Modern(ist) Rock: Explosions in the Sky in Concert

I went to two Explosions in the Sky concerts in the last three days.  For me, this kind of concert-going is a bit excessive, but EitS is my favorite band right now (even despite the fact that last night’s show, at the Palace of Fine Arts in SF, was a bit of a clunker).  They aren’t the band that I’ve loved since my childhood, or that got me through college, or that I’ve seen most often in concert, or even that has had the most profound effect on my life.  But they are the only band I would, at this point in my life, go to see twice in three nights.  Also, they are the only band or artist that I allow to send me email—and considering how carefully I guard my inbox, that’s saying something.

You may have never heard of EitS, but this isn’t because they shun attention.  The cliché of indie rock is the band who only wants to be heard by a select circle of initiates who “get” their music.  This model is artist as chief priest in a hermetic cult of (typically) low-fi: esotericism over popularity, always.  But EitS isn’t unwilling to be popular.  They are regulars at various festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Bonnaroo.  They’ve appeared on Austin City Limits.  Oh, and there was that whole thing with “Friday Night Lights.”  So if you aren’t an initiate, there’s still a decent chance you’ve heard their music.  And, as far as I can tell, they don’t mind.

But at the same time, EitS is not making music that will sell out Madison Square Garden or land them the cover of Rolling Stone (and not only because they are generally disliked by rock critics).  They are content, as guitarist Mark Smith has noted, to settle into a comfortable niche much like the one Phish inhabits, but without, of course (and may I add, thank god!), sounding anything like Phish.  But because EitS is not, really, like Phish and especially because the Phish comparison explicitly brackets music, I still find interesting the question of what exactly EitS is doing (and, by extension, why it’s so appealing to me).

So much of any discussion of music (or art) depends on classification. My favorite vexed question is the question of genre, and this question is more vexed than usual when it comes to EitS.  The site AllMusic taps the internet hive mind to classify music and, as you can see (right), classification is a little troubled in this case.  We live in strange times, when it is possible to be both rock and post-rock.  Even so, this seeming temporal anomaly seems about right for EitS.  Post-rock is probably the best description of their music, in that they use traditional rock instruments (electric guitars, drums, bass) to play music that isn’t recognizable as traditional rock.  But, of course, they are making post-rock music within the cultural institutions of rock: the album, the rock concert, even (one time, recently) the music video.

EitS songs are about eight minutes on average and contain no vocals.  The melodies come from the interplay of chiming, jangling guitars. They are lyrical and mostly tonal with an occasional dissonance or squeal of distortion.  The primary concern seems to be with form, with building a “song” from regular patterns that coalesce and then shift into a new set of patterns.  It’s architectural and narrative at the same time.  In this way, it’s not too distant a cousin of the minimalist project in Western art music in the last thirty years (it reminds me, at times, of a version of Philip Glass—although often less predictable).  Now I don’t want to give EitS too much credit as classical composers (unlike Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, for example, who is pretty legit), but there is an affinity across genres here.

What is important for understanding EitS, I think, is the lack of lyrics.  This tremendously expands the interpretive possibilities for listeners.  Look again at the AllMusic classification graphic above and pay attention to the user ratings of “Moods.”  It’s a pretty diverse group of adjectives, no?  If you pick two at random and put them next to each other, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with an apparent contradiction, something like “reflective epic” or “passionate detached” or “delicate dramatic” (or even “sparse meandering”!).  The point here is that listeners, in the absence of explicit instructions from lyrics, are filling in their own stories.  Rock critic Sasha-Frere Jones, in a review of a concert by Slint, described this practice and its necessity:

As the band played, I scribbled down names and associations, few of them related to music: Samuel Beckett, imagined movie dialogue, and snippets of vaguely recollected episodes of “Wild Kingdom.” Instrumental music demands this kind of coloring in, and Slint’s triggers an ever-changing series of mental slides.

The point is that this “coloring in” is an idiographic process.  The stories you are telling are related to the music only in very personal and very contingent ways.  Indeed, you would need a very particular personal history to turn Slint into “Wild Kingdom.”

Of course, it is possible to find a few interpretive guidelines for the music of EitS.  There are song titles, although they don’t tend to offer much information. Even so, it’s no accident that every time I’ve seen EitS perform “Your Hand in Mine,” I’ve taken my partner’s hand in mine.  And there is for many listeners the “Friday Night Lights” connection; I’m sure plenty of people hear football and Texas in certain songs (although I tend to resist this association).  But “Friday Night Lights” aside, it remains the case that instrumental music in this vein relies on interpretation as a more-or-less individual process.

And it’s the individuality of this process, I want to suggest, that helps to undermine the relationship between listener and musician that is the traditional template for popular music.  So much of rock/pop music is based on a relationship of explanation, in which the artist (or the song itself) offers the groundrules for interpretation.  The lyrics in a song (most of the time) tell you what it’s about.  The music video tells you what the song is about.  Sometimes, in interviews or from the stage, the artist tells you what the song is about.  And on occasion, artists even attempt to correct erroneous interpretations of their songs, as Bruce Springsteen did with Ronald Reagan all those years ago.  The underlying model here is one of communication in which the artist takes a (sometimes significant) stake in being understood and understood correctly.

A rare moment from last night in which EitS was fully lit.

Even the standard rock concert reinforces this model of communication: one person (the lead singer) stands in the spotlight and looks into the crowd, engaging us face-to-face.  And this is exactly what EitS does not do.  An EitS concert is generally a ritualistic affair, but there is very little in the ritual that involves interaction between the members and the audience.  There is only one voice microphone and Munaf uses it precisely twice: at the beginning of the show to welcome and at the end of the show to thank. There is no announcement of song titles or banter. We hear fewer than four spoken sentences from the band all night and none of them occur during the set.  And there is really no other type of engagement.  There is a light show, but the prevailing color is usually a deep blue and there are no spotlights.  Much of the time, the performers are almost shadows.  At no time do they ever actually look into the audience (they either look down or at each other or have their eyes closed).  And often they aren’t even facing us, but rather sitting or kneeling or fiddling with amps.  There are no breaks for applause (the breaks between the songs are covered over with interludes of noise or with improvised transitions) and there is no acknowledgement of what applause does occur.

This is not to say that an EitS is boring or that there aren’t occasional gestures to entertainment (after all, in the final song every night, Munaf lustily beats a tambourine to death on the stage floor), but there is a way in which my presence in the audience feels distinctly inessential to the whole thing.  EitS concerts have a way of making me wonder about the typical prepositions that we use to talk about rock concerts.  While EitS is obviously playing music to me and for me and with me, there’s also a way in which they are doing none of those things.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the EitS doesn’t appreciate their fans or love performing for an audience.  What I am saying is that they are refusing a reciprocal relationship with the audience; rather, they are presenting us with an art object—on their own terms—and then letting us make of it what we will without any help or interaction (implied or otherwise).

There’s a type of inaccessibility here, an indifference (or even unwillingness) to be understood.  It’s in this indifference/unwillingness that I see traces of a type of modernism.  The songs of EitS are obviously not Finnegans Wake, but I want to suggest (somewhat fancifully, but also somewhat seriously) that both Joyce and EitS share a lack of concern about being (mis)understood.  EitS has ceded the ground of interpretation.  And it is our lonely work to figure out what that means.

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