Explosions In the Sky’s Mark T. Smith + Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper on Their Influences and Inventions

Inventions, Music, Mark T. Smith, Matthew Cooper

Inexplicably drawn to understanding the beauty and poetry in the mundane, I find myself connecting to art which helps to get at the ineffable of everyday existence. When it comes to music, I gravitate towards artists whose sonic universe is able to translate or articulate that emotion, occupying a space that lives inside both its chaos and its silence. I fall in love with the work of artists who sound can tingle and pervade the senses, possessing an expansiveness that transports me outside of myself and into a world of feeling. For musicians Matthew Robert Cooper of Eluvium and Mark T. Smith of Explosions in the Sky, whether it’s their myriad projects as solo artists or collaborators, for me, their music has always delivered just that—and with their ongoing project, Inventions, their simpatico aural affinities merge to create a sound that beautifully echoes Cooper’s description from one of their biggest influences, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams:

… a strange universe of sound that occurred in whorls and stillness and a mixture of emotions and then disappeared forever.

Last year I spoke with Cooper and Smith for their eponymous debut release as Inventions, and less than a year later they’re back with their sophomore album Maze of Woods. As an even more explosive and complex record than their last, the album stems from a deep desire for exploration and a willingness to find themselves lost in the wilderness of the mind. With a stronger emphasis on vocal accompaniment and a refined evolution of their work together, the result is a wholly captivating musical experience that envelops you in its warmth and makes the world feel like a more beautiful place to inhabit.

To celebrate Maze of Woods’ release, I spoke with Cooper and Smith about their process of working with one another, the nonverbal ways that people communicate, and how they pushed one another into new creative territories. In addition, Smith and Cooper shared with me their most influential songs and what makes them so special. Check out their lists, as well as my conversation with Cooper and Smith below.

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***MARK T. SMITH***

PLAINSONG, The Cure

My favorite album opener. It’s just immense in its mesmerizing loveliness and mystery. Along with “Bedhead”, they were probably the biggest influence on how I play guitar. 

ASHTRAY WASP, Burial

The gold standard for hypnotic dark instrumental music with fragmented vocal samples. It’s a tone, it’s a feeling, that you can look out the windows and it colors the way you see life around you. It’s serious and haunting, in the best way. 

THE DARK AGES, Bedhead

Like I said earlier, these guys helped me learn how the simplest guitar lines can be the most lyrical and memorable. It’s in how you play them, and how you don’t play them. 

MY ANGELS ROCKS BACK AND FORTH, Four Tet

Huge fan of how he puts songs together.

FRATRES, Arvo Part

Jaw-dropping. It has just such a raw power and beauty it’s impossible to not be affected by it.

DJED, Tortoise

I still find the scope and flow of this song to be eminently pleasing. Such a great mix of instrumentation and electronics, and melodicism and atmosphere. I never get bored in its 20 minutes.

DECORA, Yo La Tango

Gets me every time. Love this band. Always a sense of humanity and love.

REQUIEM FOR THE STATIC KING, VOL. 2, A Winged Victory for the Sullen

We think this band is incredible. Their sense of space and gravity feels so right.

AN EAGLE IN YOUR MIND, Boards of Canada

The gateway into electronic music for me. much like bedhead, they showed me a little bit goes a long way. I love simple music where each note or swell or tone or repetition makes an impact. 

TAKE PILLS, Panda Bear

Whenever I need a comfort album, I find myself coming back to this album. When Matthew and I first started writing for Inventions, I wanted our album to have that quality of warm solace and comfort and losing yourself in it. 

BE GOOD TO THEM ALWAYS, The Books

This band really opened up my mind to the possibilities of samples, mostly vocal samples, and the endless inventiveness of using them. thank you the books. 

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***MATTHEW COOPER***

CORPOREAL, Broadcast

Basics and weirdness and loveliness – Broadcast is ever inspiring.

SPIDER AND I, Brian Eno

A strange and wondrous chord progression that slowly finds itself and glorifies its journey in notes every step of the way.

KINDRED, Burial

A little less of a new sound or direction at the time but to me an epiphany all the same.

BROS, Panda Bear

How this song becomes 12 and half minutes is phenomenal.

ARUNDEL, Papa M

Classical notation as far as I’m concerned – or perhaps just sitting down and pouring out a little necessary feeling.

FLIM, Aphex Twin

A curious blend of gentleness and profundity against a smart and difficult drum-line that seems effortless.

EXCESS STRAUSSESS, The Books

An old friend of mind showed me their first album and somewhere along the line, unrelated, I ended up becoming fascinated with nick’s early sound works as well – years later lost and safe became one of my favorite albums ever.

FRONTWARDS, Pavement

Neat band – neat session.

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As the second collaboration between the two of you, was beginning this album a more organic process than the last time–being able to intuit each other’s strength and weaknesses?

