Ill-informed preconceptions aside, there’s a hell of a lot going on in Austin that involves neither cooked beast nor whiskey-sodden slideguitar ballad: a rich and varied music scene, gig venues galore, a thriving film industry and some of the best festivals around. And some pretty fine bands, including the mighty Explosions In The Sky. Munaf Rayani, one of Explosions’ three guitarists, here waxes lyrical on music, movies and love for his adopted hometown.
With the band recently celebrating their ten-year anniversary, it seems an apt time to look back at the city that created and nurtured the epicyet- accessible instrumental rock of Explosions. The cultured, bohemian atmosphere of Austin has clearly been a positive force for the band, as Munaf testifies: “Texas can be a tough place to live, but Austin is a great town, real peaceful. The band has grown up here.”
When four friends - Munaf, Mark Smith, Chris Hrasky and Michael James - began jamming in 1999, they had no idea of the impact they would have, especially considering that the instrumental rock they played - which would form their basis of their wonderful first album ‘How Strange, Innocence’ - was nowhere near as popular or widespread as today. In fact, the rise of the genre into the (relative) mainstream is initially surprising considering its components - slow building songs, walls of distortion, no vocals or catchy radio riffs - but the fact that its popularity has grown exponentially over the last ten years is testament to its continued appeal.
A s well as Explosions themselves, Munaf cites four other acts, all from different corners of the globe, who were crucial in the genre’s rise: Mogwai (Glasgow), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Canada), Sigur Ros (Iceland) and Mono (Japan). “Those five bands [including Explosions] speak with individual voices, thus contributing to their success. So these bands kind of paved a road for each other, and in turn paved a highway for a lot of other instrumental bands,” explains the Explosions’ guitarist.
Notably, there’s no mention of the dreaded ‘postrock’ label with which the band have been tagged. Understandably, Munaf feels somewhat disassociated from this difficult and arbitrary term: “We’ve always said we’re an instrumental rock band. There’s nothing post about it - we are in the present. I think this tag of ‘post-rock’ got picked up and people just ran with it. More than anything it’s just a point of reference, but if this is what your idea of ‘post-rock’ is, then who’s to say that we are not something close to what that means. But ultimately we are just a rock band in the now.”
In fact when the term was first being chucked around, Explosions were, thankfully, far too busy losing themselves in live ‘actual’ rock shows to worry about semantics. And what better place to do so than Austin – a city with around three hundred live music venues (“I don’t know what the exact number is, but it’s a shit-load” says Munaf) that boldly coined itself ‘the live music capital of the world’.
With so many bands on your doorstep, it seems inevitable that your own musical output would be influenced by these surroundings. Was this the case with Explosions?
“Definitely when we were starting out, us being the young pups going to shows and finding inspiration in them. The American Analog Set were from around here. They were a spectacular band that really did it for us, one of our first favourites here in town... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead were a sight to behold, especially for me at age 19, just watching these guys take it to the moon, play it with such emotion and passion. It’s very inspiring for a nineteen-year-old. If we lived in another town, I don’t know if we’d be making the music that we’re making.”
Perhaps as a natural point of musical evolution, Austin now boasts a string of renowned festivals, including industry showcase South By Southwest, the eclectic Austin City Limits Music Festival and the punk/hip hop of the brilliantly named Fun Fun Fun Fest. And should you wish to widen your sphere of cultural appreciation, Austin also does a nice line in motion pictures. As Munaf says, “This is a big movie town.”
Indeed it is. Robert Rodriguez, director of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ and ‘El Mariachi’, is a local, shooting pictures in an old airplane hangar and around the city and plenty of other films also come through Austin to shoot footage. “But”, says Munaf, “even past the making of movies, just the viewing of movies is important - the theatres here are spectacular.”
As it happens, that particular adjective is also frequently used to describe Explosions’ music, whether playing one of their intense live sets or on record. In fact, the band’s melodic, flowing guitars, distortiondrenched walls of sound and thundering, rhythmical drums have often been elevate to cult status, such as in 2003’s acclaimed ‘The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place’. But despite still being able to appreciate their previous work, Explosions are now looking to the future, preparing new material in order to continue their fascinating musical journey: “The idea is to write new stuff, because it’s always a good feeling to move forward. If you don’t progress in this life, you kind of sink, you know, and I don’t even just mean in music, I mean in anything one is trying to accomplish.”
Words by Tristan Parker
“You generally want to steer clear of downtown altogether because it can get a bit hectic, but there’s a venue on Sixth Street called The Parish, which is fantastic. It has wood-panelled walls and floors, it’s a good sized room without being massive, and the sound’s really strong there. Then you got your staples - like Emo’s, where we’ve played a handful of times. We’ve seen a number of amazing shows there. Mohawk is this new venue that popped up in the last year or two. That place is starting to play host to a lot of great bands - it’s kind of an outdoor-type venue, and on a clear sky night, it’s pretty nice.”
Theatre or theater?
“You’ve got your big Tinseltowns and your megaplexes, which I don’t mind, then you got the real Austin treats, like the Alamo Drafthouse. It’s an art-house theatre but it also caters for blockbusters too. There’s three or four of them in town, and one shows a wide array of movies, like obscure French new-wave films. The experience is amazing – you can order food, the seating is spaced out really nicely, and if you want to drink they serve beers. They have an amazing venue – it’s a really cool set up in how a theatre should be. If only you could smoke in there, it’d be complete.”
Around and about
“There’s an area referred to as South Congress, and the road that runs along it has a lot of boutique shops and coffee shops. It’s kind of a hip place, but I try to steer clear of it. Then the vibe changes when you get up to the north end of town - it’s no longer hip. Then you have the east side, which is really bubbling over and becoming super cool, then the west side is the rich side, man. I prefer to stick around the south edge of town - the pace of the whole town is really nice, but down on the south side, things go down really well.”
Clash's A to Z of Austin, Texas
THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET
Wonderful lo-fi melodic band with a Spiritualized vibe, who’ve been going for fifteen years.
…AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD
Energetic alt. rock outfit with a big sound and some great songs.
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS MUSIC FESTIVAL
“The other” big festival, but just as good as SXSW, attracting some massive and great acts.
Popular in Austin and wider Texas due to its proximity to Mexico. Typically bacon and eggs wrapped in a tortilla, apparently…
“An art-house movie theatre. It’s a cool place, we’ve seen a lot of good pictures there over the last ten years.”
Not full of skinny jeans and stupid haircuts, but actually a venue hosting everything from punk to electronica.
Renowned singer linked to the counter-culture of the Sixties who moved to Austin during her formative years.
‘KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD’
Mantra adopted by residents due to the eclectic vibe. Also a slogan to promote small businesses and tell big companies to bugger off.
Renowned country singer-songwriter and big-time flag-flying stoner. OKKERVIL RIVER Gnarly little indie outfit with folky overtones.
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
New bands galore at this thinly veiled industry booze-fest.
STEVIE RAY VAUGHN
Legendary guitarist, who played the delta blues like nobody’s business.
THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
Huge university, hence producing hordes of college kids, jocks, sorority girls, frat parties, drinking, shouting and fighting in downtown Austin, if that’s your bag.
Big Chill Festival 2010