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Their Fans Always Considered Them “Cinematic” Anyway

The Austin-based instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky, which scored the movie "Friday Night Lights," returns to composing soundtracks with "Prince Avalanche," set in Bastrop State Park.

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Photograph by Nick Simonite

It’s no secret that over the past decade, the music industry has become an increasingly difficult place for artists to make a living. But bands looking to navigate these shifting sands could take a tip from Explosions in the Sky, the Austin-based instrumental rock band that has raised its profile by diversifying its musical portfolio to include film scores.

Christopher Hrasky, 39, who plays drums in the band, moved to Texas in 1999 to attend film school at the University of Texas at Austin. While there he posted a flyer advertising his interest in forming a “sad, triumphant rock band,” a call that led him to meet the three men—Mark Smith, Michael James, and Munaf Rayani—he still plays music with fourteen years later. But from that first moment, movies have always been on the band’s radar.

“The first day I met them, we talked very little about music,” Hrasky said. “We mostly just talked about movies that we loved—mainly about a number of Texas movies. We formed this bond immediately over that.”

Hrasky and his bandmates may have connected over their love of the Dallas native Wes Anderson’s debut film, Bottle Rocket, but it was another movie with Texas roots that cemented their career. They composed the score to Peter Berg’s 2004 film adaptation of Friday Night Lights and found themselves making the transition from grungy clubs to theaters suited to their dramatic instrumental music. (In 2011, the band’s headlining performance at Radio City Music Hall received positive reviews.) Their albums also began making their debuts increasingly higher on the Billboard charts.

Now, nine years after the release of the Friday Night Lights soundtrack, the band has returned to film, having composed the music to David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche, filmed in Bastrop.

For the soundtrack, the band teamed with Austin musician David Wingo, who Green has known from childhood. Wingo, 38, has composed music for many of Green’s films, as well as recent productions from Austin-based director Jeff Nichols (Mud and Take Shelter) and director Jared Hess (Gentlemen Broncos). He also fronts the rock band Ola Podrida, which released its third album in May. Before Ola Podrida, Wingo had been scoring films for seven years, which gives him a unique perspective.

“I’m coming at it from the reverse in that I started putting out records and touring way after I started composing music for films,” Wingo said. “I therefore didn’t ever have to view the band as something to sustain me financially since I was pretty much making a living making music for film.”

A few prominent musicians have taken to film composition as the music industry has  become a volatile place to sustain a career: Trent Reznor (The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) of Nine Inch Nails,  RZA (Kill Bill) of Wu Tang Clan;  and Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood), the Radiohead guitarist, have succeeded in making the leap. But most of those musicians who have become soundtrack composers have done so independent of their work with their respective groups. Explosions in the Sky is the rare rock band that has done so as a group. It is one reason, the band believes, that Hollywood has never courted them.

“After we did Friday Night Lights, everyone involved in that movie was like, ‘The studios are going to be knocking down your door,’” Hrasky said. “And that just didn’t happen. I think big studios are a little nervous about working with a group of people.”

The band’s music is frequently described as cinematic, and Green cites “a profound, epic nature that also has a personal note” as part of its appeal. That appeal has led to Explosions in the Sky’s work being licensed for movies and television, but until Green, 38, asked them to work on Prince Avalanche, they had not composed a full original score for a film since 2004.

Green was inspired to make the film after Hrasky, who visited the Bastrop State Park in early 2012, a few months after it was destroyed by a wildfire, suggested the landscape as a possible movie location. Green said there was never any doubt that Explosions in the Sky would record the music. And this chance seems to be a springboard for the band to work on similar projects. In addition to doing Prince Avalanche, Explosions has reunited with the Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg to contribute music to Lone Survivor, his forthcoming film about Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL from Texas, and they have talked with Green about another feature, Manglehorn.

As the state’s film industry continues to expand, there could be more collaborations between local musicians and filmmakers. “We have a strong do-it-yourself culture here,” said Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the Austin Film Society. “Access, proximity and a shared aesthetic all add up to generate this added opportunity.”

Explosions in the Sky seems especially well poised to work with filmmakers interested in profound stories about triumphant underdogs. And Green thinks they could do even more than that. “I really hope to see more of a cinematic transition,” he said. “I’d like to see them scoring a breezy romantic comedy.”

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