Matthew Robert Cooper: It feels like we didn’t so much begin this album as we just continued working after the first album was finished. We definitely had hit a rhythm and just felt like we could go a lot further, so we just kept making things for the sake of making things and then at some point in time it became clear to us that we had written another album. I’m not sure either of us ever know what the other is going to bring to the table, compositionally speaking, which is part of the enjoyment. 

Mark T. Smith: Indeed the process was simply continuous. After the first album we just kept sending and started naturally taking some of the more strange forks in the road that just really fit together for us. One of my favorite things about making this album was the shocking lack of talk about tracklist order–that is always something about an album that gets endlessly discussed when writing, but this tracklist just seemed to write itself. I took that as a sign that we were pretty dialed in to a similar way of thinking by this point. As a matter of degree we perhaps understand how to work with each other a little more now, but honestly, from being friends for so long before we started playing, it just worked from the very beginning things we sent each other.  

How did you conceive of the themes and ideas for the album, and were you consciously trying to evolve from the last record? Were there any influences or aspects of creation you drew from one another?

MRC: We both definitely had ideas churning in our heads, and a lot of it came from themes in exploration. There’s a speech by Charlie Kaufman and a paragraph from a novella called “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson that used the term “moanmusic.” It described a strange universe of sound that occurred in whorls and stillness and a mixture of emotions and then disappeared forever. There seemed to be a lot of feeling “around” these ideas, and talk of universal language.

MTS: This talk was often admittedly sort of vague, but honestly that’s where the feelings came from–we would just start talking in between sound ideas, and before I know it, Matthew and I are talking about some pretty heady stuff. I don’t generally spend much of my usual life thinking about life in precolonial days, but we found ourselves talking about the actual true unknowns of exploration and discovery in precolonial days. I mean, it must have been just insanely terrifying as well as wondrous.

And then it somehow leads to music that derives from that feeling, or vice versa. So yeah, more than anything else in the whole process, we latched onto that term “moanmusic” from the Denis Johnson paragraph. That word became the working title for the album (eventually it just was used as a song title). We knew it would be impossible to replicate his description of an all-encompassing, all-meaning vortex in actual audio, so we concentrated on the mostly nonverbal ways that people communicate, the moans and hums and howls and murmurs, and those became our voices on the album.  

As far as the aspects of creation, I think we just found that we drew inspiration from finding that each of us was as sort of obsessed as the other. We both make music nearly every day, and if we’re not making it, we’re thinking about it. It’s really inspiring when you find this reflected back to you, and I hope it shows on the album.  

MRC: Agreed. It is interesting when you see people assuming certain sounds were made by me and certain sounds were made by Mark, as if it must be that way based off of our other projects.  It’s understandable why people assume these things, but generally part of the idea behind our working together is to remove those stipulations and allow us to both do things we may not normally do, and hopefully, for people to not think of the music in terms of who did what, or “that sounds like a guitar, and this sounds like a keyboard” because they would probably be surprised. 

Mark was really excellent at heralding this part of the band and it helped push me to wander into ways of attempting sounds that were new for me as well. I think we ultimately ended up inspiring and feeding off each other a lot this way. We are always pushing each other into strange new territories.  It can be quite exhilarating to have an original sound one of us made come back torn apart or thrown off a cliff or chopped and reversed and made into a new language,.. discovering its humanity from an entirely different perspective.

As individual artists, you both make music that operates on a very sensory, internal level. Do you find that requires inhabiting a certain psychological or physical space while working and does that change when collaborating?

MRC: I don’t know where I heard this, but recently I heard an interview or something where an artist talked about how songs are in the air, you just have to reach out and pluck one, and that an important part of this happening is being able to sit still and wait for however long it takes for that to happen. I can relate to this analogy very much so.  A lot of my creative work is actually done by just waiting and not forcing anything, or when working on something, not going so far as to expect anything from it.  Though some things are different working together, this process hasn’t really changed for me.  It’s really just a matter of deciding what it is that you are looking for.

MTS: I am so super grateful to be able to spend large chunks of my life just going down the rabbit-hole, so to speak. Because doing that is one of my favorite things—just having no preconceived idea what you’re planning on doing, and playing a few notes, or hearing a certain tone, or a rhythm. Then before you know it, you’re just seeing where that takes you, and it will often lead somewhere you have never been before, or if it doesn’t, you backtrack and try a different way.

Like Matthew says, the main psychological thing for me is not forcing it, and not judging it right away. As you might expect, working in that way takes a lot of time, so more than anything else I just have to find time to keep trying things. The great thing about Inventions and working with Matthew is that collaborating doesn’t change that in the least–collaborating actually is that. We work in our places across the country from each other, in whatever way we want, and then send to each other, and then repeat.