Highly-lauded instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky have spent over a decade garnering a massive fan base and winning our affection with their distinctive six-string sound. Known for creating sweepingly cinematic sonic worlds with their albums and film scores (Prince Avalanche), as well as the television shows they’ve contributed their music to—namely Friday Night Lights. EITS achieved success with their first few albums, but really began to gain recognition when their name became synonymous with the the show. Even today, when listening to tracks like “Your Hand in Mine,” it’s almost impossible not to tear up at the thought of an empty high school football field as sunset. But with myriad albums and soundtracks under their belt, now EITS guitarist Mark T. Smith is the first member of the group to release an album outside of the band—collaborating with fellow Temporary Residence label mate, Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper to form Inventions.
Last year, Smith lent his talents to Cooper on the track “Envenom Mettle,” off his stunning Nightmare Ending double album. The result was a close friendship, leading to a desire to work together in a more comprehensive capacity, forming Inventions and creating their self-titled debut album. With Cooper’s experimental sound that melds everything from minimalist piano numbers to soaring electronic rhythms, and Smith’s affinity for music rife with layers and evocative emotional resonance, it’s evident that the two share an affinity for creating music that makes you feel like, “a small part of the cosmos,” as Smith puts it.
And with Inventions out now, I caught up with Smith and Cooper to chat about what brought them together, what they’ve learned from the collaborative process, and how making music is the best part about being a human.
You’ve collaborated with one another in the past, and have always had a very similar musical sensibility, so how did you decide to come together in a bigger way as Inventions?
Mark T. Smith: Can I say it just happened? Because it kind of just happened. It wasn’t much of a plan, just a mentioned thought or daydream that actually materialized. We have talked about music for years, and then talked about making music, then we sent a music file, and then we were a band.
Matthew, you’ve worked under different monikers in the past, but the creative process has mainly been a solo endeavor. How as it collaborating so fully with someone else and engaging in a different way of making music?
Matthew Cooper: It has been quite wonderful. I’ve gained much from the experience and continue to do so. Though this probably had a lot to do with it being Mark that I was working with. Otherwise, I could see myself second guessing every move the other person made and fighting for my ideas a lot more. With Mark, however, that basically doesn’t happen. If for some reason one person is uncomfortable with a choice the other made, there is usually a request for that person to listen a little more and sit with it, if the feeling doesn’t change, then a new direction is pursued. We openly trust each other with these situations and it has yet to not lead to a stronger and more interesting piece of music, as far as I’m concerned. I find myself really striving and pushing myself to create from a new angle as much as possible and to learn new ideas, to apply to each piece, which has been a breath of fresh air and an exciting challenge. Yet it also feels like we are just beginning to scratch the surface of its depths.
Mark, after having worked for a over decade with Explosions in the Sky, how did it feel to start something new with Matthew?
MTS: I honestly thought it would be weirder than it was. This year is Explosions’ 15-year anniversary of being a band, and I haven’t played with anyone else during that time. But having known Matthew for so long, and being such great friends already, and having similar characters and attitudes… that all went a long way toward it feeling really natural.
How did you two go about working together to create the album? What was the process like and what did you learn from each other along the way? Were there any influences, aspects of creation, and strengths you drew from each other?
MTS: It was all email, sending files, sending long rambling detailed descriptions that would be pretty hilarious out of context. And it was pretty rapid—the writing process all took place within about 4 or 5 months. A lot of songs took shape right away, occasionally on the first try. But one pretty huge part of our process is that we are both pretty outspoken about what we like, and both of us can offer and accept criticism, generally cheerfully. That has led to us getting places musically where we wouldn’t have gotten if we were reluctant to tell each other that something wasn’t working. I knew Matthew would bring the otherworldly beauty, that was pretty much a given, haha. But I was also way impressed at his ability to make beats. That went a long way toward shaping what the record ended up sounding like.
MC: Mark has a certain knack for craftsmanship that is very intuitive. His ability and want to move from one idea to another and bring it all together is inspiring. He also seems to just make very bold and weird decisions when it comes to instrumentation and processing, which has gotten me to do the same. I think we both influence each other to reach for something that is new to us and compelling in a unique way. I think there are certain feelings and signature sounds from each of us that will always show up, in fact I hope so, but I think we are both yearning to push the boundaries to new and more complex emotions and more unique sounds and writing styles, and I think this album was about beginning to test all of that out.
