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Out of Texas, a Wordless Wonder

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

AUSTIN Explosions in the Sky is a band of few words. Twenty-six-year-old guitarist Munaf Rayani opened the rock quartet's set at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last week with "Thank you a million and a half times for coming here and listening to us. We're Explosions in the Sky," after which he and his band mates played for 55 minutes straight. Their performance over, Rayani exclaimed, "Thanks again for your time. Jesus! [Exuberant expletive!]" They then exited the stage.

Explosions is one of the best bands you've never heard, an instrumental group out of Austin that has inspired a nationwide cult following. After touring in 2003 and 2004, the band took a break from performing, which makes this current short road trip -- with concerts in New York, Austin and San Francisco -- especially sweet for its devotees.

Andrew Clyde, a student at the University of North Texas in Denton, had been waiting two years, since he last saw Explosions live. He and his friend Clinton McConnell persuaded two of their friends at the University of Texas at Austin to put them up for the weekend just so they could catch last week's show.

"We listened to it yesterday for four hours," confided his friend Casey Daniel.

"Whatever," Clyde retorted.

"He's sleeping on the floor. He's excited about it," said another friend, Jaclyn Roix. "The only reason he's spending time with us was to see this concert."

Clyde is not alone. Texas Tech student Roger McCluskey drove from Lubbock, Tex., for the festival ("We don't get a lot of these indie bands in Lubbock"), and Candice Adams volunteered outside the fairgrounds for six hours just to hear them. "I listen to them almost every day on my iPod," said Adams. "I haven't met anyone who's like, 'Oh yeah, I've heard of them.' It's like, 'Oh my God!' "

That sort of enthusiasm inspired Gretchen Palek, who handles talent deals for the Discovery Channel in New York, to skip a wedding in Denver so she could attend the group's sold-out concert at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom. "I carried [my tickets] with me everywhere I went, because I was just so afraid something would happen," said Palek. "When I saw them live, it was like a life-changing experience."

Explosions' music, which is orchestral in scope and veers between the triumphant and ethereal, is not easily defined. Many critics have compared the band's members to indie rock groups Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and they have won plaudits from such arbiters of coolness as the music Web site Pitchfork. But their rapid-fire drums and impassioned guitar riffs prompts Rayani to question why some critics have labeled them "post-rock." At moments, when they use sweeping arm movements to clang their guitars in unison while their drummer pounds away, they appear to be channeling the Who.

"We don't consider ourselves post-rock at all; we consider ourselves a rock band," Rayani said.

Perhaps it helps that the other three members of the band -- guitarist Mark Smith, 31, drummer Chris Hrasky, 32, and bassist Michael James, 29 -- were all metal-heads in high school. Rayani listened exclusively to hip-hop.

Explosions has three full albums: "How Strange, Innocence" (sold on its 2001 tour and recently remastered and rereleased); "Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever" (which suffered some negative publicity because it depicted a plane crash and was released just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks); and its 2003 release, "The Earth Is Not a Cold Dark Place." Band members also wrote most of the soundtrack for Peter Berg's 2004 film "Friday Night Lights," which partly accounts for their following among frat boys.

That said, the group's fan base is hard to classify. The crowd at Austin City Limits included plenty of hip indie men, with a decent smattering of young women, interspersed with a few middle-aged fans.

Much of the band's attraction stems from the fact that people can project whatever they want onto its complex, layered melodies. Tunes such as Explosions' opening song, "The Only Moment We're Alone," are bright and lilting, while "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean" -- alluding to the 2000 downing of a Russian nuclear submarine -- broodingly evokes the sea's watery depths.

But Explosions' lack of lyrics may impede the band from wider recognition -- its last album sold 50,000 copies in North America -- and its members are well aware that they may have to switch careers someday. As Rayani put it, "We are not delusional enough to think that instrumental rock music is going to sell a million albums."

This, in part, explains why the band agreed to license its music for two Cadillac commercials this year. The decision sparked a lively debate on the Web site of the group's small independent label, Temporary Residence.

Some fans were shocked that their idols had agreed to promote an American luxury car, but the musicians wrote a long defense, explaining: "That we have stumbled across this way to express ourselves in such a pure way is nothing short of miraculous to us (who were previously a somewhat confused and depressed bunch for most of our adolescence and twenties, and in some instances still are) but things change. Families start growing, time starts becoming scarce. . . . We are not ignorant. To think that we will be able to tour every year to make money for the rest of our lives is impractical at best. . . . There is a fairly straightforward bottom line: they offered us a good amount of money and we accepted it. We are not going to buy cadillacs now. . . . If for some reason our making this decision lessens your appreciation of our songs, then we are sorry."

Most of their listeners seem to have accepted this. "A band like this can never sell out," said University of Texas student Joseph Kercheville. "It's impossible."

The fifth annual Austin City Limits festival, which attracted about 65,000 attendees for each of its three days and featured at least 15 local bands, provided the kind of audience Explosions covets. The crowd whooped with joy at points and clapped during brief lulls, but didn't shout out song requests or band members' names the way other crowds do. This crowd was fairly mellow. Unlike concerts where fans rush the gates, said executive producer Charles Jones, "You look at the crowd and it's the very slow Austin strut."

At times, Explosions' members appear to be in a trance as they perform, and their fans mirrored this behavior last weekend, bobbing their heads in rhythm and throwing their arms above their heads in exaltation. But there were no air guitar players in the Austin crowd, and only a few attendees wove lighters around in the darkness.

The group may be on the cusp of a breakthrough: It will release its just-recorded album early next year, and major labels have started calling. But Explosions doesn't quite adhere to rock protocol, declining to play encores on the grounds that they deliver as much as they possibly can during a single, self-contained performance.

Even after the band left the festival stage last week, however, the audience chanted repeatedly, "One more song!" So Rayani returned once more to utter a few sentences. "Seriously, man, I've said this before. That's all we've practiced. We're exhausted and we're beat, and Willie Nelson's about to come on," he said.

After all, even members of the Explosions know a country music icon takes precedence over them in Texas. At least for now.

Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.

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