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Behind Explosions in the Sky's Dramatic 'Prince Avalanche' Score

Austin soundtrack specialists venture out of their comfort zone for latest cinematic masterpiece

Explosions in the Sky
Nick Simonite
August 8, 2013 4:45 PM ET

When Explosions in the Sky got picked to score the film Prince Avalanche – which hits theaters Friday, August 9th – it wasn’t such a stretch. They’d been friends with the film’s director, David Gordon Green, for nearly a decade, ever since he gave the Austin, Texas-based experimental-rock instrumental quartet its first significant movie placement in his 2003 film All The Real Girls (which happened to feature a young Zooey Deschanel as a co-lead).

Green – the renowned, versatile auteur behind both studio comedies like Pineapple Express and adventurous indie fare like George Washington – had actually moved down the street in the same neighborhood as the band members, as had Green’s frequent soundtrack composer, David Wingo, who would collaborate with Explosions in the Sky on Prince Avalanche’s music (released this past Tuesday, August 6th, via the band’s longtime label home, Temporary Residence Ltd.). Wingo, who also leads his own indie-rock concern, Ola Podrida, would even go on to join the group as a touring sideman. “We became a part of their world as they became part of ours,” explains Explosions guitarist Munaf Rayani. “We actually created the soundtrack at my house: David and David would just come down the street and knock on my door. It was a real homegrown way to do it.”

Prince Avalanche – a loose remake of the 2011 Icelandic comedy Either Way, starring Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd as two incompatible outsiders stuck working a summer job together in a remote area – would actually find its initial nucleus via Explosions’ drummer Chris Hrasky, who’d recommended the film’s dramatic setting to Green as an evocative potential film location. “Chris is a nature type, and he often takes his dogs out to different parks around the Austin area,” Rayani says. “He’d come across Bastrop State Park, most of which had burned down in 2011. Chris said to David, ‘I don’t know what you’d make out there, but it’s the perfect backdrop to something.’ That piqued Green’s interest: he was taken by the whole landscape, and the pieces all fell together.” The results have clearly pleased the film's director. "Explosions in the Sky bring elements to this film beyond the typical score," Green says. "Rather than simply layering in exposition to the narrative or telling you how to feel, the music becomes a character with the same arcs and challenges as the actors on the screen."

“Cinematic” is, in fact, a term that has routinely been used to describe Explosions in the Sky’s ambitiously expansive widescreen compositions since the release of their 2001 breakthrough album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. The moving image actually helped bring the band to a wider audience, via the distinctive use of its music throughout the beloved 2004 Texas football film Friday Night Lights and the subsequent TV series of the same name.

“[Music supervisor] Brian Reitzell called us out of blue,” Rayani says. “He thought our music would be a good fit for the movie, but he didn’t know that we all grew from west Texas where the things in the movie all happened. It was an amazing connection.” Since then, Explosions in the Sky have become a de rigueur soundtrack presence, their sounds appearing in films ranging from the acclaimed 2008 drama The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to Shopgirl. “We got lucky,” Rayani says. “From indie film, we filtered through to mainstream Hollywood, which opened us up to the world.”

That linkage isn’t entirely coincidental, as film has infused Explosions in the Sky’s entire aesthetic since the band's beginning. The gr0up's original moniker was Breaker Morant, taken from the title of a 1980 Australian art-house classic; the name of its 2007 album All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is an oblique reference from American independent-film maverick John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence; meanwhile, the song “Have You Passed Through This Night?” is one of the few moments where a human voice appears in Explosions in the Sky’s music, via a sample of dialogue taken from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

“Film has always been a part of our language – most of our inspiration comes from movies,” Rayani says. “A little known fact is that we were all filmmakers prior to us being in a band – that’s what we thought we were going to do with our lives. We were all making short films, and from scoring them, our music just took off and we thought, ‘Maybe we should make an album.’”

Intriguingly, Prince Avalanche represents the first film score the band has worked on fully from top to bottom, without using music taken from its previous recordings. As a result, its members found themselves pushing beyond the stylistic parameters it had established on earlier efforts. “Having to slowly move through the story and complement these two characters moving through nowhere allowed us to go to new places,” Rayani says, noting the introduction of electronic beats and instruments like recorders and clarinets into the band’s repertoire for the first time. “We weren’t shackled by our own rules – and now we’ve abandoned them altogether.”

As such, what proves most surprising is how few, well… explosions there are on the Prince Avalanche score. If anything, Explosions in the Sky have become famed for their emotional, sublime climaxes that anchor many of their most loved songs; Prince Avalanche’s soundtrack, however, often proves compellingly meditative, set on atmospheric simmer in lieu of boiling over with sonic drama. A track like “Dear Madison” suggests the pastoral repetition of composers like Brian Eno and Steve Reich, and proves alluringly hypnotic in its repeated melodic patterns. Another standout, “Join Me On My Avalanche,” features cyclical synthesizer arpeggios recalling the epic electronic soundscapes of prog/krautrock icons Tangerine Dream (themselves best known in the United States for their soundtrack to Risky Business).

“We found different ways of getting our point across,” Rayani says, noting the experiences outside the band's comfort zone affected the band’s creative impetus significantly. “We discovered that we can take other routes and still hit the same chords, the same feelings, that we do on our own albums – but in a non-telegraphed way. It’s an alternate perspective from the same vision: you might think you’ve got us figured out, but this soundtrack shows you can’t guess where we’re going to go next.”

In fact, Explosions in the Sky’s current moves are fairly evident: Having just finished up a short headlining tour of the East Coast, the band will go on to support Nine Inch Nails’ comeback tour for 19 dates starting September 28th. “It means a lot, as we’ve been listening to Nine Inch Nails all our lives,” Rayani says. “When we play our own shows, people come to see us specifically, which is amazing, but with Nine Inch Nails we’re going to be playing 10,000-plus seat arenas. 90 percent of the crowd won’t know who we are: it’s an exciting chance to play to fresh ears and win over a new batch of fans.”

Another cinematic opportunity looms on the horizon as well: David Gordon Green is currently developing a new film, Manglehorn, set to star Al Pacino in the title role and written by another close friend of the band, Paul Logan. “It’s never confirmed until cameras start rolling, but with Paul doing the screenplay and David directing, it would be natural that we’d do the score. It’s amazing, 14 years in, we’re still getting great opportunities like getting handpicked by Trent Reznor for a tour, or being approached to work on film projects with friends. That comes from us never losing sight of where we were trying to go. We were really inspired by people like John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick, who always did it they wanted to do it. Taking bits of Cassavetes and Malick and Fugazi and David Gordon Green and mixing it with our own thinking – that molded us into the characters we are today.”

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