You might not recognize Explosions in the Sky’s name, but you know their music. Consider backing tracks in the likes of Pacifico commercials and romantic comedies starring Reese Witherspoon: that understated minimalism, often created by a reverb-heavy guitar and a marching snare drum, is a hallmark of the Austin band.
Since their song “Your Hand in Mine” was used as the instantly recognizable theme of the Friday Night Lights film in 2004, Explosions in the Sky have become a pervasive mainstream presence in movies, TV shows, and commercials, with an influence that’s rippled far beyond their own licensed tracks. As their longtime friend and collaborator Kurt Volk puts it: “Their sound has been dropped into the bloodstream of American music.” This weekend, their first album, How Strange, Innocence, was reissued; it also marks their twentieth year as a band together. Explosions in the Sky have since become arguably the most influential Texas musicians to emerge from the 2000s.
In 1999, drummer Chris Hrasky had just moved to Austin from Chicago to attend the University of Texas’s film school. He had played music with friends all his life, and in Austin, “I just felt weird not playing music again,” he says. So he posted flyers at record shops around town, reading: “Wanted: sad, triumphant rock band.” He added the names of several of his influences (Dinosaur Jr. and Jawbreaker) and a collage of images depicting an elderly man smoking and a soaring eagle. Guitarist Munaf Rayani, who worked at Waterloo Video, saw the poster next door at Waterloo Records. He whistled to get the attention of two friends from his hometown of Midland, Michael James and Mark Smith, who happened to be at the store with him. The three of them could play guitar, but they needed a drummer. So they tore the poster down and called the phone number posthaste.
The four of them met up at Milto’s, an Italian restaurant near the University of Texas, and bonded over a shared love of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. “He was us,” Rayani says of Hrasky. “There were no missed beats. We synchronized immediately.”
They soon started making music together under the name Breaker Morant, after the Australian movie. “There wasn’t a spoken agreement that we would be instrumental, but it just felt natural,” Rayani says. According to other members of the band, Michael James is a formidable vocalist, but they wanted to make music with a cinematic quality to it, not unlike the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai. “I honestly don’t know if we’d exist if Mogwai didn’t exist,” Hrasky says.
On July 4, 1999, they were invited to play a live set on the Austin radio station KVRX. “I don’t even know how they knew us,” says Hrasky. “Nobody knew who we were. We hadn’t even really played any shows yet.” Inspired by the fireworks exploding overhead as they packed up their gear that night, they settled on a new name.
From the beginning, film has been integral to the group’s DNA. “Before we set out to be in this band, the four of us were all convinced that we were going to go into movies,” Rayani says. Initially Hrasky was working on a documentary, while the other three members would shoot Super 8 movies and write music to accompany them. “When we were scoring our own little Super 8 shorts, the music was coming a little easier than the filmmaking,” Rayani says.
The filmmaker Kat Candler worked with Hrasky at the independent Austin bookstore BookPeople, and ended up using many tracks from the band’s debut album in her 2000 movie, Cicadas—marking the first time their music had ever been used on the screen. “There was just something so special about these guys, and the music and the sound and the emotion and the cinema that you could feel,” Candler says. “There’s an expanse to their music that really opened up a narrative in your head.”
The band found some success after releasing and touring with their 2001 album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. But during the summer of 2002, the band left Austin and rented the basement of an office building in Midland. The rent was cheaper in West Texas, and there weren’t many things to distract them there. From 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. every day, they would tinker with new material in that basement. Eventually, they recorded new songs at a studio in Dallas, and released their third album, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, the following year. The record is still beloved today—and it’s precisely what composer Brian Reitzell thought a West Texas football movie would sound like.
Reitzell, fresh from finishing the soundtrack for Lost in Translation, was researching music for Friday Night Lights when he came across an interview with the band. He listened to their songs, and thought Explosions in the Sky would be the perfect fit. But when he approached studio executives, they balked. Working with a composer was hard enough, so working with an entire band seemed impossible. And besides, who would put instrumental rock in a big budget Hollywood movie?
Reitzell was convinced that they were the right choice, though, so he put together a mix of the band’s music. It changed the executives’ minds, and they flew Reitzell out to Austin to meet with the band over Mexican food. “We were pretty nervous because we thought a film about football in West Texas had the real potential to somehow be like Varsity Blues,” Rayani remembers. “But we were familiar with the book, and we were familiar with the story because three of us were there while it was happening.”
The fact that the band had a connection to the story itself is what won studio executives over. “Look, I want you guys to do this because it’s your place,” he told them. “You are that place, and your music . . .” At this point in retelling the story nearly two decades later, Reitzell pauses for a second. “Have you been to Midland before?” He asks me. “It’s like another planet, and it’s desolate. It’s a bit like Mars. And their music sounds like that place.”
