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. 

Diving Into the Emotion of ‘Nightmare Ending’ With Eluvium’s Matthew Cooper

It’s summer’s last breath and the air hangs like sheets of silk that grace your skin with each step. The sun is just setting—or maybe it’s rising, but it’s no matter. The  world melts around you, as you begin to exist in feeling rather than words, in tastes rather than physical terms, floating in and out of coherent consciousness. There’s a very specific feeling growing inside you and it’s all poetic and encompassing, yet if asked to articulate it, you’d most likely fall short—but you can feel it, so you know it to be true. It’s as if you’re seeing the world shone in a fresh light, understanding the ineffable things that eluded you so heavily in the past.

You feel on the edge of something—a breath, a moment, an epiphany, the edge of love or anger—that vast space between moments where you can either let go or sink down into an abyss of emotion. You feel as though you’re watching the world turned on high; every dial raised just a notch, everything flickering just a bit more beautifully as everything feels a bit more melancholic, but it’s all golden and like swimming through honey. And no matter where you find yourself, no matter where you actually are, this moment or this image, is precisely the feeling that’s evoked when I listen to Eluvium.

As the ethereally beautiful musical project of Matthew Cooper, Eluvium has been providing our senses and brain waves with sweeping noise and gusts of intense emotion for years now with ambient worlds of sound. Vacillating from all-consuming atmospheric and hypnotic songs that cast you off into the space between words or the minimalistic piano numbers that feel so delicate and fragile it almost hurts to listen, Cooper has built his own sonic universe—and after 2010’s Similes, he’s back with the stunning Nightmare Ending. Seven years in the making, the double-album feels like the synthesis of everything you’ve loved about his work—fascinatingly grand in scope and sound as it mixes the softness of songs like "Entendre" with the towering power of "By the Rails." His music washes over you, transporting you to an incredible place you want nothing more than to get lost in.

A few months ago, I got the chance to have a long chat with Cooper about the freedom of Nightmare Ending, exercising different parts of he brain, and finding beauty in imperfection.

Nightmare Ending is an album you’ve been working on for quite a while now.
Yeah, it was originally going to be the album after came after Copia, but I started having internal conflicts about the way the songs were coming out and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about them. At the same time, my mind was starting to focus on more wordy concepts, and lyrics just started coming to be me—this feeling about a certain something was making itself apparent to me. So I decided to focus on that for a while and that became Similes

Did exorcising those other creative muscles—working with vocals—help to inspire and articulate the more instrumental side of this record?
It was definitely exercising ghosts for sure, and when you have something weighing on you—not necessarily a bad thing just a heavy feeling—it was important for me, just from being a human, to work through that and shed it and be able to move freely again. Finishing Similes opened me up in a new way, something that was a lot more loose and free and gave me a lot of energy to go back to Nightmare Ending and really see it through.
 
Do you find your exterior environment plays a large role in what you create or is it more about the psychological that informs you? 
It’s a little bit of both really. I would say a lot of it is psychological, or at least being somebody with a brain, it seems that way to me. There are obviously other things that do play roles; even as simple as hearing a melody in something or getting an emotion from something—whether it’s an external sound that I’m walking by or a film or a book that I’ve read, etc. But usually most of what I’m doing has been roots in my brain activity. 
 
In all of your music there’s this ineffable feeling of emotion that seems to stem from that brain activity but how do you go about crafting a song? Does it begin with tone and texture?
I think mood is precisely it. In some respects, like with piano work, I’m a bit more studious about it—I work on pieces and develop them and try to study a new way of approach. With other stuff, I’m not really in the studio working; working is a lot more sitting on the back porch starting at bamboo, and eventually something hits me and I immediately go in and start working on it. So it’s a come what may sort of vibe and it is very emotion-based—not necessarily any specific emotion, but it comes from something outside of me or deep inside me that I don’t know.
 
Is it a very meditative experience for you?
It’s mediative and it’s cathartic as well; it’s very revitalizing. When something percolates up into you and you have this ability to go and translate that into something that elevates whatever pressure has been building up.
 
Your music feels like it’s floating in and out of different levels of consciousness or the moments before or after a dream. Is that something you’re trying to capture?
Generally, yes. That’s sort of that feeling is mainly what I feed off of. Like when you wake up in morning after having a very lucid, heavy dream—whether it was a good, wonderful dream or a horrible dream—you have those days that just no matter what you’re doing in reality, you just can’t shake that feeling, and it stays with you all day. Those sorts of things are interesting to me, and I don’t think they just come from dreams, I feel like they come from just interacting with the world as it is.
 
In the same vein, you play with time in a really wonderful way. Moments hang and feel as if they go on forever.
I definitely think that with a lot of the stuff that I’ve done there can be a lot of repetition involved; I try to bring out subtle nuances that either bring certain parts of that repetition up or disguise them in the background. I’m consciously trying to give this full retrospective of that emotion or that feeling or that place, to try and get to know it as clearly as possible and spend as much time with it as you can and know all the nuances of it. 
 
