but there was the danger of getting stuck in a repetitive mode for the rest of our life as a band and none of us wanted that.”
Explosions in the Sky perform Monday, May 2 at Rialto Theatre (318 E. Congress St.). Disappears opens the show, which begins at 8 p.m. For tickets ($24 adv./$27 day of) and more information, visit the venue's website.