Filmmaker David Gordon Green, soundtrack composer David Wingo, and the members of instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky always knew they would end up collaborating on something. Green, Wingo, and the guys in the band have inspired each other’s work—and lives—in a number of ways. Which, according to Green, meant that it was always just a matter of time before they all picked a project to take on together.
"We all live in the same neighborhood, and it’s just a really fun group of people to go see a movie with that weekend, or go see a show that night, or whatever," Green says. "Those guys would always talk to me about doing a larger scale score for a film; we talked about maybe me doing a music video for them, or somehow trying to bridge the creative process for all of us."
Ultimately, the form that collaboration took was the film Prince Avalanche, which Green wrote and directed after the band’s drummer, Chris Hrasky, took him to the Bastrop State Park in central Texas, which had been devastated a year earlier by wildfires. Green—who began his career with critical darlings like George Washington and All The Real Girls before graduating to Hollywood fare, including Pineapple Express—had been keen to make the sort of movie that Hollywood budgets rarely allow. And, after recruiting Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch to star—along with a handful of local non-actors from Bastrop and a gung ho crew from Austin—the film began production. "It was very much like a school project, where everyone just grabs an instrument or a camera, and it came together like that," Green says of working on the film with his friends and neighbors in the band. "It was a really interesting collaboration: Wingo and I had worked together so many times that he could kind of navigate my process for them. Sometimes they’d work together, sometimes they’d work apart. They would come on set and get to meet the cast and crew, and really get a vibe for what we’re filming. While we were actually in production, we’d listen to their music on set."
The end result wasn’t just a funny, sad, triumphant film about misfits learning how to rebuild something that had been destroyed. It was also a record called Prince Avalanche from Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo that sounds nothing like the epic, soaring soundscapes upon which the band—which also composed the score for the 2004 film Friday Night Lights—had built its name. When you’re a band known for doing one thing very well, there are risks to branching out—and bringing in a new collaborator only magnifies those risks. Here’s how Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo learned to work together after 14 years of the band functioning as a four-piece unit.
Had Prince Avalanche just been the next Explosions in the Sky record, the band’s fans may have been put off by the fact that the band’s signature wall of guitars and digital delay barely appear on the album. But because it’s a film score, bassist-guitarist Michael James felt confident that they’d perceive the project differently.
"As an artist, you don’t want to take an audience into account too much, because you want to be able to write the music that you want—but you can’t help it. Of course you’re taking the audience into account," James says. "People are listening for a specific sound from a band. But for a soundtrack, all the music is in service to a scene, so it’s much more functional. It’s not just music for the music’s sake."
According to James, making music that’s functional is easier when you’re working with people the band knows well, on a project they understand intimately. "It’s something that we think about for sure, because we’re being credited as Explosions in the Sky," he says of the possibility that the soundtrack might change people’s perception of the band’s identity. But working on a film that’s set in the band’s native Texas, with themes they connect with, eased their concerns. "Any music that we write, we want it to exist in a sort of musical universe that makes sense for us," James says. "We’re not going to be scoring films about 17th-century explorers or something, because it’s not the kind of music that we do. I think people can listen to the soundtrack and view it in the same musical universe that the albums exist in."
For David Wingo, having his name attached to a record that’s a sharp turn in a new direction, by a band that people love as intimately as Explosions in the Sky’s fans do, isn’t exactly intimidating—but he’s aware that people might think that the change in sound is his doing.
"We laughed about that," Wingo says. "There’s some kinda noisier, electric, de-tuned Sonic Youth-style guitar going on, and they have a lot of really gentle piano and classical guitar stuff–-but that’s all them. None of the acoustic and piano stuff was me. We were laughing, like people were probably gonna make assumptions."
Instead, Wingo found opportunities to fit into the band’s dynamic by creating music in the framework they’d already built. "I would grab a piano piece of theirs and try to base something around that, and it would end up becoming something totally different," he says. "For me, a lot of it was being able to have all these pieces already in place that they were doing, and then I came in and used those as blueprints. I didn’t usually start off with a blank canvas. It was interesting for me to come in when the house was halfway built and help complete it."
When James realized that this project involved the band making music for the sake of something greater than just their own artistic impulses, the potential for what they could do opened up. "It’s not just that it allows you do to things differently," he says. "It forces you to. Whenever you’re writing music for film, you’re having to incorporate someone else’s idea of what the music should sound like, which for us is atypical. We have such a specific idea of what we want our music to sound like for our albums, but then a soundtrack comes along, and you have to begin to take other people’s opinions about music that you’re writing. It’s really free—it lets you do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do."
For Wingo, who has composed music for a number of films—including a number of Green’s and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Mud—and also leads the band Ola Podrida, doing the soundtrack was an opportunity to trust his, and his new collaborators’, instincts. "I think we all, with the records that we’ve made with both bands, as well as the film work that we’ve done, our natural instinct is to take the less-is-more approach," he says. "Whether they’ve scored one or 20 films, I think they have a real understanding of atmosphere. It was very little disagreement—we were all luckily on the same page."
The creative partnership was fruitful enough, in fact, that Wingo is currently serving as a touring member of the band, helping them re-create some of the overdubs on their most recent album as a four-piece in their live show. And, James says, the Prince Avalanche experience might lead the band to continue to branch out. "Now we have a little more familiarity with using instruments other than just guitar, bass, and drums, which is generally what it’s been," he says. "On Prince Avalanche, there was a ton of piano, and it was very up front. That’s maybe something that we would feel more comfortable with. Maybe we’ll have a little more confidence in using instruments that aren’t traditional to us."
[Image Courtesy of Explosions in the Sky | Nick Simonite]