Did you begin this album with specific themes in mind or was it more of a natural process as you went along and develop it further?
I think this was probably the first time I tried to go into it without any specific idea, story, plot-line or arc of that sort. Things started becoming clear to me throughout the process—like before I left it and started working on Similes, a lot of it started dealing with perfection and imperfection and that  is what started confusing me and made me need to step away from it for a while. I started finding the imperfect to have more human quality to it that made it more compassionate or something I would relate to. So in doing that, the imperfect kind of became the perfect. That started messing with me, so coming back to it, I allowed that to exist but continue to just freely come and make whatever I made. It’s interesting for the first time not giving myself any limitation with what I would do. Afterwards you start to apply meaning to things and it is pretty clear to me that there are some arcs in there that I find relate to myself on a personal level, as well as on a musical level. 
 
The listener also bring a lot to it as well because it is so sparse and atmospheric and there are no lyrics, you find yourself crafting your own narrative or story just from the story told through sound.
Yeah this was my first time to be able to experience that in the same way that a listener might. So although I do see more specific imagery in relation to myself, I try to not get bogged down or give out too much of that because it is important for people to be able to experience their own version of whatever it means to them. 
 
There’s an element to the music that’s very melancholic and deeply emotion and can be saddening but never depressive. It’s very beautiful and someone else whose music makes me feel that way is Max Richter. 
Oh absolutely. I totally adore Max’s work; I’ve been enjoying his stuff since forever ago. I used to work at a record shop for a long time and I found his first album there.
It was misplaced on the shelves but I gave it a shot and I absolutely adored it. I actually found it a little too powerful, where I couldn’t listen too much without getting overly taken by it. But he’s just a magnificent and has been doing so well recently.
 
And as he has, you’ve been doing moving into a lot of film scoring recently. What do you find different in working to create for someone else rather than having the freedom of your own album?
I’ve always likened it to: when I am working on my own stuff, I’m creating the window that I’m looking out as I’m doing it. And with film or television, it’s like you’re being given a specific window to look out; so not having to create that or not having to find it in myself, actually makes it very enjoyable, just being able to be given something and seeing how you react to this. I like it a lot.
 
What are your dream films that you’d score or re-score?
Terrence Malick films would be great.
 
Oh that would work perfectly for you.
Or Gondry films would be cool. I’m a huge film buff, so it would go the entire gambit. Kubrick obviously would be really cool as well. But most of what I’ve done has been in the more indie scene and it’s fun to be able to do stuff that’s a little more playful depending on what the film is calling for; but that’s something I don’t really do as much under the Eluvium name. So it’s really fun to be able to experiment with different sounds and moods of that sort as well.
 
You just scored Mike Ambs’ film For Thousands of Miles—how was that?
I just finished that up. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s the director’s first film and he’s been flying by the seat of his pants putting it together. But when he showed it to me I was awestruck and absolutely wanted to be a part of it.
 
Where do you find you drawn the most inspiration? Does it come from nature or other forms of art?
A great plethora of things. My wife is huge influence to me; she’s a painter, and not only is her work itself inspiring but her ethos is a huge inspiration to me and has been for a very long time. But yeah, experiencing the world in and of itself is a pretty big inspiration—whether that’s nature or other people’s art via film, music, literature, anything—these are all sources that I draw from and they culminate into different moods and feelings, which I try my best to translate.
 
Why did you choose to have vocals on the last track of the album? To me if felt like this entire time—these two discs—your building this grand emotion and by the end it’s like you can finally take a breath and articulate that thought.
To me, the album became such this insane kind of expression of multiple things, and that’s why ultimately I ended up be two discs to be able to try and get all of that out. There was a  great comfort that came, and being able to do that, you learn things about yourself as well. There’s something comfortable about that and becoming comfortable with who you are as a person. The last song is supposed to encapsulate that and make you feel like it’s okay. So I worked with the gentleman who did the lyrics for that and I gave him free reign, and he came back with the perfect amount of words to sum everything up.
 
Nightmare Ending feels like the perfect amalgamation of all your work. It has your electronic ambient sweeping side but also the minimalist and delicate piano numbers.
It was a long summation. But certain things came to light after I was finished with it; it wasn’t really purposeful, it just happened naturally. Without limitations it created this large picture of everything I had done before. 
 
Whenever I have to describe your music I can only seem to do so in non-musical terms. Like I’d say "Don’t Get Any Closer" is wet grass or dew at sunrise in the morning. Do you think of it in that way?
Yeah, absolutely; I would call it something very specific. It’s the unspeakable or unknowable, and it sort of lies in the line between reaching for it and realizing that you’re already experiencing it.
 
On the edge of something.
Yeah, it’s mental but it’s about that feeling as though something’s unattainable but realizing you already have it at the same time.
 
Working under the various monikers you do, how does that allow you to differentiate the myriad parts of your personally as a musician?
There’s something about shedding who you are. A lot of the time I come up with this idea that I’m going to release it anonymously, but then I just end up forgetting about that by the time I’m finished. Eluvium has come to have a certain emotional baggage that comes along with it, and it’s nice to be able to feed the other parts of your brain that don’t have anything to do with that—no matter how minuscule they are. It’s good for exercise. 
 
