by Alexa Weinstein on August 26, 2011
THINGS THAT EXPLODE IN THE SKY:
Thunder and lightning. Fireworks. Comets and asteroids, satellites and rockets. Shooting stars. A flock of birds, taking off from the power line. Your heart. This band.
I think Explosions in the Sky is one of the greatest bands in the whole wide world, and I am going to try to explain why without thinking too much about it. Some bands are a sound, a certain feeling, and some bands are a voice, and some bands are a kind of song, and some bands are a wall of energy. There are so many more kinds. Explosions in the Sky is a world you can walk into and look around. Actually, that’s not quite right. I think they are more like a musical gateway that you walk through, into a different version of your world that was filmed to rise and swell in beauty until it could match this soundtrack.
The guitars kind of tremble, but not like guitars—more like hands. This trembling is a thing I want to talk about. It’s like hands, but also like leaves. Two years ago, I saw the Flaming Lips (with Built to Spill opening!) at Edgefield, an outdoor venue just outside Portland, on a beautiful summer day very much like the one we had today. The sun was setting as the Flaming Lips started to play. Edgefield is surrounded by these very tall, skinny trees, and during the thousand beautiful moments of the show, my eyes kept going up to the leaves on those trees, trembling slightly in the wind like they were nervous, but also dancing. The sky had a warm glow that wouldn’t quit, and as it got darker the stage lights kept playing off the trees, and sometimes there were huge explosions of colored confetti in the air, because colored confetti is a very Flaming Lips thing to do. I know it’s weird that I’m describing this Flaming Lips show when I’m trying to talk about Explosions, but when we were at that show, all of us outside on a warm night together having this experience, it was as though we had passed through that Explosions in the Sky gate into the version of the world that is that beautiful all the time. We trembled like guitars.
I am thinking about the word symphonic, what it means to be symphonic. Because Explosions is symphonic, but in a different way than, say, the Arcade Fire, and not just because this is an instrumental band. I feel like the difference is more about intent. I love the Arcade Fire—they totally get to me, and I think they’re great—but I definitely feel like the emotion they give me is an intended effect. Not calculated exactly, and I don’t feel manipulated, but when l’m listening to the Arcade Fire I sometimes feel the way I feel in a romantic movie. Like, Okay, fine! I am feeling the exact thing you choreographed for me to feel right now! I am still feeling it, but there is a way that it doesn’t feel 100% genuine, 100% mine. And this is not what a symphony feels like. In an actual symphony, you have a bunch of classical music geeks who have spent hundreds, nay thousands, of hours learning to play a kind of music that is now ignored by most, knowing that after all of that work they will be decidedly un-famous, getting very little personal glory, but doing this because they love that music so much and they are thrilled to be able to play it. Explosions feels to me like the rock & roll version of this. I’ve been listening to this band a crazy amount for at least five years, and I have no idea what any of their names are or what they look like. When I saw them live, there was no front man, no star. They felt like an ensemble. But I’ve gone off on this weird tangent about rock-star-ness, when the thing I was actually trying to talk about was the music, my sense of the intention behind it. It doesn’t feel to me like this music is trying to make me feel something, to have a certain effect. It feels to me like the people playing this music have their backs to me as they chase after something. Like they are trying with all their might, with their eyes closed, to capture and play the sound of what it feels like to be alive right now in their skin in this world. And as I hear it, it sounds to me like what it feels like to be alive right now in my skin, in my world. It feels like it is entirely mine, even though it is also theirs. The crazy things it does to my heart feel intimately personal, and I don’t even care if the same thing is happening to ten thousand other hearts while they watch Friday Night Lights. I know my own heart, and I know when it’s faking a little bit. With Explosions, my heart is never faking.
Also, there is something about balance that is crucial to a symphony. All the elements in perfect suspended tension with each other. The moments of sustained hush, and single-note beauty, and shimmering cymbals, and then those big drums pounding in at the exact right moment, and then the thunder of the whole symphony all together. I can never believe that one person was able to write all of that music, to hear it in their head all at once. This reminds me a little bit of two other scenes, in balance. One is white lights, black night, cheering crowds, heartbreak, being seventeen, and some big stupid game that everyone cares about because they don’t know how else to be that passionate. Another is grass, warm air, bird, crossed legs, giant sky. How could anyone create all of those things at once and put them so perfectly together?
Today was a great day, because I walked through the Explosions in the Sky gate in the morning and I have been here all day. This happened because of my friend, the lovely and talented Nicki Ittner, who through her dream job at Ballroom Marfa is about to bring Explosions in the Sky to Marfa, Texas on September 15th. To me, this is a professional accomplishment akin to being hired by the fanciest law firm in New York. She asked me to write her something about the greatness of Explosions, and so I’ve been thinking about it all day, and now I am writing this in one go and posting it right away, like a real blogger, rather than editing obsessively for a week like I normally do, even though this wasn’t supposed to be a blog post at all. It was just supposed to be for Nicki. Sorry, Nix—things got out of hand.
Let me say this: Explosions in the Sky, outside on a summer night, in Marfa, Texas, for free? Anyone who lives in Texas and could possibly go and yet chooses to miss that show is, by definition, insane.
Also, Portland people, Explosions is about to play Pioneer Square for Musicfest. Outside on a summer night. Just sayin.
Let me also say one more thing, and then I am done. Because I knew this morning that I wanted to write something about Explosions for Nicki tonight, I have been in the land of Explosions all day, thinking about them a little while I played with my daughter in the morning and then listening to them while I worked at a cafe in the afternoon. And because I was in the land of Explosions, a weird and magical thing happened that would never have happened otherwise—this is the kind of thing that happens when you are in this land. When I went to that cafe to work, it was about 1:15 in the afternoon, and I didn’t even think about the fact that when I left the cafe 5 or 6 hours later, I would turn out to have parked in a very dumb place. We have this thing in Portland on Alberta Street called Last Thursday, and it used to be like an art walk but now it has become an actual CIRCUS. They close off the street to cars for the whole evening and the bodies take over. As they should. So when I came out of the cafe, there was no chance of moving my car, and I left it there and walked down the street through the fair. If it weren’t for the car being stuck there, I would never have returned to Last Thursday at 10:30 the same night. And when I did come back, I found myself looking up at a glowing sky, on a warm summer night, surrounded by a bunch of people who were yelling and laughing and wearing crazy silver outfits like Wayne Coyne, all of us outside on a warm night together having this experience. Toward the end of the street, I came into the most packed block of all and found myself in the middle of a dance party. Up above me, there was this school of jellyfish moving together up the street, in all colors, looking like they were swimming through the air. There were a lot of them, maybe 15, and they were pretty big. They must have been attached to sticks, but they moved on the wind like kites. Suddenly looking up and seeing them there took my breath away. I filmed them for a minute, but then I had to stop filming so I could really dance. No one cared that I was alone. I danced full out for a minute, and it was everything that dancing full out in a crowd of strangers can be. Then the DJ had to turn off the music; his time was up. If I’d gotten there one minute later, I would have missed it. The jellyfish would have been further down the street, separated from the dance party, and the dance party would already have been over, and there wouldn’t have been any music. Instead I walked up when all of those things were exploding together, just for a minute, in perfect balance.