Once they were onboard, Reitzell instructed the band to think of melodies that reminded them of West Texas. “We just thought about where we grew up, how we grew up, what the sunsets felt like, what the storms felt like, what the heat felt like, and what the isolation of a place like that felt like,” Rayani says. “And that cue came relatively easily because we didn’t have to dig deep to find those sounds. It’s just how we spoke.” The entire time, the band never met or heard from a single studio executive. Reitzell kept them isolated so that Explosions could do their own thing. “It came pretty natural,” Hrasky says. “I think a lot of it is just because we’re such movie nerds that we understood what a score was like.”
Explosions was touring when the movie came out in October 2004. The band sound-checked at the Mercury Lounge in New York City before rushing to the closest theater to catch a screening. Along with some friends, they sat in one long row. Immediately, underneath the first images of the Universal Studios logo, they recognized their music. When the end credits rolled, and they saw their name, they all erupted in cheers. Then, they rushed back to venue in time to play the gig.
After Friday Night Lights’s release, Explosions’ music—or copycat sound—suddenly started cropping up everywhere. Hrasky says they would frequently get calls from old friends who worked in the film industry, who would tell them that a music supervisor had directed them to “make this sound like Explosions in the Sky.” They heavily influenced the soundtrack for the show One Tree Hill, according to music supervisor Lindsay Wolfington—to the point where four episodes are named after the band’s songs and albums.
More fans discovered their music through the Friday Night Lights TV series (which aired from 2006 to 2011), whose original score was clearly inspired by the band. Producers had approached Explosions about using “Your Hand in Mine” as the series theme, but the band declined. Instead, composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden mimicked the band’s sound.“We didn’t want to become the Friends theme song and just be known for that,” Rayani says. “But boy, did we shoot ourselves in the foot with that one.”
What makes their music work so well with film and TV? “It doesn’t follow traditional short form structure,” offers David Gordon Green, who has had the band score two of his films. “It kind of feels more lived in and narrative. They’ll come in with muscle and leave you with tears, and there’s a kind of range of emotions that I think a good narrative journey can take you on, and they do it in their pieces.” For Gotham Chopra, a filmmaker who used the band’s songs in a documentary about his father, the famed spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, the answer is more ephemeral. “There’s a spirituality to their music,” he says.
While everyone was busy knocking off their sound, studios weren’t calling up the band to score their respective films. Their pre-existing music was licensed all the time, but they weren’t offered the chance to compose original scores. “We met all these studio people at Paramount and Warner Brothers,” Hrasky says. “They all knew about it, and they all loved the score [of Friday Night Lights]. I still think there was just this weird thing where they didn’t understand what to do with a band. Like, ‘How do we work with that?’” To this day, the band has done original work for only four films: two for director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor) and two for David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn).
Yet their enduring influence went beyond the silver screen. According to a number of filmmakers and composers Texas Monthly interviewed, ever since Friday Night Lights’s release, Explosions’ music is disproportionately used in temp tracks—the music that directors use to cut their film before they have original cues. And hit TV series still consciously borrow their sound today. “There’s elements of the Riverdale score that are direct elements of Explosions in the Sky,” says Blake Neely, a Paris, Texas, native and the award-winning composer of the CW hit show. “And that was an intentional choice of mine, not to copy them, but to use that influence.”
A score’s primary function is to evoke a mood. The music isn’t meant to be at the forefront, but it puts everything surrounding it into sharper focus. “The main thing that a score has to do is hide behind the scene and the dialogue and not bring attention to itself, but subtly manipulate their emotions,” says Neely. Explosions helped define the sound of television and film in the 2000s and much of the 2010s with their simple approach, he adds. With just three guitars and a drum kit, they provide more emotional punch than entire orchestras. “If Explosions in the Sky were mixologists,” says Neely, “they’d make the best drink you ever had with two ingredients. You’d be like, ‘How did you do that?’”
The fact that the band was able to do so much with so little is why they still feel like a vital listen—twenty years after they played their first gig, at Emo’s indoor stage in Austin. It’s difficult for a day to go by where you don’t hear something of theirs—or at the very least, something that is supposed to sound like them. Cable news networks will use their music to come back from commercial breaks. ESPN puts their music behind sports highlights and pregame promos (“We f—— changed sports music,” says Reitzell. Chopra, who founded the company Religion of Sports with Tom Brady and Michael Strahan, says that when making sports documentaries, their music is “a fallback.”) The Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, which continues expanding its movie theaters across the country, uses the track “The Ecstatics” in the introduction before every movie screening.
Their music was ubiquitous, then imitated, and then it helped spawn an entire era of musical storytelling. Listen to an Explosions track, and it can make you proud, nostalgic, and homesick all at once. There’s a mythic quality to their music, and in that way, there’s something uniquely Texan about it, too.
One evening while shooting the Friday Night Lights film, Reitzell recalls the sun setting on Odessa’s Ratliff Stadium—home of the real Permian Panthers (and for several weeks, the home of the fictional ones too). It was just like the real Friday nights: the 19,000-seat stadium was filled to capacity, both teams were decked out in their uniforms on the field, the sky behind them was pink and orange-hued. Then director Peter Berg stopped for a moment and walked up to Reitzell. “Look!” Berg said, pointing to the sunset. “It’s explosions in the sky.”