Did you begin the album with specific themes in mind, or was it more of an organic development?
MTS: I’d say really all we knew was that we admired each other’s music and trusted each other’s instincts (and taste). My main influence, to be honest, was Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. Sample-based, gorgeous, soulful, inventive, and offers a great sense of comfort and solace (in my opinion). I just wanted to make a record like that, that could be someone’s go-to “comfort record.” Somewhere along the way (like basically immediately), things began to get a lot more diverse and ambiguous than strictly comfort, but I think that’s a good thing.
MC: I think I was maybe intrigued with making something that was a little more mysterious than what I had done before…not necessarily darker but a little more complex in its message and emotional reasoning. A record like Geogaddi by Boards of Canada comes to mind for some reason. I don’t know why.
Another part of me was on that same wavelength of something that just felt good, it could have lots of different things going on, but at the end of the day it just felt right and good and positive and soulful and home. Person Pitch is an excellent example of a record achieving this.
Did making this album allow you to differentiate the myriad parts of your yourself as artists?
MTS: Yes, but you’re never done. I never want to feel like “I’ve now successfully shown all the parts of me that I want to.” I hope Inventions’ next record turns out to show different sides of us. The drive to always be searching is a good one, I think.
You both make music that’s filled with such ineffable beauty and speaks to the listener on a sensory level—what kind of mindset you do have to be in when you’re making music, and does that change when you’re working with someone else?
MTS: Making music or any other kind of art has to be one of the best parts about being a human. The part where you’ve found a note or chord you like and you’re not consciously thinking about it or evaluating it, but just following it through until it clicks something in the pleasure center or suddenly makes a strange sort of sense. I don’t need to be in a certain mood or anything, but it doesn’t work when I doubt it or second-guess things too much. It is a little bit like losing yourself. And I’ve been so insanely fortunate to have found people who not only complement what I do but vastly improve and intensify what I do, first with Explosions and now with Matthew. For Inventions, Matthew and I are making music together, of course, but the actual act of making it is still solitary. We live several thousand miles away from each other and write something by ourselves and then send it by email. So for me it’s kind of the best of both worlds. I like to write in a way where I can really try out a bunch of stuff and experiment, and then send it to Matthew, and he will take it somewhere else completely, to my total delight. Then we repeat this several times, and suddenly we have a song.
MC: I’m not sure what I call the mindset I am in when creating. Without a doubt it calls to me if I haven’t been feeding it, and it calls to me when a certain idea of something enters my head, which in turn makes it very hard to concentrate on anything else. Sometimes I spend all day trying to grasp a sound that my brain heard. I would imagine most musicians being this way. This doesn’t really change when working with Mark, in the style that we are writing things, but I think the concept is sometimes intensified. Wanting to, and having that ability to share it with another person and wondering what they will make of it, and wondering what they will make with it.
Ideally, what do you imagine, your listener doing while listening to Inventions?
MTS: Hovering in the night air while thinking no conscious thoughts and feeling like a small part of the cosmos? That would be my first choice. But I actually think this is a very interesting question, and my favorite part is that I hope it speaks to some multiple levels in the music. Our music has now been described consistently as “ambient.” I do think this album can work in that way. As Eno describes ambient music, it can be called “ignorable,” so you can listen to it while reading or studying. But neither Matthew nor I wanted to make a strictly ambient record, and indeed quite the contrary. We wanted to make something that is far more active and actively engaging–music that takes parts of the ambient vocabulary and combines them in ways that you can listen to essentially as pop music. From the outset we leaned towards going for memorable structures and melodies and details–the kind of thing that on repeated listens your brain will begin to anticipate a second or two before the changes or details happen. We find that kind of music pleasurable and enjoyable, and that’s what we were going for. So I hope the music can be listened to while just thinking and studying the album cover, or while driving or running or reading or drinking or going for a hike.
MC: I personally find the ambient descriptor a bit mystifying. At any rate, when they are listening to this album… I don’t want or expect anything of anyone, but it would be great to think they were engaged with the music and life simultaneously. I think that, at the end of the day, it feels good that people are listening at all.