Austin. Early last year. Explosions in the Sky guitarist Munaf Rayani got a phone call from a 6-foot-4-inch basketball enthusiast asking, "Do you have time for a pickup game?"
The caller didn't know who Rayani was, but he'd heard from a friend of a friend that Rayani was a legit player.
Since the caller was Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, Rayani agreed to play.
"We ended up playing 2-on-2 with some other people . . . it was Win and I versus these other guys-and we murdered them," Rayani says. "The next day he calls me, and he's like, 'Hey, are you in Explosions in the Sky? Man, we love you guys.' . . . Fast-forward about a year, and here came the call [from management]: 'Hey, you guys want to play some shows with Arcade Fire?' "
So you could kind of say that because Rayani dished some assists to Butler, Explosions in the Sky is opening for Arcade Fire on May 3 and 4 in Austin and Houston. One week earlier, "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care," the instrumental quartet's sixth opus of emotionally prodding guitar rock, will be released April 26 through Temporary Residence.
The serendipitous pickup game-and the dream gig that resulted-is nothing new for a foursome whose career has been filled with hard work and good fortune. One of Explosions' first major tours was supporting Austin alt-rock act . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead in March 2002 -- two weeks after Pitchfork gave Trail of Dead's third album, "Source Tags and Codes," a perfect 10.0 rating and made the band a must-see.
But Explosions don't only happen onstage. In 2004, the band landed one of its first licensing deals when it agreed to score the Universal Pictures feature "Friday Night Lights" and lend music to a 2006 TV spinoff. The NBC high school drama became a cult hit for five seasons and placed the band's moving guitar sound front and center. "The show has done wonders for us," Rayani says. "We're still feeling the ripples from years and years ago."
But the multiple strokes of luck underscore the unique commercial challenge that Rayani, guitarists Mark Smith and Michael James, and drummer Chris Hrasky have had to overcome since forming an instrumental rock group in 1999. While joining major tours has played a part in selling albums-a 2009 trek supporting the Flaming Lips helped the band's last effort, 2007's "All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone," sell 107,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan-the group's vocal-free, typically seven-minute-plus songs have yet to crack any of Billboard's singles charts.
With radio a non-factor thus far, Explosions in the Sky have looked to more licensing deals, with songs featured in such films as "All the Real Girls" and "Love the Beast" as well as in TV ads for Cadillac and cable TV channel Versus. Rayani says the group has stayed selective with its synchs in order to let its licensed songs "infiltrate the collective consciousness" and connect with viewers on a deeper level. For instance, "Your Hand in Mine," an eight-minute track on 2003 album "The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place," has sold 135,000 copies since being featured in key scenes in both the "Friday Night Lights" film and 2007 Academy Award nominee "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
"They've turned down some massive opportunities in the past-and have done a lot of small things as well-based on purely the content of the spot," manager Ben Dickey says. "They were initially on the fence about licensing to film and TV. It's something they've done more of as time has gone on, but it's something they look at very closely."
While Dickey didn't disclose any licensing deals in the works for the six tracks on "Take Care, Take Care, Take Care," he says the album might finally give the band its first taste of alternative radio airplay. Recorded in two weeks at Sonic Ranch studio in the West Texas desert, "Take Care" is the first Explosions in the Sky album to feature vocal snippets and samples, and at a scant 3:31, "Trembling Hands" made for an obvious first single. "That's something that we haven't had in such a succinct way in the past," Dickey says.
Temporary Residence founder/president Jeremy deVine says that a big draw for the album itself will be the physical packaging: The CD and vinyl each fold out into a 3-D box that resembles a house. And even before Rayani's basketball buddy came calling, Explosions in the Sky had mapped out a world tour this spring that includes upcoming stops at Bonnaroo and Primavera Sound Festival.
"The unique thing is the venues they're playing," deVine says, citing the band's first headlining show at New York's Radio City Music Hall on April 6 and a gig at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on April 30. "There's some historic venues and a lot of places they haven't played . . . We're just doing it the same way we've always done it-but bigger."