What are your favorite non-musical sounds?
I have lots of them. I like box fans a lot; I like television static—but it’s kind of hard to find that these—days; I like old dial tones; I like train yards; I like dogs and animals in general really; the ocean is a really big inspiration. Usually they’re relating to white noise static things, something that’s lulling and constant and surrounds you.
 
You collaborated with some really great people on this album, do you enjoy that process?
It’s hard to say what my collaborative process is like because there’s a bit of me that’s kind of a control freak and has to have everything just so. I’m scared that can sometimes come off as offensive to other people—if you’re changing something they’ve done—but with this, I was trying to shed all of that and give myself more freedom. And one of the people I worked with, Mark T. Smith from Explosions in the Sky, he’s an old friend of mine and we’ve always gotten along really well and shared a lot in common musically; t came very naturally working with him and he just enjoyed trying different stuff out for the track we did together. So I think it was a little liberating for him as well.
 
"Envenom Mettle" the song you did together does feel distinctive to the other songs on the album.
I had some bits in it that were making it stand out oddly from everything, and I think that’s why I chose that one for a collaborative effort. It stood out in an interesting way but still had so much more room for him to grow working on it. It’s really night and day—he really pushed the track into a much more grander version of itself. But that ended up being pretty effortless. The other collaboration was more from a distance; but at the same time was really smooth and just came naturally. So it wasn’t any trouble whatsoever. I’ve always been really into the idea of collaboration, like I was saying about trying to exercised all of the different parts of the brain and personality in a person, there’s a part of me that wishes I could just go be in a band and not be the person in charge of doing everything, be the person that helps add and develop something. That seems like it would be fun.
 
For music that feels so insular and experiential on a personal level, how do you translate that into live performance?
With difficulty. I’ve struggled a lot with live performance, and initially I set out to not actually ever do it. But through other bands that I had a lot of respect for and doing support and things like that, I ended up going out and enjoying myself. So I’ve gotten a little bit more used to it, but that being said, I’m not really the type of person that wants to go out and create the same thing over and over again—driving city to city and pushing my body to these limits I’m not comfortable with. I’m much more of a homebody but I’m still interested in sharing the energy with a large group of people in a room—or hopefully a large group of people in a room. And I like the idea of creating something unique for that experience and trying to create that, as opposed to going out for 30 days doing these shows of relatively the same idea.
 
Will you be touring with this album?
I think there will be some dates for sure; it’s sort of came as an afterthought at this point because I went directly from finishing this record to doing soundtrack work and I haven’t really had a lot of time to explore the options. But some minor footwork is being done as we speak.
 
My ideal environment for listening to your music—besides rolling around in a field at dusk—is probably in transit. Ive had some wonderful experiences listening to your music on a bus or train traveling.
Maybe I can do some sort of train tour where everybody gets on a train together. 
 
I would fully support that.
Well if anyone is reading this that has the budget for that, I’m listening. 
 
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I like to read. I’d say the two more favorite styles are various forms of fiction. I get a little bit more internal like Robert Walser or Proust—things of that sort, stuff that’s very heady. But I also get into more mystery magical realism like  Haruki Murakami. 
 
Nightmare Ending debuts via Temporary Residence tomorrow (5/14).

Listen to the Closing Song Off Eluvium’s Upcoming ‘Nightmare Ending’

Personally, my musical affinities have always tended to be very seasonal. The winter is for Shostakovich, Max Richter, Burial, and Johann Johannsson; the fall is Aphex Twin, The Cranberries, Les Baxter, and Nick Cave; the summer is Ry Cooder, Tom Waits, William Basinski, and Stars of the Lid; and if there’s one artist that feels distinctly like a spring breeze tousling through your hair, it’s Matthew Cooper’s Eluvium. And although it was announced in the chill of February that his double album Nightmare Ending was to be released this year, it makes perfect sense that this flickering magic hour of an album will premiere in the warmth of mid-May. 

As the follow up to 2010’s Similies, Nightmare Ending has been project seven years in the making that will, "encompasses everything remarkable about past Eluvium albums, executed more powerfully and poignant than ever before." The melancholy atmospheric double album plays with a delicacy and experimental beauty, mixing classical numbers with ambient soundscapes that soar—always with the feeling of a first breath on the edge of a moment.

Thus far we’ve heard the peaceful "Entendre" and all-encompassing "Don’t Get Any Closer"—both begging you to sink into the grass and drift off somewhere much more calm than this. And finally, with fourteen days left before the record drops via Temporary Residence, Cooper has released the final song on the album, "Happiness" featuring Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan on vocals. In speaking about their work together creating the song, Cooper told Pitchfork:

When I wrote ‘Happiness’, I knew that vocals would play an important part, but I wasn’t sure how to express them myself. Being the last song on the album, would it be a grand statement – or a smaller piece focused on minute details? At some point in time the fantasy of having Ira singing just came to me: "That would be amazing," I thought. I mentioned this off-handedly (and most likely a little jokingly) to Jeremy at Temporary Residence, and he responded by saying something to the effect of "Well…why don’t we look into it?

So take a listen to the song now below, and stay tuned next week for our expansive interview with Cooper.